Descent into Hell

by Charles Williams

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Analysis

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As a member of the Inklings group that included C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams was naturally interested both in fantasy and Christianity. Like Lewis, he used fiction to explore that interest and particularly the idea of “substituted love,” which he portrayed as literally true.

It becomes the crux of the issues in Descent into Hell. Pauline Anstruther is startled when Stanhope suggests that he might carry her fear for her, and she is moved by joy when he does so. Her belief in the process enables her to help first the workman and then the protestant martyr. Clearly, Williams suggests that such love can transcend time, thus accounting for the blending of past and present in the novel. John Struther died in the 1550’s and the workman evidently killed himself decades before the novel’s main action, but Pauline is able to aid both of them, just as her grandmother seems somehow in touch with them. Williams’ imagery suggests, in fact, that substituted love explains how the Crucifixion—here portrayed as the ultimate burden bearing—works for salvation.

Some characters reject the reaching beyond oneself that leads to heaven; that is what happens to Wentworth and to the characters who succumb to the offers of the demoniac Lily Sammile, who threads her way through the novel offering people like Wentworth the damning narcotic of self-indulgence and fantasy. Williams, like Dante Alighieri in the Inferno (in The Divine Comedy, c. 1320), insists that such people are condemned at their own insistence as they refuse the offers of love that could save them. Adele Hunt accepts Lily’s offer, as does Wentworth; Pauline briefly comes perilously close.

Two of Williams’ images relate very clearly to his ideas about love and time. Fire, for example, is important not only because of how it figures in Struther’s martyrdom but also as part of Stanhope’s play. Williams joins flame images to descriptions of the workman’s suicide (by hanging from a house beam) to suggest the Crucifixion. Fire also appears more conventionally at the novel’s end, as Wentworth descends into hell.

Williams also makes use of his characters’ names. Peter Stanhope is surely intended to evoke the Apostle Peter, the stone on whom Jesus said he would build his church; “stan” is the early English form of “stone.” Pauline, who so fears to meet her Doppelgänger, or double, on the road, carries the name of the Apostle Paul, who met Christ on the road to Damascus. Her last name, Anstruther, contains “truth” as a central element. Her grandmother’s name, Margaret, means “a pearl” and is probably intended to suggest the “pearl of great price” that represented the kingdom of heaven in Jesus’ parable. Even Wentworth’s name suggests how thoroughly he has rejected his own value. Lily Sammile’s name suggests the Lilith who in Hebrew myth was Adam’s first wife and whose mythological personality is temptress and deceiver.

Behind these images lies one more, that of the city. Adjacent to Battle Hill, it is at the same time London, the city of God, and Dante’s Satanic city of Dis.

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