The Great Divorce Summary

CS Lewis

The Great Divorce

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The Great Divorce Summary

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C.S. Lewis, most famous for his Narnia children’s series, was also a devout Christian who wrote prolifically about his faith, often in the form of allegorical stories. The Great Divorce is one such allegory, in which the nameless protagonist finds himself on a journey between Purgatory and Heaven.

The narrator arrives in a grey, joyless town during nightfall. The town is empty except for a line of people waiting for a bus. The narrator decides to join them. A man and woman fight over whether to get on the bus, and so leave the line. One man complains about the others in line, and so is forced out. Two people trick a young woman into getting out of line and no one will let her back in. The bus arrives, and all in line board. The narrator chats with several of the passengers. One, a poet, has chosen to get on the bus because there is no intellectual life in the grey town. Another threw himself under a bus to escape a miserable life, and believe that wherever the bus is going to make him finally feel recognized and appreciated. A man in a bowler hat is displeased by the amenities of the grey town and wants a better quality of life.

The bus lands and the passengers exit. They panic when they find they have become transparent ghosts. Beautiful, ethereal beings move towards them, and the terrified passengers huddle together. A solid being and a ghost person converse. The ghost person is shocked that the solid being is in heaven, given that he murdered someone on earth. The solid being states he was forgiven, and that the ghost person was horrible to his own wife and children. The ghost refuses to accept the solid being’s help, and returns to the bus.

Several encounters between solid beings and ghosts occur. A ghost mocks a solid being for his belief in a literal Heaven and Hell. The man in the bowler hat tries to take a golden apple back to the bus, despite being warned that it has no value in Hell.  A well-dressed ghost woman frets about her appearance next to the glory of the solid beings, and so refuses to journey onwards with them. These encounters represent various sins. The first ghost is a heretic, while the man in the bowler hat is guilty of greed. The well-dressed woman is vain. All these sins prevent them from journeying onward, and so they all return to the grey town.

A solid being (called a Bright Person) approaches the narrator. He introduced himself as George MacDonald, an author whom the author had admired. MacDonald explains that the ghosts all have choices, and that some even take excursions back to earth, where they visit their old homes and spy on their children. But some stay in this bright place—the grey town was just Purgatory for them. The narrator allows MacDonald to guide him, leaning on the more experienced being for support. They encounter various ghosts with various “character flaws” that will ultimately prevent them from reaching Heaven. A painter turns back when he learns that in Heaven, no one paints or receives recognition for their talents. An old woman who was abused in her nursing home does not move forward because she is only a “grumbler.” A ghost woman who only wants to see her son is told she must desire to see God first. Michael has been kept from her by God for hers and Michael’s own good. A man who has a lizard representing lust on his shoulder allows an angel to kill the lizard, then rides off into Heaven in triumph.

The narrator encounters a leader of the Bright People, an ordinary woman named Sarah Smith who was good and kind to everyone she met, and most importantly, devout enough to gain entry to Heaven. She interacts with two ghosts, two halves of the man she loved on Earth. She tries to convince the smaller of the two to get rid of the taller, who will not accept her apologies for certain sins on Earth. But the taller man overpowers the smaller, railing against Sarah until the smaller man disappears from view.

The narrator approaches a huge crowd of huge beings, who sit silently at a silver table and stare at little figures on that table. The figures move around the table, aided by the giant beings. The narrator speaks to MacDonald, asking if any of this has been real. MacDonald says it is, just presented in a different form than on Earth. The narrator, he explains, has not died yet. But he should not go and tell others what he has seen. A rooster crows, and the narrator panics that morning has arrived and he’s still a ghost. Then, he awakens in his own room on Earth, at three in the morning.