What Are The Screwtape Letters? - Format & Style

Instructor: Lindsey Coley
C.S. Lewis' 'The Screwtape Letters' are written in an epistolary framework. In this lesson, we'll define epistolary literature and learn how writing in an epistolary framework benefits the message C.S. Lewis wishes to get across in his novel.

What is Epistolary Literature?

Imagine you just got a new job - maybe as a door-to-door salesman - and your boss lives halfway across the country. Instead of managing you in person, he sends a weekly email to check up on your progress, set goals and give ideas for new sales pitches you should focus on. He might even spur you to reach higher goals by giving advice and cheering you on.

Now let's say this boss has a naturally interesting and humorous writing style. You've caught yourself going for a drink after work and sharing the emails with a buddy so that you can both have a good laugh over the boss's words. In fact, those emails eventually become so much fun to read that you decide to create a small book out of them. Congratulations, you've just created epistolary literature!

Epistolary literature is basically a book or story created out of letters. No, not the alphabetical kind, but the 'Dear Sal' type! However, the slight difference between a letter and an epistle is that an epistle is generally written for a larger audience to get a message across; a letter is usually just for a personal or individual audience.

In our above example, you created epistolary non-fiction (think not fake or true). It wasn't meant for a larger audience to begin with, but you found humor in it and wanted to share the message with a larger audience, and so then, made it epistolary.

In C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters, we still see the epistolary nature of the work, but it is in a fictional environment (think fake or make believe). In this novel, the reader learns that the mentoring demon Screwtape is writing letters to his mentee, the demon Wormwood. Just as your boss, in our example, wrote to you each week and spurred you onward, Screwtape writes to Wormwood and tries to spur him onward in his job of corrupting humankind. He's a different kind of door-to-door salesman, basically.

You may be asking yourself - how it can be an epistle if it was written from one demon to the next and wasn't meant for a larger audience? Because the story is fictional, Lewis intended for you, the reader, to be the audience. He also intended for there to be plenty of readers (as most authors would hope!) and so that makes these letters epistolary vs. just regular letters.

Why Write in an Epistolary Style?

There may be several reasons that C.S. Lewis chose the epistolary style for The Screwtape Letters. The first, and perhaps the most obvious, is that it mimics some parts of the Bible. This is important, because The Screwtape Letters is a novel that aspires to refute the devil and defend Christianity through satire.

Satire is the use of irony to expose an opposing view's flaws. In this case, by narrating from the demon perspective, the reader sees the flaws in the narrator and his mentee and comes to a better understanding of Christianity and God's unconditional love in the end.

In the Bible, epistles are used to get the message and the story of the Lord across. Paul is famous for writing epistles in the Bible. Colossians is an epistle he writes to 'God's holy people in Colassae.' Thessalonians and Galatians are other examples of this same type of epistle.

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