Literary Analysis: The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis By Agatha Xaris Villa A. Introduction & Rationale It is said that among the major literary genres recognized today, the ‘novel’ is the most accessible to the majority of the readership. However, in terms of stylistic analysis, novels are the most difficult subjects to analyze. However, a trend that has been observed for the bulk of the twentieth-century is that literary criticism conducted on the genre of narrative texts (i. e. novels) have primarily focused on narrative point of view (Short, 1996, pg. 56) and this is not without cause. Among the literary genres, the novel, prototypically, has the most complex narrative discourse structure. In contrast to the prototypical poem and play, the novel has at least three levels of discourse –the author-reader, character-character level, and the narrator-narratee level (Short, 1996, pg. 256-257). The complexity of the novel’s discourse structure is why it has the most number of viewpoints and why it is believed to be the most ideal literary form in which to study viewpoint (Short, 1996, pg. 257)
In light of this premise, I shall be attempting to objectively conduct a literary analysis on an extract taken from The Screwtape Letters (1942), the popular satire written by C. S. Lewis with a focus on point of view. When I first read The Screwtape Letters, one of the aspects which I found most refreshingly original and creative about the text was the way in which this age-old story of “good VS evil” was presented by the author. While there are certainly other creative aspect in the text, C. S. Lewis’ creative manipulation of viewpoint is what I believe provides readers with that distinct sense of creativity and originality.
To support this thesis, I will be exploring viewpoint from both macro-level (describing the general discourse relations in the novel) and micro-level (giving an account of the linguistic indicators of viewpoint that show how the author manipulates viewpoint through smaller-scale linguistic choices). B. Basic Information about the Story The Screwtape Letters is what is known as an epistolary novel –a narrative that is told through a series of documents (usually journal entries or letters) from the pen of one or more characters from the story.
A characteristic of such types of novels is its ability to provide a very intimate and in-depth view of the writers giving the story a good dose of realness. In all, The Screwtape Letters is comprised of a series of 31 letters written by one of hell’s own ‘undersecretaries’ – a high-standing demon by the name of Screwtape, who is writing to his nephew, Wormwood, who has only just received his first ‘patient’. Throughout the letters, Screwtape passes to Wormwood techniques on temptation and basic devilry – all to secure the eternal damnation of this one soul in the courts of their “Father Below”.
From his own morally-reversed ‘demonic’ perspective, Screwtape explains (to Wormwood) and unveils (to the reader) a new perspective on the spirituality of ‘everyday life’ – something that ordinary men and women are unaware of. He also shows a very vivid contrast between the ways of ‘The Father Below’ and ‘The Enemy’ (God). Of course, as a demon, he speaks of ‘The Enemy’ and his ways with disdain and disgust but to the Christian reader, these are mere affirmations of faith. The story ends as the worst of Screwtape’s own ‘bad scenarios’ is indeed realized – in the death of ‘the patient’ in an air-raid.
As mentioned, there are often several levels of discourse to be considered to understand what is going on. In the case of The Screwtape Letters, I believe there are three: a novelist-reader level, narrator-narratee level and the character-character level (as illustrated below). Level 1 Addresser 1 (C. S. Lewis) –> MESSAGE –> Addressee 1 (Reader) Level 2 Addresser 2 (Screwtape: narrator) –> MESSAGE –> Addressee 2 (Narratee) Level 3 Addresser 3 (Screwtape: character) –> MESSAGE –> Addressee 3 (Wormwood: character)
There are several interesting things to note in this story’s discourse structure. First of all, it can be argued that all 3 levels on the ‘Addresser’ side may collapse together whenever Screwtape speaks. As a demon, he obviously has a different purpose and aim with regards to the human race and his letters reflect that view. He even describes certain perceptions held by humans which are the direct result of demonic manipulation and propaganda. While he is not, in fact, addressing us humans, as narrator, it feels like he is talking directly to us – effectively fulfilling the role of narrator.
Furthermore, even though he is a demon, he is able to give vivid and even impassioned descriptions of some of the Enemy’s (God) plans and intentions – to the point that it sounds like treachery on his part. This, I believe is a way in which the author’s own point of view may be heard through Screwtape himself. On the other hand, levels 1 and 2 of the ‘Addressee’ side collapse together. The role of narratee (the person who is addressed by the narrator) in this narrative is more an abstract rather than a solidified concept simply because of the very nature of the letters themselves – ‘private letters’ between uncle and nephew.
As the reader reads, he or she takes up both book and role of narratee. In this way, the author is able to reel us into the diabolical mind. As the narrative continues, the more we know of how demons operate the more we ‘understand’ their side but it also further heightens our awareness of their perverseness and evil. For the most part, the book follows the discourse structure outlined above (first-person narration) but this is not always the case. However, the fact that a large part of the discourse structure is ‘collapsible’ further strengthens the argument that novels (and this particular story) are ideal for analyzing viewpoint.
C. Analysis of the Extract Based on Short’s work (1996), there are several different linguistic means available to the author to indicate and manipulate point of view. In this portion of the paper, I will evaluate and account for significant instances of these indicators or lack thereof to substantiate the claim that viewpoint is a stand-out characteristic of this particular piece of text. 1 Schema-oriented language The study of cognitive science asserts that for comprehension to be achieved; relevant background knowledge must be available and activated. This ‘background knowledge’ is known as schema (i. e. generic information about objects, people, situations and events)(Semino, 2006, pg. 38). The author has the ability to manipulate viewpoint by choosing to describe things from one particular point of view – that is, schema-oriented language. The title of the book (The Screwtape Letters) as well as the continued use of the ‘letter’ format in each chapter would have clued the readers to the main viewpoint featured in the text – that of Screwtape. In our extract (the 28th letter), Screwtape himself reveals the disparity between our perception about how demons see things and how they really perceive things.
The opening of the extract would have had readers activating and using their schema related to ‘demons’, ‘demonic activity’, ‘war’ and ‘death’. However as they continue reading, it becomes clear that the textual input actually deviates from their pre-existing expectations and causes schemas to be modified (Semino, 2006, pg. 40). This experience is what is referred to as ‘schema refreshment’ (Cook, 1994). The text begins to deviate from the norm when we read of Screwtape chastising his nephew for his naive way of perceiving ‘death’.
In a strange move, he advises his nephew (lines 22-24) to pay close attention to the physical safety of his ‘patient’– because ‘if he dies, you lose him’ (line 25). Overall, this seems contradictory to our own conventional thinking about what demons think about ‘death’ and Screwtape is fully aware that it is. In lines 20-21, he explains to Wormwood that humans ‘tend to regard death as the prime evil and survival as the greatest good,’ and continues by citing that this is little more than the fruit of the devil’s own propaganda.
Yet another part of the extract which seems to depart from our general assumptions regarding demonic activity is when Screwtape explains the opportunities that adversity, prosperity and long life bring to demons. Naturally, people are especially averse towards suffering of any kind – however, to think that prosperity lends an even better opportunity for the demon’s cause may come as a shock for readers – especially those that are not particularly verse in biblical teaching. Indeed, it is important to note that whether or not the reader experiences ‘schema refreshment’ is entirely dependent on his or her personal schemata.
Perhaps one of the reasons why this book has been well-received by those in the Christian community is because they have the necessary schemata regarding demons and biblical teaching to help them grasp and appreciate the subtleties of C. S. Lewis’ satirical writing. One interesting thing to note is that Screwtape’s worst-case scenario does come to pass in the end—the patient does die and is thus forever loosed from the demon’s clutches in the same way that Screwtape had described – an air raid. Of course, Screwtape (the character) was not actually intending to predict the future. Value-laden expressions Viewpoint may also be controlled and manipulated by the author through small-scale linguistic choices regarding how to describe particular elements of the story. A character’s viewpoint may be identified by highlighting their feelings or attitudes regarding something. For example, at the beginning of the chapter, Screwtape describes his nephew’s excitement of the oncoming air raids as being ‘infantile’ and that he is ‘singularly obtuse’ in not providing him with the data he really wants.
He repeats, ‘do you not know’ (line 8-9) as if to further criticize his nephew for not referring to what should be common knowledge. Later, Screwtape says that he is ‘ashamed’ to even have to explain it (lines 7-8). In all, all these value-laden expressions indicate that Screwtape is upset over his nephew’s incompetence and lack of common sense. 3 Given VS new information In writing a story, the author must make certain assumptions regarding the type of schema or ‘common knowledge’ available to readers and use them to improve the communicative ability of his writing.
Traditionally, whenever characters/1st person narrator/author want to introduce new information, they will need to use an indefinite article such as ‘a’. For example, in the extract, Screwtape mentions (for the first time) ‘a great human philosopher’ (line 53) into the letter-exchange. As the story continues, characters may make references to things and events that have already been mentioned in the past and thus refer to them using the definite article ‘the’ which is an indicator of given information.
The extract, which is taken from the 28th chapter of the series, is actually a few chapters close to the end of the story and features a small summary of some of the things that Wormwood has tried. In lines 9-17, he refers to ‘the worldly friends’ that Wormwood has tried to introduce to his patients, ‘the girl’ (line 14) whom the patient has fallen in love with and ‘the various methods’ Wormwood has used to corrupt the patient’s spiritual life.
All these refer to events and entities in earlier chapters of the book. It is possible that even events and entities that have not been mentioned earlier receive definite reference because the author believes it to be ‘general knowledge’ for readers or he is deliberately positioning readers in a position called ‘in medias res’ (or already ‘in the know’ (Short, 1996) – a technique which is used to further intensify the readers closeness to the events of the story.
Take for instance, the references made by Screwtape regarding the characteristics that are being referred to as known characteristics of human mid-life crisis: ‘the long, dull, monotonous years of middle aged prosperity or…adversity’ (line 27), ‘the routine of adversity, the gradual decay of youthful loves and youthful hopes, the quiet despair of ever overcoming chronic temptations…, the drabness which we create in their lives and the inarticulate resentment…’ (lines 27-32). 4 Indicators of character’s thoughts or perceptions The very nature of the extract’s format is indicative of whose thoughts and perceptions we are reading.
However, this also means that everything that is told in the narrative is limited to the perceptions of one character. To this end, the author does give some clues as to the level of factivity of Screwtape’s views. In line 5, Screwtape writes that Wormwood ‘seems singularly obtuse’. While ‘seem’ is not a popularly recognized ‘factive’ verb, its inclusion in this sentences tell us that there is a level of uncertainty. In line 17, Screwtape says with some level of certainty that if the patient died on that night, ‘he will almost certainly be lost’ to them. And ironically, in the end, that is exactly what happened. Deixis One way in which the author may indicate particular or changing viewpoints is by using deictic expressions (i. e. , expressions which are indicative of the positioning of certain objects in relation to a deictic focal point – the speaker) which may come in the form of demonstrative determiners or pronouns (e. g. this and that), deictic adverbs (e. g. here and there), deictic verbs (e. g. come, go, etc. ) and even tense (e. g. now and then)(Short, 1996, pg. 269). There is relatively little use of deictic expressions to indicate changing viewpoints however, there are instances wherein deictic expressions indicate istance of certain objects from the position of the speaker. Consider lines 20-21 wherein Screwtape writes, “They, of course, do tend to regard death as the prime evil and survival as the greatest good. ” The use of the pronoun ‘they’ indicates Screwtape’s attitude and perception towards humans – that they are deictically remote from his ‘physical position’ and ‘psychological position’ (because they are not part of the conversation and do not share the same perception regarding death). However, this sentence may make readers feel a distinct sense that they are ‘eaves-dropping’.
Furthermore, the author is talking about the readers (us), through the character/narrator in the third person – a round-about strategy that C. S. Lewis employs extensively for the purpose of teaching readers. Another type of deixis which may be found in the extract is the use of ‘social’ deixis which refers to the use of different naming terms that indicate differences or similarities in social status and standing. Just as in every chapter of the book, Screwtape insists in using the greeting ‘My Dear Wormwood’ and the closing remark ‘Your affectionate uncle’ which tells of the close relationship between the two demons.
While he is superior in rank and does reserve the right to strongly criticize Wormwood, he seems to be doing so as a mentor to a beloved student – an uncle to a nephew. That is, if familial love is even possible between demons. 6 The sequencing and organization of actions and events In novels, the way in which events are sequenced and portrayed is a means through which we can see the impressions and viewpoint of a particular character. In fact, this way of psychologically sequencing events is often used to present the perceptions of the I-narrator/character during the time of the events.
The extract does not attempt to recreate any moments but seems to either be recalling past events or giving the viewpoint of someone who sees the human life from a higher vantage point – allowing him to see a bigger picture. He cannot see the entire picture since he has neither hold nor distinct knowledge of the future. In conclusion to this segment, let us move from analyzing viewpoint simply from the point of view of spatial-temporal viewpoint onto examining viewpoint in terms of ‘ideology’ or ‘world-view’ – the generalized mind-set our outlook that a person, often a group representative, on the world. Ideological viewpoint In a way, there is no better, simpler or more logical way to be able to see simple complexity of C. S. Lewis’ use and manipulation of viewpoint in The Screwtape Letters than to analyze it from an ideological standpoint. It is interesting all in itself to find a human attempting to realistically enlighten readers about the truth behind human life from the point of view of a demon especially when that human is an unabashed and staunch follower of the Christian faith and makes no concessions regarding his own ‘ideological point of view’.
Screwtape, in being a demon, obviously sees the world differently than humans or the good/God side. Human life is important to him only so far as it gives ‘his side’ the opportunity to secure yet another soul for the fires of hell. Also, being a higher-ranked demon with more experience on the field, Screwtape’s ideological point of view is different from that of Wormwood in that he has the benefit of resources and information that his inexperienced, first-time tempter nephew would not have access to. Thus, as was noted in the extract, he is not excited about the same things Wormwood is excited about – e. . the war, death, etc. and he is rather forthright with the evaluations, judgments and advice he passes onto his nephew. However, Screwtape does have the propensity towards describing the Enemy’s position in quasi-fashion. As a demon, he is supposed to be in opposition to the Enemy however whenever he describes the Enemy, he becomes a puppet for the author to speak of the truth thus sounding like a completely different person at times. It is ironic because Screwtape himself does not agree with all the things that he says. For example in the last two chapters of the etter (lines 40 – 65), he describes how the Enemy protects humans from the full brunt of demonic temptation by exercising His sovereign power over time and even them and his plan for humans in heaven. In his own demonic way, he sings praises to the work of the Enemy. D. Evaluations regarding literary analysis On the whole, it would seem that I have been able to support my initial interpretation regarding this piece of text. I have been able to describe the viewpoint of my extract from a macro and micro view as well as have found instances of most, if not all, of the linguistic indicators of viewpoint.
However, there are limitations that I foresee both in my attempt and the practice and process of literary and stylistic analysis in general. First of all, for the purpose of manageability, I could not carry out an extensive analysis on my chosen piece of text. I was restricted to the analysis of an extract. In addition, I had to choose to concentrate on only one aspect of the text which means that I could not take into account other aspects of the text that may have given me a more rounded interpretation of the text.
There is a great possibility that my objectivity in analyzing the text has been compromised from the very beginning since I began with an initial interpretation regarding the text. Furthermore, my personal schemata regarding the subject matter affects the way that I interpret texts and therefore the output of my literary criticism and analysis; making it almost impossible to arrive at a completely unbiased and objective analysis. Being a Christian myself, I share the same ‘ideological viewpoint’ as C. S. Lewis and interpreted the text with the same assumption.
This is not to say that my beliefs are actually on the same page as the author’s and truthfully, there is no way of knowing. This means that certain aspects of the text that appears outstanding to me may only be significant for me personally. Finally, an important thing to note is that stylistic analysis is in not a ‘static’ output but may be subject to change in relation to the availability and status of resources available to analysts at any given time. As Short admits, ‘no analysis is entirely objective it he sense that it is true for all time. ’ With new forms of analysis come new findings and new or modified interpretations (1996, pg. 58). E. Conclusions on literary analysis While some may argue that the systematic way in which literary analysis studies literary texts may hinder analysts from simply partaking of the joy of reading, this has certainly not been the case for me. The Screwtape Letters has always been one of my favourite books of all times. After having analyzed one chapter, specifically with point of view as a theme of analysis, I now have a renewed sense of respect and admiration for the narrative skill of its creator and with the complexity of the creation itself.
Overall, I believe that I have done my best to attempt to systematically and objectively analyze the text and have managed to come to some conclusions that are both expected and unexpected. And while I am sure that there are certainly some aspects I have missed out on or even overworked, I am quite satisfied with my attempt and hope to continue putting the practices of literary analysis to practice to enhance and deepen my understanding of other literary works of interest. References Cook, G. (1994).
Discourse and Literature: The Interplay of Form and Mind, Oxford, Oxford University Press. Lewis, C. S. (1942). Chapter 28 The Screwtape Letters. C. S. Lewis Pte. Ltd. Semino, E. (2006). Reading C: Cognitive poetics. Chapter 1 Literature and creativity in English in Goodman, S. and O’Halloran, K. (eds) The art of English: literary creativity. Palgrave Macmillan/The Open University, pg. 37 – 40 Short,M. (1996). Chapter 9 Fictional prose and point of view. Exploring the Language of Poems, Prose and Plays, London: Longman. pg. 255 – 279 Short,M. (1996).
Chapter 12 Fictional prose and point of view. Exploring the Language of Poems, Prose and Plays, London: Longman. pg. 354 – 358 Short, M. (2005). Topic 8 – Discourse structure and point of view. Ling 131 Language & Style is a Stylistics course. Retrieved on December 2008. Retrieved from: http://www. lancs. ac. uk/fass/projects/stylistics/topic8/begin8. htm ———————– Addresser 1 (C. S. Lewis) MESSAGE Addressee 1 (Reader) Addresser 2 (Screwtape: narrator) MESSAGE Addressee 2 (Narratee) Addresser 3 (Screwtape: character) MESSAGE Addressee 3 (Wormwood: character)
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