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Literature: The Great Divorce
"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.'"

The Great Divorce is an allegorical book by C. S. Lewis.

This book comes from the POV of an Author Avatar who finds himself in "the grey town," a dismal place where it is always twilight (the lights are on but are not welcoming) and always raining, even inside. The place seems empty and vast (there are many houses). The only queue is at a bus station, and our narrator joins it. He then describes how half the people in that queue leave it never to return.

The bus is shining and brightly colored. Those who board clamor for space despite the bus being half-empty and say bad things about the driver for no good reason. Our narrator is seated, first next to a poet who manages to generate his own Wangst, and then a man with Great Plans and a broad-minded preacher.

They get to a bright, beautiful, vast, joyous countryside which is somehow more real than where they came from. They know it is supposed to be heaven. But it is so much more real that they appear to be ghosts, and are called such through the rest of the narrative. (This does include the narrator.) They are translucent. They are not intangible, though - they are just solid enough to be hurt. And everything hurts.

Each Ghost is met by someone who was close to them who is a native, a Bright One. The Bright Ones literally give off light. Some of them are naked, some clothed - it doesn't make much difference. The Bright Ones try to encourage those they are meeting to stay and come to the mountains. Most of them fail.

The title is a reference to William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Lewis said in his introduction that Blake wrote of the marriage of Heaven and Hell; he was writing of their divorce.

This work contains examples of the following tropes:

  • A Hell of a Time: As one character points out, the Grey Town doesn't contain the expected sights associated with Hell: devils with pitchforks, sinners being tortured on flaming racks, etc. But at best, it's a depressing, rainy place where constant squabbling causes residents to spread out from everyone else and become The Aloner. Also, it's hinted that things are about to get much worse.
  • An Aesop: The intended aesop is that Heaven and Hell are incompatible, though you can change sides.
  • All Just a Dream: Lewis was careful to hammer the MST3K Mantra home in the preface and the last chapter.
  • All Take and No Give: Two of the damned want to be Givers, and aren't allowed. They literally have nothing to offer the residents of Heaven, and until they accept this they cannot enjoy paradise themselves.
  • Ancient Conspiracy: The Hard-Bitten Ghost, who has Seen It All, believes that the controlling forces for both sides of all conflicts, including Heaven and Hell, are actually on the same side.
  • Anything That Moves: One of the Ghosts appears to have grown so obsessed with sex that she is unable to conceive of any purpose for interaction other than seduction, and actually tries to seduce the Bright Ones who are trying to talk to her.
    Narrator!Lewis: If a corpse already liquid with decay had risen from the grave, smeared lipstick on its gums, and attempted a flirtation, the result could not have been more appalling.
  • Arbitrary Skepticism: Staggeringly so. One character continues to deny that "Heaven" and "God" are literal things that exist, and insists they're just metaphors. This is while he actually has died, is in the afterlife, and is talking to a resident of Heaven, who offers to take him to see God this very minute.
  • Author Avatar: The narrator.
  • Beauty Is Never Tarnished: One of the two main points of the story: there is no room for evil or sin whatsoever in Heaven. Many of the Ghosts refuse to go to Heaven because it will mean giving up their quirks, such as saying mean things to their loved ones.
  • Card-Carrying Villain: Easier to save than a Knight Templar or Well-Intentioned Extremist. If you know you're evil, you can be converted to good. If you think you're good, it's harder.
  • City Noir: "The grey town," a dismal place where it is always twilight and where it's always raining, even inside.
  • Conspiracy Theorist: We meet one or two of them.
  • Dead to Begin With: Every human character other than the narrator
  • Driven to Suicide: The Tousle-Headed Poet. According to him, all the bad things that happened to him were Never His Fault.
  • The End of the World as We Know It: What sunrise in Heaven will do to Hell and to anyone who's still a ghost.
  • Everyone Calls Him Barkeep: The only people (other than Lewis and MacDonald) whose names are given are Frank and Sarah Smith.
  • Flat Earth Atheist: Quite a few people persist in their atheism even in the afterlife.
  • Friend to All Living Things: Sarah Smith has won over practically every person and every living creature she's ever met, which is why we learn her name. The only person she couldn't win over was her husband and cannot even in the afterlife.
  • Gray Rain of Depression: In Hell
  • Hard Light: "The light, like solid blocks, intolerable of edge and weight, came thundering upon my head."
  • Henpecked Husband: Robert. He never appears, but we meet his Control Freak wife.
  • Historical-Domain Character: George MacDonald, Lewis's favorite author, appears as his Spirit Advisor in heaven. Napoleon also makes a cameo, and several others are discussed.
  • Idiot Ball: Most of the Ghosts.
  • Ignored Epiphany: Very many.
  • It's the Principle of the Thing: Most of the ghosts decided that accepting the help of the Bright People was a terrible violation of one important principle or another.
  • Karma Houdini: Some Bright Ones appear to be this by most measures. It's a severe stumbling block for some ghosts, most notably the Big Ghost, whose guide got to Heaven via deathbed conversion. The point Lewis is making is that everyone in Heaven is a Karma Houdini. It's no good saying one person deserves Heaven more than another, because in the end, no one does. The ones who make it in are those who realize they'll never earn it on their own merits, and accept Jesus' gift.
  • Karmic Death: We see a couple of these.
  • Made of Iron: Heaven.
  • Made of Plasticine: The ones from Hell.
  • Madness Mantra / Never My Fault: "It was Soult's fault. It was Ney's fault. It was Josephine's fault. It was the fault of the English. It was the fault of the Russians."
  • The Masochism Tango: A husband and wife who leave the line for the bus quarreling. It is clear that they will go on trashing each other forever.
  • Mundane Afterlife: Hell is just a rainy twilit town that gives new meaning to "urban sprawl". This is even lampshaded by some who remark that the one draw of Hell — the chance to talk to the great sinners — is more or less impossible because of the distance.
  • My Beloved Smother: One of the more heart-wrenching conversations is on this theme.
  • Our Ghosts Are Different: We only see the Ghosts who decide to visit Heaven, but there's some discussion about Ghosts who take similar visits back to Earth.
  • Pet the Dog: The Ghost with the Lizard lets the angel kill his sin and becomes a Bright One.
  • Point of No Return: Any sin, unremedied, leads to this. Interestingly, this is usually symbolized as someone returning to the bus.
  • Pride: The number one factor keeping people from accepting grace.
  • The Scottish Trope: The damned never speak of Hell as Hell.
  • Self-Inflicted Hell: Arguably one of the two main points of the book: The only reason the Ghosts end up in Hell is because of their own petty issues, when the chance to go to Heaven is right in front of them.
  • Shout-Out: To an unidentified short story about Time Travel, in which the immutability of the past results in Intangible Time Travel.
  • Spirit Advisor: Every visitor from Hell gets one; though the Heavenly Beings are all fully visible to one another, the Hellish ones can only perceive depending on certain circumstances.
  • Spiritual Antithesis: To The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
  • The Treachery of Images: The blessed former apostate finally gives up on trying to reason with his damned apostate friend not very long after the damned soul has gone so far off the deep end in his pseudo-intellectual diatribe that he ends up complaining about how the blessed man is talking "as if there some hard, fixed reality where things are, so to speak, 'there'."
    • Painting as a way to depict particular subject matters or for its own sake is also discussed between a damned artist and his more heavenly-minded friend.
  • Time Stands Still: Lewis had the idea for the story from a half-remembered story about a time traveller. Nothing the spirits do can effect any real change note  — Hell is always damp and miserable and Heaven is so much 'realer' than the spirits that the grass cuts into their feet instead of bending to them.
  • Unreliable Narrator: When not called on it, the ghosts will present very unreliable accounts — the Tousle-Headed Poet and the grumbling woman in particular.
  • Wanting Is Better Than Having: One ghost argues this: It's better to travel hopefully than to arrive. The Bright One returns that if you knew that to be true, you could not travel in hope, because how can you hope to reach an inferior destination?
  • Was Once a Man: Many of the Hellish spirits are so bitter that there's very little left of them.
  • What Could Have Been: invoked Used in-universe. The apostate bishop speculates about how Christianity could have turned out differently (and, in his opinion, better) if Jesus had not been crucified, and had continued teaching throughout his life. This is, of course, Completely Missing the Point: according to Christian orthodoxy, it's Jesus' death and resurrection that makes it possible for sinners (that is, everyone) to enter heaven.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: The Tousle-Head Poet simply disappears after his scene on the bus, with no indication of whether he chooses to stay or go. The audience doesn't get to see the final decisions of the possessive mother, or the woman caught in the unicorn stampede, either, although there's slightly more closure in these cases, since MacDonald gives educated guesses on what their final decisions might be (he thinks the possessive mother ultimately won't stay, but that the other woman may have a chance, providing the stampede distracts her enough to stop obsessing over herself and listen to her Guide.)
  • Yandere: The possessive mother; MacDonald explains that Love Makes You Crazy in Hell, whereas Love Redeems in Heaven.

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GormenghastLiterature of the 1940sThe Green Hills of Earth

alternative title(s): The Great Divorce
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