The Failure to Communicate: The Communicative Relationship Between C. S. Lewis and his Father

Of the sometimes comic, often tragic relationship between Clive Staples (Jack) Lewis and his father, Albert, Clyde S. Kilby writes, "Someone should bring the many details of this Tristram Shandy together into a single essay" (13). Though a thorough treatment of this troubled relationship, with its tension, detail and complexity, requires more than a short essay can provide, the whole of their difficulties can be narrowed to one problem from which many others sprang forth. For most of their lives, the two were either unwilling or unable to communicate with one another.

It is ironic that Jack Lewis, one of the most effective communicators of this century, and Albert Lewis, an eloquent court solicitor and public speaker known for his gift of simple exposition, struggled in their own communicative relationship (Sayer 4; Wilson 4). It was, however, a deficiency which plagued them until Albert's death in 1929. The difficulties began with the death of Jack's mother, something from which, in Jack's estimation, his father never completely recovered (C. Lewis, Surprised 18). Beyond Jack's obvious grief, his mother's death produced two further results for him; one of them bad, the other good. The bad was his father's dramatic change; his temper worsened and his tongue sharpened. The good was the development of a more intimate relationship with his brother, Warren Lewis:

Thus, by a peculiar cruelty of fate, during those months the unfortunate man, had he but known it, was really losing his sons as well as his wife. We were coming, my brother and I, to rely more and more exclusively on each other for all that made life bearable; to have confidence only in each other. I expect that we (or at least I) were already learning to lie to him. (C. Lewis, Surprised 19)

Jack's tendency to conceal things from his father lasted until Albert's death. Though Jack later regretted the way he had deceived and ridiculed his father, their problems were never fully repaired (Sayer 107). Sadly, many issues could have been resolved by employing the principles of what later became Lewis' own definition of communication.

A Study in Too Many Words

Communication, according to C. S. Lewis, should combine clarity of expression with accuracy of understanding. This involves responsibility on the part of both speaker and audience. The rhetoric must be clear, the receiver must listen and interpret, and shared meaning must be achieved (Lindvall 3). Otherwise, communication has not occurred.

Before communication begins, however, there are at least two principles for which the author of the message must take responsibility. The first is brevity, which "can say in ten words what popular speech can hardly get into a hundred" (C. Lewis, Before 256), and the second is clarity, which includes knowing the abilities of the audience to whom you are speaking. "I have come to the conviction that if you cannot translate your thoughts into uneducated language, then your thoughts were confused" (C. Lewis, Christian Apologetics 98).

Albert Lewis, at least where his sons were concerned, rarely used either principle. When verbally disciplining his young children, he often became "intoxicated" by the very words he chose, which prompted him to use more of them. Something as simple as walking across the lawn in one's slippers resulted in "simile piled on simile, rhetorical question on rhetorical question, the flash of an orator's eye and the thundercloud of an orator's brow. . ." (C. Lewis, Surprised 38). During these moments of what to him was unadulterated bliss, Albert lost sight of both the reason for the soliloquy and the ability of its recipients. "My poor father, while he spoke, forgot not only the offense but the capacities of his audience. All the resources of his immense vocabulary were poured forth" (C. Lewis, Surprised 39).

Albert Lewis' propensity to hold sway over a conversation was perhaps born out of his vocation as court solicitor and public speaker, in which he often provided uninterrupted discourse. What is certain, however, is that he brought this tendency home. On the subject of his father's domineering presence, Warren Lewis wrote, "some awareness of my father's smothering tendency to dominate life and especially the conversation of his household is necessary to an understanding of Jack's mind and life" (6).

This trait not only damaged Jack's relationship with his father, it sometimes limited his access to Arthur Greeves who, aside from Warren, was his closest friend. Jack had been invited to Arthur's home many times, and he wanted to return this hospitality. Albert almost certainly would have allowed it, even encouraged it,

but not for a moment would it have occurred to him that the two boys might want to talk together, alone. No: he would have joined them, inescapably, for a good talk about books, doing nine-tenths of the talking himself. . . .That Arthur's visit would have this character was something all too obvious to Jack: he hinted delicately at the 'obstacle' of his father's temperament, and the visit never took place. (W. Lewis, Letters 7)

Jack often refused to visit Arthur because he felt obligated to stay home with his father. Unfortunately, this occurred on weekends and afternoons, times when it would have been most convenient for Arthur and Jack to meet (C. Lewis, Surprised 162). Parental interference notwithstanding, the two boys developed a friendship and trust that far exceeded anything Jack enjoyed with his father. Many times Jack disclosed information to Arthur that he not only kept from his father, but he instructed Arthur to keep secret as well. It was a practice that continued until Albert's death (Sayer 76).

Though he sometimes carried the inclination too far, Albert Lewis had a genuine interest in his sons' lives. He exhausted extreme effort to be their friend as well as their father, even developing a taste for vaudeville when he discovered their own interest in the show (Sayer 35). The boys, however, in part because they disliked his repetitious stories and his incessant talking, had no desire for comradeship with their father (Wilson 31). On days when the elder Lewis returned home early from work, his inevitable habit of joining them was seen by the boys as an intrusion, and remembered as a burden:

For the whole rest of the day, whether sitting or walking, we were inseparable; and the speech (you see that it could hardly be called conversation), the speech with its cross-purposes, with its tone (inevitably) always set by him, continued intermittently till bedtime. . . .It was extraordinarily tiring. And in my own contributions to these talks--which were indeed too adult for me, too anecdotal, too prevailingly jocular--I was increasingly aware of an artificiality. . . .I had to act. (C. Lewis, Surprised 125-26)
Years later, Jack Lewis defined friendship as having to "be about something, even if it were only an enthusiasm for dominoes and white mice" (C. Lewis, The Four Loves 66). Albert's habit of dominating both the conversation and the activities of the Lewis home made even a healthy relationship difficult, to say nothing of friendship. What was produced was an "artificial" relationship in which Jack pretended to hold values and opinions different from his own.

The Intent to Receive

class="paper" A second key element in Lewis' theory of communication requires the receiver to listen attentively to the message and interpret it accurately. This produces shared meaning between author and audience, and it requires, as much as possible, the listener's total surrender to the message (Lindvall 3). As receivers, we "must begin by laying aside as completely as we can all our own preconceptions, interests, and associations. . . . Look. Listen. Receive. Get ourself out of the way" (C. Lewis, Experiment 18). For Albert Lewis, the ability to "get himself out of the way" largely eluded him, at least where his sons were concerned. Lewis explained that

the first and simplest barrier to communication was that, having earnestly asked, he did not 'stay for an answer' or forgot it the moment it was uttered. . . .Long before he had understood or even listened to your words, some accidental hint had set his imagination to work, he had produced his own version of the facts, and believed that he was getting it from you. . . .Tell him that a boy called Churchwood had caught a field mouse and kept it as a pet, and a year, or ten years later, he would ask you, "Did you ever hear what became of poor Chickweed who was so afraid of the rats?" For his own version, once adopted, was indelible, and attempts to correct it only produced an incredulous "Hm! Well, that's not the story you used to tell." (C. Lewis, Surprised 123)

Albert's inability or unwillingness to listen, though sometimes comical, prevented him from knowing Jack as well as he might have. Upon being sent home from school one term due to illness, Jack could hardly contain his excitement over the privacy the next six weeks promised. "In a surviving letter my father writes to my brother that I think myself lucky but he 'fears I shall be very lonely before the end of the week.' It is strange that having known me all my life he should have known me so little" (C. Lewis, Surprised 54).

Lewis often avoided conversations with his father altogether because of the hopelessness he attributed to such efforts. He even allowed himself to be confirmed in the church at a time when he was a staunch atheist. He later admitted he should have discussed the matter with his father, but at the time he refused because "it would have been impossible to drive into his head my real position" (C. Lewis, Surprised 161-62).

Perhaps as a result of this inability to communicate, and combined with his genuine interest in Jack's life, Albert often infringed upon his son's private affairs. One such instance occurred when Jack was just a boy, but it forever changed their relationship. Jack had written out a set of rules for himself which he had no desire to share. Albert decided, upon seeing his son's bulging pockets, that an examination of their contents was a venture worth pursuing. Although he managed to keep the list away from his father, "never from that moment until the hour of his death did I enter his house without first going through my own pockets and removing anything I wished to keep private" (C. Lewis, Surprised 120).

Albert continued to pry into Jack's life even when his son became an adult. He often made inquiries into his Jack's private matters, sometimes investigating his personal belongings or reading his letters. He even went to Arthur's house on occasion to inquire about his son (Sayer 91). This undoubtedly produced in Jack a greater desire to keep things away from his father.

The problem was not Albert's interest in his son's life. The trouble was that for a variety of reasons, chief among them his desire for Jack's complete confidence, his interest went too far. Much of the trouble might have been resolved had Jack at least attempted to discuss their differences and keep his father abreast of his personal life. Jack, however, felt any such attempt futile. His father's willingness to discuss matters was complicated by the fact that, upon asking a question, he had no intention of receiving the answer. "His intense desire for my total confidence co-existed with an inability to listen (in any strict sense) to what I said. He could never empty, or silence, his own mind to make room for an alien thought" (C. Lewis, Surprised 184).

Guns and No Company

Jack's relationship with his father continued to erode, and two events during Jack's service in the Army widened the rift. The first occurred in November, 1917, when Jack informed Albert by telegram that he was departing for an overseas assignment the next day. He asked his father to meet him in Bristol that very evening. Warren Lewis explained the episode this way:

My father simply wired back that he could not understand the telegram and asked for leisured explanations: he made no attempt to keep the rendezvous in Bristol--proposed clearly enough by Jack--for what might well have been a last meeting, and Jack had to sail for France and the war without seeing him again. This must have been felt as a rebuff, though it was probably due to a genuine misunderstanding, a failure in 'communication.' (Letters 9)

Some accounts of the incident, citing the nebulous nature of the telegram and its failure to reveal that Jack had been designated for front line duty, exonerate Albert in the matter:

Albert has been severely blamed for not rushing to see Jack before he went to France. But Jack's first telegram really was incomprehensible. . . .Apart from this, Albert, who was without a partner and had much police court work, would not want to travel to England unless it was absolutely necessary. The letter he wrote to Warren 11 days later suggests that hhad only just discovered what had happened to Jack. (Sayer 72)

Regardless of who, if anyone, was to blame for this failed meeting, the scenario confirms the communication problems that existed between Jack and his father. Although this circumstance did little to damage their relationship, a similar incident occurred six months later that resulted in more severe consequences. In April, 1918, Jack was injured in battle and sent to a hospital in London. From there he wrote his father, literally begging him to visit, and expressing how homesick he had become. He admitted his own mistakes as a son, and offered a sincere promise to improve the relationship between them (Sayer 74). Although Albert's diary indicates he was terribly concerned for Jack, no visit was made. The failure to travel to London may have been the result of Albert's bout with bronchitis, an explanation which did not prevent Jack from being "deeply hurt at a neglect which he considered inexcusable" (Wilson 54; W. Lewis, Letters 9-10). Although things remained outwardly as they had been, Jack's next letter to his father, written four months later, indicates a deep estrangement (Sayer 75).

In the years that followed, both Warren and Jack agreed that their father had "not made the slightest effort to break down the barriers that separated them" (Sayer 96). Though he continued to send cordial correspondence to his father, Jack's true feelings were most clearly expressed in his letters to Warren. "Albert 'is fast becoming unbearable. . . .I needn't describe the continual fussing, the sulks, the demand to know all one's affairs . . . '" (qtd. in Sayer: 90). Jack continued, as he had for years, to conceal private information from his father that he freely shared with Warren and Arthur. This only increased the difficulties between them (W. Lewis, Letters 12). When Albert became ill during the summer of 1929, Jack did become a better son, spending as much time as he could spare in Belfast with his father (Hooper 13). The damage, however, had been done, and complete reconciliation was never achieved.

Apologies and Regrets

At its worst, C. S. Lewis' relationship with his father went beyond mere communicative deficiencies. It was their incapability or refusal to communicate, however, that continually divided them. It would not be wild speculation to presume the trouble began with Albert's tendency to dominate conversation and, on occasions when free exchange was permitted, his inability "to stay" for an answer. Communication attempts with his father became so infuriating, perhaps, that Jack found it easier to avoid conversations with him altogether. This secretiveness on the part of Jack may have increased his father's curiosity, compelling him to read private letters or make inquiries into his son's personal life. These difficulties, which may have been resolved had they been addressed from the outset, eventually drove the two men to a relational position that for them was irreparable.

It would be ludicrous to place the blame solely on the shoulders of either man; communication requires, at the very least, the participation of two people, and both men must assume a measure of responsibility. Despite his shortcomings, it is clear Albert Lewis loved his sons. He often shared in their activities, and perhaps more than anyone, it was he who encouraged Jack to pursue writing (Sayer 16). Records from his own diary reveal Albert's feelings for his youngest son. Upon receiving a telegram explaining Jack's election as a fellow of Magdalen, Albert wrote in his diary, "I went to his room and burst into tears of joy. I knelt down and thanked God with a full heart. My prayers have been heard and answered" (qtd. in Sayer: 107).

Albert's death affected Jack tremendously, and he became resolute in his desire to rid himself of the character flaws that had caused him to treat his father so horridly (Sayer 133). After his father's death, Jack admitted, and regretted, the mistakes he made in his relationship with his father. "I treated my own father abominably and no sin in my whole life now seems to be so serious" (qtd. in Hooper: 13). Unfortunately for both men, joint-efforts to reconcile were never made, and the apologies came too late.

Jack and his father had much in common. Both could present complex arguments convincingly, both had quick minds and resonant voices, and both were highly imaginative and literate (Wilson 4; Sayer 3-4). Had they learned to communicate with each other effectively, these similarities might have been accentuated. Perhaps then they may have discovered something to share together, something inward and meaningful, which would have drawn them closer. And then, perhaps, they could have been friends.