The Great Divorce
The Great Divorce was originally published as a serial in The Guardian from November 10, 1944 to April 13, 1945.
A busload of inhabitants from the Grey Town (or Hell) has the opportunity to visit the outskirts of Heaven. Because of their semi-transparent appearance, the passengers are referred to as ghosts, while the citizens of Heaven have solid bodies. A representative of Heaven greets each visitor and a conversation ensues during which the solid person tries to persuade the ghost to stay.
Each ghost has taken a virtue or natural impulse and elevated it above all else to the point of becoming distorted and destructive. In pride, they cling to self-righteousness, mother love, artistic talent, and doing one's duty, rather than grasp the joy and grace offered in Heaven. Only one ghost decides to stay and surrender the obstacle that separates him from God. Who will it be?
In the preface, Lewis explains how he arrived at the title. William Blake wrote "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell"; Lewis would write of their divorce. Lewis believed that life presented some either/or choices. The attempt to embrace both alternatives and somehow transform evil into good, Lewis saw as error. "If we insist on keeping Hell (or even earth) we shall not see Heaven: if we accept Heaven we shall not be able to retain even the smallest and most intimate souvenirs of Hell.”
This book offers insight into the human condition and the seemingly innocent things that can separate us from God. We also get a taste of Lewis's view of Heaven and Hell. In Beyond the Shadowlands: C. S. Lewis on Heaven and Hell, Wayne Martindale traces the theme of the afterlife throughout Lewis's works, including The Great Divorce. He summarizes Lewis's thoughts as follows:
* Heaven is being in the presence of God and enjoying all good things that flow from his character and creativity.
* Heaven is utter reality; Hell is nearly nothing.
* Although Heaven is a definite place, it is more relationship than place (not unlike the experience we have in our homes)
* All our desires are, at bottom, for Heaven.
* Heaven is the fulfillment of human potential; Hell is the drying up of human potential.
* We choose Heaven or Hell, daily becoming someone more suited for Heaven or someone who wouldn't like the place even if it were offered.
* Hell is receiving our just dessert; Heaven is all undeserved gift.
Wayne Martindale, Beyond the Shadowlands (2005), p. 18
Question for the entire book
1. Lewis makes reference to scripture passages periodically throughout the book. For example, in ch. 9, the Teacher explains how the solid people try to save some of the ghosts, concluding, "And it would be no use come further even if it were possible.” This is similar to a parable Jesus told about the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:31. What other biblical allusions do you find?
Questions for chapters 1-4
2. What do we learn about the narrator?
3. Describe time and distance (spatial relationships) in the grey town. What causes people to live so far apart?
4. Lewis employs several metaphors throughout the book in contrasting heaven and hell. E.g. light v. dark; solid people v. ghosts. What others do you find? How do these metaphors underscore the differences between heaven and hell?
- Do you think the Big Man deserved to be in heaven more than Len, the murderer? Why or why not? Did the Big Man "get his rights"? Did Len?
© 2009 by Allyson Wieland