Netflix’s The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, an adaptation of a sweeping, period novel by the same title, tells a story in multiple, overlapping layers, taking the viewer on a journey of introspection, memory, grief, and consolation. The stories told within the metanarrative serve not only to knit together two worlds, but two people, offering a glimpse of how powerful books—and the written word—are in knowing ourselves and being known. In Guernsey to be known through the written word offers a special sort of fellowship and connection—one that echoes the way God himself knows us, as a creator who knit us together in our mother’s womb (Psalm 139). God, who spoke the universe into existence, also gave us the ability to be specially known through words, and in words themselves, we find catharsis, hope, and love. A story like The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society isn’t an allegory, of course, but it does give us an opportunity to reflect on the nature of Christ as creator and bridegroom and the power of words, and story, in our relationship with him. In encountering great stories that draw people together in fellowship and communion and love, we also encounter God.
Guernsey opens on the Isle of Guernsey—a tiny, idyllic island in the English Channel—under German occupation in 1941. The first scene shows the haphazard (and unintentional) formation of a literary society amongst a group of neighbors evading the Nazi-imposed curfew. Little more is revealed as the story fast forwards to 1946 London. The war is over, the sun is out, and people are rebuilding. These are two different worlds, separated not only by space, but by time. Guernsey 1941: a German-occupied island with a total population only in the thousands, filled with darkness and fear. London 1946: a post-war, bustling metropolis, filled with hope and light. But within London, we meet Juliet Ashton, a woman out of time and self. Suffering from PTSD, Juliet (Lily James) is a writer who failed to make a living selling her first book under her real name, so she reinvented herself as a male author and became a wealthy and wildly popular bestseller. Young, beautiful, and talented, she should be enjoying all the glitz and glamour and breathless euphoria post-war London has to offer, but she is plagued with flashbacks of the war, uncertainties about her writing and pseudonym, and discomfort over her celebrity status—and even with her beau, Mark (Glen Powell). Her words have brought her worldly success, but in choosing to write as someone else, they have isolated her from her very self.Christ’s ultimate work in this world was a resolution of contraries—a restoration of the sundering of the universe that happened in the Fall, a setting to right the relationship between humans and God.
It takes words of a different sort to begin to bring Juliet Ashton back to herself—to begin to make her feel known, and therefore loved. A letter arrives one day, addressed to her, from a pig farmer on the Isle of Guernsey. Dawsey Adams (Michiel Huisman) has written to her, looking for a copy of a book by Charles Lamb. He found her name and address inscribed on the inside of another Charles Lamb book, which he says he procured for his literary society as a result of an illicit roast pig, and he’s hoping she can help him find the new book he seeks. He doesn’t know she’s young and beautiful and successful, or that she’s an author, as well. All he knows is that she is someone who once shared a passion for the same book as he does.
Juliet agrees to help him find the book he seeks, and then to send it as a gift, in exchange for a story: What does Charles Lamb have to do with an illicit roast pig? In this manner, Dawsey and Juliet’s connection starts with not only a physical book, but with words and story—storytelling back and forth as they exchange letters and Dawsey begins the process of telling Juliet the story of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Although the Society began during the German occupation with an illegal roast pig (illegal because they had to hide it from the Germans), their “true starvation,” Dawsey writes to Juliet, was for “connection and fellowship.” The connection that began over a meal late one night between neighbors on Guernsey, hidden from enemies who sought to kill and destroy them, blossomed into fellowship over books and stories and words. One meal could never have been enough. Books, for Dawsey and his neighbors, become a “refuge,” the words themselves a catharsis in dark times.
Before long, Juliet realizes she, too, is starved for connection and fellowship, and the letters from Dawsey are a lifeline. The dark years of the war may be over, but it rages on in her mind, heart, and soul, and—as she’ll come to realize—in the hearts and minds of the members of the Guernsey Society, as well. Although Juliet is loved—by Mark; by her publisher and oldest friend, Sydney; by her many fans—she is not known. She packs her things and heads off to Guernsey, desperate to learn more about the Society and the people like Elizabeth McKenna (Jessica Brown Findlay) who first brought the Society together and has now been missing since she was arrested during the late years of the war. What really draws Juliet to Guernsey, however, is the realization that Dawsey, whom she has never met, understands her through an exchange of words better than anyone else in her life. “It was like I was writing to someone who already understood me,” she says to Dawsey, later in the story. She didn’t have to explain herself to him.
This desire, this need, is instilled in all of us. It’s God-given, and it draws us to God. The way Juliet speaks with Dawsey about not needing to explain herself to him offers a consolation to the viewer, as we all long to be known in that way, too. I was reminded, watching it, of reading another powerful story—C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces. A retelling of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, where a beautiful maiden is sent as a sacrifice to the fearsome god of the Mountain, only to discover she is instead married to the god of Love himself, Cupid. Lewis’s retelling frames the god of the Mountain as a Type of Christ, and Psyche, therefore, as the bride of Christ. (I’m taking some interpretive liberties here for the sake of brevity, as the work is complex and nuanced, and worth in-depth analysis!) Psyche’s sister, Orual, strives to rescue her beloved Psyche from the god of the Mountain, whom she views, despite Psyche’s assertions to the contrary, as a monster. In what I’ve always found to be the most moving scene of the novel, Psyche pleads with Orual to understand the joy she’s found in marriage to the god of the Mountain—to understand her as the god of the Mountain understands her:
The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing—to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from—my country, the place where I ought to have been born. Do you think it all meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back. All my life the god of the Mountain has been wooing me. Oh, look up once at least before the end and wish me joy. I am going to my lover. Do you not see now?
Psyche isn’t just pleading with her sister—she’s pleading with all of us. Lewis intended “Orual” to be a wordplay: “Or U All.” In like manner, when Juliet goes to Guernsey and finds her consolation there in the stories of the Society, and most especially with Dawsey, we, the viewers, have the opportunity to feel the same draw and pull and consolation. As Psyche found herself known by the god of the Mountain and pleads for Orual to see, so Juliet finds herself known by Dawsey and pleads for Mark and Sydney to see and understand her longing for and fascination with Guernsey and the people there. Like Psyche, she’s found her “god of the Mountain,” who knows her and, in knowing her, loves her. But even if there was no romantic plot to the Guernsey story, I think it would still be fulfilling in just this: that Juliet Ashton found “the place where all the beauty [comes] from.” The fact that her relationship with Dawsey Adams does blossom into love adds to this story a powerful picture of Christ’s love for his Church. “Do you suppose it’s possible for us to belong to someone before we’ve ever even met them?” Juliet says. For me, it was a mirror of the scene in Till We Have Faces when Psyche says that all her life the god of the Mountain has been wooing her.
This is the power of words, but not just any words—the written word. Stories are the most powerful when they are written down. Juliet finds no peace until she puts the Society’s stories to paper, and when she does, not only is her consolation complete, but the rest of the Society’s is, as well. It is as though Elizabeth McKenna, missing for so many years and discovered to have been killed by the Nazis, can finally rest. Elizabeth, whose presence in the story is only in the stories told by the Society, whose concern was always communal—beginning, and ending, with a meal. She brought the society together over an illegal roast pig and sundered them over bread offered to a starving slave. But her story isn’t complete until Juliet writes it down, resolving the contraries in Juliet’s own life, in the memories of the Society. The grief that had no resolution, the war that would not really ever end, the daughter and mother and friend who could not rest, finally does so. “If books really do have the power to bring people together, I pray that this one will have worked it’s magic,” Juliet tells the Society when she sends them the manuscript she wrote for them—when she sends them their own story.
She sends with the manuscript a note, telling them they’re free to do with the story what they will—laced with an indirect confession of her love for Dawsey. It’s a confession only Dawsey catches, and it leads to resolution between them, and—as would only be fitting in such a story—marriage. Christ’s ultimate work in this world was a resolution of contraries—a restoration of the sundering of the universe that happened in the Fall, a setting to right the relationship between humans and God. This is why marriage makes so fitting a metaphor, and why romantic stories are such a beautiful way to view Christ and his love for the church, especially when they are told in the manner of Till We Have Faces and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society: with a longing for another country and for someone who knows us without any explanation needed, who loves us without qualification. To be known by Christ is to be loved by him, and going to be with him truly is the ultimate joy.