The Great Divorce was first published in the Anglican newspaper The Guardian as a serial in 1944 and 1945, and was published soon afterwards. The title refers to William Blake’s poem, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
Lewis has this to say in his preface, which touches on some of the themes to be found in the book:
I do not think that all who choose wrong roads perish; but their rescue consists in being put back on the right road. A sum can be put right: but only by going back till you find the error and working it afresh from that point, never by simply going on. Evil can be undone, but it cannot ‘develop’ into good. Time does not heal it. The spell must be unwound, bit by bit, ‘with backwards mutterings of dissevering power’ – or else not. It is still ‘either-or’. 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.
The novel begins with a man (who is never given a name) wandering through a grey and dingy city, ending up in a queue at a bus stop. The people waiting with him are by turns quarrelsome and disagreeable. By and by a bus appears and after more grumbling the passengers alight.
To the man’s astonishment the bus begins to rise up and up, passing between huge cliffs and hours later finally settling on their tops, into the Bright Country, where the truth is revealed that all the passengers are in fact Ghosts, including the man, and that the bus has brought them from Hell and has arrived in Heaven.
It is a difficult country for the Ghosts to navigate, as their insubstantial forms have a hard time coping with the hard reality of Heaven – the grass is too sharp for their feet, and a leaf is heavier than a sack of coal. Far out on the horizon our Ghost sees a High Country, a great range of mountains behind which the sun is starting to rise, throwing long shadows behind everything in the lower country. From the heights of the mountains a procession of bright, solid people come down to meet the Ghosts, and the rest of the novel basically consists of the conversations the Ghosts have with the Bright Spirits, who are there to meet the Ghosts and escort them to the High Country, if they are willing.
And there is the rub. Most are not. The Ghosts give various excuses to the Bright Spirits why they do not wish to accompany the Spirits, and in these conversations Lewis presents to us the choices that we all make every day that lead us towards Heaven or Hell.
The narrator has his own Bright Spirit come to meet him, who is revealed as the author George MacDonald. If you know anything about C.S. Lewis, you will know that this author had a profound influence on his writing and on his spiritual life. In fact, Lewis himself said, “I don’t think I have ever written a book where I did not quote from him.” MacDonald appears in this book as a type of Virgil to Lewis’ Dante – a guide through the regions of the Afterlife in which the Ghost finds himself.
This is a clever, clever book, at turns funny and tragic, and always thought-provoking. I was uncomfortably aware that some of the Ghosts resemble me. Their prevarications and excuses strike close to home. And I realize that I have heard one form or another of these conversations all my life. To give you a taste of this, here is part of a conversation between one of the Ghosts and a Bright Spirit, who, while he was alive, murdered a common acquaintance of them both:
“…If they choose to let in a bloody murderer all because he makes a poor mouth at the last moment, that’s their look out ,”[said the Ghost]. “But I don’t see myself going in the same boat as you, see? Why should I? I don’t’ want charity. I’m a decent man and if I had my rights I’d have been here long ago and you can tell them I said so.”
The other shook his head. “You can never do it like that,” he said. “Your feet will never grow hard enough to walk on our grass that way. You’d be tired out before we got to the mountains. And it isn’t exactly true, you know.” Mirth danced in his eyes as he said it.
“What isn’t true?”asked the Ghost sulkily.
“You weren’t a decent man and you didn’t do your best. We none of us were and none of us did. Lord bless you, it doesn’t matter. There is no need to go into it all now.”
“You!” gasped the Ghost. “You have the face to tell me I wasn’t a decent chap?”
“Of course. Must I go into all that? I will tell you one thing to begin with. Murdering old Jack wasn’t the worst thing I did. That was the work of a moment and I was half mad when I did it. But I murdered you in my heart, deliberately, for years. I used to lie awake at night thinking what I’d do to you if I ever got the chance. That is why I have been sent to you now: to ask your forgiveness and to be your servant as long as you need one, and longer if it pleases you. I was the worst. But all the men who worked under you felt the same. You made it hard for us, you know. And you made it hard for your wife too and for your children.”
” You mind your own business, young man,” said the Ghost. “None of your lip, see? Because I’m not taking any impudence from you about my private affairs.”
“There are no private affairs,” said the other.
Besides these conversations, which contain many layers of meanings, the other thing I really love about this book is the picture of the Afterlife Lewis presents here. He is very careful in the preface to state that this is a work of fiction, and that nothing in the book is meant to be an absolute authority on what Heaven or Hell is really like. But the concepts here intrigue me. Hell is the place where all the worst of humanity is found – not so much the violence and evil we might think (although that is there but in a slightly sad and desperate way) but the pure egoistic selfishness that results in the Ghosts continually moving further and further away from each other, so that the ones who arrived first are the furthest out in the fringes of that country, all alone and as far away from the others as they can be.
Lewis likes to play with the idea of time in his novels, we saw that a bit in the Space Trilogy, and especially in Narnia, where the Pevensie children grow up to adults in that country but when they go through the wardrobe they are back to being the children they were when they first entered the wardrobe. In the Narnia books this is a nod to the idea often seen in fairy tales, that time works differently in fairy-land.
In this novel, George MacDonald tries to help the Ghost understand that time is an altogether different thing in Heaven, and that thinking in temporal terms about spiritual matters is not helpful. As he says,
“Son,” he said, “ye cannot in your present state understand eternity…That is what mortals misunderstand. They say of some temporal suffering, ‘No future bliss can make up for it,’ not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory. And of some sinful pleasure they say “Let me have but this and I’ll take the consequences”: little dreaming how damnation will spread back and back into their past and contaminate the pleasure of the sin. Both processes begin even before death. The good man’s past begins to change so that his forgiven sins and remembered sorrows take on the quality of Heaven: the bad man’s past already conforms to his badness and is filled only with dreariness. And that is why…the Blessed will say ‘We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven,’ : and the Lost, ‘We were always in Hell.’ And both will speak truly.”
The Ghost questions MacDonald about the seemingly unfair reality of Hell – why does God send some there and not others? MacDonald helps the Ghost to see that it is not God who sends people to Hell, but the people themselves choose it for themselves (which is made clear in the novel, as most of the Ghosts find Heaven a most disagreeable place for one reason or another and get back on the bus):
“Everyone who wishes it does. Never fear. There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened.”
He explains that God is not silent, He is entreating the lost to turn towards Heaven, but they are deaf to it:
“Good beats upon the damned incessantly as sound waves beat on the ears of the deaf, but they cannot receive it. Their fists are clenched, their teeth are clenched, their eyes fast shut. First they will not, in the end they cannot, open their hands for gifts, or their mouth for food, or their eyes to see.”
As I read this book I found myself remembering little snippets of it, concepts that have stuck with me. These ideas of Lewis’ – the backwards-transformative nature of eternity, how we all choose Heaven or Hell as opposed to being “sent” to one place or another, the hard reality of Heaven as opposed to the insubstantial nature of reality as we know it now – these are ideas that I knew I had picked up from Lewis somewhere and was delighted to find all in one place, in The Great Divorce. It shows you the impact this book had on me the first time I read it, when I was a young adult, and I am pleased to say it was just as thought-provoking and spiritually rich this time around as well.
A great read, with profound insights. Highly recommended.
Well, somehow the year has flown by and here we are in December, heading to the close of my series. I do so with a mixture of sadness and satisfaction. Sadness that the series is coming to a close, and yet satisfaction that I had the chance to both revisit books by C.S. Lewis that I had previously read and discover a new one. I thought I would read more of the ones I haven’t read yet…the year slipped by so quickly and I got enthused about re-reading books I had loved in the past, so the only “new” one to me was The Abolition of Man. But that one gave me lots to chew on!
I will do one more post on this series – it will be a reflection on my experience of reading C.S. Lewis, and as well I will introduce my new series for 2016. I hope you will stick with me!
Thank you so much to all of you who have journeyed with me through the works of this marvellous author, I hope in some small way I have encouraged you to pick up some of his books for yourself. I can’t imagine you will be sorry if you do.