With his allegorical novel The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis intends to educate his readers on the idea that “if we insist on keeping Hell (or even earth) we shall not see Heaven: if we accept Heaven we shall not be able to retain even the smallest and most intimate souvenirs of Hell.” His Great Divorce refers to the absolutely irreconcilable differences, as well as the insurmountable distance, between Heaven and Hell and between good and evil. He carries out this education by taking his readers on a journey from Hell (or purgatory, depending on the visitor) to Heaven. Throughout the journey, Lewis’s narrator interacts with and overhears a number of fellow travelers as they converse with him, with each other, or with the “Bright People,” those beings inhabiting the heavenly land. Lewis opens his work with his narrator, henceforth called the dreamer, standing in line waiting to board a bus. While standing in line, the dreamer encounters a number of unpleasant personalities, some of whom fall out of line during the waiting period. A bus soon pulls up, and along with a number of others, the dreamer gets on board. He takes a seat toward the back, away from the others, but upon the bus’s departure he falls into the company of a young poet.
After a violent disruption on the bus, the dreamer suddenly finds himself sitting next to an “Intelligent Man,” who gives him a bit of information on the operations of the town they’ve just pulled away from. After climbing higher and higher into the air (the bus flies rather than drives), so high in fact that the ground below the bus eventually fades from view, it lands on the top side of a cliff, in a mountainous, forested region the dreamer has never been to before. It is in this region where the dreamer gets to know more intimately those personalities that have traveled on the bus with him, personalities which turn out to be the ghosts of humans who have passed away on earth. And through the dreamer’s interactions with these ghosts, as well as through the ghosts’ interactions with the Bright People, Lewis unpacks his idea that one must divorce himself entirely from Hell if he wishes to see Heaven, an idea that would greatly benefit any generation that embraced it.
One of the first ghosts the dreamer encounters in the heavenly land is something of a pseudo-wise, vaguely religious “philosopher” who appears to have been regarded as a religious leader on earth, perhaps even a pastor. This “philosopher” is debating the nature of truth with one of the Bright People. Upon the Bright Person referring to God as “the Eternal Fact,” the philosopher replies that “I should object very strongly to describing God as a ‘fact.’ The Supreme Value would surely be a less inadequate description.” He later goes on to say that he is to read a paper later in which he questions what great things Jesus may have gone on to say and accomplish if his life were not cut short by the Crucifixion. This philosopher has rejected orthodox Christianity in order to infuse his own humanistic thought into religion. This tendency is rampant in today’s global society, and the church has not entirely escaped it. As with Lewis’s philosopher, this way of thinking, though seeming potentially humble and virtuous in its self-described “searching,” is indeed a rejection of sound doctrine and the authority of Scripture, and leads its adherents into eternal damnation.
Shortly after hearing from the philosopher, the dreamer encounters a man who could be described as a jaded cynic. His character is typified by one of the first things he says to the dreamer: “I guess I’ve seen about all there is to see.” He adds shortly thereafter that he is “the sort of chap who likes to see things for himself.” This man has been around the block, so to speak, and has witnessed all sorts of things, particularly problems with the created order and the religion supposedly involved therewith. He has been beaten up by a world not gone his way, and as a result he denies the possibility of there being any real truth or goodness. He complains, among other things, about having been in an unhappy marriage that his friends tried to convince him would turn out all right in the end if he would just exercise “Tact and Patience” in the initial stages. Through all of his disappointments he has come to doubt, ultimately, that even God Himself is incapable of doing him wrong.
And with the philosopher, this cynic (and many of his sort throughout history) faces eternal separation from God. A bit later, in a very brief scene, the dreamer witnesses the ghost of a woman who is trying with all her limited might to appear attractive to the Bright People and so garner their attention. She “appeared to be contorting her all but invisible face and writhing her smokelike body in a quite meaningless fashion.” This woman “had become incapable of conceiving conversation save as a means to that end.” She had lived on earth for the attention of her male peers, and was now here in the heavenly realm attempting to do the same. Upon finding herself unsuccessful, she (not surprisingly, though still tragically) puts the blame on the Bright People for not recognizing her appeal. She calls them “stupid creatures,” and like so many others who prefer shallow attention to the glory of Christ, turns back to the bus, the pathway to eternal destruction. Later on, in perhaps the most tragic of the dreamer’s encounters, he witnesses a conversation between the ghost of a woman named Pam and the Bright representative of her earthly brother Reginald.
They are discussing the fate of Pam’s son Michael, who had passed away and is now tucked far away in the heavenly mountains, not least in order to protect him from Pam, the mother who had made an idol of him while he was on earth. Pam and Reginald go back and forth about the nature of natural affection. Pam justifies her smothering of Michael by saying that she only acted as she did toward him because she loved him so much, and that her love was a noble thing which ought not to be punished now in the eternal realm. Reginald points out that natural affection can be a vice if it is not kept subordinate to love for God, which must be the highest degree of love present in a person if all his or her natural affection is not to go to ruin. Reginald shows Pam that because her love for Michael was greater than her love for God, Michael had become an idol to her and so her affection was turned into an overbearing nature that ultimately ruined her and would likely have ruined Michael if God did not take him away from her at a young age.
Reginald assures her though that if she can embrace God first with the love rightly due Him, then she would find herself possessing Michael once again, and loving him more than she ever thought herself capable. But sadly, Pam cannot see past her need to coddle Michael in the name of love. She wants nothing to do with God until she gets Michael first. Because of this, she loses both. One of the most startling elements of Lewis’s novel is brought out toward its end. He describes these meetings between the ghosts and Bright People (ultimately glorified Christians) as being grounded in the ghosts’ earthly lives. All of these conversations he is hearing are actually in a very real sense taking place on earth between the ghosts’ living counterparts and the heavenly realm. Because eternity is timeless, when a living person rejects or argues against the will of God, he is doing so in an eternal sense, carrying on his conversations, as it were, forever, and not just in this life. With this notion, Lewis does a fantastic job of persuading his readers to consider the eternal value of their earthly choices.