Book Review: The Screwtape Letters

This month I’m taking part in RainbowCatcher’s Infertility Bloggers Book Club (technically I’m not infertile, but I think going through fertility treatment and a miscarriage qualifies me). The idea is simple: each month we read at least one book we’ve never read before, then post a review of it on a set day. For October I’ve chosen to read C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, an epistolary novel set during the Second World War.

Cover of The Illustrated Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis

The book takes the form of a series of letters between Screwtape, a senior devil in Hell, and his nephew Wormwood. Wormwood’s job is to tempt and corrupt a man known only as “the patient”, but he is inexperienced and fairly incompetent. Most of Screwtape’s letters follow the same pattern: he starts by chastising Wormwood for his mistakes, during which the reader learns a little about what has happened in the patient’s life, and then he offers Wormwood guidance and advice – most of which Wormwood seems to ignore.

Very few details are given about the patient: we know that he lives in England, works in an office and is unmarried, but little else. He is definitely an ‘everyman’ character, and the novel is heavily didactic. I don’t think Lewis’ aim is to convince us that we each have a personal devil doing their utmost to make us do evil, but rather to highlight the traps that humans – especially Christians – can fall into while believing ourselves to be good. As Wikipedia points out, there is a stark contract between Wormwood, who wants to tempt the patient into extreme wickedness and probably corresponds to most people’s idea of a demon, and Screwtape, the more experienced devil, who aims to confuse and corrupt in more subtle ways and says that “the safest path to hell is the gradual one”. (Why, yes, I do tell off my students for referencing Wikipedia.)

In retrospect, I should probably have chosen some lighter reading while coming to terms with pregnancy loss. I wanted to seriously consider each of Lewis’ points and take them on board, but often found myself unable to concentrate. This is a book I will probably read again when life is less of a struggle.