Descent into Hell

by Charles Williams

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Descent Into Hell is a 1937 theological novel written by British novelist, poet, and playwright Charles Williams. It is, basically, part sci-fi, part fictional, part religious, and part philosophical, as it explores themes such as: joy, sorrow, horror, sin, salvation, damnation, free will, love, pain, and religion.

Love was even more mathematical than poetry. It was the pure mathematics of the spirit.

A man cannot love himself; he can only idolize it, and over the idol delightfully tyrannize - without purpose. The great gift which the simple idolatry of self gives is lack of further purpose.

It tells the story of several villagers who know each other because they do amateur plays in their local theater, as they rehearse a play written by their poet neighbor – Peter Stanhope, who is actually quite successful and accomplished. The main antagonist is Pauline Anstruther, who is obsessed with her fears, especially the fear of meeting her doppelganger. Stanhope, however, decides to face Pauline’s fears instead of her, and enable her to discover her true self.

She endured her own nature and supposed it to be the burden of another's.

She said, still perplexed at a strange language: "But how can I cease to be troubled? will it leave off coming because I pretend it wants you? Is it your resemblance that hurries up the street?"
"It is not," he said, "and you shall not pretend at all. The thing itself you may one day meet-never mind that now, but you'll be free from all distress because that you can pass on to me. Haven't you heard it said that we ought to bear one another's burdens?"

Another important figure is Lawerence Wethwoth, a historian with some narcissistic tendencies. He falls in love with a woman named Adela Hunt, however, she rejects him. Thus, he falls in love with a mystical, spiritual version of Adela, which is considered by many to be his own soul.

There was presented to him at once and clearly an opportunity for joy--casual, accidental joy, but joy. If he could not manage joy, at least he might have managed the intention of joy, or (if that also were too much) an effort towards the intention of joy… Wentworth knew he could share that pleasure. He could enjoy; at least he could refuse not to enjoy. He could refuse and reject damnation.

Essentially, the novel tells the story of several people who try to battle their inner demons, fears, and self-obsession, and some who cherish their insecurities and weaknesses. Williams believes there is one Writer (God) who writes our destinies, but he also believes that we can change our “scripts.” The novel received many positive reviews for its philosophical and thought provoking narrative, although some readers deemed it a bit difficult to understand.

It may be a movement towards becoming like little children to admit that we are generally nothing else.

But no verse, not Stanhope's, not Shakespeare's, not Dante's could rival the original, and this was the original, and the verse was but the best translation of a certain manner of its life. The glory of poetry could not outshine the clear glory of the certain fact, and not any poetry could hold as many meanings as the fact.

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