The Great Divorce is perhaps one of C. S. Lewis’s most creative works, but it remains also one of his lesser known books. Lewis, himself, in his preface to the book, calls The Great Divorce a “small book.” In spite of its brevity, The Great Divorce has several theological implications, especially with respect to heaven, hell, and the nature of sin. I hope in this essay to show Lewis’s purposes for writing the book, consider his inspiration for the idea, discuss the literary devices Lewis uses in the book and why, and give evidence of the themes he intends to teach the reader.
The Purpose of The Great Divorce
A. N. Wilson writes in his biography of C.S. Lewis that the “divorce of the title is the gulf fixed between Heaven and Hell, a gulf which varies in size depending upon the perspective from which it is viewed.” This title reflects Lewis’ purpose in the book to stress this separation between Heaven and Hell. In his preface, Lewis provides the reader with a key insight regarding his views on this divide when he writes, “I think the earth, if chosen instead of Heaven, will turn out to have been, all along, only a region in Hell: and earth, if put second to Heaven, to have been from the beginning a part of Heaven itself.”
This quote from Lewis’s preface sheds light on his second purpose, which is that the “inner intention of the sinner is primary.” A member of the New York C. S. Lewis Society “remarked on the prominence given to the individual moral choices made by the characters in various episodes.” The nature of these moral choices is a central focus in The Great Divorce because the lustful shade is the only one who Lewis explicitly mentions reaching the mountain and becoming a Bright One. The ghosts who do not choose Heaven are struggling with something far more serious in Lewis’s mind than lust: pride. Lewis implies through his examples that “the heart of Christian morality is not concerned with sins against Chastity but with sins of Pride…He thought that there are other, more serious, sins to which too little attention is paid.” Lewis makes this point explicitly in Mere Christianity in his chapter entitled “The Great Sin,” in which he writes: “You may remember, when I was talking about sexual morality, I warned you that the centre of Christian morals did not lie there. Well, now, we have come to the centre. According to Christian teachers, the essential vice, the utmost evil, is Pride.”
Lewis intends to show the problem of pride by showing the difficulty each ghost has in abandoning his pride and choosing God’s love. Glover communicates this idea well when he writes concerning this choice that “The process of becoming a spirit is an arduous one involving the rejection of much we hold dear, even in a purgatorial state. The unwillingness to choose between the alternatives is the first step in final damnation.” There is the hope, though, that all can be saved if they choose—again, the focus on choice. However, Lewis shows through his examples that this choice is difficult when consumed with pride: “They prefer their own sinful obsessive selves to the loss of self which is necessary before they can be saved.”
Inspiration for Writing
As Lewis’s purpose for writing becomes clear, so also does his inspiration for composing the book: George MacDonald’s work, Phantastes. Lewis commented on this inspiration with the following words:
“I was only aware that if this new world was strange, it was also homely and humble; that if this was a dream, it was a dream in which one at least felt strangely vigilant; that the whole book had about it a sort of cool, morning innocence and also, quite unmistakable, a certain quality of Death, good Death. What it actually did to me was to convert, even to baptize (that was where the Death came in) my imagination.”
The writing of MacDonald was to Lewis “more akin to music than to poetry.” Since this work had such a profound impact on Lewis, he chose to use the fantastic as a setting for the imagination because he felt “the fantastic was a road to the expression of the real.” Lewis used metaphor because he thought it was essential in describing the supernatural because a “spiritual reality is too great to be conveyed in literal language.” Lewis used allegory and science fiction techniques along with metaphor in order to break his readers’ defenses and allow his purpose to permeate their subconscious, thus teaching his readers his main points by means other than lecture and in a way that deliberately, but not directly, attacks their sinful nature.
Lewis’ Means of Instruction (or, How He Conveyed His Themes)
In The Great Divorce, Lewis uses dialogue, symbolism, and allusion to the Psalms to instruct his readers in his major themes.
Lewis’s use of dialogue in the story is a simple way to convey to the reader the characters’ attitude. The use of dialogue is probably the easiest and most effective way because it allows the reader to hear the character’s inner thoughts. This approach allows Lewis to show how each character is unable to lay aside his or her own pride and choose lasting love and happiness in Heaven.
The first example of an exchange that shows this issue of pride is the Big Ghost who demands his rights, but does not realize that he had these in Hell. He is so consumed with receiving his rights that he cannot follow the advice of the Bright Person and ask for “Bleeding Charity.” The Bright Person also says that “everything is here for the asking and nothing can be bought.” This charity seems to be the possibility of a relationship with God through Christ’s redeeming blood because this is the gift that God has given to us. The Big Ghost, however, is so filled with selfishness in seeking only his rights that he does not choose Heaven.
Another example is the painter who wishes to paint the scene of Heaven. The Bright Person tells him that his tools are worthless there because “when you painted on earth–at least in your earlier days–it was because you caught glimpses of Heaven in the earthly landscape…But here you are having the thing itself.” The painter has become consumed over the years by the notion of painting for its own sake. The Bright Person then replies in a way that unmistakably shows the danger of this sort of self-indulgence:
“Every poet and musician and artist, but for Grace, is drawn away from love of the thing he tells, to love of the telling till, down in Deep Hell, they cannot be interested in God at all, but only in what they say about Him. For it doesn’t stop at being interested in paint, you know. They sink lower–become interested in their own personalities and then in nothing but their own reputations.”
The painter as well, like the Big Ghost, is blinded to truth and rejects Heaven.
A third example of Lewis’s use of dialogue is when Sarah Smith, one of the great Bright People, meets her husband again. Lewis uses dialogue between the narrator and his guide of heaven, not coincidentally George MacDonald, to describe the love of Sarah Smith. “And now the abundance of life she has in Christ from the Father flows over into them.” She speaks to her husband about love because that is ultimately what he needs in order to break away from his other half. Her husband, however, falters like the others and does not choose Heaven. What is important about this passage is that it specifically states the reason why the man did not stay in Heaven: “But the light that reached him, reached him against his will.”
In each of these conversations, as well as others in the book, the ghosts demonstrate their misguided self-righteousness. In their minds, they are without guilt and their rights have been taken away by the wrongs others have done to them. To understand further the pride these people possess, Lewis points to a central theme in why they do not go to the mountain. Lois Westerlund proposes that “Going to the mountain would mean being put in the same class with those who had done unforgivable things. By denying the fact that every mortal casts a shadow of wrong, they have turned to and been taken over by the monstrous Shadow of Illusion.” Thus, in explaining through dialogue the ghosts’ emotions, thoughts, and reasons for not choosing Heaven, Lewis expresses the problem of pride in a variety of ways, all of which are powerful statements of human sin.
The next way that Lewis communicates his themes to his readers is through symbolism. Symbolism is the most extensive way that Lewis expounds his themes in this book. The step the ghosts must take toward redemption in Heaven is one use of symbolism. Colin Manlove remarks, “The ghosts in The Great Divorce have to make the tiniest of moves towards joy to be redeemed, yet that tiniest of moves must at the same time cross an immense spiritual chasm.” The Bright People portray the distance between the lands and the mountains as a simple step, but it is a long journey in the eyes of the ghosts.
Another symbol that Lewis uses is how the travelers keep the windows of the bus closed and muffed in an attempt to keep out the light. This act appears to be a direct reflection of John 3:19-20, which says, “Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed” (NIV). Lewis expounds on this idea by describing how the people “might fall to pieces at any moment if the light grew much stronger.” These ghosts represent how rejection of the truth is dehumanizing, evidenced by their transparency in Heaven. Moreover, these ghosts are “metaphors expressing the dehumanizing effect of choosing illusions instead of truth.”  Lewis demsontrates in this way that Heaven is so real that the visitors are transparent and ghostlike in comparison.
In chapter six of The Great Divorce, Lewis uses a scene in which a ghosts attempts to take a Heavenly apple back to Hell to make a comparison to the Genesis myth. “Eve, in eating the apple, tried to have a little of Hell in her Heaven; the Shade is trying to have a little Heaven in his Hell. But nothingness cannot contain substance.” Lewis alludes to this point in his preface to the book.
“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. I believe, to be sure, that any man who reaches Heaven will find that what he abandoned (even in plucking out his right eye) has not been lost: 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’.”
Lewis illustrates this idea by contrasting the actions of the ghosts with the Bright People throughout his book. Westerlund suggests that “The Solid People are metaphors symbolizing the true humanity man is intended for and which he may realize by coming to the light of truth.”  An important characteristic of the Solid People to this metaphor is their selflessness, which is appropriate because it is nearly the perfect antonym to pride.
Lewis also uses architecture as a symbol in the book. In the gray city of Hell, a person must only think of a house and it appears. Also, the buildings are dingy, unattractive, and cluttered. Peter Schakel remarks on these descriptions when he writes, “That few of the buildings are impressive architecturally reflects the poor aesthetic tastes and self-centeredness of the inhabitant, since ‘you’ve only got to think a house and there it is.’”
Additionally, Lewis uses clothing as a symbol to further the idea of the human condition discussed in the book. Lewis uses this method in other works as well. For example, Schakel says “Clothing is used in the Chronicles, That Hideous Strength, and The Great Divorce to bring out character, to clarify cultural setting, and to develop theme and meaning.”
The most evident example of the use of clothing as a symbol in the book is in chapter eight. The clothing of two women is described, and they are obviously viewed differently by the narrator. “The clothes of the two women in The Great Divorce bring out the contrast between an unhealthy, self-oriented inner condition and a healthy, other-oriented one.” This symbolism again focuses on the prideful nature of the human condition.
Allusions to the Psalms
The final way that Lewis portrays the themes of his book is by alluding to Psalms 91, 110, and 19. Lewis paraphrases Psalm 91 in a song of praise to Sarah Smith, a great one in Heaven. The theme of choice is evident in both verse seven of the psalm and in Lewis’s paraphrase. Psalm 91:7 reads, “A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you” (NIV). In chapter thirteen, Lewis writes, “A thousand fail to solve the problem, ten thousand choose the wrong turning: but she passes safely through.” The contrast between the two is that “in the psalm, the danger is death in battle; in Lewis’s version, the danger is eternal death.”
The second allusion to the Psalms is after the lustful young man chooses Heaven and rides away on his horse, formerly his lizard. The land sings a hymn that is based on the first four verses of Psalm 110.
“The Lord says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.’ The Lord will extend your might scepter from Zion; you will rule in the midst of your enemies. Your troops will be willing on your day of battle. Arrayed in holy majesty, from the womb of the dawn you will receive the dew of your youth. The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind: ‘You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.’” (NIV)
The song the land sings in The Great Divorce is similar.
“The Master says to our master, Come up. Share my rest and splendour till all natures that were your enemies become slaves to dance before you and back for you to ride, and firmness for your feet to rest on. From beyond all place and time, out of the very Place, authority will be given you: the strengths that once opposed your will shall be obedient fire in your blood and heavenly thunder in your voice. Overcome us that, so overcome, we may be ourselves: we desire the beginning of your reign as we desire dawn and dew, wetness at the birth of light. Master, your Master has appointed you for ever: to be our King of Justice and our high Priest.”
In this paraphrase, nature is singing of the young man’s redeemed state and seems to imply that “Man is a Messiah for Nature.” This use of the Psalms is important because it also gives evidence about what Lewis wrote in his preface about finding greater things in Heaven than we left behind. The man had been controlled by lust, acting in the form of his lizard, and he may have been content with that on earth. However, when he is redeemed, he finds so much more joy than he ever hoped to have on earth. It is a reminder of the blessings God gives us when we choose Him, rather than the things of the world.
The final allusion to the Psalms is again in chapter eleven with the lustful young man. Lewis describes the angel who greets him as follows:
“The speaker was more or less human in shape but larger than a man, and so bright that I could hardly look at him. His presence smote on my eyes and on my body too (for there was heat coming from him as well as light) like the morning sun at the beginning of a tyrannous summer day.”
Lewis’s reflection on Psalm 19 separates the psalm into two sections: the sun and the Law. In the transition in verse seven from the sun to the Law, Lewis says the psalmist shows the Law as “luminous, severe, disinfectant, exultant.” Lewis’s reflection focuses on both the heat and light of the sun, just as he gives these characteristics to the angel. The important point that Lewis makes in the reflection that applies to his theme in The Great Divorce is the absence of self-righteousness in the psalm. Lewis writes the following in his book, Reflections on the Psalms:
“One hardly needs to add that this poet is wholly free from self-righteousness and the last section is concerned with his ‘secret faults’. As he has felt the sun, perhaps in the desert, searching him out in every nook of shade where he attempted to hide from it, so he feels the Law searching out all the hiding-places of his soul.”
Lewis is implying that we must first submit to the Law before we can be reborn. As Warren helpfully notes, “Lewis has tacitly portrayed the role of the Law as a necessary preparation for grace.”
In writing The Great Divorce, Lewis chose metaphor because of its ability to capture the imagination, and then used dialogue, symbolism, and allusion to the Psalms to get across his overarching themes: the importance of choice and the prideful nature of the human condition. Lewis, in describing these two themes, is able to separate the righteous and redeemed from the condemned. This distinction, as he stated in his preface, was the ultimate goal of his book: to show the separation between Heaven and Hell. The Great Divorce, then, is a book that focuses on the gap between Heaven and Hell and the common hindrances to reaching Heaven: the pride of human nature and its own stubborn will.
C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), IX.
A. N. Wilson, C.S. Lewis: A Biography (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990), 200.
Donald E. Glover, “The Great Divorce,” C.S. Lewis: The Art of Enchantment (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1981), 128.
Lewis, The Great Divorce, IX.
“Report of the 74th Meeting.” The Bulletin of the New York C.S. Lewis Society. 74 (1975): 6.
Gene McGovern, “Report of the 56th Meeting: Metaphor in The Great Divorce,” The Bulletin of the New York C.S. Lewis Society. 56 (1974): 1.
C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001), 121.
Glover, “The Great Divorce,”128-129.
Wilson, C. S. Lewis: A Biography, 201.
Lois Westerlund, “Excerpts from The Great Divorce: Life After Death in Metaphor,” The Bulletin of the New York C.S. Lewis Society. 56 (1974): 2.
Glover, “The Great Divorce,” 204.
Lawrence Cobb, “The Beginning of the Real Story: Images of Heaven in C. S. Lewis and Dante,” The Bulletin of the New York C. S. Lewis Society 74 (1975): 4
Lewis, The Great Divorce, 28.
Cobb, “The Beginning of the Real Story,” 5.
Lewis, The Great Divorce, 129.
Lois Westerlund, “Excerpts from The Great Divorce,” 3.
Colin Manlove, “‘Caught Up into the Larger Pattern’: Images and Narrative Structures in C. S. Lewis’s Fiction” (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1991), 268.
Lewis, The Great Divorce, 17.
Westerlund, “Excerpts from The Great Divorce,” 3.
Lewis, The Great Divorce, XIII-IX.
Westerlund, “Excerpts from The Great Divorce,” 4.
Peter J. Schakel, “Glimpses of Heaven in the Earthly Landscape,” Imagination and the Arts in C. S. Lewis: Journeying to Narnia and Other Worlds (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2002), 151.
Eugene Warren, “The Angel of the Law in The Great Divorce,” The Bulletin of the New York C. S. Lewis Society 92 (1977): 5.
Lewis, The Great Divorce, 134.
Warren, “The Angel of the Law in The Great Divorce,” 5.
Lewis, The Great Divorce, 113.
Warren, “The Angel of the Law in The Great Divorce,” 5.
Lewis, The Great Divorce, 107.
C. S. Lewis, “Sweeter Than Honey,” Reflection on the Psalms (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1958): 64.
Warren, “The Angel of the Law in The Great Divorce,” 5.
Cobb, Lawrence. “The Beginning of the Real Story: Images of Heaven in C.S. Lewis and Dante.” The Bulletin of the New York C.S. Lewis Society 74 (1975): 1-5.
Glover, Donald E. “The Great Divorce.” C.S. Lewis: The Art of Enchantment. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1981.
Lewis, C.S. The Great Divorce. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1946.
Lewis, C.S. “Sweeter Than Honey.” Reflections on the Psalms. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1958.
Manlove, Colin. “‘Caught Up into the Larger Pattern’ : Images and Narrative Structures in C.S. Lewis’s Fiction.” Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1991.
McGovern, Gene. “Report of the 56th Meeting: Metaphor in The Great Divorce.” The Bulletin of the New York C.S. Lewis Society. 56 (1974): 1.
“Report of the 74th Meeting.” The Bulletin of the New York C.S. Lewis Society. 74 (1975): 6.
Schakel, Peter J. “Glimpses of Heaven in the Earthly Landscape.” Imagination and the Arts in C.S. Lewis: Journeying to Narnia and Other Worlds. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2002.
Warren, Eugene. “The Angel of the Law in The Great Divorce.” The Bulletin of the New York C.S. Lewis Society. 92 (1977): 4-5.
Westerlund, Lois. “Excerpts from The Great Divorce: Life After Death in Metaphor.” The Bulletin of the New York C.S. Lewis Society. 56 (1974): 2-4.
Wilson, A.N. “Separations.” C.S. Lewis: A Biography. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990.