In this week's guest blog on The Great Divorce, I'm going to discuss three things: symbolism and imagery, George Macdonald and other influences on the book, and some of the early episodes. I hope those of you who still don't have a copy of the book will get one soon so you can take part in the discussion.
Symbolism and imagery
The symbols and images Lewis uses in The Great Divorce include the "unbendable, unbreakable" objects of heaven (and the fact that everything in heaven is incomparably more solid, hard, and heavy than things on earth or in hell); the beauty and vitality of heaven; the relative size of heaven and hell (not only is heaven larger than hell, but Lewis encounters in heaven "a larger sort of space"); and various uses of light and darkness. Comments people have made over the past week have included wonderfully illuminating insights on some of these items. Here's my try at offering some additional insight.
The grass that is hard as diamond (it hurts the feet of the visitors who walk on it), the apple that is almost impossible to pick up, the waterfall that sounds "like the revelry of a whole college of giants": these memorably symbolize Lewis's view that heaven is infinitely more real than hell or even than earth. Weight, solidity, and hardness, along with beauty and intense vitality, are thus symbols of a heightened degree of realness. The fact that the inhabitants of heaven are solid and bright while the visitors from hell are ghostly and vaporous symbolizes Lewis's belief that those who have submitted themselves to God will experience reality more fully. (But note that the ghosts are told they will get used to the hardness, heaviness, and solidity of heaven if they stay there long enough--in fact, they will themselves become more solid; in other words, more real.)
In addition to weight, solidity, and hardness, Lewis also uses light and size as symbols. The "grey town" is pervaded by a misty twilight that will some day turn to utter darkness. Heaven, on the other hand, is filled with light, light that apparently increases as its inhabitants go further up and further in. The book ends with the sun rising (perhaps suggesting also the coming of the Son of God), but Lewis is afraid he is unprepared for the fullness of reality this light represents. "The morning! The morning!" he cries, "I am caught by the morning and I am a ghost." The light that comes seems hard and heavy, almost more than he can bear.
As for size, it turns out that the "grey city," though it seems vast (partly because everyone is always moving away from everyone else), is actually infinitely small compared to heaven. The man who wants to take an apple back there would find it wouldn't fit. According to Lewis (though of course he is presenting this only symbolically, as an imaginative supposal), hell is so small it fits in a crack in the floor of heaven. What he means by this is that, not only in terms of size and substance, but more importantly in terms of value, heaven is infinitely more real than hell, just as goodness is infinitely more real than evil. (As some of the discussion over the past week revealed, the difference between heaven and hell is like the difference between light and darkness. Darkness is less real than light because it is essentially the absence of light. Likewise, hell or evil is essentially an absence or twisting of what is good and real.)
As the character George Macdonald explains, "All loneliness, angers, hatreds, envies and itchings that [hell] contains, if rolled into one single experience and put into the scale against the least moment of the joy that is felt by the least in Heaven, would have no weight that could be registered at all." The joy of heaven is infinitely real, powerful, and substantial; evil is nothing more than the destruction or perversion of what is truly real so that most of its reality is eliminated. If that is so, the question is why would anyone choose hell over heaven? What (to quote from the book again) could anyone possibly "prefer to joy--that is, to reality"?
The apparently vast size of hell gives a clue. In terms of the literal story, hell is so large because people keep moving away from each other, and they do that because they can't stand each other. Each one wants to live in his or her own world, unhampered by the irritating presence of others. Note that George Macdonald rebukes Lewis in the story for suggesting that heaven and hell are both "states of mind." Yes, hell is "a state of mind" because in it all are enclosed in their own imagination, ideas, and desires--notice that people in the "grey town" can create anything they want by just thinking it, but the things don't have any reality; the roofs don't keep out rain, for instance. But heaven by contrast is "not a state of mind"; it is "reality itself"--that is, those who are there are not experiencing projections of their own thoughts and desires but are experiencing a reality that is genuinely "other and outer": something other than themselves, something objectively real and valuable, and something they are capable of experiencing because they have "lost themselves" (their preoccupation with themselves, their clinging to their own ideas and desires) and submitted themselves to the glorious reality of heaven.
Thus, the "grey town" seems so vast because everyone lives in separate worlds, unlimited by reality or relationships with others. But for that very reason, it is infinitely small, because those in the "grey town" can experience nothing other than their own thoughts and feelings. "Every state of mind, left to itself," according to the character Macdonald, "every shutting up of the creature in the dungeon of its own mind--is, in the end, Hell." "For a damned soul," he says later, "is nearly nothing: it is shrunk, shut up in itself. Good beats upon the damned incessantly as sound waves beat on the ears of the deaf, but they cannot receive it."
George Macdonald and other influences
I've kept quoting things the character George Macdonald says in The Great Divorce. In a moment I'll explain why Lewis chose Macdonald as his teacher and guide in the book.
First, a brief list of other influences. Besides the unnamed science fiction story that gave Lewis the idea of the unbreakable matter of heaven, Lewis would have been influenced in general by many science fiction and fantasy tales, with their speculative and sometimes symbolic narratives. More specifically Lewis was influenced by Dante's Commedia (Divine Comedy), with its journey through hell, purgatory, and heaven, and Milton's Paradise Lost, with its treatment of good and evil, its emphasis on freedom of choice, and its picture of the beauty and glory of God's creation. When Lewis wonders about the angels accompanying Sarah Smith, Macdonald quotes Milton's description of Eve: "A thousand liveried angels lackey her."
One other work that had a bit of influence was John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress. Though it is an allegory (remember that The Great Divorce is not an allegory--it's a "supposal"), Lewis learned something from Bunyan about how to use religious symbols. And, interestingly, both The Pilgrim's Progress and The Great Divorce have the same subtitle: "A Dream." (Both are supposedly dreams in which the author wakes up at the end--and notice the hint Lewis gives at the beginning of chapter 1 that this is just a dream when he says, "I seemed to be standing . . .") This idea of a story taking place in a dream was influenced not only by Bunyan but by a whole series of much earlier works called "dream visions," mainly written during the Middle Ages, in which an author describes remarkable and sometimes supernatural experiences supposedly seen in a dream.
The character George Macdonald appears at the beginning of chapter 9, almost exactly halfway through The Great Divorce, as a wise, stern, but benevolent guide, something like Virgil, who leads Dante through hell and purgatory. Just as Virgil was for Dante an esteemed literary model, so Macdonald is a writer Lewis admired and was influenced by. A Scottish novelist, fantasy writer, and minister, Macdonald lived from 1824 to 1905--thus, his life span overlapped briefly with Lewis's (Lewis was born in 1898), but the two never met. Macdonald began his career as a minister in Scotland but his rejection of some Calvinist doctrines (such as predestination) led to conflict with his congregation, and he ended up in England. He believed that God's love is universal and considered the possibility that all might eventually be saved. In England he came to know most of the leading literary figures of the day and in particular was a friend of and influence on Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland. (For more information, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_MacDonald.)
C. S. Lewis first encountered Macdonald (indirectly, of course) when, at age 16, he read his symbolic fantasy novel Phantastes. In The Great Divorce the character Lewis describes this encounter as being for him what "the first sight of Beatrice had been to Dante": the beginning of a new life. (Lewis is alluding to a work by Dante titled La Vita Nuova--"the new life." But note also that Beatrice, a real woman that Dante idealized, became--after her death--Dante's fictional guide in his Commedia through paradise into the presence of God.)
In his autobiography Surprised by Joy, Lewis describes his reading of Macdonald's Phantastes as an event that "baptized" his "imagination." That is, by conveying a sense of "Holiness," and especially connecting it with the familiar atmosphere of everyday life, the book helped prepare Lewis's imagination for his eventual conversion to Christianity. As he emphasizes, it took many years after this baptism of his imagination for him to come to actual belief in, understanding of, and commitment to Christianity. But Macdonald helped prepare him, even during the time that Lewis still considered himself an atheist.
In The Great Divorce Lewis has Macdonald explain the nature of heaven and hell, free will and predestination, and other matters. These explanations are not actual quotations from the real Macdonald--in fact, they are closer to what Lewis believed than to Macdonald's ideas. (By the way, I find Macdonald's religious ideas very appealing and sometimes closer to my own Latter-day Saint understanding than Lewis's ideas are.) But Lewis was very influenced by Macdonald. He claims to have quoted him in every book he wrote. For instance, the famous parable in Mere Christianity of the house being turned into a palace actually comes from Macdonald, as Lewis notes. Lewis felt Macdonald had flaws as a writer but was a master of creating myth--meaning stories with deep symbolic power that convey universal or even supernatural realities in a concrete way. Obviously, many of Lewis's works, including The Great Divorce, do the same.
Some early episodes in The Great Divorce
My favorite episodes in The Great Divorce are in the second half. I'll have something to say about those next week. But for now I'd like to say a few things about some of the earlier episodes in the book.
While waiting at the bus stop in hell and during the bus ride to heaven, Lewis meets several characters: the Big Man, the tousle-headed youth (an aspiring poet), Ikey (the intelligent-looking man with the bowler hat), and a cultivated man (later called the "Episcopal Ghost") who sees the grey town as a lovely "spiritual" place, freed from matter and, with its half-light, always promising the dawn. (Lewis is satirizing a view of "spirituality" that makes it less real and solid even than earthly realities.)
We see most of these characters again in heaven. The Big Man (now called the Big Ghost) only wants "his rights" and doesn't want anybody's "bleeding charity." This sort of assertive individualism (of the "I am the master of my fate, the captain of my soul" variety) is common enough, but Lewis himself reports that, before his conversion, he hated the idea of anyone interfering with him. God, it turns out, is the "Transcendental Interferer." But a further problem with insisting on our "rights" is that none of us, on our own, deserves heaven. We need to humble ourselves enough to receive more than we deserve, through the "merits and mercy of Christ." And so the Big Ghost is told that he must ask "for the Bleeding Charity"--an allusion, of course, to Christ's atoning sacrifice.
The "Episcopal Ghost" illustrates the dangers of turning religion into a self-involved intellectual exercise. Reading about this ghost, some people may wonder what Lewis has against Episcopalians. But he isn't really referring to a particular denomination. "Episcopal" here means "relating to bishops" (the Latin for bishop is "episcopus")--in other words, this ghost was a bishop on earth, presumably a bishop in the Church of England. (The American branch of the Church of England is called the Episcopal Church because it is governed by bishops.) Though this ghost claims to have been honest and courageous in his convictions, in fact he went along comfortably with the popular views of his time. He resists anything "literal," "superstitious," or "mythological" in Christianity because he wants "free play of mind"--in other words, he wants to be in charge of creating his own reality (made up of lovely ideas and sentiments) instead of submitting himself to a reality outside himself.
The most frustrating, though also funny, parts of his conversation with the Bright Spirit who has been sent to save him are when he is invited to make a real choice, to experience something "other and outer," but keeps falling back into his world of sentiments and ideas. For instance, when the Bright Spirit asks him, "Will you, even now, repent and believe?," he responds, "I'm not sure that I've got the exact point you are trying to make." "I am not trying to make any point," says the Spirit. "I am telling you to repent and believe." And then the Episcopal Ghost, though tempted by the thought of getting to know heaven a bit better, remembers he has to be back in the grey town "next Friday to read a paper"--ironically, a paper he'll read to a Theological Society in hell about how Christ's views might have matured if he'd been more tactful and avoided the crucifixion. When the Spirit says earlier that "We know nothing of religion here" in heaven, what he means, I think, is that heaven is not a place for theology, for discussing and speculating about God, but is rather a place for encountering ultimate reality, for really coming to know God Himself, not indulging ourselves in ideas about Him.
Later we see the character named Ikey trying to gather apples to take to hell (he thinks material goods will help create an economy and bring people closer together). Lewis meets another ghost (the "Hard-bitten Ghost") who is cynical about everything in both heaven and hell. He also mentions Salt Lake City, one of many tourist traps (along with the pyramids, Niagara Falls, and the Taj Mahal) that don't live up to his expectations. I see this ghost as Lewis's image of the kind of person who, trying to be hard-nosed and "realistic," cuts himself off from love and joy, or even from a simple child-like appreciation of the world around him.
Two more of the early episodes, and then I'll be done. Lewis sees two women, one right before meeting Macdonald and one right after, who illustrate two contrasting but related problems: the first one is embarrassed at her insubstantiality and feels exposed and frightened; the other one is "unaware of her phantasmal appearance" and is ridiculously trying to flirt with the Solid People. The problem with both is a distorted view of themselves, or rather, an unhealthy focus on what each thinks of as her "self." The flirtatious ghost imagines herself as attractive, even seductive, and can think of interacting with others as serving no purpose except having them ogle at her. The embarrassed woman loathes her insubstantial "self," not realizing that her fear and self-loathing are the very things that are keeping her from becoming substantial. Her salvation can only come if, as a Spirit pleads with her to do, she can "fix [her] mind on something not [herself]"--if she can stop worrying about her deficiencies or thinking about herself at all. She is one of the few ghosts I think there is hope for in the book. We don't know what happens to her for sure, but she may either be trampled by a herd of unicorns or, in her fright, run to the Spirit who is talking with her. In either case, she may be induced to forget about herself and open herself to the terrifying joy of heaven.
One reason I love The Great Divorce is that--as these episodes attest--it is so vivid, memorable, and intensely engaging. I also love The Screwtape Letters, another popular book by Lewis in which he imagines a senior devil writing to a junior devil about their quest to gain a human soul. The Screwtape Letters brilliantly discusses a wide array of moral and spiritual issues, but it doesn't have much in terms of vivid images or even memorable characters or events. And as Lewis himself said, we may get a bit tired of getting everything filtered through a devil's mind. The Great Divorce, on the other hand, is filled with memorable episodes, characters, and images. Both are great books, but, happily, they are also very different.
Next week I'll discuss some of the later episodes and some of Lewis's themes in The Great Divorce. In the meantime, I look forward to all sorts of interesting comments from all of you out there. I especially invite comments on your favorite episodes and responses to the following question: What do you think are some of the important themes (ideas, insights, etc.) in The Great Divorce?