The Great Divorce Summary
by C. S. Lewis

Start Your Free Trial

Download The Great Divorce Study Guide

Subscribe Now

The Great Divorce Summary

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.

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

(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 Man had explained the emptiness of the grey town: The inhabitants settle their constant...

(The entire section is 1,407 words.)