The Removal of Irony in 'That Hideous Strength'


Towards the end of That Hideous Strength, as Lewis has Ransom meet with Merlin to outline how the heavenly reality is about to descend into the framework of the modern world, the male half of Lewis’s protagonist, Mark Studdock, is imprisoned in a cell within the enemy’s stronghold at Belbury.

For most of the novel thus far, the audience has been in an external position in relation to Mark and has experienced a dramatic irony in seeing him fall further and further into what has clearly been a trap all along. Now, however, we have been brought into a closer intimacy with him and all such irony is gone: he realises that his life, and possibly his soul, is in peril, and he henceforth ‘plays a role’ for the benefit of his captors. Lewis uses these chapters as a means of explaining what so revulsed him about ‘modernism’ by having Frost give voice to its most obnoxious extremes. Mark, in order to gain time, asks Frost what is to replace morality - on what ground henceforward were actions to be justified or condemned?

"If one insists on putting the question in those terms," said Frost, "I think Waddington has given the best answer. Existence is its own justification. The tendency to developmental change which we call Evolution is justified by the fact that it is a general characteristic of biological entities. The present establishment of contact between the highest biological entities and the Macrobes is justified by the fact that it is occurring, and it ought to be increased because an increase is taking place."

The notions of ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ to Frost are illusions. Lewis uses a mixture of fictional philosophers (‘Waddington’) and real people (Huxley and his Romanes lecture at Oxford) to present the contemporary view that emotion and ‘that preposterous idea of an external standard of value which the emotion produced’ should be abolished. Motives are to be seen not as the causes of action but as its by-products. Mark recognises Frost’s arguments as the logical conclusion of thoughts which had always been part of his own view of life, but which he now rejects.

Frost then compels Mark to undergo a series of tests, the purpose of which is to eliminate from his mind moral motivations as a ground for action. These include being kept in a room which is full of subtle symbolic and surreal ‘adjustments’ - things designed to unhinge normal sensibilities and to tip him towards a kind of insanity.

There was a portrait of a young woman who held her mouth wide open to reveal the fact that the inside of it was thickly overgrown with hair. It was very skilfully painted in the photographic manner so that you could almost feel that hair; indeed you could not avoid feeling it however hard you tried. There was a giant mantis playing a fiddle while being eaten by another mantis, and a man with corkscrews instead of arms bathing in a flat, sadly coloured sea beneath a summer sunset.

Before long, Mark notices that the majority of pictures in the room have a spiritual theme, except that the pictur