The Screwtape Letters

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Themes and Colors
Proving Christianity True by Exploring Evil Theme Icon
Religion and Reason Theme Icon
Love Theme Icon
Freedom, Will, and Sin Theme Icon
Fashion, Progress, and Change Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Screwtape Letters, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Love Theme Icon

Try as he might, Screwtape cannot understand love. As a result, Screwtape cannot understand why God created mankind, why he wants humans to be good, or why he wants to reward them in Heaven for their virtue. Screwtape’s reasoning is impeccable, but his total incomprehension of love means that he’ll never be a Christian. By exploring Screwtape’s misunderstanding of this basic human (and divine) idea, Lewis constructs his own theory of what humans’ love, both for God and for other humans, should be.

Screwtape tries to define love by contrasting it with the devil’s belief in “realism.” The only purpose of life, he insists, is to conquer other forms of life, taking things for oneself so that other beings can’t have them. The technical term for this way of looking at the world is as a “zero-sum game”—any advantage earned by one person is seen as a lost opportunity for food, shelter, or pleasure for another person. Screwtape believes that love is the opposite of “realism,” that love is the belief that two beings can share the same needs, and that they can work together to satisfy these needs. This technical explanation of love may well define love for Screwtape, but it cannot convey love, in the same sense that looking at sheet music can’t convey the sense of music. (It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Screwtape admits that he cannot understand music, either.) In any event, Wormwood reports Screwtape to the authorities because Screwtape dares to suggest that God loves humanity—and this puts an end to Screwtape’s thinking about love for some time.

In the second half of The Screwtape Letters, Screwtape continues his discussion of love with Wormwood, without ever admitting the “heretical” idea that God loves humanity. At the same time that Screwtape criticizes humans’ love for one another, Lewis implicitly asks questions about love, such as, “How should people love?” and “Is it possible to love too much or too little?”

In order to answer his own questions, Lewis, writing in the guise of Screwtape, investigates “modern love.” Modern lovers, Screwtape notes, are too eager to fall in love with others, and wrongly confuse love with lust. Most absurdly, they believe that love is the only reason to marry someone. While Screwtape’s thoughts on love can hardly be trusted, his position is consistent with the beliefs Lewis subscribes to elsewhere in The Screwtape Letters. Lewis maintains that modern human beings are too “extreme” in their thinking and their behaviors. Love, he acknowledges, can often be extreme or excessive. There are many couples who avoid talking about their problems and their feelings, simply because they are in love. The result is that couples’ problems with one another resurface years later, causing resentment and arguments. At the simplest level, Lewis believes, these kinds of modern behaviors are morally wrong because they encourage people to love imperfect things, such as people, more than they love God, the source of all perfection.

In the end, even though the devils in The Screwtape Letters cannot understand love, Lewis spells out his own theory of love. Lewis maintains that love is of vital, indeed, self-evident importance for human civilization, but also that it can’t replace other human virtues. When speaking about the love between human beings, Lewis wants people to moderate their love with other emotions and virtues: respect, loyalty, etc. The only time when love should be extreme is when a human loves God.

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Love Quotes in The Screwtape Letters

Below you will find the important quotes in The Screwtape Letters related to the theme of Love.
Letter II Quotes

He has a curious fantasy of making all these disgusting little human vermin into what He calls His "free" lovers and servants—"sons" is the word He uses, with His inveterate love of degrading the whole spiritual world by unnatural liaisons with the two-legged animals. Desiring their freedom, He therefore refuses to carry them, by their mere affections and habits, to any of the goals which He sets before them: He leaves them to "do it on their own". And there lies our opportunity. But also, remember, there lies our danger. If once they get through this initial dryness successfully, they become much less dependent on emotion and therefore much harder to tempt.

Related Characters: Screwtape (speaker), Wormwood , God
Page Number: 7
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Screwtape discusses God's "plan." Although he phrases his analysis negatively, it's clear from the reader's perspective that Lewis himself thinks of God positively—the more a devil is supposed to hate something, the more we the readers are supposed to like it.

Screwtape chooses to focus on the principle of free will here. Humans are born in a state of uncertainty: they have the option to embrace God or embrace evil. On one hand, devils have a great advantage over humans: because of their state of limbo, humans can easily be drawn toward the path of evil. But on the other hand, the fact that humans have free will means that when they do choose to embrace God, God is more pleased with the achievement, and offers greater love as a reward.


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Letter VIII Quotes

He really does want to fill the universe with a lot of loathsome little replicas of Himself—creatures, whose life, on its miniature scale, will be qualitatively like His own, not because He has absorbed them but because their wills freely conform to His. We want cattle who can finally become food; He wants servants who can finally become sons. We want to suck in, He wants to give out. We are empty and would be filled; He is full and flows over. Our war aim is a world in which Our Father Below has drawn all other beings into himself: the Enemy wants a world full of beings united to Him but still distinct.

Related Characters: Screwtape (speaker), Wormwood , God , Satan
Page Number: 38
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Screwtape paints a picture of the universe as God wants it, and as the Devil wants it. Screwtape describes God's world as loathsome and insufferable (although in rather poetic language), though from the reader's perspective it's perfectly clear that God's world is the desirable one, and the Devil's world the loathsome one. As Screwtape says, God gives human beings free will so that they can be "separate" and yet "united" with God: a human who is born in a state of uncertainty and yet chooses to worship God has fulfilled God's plan for him.

In the passage, Lewis cleverly refutes some of the most common objections to the Christian worldview. It's been suggested that Christianity is unimaginative and tyrannical, since it demands that all humans join together in slavish worship of God. Yet Lewis argues that the opposite is true: the Devil wants to pull all human beings to Hell (and, Lewis suggests, eat them), while God wants humans to worship him, but he doesn't want to dominate his own creations. Rather, he gives human beings the gift of free will, so that they'll always be separate and "free" from his control. In choosing God, they actually become more free and more personally fulfilled.

Letter XVI Quotes

At the other church we have Fr. Spike. The humans are often puzzled to understand the range of his opinions—why he is one day almost a Communist and the next not far from some kind of theocratic Fascism—one day a scholastic, and the next prepared to deny human reason altogether—one day immersed in politics, and, the day after, declaring that all states of us world are equally "under judgment". We, of course, see the connecting link, which is Hatred.

Related Characters: Screwtape (speaker), Wormwood
Page Number: 83
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, Lewis offers a dark critique of the modern state of the church. Some modern preachers, Lewis suggests, embrace a startling array of doctrines, and use Christianity essentially as a tool to justify them. The preacher Screwtape mentions here, Friar Spike, functions as a caricature of the clergy as a whole: always moving back and forth between new ideas.

That a friar could move between so many new ideas suggests that not even the clergy is immune to the trend of fashion, progress, and change. Priests, no less than other people, will often abandon an idea they sense to be true, simply because they're tired of it. Moreover, Friar Pike's behavior illustrates another important respect in which Christianity can go wrong: Christianity can be used to persecute different kinds of people. Christianity can be twisted to justify anti-Semitism, anti-elitism, anti-imperialism, etc.—but in focusing so exclusively on the hatred of specific groups of people, Screwtape points out, preachers turn away from the most basic tenets of Christianity: that humans should love God.

Letter XVIII Quotes

The whole philosophy of Hell rests on recognition of the axiom that one thing is not another thing, and, specially, that one self is not another self. My good is my good and your good is yours. What one gains another loses.

Related Characters: Screwtape (speaker), Wormwood
Page Number: 94
Explanation and Analysis:

In the simplest possible terms, Screwtape sketches out the philosophy of hell. Screwtape argues that life is a "zero-sum game"; in other words, no two people can ever "share" a goo—-on the contrary, every time one person enjoys something, he's depriving some other person of happiness.

Although Screwtape's explanation might seem logical, it neglects one of the most basic parts of the human experience: love, cooperation, and unity. All humans instinctively know that Screwtape is wrong: there are many situations in which one person's good is also another person's. When a mother gives a present to her child, the child's happiness becomes her own happiness. The whole of human existence, Screwtape implies, rests on escaping the philosophy of Hell and embracing the philosophy that people can find happiness by helping one another.

Letter XIX Quotes

I have been thinking very hard about the question in your last letter. If, as I have clearly shown, all selves are by their very nature in competition, and therefore the Enemy's idea of Love is a contradiction in terms, what becomes of my reiterated warning that He really loves the human vermin and really desires their freedom and continued existence? I hope, my dear boy, you have not shown my letters to anyone. Not that it matters of course. Anyone would see that the appearance of heresy into which I have fallen is purely accidental.

Related Characters: Screwtape (speaker), Wormwood , God
Page Number: 99
Explanation and Analysis:

Screwtape has previously told Wormwood that 1) God loves humans, and 2) love is an impossible idea. As Wormwood rightly points out, 1) and 2) can't both be true—Screwtape has contradicted himself. Here, Screwtape tries to backpedal in order to avoid saying something contradictory to the philosophy of Hell—something which, we're invited to believe, could get Screwtape punished and eaten alive. Screwtape seems genuinely nervous that Wormwood will reveal Screwtape's heresies to other devils. (It's suggested that the devils steadfastly deny the existence of love, and assume that God has some other, more selfish motive for creating and helping humans.)

From the reader's perspective, however, Screwtape's contradiction is proof that Christianity and only Christianity—understood in the simple sense as the doctrine that there is a God, who loves us and wants us to be happy—is the truth. Any doctrine that argues that competition and hatred are the bases for all life will eventually collapse on itself.

You complain that my last letter does not make it clear whether I regard being in love as a desirable state for a human or not. But really, Wormwood, that is the sort of question one expects them to ask! Leave them to discuss whether "Love", or patriotism, or celibacy, or candles on altars, or teetotalism, or education, are "good" or "bad". Can't you see there's no answer? Nothing matters at all except the tendency of a given state of mind, in given circumstances, to move a particular patient at particular moment nearer to the Enemy or nearer to us. Thus it would be quite a good thing to make the patient decide that "love" is "good" or "bad".

Related Characters: Screwtape (speaker), Wormwood , The patient
Page Number: 101
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, Screwtape continues to backpedal regarding his philosophy of love. Screwtape has previously claimed that God loves humanity, while also arguing that love is loathsome or even impossible. While he's managed to weasel his way out of appearing to contradict himself, Wormwood appears to be trying to get Screwtape to contradict himself again, asking Screwtape, point-blank, if love is good or bad.

Screwtape is forced to answer that love is neither good nor bad. While Screwtape's answer might seem like more backpedaling, there's a grain of truth in it. Screwtape has already made it clear that love for God is the only kind of love that should be unconditional. Other kinds of love—indeed, other kinds of human behavior—may be either good or bad. To argue that celibacy or patriotism are always good or bad would be to make a judgment in a vacuum, and as Screwtape argues, vacuums don't exist in life. Every virtue, belief, or action serves in its time and place to move a human soul either towards or away from God.

Letter XXII Quotes

I have looked up this girl's dossier and am horrified at what I find. Not only a Christian but such a Christian—a vile, sneaking, simpering, demure, monosyllabic, mouse-like, watery, insignificant, virginal, bread-and-butter miss. The little brute. She makes me vomit.

Related Characters: Screwtape (speaker), Wormwood , The patient
Page Number: 117
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage is a good example of how Lewis uses humor, contradiction, and the principle of reductio ad absurdum to defend Christianity. From the perspective of Screwtape, the patient's new lover is revolting: she's sweet, virtuous, and lovable; everything a devil would hate. From the reader's perspective, however, the patient's lover is obviously a wonderful person whom the patient is lucky to have met. The fact that Screwtape refers to this woman as a "brute" is a clear sign that we're not meant to take any of his judgements seriously: his inability to feel the basic human emotion of love renders him incapable of seeing the beauty in the patient's relationship with his new lover.

Letter XXVIII Quotes

The truth is that the Enemy, having oddly destined these mere animals to life in His own eternal world, has guarded them pretty effectively from the danger of feeling at home anywhere else. That is why we must often wish long life to our patients; seventy years is not a day too much for the difficult task of unravelling their souls from Heaven and building up a firm attachment to the earth. While they are young we find them always shooting off at a tangent.

Related Characters: Screwtape (speaker), Wormwood , The patient
Page Number: 155-156
Explanation and Analysis:

Screwtape makes the argument that older, more confident people are easier to corrupt than younger, more innocent people. At a young age, human beings feel a natural desire to be close to God in Heaven—in other words, they have an easier time grasping the basic moral truths of the world, and they feel a sense of discomfort on Earth, a longing for something more. As humans grow up, however, they become more and more attached to their lives on the Earth, and thus more narrow-minded and worldly.

Lewis steers his readers toward the strange idea that life isn't all that good for human beings. The longer humans spend on the Earth, the easier it becomes for devils to corrupt them to Satan's point of view. The goal of one's life on Earth is to increase one's love for God by living a happy, moral life. Most of the usual benefits of having a long life—making money, becoming famous, etc.—are just distractions from the salvation of the soul, the only thing that ultimately matters to a human being.

Letter XXXI Quotes

Rest assured, my love for you and your love for me are as like as two peas. I have always desired you, as you (pitiful fool) desired me. The difference is that I am the stronger. I think they will give you to me now; or a bit of you. Love you? Why, yes. As dainty a morsel as ever I grew fat on. You have let a soul slip through your fingers.

Related Characters: Screwtape (speaker), Wormwood , The patient
Page Number: 171
Explanation and Analysis:

Throughout the book, we've been wondering whether Screwtape really cares about Wormwood at all. We're told again and again that devils believe in practicalities and selfishness and nothing else, and yet we've also been given some evidence that Screwtape genuinely wants to help Wormwood succeed. Thus, it's not until the finale of the book that it becomes clear that Screwtape despises Wormwood, as all devils despise all other deviles. Like all the citizens of Hell, Screwtape believes in the doctrine of strength and the "zero-sum game"—his victory is someone else's defeat, without exception. Thus, when Wormwood fails to corrupt the patient, Screwtape is overjoyed: he gets to punish the unfortunate Wormwood by eating him and absorbing him into himself.

If only we could find out what He is really up to! Alas, alas, that knowledge, in itself so hateful and mawkish a thing, should yet be necessary for Power! Sometimes I am almost in despair. All that sustains me is the conviction that our Realism, our rejection (in the face of all temptations) of all silly nonsense and claptrap, must win in the end.

Related Characters: Screwtape (speaker), Wormwood , God
Page Number: 175
Explanation and Analysis:

At various points in the book, Screwtape has shown faint signs of believing in Christianity: for example, he can't reconcile the notion that God loves humanity with the notion that love is loathsome or impossible. Screwtape is a perfectly logical creature, meaning that he should be able to see that Christianity is the only logical doctrine. The reason why Screwtape can never be a Christian, however, is that he's incapable of understanding love. As he sees it, the universe is all about competition: one person's victory is always another person's defeat.

In this quotation, Screwtape seems to long for some understanding of God—suggesting, perhaps, that even Devils aspire to go to Heaven. But of course, Screwtape can never really embrace God, because he clings to his belief that Realism--the belief that the world is a competition, with winners and losers--is the truth.

Interestingly, Lewis never really tries to disprove Screwtape's Realism. One could say that Realism is a premise of Screwtape's argument, used to prove other points, but impossible to prove or disprove in and of itself. By the same token, it's impossible to prove that love exists—and yet if you believe in the premise of love (as almost all human beings do, Lewis hopes), then Christianity follows as the logical next step.