The Great Divorce begins not with characters but with caricatures. We begin with cartoons of a short man with a superiority complex, a cheated hysterical woman, a vacant liberal clergyman, a unisex couple–“both so trousered , slender, giggly and falsetto that I could be sure of the sex of neither”–and “the Big Man,” a bully who turns to violence because “I gotta have my own rights, see.” Some sad, some humorous, these modern fairy tale-like tropes dominate the first chapters of The Great Divorce.
Soon, though, the caricatures turn to significant characters whose personality and struggles with self is not only true to the character, but often prophetic of the reader’s personal journey.
There is no more deeply painful character than that of “Pam.” We have very few names, but we know Pam (the Ghost), the late Reginald (the Spirit), and her son Michael. Michael died when he was still a boy, and it is clear in the story that Pam never recovered. When Reginald meets her, Pam is clearly disappointed:
“Oh … Reginald! It’s you, is it?”
“Yes, dear,” said the Spirit. “I know you expected someone else. Can you … I hope you can be a little glad to see even me; for the present.”
“I did think Michael would have come,” said the Ghost; and then, almost fiercely, “He is here, of course?” “He’s there-far up in the mountains.”
“Why hasn’t he come to meet me? Didn’t he know?”
“My dear (don’t worry, it will all come right presently) it wouldn’t have done. Not yet. He wouldn’t be able to see or hear you as you are at present. You’d be totally invisible to Michael. But we’ll soon build you up.”
In the logic of C.S. Lewis’ heaven in The Great Divorce, it is not that people are disallowed into heaven, but not all are strong enough to be there. For most, heaven is too bright because it is full of light, the terrain too hard because it is built with truth, and the atmosphere overwhelming because it is shot through with love. The only way to become strong enough is to surrender the self–to be supported by one of heaven’s inhabitants.
To all who have died in the body, heaven is eternally open to them. But they must also die to the self.
It is this second death that is all the more difficult. The first one is natural: one days our cells will stop dividing with efficiency, our neuro-chemical processes will slow, and our hearts will stop patterning identity to the world. But the second death is so very hard–harder still if one has refused to do this in life. The death to self is the unbending of all that is inwardly bent, the resistance of all the self-preservation patterns we have developed throughout life.
But Pam should be okay, right? She is a grieving mother who has kept her son’s room the same as when he died. She has lived her life not for herself, but to Michael’s memory. What can be more like God’s love than motherly love?
It is true that true love is as quite like God’s love as anything we can experience. And there is an element of motherly love that haunts of the eternal.
But look at Pam’s response to heaven:
“Well. When am I going to be allowed to see him?” [she asked].
“There’s no question of being allowed, Pam. As soon as it’s possible for him to see you, of course he will. You need to be thickened up a bit.”
“How?” said the Ghost [Pam]. The monosyllable was hard and a little threatening.
“I’m afraid the first step is a hard one,” said the Spirit [Reginald]. “But after that you’ll go on like a house on fire. You will become solid enough for Michael to perceive you when you learn to want someone else besides Michael. I don’t say ‘more than Michael,’ not as a beginning. That will come later. It’s only the little germ of a desire for God that we need to start the process.”
Pam’s response is chilling:
Oh, you mean religion and all that sort of thing? This is hardly the moment… and from you, of all people. Well, never mind. I’ll do whatever’s necessary. What do you want me to do? Come on. The sooner I begin it, the sooner they’ll let me see my boy. I’m quite ready.”
Pam still doesn’t get the physics of heaven. Reginald tries to explain:
“But, Pam, do think! Don’t you see you are not beginning at all as long as you are in that state of mind? You’re treating God only as a means to Michael. But the whole thickening treatment consists in learning to want God for His own sake.”
You perhaps feel frustration on Pam’s part here. She responds, “You wouldn’t talk like that if you were a Mother.” We can identify with that, I think. She is a mother, who lost a son. Is there anything more harrowing? Her frustration is palpable with a complaint that I have heard in various contexts so very often:
“If [God] loved me He’d let me see my boy. If He loved me why did He take away Michael from me? I wasn’t going to say anything about that. But it’s pretty hard to forgive, you know.”
When we are six inches from grief, I don’t know any other way to feel.
But as the story goes on, we discover there are deeper levels. It becomes clear what life was like after Michael died:
“All that ten years’ ritual of grief. Keeping his room exactly as he’d left it: keeping anniversaries: refusing to leave that house though Dick [her husband, Michael’s father] and Muriel [Michael’s sister] were both wretched there.”
“Of course they didn’t care. I know that. I soon learned to expect no real sympathy from them.”
“You’re wrong. No man ever felt his son’s death more than Dick. Not many girls loved their brothers better than Muriel. It wasn’t against Michael they revolted: it was against you-against having their whole life dominated by the tyranny of the past: and not really even Michael’s past, but your past.”
“You are heartless. Everyone is heartless. The past was all I had.”
“It was all you chose to have. It was the wrong way to deal with a sorrow. It was Egyptian-like embalming a dead body.”
Pam’s response is not motherly love for her daughter who lived, or a partner’s response to a grieving father. Her pain and grief is at the centre of all things. She screams her response back to the universe:
“…Give me my boy. Do you hear? I don’t care about all your rules and regulations. I don’t believe in a God who keeps mother and son apart. I believe in a God of Love. No one has a right to come between me and my son. Not even God. Tell Him that to His face. I want my boy, and I mean to have him. He is mine, do you understand? Mine, mine, mine, for ever and ever.”
What does love mean? Doubtless Pam had love for Michael as a child. But in his death, loss was paramount. Who was she loving when he was gone?
The only answer is her self. She was feeding her self, feeding her hurt and rage and grief with the memory of the past. Refusing the march of the present into the future by rooting herself in history.
Love cannot grow in that environment. Humans cannot breathe with so little oxygen.
Lewis does not tell us the end of the story. Nor does he tell us the story of the grieving sister or father. In The Great Divorce we hear that some mothers chose to keep their children in hell with them because they loved them so much. I have seen mothers and fathers and lovers “love” like this on earth.
Though he was not a stranger to grief, perhaps Lewis would have re-written this character’s story after he lost his wife, Joy. His journal, A Grief Observed, shows a weightier handling of loss and love.
But the passage isn’t really about motherly love. The lesson is broader: all natural feelings and affections, no matter how beautiful and true in and of themselves–as motherly love certainly is–all of these “go bad when they set up on their own and make themselves into false gods.”
This post is part of a loose series on The Great Divorce, published in The Guardian in 1944-45. 70 years later we are echoing the publishing dates. The story of Pam concluded on this date in 1945. Other posts on the Great Divorce include:
- An Unpublished Foreword to The Great Divorce (Nov 10, 2014)
- 3 Pop Culture References to The Great Divorce (Nov 17, 2014)
- Week 3 in the Great Divorce Read-Along: A Handy Chart (Nov 24, 2014)
- Simon Vance’s Reading of “The Great Divorce” (an Audiobook Review) (Dec 1, 2014)
- “I’d Rather be Damned than Go along With You!” The Big Man in The Great Divorce (Dec 8, 2014)
- A Level of Hell that Dante Forgot: A Note from Discworld (Dec 15, 2014)
- Guest Blog: C.S. Lewis Goes to Heaven: William O’Flaherty’s Interview with David Clark (Jan 12, 2015)
- “Choosing Heaven: A Choice You Can Watch in the Making”: A Guest Sermon by Doug Jackson (Feb 23, 2015)