Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1268
Shadowlands opens with a monologue by C. S. ‘‘Jack’’ Lewis. He addresses the audience as if they were attending a lecture. He talks about how much he knows about pain, love, and suffering, and why God lets tragedies happen to people. Lewis argues that God does not want us to be happy, but rather, he wants us to be worthy of love. He believes that suffering is God’s love in action.
In an Oxford dining hall, Lewis sits with his elder brother, Major Warner ‘‘Warnie’’ Lewis, and several colleagues from the university. They discuss how women are different. Lewis’ friends chide him for his vast experience with women, especially since he is defending them in this conversation. Lewis tells them about his correspondence with women. As the group breaks up, a slightly drunk Warnie begins to recite poetry. Lewis leads him home. They discuss their friends, revealing the brothers’ close relationship.
Lewis sits at his desk in his study in the morning, reading and writing letters, including a letter for a Mrs. Joy Gresham. It seems she has been writing many letters to Lewis and they have had an extensive correspondence. Lewis tells Warnie that he is curious about her. The letter indicates that she is coming to England and wants to meet the brothers. Lewis seeks his brother’s advice about meeting Mrs. Gresham in a hotel. Warnie is not helpful, but Lewis decides that they will go.
At the tea room of an Oxford hotel, Lewis and Warnie meet Mrs. Gresham and her eight-year-old son Douglas. Warnie still is not sure about the situation. Douglas tells Lewis that he does not look like he should. The polite conversation is a bit tense, especially after Mrs. Gresham tells Lewis that his letters are the most important thing in her life. They talk about Lewis’ religious writings. Mrs. Gresham talks about her religious experiences, including her transitions from Judaism to communism to Christianity. Warnie asks Mrs. Gresham about her poetry; she says that she only used to be a poet. Mrs. Gresham shows that she understands Lewis’ thought processes. As Mrs. Gresham and Douglas move to leave, Lewis invites them to have tea at his home before they leave England.
Before the tea at Lewis and Warnie’s home, Lewis tells his brother that he enjoys talking to Mrs. Gresham. They both still wonder about her and her motivations. When Mrs. Gresham arrives, she and Lewis discuss literature as Douglas reads a book. Lewis prevails upon her to recite one of her poems. Lewis is surprised by it. They discuss her poem and how personal experience and pain inflect their writing. Lewis tells her about how he was hurt by his mother’s death from cancer when he was eight years old. As Mrs. Gresham (now called Joy as she and Lewis are on a first name basis) and Douglas leave, Lewis invites them to spend Christmas at his home.
Later, at a pre-Christmas party at Lewis’ home, his colleagues from Oxford meet Joy. The colleagues are rather condescending to Joy, but she stands up for herself. Some of his colleagues believe that Lewis has found his soulmate. Joy soon leaves the party and reads a distressing letter. In the meantime, Lewis’ colleagues speak disparagingly of her to him. He does not really care. After they leave, Joy tells Lewis that her husband has written a letter in which he indicates that he has fallen in love with another women and wants a divorce. Joy also con- fides that her husband has an alcohol problem. Joy decides to give him what he wants. Lewis promises to be her friend.
After Joy and Douglas have gone back to the United States, Lewis implies to his brother that he misses her. One of his colleagues, Christopher Riley, visits. He antagonizes Lewis over Joy and their unusual friendship. Riley leaves, and Lewis returns to work. A few moments later, Joy comes in unannounced. She and Douglas have moved to Oxford, much to Lewis’ surprise. He tells her that he is glad to see her. Later, at Joy’s new house, Lewis helps her unpack. Joy tells Lewis that while her husband did not like her moving to Britain, it is cheaper to live there than the States. Joy asks him if he minds that she has moved there. He does not, and they confirm the importance of their friendship.
At Lewis’ house, Warnie again asks Lewis about the nature of his relationship with Mrs. Gresham. Lewis says that they are merely good friends, though he has agreed to marry her so she can stay in England. Lewis calls it ‘‘technically’’ marrying her. No one will know about the arrangement. The scene moves to the Registry Office where Joy and Lewis marry, with Warnie as the witness. It is an uncomfortable ceremony. Later, Lewis visits Joy at her home. They are comfortable in their secret: everyone thinks they are having an affair, when in fact they are married and are having no affair at all. As Lewis leaves, Joy has a pain in her leg and crumples to the floor.
At the beginning of Act II, Lewis again speaks to the audience. Without naming Joy, he tells them that she has bone cancer and is in pain. He again talks about faith and suffering. Warnie and Douglas enter. Lewis tells his brother that Joy is not well. While Douglas visits his mother in the hospital, Joy’s doctor tells Lewis that she will probably die soon. After Warnie takes Douglas to tea, Lewis visits Joy himself. Joy wants to know the truth about her condition, which Lewis tell her only after being prodded. Lewis admits that he does not want to lose her. Joy tells him that she loves him, but he cannot say it back.
Lewis runs into his colleagues in a street. They are apologetic to the distressed man. He asks Harry Harrington, a chaplain, to marry them in a religious ceremony. Harrington declines because she is divorced. Returning to Joy’s bedside, Lewis tells her that he wants to marry her in this way and that he is afraid of losing her. She agrees. They have the ceremony in her hospital bed, with Douglas and Warnie present. Some time passes. Joy’s doctor and Lewis talk. The progress of Joy’s disease has slowed. Lewis and Joy’s visit shows how close they have grown.
Warnie, Lewis, and the Oxford colleagues talk. Lewis tells them that Joy is getting better. The scene returns to the hospital room. Joy can now manage a few steps, and the doctor expects her to live for some time. Lewis soon takes Joy (and Douglas) to his home. Joy and Lewis continue their intellectual banter before deciding to honeymoon in Greece. The action shifts to Greece, where Joy and Lewis are in a hotel. Lewis remains stiff, but Joy tries to loosen him up. They discuss their happiness.
About three years later, Lewis tells Douglas that his mother is going to die. At her bedside, Lewis and Joy talk about dying. Lewis promises to take care of Douglas, and tells her that he loves her. The scene moves forward in time to the high table at the dining hall. Harrington, Riley, and others talk about Joy’s funeral. Lewis joins them, but soon leaves when they do not understand his pain. Lewis comforts Douglas, and both cry in each other’s arms. Shadowlands ends with Lewis continuing his talk on human suffering. He realizes that pain is part of happiness.
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