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The Great Divorce, an allegorical fantasy, began its published life as a serial in the Guardian (not the modern newspaper, but a weekly Christian magazine) in 1944. The fourteen parts of the serial were published weekly between 10 November, 1944 and 14 April, 1945; The Great Divorce was first published in book form in April 1945.
In writing The Great Divorce: A Dream, C S Lewis took his inspiration from William Blake's poem The Marriage of Heaven and Hell1. However, as Lewis states in his introduction to The Great Divorce, his aim in writing his story was to argue that 'the attempt to make that marriage [between Heaven and Hell] is perennial' but misguided.
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.
The Great Divorce could be seen as a theological work, but it is, at its most basic, a fantasy. Lewis was at pains to point out that his descriptions of the characters and worlds in the novel are 'solely an imaginative supposal: they are not even a guess or a speculation at what may actually await us.' Lewis was not seeking to plot what he believed happens to human beings after death, but wanted to explore and disprove the popular notion that one does not have to choose,
that reality never presents us with an unavoidable 'either-or'; that granted skill and patience and (above all) time enough, some way of embracing both alternatives can be found; that mere development or adjustment or refinement will somehow turn evil into good without our being called on for a final rejection of anything we should like to retain.
Although the book was not published in any form until 1944, there is evidence that idea for The Great Divorce developed in Lewis' mind for over ten years before the book came to fruition. His brother, Warren, recorded the following in his diary on 7 April, 1932:
Jack [Lewis' nickname] has an idea for a religious work based on the opinion of some of the [Church] Fathers that while punishment for the damned is eternal it is intermittent; he proposes to do a sort of infernal day excursion to Paradise. – Warren Lewis, quoted in Green and Hooper
Green and Hooper, Lewis' biographers, believe that it took Lewis so long to get around to actually writing The Great Divorce because, while he had the basic ideas for the book in terms of plot and theology, he had not been able to picture it in his mind until 1944. They also argue that it was the subject matter of the book itself that prevented him from beginning work on it sooner: 'He doubtless felt some resistance to writing about something so terrible as man's final rejection of God.'
The Great Divorce was finally finished under its original title, Who Goes Home? or The Grand Divorce, by November 1944. Lewis later changed the title to The Great Divorce: A Dream, after learning that several other authors had used the title Who Goes Home?2.
The unnamed narrator (who is, according to his biographers, Lewis himself) describes what turns out to be a dream in which he travels to the outskirts of Heaven by bus, along with a group of people, from an anonymous grey town. The grey town can be seen as either Purgatory or Hell, depending on which choice the ghosts make. If they choose to remain in the foothills of Heaven and continue their journey to 'Deep Heaven' then the grey town will have been Purgatory. However, if they choose to return to the grey town it will become Hell for them. 'You have been in Hell, though if you don't go back you may call it Purgatory 3'. Throughout the journey, both on the bus and as he wanders through the new land, the narrator meets or observes various characters. These characters, called 'ghosts', are each met by a 'bright spirit', an angel, who asks them to make a choice as to whether they will stay in the new land and go to the mountains ('Deep Heaven'), or return to the grey town. They must choose, and cannot stay or go on to the mountains unless they give up all vestiges of their life in the grey town, however painful that may be. Lewis is met by George MacDonald, a writer and thinker who had great influence on Lewis in real life. All but one of the ghosts cannot give up the things they love or believe they need and so return to the grey town.
It could be argued that the two biggest influences on this particular work of Lewis' are Dante's The Divine Comedy and George MacDonald.
The Divine Comedy
Both The Divine Comedy and The Great Divorce describe a journey through different parts of the world after death and both are narrated as though by their real-life authors. In his Divine Comedy, Dante travels with various guides through the Inferno (Hell), to Purgatorio (Purgatory) and finally to Paradiso (Heaven). A parallel could also be seen between the guides accompanying Dante on his journey and the 'bright spirits' who act as guides to the 'ghosts' in The Great Divorce. Heretical clergy appear in both The Divine Comedy and The Great Divorce. There are several heretical popes in The Divine Comedy. In The Great Divorce, Lewis includes the character of an apostate Anglican bishop, the 'Episcopal Ghost'.
George MacDonald (1824-1905) was a Christian writer, poet and fantasy novelist. By Lewis' own admission, MacDonald had an enormous influence on his work. Lewis' first experience of MacDonald's work was Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women, which he read in March 1916, while he was still an atheist.
Lewis, as the narrator of The Great Divorce, describes his reaction to Phantastes when he meets George MacDonald in the outskirts of Heaven:
I tried... to tell this man all that his writings had done for me... I tried to tell how a certain frosty morning[....]when I first bought a copy of Phantastes, had been to me what the first sight of Beatrice had been to Dante: Here begins the New Life. I started to confess how long that Life had delayed in the region of my imagination merely, how slowly and reluctantly I had come to admit that his Christendom had more than an accidental connexion with it...
The book has further parallels to Dante's The Divine Comedy, as well as Milton's Paradise Lost and John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, in that its key ideas are grounded in how Lewis attempts to answer the questions arising from the idea of Hell as a specific place for the punishment of sin. Lewis makes clear that he believes there are many and varied sins, some obvious, some seemingly innocuous, but all equal in the eyes of God, though God is never explicitly mentioned in the book.
In addition, it could be argued that there are echoes of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland , as characters shrink and expand as they move from one world to another, meeting characters along the way who hint as to the meaning of the place they inhabit. The book ends with the narrator, like Alice and the Pilgrim, waking from a dream.
Green, R.L. and Hooper, W., C.S. Lewis: A Biography, Souvenir Press: London, 1988
Griffin, H.W., C.S. Lewis: The Authentic Voice, Lion Publishing: London, 2005
Hooper, W., C.S. Lewis: The Companion and Guide, Fount: London, 1996
Lewis, C. S., The Great Divorce, Harper Collins: London, 1946
Sayer, G., Jack: A Life of C.S. Lewis, Hodder and Stoughton: London, 1997
Wilson, A. N., C.S. Lewis: A Biography, W.W. Norton and Company: London, 1990C.S. Lewis BBC siteC.S. Lewis BBC Northern Ireland site