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Literature / The Screwtape Letters

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From One Devil To Another
These creatures are always accusing one another of wanting "to eat the cake and have it"; but thanks to our labours they are more often in the predicament of paying for the cake and not eating it.

An Epistolary Novel by C. S. Lewis in which a more experienced devil named Screwtape writes a series of letters to a younger devil named Wormwood on how to successfully tempt a man, referred to only as "The Patient". Intending the book as a fairly humorous work, Lewis's goals included both reflections on the nature of evil and an effort to create a different portrayal of the Devil than the sort normally seen in pop culture. Screwtape has practically No Sense of Humor himself, and comes across as a sort of cranky cosmic killjoy. At one point, this devil even goes so far as to complain that the music in Heaven is getting on his nerves — even though he can't hear it, the very thought that they're making music at all hours bothers him (he'd prefer some nice ugly noise instead). Heaven is a nonstop hootenanny "where all that is not silence is music". Screwy's not the sort of devil who would be very much fun at a party, which is pretty much the point of the book.

In the introduction, Professor Lewis comments that while looking through the modern world to find an appropriate symbol of evil, he felt that Hell should have a bureaucracy, one combining the worst elements of a police state and a crooked, greedy, money-hemorrhaging business, to make it better resemble some of the most damaging institutions of his time. Screwtape is a member of Hell's vast middle management, at one time listing a long, pretentious title at the end of one of his letters.

C.S. Lewis also wrote a sequel short story, "Screwtape Proposes a Toast" (which is included in many reprints of The Screwtape Letters), presented as a post-banquet speech Screwtape offers to a graduating class of the Tempter's College.

Adaptations of the work include a 2009 audio drama on Family Radio Theatre starring Andy Serkis (Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy) as the voice for Screwtape, a comic book adaptation by Marvel Comics in 1994, and a stage adaptation by Max Mclean. 20th Century Fox has held the film rights to the novel since 1950, but despite previous plans to partner with Walden Media to make a live action film adaptation with a 2008 release date, the project is currently in Development Hell. (It's perhaps worth noting that Lewis himself considered the book inherently unstageable and unfilmable, invoked and once advised a playwright who wanted to adapt the book with a framing device to go ahead and make the framing device into its own play, leaving Screwtape out of it!)

This book provides examples of:

  • Abilene Paradox: Screwtape suggests fostering exactly this sort of disagreement. When everyone argues against what they really want and agrees to something that nobody likes, it's a great way for them all to be selfish and hypocritical about it.
  • Academy of Evil: It's mentioned that Hell has a Training College for young devils, run by a devil named Slubgob. They study such courses as sexual temptation ("a subject of considerable tedium," complains Screwtape) and disguising oneself as an Angel of Light.
  • Affably Evil: Averted. Significant in that most authors would have gone this route, but Lewis is careful to make sure that Screwtape just seems like a pill.
  • Afterlife Welcome: After getting killed, The Patient is greeted by Them (that is, God's good angels).
  • All Take and No Give: Screwtape's final view of Wormwood, though it is standard for every demon in the gloomy, loveless literal Hell in which they live.
    • This is also the most "stylish" way to tempt and capture a soul.
      An ever increasing craving for ever diminishing pleasure is the formula. It is more certain; and it's better style. To get the man's soul and give him nothing in return - that is what really gladdens our Father's heart.
  • And I Must Scream: In "Screwtape Proposes a Toast," we learn that evil religious zealots are punished by being made into blended wine — those who hated each other the most make the best vintages when combined.
  • Answer to Prayers: C. S. Lewis has the eponymous Screwtape suggest to his nephew Wormwood that it was possible for demons to use Insane Troll Logic to convince their "patients" that even answered prayers are proof that there is no God, noting that humans bound in time have great difficulty in conceiving a being without such restrictions.
  • Anti-Advice: On a meta level. The reader is expected to read Screwtape's advice and recognise when their own inner devil is following it.
  • Anachronic Order: The letters are stated in the prologue to be written in this fashion.
  • The Apocalypse Brings Out the Best in People: One of the "dangers" of using War Is Hell to spread vice, according to Screwtape.
  • Appeal to Force: Screwtape states that God and Satan both claim the souls of humanity. God's claim is based off the fact that He created all the humans, while Satan's claim is based on "the right of conquest".
  • Appeal to Obscurity: Lewis does one in the same article where he laments that he couldn’t write the Good Counterpart of this book, alleging that even if he could “write like Traherne” the result would not be believed. This refers to Thomas Traherne, a 17th-century writer whom nobody reads anymore, Lewis thus implying that society is now so corrupt that true quality and virtue is gone if the name of one of history’s best writers is forgotten.
  • Asshole Victim: Invoked. The demons eat souls, so people that were more evil in life taste better in death. Consequently, Screwtape and his ilk want their 'patients' to become truly horrible, even though the safer route is to make a person who is simply not good enough for Heaven.
  • Author Tract: But a damn fun read nonetheless, and even then, Mr. Lewis is just really good at winning you over to his side in general.
  • Bad Boss: Everyone in any position of authority in Hell. Screwtape in particular takes credit for all of Wormwood's successes, blames him for his failures, and indulges in Evil Gloating at the end.
  • Bad Is Good and Good Is Bad:
    • Due to the Perspective Flip, the Devils have a "lowerarchy" ruled by "Our Father Below", regard tempting humans to sin as a job well done, and find anything to do with goodness and love to be insufferable.
    • On the other hand, mediocrity is not appealing to anyone in Hell. Souls that are 'just evil enough' to be damned are bland and tasteless — you need someone with the potential to be a saint to make a truly delectable sinner.
  • Becoming the Mask: Screwtape tells Wormwood that "all mortals tend to turn into the thing they are pretending to be."
  • Being Evil Sucks: Good demonic style means luring a soul into corruption without actually giving anything in return. None of the demons seem particularly happy either, although they will never admit it. Screwtape in particular seems to be a completely miserable old grump who's totally committed to his crappy job.
  • Bittersweet Ending/Downer Ending: Kind of. The Patient is killed in a bomb blast, leaving behind his mother and fiancee, but he does go to heaven. If you have come to sympathize with stupid little Wormwood, though, this ending is not at all a happy one for him.
  • Big Red Devil: Screwtape advises Wormwood to use this image as a ploy to prevent his "patient" from believing in real devils, using the fallacious argument that if "something in red tights" is obviously not real or Too Funny to Be Evil, then Wormwood must not be real either.
  • Boring, but Practical: In "Screwtape Proposes a Toast," Screwtape comments that while tempting souls away with the belief that life is just fine without God may not produce the kinds of tasty cuisine he used to get with truly evil people, it does mean nobody in Hell has to ever worry about starving.
  • Boring Religious Service: According to his letters, a particularly dull sermon is what inspired the novel. Screwtape himself suggests that making the Patient focus on minor annoyances is one way to distract him and keep him from getting anything of value from the Church.
  • Butt-Monkey: Downplayed with Wormwood. On the one hand, he gets zero respect from Screwtape, bumbles just about everything he attempts, can't even make a good Starscream, and fails in the end to make use of his senior's advice. On the other hand, he's not entirely incompetent and comes very close to successfully luring away the Patient more than once. His preoccupation with World War II didn't help.
  • Card-Carrying Villain: The devils' whole job is to corrupt humans into sinning, mostly out of spite for God.
  • Celestial Bureaucracy: Hell has one (the Lowerarchy), but it's not clear if Heaven does or not. Presumably, the nightmare bureaucracy of the Lowerarchy is a hellish parody of freely-given love, respect, and obedience in Heaven.
  • The Chessmaster: Screwtape is a very good one (according to himself anyway), but there's even more talented Chessmasters in the lower levels of Hell (including the Man himself). And quite a few Chessmasters on the other side, too, so that Earth is a single Gambit Pileup.
  • Comically Missing the Point:
    • Screwtape commits any number of examples, most notably with love, which he seems to think is defined as "one person's good being another person's good", and which he is convinced (though he contradicts himself on the matter) does not really exist and instead is only a cover beings have for selfish motives. At one point, he alludes to the other side admitting that if the demons ever came to understand what love is then the war would be over and the demons would re-enter heaven, and says that this confirms that God's throne rests upon the secret, which Hell spends lots of time and resources trying to unravel (that department has been 'on the cusp of a big breakthrough' for millennia)…
    • In the preface to the second edition, Lewis recounts that when the letters were first serialized in a religious periodical, a country clergyman wrote in to cancel his subscription on the grounds that "much of the advice given in these letters seemed to him not only erroneous but positively diabolical."
  • The Comically Serious: Many of the most amusing passages stem from the fact that Screwtape has absolutely no sense of humor. He's particularly enraged that the Patient's girlfriend is the kind of person who would find him funny.
  • The Corrupter: Obviously, there are a lot of devils trying to corrupt humans into sin and evilness. That's the point of the letters; teach Wormwood how to be one of these.
  • Crapsack World: What else could Hell be? Earth leans toward this too thanks to the work of the demons, especially since the Earthly setting is England during World War II. Screwtape does worry at one point that all this misery is a strategy of 'the Enemy'. By allowing Hell's agents to turn Earth into a Crapsack World, 'the Enemy' is tricking them into creating the conditions for virtues of charity, compassion, and courage to emerge from the mortals who endure it. But it's against Hell's nature to refrain from making the mortals miserable...
  • A Deadly Affair: This trope is discussed by Screwtape, as he gives Wormwood advice about how to incite a type of human lust that can lead to adulteries that, in his own words, end, "if all goes well, in murders and suicides".
  • Deadpan Snarker: Screwtape doesn't usually crack jokes, but he does occasionally engage in sarcasm.
  • Deal with the Devil: Defied. The Low Command have actually put a stop to Faustian bargains, as the whole thing was starting to undermine their atheism campaign. The devils appear to make similar sorts of bargains with each other, however.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: The entire book runs on this — the devils' good is our bad, and vice-versa.
  • Demon Lords and Archdevils: Remade from an older version to a more modern interpretation.
  • Devil, but No God: Meta version: C. S. Lewis admitted that there should have been a counterpart volume with the Patient's guardian angel receiving counter-advice from an archangel, but — even skipping over how angelically good a writer would have to be to get the advice right — he didn't think he was talented enough to write it nor his audiences capable enough of believing it.
    Mere advice would be no good; every sentence would have to smell of Heaven. And nowadays even if you could write prose like Traherne's, you wouldn't be allowed to... At bottom, every ideal of style dictates not only how we may say things, but what sort of things we may say.
    • That being said, The Great Divorce, written about three years later, went a long way towards filling that void.
    • Averted In-Universe, of course, where "The Enemy" is a very real and much hated threat to the devils' plans for humanity.
      • Whether Hell thinks it's better for humans to believe this is apparently a matter of debate: Screwtape would prefer that humans don't believe in God or the Devil, though at one point he briefly describes an oddly specific scenario of their own existence being enshrined among humans, "vaguely" and in an "emotionalized and mythologized" way, shutting out further rigor. He considers it a delightful third avenue to resolve Hell's "cruel dilemma" between fear and Faustian Bargains or denying all concerned... if they can ever get it to happen.
  • The Devil Is a Loser:
    • Screwtape is a grouchy, self-important prig with No Sense of Humor, working a desk job as under-secretary in the middle management of a literally infernal Vast Bureaucracy.
    • Wormwood is bungling and incompetent at his job, makes mistake after mistake, fails at his plan to get Screwtape in trouble, and eventually loses his patient completely.
    • Just in general, Hell and its demons come off as overall miserable, self-destructive and ultimately pathetic- the vibe is far more miserable creatures seething in impotent rage then mighty enemies of the Lord.
  • Dirty Coward: Discussed. Screwtape mentions that cowardice is the only sin Hell has never succeeded at turning into a source of pride for humans.
  • Divinely Appearing Demons: This one gets discussed; from the way Screwtape talks about it, apparently it's a fairly typical "parade-ground exercise" for a demon to make themselves appear as an angel of light.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: The "Patient" takes every temptation Screwtape and Wormwood throw at him, almost turns away from the good side, but makes his way back only to be killed in a bomb blast and wind up in Heaven after all. Due to the Perspective Flip, this is seen as a bad thing.
    Screwtape: Did you mark how naturally—as if he'd been born for it—the earthborn vermin entered the new life? How all his doubts became, in the twinkling of an eye, ridiculous? I know what the creature was saying to itself! "Yes. Of course. It always was like this. All horrors have followed the same course, getting worse and worse and forcing you into a kind of bottle-neck till, at the very moment when you thought you must be crushed, behold! you were out of the narrows and all was suddenly well. The extraction hurt more and more and then the tooth was out. The dream became a nightmare and then you woke. You die and die and then you are beyond death. How could I ever have doubted it?
  • Easily Forgiven: Screwtape finds the ease with which repentant humans are forgiven by the Enemy terribly unfair.
  • Easy Road to Hell: Screwtape actually promotes this Boring, but Practical method of turning human beings away from The Enemy. (However, "Screwtape Proposes a Toast" shows that the successful results don't do much for him, gastronomically speaking.)
    You will say that these are very small sins; and doubtless, like all young tempters, you are anxious to be able to report spectacular wickedness. But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy. It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one—the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.
  • Enemy Civil War: Devils are too evil to really be on friendly terms with each other.
  • Epistolary Novel: The book is a series of letters from Screwtape to his nephew and protégé Wormwood.
  • Even the Loving Hero Has Hated Ones: Discussed. Screwtape notes that if the Patient loves everyone and only hates the universally hated Nazi leaders, it won't be much of a threat to his salvation, especially since he isn't likely to meet Hitler in person and just projects the hatred onto an abstract concept from the newspapers.
  • Evil Cannot Comprehend Good:
    • Hell actually has a division of their research department trying to do this. They haven't made any progress in millennia. According to Screwtape, they've been right on the verge of something big for millennia now. The trouble is that the devils can't understand the concept of freely-given, no-strings-attached love and affection that comes from Heaven, so they'll be forever stuck. It's the diabolic equivalent of Reassigned to Antarctica.
    • The Enemy has apparently made it clear to them that if the populace of Hell could begin to understand the concept of "love", then the war against Heaven would be ended. Screwtape misinterprets this as the key to outmaneuvering The Enemy — and thus retaking Heaven by force. Which is why they've got the aforementioned department that isn't succeeding.
  • Evil Feels Good: Inverted. The further one goes into sin, the less fun it becomes. According to Screwtape, it's poor demonic style if you have to actually give something in exchange for a human soul, but the general tone of the book suggests that Hell can't offer genuine pleasure, and so tempters must persuade humans to accept a cheap substitute for the real thing.
  • Evil Has a Bad Sense of Humor: Devils in general just don't get humor. To them it's just another way to suppress virtue and promote vice, and a sword that can be used by good as well. Screwtape himself is presented as someone with No Sense of Humor who barely even gets the concept of it.
  • Evil Is Cool: Invoked. Screwtape gives Wormwood pointers on how to make the patient think so, such as introducing him to some cool "worldly" friends, but in reality it is very much averted.
  • Evil Is One Big, Happy Family: Averted. Hell runs on fear and hatred, after all. Screwtape's last letter is full of Evil Gloating about how he and Wormwood truly loved each other — the way a hungry man loves food. In his introduction, Lewis discusses how Hell manages to hold together at about the level of office politics — most of the time.
  • Evil Is Petty:
    • Screwtape's preferred method of damning souls is to encourage consistent patterns of petty vice rather than great sins that are easily repented. It doesn't make for exceptionally fine meals, but it leads to a steady flow of souls Hellward.
    • In "Screwtapes Proposes A Toast", Screwtape mentions that one of the reasons to continue leading weak souls into Hell, even if they don't provide much substance, is that it's food, yes; but most importantly, the Enemy placed value in those souls and wanted them (for some reason), and by turning them away from Him, they spite Him that.
  • Evil Plan: Screwtape tries to teach Wormwood how to pull this off, but Wormwood is something of a slow learner.
  • Evil Is Not Pacifist: Averted. Screwtape suggests guiding the Patient towards pacifism during the outbreak of WWII, albeit with a number of caveats to make sure it isn't a principled pacifism.
  • Evil Is Sterile: Perhaps unsurprisingly, given this novel was written by a friend of Tolkien's, but the devils of Hell don't appear to be able to advance on their own, just to create miserable parodies of either angelic or earthly things. Screwtape comments that they've been expecting success in figuring out how to instill truly virtuous sentiments in humanity for their own purposes rather than just having to work with what they've got any hour now for centuries.
  • Evil Tastes Good: Quite literally. Devils eat souls that go to Hell (along with devils who failed in some way), and they're something of gourmets about it. The more evil a soul was, the better it tastes, so petty sinners are bland meals, while a homicidal maniac or — better still — a hypocritical, fallen Christian is a culinary delight.
  • Evil Virtues: Since the Enemy is the source of all things good, virtues inherently belong to Him. The devils know they have to make use of "saintly" qualities to create truly effective sinners, and since the devils run on Bad Is Good and Good Is Bad, this is only grudgingly tolerable for them.
    • In "Screwtape Proposes a Toast", the extremely evil souls Screwtape discusses had these; the souls with no outstanding good qualities were only mediocre.
    • In the letters proper, Screwtape laments that they are unable to create any virtues, and that Hell has not found a way for a person to be effectively evil without some strengths of character.
    To be greatly and effectively wicked a man needs some virtue. What would Attila have been without his courage, or Shylock without self-denial as regards the flesh?
  • Fallen Angel: The demons' backstory, apparently, though Screwtape offers only Suspiciously Specific Denials about it. According to Screwtape, Satan wasn't cast out of Heaven; he just left so fast that it looked like he was cast out.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Screwtape speaks like a supernatural version of a stereotypical government bureaucrat, always superficially polite, but in the most unpleasant and condescending possible way.
  • Gambit Pileup: Earth is the site of all schemes hatched from both sides, and they interact with any schemes hatched by mortals.
  • Gave Up Too Soon: It gives devils no end of amusement to persuade their patients to give up on some long, miserable, and/or difficult duty just when (unbeknownst to the mark) an end to the trial was almost in sight.
  • God: The narrator, of course, thinks God is the Big Bad due to the perspective flip and calls him The Enemy. He also throws out the possibility that God may not even love humans, and has other, probably less holy reasons why He created humans in the first place. Of course, Screwtape's problem is that he's a devil — he can only understand things that are done for less-than-holy reasons. Sheer altruism like The Enemy's is not only absurd but impossible, as far as he can tell — God must have some ultimately selfish reason for creating human beings.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: When describing how the patient went to Heaven, Screwtape expresses fury that a 'mere' human being can stand in the presence of "The Enemy" while neither Screwtape, Wormwood, nor any other demon can bare to stand in His presence without whimpering in fear.
  • God Is Good: All positive feelings are associated with "The Enemy", and all earthly pleasures as well. These things have to be perverted before they are of any use to the devils.
  • Good Angel, Bad Angel: A very in-depth example, as Lewis gives us a view about what actually motivates the little devil to whisper suggestions in The Patient's ear. Subverted as well, as the standard cartoon image of devils (with pronged tails and cloven hooves, etc.) is explicitly not used by Screwtape; he calls it one way devils keep humans from thinking of them as dangerous.
  • Good Feels Good: One of Screwtape's complaints is that Earthly pleasures come from the Enemy, and they have to be twisted before they are of any use to Hell.
  • Heads I Win, Tails You Lose: Said verbatim by Screwtape in the 27th letter when instructing Wormwood how to disrupt the patient's belief in the effectiveness of prayer.
  • Heel Realization: One risk of the devils' strategy to make exceptionally tasty sinners is that they might realize what they have become and run to the Enemy, where they will be Easily Forgiven.
  • The Heretic: Screwtape is charged with heresy in Hell of all places. Ironically, his heretical belief that God really loves his human subjects actually makes him a more efficient tempter.
    • Towards the end, Screwtape threatens to charge Wormwood with heresy as well, "if he's proceeding on the Enemy's idea of 'justice'".
  • Holier Than Thou: Described by Screwtape as "the strongest and most beautiful of the vices". He also says that those who embrace it "[make] better sport in Hell than" hedonists or even Evil Overlords.
  • The Horseshoe Effect: Any ideology can be used to turn a human to evil. Screwtape encourages creating zealots on both sides, since after death their souls can be blended into a most invigorating wine.
  • Hot as Hell: Inverted. Screwtape describes sexual temptation as a subject "of considerable tedium" and wastes no paper discussing it, as both he and Wormwood already know all there is to know about the methods in question.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: Encouraged by Screwtape, on the ground that it's easier to make someone descend into alcoholism if they drink when they are "dull and weary", rather than "happy and expansive".
  • Ignored Epiphany:
    I once had a patient, a sound atheist, who used to read in the British Museum. One day, as he sat reading, I saw a train of thought in his mind beginning to go the wrong way. The Enemy, of course, was at his elbow in a moment. Before I knew where I was I saw my twenty years' work beginning to totter. If I had lost my head and begun to attempt a defense by argument, I should have been undone. But I was not such a fool. I struck instantly at the part of the man which I had best under my control, and suggested that it was just about time he had some lunch. The Enemy presumably made the countersuggestion (you know how one can never quite overhear what He says to them?) that this was more important than lunch. At least I think that must have been His line, for when I said, "Quite. In fact much TOO important to tackle at the end of a morning," the patient brightened up considerably; and by the time I had added, "Much better come back after lunch and go into it with a fresh mind," he was already halfway to the door. Once he was in the street the battle was won. I showed him a newsboy shouting the midday paper, and a No. 73 bus going past, and before he reached the bottom of the steps I had got into him an unalterable conviction that, whatever odd ideas might come into a man's head when he was shut up alone with his books, a healthy dose of "real life" (by which he meant the bus and the newsboy) was enough to show him that all "that sort of thing" just couldn't be true. He knew he'd had a narrow escape, and in later years was fond of talking about "that inarticulate sense for actuality which is our ultimate safeguard against the aberrations of mere logic." He is now safe in Our Father's house.
  • I'm a Humanitarian: Damned souls and failed Tempters are devoured by the devils. It's strongly implied that Screwtape eats Wormwood at the end, as punishment for his failure.
  • Insane Troll Logic:
    • Screwtape and the rest of the devils run on this. Screwtape reasons that, since there's no such thing as selfless love, when God claims to love people unselfishly, He must really be getting something from them, although nobody's ever been able to figure out what.
    • Screwtape also discusses Insane Troll Logic as a good method of tempting people, or rather of keeping undesirable ideas out of their heads. After all, it's the devils' job to fuddle them, not to teach them how to think. Get them too used to reasoning, and what happens if they come across a reasonable argument for God?
  • In with the In Crowd: Wormwood gets the patient caught in this for a while by introducing him to supposedly "cool" worldly people, but botches it and the trope plays out fully, complete with An Aesop.
  • Invisible to Normals: Screwtape reminds Wormwood at several points that humans can't see certain things which are obvious to devils, like the true nature of the Church, and how to take advantage of their limited perspective.
  • Involuntary Shapeshifting: At one point Screwtape gets so emotional that he accidentally transforms into a centipede.
  • It's All About Me: Screwtape loves talking about his nephew's successes in terms of "we", but when Wormwood fails to deliver, he's quick to lay all the blame on Wormwood. Especially when his patient turns the corner in Letter 13, when he falls in love with a good Christian girl, and finally when he dies and goes to heaven.
  • "Just Joking" Justification:
    • Screwtape mentions that a good way to tempt a person to be a jerkass is the realization that people often think cruel behavior is funny if you present it cleverly enough.
    • At another point, Screwtape does it himself, saying that when he spoke against Slubgob in one of his previous letters, it was meant purely as a joke.
  • Knight in Sour Armor:
    • Screwtape explains to Wormwood that humans, as temporal creatures, naturally live in flux, with periods of both richness and disillusionment. He then warns Wormwood of how God wants people to endure in piety through both.
      Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy's will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.
    • This is also a reference to Jesus' words and actions on the cross.
  • Laughably Evil: Screwtape. Sort of. It's funny just what a grump he is. One of his complaints about the Patient's new love is that she's "the sort who would find ME funny!"
    • He also discusses how making the devil Laughably Evil actually helps the demons' cause; at one point Screwtape advises Wormwood to direct the client to the stereotypical 20th-century devil image with the red tights, pointy tail, and pitchfork, so that he can't possibly take the idea of devils and Hell seriously.
  • Lawyer-Friendly Cameo: "Screwtape Proposes a Toast" is a harsh criticism of the American educational system's Tall Poppy Syndrome at the time of writing — except in the narrative Screwtape says it's the British educational system. Lewis admits in the introduction that he did this because he didn't think Americans would take kindly to a Brit criticizing their schools.
  • Loose Lips: Eventually, Screwtape is punished by his superiors for trying to help Wormwood by telling him a secret that they did not want getting out: that God has genuine love for humanity. Unfortunately, despite the painful punishment, it fails to work. After weeks of trying to help Wormwood find a licentious woman for the Patient, the Patient instead finds true love with a Christian woman, resulting in Screwtape flying into rage and accidentally turning himself into a giant centipede.
  • Madonna-Whore Complex: Screwtape's concept of the "terrestrial" and "infernal Venus" which haunt the male imagination, the one "for which his desire is such as to be naturally amenable to the Enemy — readily mixed with charity, readily obedient to marriage, coloured all through with that golden light of reverence and naturalness which we detest," and the other "which he desires brutally, and desires to desire brutally."
    His love for the first might involve what the Enemy calls evil, but only accidentally; the man would wish that she was not someone else's wife and be sorry that he could not love her lawfully. But in the second type, the felt evil is what he wants; it is that "tang" in the flavour which he is after.
  • Miles Gloriosus: Averted. Even Screwtape has a low opinion of the uses of this particular vice.
    At one time or another we have been able to turn every other sin into a source of pride for humans. We have never yet found a way to make them proud of cowardice.
  • invokedMoral Event Horizon: Subverted; Screwtape often argues that the task of making the patient an unrepentant sinner is usually best accomplished without any kind of spectacularly evil act on the patient's part. Spectacular evils tend to bring repentance or at least an awareness of consequences. What one wants is a gradual accumulation of sins as tiny as snowflakes, slowly accumulating, until their total weight is immovable.
  • Monstrous Cannibalism: The souls that are brought to Hell are eaten by the devils, and devils who failed at their jobs are eaten by their colleagues.
  • My Beloved Smother: Screwtape wants the patient to see his mother this way, although Word of God cautions us in the preface that this may be wishful thinking on Screwtape's part.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Discussed as the reason Screwtape prefers to tempt people to petty, seemingly insignificant sins. More egregiously evil sins tend to provoke this response, which may lead to a Heel Realization and repentance, which is exactly what Hell does not want to happen.
  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast: Demonic names include Screwtape, Wormwood, Scabtree, Triptweeze, Toadpipe, and Slubgob. Most of them follow the pattern of two unpleasant nouns (or other single sounds) pushed together.
    • Lewis lampshades this in the introduction, saying he designed the names specifically to sound horrible.
    • And of course there's the other unpleasant compound whose second syllable is tape: "red tape". Considering Screwtape's position in the Lowerarchy, this was probably an intentional joke on Lewis's part. He even says in the introduction that "red tape" and "tapeworm" probably subconsciously influenced the choice of name.
    • Wormwood, specifically, comes from the Bible, and is the name of an extremely bitter herb. In Revelation, Wormwood is a star that falls to Earth and poisons one third of the Earth's waters.
  • Never My Fault:
    • Screwtape actively encourages Wormwood to foster this attitude in his patient with regards to his mother, as seen further down this page.
    • Screwtape completely avoids responsibility for his careless words regarding God's love and Slubgob, dean of the Tempter's College.
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain: Screwtape states that, while it's natural for devils to enjoy seeing humans suffer, they should prevent their patients from suffering so much that it pushes them towards "The Enemy".
    • He expresses this when Wormwood shows glee at the thought of the Patient's town being bombed, stating that ideally the Patient would live to old age.
    • During his outraged rant about how much he hates the Patient's fiancée, he at first states that during the "good old days" she'd have been martyred in gladiatorial games. But, perhaps realizing this would send her straight to Heaven, he admits that it would have done Hell no good.
  • Niceness Denial: Screwtape starts the book off by denying any sort of kindness in assisting Wormwood. He points out that doing so helps him to avoid their Father's usual round of punishments and tortures if Wormwood is successful. Given who Screwtape is, we should probably take him at his word on this, but only this.
  • No Name Given: Several human characters — most notably The Patient — are referred to by titles rather than by their names, which implies that devils don't bother seeing humanity as individuals and instead see them as what they are (as opposed to who). The audio drama, however, averts this, as we sometimes hear from the human characters themselves.
  • Nostalgia Filter: One of the devils' tools in deceiving humans.
    • The Patient's mother has been led to believe that her meals aren't satisfying because "good help is so hard to find these days", when in reality she's just become pickier and Obsessed with Food.
    • Screwtape himself is prone to complaining that sinners used to be so much tastier, but they're just bland these days.
  • Oblivious to His Own Description: A successfully-tempted sinner, as Screwtape would have it, loves no one, trusts no one, has no real joy, and nonetheless is trying with all his might to convince himself that he's happy. Both Screwtape and his 'patients' seem trapped in the same prison.
  • Obsessed with Food: The vice of Gluttony. Atypically, not everyone led to sin by their appetites is a Big Eater. Delicacy and pickiness work just as well and have the advantage of looking like virtues. The devils, naturally, are gluttons themselves.
  • Our Better Is Different: All demons strive for a lower social position, in hopes of ingratiating themselves with their Father Below.
    • The most obvious pun in the book is hierarchy/Lowerarchy, but there's a more complex bit of wordplay in the sequel essay, "Screwtape Proposes A Toast": "Your Imminence, Your Disgraces, My Thorns, Shadies and Gentledevils..."
  • Our Demons Are Different: The whole book is a deliberate attempt to create a new set of symbolism for demons. We don't actually know what they look like, though it's implied they can take any shape they want, anyway. The emphasis is more on their organization. This is even lampshaded once when Screwtape encourages Wormwood to make the Patient think of the stereotypical red devil with horns and a tail to keep the Patient from taking him seriously.
    • It's also implied they must take different forms from time to time, and that emotion instigates the process, resulting in a Funny Moment when Screwtape has to dictate the end of one letter, his anger having transformed him into a giant centipede.
      • There's another way to read that transformation. Note how Screwtape, after admitting he has been transformed, says God (ie The Enemy) is most certainly NOT responsible for doing this to him — this could be a Suspiciously Specific Denial.
  • Outhumbling Each Other: Screwtape calls this "the Generous Conflict Illusion", and notes how arguments grow much more heated when both sides argue in favor of what the other person wants, rather than what they want themselves. People are never so selfish as when they're trying to show off how unselfish they are.
  • Passive-Aggressive Kombat: Screwtape coaches Wormwood how to get the patient and his mother to fight this way using a combination of Twisting the Words and Moral Myopia:
    "Your patient must demand that all his own utterances are to be taken at their face value and judged simply on the actual words, while at the same time judging all his mother's utterances with the fullest and most oversensitive interpretation of the tone and the context and the suspected intention. She must be encouraged to do the same to him. Hence from every quarrel they can both go away convinced, or very nearly convinced, that they are quite innocent. ... Once this habit is well established you have the delightful situation of a human saying things with the express purpose of offending and yet having a grievance when offence is taken."
  • The Peter Principle: The skilled tempter Screwtape has been promoted to middle management, where he makes only minimal contributions to the infernal cause while Wormwood and his equally incompetent colleagues are left with the real work.
  • Picky Eater: Screwtape approves of people being picky with their food as a subtle but often effective form of the cardinal sin of gluttony, what he calls "gluttony of delicacy".
  • Place Beyond Time: Screwtape tells Wormwood that God is a being beyond time, and that this actually explains how he can be The Omniscient without destroying free will: He sees the Past, Present, and Future as Now, and you can obviously watch someone do something without making them do it.
  • Police State: Hell constantly monitors its inhabitants and harshly punishes violations, as Screwtape finds out when he lets loose a dangerous secret.
  • Perspective Flip: Very much the point. According to Word of God, C. S. Lewis was thinking of objections to the Christian life and decided to write them from The Devil's point of view. To the devils, of course, God is "The Enemy".
  • Pride: One of the vices to which Wormwood is advised to tempt the Patient. Screwtape's strategy is devious: Wormwood can simply draw the Patient's attention to his recent spiritual improvement, making him proud of his own humility. And should the Patient realize this mistake, Wormwood can make him proud of catching himself before it was too late, and so on and so on — but not too long, lest the Patient simply laugh the whole thing off as absurd.
  • Propaganda Machine: Crossed with Evil Cannot Comprehend Good. It's clear that the people in Hell, particularly Lucifer's Secret Police, are under the belief that God is lying about loving all creation and the lie is just some sort of psychological warfare tactic. Also, Lucifer didn't get thrown out of Heaven; he left of his own accord out of protest. He just left so fast that it LOOKED like he was being thrown out, that's all.
  • Rage Against the Heavens: At one point, the Patient falls in love with a devout Christian. Screwtape moves from tearing Wormwood a new one to outright ranting and raving about the unfairness of Heaven's advantages over Hell — all earthly pleasures are The Enemy's inventions (because He's a vulgar hedonist at heart, according to Screwtape) and have to be perverted in order for them to be useful to the devils. He gets so upset, in fact, that he accidentally turns himself into an enormous centipede.
  • Rock Me, Asmodeus!: While it predates the trope as we know it today, the story nevertheless contains a subversion. Music of any kind is forbidden in Hell, because music is something humans enjoy, and joy is something the devils cannot tolerate.
  • Satan: Called "Our Father Below" by his overlings.
  • Satan Is Good: Well, Screwtape thinks so, but he's a very Unreliable Narrator and there's a perspective flip going on.
  • Scenery Gorn: One of the desperate tactics recommended to Wormwood towards the end — use the horrible image of "human remains plastered on a wall" to make the Patient believe that "this is the real world, and religion is just a fantasy".
  • Scenery Porn: On the other hand, this can make humans happy (and closer to the Enemy), and therefore any attempts to contemplate the beauty of nature should be discouraged.
  • Science Is Bad: A pointed subversion in the first letter. Humans are best kept away from science entirely, especially the natural sciences, because those instill wonder and perspective. The best (read: worst) sort of human never goes beyond the immediate sense experience. Reason as a whole is an awful way of causing humans to sin, because rational arguments are open to rational counterarguments. Insane Troll Logic works much better. However, using rationalism to promote atheism is encouraged, since souls that simply convince themselves there is no God by way of rational deduction do end up in Hell. They're not especially tasty, but it ensures the devils will never starve.
    • The mindset Screwtape encourages Wormwood to nurture is one in which the Patient will complacently declare that "Science says" this, that and the other thing, based not on any knowledge of actual science at all nor any study of it beyond, at best, an extremely dumbed-down version of it from the popular newspapers.
  • Secret Police: At one point, Wormwood attempts to get back at Screwtape for perpetually berating him, by trying to convince Hell's Secret Police to investigate Screwtape for heresy. It doesn't work: Screwtape manages to cover his tracks by insisting that he didn't mean it when he said the Enemy actually loves human beings.
    • Screwtape warns Wormwood that further insubordination will not be tolerated by sending him one of the secret police's exquisitely illustrated pamphlets on their House of Correction for Incompetent Tempters. (Of course, at the end of the book it's implied that Wormwood has failed so utterly as to merit immediate execution and cannibalisation.)
  • Self-Inflicted Hell: What Hell truly seems to be, both for human souls and for the devils who live there. No one is happy, but they've convinced themselves Hell must be better than Heaven and they have too much Pride to repent in any case.
  • Seven Deadly Sins: All of them are discussed at some point, but the concept itself is a bit subverted. Screwtape reminds Wormwood that petty sins are just as effective as deadly ones as long as they keep the Patient's attention off God and his spiritual condition. In fact, getting the Patient to commit a spectacular sin would be counterproductive, as that could make him more likely to say My God, What Have I Done? and repent.
  • Sex Is Evil: Subverted. It is only evil when done the devils' way. The fact that the Patient's fiancee is looking forward to it rather pleases The Enemy.
  • Shout-Out: Several, including one to George Bernard Shaw, where Screwtape remembers a comment from Shaw but can't remember how to spell the man's name: "something like Pshaw". (Shaw advocated for English spelling reform.)
  • The Sleepless: Screwtape implies in Toast that all demons are this.
    "How often you will envy the humans their faculty of sleep!"
  • Soul Eating: Demons eat the souls of other demons as well as of humans.
  • The Starscream: Not explicit, but it seems that junior tempters are expected to scheme against their elders and that a devil who succeeds in overthrowing his supervisor is showing exactly the kind of ambition that Hell rewards.
  • Stealth Pun: Since the more powerful positions on the Lowerarchy are further down, the demons are literally in a race to the bottom.
  • Suspiciously Specific Denial:
    • According to Screwtape, the Father Below was so disgusted with God's idea of "Love" that he decided to remove himself very suddenly to an infinite distance from heaven—he certainly wasn't forcibly cast out or anything like that.
    • Screwtape's sudden transformation into a giant centipede was caused by an excess of infernal zeal, not an intervention by the Enemy.
  • Sympathetic Adulterer: Averted. During the finale, when Screwtape is attending a banquet of newly graduated tempters, one of the dishes was a casserole of adulterers. Unlike "delicious" damned souls, the ones in this dish had no great subverted virtues - just bland selfishness.
  • Take That!:
    • Surprisingly few for a story set in Hell, but there's one not-so-subtle example directed at Henry Ford. Although if you know much about Ford's personal life (he supported the Nazis' racial ideology, for one thing), it's hard not to agree with Lewis.
    • Thoreau's description of how he prays (silently, unbowed, with vague feelings as opposed to concrete requests to God) is declared to be "exactly the sort of prayer we want". So in other words, it's exactly the wrong type.
    • George Bernard Shaw's idea of a "life force" is mentioned multiple times by Screwtape as an ideal springboard for the devils' plan to create a paradoxical hybrid of materialists and occultists. Shaw is even mentioned by name in Chapter 22.
    • Evil religious zealots are made into wine for demons in Hell by being blended in with other evil religious zealots they hated and opposed in life.
      • Conversely, atheists are mentioned as bland but filling fare in "Screwtape Proposes a Toast", and devils work hard to promote atheism as a general state of being before concentrating on "refining" tastes with other sinful encouragement.
    • Also in "Screwtape Proposes a Toast", Screwtape mentions a few exemplary sinners such as Giacomo Casanova and Henry VIII whom the devils found especially tasty. Only one contemporary figure makes the list — naturally enough, it's Adolf Hitler. Even then, he was inferior to most real sinners.
    • In the introduction, Lewis writes that he portrayed Hell as a Vast Bureaucracy rather than the more obvious Fire and Brimstone Hell as an intentional jab against Corrupt Corporate Executives (see below).
  • Tall Poppy Syndrome: In "Screwtape Proposes a Toast", Screwtape expounds upon this phenomenon in education, drawing attention to the fact that, in the original story that gave the phenomenon its name, it was a dictator cutting off heads to ensure that his subjects were all equal. Of course, Screwtape being a demon, he thinks this tyranny of the masses is one of the best things to happen in decades. His chilling proposal is that in a democracy, there is no need for a dictator to do it. His tyranny of the masses is as follows: an equivocation of the virtue of equality will confound the belief that all people are equal in rights and dignity with the belief that all people are equal in ability and merit. Those who could excel must then be held back, especially in education, lest the value of equality is broken. Likewise, schoolwork must be made to seem equal, whether learning calculus or finger-painting, so there is "parity of esteem". In the end, those who could excel will purposefully obscure or not develop their talents in order to avoid ostracism.
  • Terms of Endangerment: In Screwtape's last few letters, as the Patient slips out of reach, the terms of affection become increasingly effusive. It culminates in this: "My dear, my very dear Wormwood; my poppet, my pigsnie..."
  • Then Let Me Be Evil: Discussed in Screwtape Proposes a Toast as a "delightful by-product" of devilish activities.
    ...Suspicion often creates what it expects. ("Since, whatever I do, the neighbors are going to think me a witch, or a Communist agent, I might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb, and become one in reality.")
  • Too Funny to Be Evil: One trope that Screwtape advises. Wormwood can get his patient to commit many sins by passing them off as jokes. Ironically, Screwtape blows his top when he finds out that The Patient’s girlfriend is the sort of person that would find HIM funny.
  • To Serve Man: The main reason the devils take an interest in humanity is to eat them. The worse the person was in life, the better they taste.
  • Unit Confusion:
    • Screwtape uses lightyears as a unit of time in Letter XXII—though maybe devils and angels reckon such things differently. If read as taking place within the universe of the Space Trilogy, this is entirely possible.
    • Lewis himself points out in the preface that the "diabolical method of measuring time" is pretty bizarre and not all that useful from the POV of a human reader, thereby exact dates were (conveniently) left out of the narrative.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Screwtape himself, as Lewis himself cautions in the preface ("Readers are advised to remember that the Devil is a liar... There is wishful thinking in Hell as well as on Earth.") But what else would you expect from someone whose boss is the Father of Lies? Besides, since Hell is a Police State, there are things devils don't say aloud, if they don't want to be sent to correction facilities or eaten.
    • Screwtape might also double as Unreliable Expositor for Wormwood. How much of his advice is genuinely helpful, and how much is intentionally setting him up to fail?
  • invokedValues Dissonance: Addressed and explained with the concept of "Vogues". According to Screwtape, people from differing time periods have had such different values due to the efforts of the demons in manipulating humans to sin. Specifically, the demons get humans to gravitate towards one type of sin in one era, then get the humans to become repulsed by that sin but edged towards a sin on roughly the opposite end of the spectrum in another era. The ideal is to have the society constantly swinging back and forth between dangerous extremes and avoiding a happy medium at all costs.
  • Vast Bureaucracy: Hell is portrayed like this. Word of God says that this was partly to avert a Dante-esque Fire and Brimstone Hell, but it also serves as an intentional Take That! against corrupt bureaucrats:
    "The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid 'dens of iniquity' that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps...But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice."
  • Villain Protagonist: The letters are all from Screwtape, detailing his attempts to mold Wormwood into a proper tempter.
  • Villainous Glutton:
    • Screwtape advises Wormwood on how to tempt the patient to the sin of gluttony. In a bit of an aversion, Screwtape says that not all gluttony is overeating; what counts is getting the person enslaved to their appetites (even if they only want toast and tea) in such a way that they don't care if they inconvenience others. Or just as good, they might become prideful over their refined tastes. He even gives an example: the Patient's mother, who is so self-satisfied over her refusal to eat too much that she's become impossibly picky about portion sizes, to the point that the Patient hates her for it (though he'll never admit it to himself).
    • Also, the devils themselves are interested in tempting humans mostly because they get to feed on corrupted souls. Despair apparently works something like alcohol, and Screwtape is disgruntled to realize that, after World War II starts, his nephew is writing back drunk.
  • Villainous Underdog: Zigzagged. Screwtape rants at length about the "unfair" advantage Heaven has. Certainly you'd think that going up against an omnipotent being would make you the underdog in itself, to say nothing of all the problems Hell causes for itself by being Stupid Evil. However, Hell also seems to be controlling every single aspect of human society except for the Church (and even there it's made great inroads by creating factionalism, fanaticism and strife), and as a result, most are going to Hell these days. It's possible that Screwtape's whining is because Evil Is Petty, meaning that no matter how well things are going for Screwtape he's always going to feel sorry for himself because it's not going even better, in which case this trope is subverted. Or conversely, he might just be exaggerating Hell's successes for propaganda purposes.
  • War Is Hell: Alluded to, but not played straight. Screwtape admits that war has many "useful" qualities, since the vices are easier to spread when people are frightened and desperate, but on the whole he feels that war is too dangerous a tool. It brings out charity, self-denial and courage in people who would never ordinarily have shown such virtues. It also makes people very aware of their own mortality so they feel the need to get right with God rather than being complacent.
  • We ARE Struggling Together: Screwtape gloats over how well they succeeded in causing factionalism and in-fighting in the Church despite the fact that God commanded that every faction show Christian charity to the others.
  • What Is This Thing You Call "Love"?: It's been said to the devils that, were they to truly understand the concept of love, the war between Heaven and Hell would be over. Too bad for the devils that they end up Dramatically Missing the Point, and try to figure out how love can be used as a weapon over "The Enemy". According to Screwtape, they've been on the cusp of a breakthrough for a while, but it always just escapes them. The actual reason they don't get it is because they can't imagine somebody doing something nice for the sheer sake of it. That includes God's infinite love for humans, as Screwtape instead concludes that God created man in his own image and likeness out of an ego trip.
  • A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing: The devils are trained to disguise themselves as angels of light, both as "a parade-ground exercise" and to more effectively tempt their patients to be Holier Than Thou.
  • You Have Failed Me: "Either bring back food, or be food yourself." Rather than a one-time happening, this is standard procedure in Hell. The very last chapter is one long declaration of this.
  • You Keep Using That Word: Hell has a Philological Arm, whose job is to redefine words in misleading or ambiguous ways to make it easier to lead people astray with Insane Troll Logic. Screwtape discusses using several of these words (such as "a religious phase", or contradictory definitions of "real") to tempt the Patient. They're particularly proud of the work they did on "Puritanical", which shifted from 'particularly concerned with virtue' to 'hopelessly old-fashioned'.

Adaptations of this book provide examples of:

  • Adaptation Distillation: The stage adaptation by Max Mclean, understandably, had to leave out the part where Screwtape accidentally transforms himself into a large centipede, and his secretary Toadpipe is forced to finish the letter. On the other hand...
  • Adaptation Expansion: Toadpipe plays a far larger role in the abovementioned Max Mclean stage adaptation, portrayed here as Screwtape's scale/rag bodysuit clad pseudo-gymnast/dancer of a Sexy Secretary.
    • In the radio adaption by Focus on the Family, Screwtape is considerably more charismatic than his book counterpart, as he actually has a sense of humor and all of his Insane Troll Logic rationalizations for God's behavior are downplayed.
  • Ascended Extra: Wormwood in the Focus On The Family radio adaptation. Because he interacts with his uncle in person rather than by letters, we actually hear his side of the conversation (because of this, the adaptation was originally just called Screwtape).
  • Large Ham:
    • Screwtape, as awesomely voiced by Andy Serkis in the Focus on the Family radio adaptation.
    • Also John Cleese's audiobook portrayal.
    • Peter Noble, though he only worked on Screwtape Proposes a Toast, gives a more restrained but still hammy performance.
    • Joss Ackland, who interestingly portrayed C.S. Lewis himself in the 1985 television movie version of Shadowlands, made him this as well as Evil Sounds Deep.
    • The late Ralph Cosham, who also lent his voice to numerous audiobooks of Lewis’ works, due to his style of narration interestingly portrays Screwtape as a Cold Ham.
  • Named by the Adaptation: In the audio drama, The Patient is named John Hamilton. John probably comes from the main character of The Pilgrim's Regress, Lewis’ first book after his conversion; Hamilton probably comes from “Clive Hamilton”, a Pen Name that Lewis once used.
    • The Patient’s fiancé is named Dorothy in the audio drama, likely named after Lewis’ friend Dorothy L. Sayers.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: The Andy Serkis version adds conversation with Wormwood, and Serkis's depiction of Screwtape is probably far more Large Ham than Lewis intended, but can be excused for holding the interest of the listening audience.
  • Take That!: In the play, Screwtape points out how famous people are a "good" influence, since they're always changing their minds... then tilts the book he's reading to reveal that it's a biography of Madonna. Cue "Material Girl" playing during the next set change.