Book Review: The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis

Year of First Publication: 1945

Year of Publication for This Edition: 2015

Number of Pages: 160

Publisher: Zondervan

Genre: Fiction

Sub-Genres: Speculative fiction

Subjects: Heaven, Hell, damnation, death, desire

Buy it here (disclosure: I use affiliate links).


I glanced round the bus. Though the windows were closed, and soon muffed, the bus was full of light. It was a cruel light. I shrank from the faces and forms by which I was surrounded. They were all fixed faces, full not of possibilities but of impossibilities, some gaunt, some bloated, some glaring with idiotic ferocity, some drowned beyond recovery in dreams; but all, in one way or another, distorted and faded. One had a feeling that they might fall to pieces at any moment if the light grew much stronger. Then—there was a mirror on the end wall of the bus—I caught sight of my own.

And still the light grew.

Chapter 2

As I mentioned in last month’s “Bookish Links” post, I’m participating in an online book club started by Joy Clarkson of the podcast Speaking with Joy. Basically, we read two chapters of The Great Divorce every week, Joy posts questions about the chapters on social media, and then we answer them and discuss what we read. Joy has studied this book inside and out, so the discussions she starts and the insight she provides—through her blog and her podcast—are incredibly illuminating. It’s also really fun to study this book with other Lewis fans.

The club is currently up to chapter eight out of fourteen, but since this book is so short and the material was so interesting to me, I decided to read it straight through.

The story begins with our narrator (who, though he is never named, appears to be Lewis himself) wandering around a dreary gray town at sunset. He comes across a group of people waiting at a bus stop and decides to join the queue, if only so that he won’t be alone anymore. When the bus finally comes, it whisks these lost souls away to a new and strange place, one that is larger, brighter, and feels altogether more real than anywhere else they have ever been. The narrator soon finds out that he and his fellow passengers were in Hell before and have been allowed to take a sort of “holiday” in Heaven. They can even stay in Heaven if they want to; the problem is most of them don’t want to. Between their misguided loves, their cynicism, and, most of all, their selfishness, it takes nothing short of a miracle to get these people into Heaven for good.

I think James Motter, a C. S. Lewis scholar, probably summed it up best: “if it is solely entertainment you seek, there are better books. We read [The Great Divorce] instead for the light it sheds on Lewis’s theology.” That’s not to say that the book holds no entertainment or artistic value whatsoever. On the contrary, the ideas Lewis discusses would undoubtedly lose some of their power and clarity if Lewis had stuck to his usual apologetic prose. The imaginative elements in this book are part of the argument. Nevertheless, I do believe that Lewis is writing to explain and educate more than to entertain. Without pretending to give a factual account of what Heaven is like, Lewis instead uses this story as a parable to talk about salvation. The story consists mostly of our protagonist observing interactions between the souls from Hell (he calls them “Ghosts”) and the residents of Heaven—the “Spirits”—who desperately want to bring the Ghosts over to the other side.

So, if you’re looking for a rip-roaring fantasy yarn, this may not be your book. If, however, you are interested in Christian ideas about Heaven, Hell, and human desire, read on.

*

One of the defining features of Lewis’s Hell is the lack of any sort of community. As the narrator observes when he first joins the queue, even the couples can’t get along with each other for very long and everyone is constantly bickering and sniping at each other. Once the bus ride is underway, we learn from one Ghost—the narrator calls him “the Intelligent Man”—that, typically, the longer a person stays in Hell, the further they remove themselves from their neighbors:

“As soon as anyone arrives, he settles in some street. Before he’s been there twenty-four hours he quarrels with his neighbour. Before the week is over he’s quarreled so badly that he decides to move. Very likely he finds the next street empty because all the people there have quarreled with their neighbours and moved. So he settles in. If by any chance the street is full, he goes further. But even if he stays, it makes no odds. He’s sure to have another quarrel pretty soon and then he’ll move on again. Finally he’ll move right out to the edge of the town and build a new house. You see, it’s easy here. You’ve only got to think a house and there it is. That’s how the town keeps on growing.” [Chapter 2]

Naturally, some residents of Hell have noticed this lack of camaraderie and believe it is a problem. But their ideas for solving it couldn’t be further from the spirit of true community. For instance, the “Intelligent Man” hopes to start a market-based economy in Hell by bringing items back with him from Heaven and selling them. “If they needed real shops,” he reasons, “chaps would have to stay near where the real shops were. If they needed real houses, they’d have to stay near where builders were. It’s scarcity that enables a society to exist. Well, that’s where I come in.” He describes his role in this scheme as that of a “public benefactor,” when his motive is clearly personal economic gain. He’s not as interested in a real community of people who help and care for each other as he is in finding a customer base to make money off of.

Similar to Dante in Inferno, Lewis imagines Hell as a series of concentric circles, formed as the Ghosts move further and further away from each other. (“The Abyss of Hell” by Sandro Botticelli)

Another Ghost the narrator meets on the bus is identified as the “Tousle-Headed Poet,” a former writer and Marxist agitator. He tells the narrator that he’s going to Heaven in hopes of finding “Recognition” and “Appreciation” for his (alleged) talents as a poet, decrying the “appalling lack of any intellectual life” in Hell. He describes his failed attempts to form a writing society in Hell, before assuring the narrator that, of everyone on the bus, he is the only one who will be staying in Heaven permanently. In his mind, he is the only one of them who is sophisticated enough to appreciate Heaven.

So where the Intelligent Man’s main motive for seeking community was based in profit, this poet’s motive is to find a group of people who will praise him and acknowledge his perceived superiority. In either case, their motives stem primarily from love of the self.

“Saint Augustine in His Cell” by Sandro Botticelli

And to Lewis, that’s the main problem that these souls need to overcome if they are going to stay in Heaven: they must forget themselves, their works, their sin, and leave everything behind for the sake of God and his love. One really interesting point that Joy has brought up in the course of the book club is how Lewis’s ideas here complement those of St. Augustine in his book City of God. According to Augustine, human beings only exercise two kinds of love: love of God and love of the self. Even when we love other people, we either are loving them “in” God (in such a way that pleases him and draws us closer to him) or we are exercising self-love (loving a person not for their own sake but for what they can do for us). And because it is ultimately our loves that motivate us to act, all of our actions become either a way of serving and drawing closer to God or a way of serving ourselves. “Friend,” a Spirit begs one of the Ghosts once it reaches Heaven, “can you just for one moment think of something other than yourself?” The point here is not to obliterate the self, as some philosophies and religions teach we must do: rather, to enjoy communion with God, God must be foremost in the worshiper’s mind and heart. When we pass out of love of self and into love of God, Lewis says, it is only then that we can find rest and fulfillment.

**

As Joy has taken the care to highlight during the book club, this story draws on many different sources. The whole idea that “the damned have holidays” was inspired by the ancient theologian Tertullian, who believed that all souls, saved and unsaved alike, will reside in Hell until the Final Judgment. However, he wrote, the saved are sometimes permitted to experience Heaven temporarily, as a means of “refreshing” their souls. Lewis tweaks that idea slightly, instead presenting a situation in which the souls of the unsaved to visit Heaven and given the choice to stay.

Given Lewis’s background has a scholar of medieval literature, it’s not surprising that there are some Dantean influences on the story too. The narrator even has an angelic guide to lead him through Heaven in the form of George MacDonald, a nineteenth-century Scottish preacher, poet, and novelist. MacDonald’s writing was a huge influence on Lewis throughout his career, especially as a young man. In his memoir Surprised by Joy, Lewis credits MacDonald’s novel Phantases with “baptising” his imagination so that he could better understand the idea of holiness as presented in the Bible. Lewis even takes a quotation from MacDonald’s sermon “The Last Farthing” as the epigram of The Great Divorce:

No, there is no escape. There is no heaven with a little of hell in it—no plan to retain this or that of the devil in our hearts or our pockets. Out Satan must go, every hair and feather!

Even the title of the book itself has its roots in another author. As Lewis explains in his preface to The Great Divorce, the title was inspired by William Blake’s poetry collection The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. While not necessarily responding to the work directly, Lewis did want to write about the “divorce” of Heaven and Hell, and to describe why they are and must always be considered completely separate entities. “If we insist on keeping Hell (or even Earth),” he writes, “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.”

But in the very next sentence,

I believe, to be sure, that any man who reaches Heaven will find that what he abandoned (even in plucking out his right eye) has not been lost: that the kernel of what he was really seeking even in his most depraved wishes will be there, beyond expectation, waiting for him in the “High Countries.”

And that’s another Lewisian theme we see in this book: God as the ultimate satisfaction of all human desire.

I think it would be fair to say that the concept of desire is a dominant theme across Lewis’s work. He wrote about it extensively in Surprised by Joy, and returned to the topic many times throughout the years. He understood the longing that most feel for something bigger than and beyond themselves, and he knew that nothing found on earth could satisfy that longing permanently. And so, while he does often employ reasoned arguments to prove the claims of Christianity, a good portion of his writing—in this and other books—addresses that longing in particular as well.

Lewis was a firm believer that art could be a means of pointing souls toward where they needed to go in order to fulfill this desire. And so, while the book isn’t quite the type of novel I was expecting, it is still very artful. It weaves layers and layers of symbolism and imagery together to try to represent imaginatively what would be much harder to represent conceptually.

A perfect example of this is in the descriptions of Heaven itself. When the Ghosts first arrive in Heaven, they find that the grass is too rigid for their feet to bend it. It actually hurts them to stand on it for too long. They also find that the light in Heaven is so strong that they can see through other Ghosts as if they were pieces of paper held up to a lamp. What all of this is saying is that, compared with sin-stained creation, God is much realer and more solid even than the physical world as we know it. He is saying that with God, things and people become more “solid,” more lasting, as God himself is everlasting.

It’s one thing to try to explain the point that God is the true reality. But in Lewis’s writing, decked as it is in the imagery that he’s known for, it becomes much clearer and much more real to the reader. Lewis doesn’t bypass the imagination for the sake of the brain, he tries to treat both of them at once.

That’s not always something you get from Christian teachers. Many Christians grow up in the belief that Christianity is primarily an affair of the brain, a series of mental apprehensions which eventually lead to the salvation of your soul. There is very little in this brand of Christianity to address the heart, the imagination, the emotions, or the senses. What Lewis presents instead in this book is an idea of faith that encompasses the whole person. “[H]itherto you have experienced truth only with the abstract intellect,” one of the Spirits tells a skeptical Ghost. “I will bring you where you can taste it like honey and be embraced by it as by a bridegroom.” Lewis believes that God wants the whole person to be saved and transformed—mind, spirit, and body—and so he tries to involve as much of the person as possible, including the imagination and, through his keen sensory descriptions, the body as well.

That’s one of the things that intrigues me about Lewis and his approach to apologetics. That’s why I read this and will keep on reading him for a long time.

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