Readers here will know that I’ve blogged about bullying before. C.S. Lewis himself struggled with the culture of bullying at the schools he went to. In this intriguing chapter of The Great Divorce, published 70 years ago today, Lewis explores the idea of entitlement from the perspective of a bully.
The character here, “The Big Man,” has already asserted his own rights, and smacked another character for speaking out of line. He is clearly a bully, as we see even more when we dive into the conversation he has with this assigned “Bright Person”–the resident of High Heaven assigned to help The Big Man learn to walk in that land. This Bright or Solid Person is named Len, a murderer of a man named Jack on earth, and now the guide to heaven.
Two things are impenetrably hard in this chapter: the grass, and The Big Man’s heart. The Big Man views the world around him in hard categories. People are unchangeable, sins are un-redeemable, and life is sliced into easy segments of “me” and “you.” Often we speak about heaven with the question of whether the violent will be allowed in. That’s an answered question for us already. The first invitee to heaven was a man whose life spurned into violence and ended in violence: the insurrectionist who died on a cross next to Jesus. The violent are certainly invited to heaven.
The real question is whether they will want to stay.
Some might wonder if The Big Man’s perspective is like Milton’s Satan: “better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.” But I think it is more This isn’t about power; bullying is not always about power. The Big Man is so entrenched in himself that heaven has no relief for him. The freedom of the high country, the possibility of forgiveness for his earthly brutality, the release from his obsessive commitment to human accounting–none of these things are attractive to The Big Man.
For him, the self-abandonment of heaven is damnation itself.
The narrator listens in to the conversation as he is struggling, like all the other Ghosts, to walk on the impossibly hard grass. Feel free to listen in yourself.
A grove of huge cedars to my right seemed attractive and I entered it. Walking proved difficult. The grass, hard as diamonds to my unsubstantial feet, made me feel as if I were walking on wrinkled rock, and I suffered pains like those of the mermaid in Hans Andersen. A bird ran across in front of me and I envied it. It belonged to that country and was as real as the grass. It could bend the stalks and spatter itself with the dew.
Almost at once I was followed by what I have called the Big Man–to speak more accurately, the Big Ghost. He in his turn was followed by one of the bright people. “Don’t you know me?” he shouted to the Ghost: and I found it impossible not to turn and attend.
The face of the solid spirit … made me want to dance, it was so jocund, so established in its youthfulness.
“Well, I’m damned,” said the Ghost. “I wouldn’t have believed it. It’s a fair knock-out. It isn’t right, Len, you know. What about poor Jack, eh? You look pretty pleased with yourself, but what I say is, What about poor Jack?”
“He is here,” said the other. “You will meet him soon, if you stay.”
“But you murdered him.”
“Of course I did. It is all right now.”
“All right, is it? All right for you, you mean. But what about the poor chap himself,
laying cold and dead?”
“But he isn’t. I have told you, you will meet him soon. He sent you his love.”
“What I’d like to understand,” said the Ghost, “is what you’re here for, as pleased as Punch, you, a bloody murderer, while I’ve been walking the streets down there and living in a place like apigstye all these years.”
“That is a little hard to understand at first. But it is all over now. You will be pleased about it presently. Till then there is no need to bother about it.”
“No need to bother about it? Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?”
“No. Not as you mean. I do not look at myself. I have given up myself. I had to, you know, after the murder. That was what it did for me. And that was how everything began.”
“Personally,” said the Big Ghost with an emphasis which contradicted the ordinary meaning of the word, “personally, I’d have thought vou and I ought to be the other way round. That’s my personal opinion.”
“Very likely we soon shall be.” said the other. “If you’ll stop thinking about it.”
“Look at me, now,” said the Ghost, slapping its chest (but the slap made no noise). “I gone straight all my life. I don’t say I was a religious man and I don’t say I had no faults, far from it. But I done my best all my life, see? I done my best by everyone, that’s the sort of chap I was. I never asked for anything that wasn’t mine by rights. If I wanted a drink I paid for it and if I took my wages I done my job, see? That’s the sort I was and I don’t care who knows it.”
“It would be much better not to go on about that now.”
“Who’s going on? I’m not arguing. I’m just telling you the sort of chap I was, see? I’m asking for nothing but my rights. You may think you can put me down because you’re dressed up like that [in a fancy robe] (which you weren’t when you worked under me) and I’m only a poor man. But I got to have my rights same as you, see?”
“Oh no. It’s not so bad as that. I haven’t got my rights, or I should not be here. You will not get yours either. You’ll get something far better. Never fear.”
“That’s just what I say. I haven’t got my rights. I always done my best and I never done nothing wrong. And what I don’t see is why I should be put below a bloody murderer like you.”
“Who knows whether you will be? Only be happy and come with me.”
“What do you keep on arguing for? I’m only telling you the sort of chap I am. I only want my rights. I’m not asking for anybody’s bleeding charity.”
“Then do. At once. Ask for the Bleeding Charity. Everything is here for the asking and nothing can be bought.”
“That may be very well for you, I daresay. If they choose to let in a bloody murderer all because he makes a poor mouth at the last moment, that’s their lookout. But I don’t see myself going in the same boat with you, see? Why should I? I don’t want charity. I’m a decent man and if I had my rights I’d have been here long ago and you can tell them I said so.”
The other shook his head. “You can never do it like that,” he said. “Your feet will never grow hard enough to walk on our grass that way. You’d be tired out before we got to the mountains. And it isn’t exactly true, you know.” Mirth danced in his eyes as he said it.
“What isn’t true?” asked the Ghost sulkily.
“You weren’t a decent man and you didn’t do your best. We none of us were and we none of us did. Lord bless you, it doesn’t matter. There is no need to go into it all now.”
“You!” gasped the Ghost. “You have the face to tell me I wasn’t a decent chap?”
“Of course. Must I go into all that? I will tell you one thing to begin with. Murdering old Jack wasn’t the worst thing I did. That was the work of a moment and I was half mad when I did it. But I murdered you in my heart, deliberately, for years. I used to lie awake at nights thinking what I’d do to you if ever I got the chance. That is why I have been sent to you now: to ask your forgiveness and to be your servant as long as you need one, and longer if it pleases you. I was the worst. But all the men who worked under you felt the same. You made it hard for us, you know. And you made it hard for your wife too and for
“You mind your own business, young man,” said the Ghost. “None of your lip, see? Because I’m not taking any impudence from you about my private affairs.”
“There are no private affairs,” said the other.
“And I’ll tell you another thing,” said the Ghost. “You can clear off, see? You’re not wanted. I may be only a poor man but I’m not making pals with a murderer, let alone taking lessons from him. Made it hard for you and your like, did I? If I had you back there I’d show you what work is.”
“Come and show me now,” said the other with laughter in his voice. “It will be joy going to the mountains, but there will be plenty of work.”
“You don’t suppose I’d go with you?”
“Don’t refuse. You will never get there alone. And I am the one who was sent to you.”
“So that’s the trick, is it?” shouted the Ghost, outwardly bitter, and yet I thought there was a kind of triumph in its voice. It had been entreated: it could make a refusal: and this seemed to it a kind of advantage. “I thought there’d be some damned nonsense. It’s all a clique, all a bloody clique. Tell them ‘m not coming, see? I’d rather be damned than go along with you. I came here to get my rights, see? Not to gosnivelling along on charity tied onto your apron-strings. If they’re too fine to have me without you, I’ll go home.”
It was almost happy now that it could, in a sense, threaten. “That’s what I’ll do,” it repeated, “I’ll go home, I didn’t come here to be treated like a dog. I’ll go home. That’s what I’ll do. Damn and blast the whole pack of you . . .”
In the end, still grumbling, but whimpering also a little as it picked its way over the sharp grasses, it made off.
Gosh, so creepy and rings so true. I’ve GOT to read THE GREAT DIVORCE soon. You’ve done a great job prepping me, Brendan.
It’s a great, quick, evocative read. The creepiness fades away, like fog midmorning, and ends as quite a bright book–too bright almost. But the tone of sadness is never gone.
Don’t you wish you could edit comments MARGARED?
Haha. MARGARED, isn’t that Old English for big mouth who types too fast?
Something like that. Of course, in Old English, proper spelling was mostly optional.
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Mark Twain said he couldn’t trust a man who could only spell a word one way. Margred sound close to Mordred (or More Dread)–kin to Grendel maybe. Well, BRENDAN, thank you! Who put the “T” in that anyway, the Irish?
My students would like Mark Twain’s approach to spelling!
Mordred … Guy Gavriel Kay calls his figure, “Maugrim”–same sort of idea I think. And “Morgoth” from LOTR.
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I meant SOUNDS!
I meant BRENTON!
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Thank you for sharing this. All my husband’s insistence that I read The Great Divorce has only moved it up a few places on my to-do list. But this excerpt brought me to tears. “I’m not asking for bleeding charity.” “Then do. At once. Ask for the Bleeding Charity.” And, “There are no private affairs.” I’m hooked, and I’ll read it right away.
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Give in to your husband. Husbands are awesome!
This isn’t even the most poignant of conversations in the book.
You are right. And it was my husband who forwarded this post to me!
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“I’m not asking for anybody’s bleeding charity.”
Echoed by self-righteously deluded people through history…
It’s such an unnerving read isn’t it? I love the grass, the inexorable grass. But I’m also a little afraid of it. But then I realise I don’t have to be. It’s always a journey, reading The Great Divorce, an exhausting one.
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You should guest blog on that!
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I’m struck how the Big Man becomes Ghost, then becomes “It” as it limps back to the bus, almost as if the spirit becomes less the longer it bloviates. The image that crosses my mind is a balloon (windbag) slowing losing air from multiple pricks.
Nice image. Or a runner losing energy before the race is completed. Or a tender shoot becoming translucent as it freezes in the fall.