Almost all the main characters have been introduced and the potential conflicts are in place. Now development: that phase of a novel that builds tension and raises the stakes. All the major plot elements will be rounded up and herded in one direction, although the reader should feel that options are still open. In that sense, a novel is like a conspiracy theory: the unfolding plot looks like the best conclusion from the facts, but the facts have been carefully selected. Let’s look at how Lewis chooses incident to build tension and invest the reader in the story. (I thought this post might be shorter than the last one, but oh well . . . .)
CHAPTER FIVE: ELASTICITY
5.1 The Institute’s S.O.P. is to keep underlings off-balance: this is what Wither calls flexibility and Miss Hardcastle calls elasticity. Her advice to Mark is to get with the program, and understanding will come in time. This is a brutalization of Jesus’ words in John 7: 17: “If any man seeks to do God’s will he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God.” That is, one must willingly join in order to know. Jesus has authority to say that, but Miss Hardcastle’s version should be a clue to Mark that the aims of the N.I.C.E. are more expansive than mere social reform. He doesn’t pick up on it, possibly because, as she cynically observes, “it’s the educated reader who can be gulled . . . He’s been conditioned.” What do you think? And what does that say about what’s commonly understood as “education”?
The paragraph beginning with, “The confidential tone,” solidifies, perhaps unnecessarily, what we already know about Mark’s main motivation. In fact, Lewis makes his motivation more explicit than any other character’s. That’s because it was close to his heart.
In an address called “The Inner Ring” (1944) Lewis expanded on the theme: “I don’t believe that the economic motive and the erotic motive account for everything that goes on in what we moralists call the World. Even if you add Ambition I think the picture is still incomplete. . .” He identified this missing factor as “the lust for the esoteric, the longing to be inside . . . [T]his desire is one of the great permanent mainsprings of human action.” He experienced it, and so have I. It goes way back: when Eve’s hand finally reached out for the fruit, it was a lust for forbidden knowledge that drove her. Mark is not precisely aware that the knowledge is forbidden, only that it’s denied to him. In order to acquire it, he’ll have to stretch his principles, such as they are—and that’s where the real “elasticity” comes in.
5.2 Does he seem like a rat in a maze? Or a mouse between a cat’s paws? I almost feel sorry for him, especially when reading Curry’s letter. Compare Curry’s praise of David Laird with the doubts expressed in 4.7—is Curry prevaricating or has he convinced himself that this mediocre scholar is really the best man for the position? “He got a third” (Mark’s letter) refers to the lowest-degree university diploma. ~ Feverstone’s “nasty,poor, brutish, and short” is a slightly misquoted description of primitive man from Thomas Hobbe’s Leviathan (1651). Mark is learning he can’t really trust anyone–Feverstone’s easy manner can turn on a dime and Wither is impossible to pin down.
5.3 Unlike Mark, Jane is defined more by what she doesn’t want than by what she wants (making her a weaker, i.e. less memorable character, in the opinion of some critics). What she doesn’t want is to be messed with; she’s defensive about her self-image as an independent modern woman. (Lewis described himself this way in Surprised by Joy.) Though Jane is sincerely drawn to the Dennistons, they make her angry . . . and what else? ~ The Sura they mention is probably based on an actual Indian mystic, Sadhu Sundar Singh, who converted to Christianity in 1904 and lived as an itinerant evangelist until his disappearance in Tibet. ~ You may know Pendragon as King Arthur’s family name, but its earliest origin is in Wales, where it means Chief or Head. According to legend, Merlin bestowed it as a surname on Arthur’s father.
In the paragraph beginning, “You must see it from Mrs. Studdock’s point of view,” notice how Arthur Denniston echoes Miss Hardcastle’s advice in 5.1: Jane must first commit to the organization before she can understand what it’s all about. (Remember John 7:17). Matters of cosmic significance can only be understood from the inside. Do you believe this is true?
CHAPTER SIX: FOG
6.1 In fiction, weather is often a metaphor. Fog in this chapter is a metaphor for . . . what? ~ Feeling trapped, Mark finds his only recourse is to “do what he’s told” and maybe something will come of it. Notice how he tries to feel better about it by blaming Jane. Have you ever done that with your spouse?
6-2 Bracton College is totally out-maneuvered by the N.I.C.E. The last vestige of grace and tradition that the University is supposed to protect is destroyed, and the question returns: why do they want the wood, even that last little strip? A growing crisis in Edgetow is clamoring for a response. It’s not clear that Mark wrote the first newspaper article suggesting something must be done (and isn’t that always the way government is invited to take more control?), but we’re meant to assume that he is. ~ How does Hingest’s funeral contribute to the mood of this chapter?
6-3 The scene in the library represents Mark’s full conversion to the dark side. His pleasure at being received is so intense it dulls any twinge of conscience about what he’s asked to do. This is how even decent men are corrupted–step by step. We learn later that Rev. Straik was a much better man than Mark until led astray by bad theology, demonstrated here by his understanding of the resurrection. (Lewis hinted earlier that he was driven to fanaticism by the death of his young daughter.) ~ Ad metam properate, “Hurry on to the finish.” ~ Professor Frost is one of the inner Inner Circle, and alert readers will recognize him from the description as someone we’ve met before. In the very first chapter–remember?
6-4 Mark’s two editorials are very long (hard to imagine any newspaper that would publish them today). They can be skimmed, but it’s worth noting what audience he’s aiming at in in each and the different means he uses to reach them. He’s actually a talented writer, as the management perceives. In some circles, talent is everything, and its main purpose is to advance one’s own ambitions. Also, recall what Miss Hardcastle said about the educated being most vulnerable to “conditioning.” Mark has already learned that lesson.
6-5 Jane has another dream and soon after meets a nightmare in real life. No more question of holding herself aloof; one way or another, someone is going to mess with her, and she’d rather it be people she knows and likes. Notice the weather again . . .
CHAPTER SEVEN: THE PENDRAGON
7-1 The Fisher-King is a mysterious figure in Arthurian legend, associated with gentle, naïve Sir Percival during the Grail quest. Percival first meets the Fisher-King as an old fisherman who directs him to the right path. Later, the knight encounters him as a king with an incurable wound attended by keepers of the Grail itself. Our “Mr. Fisher-King” is none other than Dr. Ransom, who traveled to Mars and Venus and returned from the latter with an incurable wound in his heel. Meeting him marks Jane’s conversion: “Her world was unmade” (note the repetition). Ransom is obviously meant to represent Christ (though, unlike Aslan, he is not Christ in another form). How many resemblances do you see?
7-2 His conversation with Jane seems to touch on several issues but it’s really only one: love. That’s what all the talk about equality is about, though expressed more succinctly in Lewis’s essay “Membership” (from The Weight of Glory): “Equality is a quantitative term and therefore love knows nothing of it.” Equality is about giving everyone a “fair share”; love has no concern with fairness, or even sharing. Otherwise any couple will fall into the tired routine of blaming each other for their problems, as Mark earlier blamed Jane and now she wants to blame him. ~ I was once shaken to the core by Ransom’s observation that “Those who are enjoying something, or suffering something together, are companions [i.e., equals]. Those who enjoy or suffer each other are not [emphasis mine].” Marriage has no place for keeping tabs or trading favors; each is totally in debt to the other. And (as the mice demonstrate) it’s not meant to be a lifelong burden, but more like a dance. ~ The sensual trance that steals over Jane as he’s talking (“Stop it!” said the Director, sharply) is not explained but we’ll get some idea later of what it means. I think. ~ Brobdingnag, mentioned at the end of the section, is the land of giants visited by Gulliver.
7-3 Why does Lewis have to examine all of Jane’s feelings in such detail? Well, he probably doesn’t. He means to show her divided state of mind, and got carried away. But “the state of joy” that is Jane’s overarching emotion is central to Lewis’s religious thought (see Surprised by Joy), and soon enough that state will change.
7-4 Lewis may lay it on a little heavy in this section (such things as Rubens might have seen in delirium? Not going there!), but thankfully he curtails the torture scene, like most contemporary writers wouldn’t do. The segment accomplishes at least three purposes: ramps up the tension, shows the real violence and destruction of the Institute’s “engineered” riot, and provides excellent justification for Jane to flee to St. Anne’s.
CHAPTER EIGHT: MOONLIGHT AT BELBURY
8-1 We’re getting close to the heart of the matter at Belbury—the real Inner Ring. Readers may guess who “the Head” is, but Lewis is not going to spring it just yet. The conversation between Wither and Hardcastle hints that Mark was invited to the Institute not for his writing ability but for his wife—certainly the last thing he would have expected, and we should be rather surprised, too.
8-2 Jane’s introduction to the full circle at St. Anne’s. It’s an “equal” society, in the way discussed in 7-2, but note how Jane’s bland defense of equality to the Director doesn’t extend to her attitude toward Ivy Maggs. As for Mr. Bultitude—he may seem like comic relief, but he’ll serve a purpose later on. (Mr. Bultitude takes his name from a central character in the classic 1880s school story, Vice Versa). MacPhee is the “resident skeptic,” a hard-headed agnostic of the sort Lewis seems to have had great affection for (in Surprised by Joy, he describes his beloved tutor W. T. Fitzpatrick in similar terms). William Hingest, who was bumped off in Chapter 4, is cut from the same cloth. You can grasp the drift of MacPhee’s conversation without understanding all his references—I certainly don’t. Most of this section can be skipped as not essential to the plot, though interesting in its ideas.
8/3 Mark’s dinner conversation with Filostrato goes on too long as well, but it’s more directly related to Lewis’s theme. The “Italian eunuch” finds organic life distasteful: his ideal is the clean, white moon. Note that he is a physicist rather than a biologist, which doesn’t seem to jibe with his experimental tinkering on animals and plants. Physics is the science of “elegant” theories and big pictures, such as the non-organic dream that Filostrato is sketching here. It’s not an appealing dream, but nobody at the table can find a reason to refute him.
Well, we can: he is calling good evil, and evil good (Is. 5:20; cf. Gen. 1:31) ~ The moon, bringer of madness, bears down hard on Belbury. Filostrato’s discussion of life there sounds like fanatical raving, but we’ll hear more of it. In fact, we’re hearing of it now, with “CRSPR” gene editing to remove inherited diseases. A benevolent motivation can easily become a ravenous desire to redesign humanity. And it will.
Finally, Mark comes close to the secret: compare his approach to the Head with Jane’s introduction to the Head of St. Anne’s in the last chapter. Remember that they are following parallel courses in radically different settings; though neither realizes it yet, they will be confronted with equally crucial decisions very soon.
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Lewis described That Hideous Strength as a novelistic re-working of ideas he set out in the three essays that make up The Abolition of Man. I’ve also begun a read-along to The Abolition of Man, which dovetails nicely with THS. Even if you don’t have time to read the book (which is very short, but very dense), it’s interesting to see how the novel is reflected in the meditation, and vice versa.