The Screwtape Letters
Validity in Interpretation: Merging Experience and Spirits in “The Screwtape Letters”
“And anyway, why should the creature be happy?Your affectionate uncle,Screwtape” (Lewis 41).
In the preface to The Screwtape Letters, author and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis essentially clarifies the target audience of the work: “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight” (Lewis, preface). In this epistolary novel, Screwtape, a senior devil, instructs his nephew, and “junior tempter,” in how to effectively capture the soul of his assigned human, who is referred to only by “the patient.” Screwtape thoroughly describes tactics to win over and subconsciously steal the devotion of the patient, leveraging simple and seemingly natural human tendencies which he claims were created by demons. Within this interesting form of narration, all intuitive “morality” becomes reversed, as evil becomes good, good becomes evil, and the patient’s development of virtues is considered fatal. Through such an ironic inversion of traditionally accepted and encouraged values, Lewis illustrates the psychology of human beings and their moral choices as dictated and manipulated by spiritual beings.
All readers of this piece by C.S. Lewis have different beliefs and experiences which shape their interpretation of the text. Perspectives and responses are based on time period, reader gender, whether the reader is Christian, atheist, or another religion, and a general accumulation of beliefs determined by individual experience and upbringing. This idea of endless unique outlooks to every text is described by literary analyst and English professor Ross C. Murfin as the literary criticism of “reader-response,” which raises “theoretical questions about whether our responses to a work are the same as its meanings, whether a work can have as many meanings as we have responses to it, and whether some responses are more valid than others” (Murfin 337). According to reader response critic Wolfgang Iser, readers who are actively seeking to “bring ‘things’ into the text”(Cordell 292) are known as “actual readers.” In accordance with Iser’s take on the reader response theory, there are two different types of readers, the “implied reader, one the text creates for itself,”(Cordell 292) and the “actual reader”(Cordell 292) who applies experience, personal beliefs, and previous knowledge to the text, completing the work’s meaning in doing so. Somewhere between the “implied reader” and the “actual reader” lies the true intended meaning, as one is inspired by the author, and the other by the reader. This research paper will attempt to address the many factors which could influence different interpretations of Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, and how these perspectives reveal intended meaning. I will compare opposing views using secondary criticisms of the novel, two of the most essential predispositions being whether the reader is Christian or atheist. I will also discuss the validity of some views compared to others, and how that is determined. C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters allows for readers to insert their own individual experiences, knowledge, and beliefs into the context of the story in order to effectively convey faults that he often sees in Christian lifestyles.
The notion of spiritual warfare, or the continual struggle of demons to manipulate and conquer individual human devotion, seems utterly absurd to many. From the lens of a reader influenced by a progressive, decreasingly religious society, this idea seems one that only the Christian interpretation of inerrancy, or the belief that everything within the Bible is fundamentally and historically accurate, would uphold. An atheist or nonbeliever could easily pin Lewis’ narrative merely as an accurate description of the human sociological condition, and that the involvement of demons in the midst of common, natural error (or morally neutral action) is completely irrelevant and absurdly false. Because of this, it seems as though the effectiveness of this piece lies within the predisposition of the reader to either the Christian faith or atheism. Lewis does not attempt to convince the unbelieving reader of the legitimacy of his claims in the existence of these demons, but rather writes in a way which very convincingly reveals their existence and practices to the already Christian reader. In reading the series of letters without any background knowledge or experience as a Christian, there seems no support for the claim that these devils dictate the evil that is present in the world.
As someone who has grown up conditioned to believe in the existence of a God and spirits, a physical manifestation of the struggles common in Christianity can be logically justified to me. This is because of my heavy reliance on what I have personally felt and experienced in my life thus far, an interesting human tendency considering our plethora of proven historical and scientific data which would more logically fuel our decisions and beliefs. This divide—experience versus fact, ethereal versus concrete, real versus subjective—is addressed from senior devil to junior as a construct of the Devil himself: “The general rule which we have now pretty well established among them is that in all experiences which can make them happier or better only the physical facts are “Real” while the spiritual elements are “subjective”; in all experiences which can discourage or corrupt them the spiritual elements are the main reality and to ignore them is to be an escapist. Thus in birth the blood and pain are “real”, the rejoicing a mere subjective point of view; in death, the terror and ugliness reveal what death “really means”(Lewis 77). According to Screwtape, the speaker, I have herein just demonstrated that I am victim to his master’s creation of the belief in subjectivity within experience. A categorization of all that occurs, all that physically exists, and all that is thought into a spectrum of reality dependant on our incredibly limited human perspective is fundamentally absurd; this notion is warped by our predisposition to recognize tangibles as more “real” than the thought of our own mental existence and capacity, which enables our rendering this question in this first place and should therefore seem the most concrete reality to exist. Lewis claims that this is one of many myopic human tendencies which Screwtape tells Wormwood the demons created in order to draw the patient further and further from God. Lewis uses the perspective of the tempters or demons to address common flaws he sees in a typical pursuit of faith: “It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out” (Lewis 18). This passage is a perfect example of what I see the broad purpose of the piece as a whole to be. Through the ironic perspective of the direct advocates and “creators” of all evil in the world (according to Lewis), he is drawing attention to the harmful Christian practices and habits which he personally believes need to be addressed. In the aforementioned passage, he is essentially saying, “It is funny (or ignorant) how other people always . . .” fill in the blank. Using the Devil as the lens just makes the message that much more powerful, as it is not coming from a fellow judgemental human, but rather the source and creator of the evil itself. In using Screwtape as the narrator, Lewis is simply giving his voice as an author more weight and credibility.
While Lewis attacks certain habits which Christians often fall into, he is also making the point that it is not from our own natural wiring that this happens, but rather from the work of demons like Screwtape and Wormwood. This may seem, depending on upbringing, just an excuse Christians can use for falling short. To a non Christian, this likely does seem more a petty justification for wrongdoing than anything else. Nonetheless, as Lewis uses Screwtape as a creative literary device to further his argument, he also does truly believe in the existence of demons, New York based secondary critic of the novel Adam Lee saying, “Though the book may be intended allegorically, on the whole it leaves little doubt that Lewis genuinely believed that evil spirits existed and were constantly assaulting human minds” (Lee). Regardless of the author’s intended message or personal beliefs, the work will always be seen as differently by all readers. As one New Yorker writer and secondary critic of The Screwtape Letters reminds us, “The novel remains wildly popular because whether or not you agree with Lewis that the Devil is real, the evils promoted by Screwtape—greed, gluttony, pride, envy, and violence—most certainly are” (Cep).
Lewis employs a writing style which allows for the insertion of one’s own experience into the context of what is being discussed. Rather than delve deeply into “the patient’s” life, Lewis merely uses him as a representative of the human race to reveal common Christian mistakes and the Devil’s dictation and manipulation of those mistakes: “When the patient is an adult recently re-converted to the Enemy’s [God’s] party, like your man, this is best done by encouraging him to remember, or to think he remembers, the parrot-like nature of his prayers in childhood. In reaction against that, he may be persuaded to aim at something entirely spontaneous, inward, informal, and unregularised; and what this will actually mean to a beginner will be an effort to produce in himself a vaguely devotional mood in which real concentration of will and intelligence have no part” (Lewis 18). Because the patient is not even given a name, and Lewis does not delve into his personal life but rather focuses on the devil’s part in it, the reader can easily insert him or herself into the patient’s position and recall times that the same or similar instance has occurred in his or her life. Lewis perfectly allows for deep individual and unique response, as the reader will naturally relate all discussions to his or her own life and experiences. As Louise Rosenblatt, a pioneer in reader-response criticism, suggests, “readers transact with the text by bringing in their past life experiences to help interpret the text” (Cordell 298). This response is also very much influenced by emotion in the reader along with experience, Wolfgang Iser recognizing “the simple fact that readers respond to literature on an emotional level and that such responses are important to the understanding of the work” (Cordell 292). When reading the novel, one’s emotional capacity, or the level to which they are naturally emotionally impacted, will inevitably influence their interpretation of the text. Similarly, the level to which the reader relates to the temptation methods employed by the demons will impact emotional response, and therefore overall interpretation of meaning.
With a modern, progressive outlook, one would notice certain unequal portrayals when reading this work. Throughout the novel, sexist undertones can be recognized in Lewis’ character selection, which can be seen simply in a lack in female characters, most noticeably in that all demons mentioned are male. Even in excluding females from such a negative role, there is inherent inequality. However, Lewis also demonstrates considerable awareness of sexual double standards: “It is the business of these great masters to produce in every age a general misdirection of what may be called sexual “taste”. It is all a fake, of course; the figures in the popular art are falsely drawn; the real women in bathing suits or tights are actually pinched in and propped up to make them appear firmer and more slender and more boyish than nature allows a full-grown woman to be. Yet at the same time, the modern world is taught to believe that it is being “frank” and “healthy” and getting back to nature. As a result we are more and more directing the desires of men to something which does not exist” (Lewis 51). To attribute this unreasonable sexual standard to the work of demons in the early 1940s, whether metaphorically or otherwise, is socially progressive.
At the time during which the novel was written, the existence of God and demons was more widely accepted than in today’s culture. A modern reader, who would have a deeper scientific awareness and a conditioned skepticism of religion, might not become as fully immersed in the work as someone from the 1940s. The novel does however speak to a number of ideas and life struggles which have remained fairly unchanged through the times because of our sociological wiring: “For all readers, regardless of belief, the letters frame human experience as a familiar sequence of trials, from how you take your tea and what parties you attend to the sort of person you choose for a partner and the sort of politics you espouse” (Cep).
Because of the clearly intended audience, the meaning of this work is not as subjective or malleable to the reader’s interpretations as many other novels. Rather, the level of the reader’s understanding, and therefore interpretation, of the piece is determined largely by previous knowledge and experience with Christianity. While an endless amount of interpretations, regardless of background, are possible, the most revealing aspects of the novel can be understood only by a Christian reader. However, while there may be clear meaning intended by the author, the reader response literary criticism suggests that all interpretations are valid, as everyone experiences the text in different ways: “Even if all of our evidence for a certain interpretation comes from the work itself, and even if everyone who reads the text interprets it in the same (as improbable as that might be) it is still we, the readers, who do the interpreting, assigning meaning to the text. Reader response criticism not only allows for, but even interests itself in how these meanings to change from reader to reader and from time to time” (Millikan). The validity of an interpretation is completely and utterly subjective, as every single reader of the novel has a slightly different response and interpretation. The only sound method of judging the validity of one’s interpretation is by comparing it to the original intent of the author. Even still, other interpretations may be valid insight. As Wolfgang Iser puts it, the reader “‘completes” or ‘activates’ the text” and “In a sense . . . becomes the most important element in the reading process, supplanting even the author” (Cordell 292). If this is true, then the significance of author’s original intent is drastically diminished. Regardless, the author’s intent is completely unknown to the reader and is essentially irrelevant, as the reader will interpret the novel however he or she pleases.
The central philosophy of The Screwtape Letters rests on the principle that spiritual forces and beings do exist. Past this, and regardless of belief in this notion, Lewis calls to attention many flaws in the church, Screwtape himself saying that “One of our great allies at present is the Church itself” (Lewis 14). While I see the meaning of the work to be fairly objective and clear, someone with a different take most likely has the same extent of conviction as I do. We naturally see our own respective beliefs or interpretations as objective truth rather than opinion. Because of this innate tendency of stubborn conviction paired with the inevitable wide variation of interpretations for every literary piece, all readers view their own response as the most valid. With this considered, we can conclude that validity of response is extremely subjective and difficult to determine. The the author’s intended meaning is irrelevant to the reader, and the similarity between the author’s intention and the reader’s interpretation rests on the author’s clarity. Ultimately, the reader is very arguably the most essential element in the literary work, engagement filling intentionally left “gaps” (Cordell 299) in the writing. In this case, Lewis’ writing lends itself to easy immersion, the reader naturally assuming the role of Wormwood’s “patient.”
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Cep, Casey N. “The Devil You Know.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, 16 July 2014. Web. 02 Jan. 2017.
Cordell, Ryan. “Creating Literary Analysis.” Creating Literary Analysis. Creative Commons, 29 Dec. 2012. Web. 28 Dec. 2016.
Delahoyde, Michael. “Reader-Response Criticism.” Washington State University, n.d. Web. 26 Dec. 2017.
Lee, Adam. “The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis.” Daylight Atheism. Patheos, 15 Aug. 2009. Web. 02 Jan. 2017.
Lewis, Clive Staples. The Screwtape Letters. Oxford, United Kingdom: Geoffrey Bles, 1942. Print.
Millikan, Lauren. “Reader Response Criticism.” Carleton College. Carleton College, 3 Mar. 2011. Web. 26 Dec. 2017.
Murfin, Ross C. ”Reader-Response Criticism and The Awakening.” The Awakening, Kate Chopin. Case Studies In Contemporary Criticism. 2nd Edition. Ed. Nancy A. Walker. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2000. 291-306.
Human Weakness in The Screwtape Letters
Throughout history there have been no shortages of western Christian writers. In a field so competitive, only those who have created work that is theologically influential are remembered by the masses. Martin Luther is remembered for crafting the 95 theses, a simple list of demands that sparked a divide between Protestantism and Catholicism. Dante Alighieri is remembered for producing The Divine Comedy, a literary work that, while not necessarily theologically accurate, was so original and influential that over 700 years later it is still being studied. C.S. Lewis, not one to be outdone by history, wrote The Screwtape Letters, a work so rich in theological content and so refreshingly original that to call it a classic would be a disservice; it deserves a far greater title. By portraying the devil’s perspective on humanity, Lewis was able to provide criticisms on the Church, Christianity, and the culture that became so influential in modern day theology. The writing of this novel was executed in epistolary form, a compositional risk that gave the work originality. The content of the book is also original, centering around a correspondence between two demons, Screwtape and his nephew Wormwood. Amidst this originality, Lewis brings one very original perspective to light: Lewis’s own insight into the weakness of man. Through exploration of several human urges such as sex, gluttony, and fear, Lewis exposes the raw weaknesses of mankind while also including how these urges can be overcome through virtue and faith.
Screwtape advises Wormwood to utilize sex to draw the man away from God by preying upon his natural urges and suppressing his other tendencies. The question of the virtues of sex is often a confusing matter for those involved in the church because of the seemingly backwards logic that discourages the act. Sex is, after all, the reason humans are able to reproduce, so demonizing the act would be demonizing a human urge. On the other hand, sex in almost every major religion is discouraged unless the party is in a committed monogamous relationship, leaving many confused on how to approach this topic. Lewis, through Screwtape, is able to voice his own opinion on the matter, championing the idea that sex was meant for only monogamous committed relationships. This idea is not an original one; it lines up well with the official position of the Church. However, Lewis provides a logical explanation for his belief, allowing for him to appeal to both the theist and the atheist alike.
Screwtape makes it clear that sex in itself is not a bad thing, he even goes to lengths to describe how he hates the fact that humans glean “pleasure from this action” (Lewis 102). However, he points out that by changing the nature of sex, one can utilize sex to draw man away from God. Screwtape advises that sex be indulged when man is at his least energetic state; this paradoxical suggestion is explained in a later quote. Screwtape explains that “The attack has a much better chance of success when the man’s whole inner world is drab and cold and empty. And it is also to be noted that the trough sexuality is subtly different in quality from that of the peak–much less likely to lead to the milk and water phenomenon which the humans call ‘being in love’” (Lewis 43). The goal of this attack is to construe sex as a remedy for pain instead of an act of love–in essence, to corrupt the original meaning. Lewis makes note not to demonize sex, since he continually understands it as the physical manifestation of the metaphysical idea of love. He does, however, warn of losing the meaning of sex, leading to the sin which man might commit.
Lewis does not take such liberties to approve of sex before marriage or sex with multiple partners; he even has Screwtape talk of the normalization of casual sex as a great victory, saying “…By persuading the humans that a curious, and usually short-lived, experience which they call ‘being in love’ is the only respectable ground for marriage;…a marriage which does not do so is no longer binding” (Lewis 93). The phenomenon which Screwtape refers to as ‘being in love’ is implied to be the thrill of casual sex or sexual experiences with multiple people, yielding a fleeting feeling that fails to hold up in the long run. At the same time, Lewis makes sure not to demonize sex, continually speaking of how it is a pleasurable act created by God and explaining that the sin lies not within sex but rather with how it draws man into a dangerous, self-medicating path. By exploiting man’s natural urge for sex, Lewis exposes a weakness in man, the temptation of sex and how it can be spun to lead man down a negative path.
While Lewis’s remarks on sex were original, attacking sex as a sin is a common motif in theological writing. Ironically enough, casual sex was never mentioned as one of the seven deadly sins (while gluttony was), yet church doctrine opposes sex far more than it opposes gluttony. Lewis, in seeing the opportunity, spearheaded a movement of temperance in The Screwtape Letters, arguing of the evils of gluttony and the expansive nature of gluttony. The first of these is the often-remembered version of gluttony, dubbed by Screwtape the “Gluttony of Excess” (Lewis 87). An extension of this gluttony, commonly known as materialism, is first utilized by Wormwood himself in the beginning of the novel. Wormwood attempts to keep his man entrenched in materialism in an attempt to keep him away from God (Lewis 1). Materialism is an issue found in both the spiritual and secular world, with many writers driving home the themes of remembering what truly matters and realizing that possessions are worthless. Lewis, however, points out that to indulge in materialism is to indulge in one of the seven deadliest sins.
Gluttony of excess is the best known type of gluttony, but is hardly the only type. Screwtape tells of a separate gluttony which he advises Wormwood to utilize. This “gluttony of delicacy” is then mentioned as being more potent than gluttony of excess due to its deceptive nature. Screwtape offers an anecdote in which a woman who does not eat or drink in excess is still a slave to gluttony, as she is so particular with her food that she refuses to eat except when it is prepared in the manner she requests (Lewis 87). This type of gluttony is extremely difficult to identify because it is often found when one attempts to go against the gluttony of excess. Screwtape points out that the woman would certainly be found in shock once she realized that the sin she took so many pains (as well as pained others) to avoid was actually being indulged during these attempts (Lewis 88). While at times it may be questionable to the reader as to whether or not this “gluttony” truly constitutes as a sin, Screwtape continues to laud the effort because of it’s difficulty to detect. As he explains, “The real value of the quiet, unobtrusive work which [the demon] has been doing for years on this old woman can be gauged by the way in which her belly now dominates her whole life. This woman is in what may be called the ‘All-I-want’ state of mind. All she wants is a cup of tea properly made or an egg properly boiled, or a slice of bread properly toasted. But she never finds any servant or any friend who can do these simple things ‘properly’–because her ‘properly’ conceals an insatiable demand for the exact, and almost impossible, palatal pleasures which she imagines she remembers from the past” (Lewis 88). Through these two paradoxical versions of gluttony, Lewis points out that this is not a weakness man can easily avoid. It can be exploited in almost every form imaginable.
Yet while gluttony does seem to be difficult to avoid, Lewis then points out a weakness that is truly unavoidable. Fear is brought up several times in the novel as a weapon to draw man away from God. Unlike the other two vices, which are specifically addressed in certain letters, fear is present throughout the entire novel because of its versatility. The old adage “there’s nothing to fear but fear itself” rings true here; the actual fear does not cause the sin, but the fear of confronting the various fears mentioned causes man to get wrapped up in sin. The first example comes from the fear of the unknown, specifically when discussing the fear of the unknown in regards to the sciences. Many people studying in the sciences would affirm that there is a vast amount of information that science cannot explain yet. Because of this reality, Screwtape advises a discouragement of deep studies of the sciences, claiming “they will positively encourage [a man] to think about realities he can’t touch or see” (Lewis 4). Should the patient study sciences such as biology or physics in great detail, he would affirm the vast amount of knowledge that he does not know and will not know in his lifetime. This would shatter the illusion that the sciences could explain everything, forcing man to confront the fear of the unknown and possibly putting him in a situation where he would accept that some things are beyond mortal knowledge, making man receptive to God. This in itself spawns a new argument in which science is not utilized to disprove God, but rather is affirmed by faith. This is a relatively new argument, one still not completely accepted by some theologians, but was revolutionary for Lewis’s time. Screwtape’s advisement to Wormwood reminds the second devil that learning too much science would counter their goals; instead, they must keep the patient with only a surface-level understanding. In this way, the fear of the unknown can be manipulated into keeping man from God.
More examples of the manipulation of fear can be found throughout the novel. Screwtape advises Wormwood to utilize the fear of judgement several times in order to lead his patient astray. Early on when the patient converts to Christianity, Wormwood is told to take advantage of man’s natural fear of judgment by exploiting the judgment of Christians (Lewis 10). By fearing the way the people would react to him joining the church, the patient would be put off and would potentially not join the church, rather than facing his fear. While facing the fear would allow the man to shatter this fear quite easily, the path of least resistance would be to not attend the church at all and to continue to care about facing the fear. Fear of judgment again appears when the patient encounters friends that lived against his customs, such as drinking in excess: indeed, fear of judgment from them for not taking part in these customs and fear of judgment from them should he reject them as friends eventually caused the patient to break his customs and live as they did (Lewis 105). By breaking his customs, the patient did not need to face his fear of the judgment of his friends. Finally, fear of judgment from God himself is used, as the patient would not feel worthy in his presence after living in his sinful manner. Rather than atone for his sins and face his fear, the patient would rather distract himself by not atoning for his sins and slowly leaving God (Lewis 107). In all of these examples, the reaction to the fear of judgment is a means of making man leave God, with the fear itself not being an issue. In fact, the fear could act as a catalyst to further propel the patient towards God, but the fear of the fear of judgment causes the patient to fall in line with the devil’s plan.
While Lewis did expose the many weaknesses of mankind and how they could be exploited to draw man away from God, he also provides a relatively simple solution to circumvent the weaknesses prevalent in humanity. Screwtape would express frustration and anger with Wormwood whenever his patient would partake in virtue and deepened faith in God, as these measures would cause him to overcome his weaknesses. The love that the patient felt for God was mirrored in the love he felt for his eventual wife: the two were able to get married and avoid sexual temptation. When the patient began congregating with other believers and his wife, he was able to hold his own emotions in moderation enough to stave off bouts of gluttony. And with God, not fear, as the focus of the patient’s life, the patient was able to overcome the various different types of fear Wormwood attempted to exploit.
Lewis, in writing The Screwtape Letters, attempted to go where perhaps only two other authors (Alighieri and Milton) went before in explaining the demon world to man. At the same time, he attempted to author a profound theological work, one that would become influential to modern day Christianity. Such an undertaking was ambitious, to say the least. In his attempt to author a theologically sound work, Lewis exposed several key weaknesses of man, discussing human susceptibility to sex, gluttony, and fear, as well as how to conquer these influences through virtue and faith.
Lewis, C. S. The Screwtape Letters. S.l.: Bles, 1961. Print.
The Screwtape Letters: A Story of Love, War, and Betrayal
In 1942, C.S. Lewis—the well-known author of the Narnia series—wrote a fascinating book called The Screwtape Letters. The novel takes place in Hell, during the mortal time of World War II, and follows a series of letters written by Screwtape; a senior demon in a position of high power, to his nephew Wormwood; a junior tempter demon in the process of leading his first mortal “Patient” to the devil, referred to as “Our Father Below.” Screwtape teaches Wormwood multiple techniques to ensure the human’s soul does not go to Heaven, though these ultimately prove futile. An article in Touchstone, a collection of Christian journals and reviews, contains a review of The Screwtape Letters which states that, “The tactics he (Screwtape) recommends for Wormwood’s human ‘patient,’ are as complex and varied as their principle is simple: ‘Aggravate that most useful human characteristic, the horror, and neglect of the obvious.’ The successful tempter is one who promotes that neglect through continual distraction and misdirection” (McDonald). Some of the easiest forms of distraction come in little bundles of hatred often referred to as “pet peeves,” which are small behaviors or habits that other people perform that innately annoy one. One of Screwtape’s most prominent strategies for tempting the patient is having Wormwood plant “seeds of hatred” for those around him into the man’s head; another strong tactic of his is ensuring that Wormwood distracts the Patient from proper prayer. Unfortunately for Wormwood, both temptations inevitably fail. Correspondent to the Patient, each mortal being can be tempted by creatures such as Wormwood and Screwtape. Human beings have an inherent tendency to put their thoughts and desires before others’, and to try to correct this by praying for others. Regrettably, this is what the demons want from individuals, as shown throughout The Screwtape Letters.
To begin, “Seeds of hatred,” also often called “pet peeves,” are small quirks or habits in another person’s behavior that one finds to be obnoxious. Many people dislike those who chew with their mouth open, bite their nails, tap surfaces in a quiet setting, talk too loudly, etc. Some of Screwtape’s earliest advice to Wormwood consisted of orders to make the Patient alert to every little thing that annoyed him about others, keeping in mind that he should never realize that he might be upsetting people with behaviors of his own, as he said, “Bring fully into the consciousness of your patient that particular lift of his mother’s eyebrows which he learned to dislike in the nursery, and let him think how much he dislikes it. Let him assume that she knows how annoying it is and does it to annoy—if you know your job he will not notice the immense improbability of the assumption. And, of course, never let him suspect that he has tones and looks which similarly annoy her” (Lewis). By instructing Wormwood to do these things, Screwtape aims to create a feeling of animosity towards his mother and other people, while simultaneously creating an egotistical feeling of righteousness. His pet peeves towards other people will bring to light how much he dislikes those around him, while his negligence to see his flaws will produce a feeling of superiority. If one can only see others’ faults, then one may assume himself to be perfect. Furthermore, Screwtape advises Wormwood to take similar advantages over the Patient’s fellow churchgoers, to make sure that the church does not live up to the Patient’s expectations and that this feeling of superiority extends to people at his church, telling him that, “Provided that any of those neighbours [in the pew next to him at church] sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must, therefore, be somehow ridiculous. At his present stage, you see, he has an idea of ‘Christians’ in his mind which he supposes to be spiritual but which, in fact, is largely pictorial” (Lewis). To wayne the Patient away from the church, once again, strengthening his awareness of flaws or characteristics about others that irritate him is a primary tactic. If he sees himself as better than the churchgoers, than he may think himself to be better than the religion that they follow.
A second strategy that Screwtape promotes is the procedure of making the Patient’s prayers become inefficient. One way to achieve this is by having the Patient pray to a sort of idol, unbeknownst to him, of course, that this is not the correct way to practice prayer. In letter IV, when discussing the dangers and advantages of worship, Screwtape explicitly explains, “…whatever the nature of the composite object, you must keep him praying to it—to the thing that he has made, not to the Person who has made him. You may even encourage him to attach great importance to the correction and improvement of his composite object, and to keeping it steadily before his imagination during the whole prayer” (Lewis). If the Patient remains praying to a false version of God, the prayers may be incomplete or otherwise not received. In this way, prayer can be a fantastic advantage for the devil if a human thinks that he knows what God is. Another method of using prayer to the demons’ benefit is that of making patients abandon their childhood prayers and go for something unprompted and self-centered. Raymond Potgieter covers this idea in a summary of The Screwtape Letters clarifying that “Prayer must never be directed at the Enemy, but center on the person himself or on some confusion or blend of ideas about the incarnation and deity with attempts to appropriate experiential feelings validating the experience of God” (Potgieter). It is easier for one to focus more on himself when praying if he is making the prayer up as he goes, so by having the Patient desert the old, recited prayers from childhood, his prayer slowly becomes more selfish. The Patient may be trying to replicate the way that others pray, thinking that if he says things similar to what they say during prayer, all will be good; however, this attitude takes away the spirituality of worship altogether. It reduces prayer to nothing, but a jumble of words said to make one feel as though he is participating in the religion.
Continuing, each of Screwtape and Wormwood’s attempt at the patient’s soul proved unsuccessful for various reasons. In the end, one of the most significant factors contributing to the loss of the Patient’s soul on the demons’ part, is that he fell in love with a seemingly perfect, virtuous, young Christian girl. Screwtape expressed his disgust from the moment he first heard about her and even wrote a warning that “…the very house she lives in is one that he ought never to have entered?” (Lewis). Screwtape warns multitudinous times that this girl—and everything having to do with her—is exactly that type of thing from which the Patient should have stayed away. She is a threat to the demons’ cause because they know that she can help him through his mistakes and guide him on his journey to Heaven. The real turning point of the Patient’s soul, however, was in death. When he died, the Patient was no longer vulnerable to Wormwood’s attempts and was instead admitted into Heaven. Screwtape detailed this phenomenon by writing, “There was a sudden clearing of his eyes…as he saw you for the first time, and recognised the part you had had in him and knew that you had it no longer” (Lewis). As the Patient finally saw and recognized Wormwood as the evil that had been plaguing him for years, he no longer had a reason to be afraid. He had been liberated from that part of himself in death, ultimately freeing himself from any demonic temptations.
Moving on to the author himself, C.S. Lewis has always had a way of creating characters simple, yet complicated enough that most readers can relate to them. The Patient in The Screwtape Letters is no exception. Just as Wormwood’s patient, any man can be tempted by the Devil’s trickery if he is not careful. Throughout the story, with many different forms of temptations displayed, there are some of Screwtape’s letters that make a person think that he might have fallen for that strategy in the past. Lewis’ characters have a psychological basis for being so relevant, as stated in an article about The Screwtape Letters in USA Today, “Lewis’ training was not in psychology, but it may as well have been, as his insights into the nature of human weakness illustrate an incredibly wise merger of the emotional, theological, and philosophical aspects of being human” (Puterbaugh). It is no surprise, then, that the Patient can be seen as the Everyman; Lewis has a talent for interpreting specific aspects of humanity into his writing.
Finally, by examining much evidence from C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, it is apparent that Wormwood’s patient is an Everyman, for Lewis wrote in a captivating way which relates each reader to the character whose soul hangs in the balance. It makes the book more interesting to read because it feels personal as Screwtape and Wormwood try many different strategies, eventually failing at the time of the Patient’s death because he had been lead closer to God by the woman with which he was in love. In the last letter Screwtape writes to Wormwood, the younger demon is warned that due to his failure to seize the Patient’s soul to feed the higher demons, Wormwood, himself, is now to become food for his own uncle. Although it seems tragic and shocking from a mortal’s standpoint, it is understandable because of how Hell, as one can imagine, is run. Screwtape, being the stronger demon, gets to devour his “dear” nephew, Wormwood, in a genuinely dog-eats-dog domain.
Lewis, C.S. The Screwtape Letters. Geoffrey Bles, 1942.
McDonald, Brian. “Merely Saved or Merely Damned?.” Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, vol. 21, no. 2, Mar. 2008, pp. 24-29. EBSCOhost, proxygsutoc1.galileo.usg.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rh&AN=31390928&site=eds-live&scope=site. Accessed 24 November 2017.
Potgieter, Raymond. “Revisiting C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters of 1941 and exploring their relation to ‘Screwtape proposes a toast’.” In die Skriflig/In Luce Verbi [Online], 50.1 (2016): 8 pages. Web. 25 Nov. 2017
Puterbaugh, Dolores T. “The Screwtape Letters: SOPHISTICATION and SELF-ABSORPTION.” USA Today Magazine, vol. 139, no. 2788, Jan. 2011, pp. 68-71. EBSCOhost, proxygsu- toc1.galileo.usg.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=fh&AN=57639474&site=eds-live&scope=site.