C.S. Lewis’ haunting vision of the afterlife, The Great Divorce, began its publication run 70 years ago today. I was once pressed by Inklings scholar Sørina Higgins to name what I thought was Lewis’ best fiction. Lewis himself preferred Perelandra, his atmospheric Miltonian interplanetary space fantasy that is part of the Ransom Cycle. Many Lewis aficionados say that the Narnian author was at his best in Till We Have Faces. It really is a beautiful and sophisticated book, the retelling of a Greek myth to capture the complex reality of self-sacrificial love. It certainly hits some literary heights.
My answer to the challenge was, however, The Great Divorce (1944). This little philosophical novella should be read with other period pieces like:
- George Orwell’s anti-communist allegory, Animal Farm (1945)
- Albert Camus’s absurdist philosophical novel, L’Etranger (1942), translated The Stranger or The Outsider
- William Faulkner’s wilderness story, “The Bear” (1942)
- Jean-Paul Satre’s existential novella, La Nausée (Nausea, 1938)
- or even pieces like Franz Kafka’s Die Verwandlung (The Metamorphesus or The Transformation, 1915) or Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927)
Like each of these pieces, The Great Divorce tells a story we can enjoy on its own while teasing out great questions of life, the universe, and everything. Most good books do this anyway, but the art of creating the philosophical novel is one that intrigues me. I tried it last year during the 3 Day Novel Contest with my “Wish for a Stone.” It is a novella asking the question, “if you could be given what you want most in the world right now, would you take it?” The answer, it seems, is more complex than you might think. Good philosophical novels do this–suggest that the answer is more complex than we thought. In a review of The Great Divorce in The Times Literary Supplement (Jan 25, 1946), the reviewer wrote:
“The book succeeds because its readers will forget that it is a work of art, and remember not so much what happened in it as what it made them think…. Those who find themselves in agreement with the arguments put up by the Ghosts for not being saved will be unlikely to finish the book” (see Walter Hooper, C.S. Lewis: Companion and Guide, 288-9).
All of C.S. Lewis’ work is really philosophical; even Narnia is rich not just in the texture of character and story, but rich in the questions of personal exploration. Although Lewis quipped that 90% of reviewers of Out of the Silent Planet (1938) missed the Christian undertones, there was no mistaking his breakout book, The Screwtape Letters (1941-42). There is nothing subtle about Screwtape’s content, and it remains one of Lewis’ more famous books.
These witty and profound notes of (anti-)spiritual theology were originally published in serial form The Guardian, an Anglican newspaper, one each week throughout much of 1941. An idea that occurred to Lewis in the early 1930s, that those condemned to hell get a vacation to heaven from time to time, had simmered in Lewis’ imagination all these years. In 1944, he began working it out in earnest, and had completed it by the end of the summer, reading parts of to the Inklings (see J.R.R. Tolkien’s Letters).
On Nov 3, 1944, this ad appeared in The Guardian:
In this very textual weekly newspaper, the Letters to the Editor section was one of the more exciting features. It’s where educated readers were battling out important ideas in the Church of England at the time, like women in ministry, service to war orphans, international communication, the church in an emerging global market, and the relative merits of organ music. It’s no surprise, then, that the very popular C.S. Lewis–BBC commentator and Christian bestseller–was advertised in such a prominent place.
You’ll note that the name is different–I’ve blogged about “The Many Names of the Great Divorce.” Despite the relatively banal name, “Who Goes Home?”, the serial was fairly popular. When it came out as a book, Lewis added a preface putting the story in some context. But, as in The Screwtape Letters, Lewis begins the original series in an obscure way:
I seemed to be standing in a bus queue by the side of a long, mean street. Evening was just closing in and it was raining. I had been wandering for hours in similar mean streets, always in the rain and always in evening twilight. Time seemed to have paused on that dismal moment when only a few shops have lit up and it is not yet dark enough for their windows to look cheering. And just as the evening never advanced to night, so my walking had never brought me to the better parts of the town.
Notice how indefinite this description is. It seems like a bus line, time seems to have fallen still. It is neither evening nor daytime, neither dark nor light. Lewis begins by disorienting the reader, and soon we are lifting up from this grey town into the boundless unknown above the greasy rain.
It is no surprise, then, that the editor gives some context for the reader. This editorial note, then, is one of the earliest forewords among C.S. Lewis’ work. Because it has only been published in this now defunct and relatively unknown Anglican journal, I thought it was worth printing the editorial in full. Any reader of C.S. Lewis will see immediately how different the Editor’s tone and quality is from Lewis’ own. Lewis is certainly more equipped to deal with a diverse and diversifying England than is the Editor. But it gives a peculiar context to The Great Divorce that many would never catch: it is being read by young people engaged in a quiet revolution of faith in a decidedly post-Christian culture. And note that there is no mention of the war, despite it being far from over. For fans of The Great Divorce and C.S. Lewis researchers, it is a fascinating read.
In this number we are introducing a new serial by Mr. C.S. Lewis entitled Who Goes Home? or The Grand Divorce. It is four years since we began to print The Screwtape Letters, and we know to-day the service this remarkable work has rendered to the cause of Christianity. We are no less confident than we were when we began to publish the Screwtape series that we have the privilege of offering to readers of The Guardian a work of originality and power; and we have no doubt that it will later, in book form, carry its message to many thousands of minds to which a Church newspaper can never make any approach. Mr. Lewis among many qualities has one which in itself would suffice to account for the great influence of his writings. He knows what it means to be a Christian. In his fantasies, as in all his books, we see the implications of our faith set before us with robust imagination and relentless logic. This, we believe, is one of the reasons why his books may often be seen in the hands of the young man lunching in a London café, or tucked under the keyboard of a typewriter in the Foreign Office. They give us Christianity and not a conventional façade. The best of us do welcome that and, the younger we are, the more we like it.
For Christianity is no longer a façade—a decorative addition which gives tone to a worldly existence. That role, perhaps, has now passed over to the agnostic camp. Christianity now is realistic, or it is nothing. It still seems, no doubt, a paradox to many worthy, intelligent people on the pagan side. But to the man who has read and inwardly digested the Gospels, or has imbibed the meaning of Mr. Lewis`s works, it is the materialist whose position is paradoxical.
No doubt we have a long way to go. There are still a lot of us who try to get the best of both worlds. And that is not wholly a legacy from the past. But others are at last, although late, beginning to know that to be a freeman of the City of God is far removed from the freedom of a city of this world. These are testing times, and we can no longer be content with a passive, self-centred Christianity. We have to undergo a rebirth and become a member of a divine fellowship which carries the renunciation of much which we had thought we desired. We are still very tolerant of paganism, and the pagan is still very tolerant of us. What John Keble said in the Assize Sermon in 1833 (it appears in another column) is far more true to-day. We have even become to-day unconsciously tolerant of things which are definitely hostile to the faith—things which Keble`s England would not have tolerated. Weekly journals are widely read which bristle with false philosophy. Plays are exhibited on screen and acclaimed by the best critics which contain an affront to Christian feeling. Yet we have not heard of any public protest in any theatre. We seem to be unsure of ourselves.
Still, there are signs of change. The young people who are reading Mr. Lewis are also thinking and discussing. And some are beginning as adults to acquire in a new way the blessed insight which to others was only part of an inherited tradition. They are veritably finding the eternal, and in doing so they are learning a new relationship to that which is particular and fleeting.
Note: I have not changed punctuation or broken up the long paragraphs. I have attempted to find the copyright holder (it is expired in Canada) and was not successful. The Grand Divorce originally ran from Nov 10, 1944-Apr 13, 1945. In many places the chapters are broken up in odd space to fit the column space. Original readers were certainly left hanging on some cliffs!
I will be blogging The Great Divorce over the next six months, but not every Monday. I look forward to your comments and will take offers of guest blogs for this 70th anniversary series.