The Great Divorce

Have I told you all how much I love my church book group? We meet every week and have extremely lively discussions of books that deal with different aspects of the Christian life. Even when the books aren’t so great, we have wonderful conversations about the ideas in them. We don’t always agree, but we make one another think, and that’s one of the great pleasures of a book group.

Another great pleasure of being in a book group is being encouraged to read (or in this case, reread) books I never would have picked up. I read The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis several years ago, and it just didn’t do much for me. I don’t know what the problem was, but I scarcely retained anything about it, other than that I found it confusing and not helpful at all. Rereading it with my book group this month has me even more puzzled as to why I didn’t love this book the very first time through. I certainly loved it this time.

Jenny’s review from her own reread two years ago will give you a good idea of what this book is about, so I’ll refrain from sharing much in the way of summary. It’s enough to say that The Great Divorce is an account of Lewis’s dream journey through hell (or perhaps purgatory) and into heaven—or at least heaven’s narthex, as one of the members of my book group observed. Lewis travels to heaven with others who are given the opportunity to stay or to return to the grey “hell” they came from. The choice is more difficult than you might think.

One of the most striking things about heaven in this book is that it is more solid, more real than anything the people have previously experienced. The grass is so solid it hurts to walk on it; the rain would pierce you right through. Heaven is not some spiritual realm, where matter is no more. Matter is more substantial than ever. It’s a wonderful way of showing, in contrast, just how insubstantial our day-to-day concerns are when we consider eternity.

The potential new residents of heaven—Lewis calls them ghosts—are all told that with time they’ll be able to live comfortably in this strange new place. The grass will cease to hurt them; they’ll be able to lift the fruit and eat it. They just need time to get “more solid.” Part of becoming more solid is letting go of those insubstantial concerns of the past. It’s not all about giving up obvious sins and shortcomings either. Ostensibly noble affections, such as motherly love or religion itself, are shown in some cases to have been twisted to the point where they keep people from moving onward and upward. But the beautiful thing is that the guides who’ve come to urge them into heaven are unceasingly patient and kind. They may not say what the “ghosts” want to hear, but they are never rude or forceful. In the end, the ghosts just have to want heaven more than they want anything else.”No soul that seriously and constantly seeks and desires joy will ever miss it,” Lewis is told. “Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened.”

The ghosts that Lewis observes trying to make this momentous choice represent a variety of types. There’s the nagging wife, the constant grumbler, the forward-thinking intellectual, and the artist who has come to love his painting itself more than he does the things that he paints. All are recognizable, and I chuckled to think of similar “types” I’ve known in my life, and then I winced to see glimpses of myself among them, too. Some of the characters’ excuses and evasions were familiar not because I’ve heard them, but because I’ve said them. Lewis has my number all right.

This entry was posted in Religion, Speculative Fiction. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to The Great Divorce

  1. Melissa says:

    Your book club sounds wonderful! The best ones have great discussions.

  2. Jenny says:

    This is one of my very favorite of Lewis’s books. I read the description of the heavenly woman (the one who tries to convince her husband to stay) at my grandmother’s funeral, because it described her so well.

    • Teresa says:

      What a wonderful passage for a funeral. That was a lovely description.

      My personal favorite part was the lizard–the dialogue with the angel cracked me up, and the completely unexpected (to me) result took my breath away.

  3. Lisa says:

    Your review and then Jenny’s make me think that I need to read this again, to see what I missed. Like you I found it rather confusing, compared to The Screwtape Letters, one of my favorite books. I’ve been wanting to re-read Surprised by Joy as well, because when I first read it, all I knew of Lewis was Narnia and Screwtape.

    • Teresa says:

      I’m glad I’m not alone in having found it confusing the first time, although one this second read I can’t for the life of me figure out what was difficult about it. Maybe it helps to read it once to see where it’s going and then go back and pick up the ideas within it?

      Surprised by Joy is one I’d like to reread as well. And Till We Have Faces is my absolute favorite Lewis.

  4. Kinna says:

    I’m not religious at all. Nonetheless I find such comfort in the religious works of CS Lewis and I’m always recommending him to churchgoers in my country. Screwtape is one of my favorite books. I also found The Great Divorce a bit more involved and had to read it twice to appreciate and understand it. Thanks for the review.

    • Teresa says:

      That’s so interesting, Kinna, because I know a lot of nonreligious people who are put off by Lewis’s religiosity. I think, though, that he has a lot of keen insights into human nature that could speak to anyone.

  5. rebeccareid says:

    I read this as a teenager and I loved it, but I don’t remember much of the details you share. I remember it being funny, probably because I could relate to the excuses, like you say. I really need to revisit this. Sounds deeper than I remember…

Leave your comment here, and feel free to respond to others' comments. We enjoy a lively conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.