The Screwtape Letters


C. S. Lewis

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The Screwtape Letters Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on C. S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of C. S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis was born and raised in Ireland. His father was a Welsh solicitor and his mother was the daughter of an Anglican priest—Lewis’s early exposure to Christianity would influence his writing and thinking for the rest of his life. As a child and teenager, Lewis was fascinated by fantasy writing. He excelled at Latin and Greek in school, and won a prestigious scholarship to Oxford University. While still an undergraduate, Lewis fought in World War I, a traumatic experience that made him an atheist throughout his twenties. Lewis ultimately graduated Oxford with a “triple first” in English, Classics, and Philosophy, an extremely prestigious achievement both then and now. From the 1920s to the 1950s, Lewis worked as a professor at Oxford’s Magdalen College, teaching medieval and classical studies. In the late 1920s, when Lewis was in his early thirties, he converted to the Anglican Church, based on his studies of classical Christian texts and his friendship with such Christian thinkers as George Macdonald. For the remainder of his life, Lewis was a vocal proponent of Christian values, authoring such famous Christian texts as Mere Christianity, a serious of short lectures on Christian values and the existence of God. Lewis first delivered these lectures via radio broadcast during the Second World War. It was also at this time that he sheltered children from London in his house in the English countryside. The experience of moving from London to the countryside forms the premise of Lewis’s most famous book, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, (1949) the first novel he wrote about the fantastical world of Narnia. In the next five years, Lewis authored six other books about Narnia, collectively known as the Chronicles of Narnia. He also wrote the popular Space Trilogy (1938-1945). Although his fiction writing made Lewis wealthy in his later years, he continued to teach medieval and Renaissance literature at Oxford and later Cambridge University. The Chronicles of Narnia, along with Lewis’s writings on Christianity, remain enormously popular more than half a century after his death.
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Historical Context of The Screwtape Letters

While Screwtape repeatedly tells Wormwood to avoid talking about specific historical events of any kind, it is clear that the patient is living in England during World War II. In this era of European history, Germany fell under the control of the Fascist dictator Adolph Hitler, who used his charisma and fiery rhetoric to persecute the Jewish race and rebuild the German military. From 1939 to 1945, Germany under Hitler conducted a brutal war with England, France, and, after 1940, Russia. In the infamous “air raids,” German planes bombed hundreds of English cities, including London, causing enormous death and destruction. It is an air raid of this kind that ultimately kills the patient. While Lewis was too old to fight in World War II, he sheltered dozens of children from London in his home in the English countryside, and broadcast patriotic, Christian speeches to teach and entertain British soldiers. The Screwtape Letters also alludes to many of the ideological milestones of the early 20th century, including the rise of the doctrines of Darwinism and communism. The theories of Charles Darwin posited that all life on earth evolves by adapting to environmental changes. Karl Marx, who was inspired in part by Darwin’s thinking, proposed that all economic systems ultimately undermine themselves by empowering workers and weakening those who control the means of production. The end result of this process is communism, an economic system in which the workers themselves control the means of production. From Lewis’s perspective, the common trait of both of these ideologies is their emphasis on science and progress as inherent goods—Lewis takes issue with this assumption many times in his novel.

Other Books Related to The Screwtape Letters

The Screwtape Letters is constructed as a collection of letters from one devil to another, concerning the corruption of a human soul. Simply by writing about Christian themes from the perspective of a devil, Lewis intentionally alludes to John Milton’s 1667 epic poem Paradise Lost, often regarded as one of the greatest works in the English language. Lewis was highly familiar with Milton’s poetry, and indeed, authored one of the definitive critical studies of Paradise Lost. While many critics continue to believe that Milton’s poem is a secret glorification of Satan, Lewis took the critical view that Milton was upholding Christian doctrine, despite seeming to sympathize with the Devil. The Screwtape Letters, then, can be read as a mirroring of Milton’s project, or rather, what Lewis takes Milton’s project to be: an explication of Christian morality from the perspective of the evil, not the good. It’s also important to note that Lewis constructs his book as a dialogue (albeit one in which we only ever hear half of what’s said!) between two characters about moral issues. In this sense, Lewis’s book falls into a long tradition of Christian theological works that use the methods of fiction—specific characters and events—as a pretext to talk about weighty philosophical issues, such as free will, good, and evil. Other examples of this approach can be found in john Bunyan’s 1678 novel The Pilgrim’s Progress (of which Lewis wrote a comic, updated version, The Pilgrim’s Regress) and the philosophical dialogues of Saint Anselm of Canterbury.
Key Facts about The Screwtape Letters
  • Full Title:The Screwtape Letters
  • Where Written:Oxford, UK
  • When Published:1942
  • Literary Period:The fantasy “boom” of World War II
  • Genre: Moral dialogue, allegory, fantasy, epistolary novel
  • Setting:Hell
  • Climax:the patient’s death
  • Antagonist:In one sense, the “antagonist” in the book is God, whom Screwtape calls “the Enemy.” From the perspective of the reader (who presumably sympathizes with good, not evil), the antagonists are Satan, Screwtape, and Wormwood, the devils who try to corrupt the patient’s soul.
  • Point of View:First person limited—the novel is written as a series of 31 letters.

Extra Credit for The Screwtape Letters

The perfect friendship: C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia is arguably the most famous series of fantasy novels written in the 20th century. Its only real rival for such a title would be J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Amazingly, Lewis and Tolkien were good friends for many years. It’s not hard to see why: both were pious Christians, both taught literature at Oxford for decades, both fought in World War I, and both had their books made into highly successful movies… decades after they died.

A sad day in history: On the day C.S. Lewis died, his death attracted barely any international attention, despite the fact that his books were world-famous at the time. The reason? An even more famous and beloved figure died on that day: John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated during a visit to Dallas, Texas.