Descent into Hell Essay - Critical Evaluation

Charles Williams

Critical Evaluation

The surrealistic effect of supernatural events taking place in a natural setting is the keynote of Charles Williams’s narrative treatment of spiritual experience. Ordinary life is revealed as an image of a deeper reality. The play in which all the characters are involved becomes an image of life itself in which each person must perfect his or her own role in harmony with others. The setting of Battle Hill suggests the hill of Golgotha, and Lily Sammile’s lair is revealed to Pauline as an aspect of Gomorrah. For Lawrence Wentworth, the journey into the city becomes the way to Gomorrah; but Pauline’s destination is the Eternal City. She tells Peter Stanhope that it seems funny to be discussing the times of trains to the new Jerusalem, but for the poet the interdependence of the temporal and the eternal is fully assimilated fact.

The characterization, like the plot, is determined by the theme. Only Pauline Anstruther and Wentworth, who experience salvation and damnation respectively, are fully delineated. The other characters are sketched with only enough detail to give them substance as examples of different aspects of love. Stanhope and Mrs. Anstruther are seen only in relation to Pauline, Adela Hunt primarily in contrast to Pauline, and Hugh Prescott in contrast to Wentworth. Williams never falls into the error often attributed to John Milton and other authors of making his diabolical characters more attractive than the good ones. Mrs. Sammile is described with a few telling details that make her seem real, slightly pathetic, and obscurely repulsive. Stanhope, in contrast, expresses his sanctity through an easy kindliness and sense of humor. The essence of goodness is seen as a quality of joy that permeates the lives of those who accept it in love. This joy is reflected not only in the characters but in the style, taking the form of wry humor in the descriptions of the play rehearsals and almost poetic rhapsody in the passages of mystical experience. The great variety in style and mood emphasizes Williams’s conviction, exemplified in the plot, that reality in human life exists in multiple planes of time and space.

Of Williams’s eight novels, his Descent into Hell contains his most humane dramatization of his vision of life and the best artistic integration of fictional elements. His indebtedness to visionary poets such as Dante Alighieri, William Wordsworth, Coventry Patmore, and his Christian colleagues (including C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien) among the literary group called the Inklings cannot be overstated. As Williams explained it, his novels are sequels, each building upon themes established early in his writing career. The purpose of his fiction is to communicate his uniquely personal Christian vision of the good life. One may investigate, then, the extent to which Descent into Hell achieves Williams’s purpose, and the extent to which the novel achieves his purpose without the reader having to refer to Williams’s influences.

The difficulty of such an assessment is reflected in the frustration sometimes expressed about the genre of Williams’s novels. His vision is so personal that his novels may be considered a genre unto themselves, without...

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