Summary of The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis

Background & Plot:

  • Background: Written in 1944 as a response to William Blake’s famous poem, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, in which Blake says that good & evil are 2 sides of the same coin & equally necessary to life (ie. so “marrying” the good & the bad in your life is the path to enlightenment), Lewis, in a short & entertaining fantasy novel, draws upon the Medieval idea of the refrigerium (souls in Hell getting a refreshment/vacation to Heaven) to explain the clear difference between Heaven and Hell. In rebuttal to Blake, Lewis shows that Heaven is the true source of human enlightenment & happiness, & that Hell is a boring & tiny place.
  • Plot: An unnamed Narrator (an archetype for the “everyman” – ordinary guy) boards a bus that flies over the Grey Town. Once the bus lands at the Valley of the Shadow of Life (ie. the forecourt heaven), the Narrator realizes that he is a ghost in the afterlife – and that they are on a “vacation” from Hell (ie. the Grey Town). The rest of the novel involves observing conversations in which the Spirits of heaven try to convince the ghosts of Hell to come with them to Heaven. The Narrator then wakes up from his dream.

Favourite Theme: Free Will

  • Through a surprising theological twist, in which humans can choose to leave Hell and go to Heaven, Lewis gives brilliant insights into the difficulty of exercising our free will to choose God above all other things. For Lewis, free will is both essential and dangerous.
  • Throughout the novel, many ghosts refuse – out of fear or ignorance – to give up whatever sin they’re clinging to that is keeping them out of Heaven. But for Lewis, it is only in freely choosing to love God above all things that you become perfectly free and truly happy, whereas exercising your free will contrary to God’s design makes you a slave & miserable.
  • At the end of the novel, Lewis, through George MacDonald, emphasizes the importance of free will by declining to clarify whether or not God has “planned” humans’ ultimate fate (ie. John Calvin’s idea – which argues against free will). For Lewis, the mind of God is beyond comprehension because we exist in time & God exists outside of time – so our future is God’s eternal present. Lewis’ idea is more in line with that of the poet John Milton, who argued God’s foreknowledge of human salvation and humans’ ability to freely choose salvation is not mutually exclusive.

Favourite Symbol: The Lizard

  • One of the ghosts in the Valley of the Shadow of Life carries a small lizard with him; the lizard whispers in his ear, preventing him from entering Heaven.
  • As the book makes clear, the lizard is the embodiment of lust: a dangerous, seductive force that can distract human beings from God.
  • Although the angel wants to kill the lizard, the ghost doesn’t want something so drastic – just silence him, make it go to sleep, gradually let it go. But the angel makes clear that “there is no other day. All days are present now… This moment contains all moments” (523).
  • Reluctantly, the ghost finally allows an angel to crush the lizard, freeing the ghost from his burden to sexual desire. The ghost and the Lizard suddenly transform into a solid man and a beautiful horse, respectively, as the Narrator watches them gallop away toward the mountains.
  • When our erotic desires are directed away from sinful objects & towards a noble purpose, we experience a transformation (from lizard to horse).
  • Reflection Question: Will you allow God the kill the lizard?

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