The Great Divorce Summary

Overview (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

The Great Divorce, as C. S. Lewis emphasizes in its Preface, is a fantasy about “trans-mortal” existence. This fantasy is cast in the form of a dream told by an anonymous narrator, the only character who has a dramatic existence both within and without the dream. It is not until the end of the work that the narrator openly discloses that his story was only a dream—although his opening words (“I seemed to be standing in a busy queue”) hint at that fact. His story, however, is replete with qualities of order, cohesion, intellectual depth, and narrative length that actual dreams never possess. As a vision of the “after-world,” The Great Divorce bears comparison with the vision of Er at the end of Plato’s Republic (388-368 b.c.e.), the New Testament book of Revelation (late first century c.e.), and Dante’s La divina commedia, c. 1320 (3 volumes; The Divine Comedy, 1802). As a novel, it is episodic and lacks a traditional plot.

Numerous autobiographical references in the narrator’s story clearly identify him as a fictional version of Lewis himself: The effect, for example, that the narrator claims (chapter 9) George MacDonald’s novel Phantastes (1858) had on him is the same effect that Lewis states (chapter 11) this novel had on him in his autobiographical Surprised by Joy (1955). Lewis, as author, portrays the narrator as pupil and employs MacDonald as a surrogate character for the expression of his own thought.

After his opening words, the narrator explains that he had been wandering through a dingy town under an evening twilight, which never turned into night, and had joined a queue at a bus stop, the only place he encountered people. Amidst a flurry of quarrels and scuffles, some drop out of the queue and the remainder take seats on an omnibus, which begins to ascend. By the time it has disembarked its noxious passengers onto a land ever on the brink of sunrise, the Tousle-Headed Poet had told the narrator of his suicide in response to a world too unenlightened to appreciate his talents. The Intelligent...

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The Great Divorce Bibliography (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Como, James T., ed. Remembering C. S. Lewis: Recollections of Those Who Knew Him. 3d ed. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005. Recollections about Lewis by twenty-four people who knew him. Includes a chronology of Lewis’s life and a bibliography of his writings.

Gibson, Evan K. C. S. Lewis, Spinner of Tales: A Guide to His Fiction. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Christian University Press, 1980. Chapter 5 of this study of Lewis’s fiction includes insightful analysis of The Great Divorce in conjunction with The Screwtape Letters.

Green, Roger Lancelyn, and Walter Hooper. C. S. Lewis: A Biography. Rev. ed. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1994. The most thorough account of Lewis’s life and works. Discusses (pp. 220-221) the sources for Lewis’s Refrigerium.

Lewis, C. S. Surprised by Joy. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1956. An autobiographical account of Lewis’s journey from atheism to theism. Elucidates the references to the joy of heaven in The Great Divorce.

Nicholi, Armand M., Jr. The Question of God: C. S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life. New York: Free Press, 2002. A comparison of the worldviews of Lewis and Sigmund Freud. Elucidates the cultural subtext of The Great Divorce.