Book Review: The Great Divorce

If we insist on keeping Hell (or even earth) we shall not see Heaven: if we accept Heaven we shall not be able to retain even the smallest and most intimate souvenirs of Hell.

preface, The Great Divorce

The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis was one of the most interesting books I read this year – perhaps ever. The story is based on a dream Lewis had where he rode a bus that travels from Hell to Heaven, and back. But it is also a sort of response to Williams Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Lewis’ premise is that one cannot have both, whereas Blake’s position was the opposite.

Lewis’ character, who speaks in first person, arrives in Heaven and realizes at once that he cannot fully experience it. He can see everything, including a beautiful place far away beyond a mountain range; but the grass is hard and hurts his feet, and everything is heavy and unable to be fully appreciated. The Ghosts visiting from Hell are informed that if they choose to stay, to not return below, they will eventually become accustomed to living there and it will become comfortable and everything they need.

The book walks through many different examples of individuals who traveled on the bus up to Heaven with Lewis, who each want something different. Some want recognition, others want to take a bit of Heaven back to Hell with them. One person discovers the most beautiful golden apples while in Heaven and works as hard as they can to pick it up to take it with them – but a voice calls out: “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.”

One of the most poignant chapters in the story is a meeting Lewis witnesses between a woman and her brother. The woman, Pam, traveled up from Hell, and the brother, Reginald, has been living there in Heaven. Pam was a mother, and is looking for her son who died while he was young. The entire conversation is her protesting why she must see her son – why she NEEDS to be with him – and Reginald trying to help her understand why God allowed him to die and why she can’t see him until she loves God more than her son.

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. . . You exist as Michael’s mother only because you first exist as God’s creature. That relation is older and closer. No, listen, Pam! He also loves. He also has suffered. He also has waited a long time.

pg 99

The chapter is complex and thought-provoking, and honestly convicting. How often have we thought or acted like, “If I just had _____, I’d be happy”? Pam made her son her idol. And she couldn’t have him until she realized that she needed God first.

This book is obviously fictional. While there are several illustrated principles that are true and helpful, one must bear in mind what Lewis implored in the preface: “I beg readers to remember that this is a fantasy. It has of course – or I intended it to have – a moral.” It’s not a hard read, but it is thought-provoking.

While fantastical, the story is written in such a way that you feel like you’re walking through Heaven with him, full of breathless hope and wondering if you truly can stay. C.S. Lewis certainly has a gift, and this book was not a disappointment.

(Except for the very last page. But I shall not spoil that for you here.)

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