Monday, January 08, 2007

The Great Divorce: Some preliminaries

The Great Divorce is one of my favorite books by C. S. Lewis. In the class I teach on Lewis, I often use it as one of the first books of the semester: it is short, vividly imaginative, and filled with profound ideas. It wonderfully combines three of Lewis's strengths: his brilliant mind, his powerful imagination, and the depth of his religious feelings and convictions.

Some of you have already read The Great Divorce; others of you are still trying to find a copy (it shouldn't be hard). I don't want to do too much explaining or interpreting, at least for now, since I think you'll find it a lot more interesting to experience the book "straight," without too much interference. That's exactly how Lewis would have liked it. He once wrote that "first-hand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than second-hand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire" (God in the Dock 200).

If you haven't read the book yet, just dive in--experience it for what it is, letting your imagine and emotions respond to the story, without worrying too much about figuring out what it "means." And as you start trying to figure out what it means, trust yourself--assume that most of the ideas that ring true to you are really true and valuable. You don't need to be an expert to understand most of what Lewis is trying to communicate. In fact, thinking that you're an expert can prevent you from understanding and enjoying the book.

So what I'll do in this first guest blog on The Great Divorce is to give some background that should help orient you: information about when the book was written, where the title came from, and what kind of book it is.

The Great Divorce first appeared in weekly segments in a periodical titled The Guardian, between November 10, 1944, and April 13, 1945. At that point it was titled "Who Goes Home? or The Grand Divorce." ("Who goes home?" is apparently a question called out by a policeman inside the House of Commons as it is about to close its doors.) When it was published in book form in 1946, the title was changed to The Great Divorce: A Dream. "Who Goes Home?" makes sense as a title: one of the themes of the book is that people choose whether they stay in heaven or leave; in fact, their choices determine where their true home is. But what about "The Great--or Grand--Divorce"? I remember going into a bookshop in London when I was using the book for a course I was teaching for Study Abroad there and hearing one of the staff call out, "Where's that book about divorce?" Apparently he had never read the book.

Lewis got the idea for the title from a strange work by William Blake titled The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. That work is filled with proverbs, prose fantasies, and a bit of poetry asserting (in Blake's distinctive fashion) that much of what conventional people call "evil" is in fact good and that the divine nature includes apparent contraries (for instance, energy, freedom, and delight as well as meekness and self-restraint). Lewis isn't really criticizing Blake directly, but he's criticizing an idea that Blake's title suggested to him: that evil can somehow be turned into good, or that, given enough time, evil will gradually develop into goodness, or even that--to be truly good or at least to achieve our full potential--we must embrace evil as well as good. Lewis argues that we must totally reject evil. We are faced with a genuine "either-or": either we cling to the traces of earth and hell we have picked up and thus forfeit eternal happiness, or we submit totally to God (which means giving up willingly everything that is not heavenly) and thereby gain all that is truly good and valuable. (This is an idea, by the way, that Lewis had found in George Macdonald, a writer I'll discuss in a later blog.)

As Lewis explains, giving up all that is not heavenly doesn't mean we'll lose anything of value, for if there is a kernel of something valuable even in our "most depraved wishes," we'll find that kernel in its true and fully developed form in heaven. So the painful sacrifices we have to make are really something like a death and resurrection: we must be willing to let our cravings and bad habits truly die--in a sense, they have to be killed, since we must be willing to have them completely removed from us--but whatever is good in them will be resurrected and thus gloriously restored to us.

What kind of book is The Great Divorce? So far it may sound like a book of theology or philosophy. But it's really a book of fiction or even fantasy. Lewis is imagining himself (he's one of the characters in the book) taking a bus trip from "the grey town"--which turns out to be hell--to heaven. In heaven--actually only the foothills of heaven--Lewis sees encounters between other passengers on the bus and various "solid people" who come to meet them. Obviously the book is filled with religious symbolism, and so we could call it "a symbolic religious fantasy." But Lewis had another phrase to describe the book: he called it "an imaginative supposal."

What is a "supposal"? For Lewis this word identifies stories that are not, strictly speaking, factual and yet that cannot simply be reduced to allegories. Lewis was an expert on allegory (his first scholarly book was titled The Allegory of Love), and partly for that reason he disliked having people call his books allegories. An allegory can be defined as a story in which each element--each character, place, event, etc.--stands for something else. For instance, in George Orwell's Animal Farm (a political allegory) the pigs stand for various Russian leaders--Stalin, Trotsky, etc. In John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, the main character--named "Christian"--travels from the City of Destruction through the Slough of Despond, the Valley of Humiliation, and Vanity Fair on his way to the Celestial City (first having to cross the river of death), and along the way meets characters named Worldly Wiseman, Faithful, Hopeful, and so on. Obviously "Christian" stands for any Christian, and his journey stands for human life. A strict allegory is usually systematic, consistent, and complete.

Lewis's fiction tends to be more symbolic than allegorical--that is, the symbols are more flexible and multifaceted than is usually the case in a strict allegory. But even more important, Lewis's fiction generally attempts to imaginatively portray a possible reality rather than allegorically or even symbolically represent some reality other than itself. In other words, Lewis generally starts by asking something like, "Suppose there were another world named Narnia that needed saving. What might God do, and what might that world be like?" In the case of The Great Divorce, Lewis seems to be saying, "Let's suppose that people like you and me were to be given an opportunity to go to heaven. How would we respond to the opportunity? What would heaven seem like to us, given our human foibles and our weak and limited capacities?"

That's what Lewis means by "an imaginative supposal": The Great Divorce is a supposal because it is a story in which a possible or hypothetical reality is imagined. And so The Great Divorce is not an allegory in the strict sense. Heaven and hell don't stand for something else--they are heaven and hell, though of course in both cases imagined versions. The characters in the story don't stand for something besides themselves. Rather, they are representative examples of real people put into imaginary situations that allow us to see their characters and choices.

On the other hand, Lewis is not saying that this is what heaven is really like, especially in terms of its specific physical conditions. In fact he assures us that the conditions he's imagined "are not even a guess or a speculation at what may actually await us." I believe Lewis's interest is mainly in the moral and spiritual choices the characters make--and so, in a sense, this story really describes things that we are doing right now, here on earth. But of course Lewis is also speculating about what we might be like in the hereafter if we keep the same habits and personality traits we have now. He foresees no magic cure in the hereafter. If we are prone to vanity or self-pity or possessiveness now, we might find ourselves afflicted by these problems in an even more monstrous way in the clearer light of heaven--unless, that is, we willingly turn ourselves over to God and allow the evil in us to be killed.

Next week I'll say something about George Macdonald and other influences on The Great Divorce, as well as a bit about the book's symbolism and imagery. I'd like to end this week's blog by asking a few questions. What do you think Lewis meant by the "unbendable and unbreakable quality" of objects in heaven? by the flower and grass that are hard as diamonds? the apple that is so heavy it is almost impossible to pick up? How about the relative size of heaven and hell or Lewis's symbolic use of light and darkness? I'm eager to know what any of you think.


older singer said...

Unbendable, unbreakable...
Rather paradoxical words, since we must bend our knees and have broken hearts in order to fully partake of the gifts of Christ--and yet ultimately, we must be unbendable, unswayable, solid in our steps, unbreakable in our faithfulness. I haven't started the book yet (though I've read it before--it's been years), but it'll be interesting to see if the magnificent creatures who inhabit Heaven have some history of how they were tamed by the untameable Lion/Savior. The insistent inhabitants of Hell are so sure of themselves that they can't appreciate the solidity of what's real; or they're so flimsy in their capricious desires that they don't realize how transparent they are.
Hard feet... Can we possibly follow Christ and do all which that must entail unless we're willing to suffer the pains of the journey? At some point, our feet will be washed and anointed, but they must first know the dirt and stones of the road.
Our faith must bear the weight of our lives and the lives we have touched before we can even think of following in the Savior's footsteps.

Factotum said...

Profound--are you and Bruce young by chance aquainted?

Thank you so much Bruce Young for your deeply provoking guest blog--I am so honored! And to older singer for that [also very provoking] comment. I suggest you re-read _The Great Divorce_, I believe it was C.S. Lewis (correct me if I'm wrong) who said something along the lines that every [good] book should be read more than once to catch the full meaning.

ML said...

Unbendable, unbreakable - perhaps microcosmic examples within the larger work of the theme that good or heavenly things can't be affected or 'tainted' by those less worthy.
Actually, I like Older Singer's comments better than mine.
Thank you. Bruce, for sharing your expertise. Looking forward to more guidance. Finished the book for the first time, just before reading the blog today. Found the book easy, fascinating, and difficult.

Bruce Young said...

To Factotum: Thanks for your kind words. And thanks for the opportunity. It's been fun thinking about The Great Divorce again.

Factotum said...

Amen to the book being easy and difficult at the same time--now there's a paradox!

The thing that has stayed with me the most since finishing the book has been seeing myself in some of the characters--gosh I sure hope I choose Heaven over Hell

older singer said...

I have now read about 1/3 of the book. It's even better than I remembered. And indeed, one of the glorious creatures depicts his being "broken" on earth--even committing murder--before he was ready to become truly REAL and walk the hard mountains to Heaven. I was very interested in Lewis's comment that the idea of solidity in Heaven came from another work which depicted solidity in the past, since the past is set in stone, as it were. Lewis says that he depicts ETERNITY as being similarly set. It's really quite beautiful, a way of saying that God is the same today, yesterday, and forever-- not the IDEA of God, but God. It reminds me of John Updike's poem, "Seven Stanzas for Easter"--a portion of which I'll paste here. I actually wonder if Updike was at all influenced by _The Great Divorce_.
"Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the
molecules reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that - pierced - died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

(You can find the rest of the poem at this link:

older singer said...

One more comment (or question). My last poast was so long that I didn't want to add this to it, so I'll do it here.
How do we make God a metaphor? We have a tradition, as all faiths do, of great sermons, good talks, correlated lessons. But THE ENCOUNTER is absolutely intimate. In fact, I think it's dangerous to count an inspirational talk as a "spiritual experience" unless it's followed up by something REAL and solid in our own lives. Do we give too many talks and not enough space for truly meeting Christ?

Anonymous said...

Really enjoyed this prelude.. Wonderful preparation for reading. Many thanks. Gr Blair

older singer said...

WOW, Gr. Blair--you're BLOGGING!!! Welcome to the new century! I'm impressed!

Factotum said...

That is truly thought provoking--I think we do have a tendency to make God a metaphor. We get so caught up in the ritual (some times it seems we have a manual for everything) that we forget about having a REAL experience and truly becoming aquainted with God.

older singer said...

I'm getting very self-conscious because I'm commenting more than anyone. In fact, I've become so interested in the subject that I've started sleeping with the guest blogger, Bruce Young.
My comment on the relative size of Heaven and Hell (which isn't revealed until the last part of the book--I finished it last night):
The scriptures repeat the phrase, "the light comprehendeth the darkness." Jim Faulkener says that "comprehend" might be better translated "overcome." "The light OVERCOMES the darkness."
Surely as the light grows brighter, the darkness becomes far less significant--maybe just a pinhole. As we gain understanding, the shadows over things we hadn't understood previously are overcome with light, and we would never want to replace such shadows.
So my big question is WHAT ABOUT ALGEBRA? Can the light overcome the darkness in that subject? (It's an Arabic word, you know. Should we even be teaching it in American schools while George W. is in office?) Is there any chance that someday I'll understand anything about factoring?

Factotum said...

maybe if you slept with a math teacher you'd understand?

I love the long comments of older singer, do not at all feel self-conscious about being the one leading most of the disucssion You've posed some really interesting subjects and are leading a very good discussion (even if currently we're the only ones in that discussion).

I've been thinking a lot about different takes on Heaven and Hell. I just finished reading _The Lovely Bones_ by Alice Sebold (it was going to be February's book of the month, but I couldn't put it down so I'll come up with a new book for next month). I think I prefer C.S. Lewis's Heaven but at the same time I feel like some of my personal vices might get the better of me in that Heaven. the Sebold heaven for me seems more lonely (perhaps because the majority of the book takes place in a sort of Limbo). In my Heaven, I want to be surrounded by everyone I know/knew, I want to be able to be involved with Earth life (Sebold's take, not nessicarily Lewis's) but be in a state of utter joy where I can see past the troubles--the scene in _The Great Divorce_ with the dwarf and Tradjedian (?) speaking to the solid/ glowing woman (the Dwarf's Earth wife) I especially like; however I do hope that in the next life I'm not the dwarf.

Bruce Young said...

"Older singer" (who, if you've been following, I am apparently intimately acquainted with) keeps telling me I need to visit the blog more often, read the comments, and respond, "to keep the conversation going."

Well, the conversation seems to be going quite well as it is. The only problem I see is that (a) some people have finished the book (it's very short and it's hard NOT to read it quickly), (b) some people have only read part, and (c) some people haven't even started the book. I feel like I'd like to do my next guest blog sooner than next week, but on the other hand, I want to give people who haven't finished the book a chance to finish it. Anyway, I'll try to be patient.

Momentarily, though, I'll respond to some of the comments other people have made. By the way, there have been some GREAT comments.

Bruce Young said...


ml wrote: "Unbendable, unbreakable - perhaps microcosmic examples within the larger work of the theme that good or heavenly things can't be affected or 'tainted' by those less worthy."

YES, a VERY important theme of the book: the "untaintable" character of heavenly things. I suspect Lewis would like the way you've put it, though he might change one of your phrases. Instead of saying "less worthy," he might say that there are people who, for whatever reason, don't want to submit themselves to the joy and reality of heaven and who RESENT that joy and reality and want to "taint" heaven by making those in heaven notice and feel bad about the misery and loneliness of those who refuse heavenly joy and love. Lewis says no, that can't happen. Heaven is too real, too strong, too heavenly to be tainted or diminished by the whining and self-pity of those who refuse to enter it.

By the way, though I think Lewis has a good point here, he doesn't quite manage to include the further and maybe even more important truth that God grieves for those who refuse heaven. I've always thought that, in this book at least, Lewis makes heaven just a little too cheery. I believe that heavenly joy includes sorrow for those enmeshed in evil. (Note God's weeping for his wicked children as described in Moses chapter 7.) I think Lewis does a better job picturing God's love in the Chronicles of Narnia.

Older singer wrote: "Lewis says that he depicts ETERNITY as being similarly set [in stone]. It's really quite beautiful, a way of saying that God is the same today, yesterday, and forever--not the IDEA of God, but God."

Yes, Lewis would love the way you put that. I'm not sure, though, that the past is really set in stone (repentance and redemption can, in a sense, change the past). And I'm not even sure eternity is set in stone: I believe it involves activity, learning, and progression. Yet there is something unshakable about it, for sure: especially rooted in God's goodness and love.

Anyway, very insightful comments. I want to leave some space here for other people's thoughts, so I'll wait till tomorrow to respond to a couple of other comments.

Anonymous said...

I am feeling so bad about not having finished the book. I am embarrassed to even be seen commenting. I wish I could hide behind the computer, but I feel like I need to defend myself.
It is not my fault that I haven't finished the book yet. Read that again. It IS NOT MY FAULT. I have had a really bad day--a bad year--decade--actually, and it is not easy to find the time to read books. I basically slave over housework all day for a very insensitive man and five demanding children. I take 1/2 hour a day to watch one measly soap opera (General Hospital), and by the time I want to read, things are so messy that I can't find the book and I just feel like swearing, which I do only occasionally, usually when I'm burping, so I can't really be blamed for that either. I'm not asking for pity. I hate pity, but more than hating pity, I hate it when somebody yells at me on a BLOG, of all things, for not doing something I shouldn't have to do if I don't want to, and I would do if my husband would have the least bit of consideration. I WILL READ THE BOOK, okay? Just quit yelling. I have enough of that down here.
Now I'm really embarrassed. I shouldn't even post that. I don't want to post it. Dang. I just posted it.

older singer said...

Let's ignore that comment by Anonymous, shall we? Somebody buy her some spiked shoes and she'll be fine.
And on a more serious note...
One thing has struck me as I've read the book. Each of the ghosts is selfish in his/her own way--but each is utterly selfish. Could it be that when we focus on our desires or our impulses, when they begin to define us, when we even BECOME them, we are very ghost-like? If our "selfs" comprise our fantasies about our own intelligence or our power over someone else or our lusts, our "selfs" are pretty flimsy and insubstantial. It's when we lose our "selfs" that we can begin to be defined by a greater power. The spirits (or angels) are fully defined and fully selfless.

Factotum said...

This is great! I'm feeling unworthy (probably not the best choice of words to use when we're discussing _The Great Divorce_ but oh well) to comment on my own blog about the very book I chose to read this month, how awesome!

older singer said...

I think we should talk about which celebrities match which ghosts. (Probably best not to match fellow bloggers with their corresponding ghosts, but Bruce and I did have a conversation last night about which ghosts I resemble. I have some of the Tragedian, some of the Episcopal Bishop, and some of Sarah Smith.)
Mick Jagger is the guy with the lizard on his shoulder (the lizard of lust), except that I don't think he'll ever let it be killed.
Audrey Hepburn is REALLY Sarah Smith (the glorious woman married to the Tragedian.)
Ray's mother on _Everybody Loves Raymond_ is the "fixer" woman who just wants to make one more improvement on her husband.
Jennifer Lopez is the ridiculously seductive ghost who doesn't realize how dumb she looks. (Actually, a lot of celebrities fall in that category.)
Donald Trump is the tragedian.
Sean Hannity is the Episcopal Bishop--except he never lets anyone else speak.

Factotum said...

While I was reading the book, I kept seeing certain people in my life as some of the characters (they weren't all out of Hollywood) and then it occured to me that that could be the flaw that keeps me from accepting Heaven, I'm the character C.S. Lewis left out--the one who finds flaws with Sarah Smith being a goodie-two-shoe with big hair and a nose too large for her face (among other things). . .

Bruce Young said...

First of all, factotum, you are totally worthy to be commenting. For one thing, your introduction of the guest blogger was so articulate and . . . never mind.

But seriously, you have great insights. I'd like to see more of them.

I look forward to learning what celebrities and others everyone sees as parallel to the ghosts. But I think it would also be instructive to think WHICH GHOSTS EACH OF US IS MOST LIKE.

Notice that several times through the book Lewis (as a character in the story) sees his own face and is horrified, or his own feet and notices they are ghostly, etc.--as if to remind us the book may be more useful in helping us see our own sins than those of others.

Starting with myself, I see a lot of the man with the lizard and the tragedian and dwarf in myself, along with a bit of the Episcopal ghost and several others. Honestly, I find some of those episodes scary because the ghosts' voices sound so much like mine (at least what my voice becomes at times).

sarah smith said...

You think I have big hair and a big nose? Maybe it's because you can see the expansiveness of everything--including noses and hair.
Your comment is profound, Factotum. Many of us are in exactly that category. We resist the goodness of other people or refuse to fully see it.

Bruce Young said...

Wow--we've got people from heaven (or at least from the book) participating now. That should make for a really good conversation.

By the way, Sarah Smith--I've always liked you, maybe because I see myself as being like the dwarf and REALLY want the dwarf to get over his self-pity and say, "YES, Sarah Smith, though you weren't perfect, you really were a wonderful wife, and I was a jerk. I GIVE IN--to God and to heavenly joy--and let this phantom tragedian I've created dissolve into the nothing he really is."

Bruce Young said...

Older singer has said a couple of more things I'd like to respond to.

ON "SELF" AND SELFISHNESS: Yes, I see this as one of the main themes of the book. Lewis saw the fact that we are "selves" as a necessary and potentially good thing but also as the biggest challenge we deal with. He distinguished between "selfishness" (wanting to have all our desires satisfied) and "self-centeredness" (always thinking about and focusing on ourselves, including both our vices and our virtues--even what we think of as our "unselfishness"). But either one is a problem. We need to "lose ourselves" (in many senses of that phrase) and open ourselves to what is "other and outer."

ON THE RELATIVE SIZE OF HEAVEN AND HELL: A while back older singer noted that the relationship between Heaven and Hell is like that between light and darkness: "'The light OVERCOMES the darkness.' Surely as the light grows brighter, the darkness becomes far less significant--maybe just a pinhole."

WOW, that's profound. Again, Lewis would totally agree. He believed that evil is essentially NOT REAL; it is basically the ABSENCE of goodness or a distorting or perversion of something good. But evil does NOT exist on its own in a pure state and can't, since existence itself is a good thing. Anyway, the way this relates to light and darkness is that darkness is not really something substantial--it is the ABSENCE of light. And so as light comes, darkness vanishes, because it was never anything really but the absence of light.

In the same way, in the presence of what is heavenly (what is good and truly real) all that is not heavenly essentially vanishes and becomes as nothing, because it was never anything but an absence or distortion of heavenliness. And so "the grey town," though it seems to stretch for millions of miles--even light years--is as nothing compared to the larger kind of space, the fuller and solider kind of reality, found in heaven.

But that raises another question: why does "the grey town" SEEM to be so large (and empty) to those who are there?

older singer said...

Bruce said: why does "the grey town" SEEM to be so large (and empty) to those who are there?

DISTANCE, I think. They are so far apart from each other that the space they inhabit is merely the finite, collapsing space between them and their fantasies or desires, rather than the infinite space between them and others, the space where love and charity expand. The space wherein we manipulate others or try to claim them as ours rather than God's, the space wherein we pity ourselves and justify our sins, is a shrinking space. We ultimately end up where no defense is possible, merely our words which refuse to acknowledge that we have managed to go to Hell.
There's Napoleon, eternally thinking about his battle plan. Is it wrong of me to picture Dick Cheney? I listen to the political speeches about "winning" the war and I wonder what on earth "winning" means. I heard it during the Viet Nam era too. It seems to be one battle plan after another, one rationale after another, until all we're getting is debate in the safe political houses and slaughter on the battlefield. How must God view such a tragedy? How can God bear to hear us refer to "the enemy" (as though we could easily identify another human as our "enemy") when He has said that His way does not include enemies. We are to love our enemies. Holding onto the word itself ("enemy") perpetuates distance and makes the world feel like it's ours to control--if we could just get more troops.
Heaven, on the other hand, forever blooms with love and possibility.

Factotum said...

As I think about Heaven, I see expanding space (even science has concluded that the universe is expanding and I belive that that's part of Heaven). Along with that, I see expanding love--just as I've seen it in my own life as I've had children and realized that when I had my second, I loved my first no less, I became capable of having more love.

Hell on the other hand, I see contracting. I see the people in Hell becoming more and more introverted, desencitized and loving less, eventually leaving room only for self loathing. How insignificant in comparison to Heaven that is!

older singer said...

That is a truly beautiful comment, Factotum.