Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1342

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...

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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 writes, “Time after time, when He seemed most gracious He was really preparing the next torture.”

These last words, written at night, mark the end of the time of greatest struggle and doubt and the beginning of a second period of mourning. On the next morning, a different, less embittered note is evident in his reflections, and he soon is admitting to himself that his earlier accusations against God were “not so much the expression of thought as of hatred.” He considers the possibility that he will once again rebuild his faith and wonders if that faith too will be a house of cards that will stand only until the next crisis. In this middle stage of grieving, he moves from anger to reluctant acceptance of the inevitable and a renewed acknowledgment of the sovereignty of God. The transition is believable and carries the reader along with it. Lewis’ honesty and his great gift of argument seem above cant.

Another mark of the second stage is his recognition that his longing was too intense at the outset. Scripture does promise that to those who knock it shall be opened, but the diarist asks himself if knocking means “hammering and kicking the door like a maniac?” His own insistence had cut him off from consolation. Not only does he again seem to have access to God, but he has a strong impression of being confronted with his wife’s mind as well. Once before, after the death of his friend Charles Williams, Lewis had received a strong assurance of the latter’s continued existence. Now, the diarist has the impression of his wife’s presence, but not in a way he might have expected. She comes to him with “an extreme and cheerful intimacy” that at the same time is not like “a rapturous re-union of lovers” but is “incredibly unemotional.” The impression is one that a Greek philosopher would have understood. In searching for adjectives to describe the experience, he is forced to qualify them by placing a question mark after them: “Brisk? cheerful? keen? alert? intense? wide-awake? Above all, solid. Utterly reliable. Firm. There is no nonsense about the dead.”

With access to God restored and with the assurance of H.’s continued being, the writer gains admittance into the third stage of his grieving and healing. In spite of the lapses mentioned earlier, he realizes on an intellectual and emotional level that he wants her back as a part of the restoration of his own past and is not asking if this would, in fact, be in her best interest. He asks, “Could I have wished her anything worse? Having got once through death, to come back and then, at some later date, have all her dying to do over again?” His love for her begins to express itself in terms of her welfare. He also finds that he has been writing about himself, then H., then God, in that order, and acknowledges that this is the reverse of what they should have been. In order to enjoy both God and H., he must praise them: “Praise is the mode of love which always has some element of joy in it. Praise in due order; of Him as the giver, of her as the gift.”

Further, the diarist acknowledges that it is possible that God has recognized the perfection of his marriage to H. and has moved them both on to the next level. The perfection consisted in their reconciling the differences between the sexes. He writes:It is arrogance in us to call frankness, fairness, and chivalry “masculine” when we see them in a woman; it is arrogance in them to describe a man’s sensitiveness or tact or tenderness as “feminine.” But also what poor, warped fragments of humanity most mere men and mere women must be to make the implications of that arrogance plausible. Marriage heals this.

Thus, having found their true humanity in marriage, they are ready for the next stage. For her that stage is found only through death; for him, it is to accept that “bereavement is a universal and integral part of our experience of love.” His new program is to “turn to her as often as possible in gladness” and to be willing to let her return to the universal fountain of all life. In borrowing the fountain image from Dante, the diarist has ended with a touching tribute to his beloved. As Beatrice led Dante to higher religious planes, so H. has, the writer implies, been his guide in the quest for spiritual maturity.

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Critical Context