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.