The Screwtape Letters

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The Screwtape Letters Letter XVII Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Screwtape has received a letter from Wormwood about the uselessness of gluttony in tempting humans. Screwtape sternly explains that Wormwood is clearly ignorant of history. Wormwood should talk to Glubose about the patient’s mother, who is a glutton for delicacy. It is gluttony in this form, not gluttony of excess, that is most useful for devils. The quantity demanded makes no difference to measures of gluttony—what is important, Screwtape maintains, is the amount of fussiness, impatience, and self-concern it produces. Thus, the patient’s mother always insists on receiving the smallest, most delicate portions of food and drink. Paradoxically, her stomach dominates her entire life, even though she thinks she is being healthy and frugal.
Once again, Lewis uses a counterintuitive logical maneuver to show that two seemingly opposite actions—eating too much and eating too little—are guilty of the same sin: worrying excessively about the quantity of one’s food. Lewis is fond of this kind of rhetorical trick, in part because it reflects his studies of Aristotle and the doctrine of the mean. Lewis would probably have some harsh words for the current generation of American gourmands and gourmets.
Themes
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Screwtape explains the mindset of the patient’s mother. She believes in the principle of “all I want.” She thinks that her food should be prepared in the perfect way, and often thinks about the “past,” when it was supposedly easier to get the kind of food she wants. In earlier years, the patient’s mother thought that she was thinking about food too much—but at these moments, Glubose convinced her that she was only “looking out” for her child, the patient.
It’s all too easy, Lewis shows, for a human to sin while deluding herself into believing that she is behaving morally. Thus, the patient’s mother sins in gluttony even as she believes that she’s being a good, loving parent.
Themes
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Screwtape encourages Wormwood to use the patient’s gluttony against him. Because he is a man, he is more likely to indulge in the traditional gluttony of excess. Over time, Wormwood can encourage him to indulge in his gluttony, to the point where any deviations in his usual meals and drinks will make him angry and irritable, opening him up to weaknesses in his charity and kindness.
In many ways, gluttony is the least familiar of the “seven deadly sins” of Christianity. (The others are greed, lust, pride, wrath, sloth, and envy.) While many people believe that they’re entitled to care about how their food is prepared, Lewis believes that this care too easily becomes excessive and fussy, the opposite of what God wants for humans.
Themes
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The main use of gluttony as excess, Screwtape concludes, is that it weakens chastity. If the patient tries to repair his chastity, Wormwood should convince him to take up exercise rather than revising his diet. It is a great lie, Screwtape notes, that exercise can curb lust at all—clearly, sailors and soldiers disprove this theory.
Here, Lewis is arguably at his most anachronistic. There doesn’t seem to be anything inherently lustful about eating food. (It could be argued that drinking too much alcohol leads to lust, but this is hardly an indictment of gluttony itself.) Lewis sounds curiously medieval in his thinking, as if he were authoring an early medical text.
Themes
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Freedom, Will, and Sin Theme Icon
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