Descent Into Hell: Choosing Unreality

Charles Williams’ Descent Into Hell presents a strikingly Orthodox vision of the nearness of heaven and hell. In the novel, heaven and hell are not places or realms, but perspectives on reality, leading perhaps to realms and other-worldly places. Early in the novel, in a chapter entitled “Quest of Hell,” Lawrence Wentworth chooses hell. He chooses hell by choosing unreality, by choosing to act childishly and call it manly.*

Wentworth is a fifty year old scholar who was “the most distinguished living authority on military history.” He had enjoyed a peaceful and successful life as a single man. But Wentworth was beginning to feel his age, beginning “almost to hear time scamper[ing] by,” and found himself paying a lot of attention to Adela, a mildly flirtatious single young woman–part of a group of young people who met in his home to listen to his biweekly lectures on military history. And he had become painfully aware that Adela had the power “either to increase or abolish his awareness of his age.”

But Adela was actually attached to Hugh, a young man of “flagrant masculinity,” who had decided that Adela would marry him–when he was ready. Wentworth became aware of this attachment one evening and his anger was piqued. And then it got worse.

Adela and Hugh decided to skip out on the next little gathering at Wentworth’s for a date in London, but in order not to offend Wentworth (for he knew important people and “could perhaps be useful for her career”), they made it seem as though their absences were unconnected: Adela wrote on Wednesday that she had to be in the city, while Hugh phoned on Thursday when the gathering usually began saying he had to work late and asking that Wentworth give his regards to Adela. Yet Wentworth deep-down knew that they were together. And it tormented him. His intelligence protested that the facts told him they were not, “but of that saving intelligence his now vibrating nervous system took no notice whatsoever.”

Wentworth was so distracted by the tormenting thought that Adela and Hugh were together that he almost completely ignored the only real person who showed up for the meeting that evening. And after attempting a conversation about something important to her and realizing that Wentworth was completely distracted, Pauline made an excuse to leave, much to Wentworth’s relief. Now that “this superfluous being had been dismissed,” he could give himself to his imagination, playing out the dictates of his emotions. Soon emotion and imagination mixed sufficiently to produce passion, passion in the Orthodox sense of the word: a demonically perverted natural power whipped up into a driving force.

Wentworth was making a deliberate choice, although he felt himself just standing there exercising no conscious thought at all. Soon he “yielded–to the chaos within rather than the chaos without.” That is, he accepted the irrational, passion-driven delusion of his mind as reality over the rational though uncontrollable reality outside him. “A remnant of intelligence cried to him that this was the road to mania, and self-indulgence leading to mania. Self-preservation itself urged him to remain [at home and not go out looking for Adela and Hugh together]; lucidity urged him, if not love.” Yet “the shadow provoked him.” He told himself that he was not spying, he would just go for a walk. He set out, he made his choice (although it didn’t feel like a choice, it seldom does): “He desired hell.”

One of the snares of hell is its power to weave webs. Once delusion becomes reality, more delusion is necessary to defend the shadow, the vanity, the sweet hidden secret. He was not acting as a child, Wentworth told himself as he walked toward the train station. He was a man–he had a right to walk where he wanted to. He insisted he was no child.

But Williams powerfully points out as the chapter ends that admitting one generally acts as a child, that one often is just playing a childish game within him or her self, is the beginning of the process of becoming one of the little children our Saviour spoke of. But Wentworth would have none of it: he was a man, and a man has a right to go for a walk.

*note that the English word “virtue” comes from the Latin, “man,” so to call what is childish manly is like calling what is sinful, virtuous. And once light is darkness, “how great is that darkness” (Matt. 6:23).


  1. I have not read "War in Heaven." In fact, this is the only book of his that I have ever read. I have found "Descent Into Hell" worth reading, but I say anything about his other works.

  2. The description of "Descent into Hell" that you gave certainly sounds worth reading so thank you. I'd be interested in your thoughts of his other work if you have the chance to read it.

  3. To be frank, as a Christian member of a high-school group called 'The Inklings,' I hate this book. It scares me- as death, Hell, suicide, and a man's lusty imagination would all tend to scare a teenager. However, this summary has really helped me put into perspective the bits I did not entirely understand from Quest of Hell, and it will definitely be able to help me write my Precis on this particular chapter. Thank you very much!

    (On a side-note, I am not ever reading more Charles Williams, if I can help it- unless, of course, you recommend a particularly pleasurable one that does not really include some of the above gruesomeness of the world).

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