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 is full of empty houses, and our narrator sees other residents only when he enters a queue at a bus station. 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 open countryside where the sun is about to rise. It is somehow far more real than the place they left. They know it is their chance to leave Hell and get to Heaven. But this world is so much more real (or they are so much less real) that they appear to be ghosts. (This does include the narrator.) They are translucent, though not intangible — they are just solid enough to be hurt. And the dimension around them is too real to bend for not-quite-real ghosts like themselves; the wind, the rain —even the blades of grass — cut right through them.

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 come with them 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:

  • Achilles in His Tent: Name-checked; George MacDonald, the narrator's guide through the afterlife, explains why some souls voluntarily choose damnation over salvation:
    "Ye see it easily enough in a spoiled child that would sooner miss its play and its supper than say it was sorry and be friends. Ye call it the Sulks. But in adult life it has a hundred fine names —Achilles' wrath and Coriolanus' grandeur, Revenge and Injured Merit and Self-Respect and Tragic Greatness and Proper Pride."
  • A Form You Are Comfortable With: MacDonald states that all our choices, and even Time itself, are essentially a kind of image through which we can perceive eternal reality.
  • Afterlife Antechamber: The Grey Town, the center of Hell, is the first place every person goes after their death and from there the person decides where they will spend their death. From there, they can choose to remain in Hell so that they can eternally bicker with their neighbors or board a bus to visit Heaven and decide whether to accept God's invitation into paradise.
  • A Hell of a Time: Downplayed Trope. The Grey Town doesn't contain the expected sights associated with Hell: devils with pitchforks, sinners being tortured on flaming racks, etc. It's just a depressing, rainy place where constant squabbling causes residents to spread out from everyone else and become The Aloner. However, it's hinted that this is just the antechamber to Hell — things are about to get much worse once full darkness sets in.
  • 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; he makes it very clear that even In-Universe he is just describing someone's vision of what the afterlife may be like, not heretically trying to propose his writing as doctrine.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Answers to the Name of God:
    A Ghost: "I just want my deserts, see? I'm not asking for anyone's bleeding charity."
    A Person: "Then do so at once. Ask for the Bleeding Charity. Everything is here for the asking and nothing can be bought."
    • There's also an exchange where a Ghost exclaims "God!" to the confusion of one of the Bright Ones, who only uses the word "God" as a noun. The Ghost has to embarrassedly explain that he meant something like "By gum."
  • Author Avatar: The narrator is an English writer just like C.S. Lewis, and he even ends the book by waking up and going to work on a book describing his tale.
  • Author Tract: The Great Divorce is an allegory reflective of Lewis's Christian beliefs. Specifically, it is about how people must deliberately choose to reject God and happiness, damning themselves to a life of selfishness.
  • 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. The contrapostive of that statement also falls under that trope. Everything in us can find its fullest and most joyful expression in Heaven, if it will only submit first to God. Specifically seen in the case of the Lizard, which represented a certain Ghost's uncontrollable lust. After the Lizard is killed by an Angel (with the Ghost's permission), the Ghost turns into a Person, and the Lizard is reincarnated as a Stallion, an expression of joyful, holy, physicality.
  • 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 who insist that the afterlife they're in is false and that any attempt to invite them to Heaven is a deceptive trick.
  • Dead to Begin With: Every human character other than the narrator is a spirit who's come to Heaven or Hell from death.
  • Driven to Suicide: The Tousle-Headed Poet. According to him, all the bad things that happened to him were Never His Fault.
  • Domestic Abuse: We see two not-very-good spouses in Hell. Robert's Wife is a control freak who forced him into what she considered success, and Frank Smith emotionally manipulated his wife Sarah using pity. Both of them try their shtick with the Bright Ones, but it doesn't work.
  • The End of the World as We Know It: The sunrise in Heaven will cause the destruction of the Grey Town (i.e. Hell) and cause terrible pain to fall over the Ghosts who choose to remain there.
  • Epiphanic Prison: The Grey Town holds the damned in Hell. They can get out easily; there's a bus leading to the outskirts of Heaven, and anyone nearby can go on it. Once there, they're met by Bright Ones (blessed spirits of people they knew in life) who are there to take them to Heaven. The only thing stopping them from going are their flaws, and their inability to let go of the same.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": Not all the ghosts and heavenly beings are named, and Lewis usually gives them nicknames (like the Big Ghost, the Hard-Bitten Ghost, and so on). The ghosts and Bright Ones whose names we do learn are usually learned in passing in conversation. There are only two exceptions to this: MacDonald, whom Lewis recognizes, and Sarah Smith.
  • Excessive Mourning: One damned woman was My Beloved Smother toward her son, and after his death insisted on keeping his room the same and otherwise obsessing over him until her husband and daughter revolted, though they were a loving father and sister. Her brother, as a Bright One, observes that it was not even her dead son dominating their lives, but her wishes.
  • Fan Disservice: There's one ghost who attempts to seduce the Bright One trying to talk to her. The narrator describes it thus:
    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.
  • Flat-Earth Atheist: Quite a few people persist in their atheism even as they move from Hell into Heaven.
  • 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: A constant issue in Hell, especially since everything else there is insubstantial.
  • Hard Light: "The light, like solid blocks, intolerable of edge and weight, came thundering upon my head."
  • Hell of a Heaven: After comparing heaven and hell, most of the damned choose hell, although this is less because Heaven's a bad place and more because going there means that they have to give up their sins, which most are unwilling to do.
  • 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" Is Dehumanizing: After spending some time on the verge of Heaven, the author refers to the shades from Hell as "it" rather than "he" or "she".
  • It's All About Me: The suffering of the ghosts in Hell ultimately stems from their profound self-absorption, such that many of them are unable to understand the guidance of the Bright Ones because they interpret the advice through their own prejudices, or refuse to venture up the slopes of Heaven because they are unwilling to give up some minor character flaw.
  • 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.
  • The Knights Who Say "Squee!": The narrator begins to gush with admiration when he realizes he's met George MacDonald, until the latter stops him, pointing out he's familiar with his own biography.
  • Large Ham: The Tragedian is very melodramatic in his attempts to get Sarah Smith to feel sorry for him.
  • Made of Iron: Heaven. From the people to the water to the sunlight, everything in Heaven is solider than anything on Earth.
  • Made of Plasticine: The Ghosts from Hell are barely solid enough to lift apples.
  • 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.
  • Motherhood Is Superior: One of the damned souls thinks this is true. Her brother in Heaven gently informs her that her father and daughter revolted over her mourning for her dead son not because they were less loving but because she was obsessed and uncaring. At one point, one character points out to the narrator that she would gladly demand to take her son to Hell to keep possession of him.
  • Mr. Exposition: One of the ghosts that Lewis meets on the bus tells him how Hell works and why it's so empty (Everyone arrives at the same place, but since nobody can get along with anyone else, they quickly move away, and spread through the town), as lead-up to his point about why he's going up (most things in Hell can be gotten simply by imagining them, so he wants to go to Heaven to get ahold of something that can be called a commodity and use economics to force people to stay together).
  • 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. The mother in question mourned her son to the point where she ignored her other children, her husband and God. Mac Donald suspects if the narrator listened to her conversation further, she would try and force her son to come to Hell so she could have him.
  • No Sell: None of the arguments used by the Ghosts are effective at convincing the Bright Ones.
  • 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.
    • Hell itself very much runs on "Hell is Other People". On its own, it's just a rainy, depressing town, with nothing really nice there. What makes it hellish is the fact that everyone there is a jerk, and no one can stand each others' company. In fact, the town is mostly empty because quarrels bad enough that the participants decide to move away happen very frequently.
  • Shout-Out: To The Man Who Lived Backwards by Charles F. Hall (Lewis had forgotten the author and title, though), in which the immutability of the past while living backwards in time results in Intangible Time Travel.
  • Silly Rabbit, Cynicism Is for Losers!: The Hard-Bitten Ghost Deconstructs cynicism and the thought that the cynical view of the world is more reliable (the Narrator describes his appearance as being of the type that he (the Narrator) has always found reliable, and the Narrator trusts his words enough to go into a Heroic B.S.O.D. because of them). He's a conspiracy theorist who has lost all ability to enjoy anything because he's so cynical, and thinks that all of the Wonders of the World are just tourist traps run by a World Combine. He's in hell, and he can't accept that he can get into Heaven because he doesn't trust the Bright People's assurances that those who choose to go to Heaven can become more solid. Heck, he doesn't believe in Heaven at all, and thinks that Heaven and Hell are secretly on the same side, faking the war to extort from the Ghosts.
  • Special Person, Normal Name: One of the most important Bright Ones, a Friend to All Living Things woman of saintlike goodness, is named Sarah Smith; this demonstrates that a nobody on Earth can become exceptional in Heaven.
  • 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.
  • Spiritual Successor: The Great Divorce can be seen as a modern(ish), less unsubtle counterpart to John Bunyan's classic The Pilgrim's Progress; both works are allegories for the Christian faith where almost every character represents an ideology or a personal vice, and they both turn out to be dreams at the end. Lewis also wrote The Pilgrim's Regress which was more blatantly inspired by Bunyan's work right down to the title.
  • There Are Two Kinds of People in the World: Those who say to God "Thy will be done," and those to whom God says, "Thy will be done."
  • 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 (who wants the paint) and his more heavenly-minded friend (who is trying to get him to focus on a much worthier Subject).
  • 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.)
  • Wounded Gazelle Gambit: Sarah Smith's husband Frank's sin was using other peoples' pity to manipulate them and make them miserable. This trait is represented by the Tragedian.
  • Yandere: The possessive mother; MacDonald explains that Love Makes You Crazy in Hell, whereas Love Redeems in Heaven.