Adam knew Eve his wife, but do we?

Eve: A Biography By Pamela Norris New York University Press

The very brief account of Adam and Eve in the book of Genesis has evoked centuries' worth of embellishment, commentary, and debate. In "Eve: A Biography," Pamela Norris traces those voices that recall, rework, and develop Eve's story in such diverse sources as ancient myths, religious commentary, paintings, poetry, folk tales, and romance novels.

In the retelling of these stories, Norris weaves a rich assortment of images and texts into theme-based chapters with one narrative leading seamlessly into another. Her prose is both scholarly and poetic.

While in one sense, the book is an exposition of the various ways that the Adam and Eve myth has been evoked throughout history, in a much larger sense, it is the history of women's roles in Western culture. It surveys plots in which women are walled-in virgins, fallen seductresses, obedient helpmates, and burdened child-bearers.

It also stresses the ways that the story of Eve has been used throughout history to justify blaming and punishing females for bringing evil and death into the world. The view of Eve as untrustworthy and sinful vindicated men who oppressed and subjugated her daughters.

Norris traces how Eve's reputation worsens over time. In early Jewish tradition, the view of Eve is rather positive with primary emphasis placed on Eve's role as Adam's wife and "the mother of all living." Eve's reputation is soon influenced, however, by the related stories of Pandora and Psyche. Because of her female curiosity, Eve is held responsible for letting evil loose on the world.

Within early Christianity, there is an increasing emphasis on asceticism and on the relationship between sin and Eve's sexuality. As Norris puts it, Eve as sinful temptress became "responsible for all suffering and mortality, and eventually even for the sacrifice of God's son, Jesus Christ." A negative view of Eve influences some Christian views of women and sex to this day.

The second part of the book contains what Norris refers to as the "fantasies of Eve" found in popular literature and art. Especially intriguing are the complex and varied ways that Eve was linked to the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene. Both were viewed as "Second Eves," the ones who got it right. Whereas Eve's sexuality and disobedience resulted in humanity's damnation, the obedient Mary's virginity undid Eve's damage and provided an alternative model of what women could and should be. Never mind that no average woman could remain a virgin and bear children! Even Mary's name has been linked to Eve's: When reversed, the Latin name Eva becomes Ave.

For other Eve fantasies, Norris mines such diverse works as Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Marble Faun," Ernest Hemingway's "The Garden of Eden," John Milton's "Paradise Lost," Charlotte Bront's "Shirley," Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "Aurora Leigh," Helen Dunmore's "Zennor in Darkness," and Thomas Hardy's "Tess of the d'Urbervilles."

She ends Eve's biography by showing that, although few and far between, there is a scattering of women's accounts throughout history that tell Eve's side of the story. One of the earliest such accounts is that of Abbess Hildegard von Bingen, a religious scholar during the 11th century. Hildegard viewed Eve's character, including her sexuality, as much more symbolic of the divine nature than Adam's, and as Norris puts it "offered women dignity and hope."

Many American women writers of the past two centuries have also been especially keen to come to Eve's defense. Such writers include Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Angela Carter.

Norris's detailed telling and retelling of Eve's story is intriguing and enlightening throughout. She uncovers the countless ways that the story of Eve went wrong and sets the stage for our getting it right.

*Peggy DesAutels is an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of South Florida and co-author of 'Praying for a Cure: When Medical and Religious Practices Conflict.'

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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