The Great Divorce
Friday Book Pick: The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis
The grey twilight gives way to neither morning nor to night. The houses are dank and unwelcoming, the people quarrelsome, and there is a perpetual drizzle of rain falling. Welcome to Hell, as sprung from the Christian imagination of C.S. Lewis. This marvelous short novel, The Great Divorce is rich in thought-provoking imagery and good food for meditation.
In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis tells the tale of people consigned to the “grey town” who are given an opportunity to board a bus and take flight to Heaven. The Heaven-bound passengers are even welcome to stay in paradise should they so desire.
As the story unfolds, our protagonist boards the bus himself and winds up in Heaven, or at least in its foothills, where he and his fellow passengers deboard and try to acclimate to the sharp grass, unpluckable daises and a reality altogether unbearable to the ghosts in their disembodied state. Lewis creates his tale by stringing together the conversations and encounters he observes of his fellow passengers as they are met by their loved ones who are sent from the higher mountains to help the new arrivals make a choice for God.
It is a fascinating study in human nature, attachments, and false loves. In every case the person is hindered by some flaw that grew and took over until the chosen idol (intellect, human affection, vanity, fame) took possession of the person and gravely inhibited their freedom. Some of the characters manage, with the help of their guide, to choose correctly and therefore die to the false loves or to the idol that had been worshiped in place of God. Other times the Ghost is unable to choose anything other than self, which amounts to a choice for Hell, and thus he or she returns to the bus preferring (and choosing) the grey town to Heaven.
Lewis himself is met by his Beatrice, George McDonald, who helps him to understand what he is experiencing. There are some marvelous and unforgettable scenes as the two progress together: the majestic heard of unicorns who were summoned to help a Ghost think about anything other than herself—even for a second; the talking waterfall who thunderously prohibits a Ghost who was exerting tremendous effort as he desperately tried to steal a heavenly golden apple to take back to Hell, “There is not room for it in Hell. Stay here and learn to eat such apples,” the waterfall tells him; and then there was the entourage surrounding “one of the great ones” with bright spirits scattering flower petals, innumerable “youthful shapes” of boys and girls singing such songs that if they were heard on earth those who heard them “would never grow sick or old,” and even animals were in the company of this saint—all of whom, boys, girls, men, women and animals, were recipients of the love of this unknown and ordinary woman in life. These vivid images are the fruit of Lewis’ imagination to be sure, but it is an imagination informed by revelation and imbued with
Christ. Along with unforgettable images, the dialogue between Lewis and McDonald provides a reflection on time, space and freedom.
This small novel is a masterpiece of Christian imagination and will provide a most creative self-examine as readers inevitably see themselves in one or another of the characters. You will likely want to read this one again and again, as I do periodically.
-Mother Clare, CFR
This is the third in a series on the works of the great English writer C.S. Lewis.