“To punish Eve for what she had done women are forced to suffer the bearing of children.”

I have a quarrel with the introductory infinitive phrase—shouldn’t it modify the subject, which is “women”? And if so, why would women want to punish Eve? And if they did, I don’t know why they would inflict any punishment on themselves.

That said, we move on to the main clause.

My writer has given the verb “suffer” a direct object. That means he has forgone the simplicity of relying on the verb for the whole thought. Here’s how Webster’s defines “suffer” as an intransitive verb: “To endure death, pain, or distress; to sustain loss or damage; to be subject to disability or handicap.” So he could have said “women are forced to suffer during childbirth.”

King James’ Genesis renders it this way: “I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.” This is more than one kind of suffering the Lord decides to inflict (all Adam gets is a sweaty brow and an evident requirement to be a vegetarian but not enjoy his meals—”cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life. Thorns and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field…”). They become mortal, too, but with lives like that is death all that bad?

I suppose Milton should be the authority here, since my student was writing about Paradise Lost. God begins with Eve:

  Thy sorrow I will greatly multiplie
  By thy Conception; Children thou shalt bring
  In sorrow forth, and to thy Husbands will
  Thine shall submit, hee over thee shall rule.

    On ADAM last thus judgement he pronounc'd.
  Because thou hast heark'nd to the voice of thy Wife,
  And eaten of the Tree concerning which
  I charg'd thee, saying: Thou shalt not eate thereof,
  Curs'd is the ground for thy sake, thou in sorrow
  Shalt eate thereof all the days of thy Life;
  Thornes also and Thistles it shall bring thee forth
  Unbid, and thou shalt eate th' Herb of th' Field,
  In the sweat of thy Face shalt thou eate Bread,
  Till thou return unto the ground, for thou
  Out of the ground wast taken, know thy Birth,
  For dust thou art, and shalt to dust returne. [thanks to Project Gutenberg for typing this text.]

So Milton pretty much agrees with King James (on this matter, anyway).

That the language changes is evidenced by Webster’s omission of any definition of “sorrow” that would take suffering beyond the mental. But the Compact Oxford English Dictionary lists as definition #5 (obs.) “Physical pain or suffering.” Its illustrative quotations do not go beyond 1200, so the OED may not think it applies to the KJV and Milton. What if we’ve misunderstood the text all along? Here comes the Revised Standard Version to the rescue: “To the woman he said, ‘I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing….'” So we can assume that “sorrow” continued its “physical pain” definition past the OED’s desire to record, and my student would have been perfectly fine had he written “women are forced to suffer during the bearing of children.” (He would also have been fine, albeit not so Miltonian, had he written simply “women are forced to suffer.” Have you been watching the news lately?)

But he chose to make the verb transitive, and that changes a lot. Here’s Webster: “to submit to or be forced to endure; to feel keenly; to undergo, experience; to put up with, esp. the unavoidable; to allow.” (That last one figures in “Suffer the little children to come unto me,” which as a child I thought meant “the little children will suffer when they come unto me,” a comment that certainly undermines that “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild” image and the picture of the Good Shepherd on my favorite stained-glass window!)

So although I know my student meant the physical-pain thing, because of his sentence structure what is he actually saying? Evidently, “women are forced to endure, put up with, or allow the bearing of children.”

Well, by that definition Eve got the better of the deal, not the worse: it certainly beats eating thistles. Labor pains must have been somebody else’s idea, not God’s.

It doesn't look like much suffering! Adam and Eve after Expulsion from Eden, by Johann Ramboux (1818). From http://www.all-art.org/history392-3.html

Advertisements

About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

Leave a Reply or Share a Horror.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s