top of page

The Structure of 'That Hideous Strength'

As we have seen in earlier articles, That Hideous Strength, the third novel in Lewis's so-called 'Space' trilogy, is actually a well-constructed thriller. Lewis has two protagonists. Mark and Jane Studdock, following parallel lines as one becomes embroiled with the evil agency N.I.C.E, while the other becomes acquainted, at the same time, with the company at St. Anne's. Later we discover that the company is benign, but, in true political thriller style, we are left guessing until Lewis is ready.

As we saw earlier, Mark's introduction to the Institute underlines the lack of humanity or real structure to the place and he 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:

"Are you Mrs. Studdock?" said the girl.

"Yes," said Jane.

"I will bring you to her at once," said the other. "We have been expecting you. My name is Camilla--Camilla Denniston."

Jane followed her. From the narrowness and plainness of the passages Jane judged that they were still in the back parts of the house, and that, if so, it must be a very large house indeed. They went a long way before Camilla knocked at a door and stood aside for Jane to enter, after saying in a low, clear voice ("like a servant," Jane thought), "She has come." And Jane went in; and there was Miss Ironwood dressed all in black and sitting with her hands folded on her knees, just as Jane had seen her when dreaming--if she were dreaming--last night in the flat.

"Sit down, young lady," said Miss Ironwood.

Mark’s vague ambitions about what he hopes to achieve at N.I.C.E. are caught up in complexity and disorder, losing all bearings; Jane’s unwanted nightmares turn out to be crisply understood and placed in a new context:

"Vision--the power of dreaming realities--is sometimes hereditary," said Miss Ironwood.

Something seemed to be interfering with Jane's breathing. She felt a sense of injury--this was just the sort of thing she hated: something out of the past, something irrational and utterly uncalled for, coming up from its den and interfering with her.

"Can it be proved?" she asked. "I mean; we have only his word for it."

"We have your dreams," said Miss Ironwood. Her voice, always grave, had become stern. A fantastic thought crossed Jane's mind. Could this old woman have some idea that one ought not to call even one's remote ancestors liars?

"My dreams?" she said a little sharply.

"Yes," said Miss Ironwood.

"What do you mean?"

"My opinion is that you have seen real things in your dreams. You have seen Alcasan as he really sat in the condemned cell: and you have seen a visitor whom he really had."

Lewis’s portrayal of the Ironic world within N.I.C.E. is clearly intended to make us feel uncomfortable and to disorientate us; Jane’s experience at St. Anne’s is described in such a way that we become orientated more starkly, especially when Miss Ironwood (compare her name to N.I.C.E.’s ‘Wither’ and ‘Feverstone’) asserts that Jane’s dreams are in fact valid visions of real events and that she is part of something much more structured than she thinks:

"Can you, then, do nothing for me?"

"I can tell you the truth," said Miss Ironwood. "I have tried to do so."

"I mean, can you not stop it--cure it?"

"Vision is not a disease."

"But I don't want it," said Jane passionately. "I must stop it. I hate this sort of thing."

Miss Ironwood said nothing.

"Don't you even know of anyone who could stop it?" said Jane. "Can't you recommend anyone?"

"If you go to an ordinary psychotherapist," said Miss Ironwood, "he will proceed on the assumption that the dreams merely reflect your own subconscious. He would try to treat you. I do not know what would be the results of treatment based on that assumption. I am afraid they might be very serious. And--it would certainly not remove the dreams."

"But what is this all about?" said Jane. "I want to lead an ordinary life. I want to do my own work. It's unbearable! Why should I be selected for this horrible thing?"

"The answer to that is known only to authorities much higher than myself.”

Modern psychotherapy is seen as a sham or at best ineffective against what are real, external forces operating through Jane. Modernism places the individual and his or her needs at the centre; the world Lewis is trying to introduce readers to is quite different:

"Young lady," said Miss Ironwood. "You do not at all realise the seriousness of this matter. The things you have seen concern something compared with which the happiness, or even the life, of you and me is of no importance. I must beg you to face the situation. You cannot get rid of your gift. You can try to suppress it, but you will fail, and you will be very badly frightened. On the other hand, you can put it at our disposal. If you do so, you will be much less frightened in the long run and you will be helping to save the human race from a very great disaster. Or thirdly, you may tell someone else about it. If you do that, I warn you that you will almost certainly fall into the hands of other people who are at least as anxious as we to make use of your faculty and who will care no more about your life and happiness than about those of a fly. The people you have seen in your dreams are real people. It is not at all unlikely that they know you have, involuntarily, been spying on them. And, if so, they will not rest till they have got hold of you. I would advise you, even for your own sake, to join our side."

In this way, Jane is introduced to the company that works at St. Anne’s, but decides to reject it: ‘I don't want to have anything to do with it.’ Meanwhile Mark, as he is drawn deeper into N.I.C.E., is completely oblivious that he has any power of decision in the matter. He finds himself sitting next to Hingest at dinner, a man who has openly said that he wants to leave the N.I.C.E. immediately:

"Well," said Hingest, "have they finally roped you into it, eh?"

"I rather believe they have," said Mark.

"Because," said Hingest, "if you thought the better of it I'm motoring back to-night and I could give you a lift."

"You haven't yet told me why you are leaving us yourself," said Mark.

"Oh, well, it all depends what a man likes. If you enjoy the society of that Italian eunuch and the mad parson and that Hardcastle girl--her grandmother would have boxed her ears if she were alive--of course there's nothing more to be said."

"I suppose it's hardly to be judged on purely social grounds--I mean, it's something more than a club."

"Eh? Judged? Never judged anything in my life, to the best of my knowledge, except at a flower show. It's all a question of taste. I came here because I thought it had something to do with science. Now that I find it's something more like a political conspiracy, I shall go home. I'm too old for that kind of thing, and if I wanted to join a conspiracy, this one wouldn't be my choice.”

The pace of the plot picks up: Hingest is murdered; the N.I.C.E. move in and take property, apparently operating outside the law; it is now very clear to the reader who the antagonist is in terms of an organised body of people, a body which is more and more demonic in nature, as Straik says to Mark:

“You have no choice whether you will be used or not. There is no turning back once you have set your hand to the plough. No one goes out of the N.I.C.E. Those who try to turn back will perish in the wilderness. But the question is whether you are content to be one of the instruments which is thrown aside when it has served His turn--one which, having executed judgement on others, is reserved for judgement itself--or will you be among those who enter on the inheritance? For it's all true, you know. It is the saints who are going to inherit the earth--here in England, perhaps within the next twelve months--the saints and no one else. Know you not that we shall judge angels?" Then, suddenly lowering his voice, Straik added, "The real resurrection is even now taking place. The real life everlasting. Here in this world. You will see it."

Before we entirely lose sympathy with our protagonist, Lewis makes it apparent that he does have his momentary doubts about the whole thing:

All at once it came over Mark what a terrible bore this little man was, and in the same moment he felt utterly sick of the N.I.C.E. But he reminded himself that one could not expect to be in the interesting set at once; there would be better things later on. Anyway, he had not burnt his boats. Perhaps he would chuck up the whole thing and go back to Bracton in a day or two. But not at once. It would be only sensible to hang on for a bit and see how things shaped.

Mark is drawn deeper into the N.I.C.E. through fear and confusion, just as Jane is drawn closer to the St. Anne’s company through warmth and humanity. All systems, all hierarchy, seem to defy analysis at the N.I.C.E., whereas when Jane meets up with the Dennistons, they are happy to make things very clear about the company:

"Our little household, or company, or society, or whatever you like to call it is run by a Mr. Fisher-King. At least that is the name he has recently taken. You might or might not know his original name if I told it to you. He is a great traveller but now an invalid. He got a wound in his foot on his last journey which won't heal."

"How did he come to change his name?"

"He had a married sister in India, a Mrs. Fisher-King. She has just died and left him a large fortune on condition that he took the name. She was a remarkable woman in her way; a friend of the great native Christian mystic whom you may have heard of--the Sura. And that's the point. The Sura had reason to believe, or thought he had reason to believe, that a great danger was hanging over the human race. And just before the end--just before he disappeared--he became convinced that it would actually come to a head in this island. And after he'd gone----"

"Is he dead?" asked Jane.

"That we don't know," answered Denniston. "Some people think he's alive, others not. At any rate he disappeared. And Mrs. Fisher-King more or less handed over the problem to her brother, to our chief. That, in fact, was why she gave him the money. He was to collect a company round him to watch for this danger, and to strike when it came."

Readers of the earlier novels are now fully alert: this can be none other than Ransom himself. Apart from clarifying our position in relation to the forces at work within the story, another thing comes into play here - for Ransom has taken on a new role in the structure of the novel: no longer a protagonist himself, he is now the ‘wise old man’ archetype. This is the character in stories normally assigned the task of shedding light on the central message of the story, not only illuminating what other characters need to do to resolve things but acting as a guide to the author’s main themes as well.

But just as Jane is told of the nature of Mr. Fisher-King and how, if she wishes to join the company, she must do so of he own free will in accordance with certain traditions which to Jane appear archaic, Mark meets with Wither again who reveals to him something of the inner nature of Belbury and the N.I.C.E.: ‘We are, as I have said before, more like a family, or even, perhaps, like a single personality.’

As Jane falls into the orbit of St. Anne’s, so Mark’s life becomes irresistibly centred on the N.I.C.E. This mirrors the underlying polarity which Lewis is attempting to portray: one world the nucleus of which is the cold and devilish Irony of modernity, represented here by the N.I.C.E. with Alcasan the executed criminal somehow mysteriously in its core, the other world whose heart is outside that introverted reality, the eye of which lies with God, personified by ‘the Fisher-King man’:

She wanted comfort, but she wanted it, if possible, without going out to St. Anne's, without meeting this Fisher-King man and getting drawn into his orbit.

Mark meanwhile was working at the rehabilitation of Alcasan.

As Mark works through the night in dingy quarters to produce newspaper articles which reinforce his complicity with the N.I.C.E.’s continuing criminal activity, Jane is escaping to St. Anne’s and experiencing an opposite extraversion:

A few yards farther and luminous blue was showing overhead, and trees cast shadows (she had not seen a shadow for days), and then all of a sudden the enormous spaces of the sky had become visible and the pale golden sun, and looking back, as she took the turn to the Manor, Jane saw that she was standing on the shore of a little green sunlit island looking down on a sea of white fog, furrowed and ridged yet level on the whole, which spread as far as she could see. There were other islands too. That dark one to the West was the wooded hills above Sandown where she had picnicked with the Dennistons; and the far bigger and brighter one to the North was the many-caverned hills--mountains one could nearly call them--in which the Wynd had its source. She took a deep breath. It was the size of this world above the fog which impressed her. Down in Edgestow all these days one had lived, even when out of doors, as if in a room, for only objects close at hand were visible. She felt she had come near to forgetting how big the sky is, how remote the horizon.

In fact, just as Mark’s world shrinks, Jane’s expands - even the house at St. Anne’s seems bigger than she expected:

The house, larger than Jane had at first supposed, was warm and very silent, and after so many days spent in fog the autumn sunlight, falling on soft carpets and on walls, seemed to her bright and golden.

The build-up to the meeting with Ransom is consciously extended: Lewis knows that, such is the nature of the character, directly introducing Ransom into what has so far been a modern political thriller will not only alter the direction of motion in the plot but change the genre of the novel. And that is what happens, explicitly, as we shall see next.


Join the Inner Circle Writers' Group on Facebook

The Inner Circle Writers' Group is all about fiction: what it is all about, how it works, helping you to write and publish it. You can keep up to date with live contributions from members, upload your own fiction, enter competitions and so on:
Tag Cloud
bottom of page