Eve: A Biography
After coauthoring an anthology on the history of interpretation of Genesis 1-3 in 1999 (Eve and Adam: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Readings in Genesis and Gender, Indiana University Press), I was eager to examine Pamela Norris's Eve: A Biography. I knew I would enjoy comparing her interpretations to my own, but I did not imagine I would read much that was new to me.
I was wrong on that last assumption. Norris's book is not an encyclopedic account of Eve's "career" in Western thought, but it provides the most extensive consideration of specifically literary and artistic renditions of Eve that I have yet seen. Though I will raise some questions about organization and content, let me start by saying that this is a valuable book, essential reading for anyone interested in tracing the ways in which the story of Eve has influenced Western understandings of gender. In general, Norris argues that Eve has served as a paradigm for all women and that Western culture has, through her, accused women of "vanity, moral weakness, and sexual frailty, while Adam/Man's role in the transaction can be summarized by the familiar defense: "'She led him on'" (p. 5).
The book has two parts: a section entitled "The Making of a Bad Reputation," followed by "Fantasies of Eve." The seven chapters of the first section consider early Jewish and Christian uses of the story of Eve; in section two, Norris discusses ways in which writers and artists since the Middle Ages have depicted Eve. Included along the way are forty illustrations of influential artistic renditions of Eve, ranging from a fourth-century Christian sarcophagus to twentieth-century secular paintings. The illustrations are a superb addition to the book.
Though the above description suggests that the book is arranged chronologically, that is somewhat misleading. The first section comes closest, beginning with an analysis of the sociological conditions of Israelite life that Genesis 1-5 portrayed, followed by discussions tracing the depiction of Eve in rabbinic materials such as The Apocalypse of Moses, various works of the Pseudepigrapha and the Apocrypha, the Midrash Rabba, the Mishnah, and the Talmud. Subsequent chapters compare Eve to Pandora and consider ways in which early Christian writings (the New Testament, the apocryphal Acts of the Apostles, and various "church fathers") found in Eve an example of female sensuality unloosed.
The second section is more thematic than chronological, tracing literary depictions of Eve as second Mary, helpmeet, monster, mermaid, mother, temptress, etc. Such a thematic arrangement can lead to huge chronological leaps (on p. 359, Norris jumps from a 1611 poem to Sarah Grimke's 1838 Letters on the Equality of the Sexes). At times the themes themselves seem unrelated; I am still unsure how Norris connects mermaids to Eve (pp. 325-330). But if this section lacks the clear development of the history of interpretation that was evident in section one, it contributes a discussion of literary uses of Eve with which scholars of religion are likely to be unfamiliar. …