Wednesday, 19 December 2001

C.S. Lewis: The Great Divorce (1945)

Edition: Fontana, 1977
Review number: 1017

One of the fruits of Blake's unorthodox theology was the series of engravings entitled The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, which (according to the arguments accompanying the plates) depict Swedenborgian universalist ideas - the salvation of every human being. Lewis, on the other hand, wrote The Great Divorce to illustrate how different heaven and hell are in his more orthodox Protestant theology, and to say something about the ways in which he believed a soul would end up in one or the other.

Although The Great Divorce is not a pure allegory (as is the much less successful The Pilgrim's Regress), it contains allegorical elements. The basic idea is that the inhabitants of hell - depicted as an endless, dreary town - are able to make a day trip to heaven. There, they seem so insubstantial that to walk on the solid grass is extremely painful; and there, those they knew when alive try to persuade them to remain, which they can do if they turn to God rather than concentrating on themselves.

Self-centredness is viewed here as the common factor in turning away from God, and the encounters in The Great Divorce are basically a series of elaborations of the forms that this vice could take. Lewis doesn't take the space to be particularly subtle or to do more than sketch in situation and personality in each case, but many of the discussions are quite memorable. Less interesting is the explanation of what is happening by the soul of George MacDonald, chosen by Lewis to be his guide to the spiritual realm as Dante did Virgil.

Though the ideas here are good, the limited range of examples chosen by Lewis - mainly to point readers away from the common idea that the worst crimes are the public ones like murder - means that The Great Divorce cannot be the best of Lewis' fiction.

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