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The Screwtape Letters Analysis

Instructor: Celeste Bright

Celeste has taught college English for four years and holds a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature.

Can the downfall of humankind begin with small vices? This lesson analyzes key elements of ''The Screwtape Letters,'' including key ideas, genre, historical background, and major topics and themes.

Plot Overview and Key Ideas

In The Screwtape Letters, a senior demon named Screwtape provides advice to his young nephew Wormwood about how best to lead his human ''patient'' to damnation. In his letters, Screwtape refers to God as the ''Enemy'' and to Satan as ''Our Father,'' which is the inverse of how Christians refer to God and Satan.

He teaches Wormwood about the ''lowerarchy'' of Hell, mentioning other comically-named demons such as Slubgob, Glubose, and Triptweeze. He also counsels his nephew on how to manipulate the people, events, circumstances, emotions, and even spirituality in his human's life in order to cause the man to turn away from God little by little.

Overall, Screwtape values subtle and devious methods, writing: ''Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one---the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.''

Can the downfall of humankind begin with small vices? C.S. Lewis, whose compelling imagination gave us The Chronicles of Narnia, cleverly illustrates and satirizes the strategies demons might use to ruin souls. Let's analyze key elements of his novel The Screwtape Letters.

Gently sloping trail in the woods
Gently sloping trail in the woods

Genre

The Screwtape Letters is an epistolary novel, or a novel in which the plot and dialogue are shown through letters characters send to each other. In this case, we have only the letters from Screwtape, and the content of Wormwood's letters are hinted at only through Screwtape's responses to them.

C.S. Lewis's novel is also a form of Christian apologetics, or a work that defends Christianity against its opponents using philosophy, science, and other academic disciplines. (Apologetics don't 'apologize' for a system of beliefs, as you might think---they simply make a logical case to demonstrate their value).

Finally, The Screwtape Letters is additionally a satire, a work that mocks social hypocrisies or shortcomings. A satire can be facetious, sarcastic, or sardonic in tone, but it usually aims to improve a problem by bringing it to light, often through humor.

Part of what makes The Screwtape Letters so unique is this rare combination: Lewis uses witty humor to defend his religion, making his argument more approachable and engaging. In his novel, Lewis satirizes diabolical as well as human attitudes toward Christianity and truth.

Historical Background

Lewis originally published The Screwtape Letters in 1941 as a serial work in The Guardian newspaper, and the book may have been inspired by a speech delivered by Hitler. It's certainly understandable that Lewis might compare Hitler's rhetoric with the reasoning of demons.

In the novel, Screwtape refers to World War II, seemingly bored with the fact that ''the European humans have started another of their wars.'' Lewis himself served in the British Army during World War I, so he had firsthand knowledge of ''the fear and suffering of the humans'' in wartime that Screwtape finds so ''entertaining.''

Laughing demon mask
Laughing demon mask

Major Topics and Themes

The Subjectivity of Human Psychology

One of the human weaknesses Screwtape urges Wormwood to exploit is the subjective nature of human psychology. He writes that the job of demons is to confuse and ''fuddle'' the perceptions individuals have of themselves, others, the world, and reality in order to bring out and foster their worst traits.

Screwtape advises Wormwood to help his human focus on the petty things he dislikes about other people so that his bond with them will be weakened while his own ego becomes inflated. Probably one of his funniest pieces of diabolical advice concerns misconceptions the genders have about what it means to be unselfish. Screwtape writes, ''A woman means by Unselfishness chiefly taking trouble for others; a man means not giving trouble to others... each sex, without any obvious unreason, can and does regard the other as radically selfish.''

A couple arguing
A couple arguing

Misdirection in the Church

Screwtape states that ''one of our greatest allies is the Church itself.'' He points to complacent church leaders who fall into a liturgical rut so that going to church becomes a matter of mere ritual, not spiritual nourishment.

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