The Great Divorce

by C. S. Lewis
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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 319

The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis is something of his philosophical perspective on eternity transformed into a brief novel. He takes a few liberties with Christian theology (particularly the idea that no one can pass from Hell to Heaven and that no one can enter Heaven after they have died and been judged) to illustrate his greater points.

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The beginning of the story describes people waiting for a bus in a dingy city, described much like an eternally-spreading metropolis styled after London. The characters describe their petty and desolate lives, as well as the loneliness and dissatisfaction they feel. They believe themselves to be in purgatory, awaiting judgment, and that this bus will take them to be judged. When it finally arrives, however, they are taken to the gates of Heaven—a lush, beautiful paradise—where they meet a poet (George Macdonald) who describes to them the nature of Heaven.

The characters realize they are essentially ghosts in the more real world that is Heaven. They pass through the trees and rocks and realize that this world is permanent and strong while they are weak and fading. The poet shows them from whence they have come (a small, nearly invisible crack in the ground), revealing their eternity to be Hell which, for all its seeming immensity, is inconsequential in comparison to Heaven's vastness.

While they are there, they are offered the chance to be freed from sin and enter into Heaven for eternity. One man, burdened by lust—which is represented by a lizard on his shoulder—takes the offer, killing the lizard so that he can be freed from it. He gradually becomes more solid as the lizard morphs and transforms into a mighty stallion that carries him into eternity, illustrating that our vices on Earth (and in Hell) are simply perversions of our true nature, things that are gifts from God to improve and purify us.

Summary

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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1528

First published: 1945

Edition(s) used: The Great Divorce: A Dream. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001

Genre(s): Novella

Subgenre(s): Allegory; fantasy

Core issue(s): Conversion; death; time

Principal characters

Anonymous narrator

Spirit of George MacDonald, the narrator’s teacher

Ghost of the Tousle-Headed Poet, a ghost who had committed suicide

The Big Ghost, a bully

The Episcopal Ghost, a liberal theologian

Ghost of the Intelligent Man, a business entrepreneur

The Hard-Bitten Ghost, a cynic

Ghost of an egocentric woman

Ghost of a grumbling woman

Ghost of a seductress

Ghost of an egotistical artist

Ghost of a domineering wife

Ghost of a possessive mother

Ghost of a lustful man

Spirit of Sarah Smith, spirit who is obscure on Earth but great in Heaven

The Dwarf-Tragedian, ghost of Sarah’s self-tormenting husband

Overview

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 Man had explained the emptiness of the grey town: The inhabitants settle their constant quarrels by moving farther and farther apart.

In the light of the sunrise land, the narrator notices that the passengers, he included, are mere ghosts. Eventually there appears a throng of bright spirits, who undertake to persuade the ghosts to relinquish the hellish qualities that will exclude them from heaven. The narrator observes several encounters between ghosts representing common forms of hellishness and spirits or angels come to save them. The Big Ghost, a self-righteous bully, spurns the guidance of a spirit now reconciled in heaven with the man he murdered and therefore a model of what the Big Ghost must become. Such a model also is the spirit who vainly urges repentance and orthodoxy on the Episcopal Ghost, who returns to the grey town to propagate his liberal theology. The ghost of the Intelligent Man, who intends to open a business in the grey town, ignores the command of an angel to put down the golden apple he is painfully struggling to carry to the omnibus. Then the Hard-Bitten Ghost infects the narrator with doubts about the benevolence of the spirits; and an interview between a spirit and the ghost of an egocentric woman fails to allay these doubts.

The Spirit of George MacDonald suddenly appears, relieves the narrator of his doubts, explains how it is that the ghosts are visiting Heaven, and becomes his teacher in matters moral and theological. MacDonald’s instruction continues until the end of the dream and includes a warning to the narrator about men so dedicated to proving the existence of God that they ignore God himself. The instruction is facilitated by ghost-spirit encounters, which MacDonald sometimes interprets. They involve: a grumbling woman, whose ghost may have become a mere grumble; a seductress, whose hideous ghost tries to attract the spirits; an egotistical artist, whose ghost ignores the pleas of an artist spirit and rushes back to the grey town to save himself from obscurity; a domineering wife, whose ghost yearns to mold the spirit of her husband even in heaven; the ghost of a mother, whose natural love for her son has degenerated into possessiveness; the ghost of a lustful man, who alone among the visitors is surely saved, when he allows an angel to kill the red lizard of lust on his shoulder, and ghost and dead lizard are transformed into master and stallion; and the Spirit of Sarah Smith, who arrives amidst a throng of heavenly attendants and vainly attempts to persuade the Dwarf of the composite ghost of her husband to relinquish the self-tormenting Tragedian who is dominating him.

During the ghost-spirit encounters and in their aftermath, MacDonald instructs the narrator concerning the nature of heaven and hell, the joy of heaven, the necessity of moral choice, the inadequacy of natural love, the corruption of pity, Christ’s descent into hell, time and eternity, freedom and predestination. Such instruction leads to MacDonald’s informing the narrator that he has not seen reality but has had “a vision in a dream.” The dream ends with sunrise in heaven, and the narrator finds himself fallen on the floor beside his study table, an air-raid siren howling overhead.

Christian Themes

The primary themes of The Great Divorce are moral choice and the absolute disunion of heaven and hell. These themes are developed within a narrative framework provided by an obscure Christian concept, the Refrigerium (the Holiday of the Damned), which includes in Lewis’s version the efforts of the Blessed Spirits to convert those ghosts who have chosen to spend their holiday in the Valley of the Shadow of Life rather than on Earth. The behavior of the ghosts and their encounters with the denizens of heaven unfold the nature of the choices required.

MacDonald’s retrospective interpretation of those choices discloses their transforming quality: For the ghosts who relinquish their hellishness, the grey town will have been purgatory; but those who return to the omnibus will have been in hell both on Earth and in the grey town. Such interpretation emanates from the difference MacDonald perceives between the sequential time humans experience and the eternal present of heaven. As here, logical and temporal contraries of the former become compatible in the latter: Choices become permanent states, past and future become present during Christ’s descent into hell, predestination and freedom of choice become a single verity. The difference between the two time frames is encapsulated in an allegorical image: gigantic forms representing immortal souls stand about a silver table representing time on which chessmen representing humans act out the inmost nature of the souls.

Orthodoxy prevails in the case of the Episcopal Ghost: To be saved, he must repent of his intellectual sins and express belief in the Resurrection, a literal heaven and hell, and the existence of God. Noticeably absent from explicit consideration in The Great Divorce is the fundamental Christian doctrine of faith in Christ as necessary for salvation, much less its formulation by Saint Paul, which so influenced Martin Luther, as justification by faith.

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.

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