The Great Divorce

“Blake has written of the marriage of heaven and hell … I have written of their divorce” Lewis began his preface to his 1946 fiction dream sequence work, The Great Divorce. “Not that I think myself a fit antagonist for so great a genius,” Lewis confessed, but because ultimately reality presents us with an “absolutely unavoidable ‘either-or.’ “ Or, quoting George MacDonald: “No, there is no escape. There is no heaven with a little bit of hell in it.”

Our decisions in life cause our path to fork, and fork again, repeatedly, like the branches of a tree. Bad choices, evil choices “cannot be undone” Lewis points out, but we must rewind back to the point of error and re-choose, in a sense:  “Evil can be undone, but it cannot develop into good.” And no part of evil can be clung on to, if we would make the journey from evil to good, from hell to heaven.  “If we insist on keeping Hell (or even Earth) we shall not see Heaven;” further, “if we accept Heaven we shall not be able to retain even the smallest and most intimate souvenirs of Hell” Lewis puts it.

But the richest kernel of Lewis’ insight in Great Divorce lies in the transformation.   “I believe, to be sure, that any man who reaches Heaven will find that what he has abandoned has not been lost: that the kernel what he was really seeking even in his most depraved wishes will be there, waiting for him in ‘The High Countries.’”   For those who complete the journey, Lewis states, “it will be true … to say that good is everything and Heaven everywhere.”  But adopting that “retrospective vision” too soon can be disastrous Lewis warns, as we would then mistakenly “fancy that everything is good and everywhere is Heaven.”

Thus is the great divorce between Heaven and Hell defined for us by Lewis.  Heaven can absorb and transform the choices that lead to Hell, but without correcting, redeeming, our choices, we are left in Hell, of which Heaven has no part.  “Earth, if chosen instead of Heaven, will turn out to have been, all along, only a region in Hell: and earth, if put second to Heaven, to have been from the beginning a part of Heaven itself” Lewis concludes.

<this is only partially completed; each ‘chapter’ here is basically quotes from the book, hopefully useful as a study or discussion guide of sorts. Contemplate such points, make up your own discussion questions, if you must … >



Ch. 1   Up, Up and Away

“I’m a plain man that’s what I am and I got to have my rights same as anyone else, see?” said the Big Man to the Short Man after sending him sprawling to the ground.  “Don’t imagine I care about going in the least, I have only been going to please you, for peace sake. My own feelings are of course a matter of no importance, I quite understand that” the man said in a dignified voice, following his wife in leaving the bus line.  Ugly dysfunction on full display, as the line for the bus leaving the dismal, dreary, sparse town whittles itself discontentedly down.  The author keeps gaining places in line as the discord plays itself out.  Another young couple, “both so trousered, slender, giggly and falsetto that I could be sure of the sex of neither” leave, arm in arm.  A woman gets bilked, the crowd howls in laughter.

“It was a wonderful vehicle, blazing with golden light, heraldically colored, the Driver himself seemed full of light,” casually, contentedly driving with a single hand on the wheel. “All that gilding and purple, I’d call it a wicked waste” riders complain of his appearance.

Settling near the back of the bus and away from the crowd, the Rider finds sympathetic company, of sorts: the Tousle-Headed Poet.  “Why on earth they insist on coming I can’t imagine, they won’t like it at all, they’d be much more comfortable at home – where there are cinemas, fish and chip shops” … “an appalling lack in intellectual life,” in short.  Discouraged at trying to rally his own circle of friends to ride, the Poet claimed to value intelligence and creativity, but cites a fictional Cyril Blellow (bluster + bellow?) a stand-in for stuffy cultural critics and elites, and who “now seems to have nothing left but his self-conceit.”

“Hullo! We’ve left the ground …”

Herbie Rides/Flies Again,Rights and a Tousle-Headed Poet


Ch. 2 : A Lonely, endless dusk? An empty sublimity


After merciful relief from the mercy of the Tousle-Headed Poet, we run into another young intellectual, for whom proper appreciation and use of his talents had never been forthcoming, despite the 5 universities and various political causes he had pursued. The ironies of Communist Russia, and the injustices of “the system” (capitalism) which “did not merely enslave workers, (but) also vitiated taste and vulgarized intellect” left him yearning for Sweden, which his meager allowance from Victorian would not allow. Not to even, mention, his girlfriend who turned out turned out to possess “a mass of bourgeois prejudices and (possessive) monagamic instincts.”

“Empty rooms and empty tables” … the “town” is full of them – since everyone moves further away as soon as they meet their neighbor. A 15,000 year journey to see Napoleon found him simply pacing and blaming, for the entire year he was observed. The houses can simply be imagined into existence, but they offer no actual protection from elements or impending night, But the persistent dusk may be just the glimpse of eternal day, a bulbous, bowler-hatted snob declares, “nightmare fantasies of our ancestors being swept away” by current opinion, a “delicate, imperceptible delicate half-light, a promise of a new dawn.”  And the hankering for “real matter” – the scarcity that binds (men, together) – this materialism not needed in the new “spiritual city,” the “nursery for the creative functions of man, freed from the clogs of matter,” they “begin to try their wings, a sublime thought.” Rider exults in the cool, light fresh air upon opening his window, to the complaint of his fellow travelers, “fixed faces, not full of possibilities but impossibilities, some glaring with idiotic ferocity, some drowned beyond recovery in dreams, but all, in some way, distorted and faded. Yet the light from outside grows


Chapter 3  Aspiring to be gods, if angels fell, Aspiring to be angels, men rebel

Pride still is aiming at the blest abodes,
Men would be angels, angels would be gods.
Aspiring to be gods, if angels fell,
Aspiring to be angels, men rebel:
And who but wishes to invert the laws
Of order, sins against th’ Eternal Cause
– Alexander Pope, Essay on Man (1734)

My fellow passengers … now that they were in the light, they were transparent. They were in fact ghosts,: man-shaped stains on the brightness of that air.

The men were as they had always been, it was the light, the grass, the trees that were different, made of some different substance, so much solider than things in our country that men were ghosts by comparison.

I bent down and tried to pluck a daisy which was growing at my feet. The stalk wouldn’t break. I tried to twist it, but it wouldn’t twist.  The little flower was hard, not like wood or even like iron, but like diamond.

He drifted away from me … greenness and light had almost swallowed (the crowd) up but very far away I could see what might be either a great bank of cloud or a range of mountains … steep forests, far-withdrawing valleys, and even mountain cities perched on summits. The height was so enormous that my waking sight could not have taken in such an object at all. Light brooded on top of it … the promise – or the threat – of sunrise rested immovably up there.

I saw people coming up to meet us. Because they were bright, I saw them while they were still very distant. The earth shook under their tread as their strong feet sank into the wet turf. Some were naked, some were robed, but the naked ones did not seem less adorned, and the robes did not disguise in those who wore them the massive grandeur of muscle and the radiant smoothness of flesh.

They were not of any particular age. One gets glimpses, even in our country, of that which is ageless – heavy thoughts in the face of an infant, and frolic childhood in that of a very old man. Here it was all like that.

Ch.3’s distinct sexes on display: “massive grandeur of muscle and the radiant smoothness of flesh”  vs. Ch.1’s androgynous couple “both so trousered, slender, giggly and falsetto that I could be sure of the sex of neither”

Ch. 4 “I’ve got my rights”


As the solid people came nearer still … each of them had marked his man in our shadowy company. The grass, hard as diamonds to my unsubstantial feet, made me feel as if I were walking on wrinkled rock

Big Man(Ghost, Len) and the Bright;  “but you murdered him” (Jack). “Of course I did, it’s all right now”

Ghost: “I gone straight all my life. I don’t say I was a religious man and I don’t say I had no faults … but I done best my whole life. I’m only a poor man, but I got to have my rights same as you, see?

I’m not asking for anybody’s bleeding charity.”

“Then do. At once. Ask for the Bleeding Charity. Everything is here for the asking and nothing can be bought… your feet will never grow hard enough to walk on our grass that way.”

“You weren’t a decent man and you didn’t do your best. None of us were and none of us did. Lord bless you, it doesn’t matter.”

“Murdering old Jack wasn’t the worst thing I did. That was the work of a moment … but I murdered you in my heart, deliberately, for years. That is why I have been sent to you now, to ask your forgiveness and to be your servant as long as you need one.”

“Made it hard for you, did I? If I had you back there I’d show you what work is.”

“Come and show me now (said with laughter in his voice), it will be joy going to the mountains, but there will be plenty of work.”

“I’d rather be damned that go along with you. I came here to get my rights, see? Not to go snivelling along on charity tied onto your apron-strings.”

ch4 clouds mtns

Ch. 5 The Cultured Ghost, and Dick


The fat ghost with the cultured voice, from the bus.  Two velvet footed lions, playing some solemn romp.

You were coming to believe in a literal Heaven and Hell. But wasn’t I right, where do you imagine we’ve been?

Oh, in a spiritual sense, to be sure. I am still, my dear boy, looking for the Kingdom. But nothing superstitious or mythological … That grey town, with its continual hope of morning (we must all live by hope, must we not?), with its field for indefinite progress is, in a sense Heaven, if only we have eyes to see it? That is a beautiful idea.”

“That town we’ve come from – we call it Hell. – ‘No need to be profane …

“Do you really think people are penalized for their honest opinions?”

“Do you really think there are no sins of the intellect?” “(sure, but) “honest opinions fearlessly followed – they are not sins. Mine were heroic, I asserted them fearlessly.

“Our opinions were not honestly come by, we found ourselves in contact with a certain current of ideas and plunged into it because it seemed modern and successful. … When, in our whole lives, did we honestly face, in solitude, the one question on which it all turned: whether after all the Supernatural might not in fact occur?”

The beliefs are sincere in that they do occur as psychological events in the man’s mind. But errors which are sincere in that sense are not innocent. Because the Middle Ages erred in one direction, does it follow that there is no error in the opposite direction?

I am not trying to make any point. I am telling you to repent and believe…. Will you come with me to the mountains? It will hurt at first, until your feet are hardened.

(Does it have) scope for the talents God has given me, atmosphere of free inquiry – all one means by ‘civilization,’ ‘the spiritual life?’

No, and you are not needed there at all, but I will bring you to the land not of questions but of answers, and you shall see the face of God.

Ah, the free wind of inquiry must always continue to blow through the mind, must it not? ‘Prove all things’ … to travel hopefully is better than to arrive” (if that were true, how could anyone travel hopefully?)

Stagnation, finality? “ah, you have hitherto only experienced truth with the abstract intellect. I will bring you to where you can taste it like honey and be embraced by it as a bridegroom. Your thirst shall be quenched.”

Free play of mind? “Free, as a man is free to drink while he is drinking. He is not free still to be dry.”

Once you were a child. Once you knew what inquiry was for. There was a time you asked questions because you wanted answers, and were glad when you found them. Become that child again.”

Religious and speculative questions are surely on a different level … we know nothing of religion here: we think only of Christ. Come and see. I will bring you to Eternal Fact, the Father of all other facthood.

I should object very strongly to describing God as a ‘fact’ The Supreme Value would surely be a less inadequate description … God for me is something purely spiritual. The spirit of sweetness and light and tolerance – and. Er, service. We mustn’t forget that, you know.


“If the thirst of Reason is really dead … can you, at least still desire happiness?” “Happiness lies in the path of duty. And I have to give a paper Friday, on what Christ’s views might have become if he lived longer …





Note: About at this point, I begin putting Ghost (insubstantial beings on bus tour holiday from the town of Hell) statement in ‘single quotes’

and statements from Spirits, Solid folk, who have come down from the mountains of Heaven, in “double quotes” – though morals and quotes from the book may also be left without any quotes – more future tidying up to do …

Ch. 6  Ikey, bowler  hatted man, and the fruit


An immense yet lovely noise vibrated through the forest …  green slopes, frothy and pulsating lake into which, over many-colored rocks, a waterfall was pouring.  On Earth, such a waterfall could not have been perceived as a whole, it was too big. Its sound would have been a terror in the woods for twenty mules. The noise, though gigantic, was like giants laughter: like the revelry of a whole college of giants together laughing, dancing, singing, roaring at their high works…  From every point apples of gold gleamed through the leaves.

Ikey, torturing grass beneath his feet, trying to gather apples. Finally grasps one smallest, apple. Lame from his hurts, the weight bending him double, sets out on his via dolorosa to the bus, carrying his torture.

“Fool, put it down’ said a great voice suddenly. It was quite unlike any other voice I had heard so far. IT was a thunderous yet liquid voice. I saw now (though it did not cease to look like a waterfall) that it was also a bright angel who stood, like one crucified, against the rocks and poured himself perpetually down towards the forest with great joy.

“Fool, put it down. You cannot take it back. There is not room for it in Hell. Stay here and learn to eat such apples”


(I do my best, graphically speaking … )


Ch. 7 The Hard-Bitten Ghost

bus dark

‘Why do I travel here? Just to have a look around. You can’t eat the fruit or drink the water, one couldn’t live here, it’s all an advertisement stunt.’

‘Hell? It’s a flop too – no fire and devils, Henry VIII sizzling on a grill, its just like all other towns’

(he is asked) “There seems to be some idea that one could grow solider, grow acclimatized, up here …”

‘No, same old lie (of happiness) I’ve heard my whole life.’

“But what if you had your own choice – what would you like to do?”

‘that’s where all the parsons and moralists have got it upside down – they keep on asking us to alter ourselves. But if management is so clever and powerful, why don’t they find something to suit their public?’

Ch. 8  The Well Dressed Woman


The Well-dressed woman: ‘what are we born for?’

“For infinite happiness, you can step out into it at any moment.”

‘(but, once unadorned) They will see me …’

“there are things too hot to touch but you could drink them? Shame is like that – if you drink it to the very bottom – you will find it very nourishing: but try anything else with it and it scalds.”

“Could you, only for a moment, fix your mind on something not yourself?”

Then a stampede of unicorns comes by (explained in Chapter 9)



Ch. 9  George MacDonald Explains All: Self-Service Hell, Pleasures ungrounded, It’s not all about you, Art-for-more-than-Art’s-sake

George MacDonald: ‘the true name of the quality which first met me in his books is Holiness’ – whether when reading MacDonald’s Phantastes, or meeting the heavenly guide Beatrice in Dante

 Refrigerium: the damned have holidays; some take holidays to this country (’Valley of the Shadow of Life, not Deep Heaven’), others simply return to earth to play tricks – haunt places, see if anyone is still reading their books, etc.

To those who stay here it will have been Heaven from the first;

to those who remain there (valley of shadow of death) it will have been Hell even from the beginning.

no future bliss can make up for it

Heaven will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory.

Thus either:

“We were always in Hell” or “We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven”

The language of the lost: they will say they always served their country, sacrificed for their art, looked after #1, been true to themselves

Hell is a state of mind … shutting up of creature within dungeon of own mind; Heaven is reality itself.

Milton was right: “The choice of every lost soul can be expressed in the words: ‘Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” There is always something they insist on keeping at the price of misery, something they prefer to joy. Revenge, pride, tragic greatness

Sensualist’s sin is less, begins by pursuing a real pleasure – but pleasure becomes less and less and the craving fiercer and fiercer … prefers to joy the mere fondling of unappeasable lust.

Sir Reginald: studies became ends rather than means; lover of books that has lost power to read them, the organizer of charities who has lost love for the poor.

Only 2 kinds of people in the end: Those who say to God “Thy will be done” and those to whom God says “Thy will be done.”

The Grumbling woman who may be only a grumble

There becomes no ‘you’ left to criticize the mood, nor even to enjoy it, but just the grumble going on forever like a machine

“But come! You are here to watch and learn … I obeyed, to lean on the arm of someone older than myself was an experience that carried me back to childhood … I flattered myself that my feet were already growing more solid, until a glance at transparent shapes convinced me that I owed all this ease to the strong arm of the Teacher. Perhaps it was because of his presence that my other senses also appeared to be quickened. I noticed scents in the air which had hitherto escaped me, and the country put on new beauties…

I saw many ghosts. I think the most pitiable was a female Ghost. Her trouble was the exact opposite of that which afflicted the other, the lady frightened by the Unicorn. This one seemed quite unaware of her phantasmal appearance. … She appeared to be contorting her all but invisible face and writhing her smoke-like body in a quite meaningless fashion … supposing herself still capable of attracting others

This puts (Lewis) in a mind to ask the Teacher about the Unicorns: “it will maybe have succeeded, ye have divined that he meant to frighten her, not that fear itself could make her less a Ghost, but it it took her mind a moment off herself, there might, in that moment, be a chance. I have seen them saved so.”

Ghosts who came near to Heaven so they could tell others, give lectures

Ghosts who sought to extend hell: implore the ‘deluded;’ frighteners ‘fully conscious of their own decay’ ‘They terrify lest they should fear.’ – Tacitus … to be afraid of oneself is the last horror.

Travel to spew hatred – ‘those that hate goodness are sometimes nearer than those that know nothing at all about it and think they have it already.’

The Artist: ‘if you’re only interested in the country for the sake of painting it, you’ll never learn to see it.’

You’re forgetting, that was how you began. Light itself was your first love; you loved to paint only as a means of telling about the light.’

“But one grows out of that, becomes more and more interested in paint for its own sake… I also had to recover from that… It was all a snare. Every poet and musician and artist, but for Grace, is drawn away from love of the thing he tells to the love of the telling till, down in Deep Hell, they cannot be interested in God at all but only in what they say about Him”

‘One must be content with one’s reputation among posterity.’ a common response among such artists

You’ll forget the proprietorship of your own works: you enjoy them just as if they were someone else’s: without pride and without modesty.

Ch. 10 The Controlling Woman & Love

She tells of how she managed her husband, ‘with no help from him, of course’

‘But please, give me back Robert, I must have someone to – to do things to. Why should he (now) have everything his own way, it’s not good for him, I want him back.’

The Ghost which had towered up like a dying candle-flame snapped suddenly. A sour, dry smell lingered in the air for a moment and then there was no Ghost to be seen.

Ch. 11 The Controlling Mother Pam, & the Lizard Man of Lust

“One of the most painful meetings we witnessed was between a woman’s Ghost (Pam) and a Bright Spirit (Reginald) who had apparently been her brother.”

Pam wants to be able to see her son Michael,

when you learn to want Someone Else besides Michael… It’s only the little germ of a desire for God that we need to start the process.’ ‘you’re treating God only as a means to Michael. But the whole thickening treatment consists in learning to want God for His own sake.’

“What she calls her love for her son has turned into a poor, prickly, astringent sort of the thing. But there’s still a wee spark of something that’s not just herself in it. That might be blown into a flame.’

“Something in natural affection which will lead it to eternal love more easily than natural appetite could be led on.  But there’s also something which makes it easier to stop at the natural level and mistake it for the heavenly.

Brass is mistaken for Gold more easily than clay is.”

“Every natural love will rise again and live forever in this country; but none will rise again until it has been buried.

Sorrows that used to purify now fester.  Keats was wrong, when he said he was certain of the holiness of the heart’s affections? ‘I doubt if he clearly knew what he means.’ There is but one good: God. Everything else is good when it looks to Him, bad when it turns from Him.

But the false religion of lust is baser than the false-religion of mother-love or patriotism or art: but liust is less likely to be made into a religion.”

But now look – coming towards us a was a Ghost with a lizard on his shoulder. ‘Shut up!’ the man tells the lizard, but it won’t.

“Would you like me to make him quiet? Then I shall kill him …” said the flaming Spirit.

‘(Let me think about it, come back the moment I decide)’ – “This moment contains all moments”

The Burning One closed his crimson grip on the reptile (while the Ghost gave a scream of agony such as I never heard on Earth): twisted it, while it bit, and writhed, and then flung it, broken backed, on the turf.”

The Ghost becomes fully visible and solid;

The Lizard just killed revives and turns into a stallion “vanished into the rose-brightness of that everlasting morning.”

“Lust is a poor weak whimpering, whispering thing compared with that richness and energy of desire which will arise when lust has been killed.”


Pam is said to have an “excess of love? No – defect of love, perfectly ready to plunge the soul they say they love in endless misery if only they can in some fashion still possess it.”

Ch. 12 Bright Spirit Sarah Smith and her Ghost Husband, Frank the Tragedian


Sarah Smith: ‘every beast and bird that came near her had its place in her love. In her they became themselves. And now the abundance of life she has in Christ from the Father flows over into them.’

Like a stone thrown into a pool, and the concentric waves spread out further and further. Who knows where it will end? Redeemed humanity is still young, it has hardly come to its full strength. But already there is joy enough in the little finger of a great saint such as yonder lady to waken all the dead things of the universe into life.’

Frank the Dwarf / Tragedian: the invitation to all joy, singing out of her whole being like a bird’s song on an April evening, seemed to me such that no creature could resist it.

“But what we called love down there was mostly the craving to be loved. In the main, I loved you for my own sake: because I needed you.  <now> I am in Love Himself, not lonely. Strong, not weak.  We shall have no need for ano another now: we can begin to love truly.”

Ch. 13 Finale

The Dwarf Ghost struggles against joy.  Somewhere, incalculable ages ago, there must have been gleams of humor and reason in him.

“Stop using pity the wrong way. Pity was meant to be a spur that drives joy to help misery. (instead) hold joy up to ransom.  Can you have thought that love and joy would be at the mercy of frowns and sighs?

Pity … was used as a weapon of bad men against good ones… it leaps quicker than light from the highest place to the lowest to bring healing and joy.”

“Only the greatest of all can make Himself small enough to enter Hell. For the higher a thing is, the lower it can descend.”

“The gift of Freedom, the gift whereby ye most resemble your maker and are yourselves part of eternal reality.”






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