The Screwtape Letters Summary

In The Screwtape Letters, a senior demon named Screwtape offers advice to his nephew Wormwood, who has been assigned to darken the soul of a man known only as “the patient.”

  • Screwtape instructs that Wormwood should direct the patient toward his worst emotions, as reason leads to God.
  • The patient converts to Christianity, and Wormwood fails to prevent him from marrying a Christian girl. He tries to sow discord between the couple, but the patient dies in World War II before he can succeed. 
  • Though Screwtape is disappointed by his nephew's failure, he's pleased that he can now eat Wormwood as Wormwood's punishment.

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 796

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 entire section contains 1460 words.)

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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 single point of view. Wormwood can also make sure the patient sees his mother as the glutton that her own demon, Glubose, encourages her to be. Wormwood should also attack through the patient’s sexual nature. As Screwtape explains, his being a Christian is no impediment, for when a Christian marries because he is “in love,” he sets himself up for disappointment, thus providing marvelous opportunities for the demons pursuing his soul.

Screwtape begins his twenty-second letter with a sarcastic reference to Wormwood’s attempt to get his uncle in trouble with the satanic secret police by repeating some unguarded comments that were made in the letters. Wormwood will pay the price for his action, Screwtape promises, as well as for all his other mistakes. The most serious of them is Wormwood’s allowing his charge to fall in love with a virtuous young woman from a loving, Christian family. To Screwtape’s horror, the girl is also witty; indeed, he muses, she might well laugh even at him. The idea puts Screwtape into such a state that he turns into a centipede and has to dictate the rest of that letter to his secretary, Toadpipe.

However, Screwtape has not given up. He now suggests that Wormwood attack on two fronts, one intellectual and one emotional. Wormwood is to urge the patient’s Christian friends, and thus the patient himself, to reduce Christ to the status of a mere historical figure, useful for promoting social justice or some other cause. Meanwhile, Screwtape has learned from Slimtrimpet, the demon assigned to the young woman, that she has a habit of laughing at nonbelievers. Now Wormwood can use her flaw to persuade the patient that he is, and indeed deserves to be, a member of a small, select group; such feelings, of course, will result in pride. Wormwood is also told to encourage the two lovers to compete in exhibiting unselfishness, thus establishing resentments that can persist for years.

The last three letters are prompted by German air raids on the town where the patient lives. As Screwtape points out, it is to the Enemy’s advantage to have the patient die, for up to that point he has resisted all temptations and if he remains true, he will become God’s forever. As long as he is alive, however, Screwtape and Wormwood still have a chance to seduce him. To Screwtape’s disappointment, although the first raid frightens the patient, he does his duty. Then he is mortally wounded. The patient recognizes Wormwood for what he is, sees angelic spirits, and then finds himself in Christ’s presence. Screwtape is left with just one consolation: that he will be allowed to make a meal of Wormwood or at least to snack on him.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 664

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 surrounded by the presence of the Enemy (which Wormwood experiences as an asphyxiating cloud into which he cannot see) and is reconverted. Screwtape, ever adaptive to changing circumstances, advises that since the patient is now firmly resolved to live as a Christian, Wormwood should try to corrupt any of his developing virtues. The patient has now become humble, so Wormwood should corrupt his humility by making him proud of his humility or by making him dishonestly minimize the value of his gifts and talents. Since the patient is committed to attending church, he should be led to a church that waters down biblical teaching and encourages a lack of faith. Wormwood should also keep the patient’s inclinations for doing good and his desire to grow in virtue firmly fixed in the realm of his imagination because these attitudes are quite harmless if they never reach his will and are never concretely put into action. Wormwood should also direct the patient’s goodwill toward an abstract concept of humanity in general but direct the patient’s lack of charity to his mother and the specific people he actually encounters in his life.

Things begin to seem worse for Wormwood because the patient falls in love with a young Christian woman. Screwtape encourages his nephew by reminding him that falling in love, like war and every other human event, is merely raw material that can be used by either side. Because the patient is now in the perilous company of mature Christians, Wormwood must lead him to be proud that he is part of such a fine group of spiritual people. He should also muddle the patient about the distinction between romantic love (which does not last) and fidelity and charity (which do last) in order to lay an unrealistic foundation for the patient’s upcoming marriage and guarantee future marital problems.

While working as an air-raid warden, the patient is killed during a bombing attack; despite Screwtape and Wormwood’s best efforts, he is now eternally beyond their grasp. At his death, his spiritual eyes are opened, and both he and Wormwood are able to see the angels who have assisted him throughout his life, as well as “Him” (Christ). Screwtape, furious with his nephew’s defeat, expresses some pleasure at the thought that he may now devour Wormwood as punishment for his failure.

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