The Screwtape Letters Essay - Critical Essays

C. S. Lewis

Critical Evaluation

Written from a senior devil’s point of view, The Screwtape Letters consists of thirty-one letters that focus on different issues in the art of temptation. The letters, which were first published serially in a weekly magazine in 1941, are linked by the ongoing narrative of the young man’s ups and downs during his spiritual journey. In 1961, a new chapter to the book, “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” was appended. In it, Screwtape addresses a graduating class at the Tempters’ Training College. Screwtape expresses delight in the increase of tyrannical regimes and the suppression of free peoples as a major way of destroying human beings’ dignity and individuality. He also expounds on the distortions of the concept of equality in modern democracy: The idea that people should all be the same, without distinctive differences, has led to a wonderfully destructive mediocrity that penalizes excellence, especially in the area of education.

C. S. Lewis, a literature professor at Oxford and Cambridge, was a prolific writer whose various works fall into quite different categories, including literary criticism, philosophy, essays, poetry, theology, letters, and various genres of the novel. The Screwtape Letters, the third of his fourteen novels, established Lewis’s reputation on both sides of the Atlantic and was soon considered a classic. The novel’s popularity led to Lewis’s appearance on the cover of Time on September 8, 1947, with the grinning figure of a devil (with horns and a pitchfork) depicted behind Lewis’s left shoulder. The inscription on Time’s cover read, “Oxford’s C. S. Lewis, His Heresy: Christianity.”

A professed atheist for almost twenty years, Lewis converted to belief in God in 1929 and gradually came to accept all the traditional doctrines of Christian faith, including the existence of heaven, hell, angels, devils, and sin. He believed devils were supernatural beings, former angels who became enemies of God and therefore enemies of human beings and of all of God’s creation. In this novel, however, Lewis’s focus is not on a theological presentation of hell and devils but on the psychology of human beings and their moral choices.

With Screwtape as the first-person narrator, this epistolary novel derives much of its irony and satire from the inversion of traditionally accepted values. Evil becomes good and good becomes evil. The development of virtues is considered fatal, while the development of vices and sinful habits is...

(The entire section is 1036 words.)