Descent Into Hell: Finale

I am going to start this post as a sort of thread, introducing some themes and eliciting comments and questions.  My first question is:  Who is Mrs. Samille, and is her name of any significance?

To answer, let us start with the name, Lilly Sammile.  Sammile is very suggestive of Samael, a demon equated in some Jewish traditions with Satan and is more generally a fallen archangel who is the enemy of the human race.  In one tradition he is closely linked with Lilith, by whom he has children.

At the very least, someone bearing these two names is a demonic force to destroy the souls of men, and in Williams' mythology, then, where shutting ourselves against others and preferring the love of self practiced in Gomorrah, she is a sort of alter-ego of the demon who has conquered Wentworth.  I await your comments and questions, and then will move on to consider at greater length Williams' doctrine of substitution.


Jacob makes an excellent observation. Note, too, how Williams, without creating sympathy for the demons, teaches readers to hold them in contempt. In all too many exorcism movies, the devil is omnipotent.

In a way, everyone in the story is tested, though we do not fully understand where they will end up.  Two not especially nice characters, Mrs. Parry and Hugh, are outside the "republic" and without grace, but they live by their own code which renders them less selfish and self-deceived.  Hugh is an atheistic agnostic, but he does not deceive himself into thinking he actually knows the truth, and he is impatient with Adela for her self-delusions.  Mrs, Parry may not have an ear for poetry or a drop of taste, but in taking charge of these productions, she give much of herself, and Stanhope goes out of his way to be kind to a woman he does not especially like.

Wentworth's self-inflicted doom is the product of years of self-absorption.  When he attends the historians' meeting and encounters his hated rival, Williams tells us that he might have begun a process of delivering himself  from his suicidal egotism by hating the rival for making mistakes or being wrong.  Instead, all he can say is "I have been cheated."

Adela's nonsense about poetry--as all the conversations about art--spills over into her own terrifying alienation.  Everything is just "tangential."

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

7 Responses

  1. Jacob Johnson says:

    Mrs. Sammile’s offers to Pauline reminded me,basically, of the Norman Vincent Peale philosophy,but there is a conspicuous contrast to the relaxed optimism of her speech. Despite the easygoing confidence which she says she has, Pauline notices that “her eyes glanced everywhere; she suggested by her whole bearing that time was in a hurry.”

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Excellent observation. Note, too, how Williams, without creating sympathy for the demons, teaches readers to hold them in contempt. In all too many exorcism movies, the devil is omnipotent.

  3. Michael Strenk says:

    Both Margaret Anstruther and Peter Stanhope are remarkably tolerant of Mrs. Sammile’s presence, with Stanhope even insisting that she stop moving for long enough to attend the play. They both have her number. MA hears the ever-present footsteps in the night which I assume to be those of Mrs. Sammile, the restless spirit stalking the streets hunting for prey. How many despondent people aimlessly walk the streets at night, unable to settle down? She picks up Wentworth at a particularly vulnerable moment doing exactly that and secures him forever. I suppose that both knowing what she is and knowing themselves make MA and PS immune to Mrs. Sammile’s overtures, reducing her powers to petty, impotent sniping. It seems, at times, that they enjoy tormenting her just a bit, and Pauline fearlessly joins their club in the end. A friend once told me of a good Southern Baptist lady that he knew in his youth in his native Georgia. Whenever the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons or other cultists came to her door, she would invite them in for a talk, offer them tea and cake and entertain their lunacy for however long they were willing to stay. When he asked why, she said that she was immune to their approaches and she figured that by keeping them pinned down for a while she might spare some other soul from succumbing to them in a moment of weakness.

  4. Jacob Johnson says:

    I found a significant passage of the book the detail that since Wentworth hated the fact that he was outdone by a competitor he, as a consequence, hated facts. As ill-disposed as I generally am to people who seem to hate facts in any given circumstance, the last paragraph of the book was almost sickening to read, to think that this is where one who is like this can end up.

  5. Michael Strenk says:

    I also found the last pages describing the end of Wentworth to be very hard reading, but creditable – all real things diminishing to an infinitesimal point; brilliant, but terrifying. Hatred almost saves the day. Hot or cold puts you in the game, but Wentworth was as lukewarm as one can get in the end. I wish that Pauline’s story could have rounded out the book because I like a happy ending, but I think that leaving Wentworth till last was justifiable given the state of our civilization even when Williams was writing.

  6. Kellen Buckles says:

    I’m joining the conversation late and without having read the book since 1983 and now having only viewed my copious underlining. Despite those 39 years this book has kept a mystic hold on my imaginings about Reality. I am not prepared to enter the conversation with an “essay” but rather will throw out fragments of ideas that I think have not been addressed as thoroughly as they deserve.

    • Name: Mrs. Parry I think of as “parry a sword thrust” and this is what she would accomplish by her suggested modifications of the Play.
    • Dante: The Comedy is present from start to finish, especially at Ch 12 pg 2 where Pauline refers to the circles of heaven. Even more so in the previous chapter in which Dante is expressly present as Pauline (through the Omnipotence) reduces Lilith to the gabble that permeates Hell.
    • The Rope: our soul’s link to the eternal God? The flash of light as he releases the million-mile long rope.
    • Poetry: middle of ch 4 where poetry is compared with tales. PS’s poetry deals with Power, “power was in that strange chorus over which the experts of Battle Hill culture disputed.” Again, earlier in the chapter Poetry is Life – clarity, speed, humility, courage – not Lily’s “enjoyment” nor Myrtle’s “consoling”. One could even view this whole book as a form of poetry with its richly laden vocabulary and pointed suggestions. What is the reference to Shelley in Ch 6?
    • The Republic: the City of Man vs the City of God? Wentworth missed his chance of greatness in the city of man – his greatest loss, he thinks. I think this was my original understanding, different than the earlier comment with the reverse understanding.
    • The Gate: entry/exit
    • Time: there is in this story the commingling of Time like the opening of Eliot’s Burnt Norton: “Time present and time past/Are both perhaps present in time future,/And time future contained in time past.” This is invoked someway in the Holy Mass. This may be too lofty but is the main idea I remembered of the book before reviewing my notes.

    I hope the discussion is not over. This is too great a novel for only the four of us to be involved in.

  7. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    The references to Shelley concern something he wrote in his Prometheus, that Zoroaster saw himself.