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Literature / The Great Divorce

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"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 about how people choose Hell over the paradise of Heaven, due to being unwilling to make the necessary sacrifices.

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 a "Bright One" who is a native: someone who either was close to them in life or else is a kindred spirit in some way. This also includes the narrator, who is taken under his wing by George MacDonald, an author like him whom he greatly admired. 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, acting as spirit advisors and psychopomps. 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."
  • An Aesop: The moral of the story is that Heaven and Hell are incompatible and that it is ultimately up to the preference of an individual whether they end up in one or the other.
  • Afterlife Antechamber: Several of the ghosts mention the "Civic Center", where all new arrivals to Hell show up. From there they can remain in Hell or take a bus up to the outskirts of Heaven. They can get to Heaven proper from there — providing they're willing to give up their sins.
  • Afterlife Express: The bus that the inhabitants of Hell can board and ride to Heaven. They can stay there if they choose to (most don't).
  • Afterlife Tour: The narrator is lost and confused in Heaven until the spirit of George Macdonald takes him under his wing and explains what's going on. He shows to him the various types of souls whom their own heavenly guides try to convince to accept salvation and explains why many still end up in Hell.
  • Afterlife Welcome: The Bright Ones and angels gather to welcome the Ghosts to Heaven. Sadly, many of the Ghosts don't appreciate it.
  • Alien Geometries: Heaven and Hell don't conform to the laws of physics of the living world: Hell is a dreary, nigh-infinite gray plain, and yet it is somehow smaller than one of Heaven's atoms and contained within a crack in the ground in Heaven; travel between the two requires a change in size. As for Heaven, it is an immense place that makes the solar system seem small by comparison, and the ghosts who arrive there are said to take in more sensory information than would be possible on Earth due to this hugeness.
  • 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. It's worse because all they want to give are things that would only work on Earth.
  • The Aloner: Pretty much every resident of Hell ends up alone because they can't stop quarreling with their neighbors. Every time someone settles near another person, within a week they've fought so badly that someone decides to move farther out, eventually moving to the outskirts and building a new house.
  • Ancient Conspiracy: The Hard-Bitten Ghost, who has Seen It All, believes that the controlling forces for both sides of all conflicts, including Heaven Versus Hell, are actually on the same side.
  • Answers to the Name of God:
    • One of the ghosts makes an off-hand remark about asking for charity, only for the Bright One they're talking to respond as if they were asking specifically for bleeding charity as a gift from 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 embarrassingly explain that he meant not a direct invocation, but something like "By gum."
    • MacDonald, too, when he calls the narrator out for being a Know-Nothing Know-It-All:
    Author Avatar: "God forbid!", I said, feeling very wise.
    MacDonald: "He has forbidden it, that's what I'm telling ye."
  • Arbitrary Skepticism: Staggeringly so. An apostate continues to deny that "Heaven" and "God" are literal things that exist and insists they're just metaphors. This is while he is actually in the afterlife, and is talking to a resident of Heaven, who offers to take him to see God this very minute.
  • Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence: Because most of the story takes place in Heaven's vestibule, we can see the ascension to that higher plane: it takes the form of journeying eastward into mountains that have the dawn as their backdrop, and some make that journey more quickly than others.
  • 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 contrapositive 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.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: Nobody stays in Hell unless they choose to be there. Those that seek eternal death will find it. MacDonald warns of "...the people to whom God says, in the end, 'Thy will be done.'" Why anybody would wish such a fate on themselves is the question that's explored through the story.
  • Card-Carrying Villain: They're actually 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're a self-righteous person (or simply think you're decent because you follow rules), it's harder to change.
  • 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.
  • Conversation Hog: The grumbling old woman. MacDonald predicts that if she eventually gives the person with her a chance to talk, she'll be saved; but if not, she'll just go on until there's no personality left anymore, only a perpetual stream of complaints.
  • Dead to Begin With: Every human character other than the narrator is a spirit who's come to Heaven or Hell from death.
  • Deliverance from Damnation: The book features an Afterlife Express that can bring damned souls (the Ghosts) to the outskirts of Heaven, where they can stay if they like (if they like being the key words, since many of them don't). The Narrator watches one of the Ghosts, a lustful man, turn to God and go into the Deep Heaven, and he is told that Emperor Trajan likewise chose to stay.
  • Devil, but No God: Oddly inverted, given the location. While angels aplenty show up and God is strongly implied to make an appearance, there's not a single clear mention of the Infernal Host, with all the torments of Hell entirely self-inflicted by the damned. The closest we get is an ominous worry about a "them" who will come out when the sun sets, but who trusts a vague rumor among damned souls?
  • The Determinator: One Ghost has gone up to heaven to get a "commodity" to force the damned to stay together. He manages, through a little luck and a lot of pain, to grab hold of a small apple. This is in spite of the fact that the apple is of Heaven, and therefore more real than he is, which results in the apple being very heavy.
  • 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.
  • Driven to Suicide: By his own account the Tousle-Headed Poet was driven to kill himself. Presumably he did kill himself, but since he's insistent that nothing is ever his fault, it's quite possible that he wasn't driven in the slightest.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: One of the main points of the book is to avert Exactly What It Says on the Tin, and stress that Heaven can't be earned - only received as a gift. This fact is a severe stumbing block for most of the ghosts.
    • That being said, MacDonald states that something similar - the ending makes it all worthwhile - applies to anyone who goes to Heaven: the destination retroactively takes the sting out of all the prior suffering of Earth and the Grey Town, and lets it take on the quality of a long road to Heaven.
    • Robert is a specific example, though he isn't directly shown. He suffered his whole adult life miserable, with an abusive wife who drove away his friends and wouldn't let him feel content for a moment. He eventually suffered a nervous breakdown from all of this. Yet, in the end, he was taken in to Heaven as a refugee - while his wife went to Hell (and well deserved, too).
  • Eldritch Location:
    • Hell is at the same time smaller than an atom; and occupies an infinite space, where the distance between neighbors is measured in light years. At the same time, it's an Empathic Environment (but for negative emotions only), and the residents can warp reality just to the extent where that reality sucks for its purpose (houses built this way don't keep out the rain, for example). It's also always raining and always dingy twilight. In short, the place is all but actively depressing, creepy, and malicious.
    • Heaven, too, is a terrifying, incomprehensible nightmare to all who aren't heavenly themselves (this does include the narrator). Everything is alive, or an incarnation of an Angel. There is at least one extra dimension, that gives the feel of "being outdoors in a way that makes the solar system seem like an indoor affair", which is distinctly creepy for someone without the senses to fully perceive it. And considering how alive heaven is it needn't have a whole number of dimensions, either - but could well be fractal. Creatures real and mythological live there. People act like they're Getting Smilies Painted on Your Soul. Everything hurts and disorients its visitors as they are less-than-real compared to their surroundings - just real enough to be hurt.
  • Empty Bedroom Grieving: One of the shades was an overbearing mother who made the rest of her family miserable with her favoritism for her son. Part of her Excessive Mourning after his death involved keeping his room completely untouched. The dead mother is called out on this by her brother, pointing out that it made things worse for the rest of the family.
  • 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 refusal 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.
  • Evil Is Petty: Most of the Ghosts are just normal people who happen to be selfish bastards.
  • The Evils of Free Will: Many, okay, a LOT of ghosts, damn themselves this way, and the Bright Ones are powerless to do anything to stop their egocentric foolishness.
  • 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.
  • Extreme Libido: 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. She actually tries to seduce the Bright Ones who are trying to talk to her into entering Heaven.
  • 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: Lewis mentions "materialist ghosts" who, despite being dead and in the Christian afterlife, persist in saying that there's no life after death and that everything there is just an elaborate hallucination.
  • Fluffy Cloud Heaven: Inverted. Heaven and its residents are made of solid matter; it's the ghosts who are fluffy and insubstantial.
  • For Happiness: Many Bright Ones choose to delay their own ascensions and try to rescue as many from their Self-Inflicted Hell as possible because they felt the radiance and splendor of the sunrise needed to be experienced by as many as possible.
  • 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.
  • 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, not even in Heaven.
  • Fully-Clothed Nudity: The narrator encounters a large retinue of Bright Ones and angels, and he notes that they are glowing so brightly it's impossible to tell whether they're nude and "clothed" with glory or clothed but their glory shines through anyway. This is repeated when describing Sarah Smith in much more reverent detail.
  • Good Cannot Comprehend Evil: Bright Ones and Angels are moved by love and compassion enough to want to help the hellish ghosts but show no pity or regret should the ghosts fail and implode on themselves back to Hell. MacDonald draws a distinction between the "action" of pity, the power of the giver to help another, and the "passion" of pity, the power of the recipient to affect (or outright manipulate) another. The damned no longer have any power to make those of Heaven feel sadness or loss, or to diminish their joy in the slightest.
  • Good Feels Good: People in Heaven are vibrant and happy, while denizens of Hell are bored and full of themselves - or, at the very best, tend to chase trivial things (like attempts of one of them to smuggle one of Heaven's apples back to Hell).
  • Good is Not Nice: Downplayed. While it would probably be unfair to call Bright Ones and Angels jerks, they're far from kind- they are immensely blunt with no regard for the Damned's feelings and often subtly (or even openly) mock the Damned's miseries. Despite this, they're still here to provide the Ghosts their last chance for heaven, and they're ecstatic when one of them finally does achieve salvation.
  • Guilt-Tripping: Frank Smith spends his entire life since childhood getting his way in every argument by sulking and manipulating other people to feel guilty and pity him. In the afterlife, it results in him turning into a Literal Split Personality: the Dwarf, which is a Personality Remnant of his good qualities, and the Tragedian, who tries to manipulate Frank's wife Sarah, now a resident of Heaven, in his old way but ends up just looking ridiculous. As it becomes clear that Sarah can't be tricked anymore, Frank is firm in his Redemption Rejection, and the Tragedian eats the Dwarf. The narrator learns that while the action of pity (aka active charity) will live forever, the passion of pity (as his Spirit Advisor dubs the guilt-tripping) will be killed after the Second Coming of Christ.
  • Gray Rain of Depression: In Hell, it's always raining, everywhere. Buildings and houses don't help, since they're all insubstantial.
  • Hard Light: The sunrise that coincides with the Second Coming produces a light that's more solid than the thin ghosts that inhabit hell, tearing them to pieces.
    The light, like solid blocks, intolerable of edge and weight, came thundering upon my head.
  • Heaven Above: Although the book avoids portraying Heaven as a cloud-filled candyland, it does demonstrate the radical distance between Hell and Heaven by having the bus between those two realms have to fly miles and miles and miles above Hell before it can reach the doormat of Heaven.
  • Hell Invades Heaven: Played with in a very strange way: the only things that ever come out of hell into heaven are ghosts, and ghosts are too unreal to do any damage. However, some of those ghosts, in one way or another, have the motivation (but never the ability) to bring Hell into Heaven in one way or another, ranging from explaining Hell to the Persons in Heaven, to trying to convince the Persons in Heaven to transform Heaven to look more like Hell, to simply screaming in hatred at anyone in Heaven.
  • 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.
  • 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 the sun sets and the full darkness sets in for the rest of time.
  • Henpecked Husband: Robert. He never appears, but we meet his Control Freak wife.
  • The Heretic: There's a discussion between the spirits of two former clergymen, one who made it into Heaven for his faith and one (a bishop) who turned down the invitation because his broad-mindedness made it impossible for him to grasp that there was any truth to its existence.
  • Historical Domain Character:
    • George MacDonald, Lewis's favorite author, appears as his Spirit Advisor in heaven.
    • Napoleon also makes a cameo in Hell, and several other historical figures from Hell are discussed.
    • Emperor Trajan is mentioned as one of the Ghosts who ultimately stayed in Heaven.
  • His Own Worst Enemy: All ghosts are. Even as the Bright Ones point this out via psychoanalysis, they either cannot admit their shortcomings, or confront them. They find any welcoming audience or reunion unbearable, and many of them flat out refuse to venture any further and leave.
  • Holy Is Not Safe: Heaven as a landscape is actually painful and dangerous to the ghosts: being so much less real than even inanimate objects in Heaven, they can't so much as bend blades of grass by stepping on them, so the grass stabs their feet. Once they give up their Fatal Flaw and become a real Person, this is no longer problem, and they can interact with heavenly matter normally.
  • How the Mighty Have Fallen: The only famous ghost we hear of (through a passed down story) is Napoleon: as a "sad, fat little man [who] looked kind of tired", doing nothing but pacing back and forth for eternity, muttering and blaming everyone but himself for his failings in a huge empty house millions of miles from anyone who might hear him.
  • Imagination-Based Superpower: Ghosts in hell are able to create anything they want just by imagining it, although such items aren't exactly real (houses can't keep out rain, for example).
  • Infodump: The imagery C.S. Lewis builds in the first half is followed by this from George MacDonald. It's a lot to take in, even for the protagonist.
  • Ignored Epiphany: The Ghosts in Hell all meet someone in Heaven who directly points out what problems are keeping them from entering Heaven, but despite it being in the Ghosts' best interest, many of them plead ignorance, accuse Heaven of self-deception, or just burn out in a frenzy of spiteful rejection and retreat back to the bus from Hell.
  • Ironic Hell: The ghosts of Hell were all selfish souls obsessed with themselves, so in Hell they're allowed to go out on their own and build their own houses. Of course, this leaves them totally alone in buildings that are as tiny and false as they are. So tiny, in fact, that the entirety of Hell is smaller than a blade of grass in Heaven, torturing the damned with the knowledge of how little they are.
  • "It" Is Dehumanizing: After spending some time on the verge of Heaven and seeing how small Hell is, the narrator 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 Journey That Counts: Discussed Trope: the (apostate) bishop believes that "to travel hopefully is better than to arrive," while his more heavenly-minded friend disagrees—if the destination isn't worth traveling to, then how could anyone go anywhere in hope?
  • 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.
  • The Journey Through Death: Heavenly Persons live (if you can call it that) only to journey up and up into the heavenly mountains, though some of them retrace their steps and come back down to the valley, on the chance that they can help a hellish ghost become a Person and join them on the journey.
  • 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: Karmic damnation is a better phrase. Because the unrepentant ghosts can't ever look past themselves, they either walk back to the bus stop or disappear out of existence altogether.
  • 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.
  • Lack of Empathy: A rare positive example. While they seek to help out of compassion, the Bright Ones feel no actual sympathy for the Ghosts, and their eternal bliss is diminished not one bit if they remain damned. The narrator is briefly horrified by this, but is informed that if this wasn't the case the damned could hold heaven hostage, exploiting the grief and pity of the Blessed to force everyone else to be as miserable as they are, or to bend them to their wills. Better to make one last attempt to help and, if they choose to remain in hell, wash your hands of the whole thing.
    • Though this could also be subverted. Many of the Bright Ones sent to the Ghosts were related to them in some way or another, either by familial ties, close friends or at the very least struggled with the same sin that bound the Ghosts to Hell. Many of the Bright Ones knew the Ghost they interacted with while on Earth and were likely chosen to minister to that Ghost with the best chances of convincing them to stay. It could be said they did indeed feel empathy given their own experiences and relations and only decided to cut the ties completely when the Ghosts remained adamant about going back to Hell.
    • Played straight with Pam. She was so obsessed with grieving the loss of her son Michael, she neglected the rest of her family, including her husband and daughter, who were grieving alongside her. Even when Reginald pointed this out, Pam remained dismissive about them and only focused on Michael.
  • Large Ham: The Tragedian is very melodramatic in his attempts to get Sarah Smith to feel sorry for him.
  • Literal Metaphor: Just before the Sun impales him with light, the narrator is reminded of the errors that could arise from assuming his vision of Heaven encompasses the entire unending super-nature of God and says, "God forbid." The narrator's guide says, "He has forbidden it. That's what I'm telling ye."
  • Literary Allusion Title: The titular divorce is that of Heaven and Hell, introducing the book in part as a rebuttal to William Blake's heretical The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
  • Made of Plasticine: The Ghosts from Hell are barely solid enough to lift apples, and every blade of grass strikes them like a knife.
  • Madness Mantra: According to one of the Ghosts, Napoleon was last seen muttering about fault to himself over and over seemingly unable to stop. He seemed tired, but he kept walking on into the outer darkness of Hell.
  • The Masochism Tango: A husband and wife who leave the line for Heaven because they're too busy quarreling. It is clear that they will go on trashing each other forever.
  • Milking the Giant Cow: The Tragedian's attempts at exploiting pity come across as shabby ham-handed melodrama.
  • Monochrome to Color: The narrator begins his journey through the afterlife in the Grey Town, a dismal and monochrome place; from where he takes the bus to the Valley of the Shadow of Life, which is beautifully described in the brightest colors. This signifies that it's more real than anything he's ever seen.
  • Motherhood Is Superior: One of the damned souls insists this is true, though it's proven hypocritical and incorrect in more ways than one. Her brother in Heaven points out that she's only speaking of her son and not even mentioning her own mother, and gently informs her that her husband 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, a bright one points out to the narrator that she would gladly demand to take her son to Hell to keep possession of him.
  • Moving Beyond Bereavement: Discussed. Reginald points out that his sister Pam mourned her deceased son Michael excessively for ten years, driving her husband and daughter crazy because she felt they weren't devoted enough to his memory. Reginald says that eventually Pam stopped caring for Michael himself and revelled in her own importance, and that she should have let Michael go.
  • 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).
    • Later on, most of the information we get about how things work in Heaven comes from George MacDonald's explanations.
  • Mundane Afterlife: Hell. It's a town in constant twilight (some lights are on but not yet welcoming) where it's always raining (and nothing can keep the rain out). There are no "better parts of town" — it's all dingy lodging houses, mean shops, and "bookstores of the sort that sell The Works of Aristotle". It's also mostly empty since no one can stand anyone else enough to live nearby for long (one ghost says that most people decide to move within a week of settling in one place). However, at least one Ghost hints that the twilight will eventually turn into a full night, at which point "they" will come out.
  • 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. MacDonald suspects if the narrator listened to her conversation further, she would demand that her son come to hell so that she could have him.
  • Never My Fault:
    • The Napoleon character (mentioned in conversation) has a rather blatant form of this. He's quoted as having been pacing around his house, repeating "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." Which captures in a nutshell the way Napoleon blamed all his defeats and failures on his subordinates in the memoirs he dictated to his companions Las Cases, Montholon and Gourgaud on St. Helena. Even those of his admirers who take that at face value have to point out that it generally was Napoleon himself who appointed those subordinates and put them in the position where they allegedly did so much damage.
    • Pamela, the possessive mother, also has a bad case of this. She believes that her husband and daughter abandoned her when she was grieving for her dead son because they didn't care about her or understand what it meant to be a mother. Her guide gently reminds her that they actually left because she was neglecting them in favor of her son (and when he died, her refusal to move on).
    • In general, this is the chief problem of the damned, as repentance is the first step one makes toward salvation. It's worth noting that the one and only ghost that ends up becoming a Person during the book recognizes and acknowledges that his flaw (lust) is a flaw and permits an angel to correct it.
  • No Animosity in the Afterlife: Nearly everyone makes enemies with each other in Hell, and there is no enmity between anyone in Heaven. In particular, two of the Saved, Len and Jack, are on perfectly friendly terms, even though the former had murdered the latter. Len is also ready to make peace with his previously hated boss, one of the damned who ultimately refuses Heaven.
  • No Name Given: We don't find out the given names of most of the Ghosts. (Including the narrator, unless we assume that as an Author Avatar his name is C.S. Lewis.) The Bright Ones are usually addressed by name, though.
  • Non-Answer: When asked whether all the Ghosts would eventually find redemption, MacDonald gives an intentionally vague answer: maybe, maybe not, but that's not something humans can knows. It's not our place to ask about eternal fates.
  • Non-Linear Character: The Bright Ones and the Angels have seen beyond the illusion of time, and exist in a single constant present. As the Ghosts haven't, this can often get confusing to the damned.
  • No-Sell: Nothing the Ghosts do can really affect the Bright Ones. Their arguments don't convince anyone, and any attempts at manipulation (like Frank Smith's attempt to make Sarah pity him) fall flat and end up looking ridiculous.
  • Not Afraid of Hell: Double subverted. While Hell is a rather dreary place that's always rainy and on the verge of twilight, it's not particularly terrible, though there are rumors that, once the sun permanently sets, "they" will finally come out.
  • Our Angels Are Different: Unsurprisingly, considering the setting, we meet two angels: one is a sentient waterfall, and another is a giant humanoid Wreathed in Flames (which makes you wonder if they all have some kind of elemental affinity). Both are given to Brutal Honesty, and it's somewhat dangerous for the ghosts to get too near them, giving them a Holy Is Not Safe vibe. That said, they're both definitely on the side of good, and both tell the ghosts how they can get more solid.
  • Our Ghosts Are Different: We only see the Ghosts who decide to visit Heaven, who are tiny, selfish creatures so insubstantial touching things outside of Hell hurts them. There's also a passing reference to some of these ghosts who have taken visits back to Earth.
  • Parental Neglect: The Possessive Mother (whose name appears to be Pam) was My Beloved Smother to her son and utterly neglected the rest of her family, including her other children.
  • Pet the Dog: The Ghost with the Lizard lets the angel kill his sin and becomes a Bright One. The Lizard transforms into a stallion.
  • Point of No Return: Any sin, unremedied, cannot be atoned for once the Ghosts leave Heaven to return to the grey town. Interestingly, this is usually symbolized as someone returning to the bus.
  • Pretty Butterflies: The dainty beauty of a butterfly in Heaven is greater than every lust, greed, vengeance, and arrogance contained in Hell rolled up together, so much so that if the butterfly ate Hell the pretty thing wouldn't be able to taste any evil.
  • Pride: The number one factor keeping people from accepting grace is their inability to acknowledge their own faults. What's worse is that the ghosts who refuse to stay in Heaven make up excuses to try and get the bright ones to concede to their flawed ideas.
  • Purgatory and Limbo: The Grey Town, which the Ghosts still have the time and freedom to leave for Heaven if they wish, is not so much Hell proper yet as an intermediate state of Purgatorynote . But the last pages add a touch of horror: a day will come when this offer of redemption no longer exists. Ikey also whispers that the prospect of Nightfall in the Grey town (coinciding with sunrise in Heaven) is a horror to the Ghosts, as then "They" will arrive.
  • The Scottish Trope: The damned never speak of Hell as Hell. The Bright Ones are blunter about the matter, although they acknowledge that if the ghost leaves, then to them it's Purgatory.
    A Ghost: "Now that you mention it, I don’t think we ever do give it a name. What do you call it?"
    A Person: "We call it Hell."
  • Self-Inflicted Hell: Arguably one of the two main points of the book (the other being that Earn Your Happy Ending is impossible): 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 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 other's 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. Also, this being C. S. Lewis, there's references to lots of literary and philosophical authors including William Blake, Prudentius, Jeremy Taylor, Dante, John Milton, and of course George MacDonald.
  • The Shut-In: None of the hellish spirits want to venture outside their "dwelling places" when darkness falls, when some unknown beings just referred to as 'They' arrive. Whether is a this is a case of Our Angels Are Different or Our Demons Are Different is not explicitly mentioned, therefore left open to interpretation. If anything, sunrise ironically comes first, and hoo boy the damned don't like that one bit.
  • 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 BSoD 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 is invited to Heaven by a saint assigned to them, who acts as part parole officer and part therapist. However, the ghosts from Hell can only meet them depending on certain circumstances, the first of which is refusing to flee back to the bus upon arrival in Heaven.
  • Stars Are Souls: Subverted. In Hell, the distance of one's house from the Heavenly Bus stop is measured in the amount of time it would take to walk the distance, similar to how our Sun's closest neighbors are measured in light years. "Old ones" including famous (or infamous) people from history such as Tamberlaine, Genghis Khan and Julius Caesar keep moving away across the plain of nothingness indefinitely. They could go all the way back to the bus stop... but it would take a very long time. At 15,000 years away, Napoleon's the nearest "star".
  • Take That!: Discussed Trope in the Preface. Lewis claims that he's not antagonistic to William Blake's book The Marriage of Heaven and Hell per se or even Blake himself; rather, his problem is with the idea that ultimate good and ultimate evil are in any way compatible with one another.
  • 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".
  • Tragic Intangibility: The souls of Hell are so insubstantial that even the blades of grass in Heaven pass through their form. We see several ghosts fail to lift apples, dawdle on one side of the river they can't swim in, and slowly realize that each time they feel excruciating pain whenever anything passes through them, including light. What's worse, the pain they experience is enough to convince them to abandon the loved ones they'll meet in Heaven and retreat back to the tiny shadows of Hell.
  • The Treachery of Images:
    • The narrator gives up on listening to the conversation between the blessed former apostate and 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 to paint for its own sake and progress his particular faction within the artist community) and his more heavenly-minded friend (who is trying to get him to focus on a much worthier Subject and on the art he's actually creating).
  • Time Stands Still:
    • Lewis had the idea for the story from a half-remembered story about a time traveler. Nothing the spirits do can affect 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.
    • In-Universe, the narrator notes that time in Hell appears to be frozen at the most dismal point at dusk — there are some lights on, but it's not dark enough for them to be welcoming.
  • Unreliable Narrator: When not called on it, the ghosts will present very unreliable accounts — the Tousle-Headed Poet and the grumbling woman in particular. Just listening to the unrepentant ghosts gives the reader an impression of people who feel entitled to have their desires fulfilled at the cost of everyone else's sanity.
  • Wanting Is Better Than Having: The Apostate Bishop argues this. It's better to travel hopefully than to arrive. The Bright One deconstructs this mindset by returning that if you knew that to be true, you could not travel in hope, because how can you hope to reach an inferior destination? If the destination isn't good enough, then there is no point in traveling at all.
  • Was Once a Man: Many of the Hellish spirits are so bitter that there's very little left of them, leaving them looking more like a caricature of a human than the actual thing.
  • 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 on Earth) 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 people's pity to manipulate them and make them miserable. This trait is represented by the Tragedian. Suffice to know it no longer works on Sarah.
  • Wreathed in Flames: One of two angels that appear in the book's version of Heaven is a giant humanoid covered in flames, flames hot enough to painfully burn a nearby ghost and cause discomfort to the protagonist, even at a distance. But interestingly, when the ghost becomes a solid Person thanks to this fiery angel's help, he thanks the angel by embracing his feet, and doesn't seem harmed by the flames at that point.
  • Yandere: Pam is a maternal (rather than romantic) example. She exalts her 'mother-love' for her son Michael and keeps demanding to see him, even as her guide explains that he was taken away for her own good (since her obsession over him caused her to neglect the rest of her family) and that as long as she keeps focusing on how much she wants to be with him, she has no chance of going to Heaven. MacDonald guesses that she will eventually demand to take him with her to Hell just so she could have him, and explains that Love Makes You Crazy in Hell, whereas Love Redeems in Heaven.
  • Year Outside, Hour Inside: Time in Hell works differently than time on Earth, as noted by the bowler-hatted ghost the narrator meets on the bus.