The Deeper Meaning of “The Great Divorce” (Throwback Thursday)

Last year I introduced an occasional feature I call “Throwback Thursday.” This is where I find a blog post from the past–raiding either my own blog-hoard or someone else’s–and throw it back out into the digital world. This might be an idea or book that is now relevant again, or a concept I’d like to think about more, or even “an oldie but a goodie” that I think needs a bit of spin time.

Since this blog began in 2011, I have been trying to create a recovery of The Great Divorce. I think this novella is, quite frankly, brilliant. It has a gorgeous landscape set behind a theological novella that gets to the heart of Lewis’ spiritual legacy.

A few years back I ran a series on The Great Divorce, and there is a building momentum among Lewis readers. My students continue to be struck by this unknown book. There is now a second audiobook recording of it, as well as a stage play. There are still signs that The Great Divorce hasn’t found its way out to Lewis lovers. I’ve talked before about the Oh Hellos and their Dear Wormwood album. The Oh Hellos are a smart band that make great Irish-influenced folk collective music. The host of Audiotree noted their Screwtape influences and asked about their favourite C.S. Lewis book. Intriguingly, the host suggested “the Hell Bus one, The Great Divorce” (29:00). Alas, it was still on the band’s to-be-read list.

And, if it remains on your TBR list, I hope this post will nudge you forward. After writing a thesis on C.S. Lewis writing about spiritual life, I continue to think that The Great Divorce captures it in a tight, short, character-centred story of some imaginative depth. This post about “Deeper Meaning” remains a Pilgrim in Narnia top ten read over the years, though I have added a line or two. I hope you enjoy.

This is dangerous territory–partly because so many have trumbled into the “real” meaning of this or that book and caused an awful mess. When read this way, with a view to the veiled meaning, the Bible especially becomes secret code for everything from American foreign policy to the missing political allies of Atlantis to the reason why its words mean the exact opposite of what they say.

That’s right, the picture to the right is about the hidden Roswell UFO links in the King James Bible. I’m sure that’s clear to everyone.

C.S. Lewis is certainly not immune to being co-opted by this group or that. You know what I mean, I think. I was reading the other day that some people with a particular cultural view of what “masculinity” is are interpreting Lewis’ famous lecture “Men Without Chests” as a rallying cry against a generation raising “males without chests”–i.e., without their vision of what they think masculinity is (where “chest” is the heart of human emotion, ethic, and motivation for action). Apparently, integrity and honesty are not features that are part of this vision of the chest.

So clever readings that co-opt an original text’s meaning are deadly. This is certainly true of The Great Divorce, a book filled with theological speculation.

Intriguingly, Lewis warned us in the preface to The Great Divorce that we should avoid certain sorts of speculation:

“I beg readers to remember that this is a fantasy. It has of course–or I intended it to have–a moral. But the transmortal conditions are solely an imaginative supposal: they are not even a guess or a speculation at what may actually await us. The last thing I wish is to arouse factual curiosity about the details of the after-world.”

great divorce

In The Great Divorce, Lewis describes heaven and hell with vivid clarity: the great, apathetic, narcissistic, blandness of hell contrasted to the bright, sharp, penetrating beauty of heaven. Lewis wants here to avoid a school of thought that would blame him for redrawing the faint lines of historic teaching about the after-life. He only wants to go as far as Dante, telling a morally invested story with the artistry that he has that invites us into a grander vision of spiritual life.

But Dante really did redraw the lines of eschatology, whether we have read him or not. His cosmography of hell, purgatory, and heaven has stuck with us, shaping our cultural understanding, repainting every bit of our imagination from catechism classes all the way up to the works of the greatest modern artists. Perhaps Lewis is trying to have the reader keep the moral, and even the tang of heaven and hell, without accepting its landscape.

So why do I push in to what he has created, trying to discern meaning that he seems to resist? Besides the Dante Effect–the reality that art and culture shape culture and thought–there are two reasons.

Collected Letters vol 2

First, there is this little statement that Lewis makes in a letter to fellow poet Ruth Pitter. Pitter had said that there was something jarring or frightening or personally vivid about The Great Divorce. On July 6th, 1947, Lewis wrote back:

“I was rather frightened myself by the Great Divorce. — condemned out of my own mouth.”

There is something of The Great Divorce that tells the truth about C.S. Lewis’ understanding of the world. Without trying to bend Lewis, or find the super secret Bible code, that something that frightened Lewis is worth exploring.

Second, Lewis really is telling us something about his beliefs on what heaven and hell means. This is C.S. Lewis speaking in the preface:

“I believe, to be sure, that any man who reaches Heaven will find that what he abandoned (even in plucking out his right eye) was precisely nothing: that the kernel of what he was really seeking even in his most depraved wishes will be there, beyond expectation, waiting for him in “the High Countries.” In that sense it will be true for those who have completed the journey (and for no others) to say that good is everything and Heaven everywhere.”

Lewis cautions against trying to live the heaven-in-all-good now, suggesting that if we do “we are likely to embrace the false and disastrous converse and fancy that everything is good and everywhere is Heaven” (Preface). Otherwise, though, he is saying something definite about heaven and hell. We are not to imagine heaven and hell as distinct, geographically specific domains.

In this way, Lewis is carrying on a conversation begun in The Problem of Pain. His eighth chapter captures the trilemma of hell: something seems to be wrong with the teaching of a good-loving God who puts sinners in an eternal hell for conscious, non-reforming punishment. After setting aside common objections to the doctrine of hell, he chips away at our understanding of time in the after-life. Finally, he hints at a solution of the trilemma on the issue of consciousness:

“[Hell] is in no sense parallel to heaven: it is ‘the darkness outside’, the outer rim where being fades away into nonentity” (“Hell”).

This was written about 5 years before The Great Divorce. Not quite a decade later, Lewis encapsulated some of his understanding of heaven in the final Narnian chronicle, The Last Battle (1956). There is a great deal to say about that complex little book, but two sets of characters show us something of Lewis’ eschatological imagination.

In one scene, a group of Dwarfs sit in a tight circle, refusing to admit that they are in heaven. All light is for them darkness. All good food is waste. All hope is a con. In another scene, a Calormene officer, Emeth, is invited into this Narnian heaven even though he had served as an enemy of Aslan. Aslan says, “I take to me the services which thou hast done to Tash.” These two scenes show The Great Divorce idea of the continuity of earthly life into either heaven or hell, as well as the blurring of the regional boundaries.

It is true that Lewis draws the picture in The Great Divorce a little differently than he does elsewhere. He resists George MacDonald‘s universalism–intriguingly by having MacDonald adjust his own views in the text itself!–and affirms the essential difference between heaven and hell. But he does so in surprisingly unorthodox way. Here is one of those pictures, where George MacDonald, a spirit of heaven, is explaining why the saved cannot go into hell to rescue the damned:

“… a damned soul is nearly nothing: it is shrunk, shut up in itself. Good beats upon the damned incessantly as sound waves beat on the ears of the deaf, but they cannot receive it. Their fists are clenched, their teeth are clenched, their eyes fast shut. First they will not, in the end they cannot, open their hands for gifts, or their mouths for food, or their eyes to see” (ch. 13).

These sorts of images have led some people to draw theological conclusions using C.S. Lewis’ work. David Clark argues in C.S. Lewis Goes to Heaven that people will get a chance to accept Christ, whether that is here on earth or in heaven. Clark argues that when we follow Lewis’ understanding of heaven and hell, we will discover that:

“Lewis removed this huge stumbling block to Christianity and vindicated both the justice and mercy of God” (see here).

rob bell love winsAnother author, and one with a far greater influence, is Rob Bell. Though often missed by reviewers, Bell’s work is shot through with Lewis’ influence. In Love Wins, that book that transformed millions of readers and set the stage for his exit left from the evangelical conversation, Bell argues exactly for the continuity that Lewis sets up in The Great Divorce. Heaven and hell are both experienced here on earth, and one’s decisions sets one in a heavenward or hellward direction. We can bring heaven into our earthbound reality, or we can sow hell into everyday life. While Bell isn’t very clear about what this means for the actual movement of the human being into the realms beyond, it is a powerful image as a spiritual truth. Bell leans on Lewis for this road map.

Still, as we think about heaven and hell, we remember Lewis’ caution. Is this arousing “factual curiosity about the details of the after-world?” I have to admit that as he poignantly captures the landscapes of heaven and hell in imagination, I’m tempted to believe that his landscape hints at something “factual.” And it may be that Lewis offers something to Christian thinking about choice, salvation, and the after-life.

But I don’t think that’s the deepest meaning of The Great Divorce–as much as I think Lewis leaves room for discussion open.

Through this speculative fantasy, Lewis captures the truth of the human condition–the truth of his human condition. Most of us are not murderers or rapists or dictators, yet we play with evil within the subtle inclinations of our hearts. We do this not to evil men or even to strangers. No, we rage against or manipulate the ones we claim to love. I rage against and manipulate the ones I love. In this I am sowing hell on earth, bending myself toward self–that is, bending myself toward hell.

Each of our choices here on earth invests us further into heavenliness or hellishness. In this way, The Great Divorce is not really about heaven or hell and the afterlife, but about whether or not Galatians 2:20 is true in this life:

I have been crucified with Christ. I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. So the life that I now live, I live in faith in the son of God who loves me and gave up his life for me.

What is the deeper meaning in The Great Divorce? It is, I think, the thing that shocked Lewis so much. On the great stage of this heavenly dream vision, Lewis saw his own sin and selfishness played out, scene after scene. While as readers we can close ourselves off to its message, Lewis could not. It stripped bare his willful blindness, and this is what he was left with:

“One  dreadful  glance  over  my shoulder I essayed-not long enough to see (or did I see?) the rim of the sunrise that shoots Time dead with golden arrows and puts to flight all phantasmal shapes.

“Screaming, I buried my face in the folds of my Teacher’s robe. ‘The morning! The morning!’ I cried, ‘I am caught by the morning and I am a ghost.’

“But it was too late. The light, like solid blocks, intolerable of edge and weight, came thundering upon my head. Next moment the folds of my Teacher’s garment were only the folds of the old ink-stained cloth on my study table which I had pulled down with me as I fell from my chair. The blocks of light were only the books which I had pulled off with it, falling about my head. I awoke in a cold room, hunched on the floor beside a black and empty grate, the clock striking three, and the siren howling overhead” (ch. 14).

What is the secret code of The Great Divorce? It’s the basic principle that it matters how we live, and whatever lies we tell ourselves in the dark will be set to flight in the truth of that last great sunrise.




About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
This entry was posted in Reflections and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

49 Responses to The Deeper Meaning of “The Great Divorce” (Throwback Thursday)

  1. L.A. Smith says:

    The Great Divorce is a masterful work. I haven’t read all of Lewis “yet”, but it has a place near the very top of all his books that I have read. Every time I read it, there are new things to ponder and meditate upon. I share your bewilderment as to why this book is not more widely read. Perhaps it is the title?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    One thing and another got me thinking about distinctions and interrelations between The Screwtape Letters (SL) and That Hideous Strength (THS) – both books of explicit devilish activity – and also The Great Divorce (GD). “Most of us are not murderers or rapists or dictators, yet we play with evil within the subtle inclinations of our hearts.” That seems very true of the ‘patient’ in SL, where we see devilish attention to one person (though very much in ‘social’ context). And something like that is true of various characters in THS, but there, there are also characters who variously are, or are much more like, “murderers or rapists or dictators”, and many of them are deliberately ‘socially’ active, trying to reshape society, being as it were ‘humanly devilish’ (without our knowing just how, or how much, this reflects successful devilish attention to their personal lives). In GD, there is a city – all the ‘travellers’ are residents of a city (an image also used by Dante – the “città dolente” of canto 3 of the Inferno), and to varying degrees ‘sociable’ – perhaps considered ‘in the bag’ by their devil overlords (who are not shown actively tempting them) – yet – what? ‘trusted’ to travel? (or is there an implicit ‘override’ at work here, as there is an explicit – if allusive – one in SL Letter 22?) – in any case, in fact each given an opportunity to ‘turn again’ in their “sin and selfishness” in its distinct personal forms.

    But I’m not sure I was ever so strongly struck as rereading this post, now, with its final quotations, including “I buried my face in the folds of my Teacher’s robe” and “Next moment the folds of my Teacher’s garment were only the folds of the old ink-stained cloth” with how Lewis seems to be playing with Dickens’s Christmas Carol – but, but, the account stops short of anything simply corresponding to the conversion of Scrooge, and we are left with the living tension of that “stripped bare his willful blindness”.


    • Oh wow, yes, Dickens. Very cool. There is stuff written about the medieval dream vision (Joe Christopher, but also Amber Dunai and Marsha Daigle-Williamson), Dickens is a great idea. Feel like writing a short post?
      On your THS, SL, GD link, you can see where I’m going. My next CSL book is a substantial reading of Lewis’ WWII-era material as an integrated whole! I guess I know who should be reading one of my drafts (in 3 years)!


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        “Feel like writing a short post?” Thanks – an attractive idea! But I’d better carve out time to reread both GT and Christmas Carol, first (though they’re both fairly short…).

        Exciting! “I guess I know who should be reading one of my drafts (in 3 years)!” (May I live to do so!)

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Ben says:

    The Great Divorce has shaped my theology more than any of C.S. Lewis’ books (excepting Mere Christianity). For me, it helped me understand several references to hell and the afterlife in Scripture, notably Mark 9:49 (“Everyone will be salted with fire”) and 1 Cor. 3:11-15 (“… the fire will test the quality of each person’s work”). The “never-ending fire” Jesus describes might correspond to the Lake of Fire in Revelation, and furthermore might refer to the “fire of the Holy Spirit,” i.e. the very presence of God felt nakedly when all illusion is stripped away. In short, everyone goes to Heaven and experiences God’s presence — either as joyful rapture or unendurable loathing. For those who have resisted God’s grace in this life, Heaven will be Hell.


  4. loritischler says:

    The necessity and joy of being fitted for heaven.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. loritischler says:

    Also, I have written a 40 page play on TGD, because, like many of you, it bewilders me how this heaven-and-earth-shattering book is so little known. Ok not true; I actually wrote it because I had a picture in my mind and it was my passion from the age of 17 when I first read it. (But you’re right—what a STORY for this generation! If only there were a popular medium through which the story could be told…)


  6. loritischler says:

    Btw. The play has been gathering dust in my attic for 20 years. (My professor thought it very good, FYI. 😉). If anyone would like to collaborate on a contemporary, lighter, version for possible production or publication, let me know.
    MacDonald. George MacDonald.🍸


    • I was going to ask if you had staged this play. Any plans?


      • loritischler says:

        No staging. It’s not exactly “sleepy Sunday morning” church fare, and I’ve really not sought opportunity elsewhere. I left a message with Maclean about it back in 2009, I believe, and I remember discussing how one would manage the ending of it. I forgot about it the until—Voila!—he produced his version of it. 😀

        Liked by 1 person

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      That dramatization in the trailer looks variously stylized, but my memory of the book is a lot of lively dialogue(s) (as well as vivid, atmospheric scenery – and ‘special effects’ (e.g., lizard into horse, and Tragedian ‘into’ Dwarf)!).

      How long (in playing time) do you reckon yours is, or would you aim to lighten it to?

      Liked by 1 person

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Tangential thought – I wonder if someone as versatile as Bruce Kuhn could do a one-man version?:

        Liked by 1 person

        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          Oops! Bad tab juggling!:

          Liked by 1 person

          • I got to take a week-long class with Bruce Kuhn! He is pretty brilliant. I watched him do … James maybe? Or the book of Philippians?


            • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

              Lucky you! I had fun chatting with him a bit after a St. Luke – and learning what an Inklings fan he was (and what a business it was learning St. Mark in Dutch!).

              Another tangential idea springs to mind – what might a two-person Great Divorce be like: one woman and one man? (A fine undergrad English actor once excellently prepped Stevenson’s text, and he played Mr. Hyde while I played Dr. Jekyll…)

              Liked by 1 person

  7. loritischler says:

    My play would take about 45-50 minutes I’m guessing. Twelve spectre-like characters (all with names beginning with prefix “De-“…Dementor, Detractor, etc.) on bus enroute to ‘heaven’. Easy to stage because the set is basically the bus with sounds and lights to depict motion and then the landing—characters exit and re-enter the bus with explicit variations of impressions they have had upon exiting. And then of course a voice off by George MacDonald. (And at some point—spoiler alert!—the voice of Jack himself…addressing a few questions some readers have had as well as…well never mind).

    Liked by 1 person

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Wow! That sounds vivid and finely focused! (Would the theatrically economical lighting, sound, and setting need a formal theatre, whether proscenium or ‘in the round’, or, at a pinch, be even more flexible as to ‘performance space’?)

      Liked by 1 person

  8. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Tangentially, by way of Lewis’s Psalm variants in The Great Divorce, I just heard that the Revised Psalter upon which Lewis and Eliot worked (and about which you wrote, some four years ago) has been taken up (with a little further tinkering) into the new Anglican Church in North America Book of Common Prayer, with the hope of its having a lively, wider daily use than was ever managed after its original publication!:

    (My copy of the Revised Psalter is in storage, so I cannot easily compare the texts…)


    • I had to photocopy a copy of the revised psalter after getting it through interlibrary loan. I’m pleased they are printing it. Evidently, a Lutheran Canadian group is also printing, but we’ll see.


      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        These US Anglicans also seem to be working together with some (US?) Lutherans… maybe this is part of that same picture? (When I’m trying to practice Anglican Psalm chant for one of my choirs, I encounter different Psalm translations on YouTube, but have not tried to sort out just which-all.)


  9. Pingback: I Passed my Viva! | A Pilgrim in Narnia

  10. Pingback: C.S. Lewis’s “To love at all is to be vulnerable” Infographic by Gavin Aung Than | A Pilgrim in Narnia

  11. Pingback: C.S. Lewis, Gender, and The Four Loves: An Open Class | A Pilgrim in Narnia

  12. Pingback: Bellwethers of a New American Christianity? Sallie McFague, Rob Bell, and Evangelical (Re)Vision | A Pilgrim in Narnia

  13. Pingback: It is Easy to Teach C.S. Lewis’ “Till We Have Faces,” but It’s Hard to Blog About It | A Pilgrim in Narnia

  14. Pingback: Brenton Dickieson’s Great Divergence within the Great Divorce: Podcast Interview on In the Corner Back by the Woodpile | A Pilgrim in Narnia

  15. Pingback: The “Pints with Jack” Podcast on Till We Have Faces @pintswithjack | A Pilgrim in Narnia

  16. Pingback: The World as a “Vale of Soul-Making”: A Brief Note on John Keats, C.S. Lewis, and L.M. Montgomery | A Pilgrim in Narnia

  17. Pingback: “C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien: Friendship, True Myth, And Platonism,” a Paper by Justin Keena | A Pilgrim in Narnia

  18. Pingback: The Top New Posts of 2020 on A Pilgrim in Narnia | A Pilgrim in Narnia

  19. Pingback: 5 Affordable Ways to Purchase Digital Books By and About C.S. Lewis | A Pilgrim in Narnia

  20. Pingback: Three Online C.S. Lewis Events (Katherine Langrish on Narnia, Michael Ward on the Abolition of Man, Anthony Lawton’s The Great Divorce) + Bonus Events: Mythcon, the Tolkien Society, L.M. Montgomery Reading Events | A Pilgrim in Narnia

  21. Pingback: Marsha Daigle-Williamson’s Reflecting the Eternal and Dante in the Work of C.S. Lewis, with Thoughts about Intertextuality (Good C.S. Lewis Studies Books That Did Not Win the Mythopoeic Award Series Insert) | A Pilgrim in Narnia

  22. Stephen Hayes says:

    And he predicted the apostate, resurrection-denying bishops David Jenkins and John Shelby Spong!


  23. Pingback: 2021: A Year of Reading: The Nerd Bit, with Charts | A Pilgrim in Narnia

  24. Pingback: The Sloo/Slow/Sluff of Despond: Today’s Word of the Day and a Spiritual Truth in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress | A Pilgrim in Narnia

  25. Pingback: A Review of Mystical Perelandra: My Lifelong Reading of C.S. Lewis and His Favorite Book by James Como | A Pilgrim in Narnia

  26. Pingback: A Rationale for Teaching C.S. Lewis’ Fiction in The Wrong Order | A Pilgrim in Narnia

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.