Overview (Masterplots II: Christian Literature)
The Screwtape Letters is made up of thirty-one undated letters from a senior devil called Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood. In these letters, Screwtape offers advice to the younger demon as he attempts to secure the soul of a human being, referred to as “the patient.” The book, then, is the account of a young man’s journey to the heavenly city, though in this case the narrator is his enemy, a demon who hopes to block his salvation.
In his first letter, Screwtape makes it clear that the surest way to lose the patient is to encourage him to use his reason, for inevitably, his reason will take him to God, whom the devils call the Enemy. Wormwood must find his opportunities by getting his patient to reason falsely or to be governed by his emotions. Screwtape is not discouraged when the patient becomes a Christian, for he explains to Wormwood that new converts often experience an emotional letdown. Wormwood should direct the patient’s attention to the irritating habits or the hypocrisy of the other people in his church. Screwtape also suggests that the patient be encouraged to notice his mother’s annoying habits to the point that he will have difficulty praying for her. Screwtape is delighted when the patient falls in with a wealthy group of skeptics. The patient is so proud of his new friends that Screwtape believes the struggle for his soul is over. However, God again manifests himself to the patient, and the result is a second conversion.
In his fifth letter, Screwtape reprimands Wormwood for his assumption that the outbreak of World War II would make it easier to capture souls. Unfortunately, war provides occasions for selfless deeds, and the Enemy judges such deeds on their own merits, not on his approval of the cause. However, as Screwtape points out later, anxiety is a good climate for demonic activity. Meanwhile, Wormwood is urged to make the patient a connoisseur of churches, then a partisan of a...
(The entire section is 796 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Screwtape, a senior devil in Hell’s hierarchy, writes letters to his nephew Wormwood, who is attempting to corrupt his first mortal soul. The soul is that of a young Englishman whom the devils refer to as the “patient.” Wormwood experiences a setback very early in his assignment, when the patient becomes a Christian. Undaunted, Screwtape advises several strategies to block the patient’s movement forward. If the young man cannot be kept from going to church, he writes, Wormwood should lead him to regard other church members with disdain because of their various shortcomings. If he cannot be kept from praying, Wormwood should have him focus on himself and his feelings during prayer rather than on the “Enemy Above” (God).
Wormwood expresses joy at the outbreak of World War II, but Screwtape quickly corrects that attitude. Despite the wonderful suffering war can bring, he explains, war can also be quite dangerous since it leads people to reflect seriously on life and to prepare for death. Wormwood should keep the patient away from normal pleasures since they often lead back to the Enemy who invented them; pleasures are only allowed when they are distorted or taken in ways, times, or degrees that are forbidden by the Enemy. As the patient is slowly led away from the path of virtue, Screwtape warns Wormwood not to tempt him to any spectacular wickedness because sins that seem insignificant ensure a safer gradual path to eternal separation from the Enemy, whereas larger sins are likely to inspire repentance.
Unfortunately for Wormwood, when the patient is out for a solitary walk one day, he is...
(The entire section is 664 words.)
Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
The Screwtape Letters made Lewis’s popular reputation. An epistolary novel from a senior tempter, Screwtape, the letters advise his junior colleague and nephew, Wormwood. The narrative traces Wormwood’s attempts to enslave the soul of a “patient,” a human on Earth, so that he may end in Hell at his death. Over the course of thirty-one letters, set in contemporary England during the Blitzkrieg, Screwtape reviews strategies based on exploitations of human nature.
Lewis’s purpose is frankly didactic, although his use of Screwtape as a narrator means that readers must often “invert” the truths he reveals. In the process, Lewis’s satire ranges over much of modern life, for Screwtape is ironically aware of human failings invisible to humans. Yet Screwtape himself is satirized, too; at moments he appears confused, contradicting himself, admitting truths about God that he later denies. Lewis succeeds in creating both a character and an atmosphere: Hell is the mind-set in which selfishness becomes self-absorption.
Early in the novel, the patient experiences a religious conversion, permitting Screwtape to discuss how the Christian life may itself be perverted. This development becomes the major interest of the work, for the church is the real enemy of the demoniac. As Screwtape provides advice, Lewis is able to portray the Christian faith in opposition to those facets of modern life that are diabolical.
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: Christian Literature)
Sources for Further Study
Holmer, Paul. C. S. Lewis: The Shape of His Faith and Thought. New York: Harper and Row, 1976. A lucid, succinct overview of Lewis’s theology.
Hooper, Walter, ed. C. S. Lewis: A Companion and Guide. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996. Includes a chronological biography of Lewis, short biographies of his associates, definitions and place descriptions, a “Key Ideas” section, and critical analyses of the works.
Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity. New York: Macmillan, 1952. The author identifies the views common to Christians of all denominations. One of his best-known works.
Sims, John A. Missionaries to the Skeptics: Christian Apologists for the Twentieth Century—C. S. Lewis, Edward John Carnell, and Reinhold Niebuhr. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1995. Places the beliefs of three major Christian theologians within the context of their personal experiences. Bibliography and index.
Walker, Andrew, and James Patrick, eds. Rumours of Heaven: Essays in Celebration of C. S. Lewis. Guildford, Surrey, England: Eagle, 1998. Originally published as A Christian for All Christians: Essays in Honour of C. S. Lewis in 1990. Essays on subjects such as Lewis’s debt to historic Christianity, his attention to narrative, and his use of myth. Notes and selected bibliography.