66 pages 2 hours read

C. S. Lewis

The Great Divorce

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1945

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, first published in serial form in 1945 and as a novel the following year, explores an unnamed narrator’s experiences in Heaven and Hell. Although Lewis is best known for his contribution to children’s literature in The Chronicles of Narnia series, he also wrote many works of adult fiction and nonfiction. Almost all of his published work is either explicitly or implicitly religious in nature; many of his nonfiction works are Christian apologist texts (meaning that they propose arguments for belief in the Christian faith). As a faculty member at both Oxford University and Cambridge University, Lewis was known for crafting intellectually rigorous defenses of Christianity. Unlike the Narnia novels, The Great Divorce has not yet been adapted for the screen but has been for the stage.

The novel’s title references Romantic writer William Blake’s poem The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Unlike Blake, who expresses a dualistic belief that good and evil feed off each other in a symbiotic relationship, Lewis suggests that the separation of good and evil will be eternal in the afterlife, and that humans must sacrifice their sinful natures in order to enter God’s presence. In addition to Blake’s poem, The Great Divorce evokes works of literature in which an everyman narrator embarks on a spiritual journey, such as Dante’s Divine Comedy and John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. This study guide uses the 2015 HarperCollins paperback edition of the novel.

Plot Summary

At the start of Chapter 1, the novel’s unnamed narrator finds himself standing in a bus line in a drab, gray town. When a gleamingly bright bus arrives, the narrator has to sit by a very talkative young man, who explains that he was sent to the Grey Town after his death by suicide. A different man on the bus seems to believe the Grey Town is Purgatory, telling the narrator that as bad as it is, it will one day get worse when the long evening finally ends and night descends. Other passengers disagree, but they stop speculating when a bright light suddenly shines into the bus.

The bus passengers disembark and notice that they all appear translucent, but they gradually realize this is less because they themselves have changed and more because their surroundings have. Everything around them is enormously weighty and solid; the very grass hurts to walk on. Although no one immediately voices the suspicion, dialogue in subsequent chapters reveals that most of the passengers (whom Lewis calls “Ghosts”) assume they are in Heaven. Soon, a group of bright, solid people (“Spirits”) approaches the bus passengers.

Most of the remainder of the novel involves interactions between the Ghosts and the solid Spirits. First, the narrator sees a Ghost speak to a solid person who used to be his employee. Though the Ghost feels offended that his employee got into Heaven while he himself did not, the Spirit explains that the Ghost can never get in by relying on his goodness in life and must instead rely on God’s mercy. The man is unwilling to do so and heads back to the bus.

Next, the narrator witnesses a Ghost speaking to his former fellow scholar. Their conversation reveals that the Ghost is an apostate: a person who once accepted Christian salvation but has since fallen away from the faith. He too rejects the offer of Heaven. Wandering to a different area, the narrator sees a man covertly attempting to carry a handful of apples back to the bus. Because they are so heavy, however, he keeps having to put them down, one after another, until he has only one left. An angel appears and warns him to put the apples down and stay in Heaven where he can learn to eat them, but the man continues his effort until the narrator loses sight of him.

Next, the narrator runs into a conspiracy-minded man who thinks everything about Heaven is some sort of trick that only the gullible would fall for. After leaving him, the narrator begins worrying that the man is right; he longs to see just one Ghost choose to stay so that he can see whether the Spirits are being honest about the bliss that awaits there. However, he merely sees another woman rejecting the offer of Heaven, this one out of shame for her appearance.

About halfway through the novel, the narrator encounters George MacDonald, a real 19th-century Scottish writer and minister whom the narrator admires greatly. MacDonald serves as his guide for the remainder of the book. After MacDonald has explained some details about the nature of Heaven and Hell and those who choose each path, he and the narrator come upon a few more Ghosts—a flirt and a constant grumbler. The narrator and MacDonald then see three more Ghosts reject Heaven—one a famous artist during his lifetime, one a wife who lived to antagonize her husband, and one a mother who turned her grief into a weapon—before finally seeing one decide to accept Heaven. The man who accepts has a lizard on his shoulder trying to persuade him to return to Hell, but the man agrees to let an angel kill the lizard. When the angel does, both the man and the lizard appear dead briefly but then rise—the man in a glorious new solid body and the lizard in the form of a stallion.

The last pair that the narrator and MacDonald see consists of a small Ghost who encounters a stunningly bright and beautiful woman with a singing procession of humans, angels, and animals before her. These two were married during their earthly lives, but despite the woman’s encouragement, her husband will not join her in Heaven, resenting that she no longer needs him.

At the end of the novel, MacDonald explains to the narrator the relationship between those in Heaven and those in Hell, the nature of time in life and in the afterlife, and the nature of free will. He also tells the narrator that he is only dreaming, but that he should write down what he has dreamed for others to read. In the novel’s brief final chapter, the narrator wakes as a clock strikes three in the morning.

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