The Great Divorce
by C.S. Lewis
I’ve been having trouble getting into any of my usual genre books and then my aunt recommended this book, which felt like a bit of a palate cleanser. It’s a fascinating premise with a somewhat disinterested perspective and it gave me so many thoughts. I really enjoyed it. It’s fourteen chapters across only 128 pages, but took several days to read because I had to pause and think about it periodically, to give each character their due.
The premise is that the narrator is on a bus trip from hell to heaven. It’s a regular bus route and anyone is welcome. Many are even eagerly awaited by those in heaven. And yet, very few of the travelers choose to stay. Each character is unique in their circumstances, but also the same in the way they consider themselves to have been in the right, and yet their self-defense is also their condemnation.
It gave me so many thoughts.
I’m going to make a cut here more for length than spoilers. In part because I think the experience of this book is not something that can be spoiled by advance knowledge. It’s not exactly plot driven. It’s characters and perspectives and metaphors. They’re fascinating and I want to talk about them.
There’s a story that I’ve run across before, not in this book, where a man and a devil are talking and the man asks the devil what heaven is like. The devil says, “let me show you, I’ll sit here on this stump, and you dance around singing my praises.” After a while of doing this, the man says, “this is getting a bit boring, how about we change places?” The devil responds, “and that is what I said!”
This book made me consider the same story from a different perspective. Have you ever gone to a performance, or seen a movie, or read a book, and come out of it, so excited and joyous and wanting to talk about it? Like, you and your friends clutch at each other and say, “do you remember that part where?” “Yes!” “And when that thing happened!” “So amazing!” “And did you see? did you hear? did you feel?” “Yes! Yes! Yes!” and you want to watch it or read it immediately again and also rehash every detail? And maybe each time you experience it, you discover new details and want to burble on excitedly all over again because it is just that awesome? You would happily watch it over and over again and recommend to everyone and you can make friends purely from other fans who are just excited by it as you?
Now imagine being in a group and being ecstatic and excited and happy but also having that one person be like, “yeah, it was fine, but why don’t we talk about me instead, and how much traffic I dealt with today.” And it’s hard to even interact because you’re still riding the high of experience and you might be like, “traffic is very frustrating, and we already sympathized, and also, did you not see this amazing performance? The traffic is in the past. Wasn’t this show amazing? Don’t you want to experience it again?” “No, I think we should focus on how annoyed I was sitting in traffic this morning.”
The residents of hell are the ones who want to focus on how important they are, or how hard done they are, or whatever they consider their most important issue. They are so focused on what they currently are that they aren’t able to experience anything else, even when they are demanding something more, even when they are being offered something more.
Also, one of the characters included a metaphor for mental illness that really hit me as both beautiful and beautifully nuanced, addressing the distinctions between death vs destruction vs transformation. And I really want to talk about it, but you need to read the scene first!
The one bit of foreknowledge that might actually count as a spoiler, but in a good way: I think this might be the only book that I’ve ever read to end with “it was all a dream” and have that ending be an important part of the journey rather than a let down. It made the narrator’s perspective as an attentive outsider make sense without losing any of the power of the narrative.
Anyway, I very much enjoyed this book and highly recommend it. It was also a reminder that I just really enjoy fictional takes on religious issues.
At several points, this book reminded me of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Five Gods series. In both this book and that series, a great deal of importance is given to the necessity of consent. Each soul must consent to their own salvation. No matter how desired they are by heaven, a person cannot be saved against their own will nor tricked nor trapped into it, not due to arbitrary rules but because the nature of heaven.
So many thoughts! (My metaphor above of god as an exciting performance that you really want to talk about and explore every detail of might be inspired by this book in more ways than one. I want to talk about this book!)
I additionally found some interesting ties to Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (which continues to live in my head despite everything). The end of The Great Divorce has a really nuanced take on charity and pity, and how an overabundance can be detrimental to people and society, that felt related to Rand’s complete rejection of empathy, but in a much more measured and delicate way.
Additionally, C. S. Lewis’ heaven reminded me of Rand’s objective truth. I couldn’t buy into Rand’s theory of objectivism because there are so many obviously contradictory but true experiences on earth, but Lewis uses that impossibility to elevate heaven. For Lewis, only in heaven and through God can you let go of your own perspective and attain the objective truth of heaven.