Book Review: The Great Divorce

 

This is another great book in C.S. Lewis’s rich body of work. It depicts his imagination of the afterlife, and a struggle between the forces of good and evil for the human soul. The character is walking through a surreal landscape and is privy to a number of intriguing conversations between the inhabitants. There is symbolism in the arrangement of the landscapes. In one scene, we see a town that is full of people but remains extremely lonely. This is because, with each new influx of inhabitants, the people already living there move farther out to the fringes of the town. Over time, a telescope is required to see the inhabitants of the town at the outskirts, which are millions of miles away. This town is clearly an image of hell, where self-centered decisions have broken apart any communal bonds.

Conversations take place between people of varying solidity and brightness. Some people are solid and bright–these are clearly the souls who have repented and gone to heaven. Other people are insubstantial and dim, to the point that they are ghostlike. These souls have made poor decisions and are often stuck in self-defeating patterns of thought. The insubstantial souls find the reality of heaven intolerably hard–literally. The rain in heaven feels to them like bullets. One ghost says, “First of all tantalize you with ground you can’t walk on and water you can’t drink and then drill you full of holes.” One conversation is between a man who has committed murder and another man who employed the murderer while they were both alive. The employer feels as though he is more deserving than the murderer and refuses to accept salvation on the pretext that he won’t put himself on the same level as the murderer. The murderer has repented, and, according to Christian theology, can still go to heaven so long as he confesses that he is a sinner. But, this offends the sense of justice of the employer. He feels a sense of humiliation about being seen as equal to a murderer. He says, “And what I don’t see is why I should be put below a bloody murderer like you.”

There is another ghostlike character who is overweight and has a cultured voice. It seems he is guilty of sins of the intellect. He takes a critical approach to traditional theological doctrines. For instance, he questions the idea that there is a literal Heaven and Hell. He also rejects the doctrine of the Resurrection. This individual fell prey to these ideas because, while he was maturing, they were fashionable. He said what would allow him to be a successful and popular intellectual. The intellectual questions whether all knowledge can be revealed in heaven. “For me there is no such thing as a final answer.”

The damned souls would rather cling to their vice than admit their sinfulness and allow themselves to be saved. Lewis quotes Milton: “Better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven.” At some point, after the initial thrill of sin has worn off, people still hang onto their sins out of sheer pride. They’d  rather be in charge of their own lives, even if they have ended up as failures.

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