“Even supposing a man of unholy life were suffered to enter heaven, he would not be happy there; so that it would be no mercy to permit him to enter.” C.S. Lewis’s work The Great Divorce is something of an extended narrative reflection on these words by John Henry Cardinal Newman.

The story is told by a Narrator we come to know as a characterization of Lewis himself. At the opening, he finds himself in a seemingly endless, dreary town hazily draped in a “greasy rain.” Locals are gathering at a bus stop, and the Narrator boards with them. The bus travels (aerially) to a strikingly different locale, “a level, grassy country through which there ran a wide river” with mountains visible in the distance. When Lewis disembarks, he finds discovers that the grass is sharp on his feet and that his body is translucent: he and his company from the Grey Town appear insubstantial, ghost-like, compared with the firmer reality of the heavenly country.

The narrative progresses as a series of dialogues the Narrator either observes or participates in. The interlocutors are ghosts form the Grey Town and spirits from the heavenly country. The ghosts find the new environment and its inhabitants frightening, disturbing, even offensive. Few stay.

The story contains obvious parallels to Dante’s The Divine Comedy: the disoriented opening in medias res, the ascent from infernal to celestial locales, the presence of a teacher or guide, reference to purgative processes, notions of the alteration of memory of evil (à la the river Lethe), and even explicit reference to Beatrice. And like Dante’s work, The Great Divorce poses a difficult exegetical problem: to what extent is it meant as a theology of the afterlife, and to what extent is it a reflection on the depths and heights of life as we know it?

Clearly, there is an eschatological message in The Great Divorce: hell is chosen by its inhabitants. But Lewis stops short of saying much else about the details of the afterlife. The abrupt ending tells us that the journey has all been an allegorical dream, after all. In the final counting, the narrative focuses not on abstractions about postmortem survival, but on the unique individuals encountered by the Narrator—their “fight against joy” or their embrace of it, their acceptance or rejection of grace. The work’s power is in its illuminating religious psychology. Countless good reasons there may be for modern and postmodern people to eschew traditional religious devotion. This story is all about the bad reasons.

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