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Author Study: C.S. Lewis Curated by Natasha Sung '23: Dominant Motifs and Themes

 

Lewis' Dominant Styles and Motifs 

 

Theme: We have unfulfilled longings and desires which point us toward an all-surpassing God.

This is a common theme evident throughout Lewis’ works. Lewis believed that we were made for “Joy”, which cannot be found anywhere else besides the courts of heaven. Lewis was open about his own struggles looking for fulfillment through different mediums, and uses his own experience with converting to Christianity as leverage to substantiate his claims that just as physical hunger points to our need for food, we all have an innate spiritual hunger that points us to the Christian God.

Examples in some of Lewis' works: 

Surprised by Joy

“And with that plunge back into my own past there arose at once, almost like heartbreak, the memory of Joy itself, the knowledge that I had once had what I had now lacked for years, that I was returning at last from exile and desert lands to my own country…flowed together into a single, unendurable sense of desire and loss.” (Lewis 73)

In Surprised by Joy, Lewis weaves all the parts of his life together through the lens of his desires and longings from childhood to adolescence, and finally to adulthood. In each stage of life, Lewis intentionally describes his personal journey of pursuing Joy and attains his discovery of Joy to his conversion to Christianity.

Mere Christianity

“The Christian says, ‘Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. if I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world… I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and to help others to do the same.” (Lewis 136)

Lewis believed that the very nature of human desire suggests our ultimate belonging in another world. He uses his personal experience of wrestling with human desires and ultimately finding fulfilment in God as a blueprint for all to follow. He claims that our human desires cannot be dismissed as romantic, yet are clues to the ultimate destination of desire, which is God Himself. The theme of desire was one of Lewis’ biggest arguments for the existence of God as he sought to reason to it in Mere Christianity.

Christianity and Culture

“These values are in themselves of the soul, not the spirit. But God created the soul. Its values may be expected, therefore, to contain some reflection or antepast of the spiritual values. They will save no man. They resemble the regenerate life only as affection resembles charity, or honour resembles virtue, or the moon the sun. But though" like is not the same," it is better than unlike. Imitation may pass into initiation. For some it is a good beginning. For others it is not; culture is not everyone's road into Jerusalem, and for some it is a road out.” (Lewis 23)

Here, Lewis suggests that the desire of some may lead them to “culture”, that is, as Lewis defines it, “of intellectual and aesthetic activity”. Though Christians may argue for the uselessness of culture and that it is innately evil, Lewis instead argues that culture, and its very limited ability to temporarily and shallowly satisfy the desires of one, gives a dim picture of God’s everlasting ability to bring deepest satisfaction and fulfilment to human beings. “Imitation may pass into initiation”, he states, arguing that though our desires may lead us to cultural influences, it is the duty of culture to redirect these beings to a greater God.

Screwtape Proposes a Toast

“Could you find in it any trace of a fully inflamed, defiant, rebellious, insatiable lust? I couldn't. They all tasted to me like undersexed morons who had blundered or trickled into the wrong beds in automatic response to sexy advertisements, or to make themselves feel modern and emancipated, or to reassure themselves about their virility or their “normalcy,” or even because they had nothing else to do.” (Lewis 2)

In Screwtape Proposes a Toast, Lewis exposes the fragility of human beings to succumb to their desires. In this short story, Lewis mainly mentions sexual desire and the desire of conformity as two examples. He bluntly presents the fact that humans will fall under the rule of their human desires if not channelled for righteousness.

Motif: Spiritual and Moral Purity 

In many of his works, Lewis stressed the importance of spiritual and moral purity. Because his faith played a major role in his writing, many of his works hint at the importance of spiritual formation as the means to obtain spiritual and moral purity. Interweaving this argument with the idea of absolute morality, Lewis claimed that the goal of all human beings was to press on to achieve ultimate purity at the end of one’s life. Spiritual and moral purity, therefore, were common motifs in Lewis’ works.

Examples in some of Lewis' works: 

The Shoddy Lands

“It made me for the moment almost physically sick. What staggered me was that she could stand and admire it.” (Lewis 110)

The motif of spiritual and moral purity is evident in The Shoddy Lands as Lewis examines the worldview of a young woman who is clouded by materialism and consumerism. He uses an accusatory and even demeaning tone to accentuate the disgusting impurity of one who is heavily influenced by the temptations of this world.

After Prayers, Lie Cold

“Emptied and clean, a garment washed and folded up, / Faded in colour, thinned almost to raggedness / By dirt and by the washing of that dirtiness.” (Lines 8-10)

In this poem, Lewis describes the weariness but purity of one who has been sanctified by the forgiveness and mercy of God. By using phrases like “washed” and “cleaned”, Lewis hints at the cleansing nature of God when one succumbs to Him, circling back to his own conversion experience.

Mere Christianity

“Does it not make a great difference whether I am, so to speak, the landlord of my own mind and body, or only a tenant, responsible to the real landlord? If somebody else made me, for his own purposes, then I shall have a lot of duties which I should not have if I simply belonged to myself.” (Lewis 74)

In Mere Christianity, Lewis argues that all creatures were made for God, therefore, we all have a high standard of spiritual and moral purity to abide to. He states that we do not belong to ourselves but to God, therefore, spiritual and moral purify are not only obligations but also objectives found only in God.

Christianity and Culture

“Sensitivity may be a perfection: but if by becoming sensitive I neither please God nor save my soul, why should I become sensitive?” (Lewis 19)

The whole exigence for Lewis’ writing of these essays is Lewis’ desire to pursue spiritual purity best as he can. Having realized that his involvement in culture may be a stumbling block for his faith, he sought to research upon the topic of Christianity and Culture, and this is how these essays were born. The purity of one’s own spirituality is also a recurring idea that is referenced by both Lewis and his critics, most of whom are all Christians pursuing spiritual purity.

The Magician’s Nephew

“You know me better than you think, you know, and you shall know me better yet.” (Lewis 107)

This quote appears in a turning point in the novel The Magician’s Nephew when Narnia is established and Aslan, the lion who symbolizes God, brings order to the newly established nation. Throughout the novel, Lewis outlines two main characters as they venture into a foreign land, sin, and receive ultimate forgiveness and acceptance from God. Lewis’ argument that the spiritual and moral purity are not destinations, rather, they are a journey of growing in intimacy with God.

Surprised by Joy

“You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. 

In Surprised by Joy, Lewis outlines his journey of being tainted with immorality by the things of this world and ultimately arriving at the foot of the Cross and finding forgiveness and cleansing. Lewis makes the implicit claim through his personal story and through his descriptions of being influenced by evil, that ultimate cleansing comes from God. This objective goal of spiritual and moral purity is labelled by Lewis as “Joy”, and he states that this “Joy” was not found until he gave in to God.