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The Screwtape Letters and Dante's Inferno: A Comparison
Transcript of The Screwtape Letters and Dante's Inferno: A Comparison
In The Inferno, the demons try to trick Dante and Virgil into taking a path that does not exist, exposing them as malicious liars. The fictional path can be viewed as temptation, so although tempting humans is not their primary job, the demons are prone to do so when they come in contact with one. The sole purpose of the demons in The Screwtape Letters is to tempt humans. Although it occurs on different levels, both describe how demons tempt and trick humans. In The Screwtape Letters, the demons
are described as having a system of government and education, ironically very similar to that of humans. They are engaged in a never-ending battle with God for human souls. They are always tempting every human soul with great subtlety, which is a rather biblical perspective of them when one thinks of the snake in the Garden of Eden.
"Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around looking for someone to devour" 1 Peter 5:8 In Dante's Inferno, the demons are described purely as administers of punishment. Satan himself, while ruling Hell in The Screwtape Letters, is imprisoned in the very center of Hell, punished for his crimes by being immersed waist deep in ice as he struggles to get free.
Dante's description of Hell was consistent with Catholic doctrines of the time, however somewhat inconsistent with biblical views of demons in the book of Revelations and 1 Peter. In Dante's Inferno, the demons just torment the souls in the eighth circle of Hell, which is reserved for those who commit "simple fraud"; they are never described as being the cause of man to sin. This is reflective of the philosophy of St. Augustine of Hippo, a Catholic doctrine writer. He writes, "Nothing else than his own will makes man's mind the slave of his desire" (De Lib. Arb. i, 11) Dante's Inferno recognizes a certain hierarchy of sin. There are nine circles: limbo, lust, gluttony, greed, anger, heresy, violence, fraud, and treachery. Each successive circle represents a worse sin and thus a greater punishment. The hierarchy in "Screwtape Proposes a Toast", while subtle, is presented when Screwtape talks about the varying flavor of sin.
But it would be vain to deny that the human souls on whose anguish we have been feasting tonight were of pretty poor quality...Oh to get one's teeth again into a Farinata, a Henry VIII, or even a Hitler! There was a real crackling there;something to crunch.(188)
Because the level of quality of the "food" for these demons relies upon the degree of anguish/torment the soul undergoes, it implies a hierarchy of punishment as infamous sinners like Hitler taste better than a municipal authority who performed lower degrees of evil. Degrees of sin LIMBO Both Lewis and Alighieri include Limbo in their pictures of the spiritual world. In Dante's Inferno, Limbo is where people who had not committed mortal sins, yet had not accepted Christ, spent eternity. Beyond the first circle, Limbo, were those who committed deliberate sin. Similarly, Screwtape recognizes the duty of demons to raise people to a level of sin as to qualify them for Hell: "[If] they had been raised to little, they would very possibly have qualified for Limbo, as creatures suitable neither for Heaven nor Hell"(190). IRONIC INVERSIONS "Yes, but the Enemy (for whatever inscrutable and perverse reason) thought them worth trying to save"(190).
The dangerous phenomenon called Christian Socialism was rampant. The rich were increasingly giving up their powers not in the face of revolution and compulsion, but in obedience to their own consciences. As for the poor...they were behaving in a most disappointing fashion...they were perversely engaged in becoming cleaner, more orderly, more thrifty, better educated, and even more virtuous. (195-96) STYLISTIC DIFFERENCES BETWEEN Dante's Inferno AND Screwtape Proposes a Toast Dante's Inferno Dante's Inferno remains serious, devoid of all humor. The atmosphere is haunting, with a lurid tone.
"I had come into a place mute of all light, that bellows as the sea does in a tempest, if it be combated by opposing winds. The infernal hurricane that never rests carries along the spirits in its rapine; whirling and smiting it molests them. When they arrive before its rushing blast, here are shrieks, and bewailing, and lamenting; here they blaspheme the power divine. I understood that to such torment are condemned the carnal sinners who subject reason to appetite." Canto V Screwtape proposes a toast "Screwtape Proposes a Toast", however, is injected with humor, with a critical, disdainful tone on the part of Screwtape.The humorous, more light-hearted approach to Hell appears first in the setting of an annual banquet for young Tempters. Furthermore, humor can be seen in the introduction by Screwtape: "Mr. Principal, your Imminence, your Disgraces, my Thorns, Shadies, and Gentledevils"(187). SATIRE Education -Lewis satirizes the American education system in this portion of the work. At first glance, it appears to be a criticism of the English education system. However, upon further research, one discovers that it remains a criticism of American education:
In that promising land the spirit of I'm as good as you has already become something more than a generally social influence. It begins to work itself into their educational system. (203) -English education during this time does not fit this description as well as American education. English education of the time was being highly individualized under the 1944 Education Act. Conversely, American education was highly influenced by McCarthyism, the Cold War, and other social movements. In fact, Lewis later admits in a 1982 Foreword of the novel: "I resorted to a further level of irony. Screwtape is in fact describing American education; he affects to be holding English education up as the awful example. The most intelligent of my American readers would, I hoped, see the game I was playing and enjoy the joke..." Satire cont'd Democracy -The delightful novelty of the present situation is that you can sanction it...by the incantory use of the word democratic. Under the influence of this incantation those who are inferior can labour more wholeheartedly and successfully than ever to pull down everyone else to their own level. (199-200) -This section criticizes conformity in the name of democracy for the idea that all men are equal. Around this time, emphasis on conformity could be found in America as far as the excessive fear of communism during the Cold War. People who were different were suspect to investigation and ridicule. Criticism of taking equality to the extreme was common with some of Lewis's contemporaries. Vonnegut published Harrison Bergeron, a short story about an equality-obsessed dystopia, in 1961, the same year that "Screwtape Proposes a Toast" was published in London. Satire Modernism and Sexual Freedom Movements Screwtape describes the fall of certain adulterers as an "automatic response to sexy advertisements, or to make themselves feel modern and emancipated, or to reassure themselves about their virility or their 'normalcy'"(189).
-Lewis criticizes the social atmosphere of immorality leading into the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s. sIMILARITIES IN PURPOSE The main purpose of Dante's Inferno is to demonstrate the unhappiness that separation from the spiritual realm and God breeds. Similarly, the purpose of "Screwtape Proposes a Toast" is to show people the type of decisions that lead to eternal torment and unhappiness, which is caused by seperation from God. Both authors attempt to lead readers to God. Both works also have political aspects to their purpose. Lewis's Point of View -Lewis presents a demon's point of view, while crafting it to be easily relatable to humans. ("it was easy to twist one's mind into the diabolical attitude")
-lop-sided point of view:
"Ideally, screwtape's advice to wormwood should have been balanced by archangelical advice to the patient's guardian angel. Without this the picture of human life is lop-sided"(184). Alighieri's Subtle Humor Overall Alighieri maintains a gruesome tone, but some light humor is present in the names of the demons. The following are names of demons and their translations:
Barbariccia ("Curly Beard")
Cagnazzo ("Nasty Dog")
Calcabrina (possibly "Grace Stomper")
Ciriatto ("Wild Hog")
Graffiacane ("Dog Scratcher")
Libicocco (possibly "Libyan Hothead")
Malacoda, the leader ("Evil Tail")
Rubicante (possibly "Red-faced Terror")
Commentators believe that the demons' names may be jumbled up versions of the names of officials in Alighieri's period. This criticism of important figures adds a unique element of satirical humor in the otherwise humorless work. Form of "Screwtape Proposes a Toast" "Screwtape Proposes a Toast", published originally as an article in The Saturday Evening Post, appears at the end of The Screwtape Letters as a sort of afterword. Unlike The Screwtape Letter's epistolary form, "Screwtape Proposes a Toast" is written as a speech given by Screwtape to pupils at the Tempters' Training College. This format allows the satire and critique to be more penetrable as if one is really listening to a persuasive speaker.