Book Review

12/09/2012 § 3 Comments

That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis

That Hideous Strength is, in my opinion, Lewis’s finest piece of fiction, and his most enjoyable piece of writing.  The story follows the lives of a married couple, Mark and Jane Studdock, as they live their young married life together in the realm of academia.  Mark is fresh out of university, and has become a senior fellow at the college where he teaches.  Jane is still a scholar, in the process of working on her thesis.  They are both thoroughly steeped in the modernism of academia, and are both, in their own way, rather unhappy.

Interestingly, their respective lives never really intertwine that much throughout the book, except quite briefly at the beginning and again at the end, so the book is really two stories in one.

The first story concerns Mark, and his role in academia.  After getting his fellowship position, he is offered a position in NICE, which he “accepts,” after a fashion.  He never seems to really know what is going on at NICE, or what they expect him to do.  As the book progresses, the reader, but not Mark, comes to realize that NICE really wants Jane, but can only get her through Mark.  Thus, NICE tries alternately to manipulate and bully Mark into bringing Jane over to NICE.  Because Mark is educated beyond his intelligence, he falls for the manipulation, even though he senses something is wrong.  And because Mark is insecure, he falls for the bullying, because he only wants the social acceptance he can never have.

Through Mark, Lewis paints a rather darkly amusing portrait of humanists, and notes that those who worship Man must first idealize him and then, once men fail to conform to the ideal of Man, must eventually kill off man.  Lewis thus notes the paradox of Humanism, and paints its stark brutality in no unclear terms.  Humanists are profoundly wicked, brutish murderers whose ultimate plan is to kill off humanity in the name of saving it.

The second story concerns Jane.  Her story picks up with her having some dreams that are apparently predictive or supernatural in nature.  She initially tries to deny this, especially after she is first taken to see Ransom (the protagonist of the first two parts of this trilogy), who asks her to becomes part of their group on the condition that she first get permission from her husband to do so.  Jane initially rejects Ransom’s offer because of its patriarchal overtones (she’s an enlightened woman, after all).  However, she eventually comes around, especially after NICE attempts to arrest her.

Ransom eventually uses Jane to track down Merlin who has apparently risen from the dead.  Jane does so, then Ransom and Merlin begin to plot how to save the world from NICE.  Eventually, Merlin is snuck into to headquarters of NICE, where he then pronounces a curse that renders everyone’s speech unintelligible, which is an allusion to the Tower of Babel.  Of course, in this turn of events, Lewis seems to be getting his digs in at the highly technical jargon that is often employed by academics.  Then an earthquake happens and destroys NICE’s facilities, and kills off most of the members of NICE.  It does not kill off Mark, though, and he eventually returns to his wife, where there are reunited quite joyfully, each considerably wiser for their respective experiences.

A good portion of the themes of the book deal with Traditionalism and Modernism.  Lewis is quite sympathetic to traditionalism, particularly patriarchy and hierarchy.  He rejects the notion of equality, and he also rejects the modern notion of rationality.  Instead, Lewis prefers full-blooded humanity, wherein men enjoy the good things of life:  friendship, courage, good food and strong drink, without concern for silly things like “hygiene” and the aforementioned equality.  To Lewis, life is to be lived by real men and women, not managed by fussy people in white lab coats.

To Lewis, the simpler things in life, and the great virtues once upheld by the proud British people—virtues like courage, honesty, chivalry, and submission—are the point of life, and give life its meeting.  He complains of those who seek to study Man without ever getting to a man, and his point should be well-taken.  The problem with social planners is that, for all their study, they never know man, and they cannot ever manage him.  In fact, the only thing they can ever really do is kill man.

There are many more themes and thoughts to the book than what have been discussed here.  That Hideous Strength is, in many ways, Lewis’s most profound work of fiction, and it is very much worth reading.  As noted before, this is Lewis’s most enjoyable work of writing, and is comparable to some of Chesterton’s or Mencken’s better works, at least in terms of how thoroughly enjoyable it is to read—or even savor—the words coming out Lewis’s pen.

Grade: A

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