The Screwtape Letters

by: C.S. Lewis

Study Questions

Further study Study Questions

What are the various kinds of irony in The Screwtape Letters and what are its effects?

The Screwtape Letters satire. use irony, exaggeration, and humor to ridicule or at least evaluate common societal assumptions. There are several types of irony used in the course of this satire. The first type of irony might be referred to as common irony. This occurs when an author suggests meanings or ideas that occur outside of the literal interpretation of his words. For example, Screwtape describes God as “the Enemy,” but this does not mean that the author, C.S. Lewis, sees God as just an enemy. Lewis, for the most part, is advancing a Christian position wherein God is actually “the Ally.” But God, in Lewis’s total view may take on characteristics of both enemy and ally. For skeptical Christians, after all, God is a force they struggle against as they try to continue to live as secular non-believers. During this struggle, these skeptical believers may well see God as an opponent, a force against which they struggle. Once they finally do accept God, God becomes their ally, the main force helping them to lead responsible, moral lives. In other words, irony is a way of saying to things at once. In Screwtape’s voice, God becomes both enemy and ally.

The second type of irony in The Screwtape Letters is called dramatic irony. This kind of irony occurs when readers of a book (or viewers of a play) know something about which a character within the story is ignorant. With common irony, the reader must use tonal clues and context to create an approximation of the author’s complete view on a subject. With dramatic irony, readers are given a more complete view of a situation than a character. This prompts them to imagine themselves into the character’s more limited position. In The Screwtape Letters, Screwtape is wholly ignorant of the fact that his letters are being read by a human audience. He imagines he is giving advice to Wormwood about how to tempt a patient into Hell, but, he is giving advice to humans about how to lead moral lives. Adding depth to this irony, Screwtape’s failure “humanizes” him and invites the reader’s empathy. Humans and devils have this much in common: they fail. In general, irony is a way to activate reading. It encourages readers to feel for, and with, characters in a story, and, at the same time, irony asks them to imagine themselves into the author’s position, to construct a fuller meaning that seems to exist outside the words themselves.

Are The Screwtape Letters a comedy, a tragedy, or something in between?

omedy and tragedy are literary terms that refer to the emotional direction taken by a plot. A comedy is an ascending plot. Characters move through difficulty toward a better life or a desirable result. Dante’s Divine Comedy, for example, is called a “comedy” not because it is supposed to be funny, but because Dante begins his spiritual journey, his vision of the afterlife, in the low pits of Hell and gradually climbs through purgatory, and, ultimately, sees the highest levels of Heaven. The desired result at the end of comedic plots is often marriage, and the difficulties characters go through are justified when they receive this happy reward. Tragedies are descending plots. In them, characters often struggle with difficulties without any apparent reason, with no objective, and the lives get generally worse. Tragedies, therefore, often end in meaningless, unnecessary death or exile.

The Screwtape Letters incorporate elements of both tragedy and comedy. On the one hand, for the Patient, the story ends with death, but, in dying, the Patient ascends. All his earthly struggles have been a means of gradually climbing into Heaven. It might be argued that the general purpose of the Christian religious narrative is to impose a comedic plot structure on human life. This effort, to turn life into a comedic ascent into Heaven, is reflected in Christian metaphors. In Heaven, for example, Christian authors may say the soul is “wedded” to God. For Wormwood, on the other hand, the story is a tragedy. He has expended all his energy—gone through much trouble and endured many insults from his overbearing uncle—trying to win the Patient into Hell. His efforts were all for nothing, and, as a result of his failure, he must be eaten in the Patient’s place. For Screwtape, the story is neither comedy nor tragedy. He gets to eat his nephew, a prospect which he . At the same time, it seems the thing Screwtape secretly wants is to be accepted into God’s love. But no matter what Screwtape does or how he struggles, he must spend eternity in Hell.

Compare the roles of women and men within The Screwtape Letters. Are the two sexes given equal treatment?

The most complex characters in The Screwtape Letters are Screwtape, the Patient, and Wormwood. The Patient is a human man and, though devils, Screwtape and Wormwood are represented as men. Screwtape often addresses specifically male concerns. The advice Screwtape gives Wormwood on how to tempt the Patient into sexual promiscuity, for example, seems to assume that women are passive agents in human sexuality, the mere recipients of male desire. Meanwhile, the Patient’s mother seems to be little more than a stereotype of a difficult British woman. She eats only toast, drinks only tea, and she complains about everything. The Woman, the Patient’s love interest, is idealized. She is the ideal Christian and her only fault, according to Screwtape, is essentially that she is too good. Men and women, then, are not given equal treatment in The Screwtape Letters. The male characters in the story are more complex, and the spiritual advice Screwtape offers seems to be specifically directed toward male concerns and patriarchalideas of sexuality.

Readers have a variety of options concerning how they choose to view the sexism in The Screwtape Letters. The preface reminds readers that Screwtape is a devil. Screwtape’s ideas, it says, might be affected by his evil innernature. The sexism in the book, in other words, be seen as an intentional construction that illustrates Screwtape’s limited and infernal worldview. At the same time, the narrow limits placed on the expression of human sexuality within The Screwtape Letters—the idea that sex is only acceptable for the purposes of procreation within the context of marriage—is a view often advanced by Christian churches and teachings. It can and has been argued that placing these limited restrictions on human sexuality reinforces a heterosexual, male-dominated societal structure. Though questions of non-binary gender roles, homosexuality, masturbation, or even committed monogamous heterosexual sex for pleasure outside the context of marriage and/or procreation are not discussed within the pages of The Screwtape Letters, the very exclusion of these questions reinforces the notion that these activities are taboo, forbidden, or sinful. It remains a question whether regarding them as such is a productive thing for human society or for the individuals trying to find their way within it.