Open Letter to CS Lewis Regarding the Good Life, with Special Reference to That Hideous Strength
Dear Mr. Lewis,
I think you would agree that good is a moral term, denoting things that are morally defensible. The good life, therefore, would be living a life in accordance to moral values. You seem to explore the concept of morality in your novel, That Hideous Strength. Of all the characters that populate this novel, Mark and Jane Studdock show the greatest degree of moral development and maturity. In fact, one may argue that other than their central usage to the plot, the author has characterized them in the story in order to demonstrate the values of virtue and the hope for humanity that goodness inherently provides. What is even more interesting about these two characters is the fact that their moral development is far from parallel -- the spouses take individual routes to discovering a true sense of morals in which goodness is defined. Within many works of literature, good functions merely as an antithesis to evil. However, whereas the conception of malignity is readily defined in this novel as man's attempt to subvert nature (and God as a result) to his own will, the author's description of true virtue is significantly more subtle. Still, a detailed analysis of Mark and Jane's moral journey reveals that virtue is actually a consideration for others either prior to or simultaneously to consideration for one's own needs.
Although neither Jane nor Mark is innately evil people at the outset of the novel, it is quite clear that they are far from virtuous. They have no true desire to usurp God's will or to re-order natural life to suit their own fancy -- as opposed to the desires of the individuals who run the National Institute for Co-Ordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E.) -- yet their attitudes and characteristics towards one another, as symbolized by the union of their marriage, is considerably lacking. There are several points within this novel in which Lewis makes it clear that he aligns virtuous behavior with religious (mostly Christian) values. This point is certainly elucidated in the opening pages in which it is clear that there is a degree of mutual selfishness -- not consideration -- between the pair. The following quotation, in which Jane reflects on a recent church sermon, demonstrates this fact clearly. "Mutual society, help, and comfort," said Jane bitterly. In reality marriage had proved to be the door out of a world of work and comradeship and laughter and innumerable things to do, into something like solitary confinement." (Lewis First 2 pages). This passage shows how marriage is merely a means to attaining a self-oriented goal for Jane, who is not saddled with the burden of pursuing professional "work" do to the arrangement. The fact that she is dissatisfied with the results of her self-serving goal is alluded to by the fact that she also feels a dearth of companionship and joy with her husband. Significantly, the author contrasts the reality of Jane's marriage with the virtuous Christian model of one, which revolves around a degree of mutuality in pleasure and work between a husband and wife which is foreign to Jane.
It is important to point out that while Mark is far from the ideal spouse, his immorality is perhaps even more selfish than Jane's. Mark desires status and power independently of his relationship with his wife. Therefore, he devotes the majority of his time -- both when his is not with Jane and even when he is -- to achieving these goals that will only benefit him, and certainly not his marriage. Mark engages in a number of morally ambiguous activities to pursue his end of achieving power, including selling a portion of his university's land (which displaces a substantial number of residences) to the N.I.C.E. In order to move up the professional ranks. His goals of attempting to achieve power and status are not necessarily evil in and of themselves. But the fact that he is emotionally (and physically) distanced from his wife while striving to accomplish these goals shows that his priorities are inverted, and that he has a long ways to go to become morally mature. In fact, his prioritization of his career over his marriage leaves Jane to wonder, "Was it the crude truth that all the endless talks which had seemed to her, before they were married, the very medium of love itself, had never been to him more than a preliminary?" (Lewis First 2 pages of book). This quotation implies that Mark is so selfish in his lack of regard for Jane and their marriage that she doubts whether or not he actually loves her. Love is not only crucial to sustaining a marriage, it is also crucial to sustaining a relationship with a divinity (since humans must love God). Jane's perception of Mark's inability to love is highly suggestive of an amorality -- if not immorality -- on Mark's part.
Jane's journey to moral maturation begins in earnest once she meet's various representatives at St. Anne's, which is the headquarters for a group of Christians who are cognizant of a greater war between the N.I.C.E. And evil demonic spirits and the powers of God. It is through her association with these people, and particularly her relationship with Dr. Elwin Ransom, that enables Jane to see beyond both her own selfish needs and problems to realize that the true spirit of good is in caring for and helping others. The catalyst for causing this transformation in the young woman is her initial meeting with Ransom who, as the following quotation proves, appears to her like both a child and an old man. Jane looked; and instantly her world was unmade.
On a sofa before her…lay what appeared to be a boy…But no boy could have so full a beard…She…disliked… & #8230;bearded faces…because she had long since forgotten the imagined Arthur of her childhood -- and…Solomon too…for the first time in many years the bright blend of king and lover and magician which hangs about that name stole back upon her mind. (Lewis 143)
This passage is crucial to Jane's moral maturity because it shows her how to love again. Ransom's likeness to both King Arthur and Solomon combines religious devotion with that romantic love -- which had been spoiled for Jane through her relationship with Mark. Yet Ransom's countenance is able to inspire this sentiment in her again because it returns her to her childhood appreciation of what love is. Additionally, her interactions with Ransom and the other's at St. Anne's shows her how selfless they are in the battle against inequity, and inspires her to live the same way.
Such a turnaround in priorities from those pertaining to herself to others occurs fairly expediently for Jane; Mark, however, wavers in his moral development -- probing the depths of immoral behavior and concerns -- before he eventually realizes the virtues of love at the end of the book. As an employee for the N.I.C.E., the young man is cognizant of a host of questionable activities in which the organization participates. Moreover, his vaunted position with the company symbolizes his implicit, largely tacit, complicity in a host of dubious deeds such as creating propaganda for a planned riot (which eventually leads in the arrest of his wife), conducting noxious experiments on animals, and even murdering former employees. For the most part, however, Mark simply remains amoral -- choosing to largely ignores what he is aware of so long as he can achieve his aims of a prominent position with the organization and its accordant power. Yet when he is tacitly asked to be immoral, symbolized in the novel by rejecting organized religion in the form of Christianity and God himself, he has difficulty doing so. Frost asks Mark to defile a crucifix, and Mark refuses, for a variety of reasons, which the following quotation demonstrates.
And that, as he suddenly saw, explained why this image, though not itself an image of the Straight or Normal, was yet in opposition to crooked Belbury. It was a picture of what happened when the Straight met the Crooked, a picture of what the Crooked did to the Straight - what it would do to him if he remained straight (Lewis Ch:15 end of part 4).
This is a pivotal passage in explaining Mark's transition to moral maturation. Prior to this quotation, he largely only believed in himself and his own goals. Even when he found out that Belbury itself was an evil institution, he still thought of little more than his own dilemma which such a fact produced. Yet this quotation demonstrates the sense of moral development Mark has gained sense then. Regardless of whether or not he believes in the religious value of the depiction of Jesus he is asked to defile, he still recognizes that from a historical perspective, Christ was essentially a countercultural figure who opposed authorities. Thus, he aligns Christ and…