The Screwtape Letters


C. S. Lewis

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The Screwtape Letters: Letter III Summary & Analysis

Screwtape references information Wormwood has given him about the patient’s mother. He advises Wormwood to talk to Glubose, a “colleague” whose job is tempting the patient’s mother. Wormwood and Glubose must conspire to create small annoyances between the patient and his mother.
In spite of the fantastical premise of the book, it also includes passages like this one, which show Lewis’s insights on human psychology. Just as much joy and pleasure begins with the mother-child relationship, much human misery originates here as well.
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Screwtape lists methods for creating a rift between the patient and his mother. The first method is to keep the patient thinking about “inner life.” In this way, the patient will only think about the most abstract truths, completely neglecting to think about himself in all his obvious weaknesses and idiosyncrasies. The patient must think he is examining himself without actually discovering the facts about himself that are obvious to everyone who knows him.
The real enemy here, one might say, is the notion of “inner” life as distinct from “life.” At least since the time of Rene Descartes, the 17th century French philosopher who famously declared, “I think, therefore I am,” Western society has tended to divide the individual from his surroundings—it’s as if there’s a tiny “man” in the patient’s head, staring out at the world around him. Lewis’s criticism of this Cartesian notion is that it neglects an obvious fact: human experience doesn’t just consist of “inner life,” of secret thoughts and emotions—it also consists of interactions, actions, etc. To focus excessively on “inner life” is thus to neglect an important part of the human experience.
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Screwtape’s second method for creating a rift between the patient and his mother is to render the patient’s prayers for his mother vague and dull. Ideally, the patient should pray for his mother’s soul but never for her concrete problems, such as her rheumatism. The result of this is that the patient will always be thinking about his mother’s sins and moral weaknesses, and thus, he will be reminded of the small annoyances his mother causes him. Screwtape notes that he has some patients of his own who can pray for their children’s souls and then beat their children in the same night.
Lewis suggests that Christians wrongly think of Christianity in the vaguest and most distant terms. Thus, they pray for others’ souls, but never their health or nourishment. The reason this is the case, perhaps, is that the Western world increasingly refuses to believe that Christianity has anything to do with the physical, concrete world.
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Screwtape’s third method is to draw the patient’s attention to behaviors of his mother that he finds annoying. His fourth method is to encourage the patient and his mother to speak in a blunt or angry tone of voice, even when the content of their speech is normal. In this way, the two “fools” will come to take offense at everything the other says, but also believe that their own statements are completely inoffensive.
Lewis is an insightful psychologist—we all know the phenomenon he’s talking about here, in which one person is intentionally rude to the other, but takes offense when the other responds in a similar tone of voice. There is something disturbing in the suggestion that sin and corruption can begin with something as simple—and ubiquitous—as this situation.
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Screwtape asks Wormwood if the patient’s mother is angry or jealous that the patient has adopted Christianity without his mother’s help. He encourages Wormwood to remember the “elder brother” in the Enemy’s story.
The “elder brother” to which Screwtape refers is the older, more respectful brother of the famous prodigal son parable—where the younger sibling sins and refuses to respect his parents, but is nonetheless welcomed back into his father’s house with open arms. In the story, the prodigal son’s elder brother is irritated that his father would treat his disobedient sibling more kindly than himself. It is this irritation that Screwtape wants Wormwood to produce in the patient’s mother—she must feel neglected, as if her love, respect, and teaching for the patient have all been for nothing.
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