The Screwtape Letters

Main Ideas

Key Facts

Main Ideas Key Facts

full title The Screwtape Letters

author  C.S. Lewis

type of work  Epistolary novel

genres  Satire; Self-help; Self-help parody; Spiritual counsel

language  English

time and place written  Between May and November of 1941 in Oxford, England

date of first publication  1942

publisher  Macmillan

narrator The Screwtape Letters narrated by the title character, Screwtape, through letters he writes to his nephew, Wormwood. Screwtape composes the letters from his office in Hell, which, in The Screwtape Letters, resembles a modern corporation.

point of view  Screwtape narrates the story in the first person. He directly addresses Wormwood, calling him “you,” and advising him what to do. Screwtape also refers to things that Wormwood supposedly told him in Wormwood’s own (not-included) letters. The narration vaguely follows Wormwood’s interactions with the Patient. Most of the book, however, is exposition. Screwtape gives Wormwood advice about what he might do given a particular set of circumstances. Screwtape is less concerned with describing characters in the book or giving scenic detail than he is with pondering spiritual and moral questions.

tone  Screwtape’s tone is didactic (he gives instruction), but this didactic tone is parodied by the work as a whole. The overall tone is didactic, or instructive, with a splash of irony and humor.

setting (time)  The outset of World War II (the late 1930s and early 1940s); a timeless eternity

setting (place)  Events with Wormwood and the Patient take place in and around an unspecified town in England. Events concerning Scretape take place in an office in a vast, corporate Hell.

major conflict  The Patient struggles to lead a moral, Christian life in the face of Hell’s temptations. Wormwood struggles to tempt the Patient into sin and win his soul for Hell. Screwtape gives Wormwood advice, but his motives for doing so are never specified.

rising action  By the second letter, the Patient converts to Christianity. Screwtape gives advice to Wormwood as Wormwood tries to corrupt the Patient’s Christianity and lead him into sin. The Patient falls in with a group of worldly friends and Wormwood seems to be winning him over.

climax  The Patient experiences a reawakening of his faith after reading a book and taking a walk toward an old mill. From that point on, Wormwood has less and less success over the Patient.

falling action  The Patient meets the Woman and falls in love. She and her family help the Patient reaffirm his Christian faith. Wormwood has very little success tempting the Patient and reports Screwtape to Hell’s secret police for heresy. Screwtape escapes punishment and reprimands Wormwood for his failures with the Patient. The Patient dies during a German air raid, and his soul is taken into Heaven.

themes  The Competing Forces of Heaven and Hell, “Mere Christianity” versus “Christianity and…”, Satire as a Means for Education

motifs  The Range of Responses to World War II, Modernization and Social Fads, The Seven Deadly Sins

symbols  The Giant Centipede, A Noxious Fog, The Crucifix

foreshadowing  Screwtape foreshadows Wormwood’s betrayal by asking Wormwood if Wormwood has shown anyone his letters and insisting that his negative comments about other devils were meant only as jest. Screwtape’s betrayal of Wormwood—his desire to eat him—is foreshadowed when Wormwood’s denounces Screwtape to Hell’s authorities. The Patient’s death is foreshadowed by the news of German air raids and Screwtape’s advice to Wormwood to keep the Patient alive as long as possible.