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Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
World War II started before C.S. Lewis began to write The Screwtape Letters. World War II does not begin within the Patient’s story, however, until Screwtape’s fifth letter. For Wormwood, the war is a perpetual distraction from his duty to tempt the Patient. Screwtape, therefore, frequently reprimands Wormwood for being too excited about the war. Wormwood’s excitement represents one possible response to the outbreak of World War II. Lewis uses Screwtape’s advice to Wormwood as a way to satirize this frenzied, obsessive response, perhaps the most prevalent response throughout Europe in the 1940s. In the course of advising Wormwood, Screwtape also offers a range of other responses. Men might be over-zealous and want to fight at all costs. They might be cowardly, but unwilling to admit their cowardice to themselves. They might make light of the war, or become obsessed with the future, or with foreign enemies. Wormwood’s job as a tempter is to analyze the sort of man the Patient is and to manipulate his response to the war in the way most likely to lead him into sin. Reader are meant to evaluate the sort of people they are and to alter their attitudes toward crisis accordingly.
The Hell that Screwtape inhabits is not, at least on the surface, a vast terrain of burning pits, molten sludge, and devils torturing souls with pitchforks. In The Screwtape Letters, Hell resembles a modern corporate office environment. Mid-level devils have secretaries, and “Lower” (more powerful) devils determine Hell’s course of action in secret meetings. Screwtape and Wormwood never personally interact with these more powerful devils. Hell is impersonal. On the one hand, this depiction of Hell modernizes medieval images of Satan’s invisible eternal kingdom. Satan is now less king, more C.E.O. On the other hand, this depiction satirizes modern, de-personalizing social institutions. These corporations, Lewis implies, are Hellish. In fact, modernization as a whole, including the industrial revolution that led to the formation of vast and impersonal corporationsand led to the modern, industrial war that was ravaging Europecan be seen as an effect of the evil influence of Hell upon Earth. Hell distracts people from eternal questions with passing fashions and fleeting, political interests. It occupies people, for example, with the pursuit of certain arbitrary body types. Hell also makes people pervert their Christianity by wedding it to passing political agendas, like alcohol prohibition.
The Seven Deadly Sins, which are Lust, Pride, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Envy, and Wrath, play a prominent role in Screwtape’s advice to Wormwood. Not all of the Seven Deadly Sins are mentioned by name within the letters, but elements of each can be found in them. Of the seven, Pride, Lust, and Gluttony are the most discussed. In Christian teaching, Seven Deadly are the root of all the other vices, so it makes sense that, in order to promote vice in the Patient, Screwtape would guide Wormwood to inspire these sins within him. Some sins, like pride, seem to have changed little over time. Pride, in Screwtape’s discussion, is highly related to bravery and cowardicetwo possible reactions to the danger of the war. One might feel undue pride because one has acted bravely. Medieval depictions of gluttony, howeverwhich usually show an obese man eating to excesscan be updated to fit the modern era. Being overly obsessed with food in any way, Screwtape argues, is a form of gluttony.