The "Loveliest and Lordliest": Gender and the Spiritual Journey in Charles Williams' All Hallows' Eve

By Anderson, Kathleen | Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

The "Loveliest and Lordliest": Gender and the Spiritual Journey in Charles Williams' All Hallows' Eve


Anderson, Kathleen, Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature


ALL of the relatively few scholars who have written about Charles Williams's last novel, All Hallows' Eve, seem to agree that it is rich with theological significance and portrays its characters as participants in a spiritual quest that leads to their redemption or damnation. Clifford Davidson focuses his analysis on the contextual necessity for evil or "[t]he Way of Perversity" to the effective portrayal of the good; both he and Bernadette Bosky discuss the role of "Goetia, the selfish and obscene pursuit of magic or witchcraft in order to wrest power away from Heaven" (Davidson 86) in Williams's literary realization of his Christian convictions. A critical component of his creed is "coinherence," his version of "bearing one another's burdens." In this "interdependence in love, sacrifice is both automatically efficacious and mutually beneficial, from the humblest human favor to that ultimate act of vicarious redemption, the incarnation and crucifixion of Christ" (Bosky 19). In the world Williams depicts, there are no trivial acts. Every assertion of will, whether it consists of bringing a loved one a glass of water or taking someone's place in being tortured by an evil magician, reverberates with good or evil consequences on a universal scale. Every casually dropped word produces supernatural resonances. In the collection The Rhetoric of Vision: Essays on Charles Williams, scholars explore the rhetorical and stylistic elements of Williams's works and their manifestation of his literary-theological vision.

Of particular interest is George L. Scheper's discussion of linguistic loss and gain in All Hallows' Eve. Scheper recognizes the centrality of the female protagonist, Lester Furnival, as one whose own reformation enables her to have a positive spiritual impact on others through her affirmative use of words: "Lester, who becomes the initiator of this redeemed language, does not begin the story as an enlightened person" (151) but experiences "a mind- and soul-clearing kenosis, or self-emptying ... which marks the inception of a 'New Life'--the Dantean title of the chapter, in tact" (152). George Reynolds, Judith Kollman, and others explore the work as a conscious revision of Dante's Divine Comedy; Reynolds views it as, more specifically, an imitation of the Purgatorio. Dante's impact on Williams was immeasurable, and "[t]he Beatrician paradigm is quite evident" in All Hallows' Eve (Hein). Williams was fascinated with the figure of Beatrice, and is also known to have developed a number of cherished friendships with women in his own life, though he tended to assume a mentorship role toward younger women in these relationships. Several scholars acknowledge Williams's striking choice of a woman for the central role of the novel. Lester is the protagonist, arguably a Christ figure, and the most compelling character in the text; Betty Wallingford also possesses Christ-like healing powers. Deborah Carter-Day views Lester's journey as the central focus of the novel. Lisa Hopkins avers that "[i]n the work of Williams and of Lewis, to have an authority figure who is female is seen as being at best a contradiction in terms, at worst a fear of nightmare proportions"; this assertion is overstated, in my view, but I do agree with Hopkins that, for both authors, "femininity is apparently perceived as problematic" (364).

Indeed, one of the most fascinating aspects of All Hallows' Eve is its unique integration of representations of 1940s gender stereotypes with progressive depictions of powerful women and, to a lesser extent, of the men who love them and support their supernatural missions. The novel's benevolent female and male characters must undergo spiritual cleansing in order to help themselves and each other to triumph over evil. In the Christian tradition, mysticism is the soul's journey to intimate communion with God through a transformative process of self-purification and enlightenment. As Evelyn Underhill defines the concept, it involves

   the abolition of individuality; of that hard separateness, that "I,
   Me, Mine" which makes of man a finite isolated thing. … 

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