In the preface, C.S. Lewis writes that he will not explain how he came across the correspondence between two devilsScrewtape and his nephew, Wormwood. He reminds the reader that devils are liars, so Screwtape’s reports might not be accurate. In the first letter, Screwtape begins to advise Wormwood about how to tempt his assigned human, “the Patient,” into sin and Hell. Wormwood should not try to convince the Patient with arguments. That may have worked in the past, but in the twentieth century, it’s necessary to use . He should appeal to the Patient’s emotions in order to keep him from using reason. Screwtape recollects how he kept an atheist from reasoning that the Enemy exists by tempting him to go to lunch. Wormwood should always remind the Patient about the ordinariness of things, and he should keep the Patient away from science. It will make the Patient think of things he can’t touch or see.
Screwtape reprimands Wormwood for allowing the Patient to become a Christian still on and Wormwood’s side. The members of the Patient’s church will also help them. The Patient expects an ideal spiritual Church, not oily grocers and parishioners who sing out of tune. Wormwood must not let the Patient realize that the images he has of spirituality are stereotypes. He should try to make the Patient feel disappointed. Disappointment, Screwtape says, usually marks major transitions in life. People feel disappointed when their idle dreams turn into active work. But if they get over this initial period of disappointment, Screwtape warns, people become much harder to tempt. If it turns out that the other members of the Patient’s church, in addition to being everyday and ordinary, are really hypocrites, then Wormwood’s task is easier. He should try to make the Patient .
Screwtape advises Wormwood to manipulate the Patient’s relationship with his mother. According to Screwtape, she is a difficult and nitpicky woman. First, Wormwood should make the Patient think that his conversion to Christianity is internal and grand rather than a part of his day-to-day life. Second, Wormwood should encourage the Patient to offer only prayers for his mother’s sins. This will make him think of what she does wrong. Screwtape says he has made his patients so hypocritical in this respect that they stood up from praying for their children’s souls only to beat their children’s bodies. Third, Wormwood should encourage the Patient focus on his mother’s annoying habits. Fourth, he must encourage his patient to read a bitter tone into his mother’s voice even when she is not using one. At the same time, the Patient must expect his mother only to take into account his words, not the tone with which he uses them. That way, both mother and son will argue often and both will think they are in the right.
The preface to The Screwtape Letters serves two primary purposes. First, it frames the fiction of the letters with the invented story that Lewis has only found, not written them. The implicit joke is that Lewis himself has close personal dealings with the business of Hell. Second, the preface serves as a warning Screwtape is an unreliable narrator. In other words, the reader should constantly question, rather than trust, Screwtape’s version of events. Screwtape authors all the letters, and Wormwood is always his addressee. The reader learns about the content of Wormwood’s letters only through Screwtape’s indirect reports. For example, Screwtape will often say things like, “The news in your last letter that…” or “In your last letter, you wrote that…” This is another technique Lewis uses to add depth to his fiction. He describes fictional letters he never wrote and, at the same time, creates the illusion of an authentic correspondence. The Screwtape Letters are part fiction, part self-help. They are advice in reverse. Screwtape instructs Wormwood what to do to tempt the Patient, the reader learns about the temptations that might keep him from being virtuous or “saved.”
The central literary devices of The Screwtape Letters are irony and satire. Irony is a tool by which an author expresses ideas and conveys meaning through language that does not directly state the author’s meaning. For example, Lewis uses Screwtape to say things that are contrary to his Christian message. When Screwtape calls God “the Enemy,” for example, the reader is invited to see God as “the Ally.” Lewis’s irony challenges the reader’s expectations of what Christian spiritual advice looks like of the beliefs and actions that will lead a human soul into eternal damnation. Satire is the use of irony, humor, and ridicule to criticize common and, implicitly, mistaken beliefs and unconscious vices that an author perceives in society. Some of the targets of Lewis’s satire in The Screwtape Letters are modern corporate language and organization, fashion trends, the Anglican Church, the Catholic Church, and the dubious professional positions of spiritual advisors and newspaper morality columnists. In the light of these last categories, the reader should note that Lewis’s irony is often self-directed.
In the first letter, Lewis challenges the common notion that science leads to atheism and a loss of Christian faith. Thinking about particles and forces that cannot actually be seen, warns Screwtape, is not far from thinking about unseen spirits like devils, angels, and the invisible but omnipresent Christian God. During the European Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, the “light” of human reason was presented as a force opposed to the “darkness” of received religion. Lewis flips this notion on its head. He argues that reason, on the contrary, leads humans to ask spiritually challenging questions, questions that, in turn, lead them to God and salvation. It is not reason, Screwtape argues, but a general feeling that something is reasonable, that leads most people into atheism. People accept the true-sounding, but ultimately meaningless, language of scientific jargon as fact. Wormwood should use this kind of vapid languageof Lewis’s satireto lead the Patient to blindly accept commonly held beliefs that the Patient himself knows nothing about.