The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis

Great DivorceGoodreads: The Great Divorce

Summary: Finding himself in a grey town full of quarrelsome characters, one man boards a bus and embarks on a journey to heaven.  The country there seems to him pleasant and desirable, but the pride and self-love of his fellow passengers prevent many of them from choosing to continue on.

Review: In The Great Divorce, Lewis envisions a heaven and a hell that, while not meant to be taken as literal representations of what might occur after death, explain some very thorny and some very nuanced theological questions.  From the types of choices that can keep a man or a woman from entering heaven to the reason why a loving God could permit hell in the first place, Lewis posits answers in the form of an allegory that seems startlingly new even as it draws inspiration from a long tradition of Christian writers.

Although The Great Divorce may lack some of the subtlety found in the allegory of his more popular Narnia books, the ideas raised in it prove interesting enough to keep readers engaged even without a plot.  Intriguing descriptions of a heaven where the grass is hard enough to injure and the leaves too heavy to lift mix are interlaced with the reactions of souls encountering heaven and the reality of their lives for the first time.   The combination beautifully illustrates Lewis’s theme that heaven is real, earth the “Shadowlands”; heaven will give this life meaning and make even pain and suffering significant.

Lewis thus holds out to readers the promise of everlasting joy, if only they choose God.  However, the obvious question raised is: what does choosing God mean?  If readers hoped that no outright violations of the Ten Commandments would constitute a good life, Lewis quickly begs to differ.  Through various characters, he illustrates a host of sins that may prove obstacles to getting to know God—not “big” sins like robbing a bank but the “smaller” ones so much more familiar to us all.  Many of take the form of selfishness or pride: controlling someone’s life because one needs to feel needed, exaggerating the pain or suffering one has experienced so as to seem special, refusing to forgive someone who has done wrong.  Reading The Great Divorce, readers may feel uncomfortably reminded of themselves.

To say that Lewis was pointing fingers or saw the world and its people in a negative light would, however, be a mistake. Lewis clearly counted himself among the sinners: his reflections on the nature of intellectual pride and the proper purpose of art suggests problems with which he himself would have struggled.  But he does not leave humankind without hope. In a beautiful passage in which a soul dies to his sin, Lewis shows the sin transformed—the lust that controlled the man during his lifetime proves a small, sad thing compared to the virile thing that emerges when the desire is oriented properly.  Lewis’s book is an opportunity for readers to examine their lives and redirect them.

Although Lewis clearly wrote The Great Divorce for a Christian audience, the ideas underlying it reach across religions, exploring timeless topics such as the nature of love, the meaning of life, and the definition of morality.  It furthermore provides an illumination look at the philosophy that drives his perhaps more popular Narnia books.  Christians, philosophers, fans of Lewis–The Great Divorce appeals to a broader audience than it might at first appear.

Published: 1946

4 thoughts on “The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis

    • Krysta says:

      I really like this one, too. Even though Lewis is writing allegory, the interactions between all the characters are so life-like it’s almost disturbing. And the descriptions of heaven are beautiful.


    • Krysta says:

      Honestly, I picked it up because it was shorter than some of his other works, but I was pleasantly surprised by how much depth it contains. (I don’t know why. I’m already aware Lewis is a fantastic writer and I’ve even read this book before. :/) I’m just realizing now that it’s pretty cool read in juxtaposition with Dante’s Divine Comedy, too.


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