'That Hideous Strength': A Thriller with a Purpose
Out of the Silent Planet, Voyage to Venus and That Hideous Strength are in fact three different attempts to accomplish the same transformative shift for readers from slightly different angles.
In the first, Lewis employs the medium of ‘pure science fiction’, drawing on its Wellsian imagery, familiar to readers at the time of the novel’s first release, to achieve the transition from Ironic to Epic or from non-Christian to Christian worlds; in the second, having Weston materialise as a distinct adversary, at first proposing intellectual counter-arguments and then physically battling the hero, Lewis draws on the background of Christian theology and the pictures and representations of the classical world to conquer the Ironic opposition and remove the reader to Paradise in a fantasy. In That Hideous Strength, Lewis uses the ‘thriller’ genre, inspired by the work of his friend Charles Williams in that field, to set the concepts he wants to convey in an earthly and very modern setting. By following certain conventions, Lewis hopes to again trigger a shift for the reader, moving him or her into a spacious new world.
Traces of what Lewis is doing lie at many levels in the novel, beginning with its sub-title, ‘a modern fairy-tale for grown-ups’, which Lewis explains in his Preface:
I have called this a fairy-tale in the hope that no one who dislikes fantasy may be misled by the first two chapters into reading further, and then complain of his disappointment. If you ask why--intending to write about magicians, devils, pantomime animals, and planetary angels--I nevertheless begin with such humdrum scenes and persons, I reply that I am following the traditional fairy-tale. We do not always notice its method, because the cottages, castles, woodcutters, and petty kings with which a fairy-tale opens have become for us as remote as the witches and ogres to which it proceeds. But they were not remote at all to the men who made and first enjoyed the stories.
Beginning with ‘such humdrum scenes and persons’ is also a way of establishing a reality with an ordinary reader initially, so that that reader can be moved to a new reality through the course of the novel.
Lewis makes it explicit that his story has a ‘"serious "point" which I have tried to make in my Abolition of Man’ as he says. As he has now utilised science fiction and fantasy, he is moving to the mode of an outwardly Ironic modern novel, one in which ‘In the story the outer rim of that devilry had to be shown touching the life of some ordinary and respectable profession’ and is clear to his readers that it ‘concludes the Trilogy of which Out of the Silent Planet was the first part, and Perelandra the second, but can be read on its own’.
Given these parameters, it is no surprise that the novel opens in a modern flat, and that we are at first encouraged to accept as our protagonist Jane Studdock:
Through the open door she could see the tiny kitchen of the flat and hear the loud, ungentle tick-tick of the clock. She had just left the kitchen and knew how tidy it was. The breakfast things were washed up, the tea towels were hanging above the stove, and the floor was mopped. The beds were made and the rooms "done." She had just returned from the only shopping she need do that day, and it was still a minute before eleven. Except for getting her own lunch and tea there was nothing that had to be done till six o'clock, even supposing that Mark was really coming home for dinner.
Using the classic techniques of successful authors through the centuries, Lewis is quick to establish that Jane has something missing in her life, and that her marriage is unsatisfactory:
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. For some years before their marriage she had never seen so little of Mark as she had done in the last six months. Even when he was at home he hardly ever talked. He was always either sleepy or intellectually preoccupied. While they had been friends, and later when they were lovers, life itself had seemed too short for all they had to say to each other. But now . . . why had he married her? Was he still in love? If so, "being in love" must mean totally different things to men and women. 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?
But this quickly escalates from a fairly commonplace gap or hole or absence in her life into something much more serious, thus hooking in the reader: Jane has had a terrifying dream which seems to be inexplicably related to the execution of an arch-criminal. This introduction of a slight supernatural element at this point creates both a plot drive and a deeper character mystery, but also illustrates Lewis using the tools of a thriller effectively to start the novel.
Next we are taken into the world of Jane’s husband Mark, a sociologist who works at Edgestow University, a man caught up in trivial politics and the incremental loss of personal integrity which that brings. His absence of any real certainty - and the almost universal experience he has of losing his moral core by degrees - is what glues us to him as readers at first. Together with Jane, he forms the central focus of our attention.
If we accept that Mark is the protagonist of the novel, though, and that Jane is the ‘female companion’ common in such stories, the other archetypal characters that we might expect to see are slow to appear. Lewis takes time at first to build up the presence of the antagonist. Unlike in Out of the Silent Planet or Voyage to Venus, in which the villains were modern, cynical individuals, born into and in agreement with an Ironic framework, but set in a science fiction or fantasy Epic context which highlighted their views as objectionable, Lewis has set himself the opposite challenge of placing a weak, wavering and equivocal protagonist in a world full of Ironic villainy. This evil takes the form of a highly recognisable kind of modern institution, the National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments, or N.I.C.E:
The N.I.C.E. was the first-fruit of that constructive fusion between the state and the laboratory on which so many thoughtful people base their hopes of a better world. It was to be free from almost all the tiresome restraints--"red tape" was the word its supporters used--which have hitherto hampered research in this country. It was also largely free from the restraints of economy, for, as it was argued, a nation which can spend so many millions a day on a war can surely afford a few millions a month on productive research in peace-time.
This body, clearly to be viewed with suspicion, seeks to purchase a part of the university’s land upon which grows the ancient and mysterious Bragdon Wood, and this early chapter is largely occupied with the various machinations around that attempted purchase. Just as our attention might begin to flag, though, as we fail at this point to recognise the significance of the purchase of the wood, Lewis masterfully re-introduces a character from the first novel of the trilogy: Lord Feverstone, who turns out to be Devine from Out of the Silent Planet. Whatever we might make of the convolutions of the College meeting at which the sale of the land is discussed, we now know as readers that there is something villainous going on beneath the surface; things gain a new significance.
In typical modern style, Lewis then switches us back to Jane and a shopping expedition on which she has launched herself to avoid thinking about her dream. She encounters the Dimbles, a friendly couple to whom she ends up divulging something about her dream.
"That child's going to faint," said Mrs. Dimble suddenly jumping up.
"Hullo! What's the matter?" said Dr. Dimble, looking with amazement at Jane's face. "Is the room too hot for you?"
"Oh, it's too ridiculous," said Jane.
"Let's come into the drawing-room," said Dr. Dimble.
"Here. Lean on my arm."
A little later, in the drawing-room, seated beside a window that opened onto the lawn, now strewn with bright yellow leaves, Jane attempted to excuse her absurd behaviour by telling the story of her dream. "I suppose I've given myself away dreadfully," she said. "You can both start psycho-analysing me now."
From Dr. Dimble's face Jane might have indeed conjectured that her dream had shocked him exceedingly.
Meanwhile, Mark has fallen into a conversation with Feverstone about his more romantic colleagues at the University, which has been crafted by Lewis as an opportunity to clarify the two poles of reality with which he is working. Feverstone, about whom we as readers are wary, is making the point about these older colleagues to Mark and comparing them to the others:
I think their idea of culture and knowledge and what not is unrealistic. I don't think it fits the world we're living in. It's a mere fantasy. But it is quite a clear idea and they follow it out consistently. They know what they want. But our two poor friends, though they can be persuaded to take the right train, or even to drive it, haven't a ghost of a notion where it's going to, or why. They'll sweat blood to bring the N.I.C.E. to Edgestow: that's why they're indispensable. But what the point of the N.I.C.E. is, what the point of anything is--ask them another.
In other words, while Feverstone acknowledges the consistency of the idea of culture and knowledge, he asserts that it does not fit the world we’re living in: ‘It’s mere fantasy’. Feverstone, though, is the villain; what this really means is the opposite, from Lewis’s point of view. The ‘idea of culture and knowledge and what not’ may well not fit into the modern world, but Lewis’s belief is that it is quite the opposite of ‘mere fantasy’, and the rest of the novel sets out to prove it.
Lewis rapidly has Feverstone outline the Bigger Picture in his terms:
"If Science is really given a free hand it can now take over the human race and recondition it; make man a really efficient animal. If it doesn't--well, we're done."
"There are three main problems. First, the interplanetary problem."
"What on earth do you mean?"
"Well, that doesn't really matter. We can't do anything about that at present. The only man who could help was Weston."
"He was killed in a blitz, wasn't he?"
"He was murdered."
"I'm pretty sure of it, and I've a shrewd idea who the murderer was."
"Good God! Can nothing be done?"
"There's no evidence. The murderer is a respectable Cambridge don with weak eyes, a game leg, and a fair beard. He's dined in this College.”
Of course, any reader familiar with the first two books in the series is reading ‘between the lines’ during this discourse, which is serving to clarify characters’ positions within the story. Mark himself, a waverer with ebbing integrity, but nevertheless our protagonist, is the pawn, as stated by Feverstone:
“That is why it is of such immense importance to each of us to choose the right side. If you try to be neutral you become simply a pawn."
"Oh, I haven't any doubt which is my side," said Mark.
"Hang it all--the preservation of the human race--it's a pretty rock-bottom obligation."
Feverstone goes on to make his own agenda clear: the decimation of other life-forms, the ‘sterilisation of the unfit, liquidation of backward races (we don't want any dead weights)’, selective breeding, biochemical conditioning, direct manipulation of the brain and so on. Though our alarm bells as readers are alerted, we are even more apprehensive about the fact that our protagonist is drawn in by it all and agrees to meet with the real leader of the N.I.C.E.
Tensions increase as we see Mark heading for a meeting with Wither, head of the N.I.C.E., just as Jane sets off to seek help from the ‘other side’.
Mark’s meeting leaves him confused:
Mark did not ask again in so many words what the N.I.C.E. wanted him to do; partly because he began to be afraid that he was supposed to know this already, and partly because a perfectly direct question would have sounded a crudity in that room--a crudity which might suddenly exclude him from the warm and almost drugged atmosphere of vague, yet heavily important, confidence in which he was gradually being enfolded.
His introduction to the Institute underlines the lack of humanity or real structure to the place; Mark is not sure to whom he should report, what the nature of his work will be, or indeed whether or not he is expected. This is quite the opposite of Jane’s experience at St. Anne’s, as we shall see in the next article in this series.
(For more about the structure of successful fiction, see my book How Stories Really Work.)