In The Problem of Pain (1940) Lewis had dealt with suffering in an abstract and theoretical way. Just how far this was from a record of suffering or even a book that might help a person in the actual throes of suffering came home to Lewis after the death of his beloved Joy. Although some critics have viewed A Grief Observed as a fictionalized account of Lewis’ grieving and have assumed that the crisis of faith portrayed there was not experienced by Lewis but rather introduced as an aid to individuals who might be undergoing such a crisis, other critics have read the book as a faithful, autobiographical record of his grief. It is difficult to settle the matter, for Lewis is not known to have mentioned the work, even among close friends, after its publication. In either case, Lewis or a persona describes an intellectual edifice, which supposedly had taken into account the possibility of suffering, as a “house of cards” that came crashing down or a rope in whose strength he had thought to believe until it came time to trust its strength. If there is any truth to the claim by some critics that Lewis’ earlier work is too superficial, too dependent on logic chopping, then A Grief Observed demonstrates that Lewis is capable of depth and intensity. The emotions portrayed here are immediate and personal, beginning at the first line, which launches itself without any explanation: “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid.”
Even though the work is formally divided into four sections, the grief he describes can be seen as moving through three periods. The periods do not develop in a wholly linear fashion, for even when it appears that progress has been made and a new plane has been reached, there are inevitable relapses. To describe grief, Lewis uses the biblical metaphor of a valley. It is “a long valley, a winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape” but does not always. At times, he reveals, he encounters the kind of country he thought was behind him and thinks that the valley is “a circular trench. But it isn’t. There are partial recurrences, but the sequence doesn’t repeat.” This insight, however, came to him only in the latter stages of his grief.
The first period is one that could best be described as stunned anger, so stunned that the writer says that he feels “concussed,” so angry that he begins to ask himself if God is the “Cosmic Sadist.” Perhaps even Jesus was mistaken about God. Lewis alludes to Jesus’ cry on the Cross (“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”) and says, “Almost His last words may have a perfectly clear meaning. He found that the Being He called Father was horribly and infinitely different from what He had supposed.” The writer himself seems to find no consolation just when he needs it. His experience is of “a door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence.” The danger was not that he might cease to believe in God but that he would be forced to embrace the view that God is by human standards a “spiteful imbecile.” In a reference to Joy’s miraculous recovery, followed a few years later by the return of the cancer, he...
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Although it has been compared in tone and theme to the elegiac tradition in general and to Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam (1850) in particular, and although its rough similarity to the Book of Job has been noted, A Grief Observed has received relatively little attention from critics. Some admirers of Lewis’ writing seem to be uncomfortable with the strong language used for the diarist’s anger against God and therefore prefer to separate Lewis from the crisis of faith experienced by the diarist. Lewis is, however, always too large to fit into predetermined patterns. The range of his writings reaches from scholarly literary works to children’s fiction, from Christian apologetics to adult science fiction. Some readers have seen in Lewis’ Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold (1956) a partial portrait and a tribute to the living Joy Davidman; A Grief Observed stands alone among his works, however, as an extended, elegiac lament for his lost loved one. In this mature diary, he unites feeling and reason in a work that bares the soul of a Christian in his doubt and sense of loss. Leaving aside the question of whether Lewis personally experienced the crisis of belief depicted here, this diary is a small jewel of the process of grief that could be Everyman’s. Its plea is that of the father in the Gospel of Mark who brought his son to Jesus to be healed. Upon being told by Jesus that all things are possible to those who believe, the father “cried out and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.”