“I seemed to be standing in a bus queue by the side of a long, mean street. Evening was just closing in and it was raining. I had been wandering for hours in similar mean streets, always in the rain and always in evening twilight.” So C.S. Lewis begins his narrative of “The Great Divorce.”
No, the book is not an argument against marriage, at least not in the way we first think of it. It’s a sort of fantasy/theology novel which underscores the insurmountable division between good and evil. In his preface Lewis explains that his goal is to counter William Blake’s concept of “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell” – to refute the idea that somehow good and evil, or right and wrong can be brought together; that eventually, with enough skill and patience, evil will be turned to good.
Evil is evil and good is good. They are opposites. They are forever going in two different directions – divorced from one another.
Lewis says, “We are not living in a world where all roads are radii of a circle and where all, if followed long enough, will therefore draw gradually nearer and finally meet at the centre: rather in a world where every road, after few miles forks into two, and each of those into two again, and at every fork you must make a decision…I do not think that all who choose the wrong road perish; but their rescue consists in being put back on the right road.”
This is a lot to consider in a culture where it’s rude – almost criminal – to say that there is actually a standard of right or wrong behavior.
Let me just say that, even though it deals with such deep and heavy subject matter, this is a really good story! It’s written in first person, and begins with the narrator (C.S. Lewis, himself) waiting in the line on the dismal street of the grey town. The grey town is Hell, and the people in line are waiting for a bus which will take them on an excursion to the borderlands of Heaven. There, they will have an opportunity to reconsider the choices they made on earth and they might choose to stay in Heaven. (The original, working title of the book was, “Who Goes Home?”)
Far from the common stereotype of angels sitting on clouds playing harps, Lewis’s description of Heaven shows it to be more colorful, solid and real than anything he ever imagined. He says when he got off the bus “The light and coolness that drenched me were like those of a summer morning, early morning a minute or two before the sunrise, only that there was a certain difference. I had the sense of being in a larger space, perhaps even a larger sort of space, than I had ever known before: as if the sky were further off and the extent of the green plain wider than they could be on this little ball of earth. I had got “out” in some sense which made the Solar System itself seem an indoor affair.”
He wanders around observing and listening as the bright solid residents of Heaven meet with ghostlike friends and relatives from Hell. They have serious and loving conversations, but although most of the people from the grey town are fairly ambivalent about it, for one reason or another they reject the offer of Heaven and choose to go back down to what they know.
Lewis is not saying there will actually be an opportunity for people to change their minds and leave Hell after they die. The story is an illustration of choices made, seen through the lens of eternity.
He says, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell.”
I’ve probably read this book six times, and every time I read it I come away with some new gem of understanding. It leaves me feeling stronger and richer, and closer to God. This morning was no exception. I closed the book and sat there in bemused awe. My very world and future and all of its prospects seemed larger and more full of promise.
Check out these links for more study and information about “The Great Divorce“
May 28, 2012 at 1:35 am
Very good and helpful summary, Andrena. I read parts of it while our oldest son read it while in high school and I said then that I have to read it for myself. You gave me the push to get back to it. Thank you
May 28, 2012 at 7:40 am
Tony, I would absolutely Love to have a book discussion about it. Do you have a copy? If not, I have an extra I will be glad to leand you.
June 26, 2012 at 3:31 pm
Thanks Andrena for reminding me about this great book from my favorite author. It’s been years since I read it but you have motivated me to shake off the dust and re-read this classic reminder that we are all, intentionally or not, choosing one of only two possible destinies.