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The Great Divorce Paperback – April 21, 2015
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The Great Divorce is C.S. Lewis's Divine Comedy: the narrator bears strong resemblance to Lewis (by way of Dante); his Virgil is the fantasy writer George MacDonald; and upon boarding a bus in a nondescript neighborhood, the narrator is taken to Heaven and Hell. The book's primary message is presented with almost oblique tidiness--"There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, 'Thy will be done,' and those to whom God says, in the end, 'Thy will be done.'" However, the narrator's descriptions of sin and temptation will hit quite close to home for many readers. Lewis has a genius for describing the intricacies of vanity and self-deception, and this book is tremendously persistent in forcing its reader to consider the ultimate consequences of everyday pettiness. --Michael Joseph Gross --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
“Much deserves to be quoted... attractive imagery, amusing satire, exciting speculations... Lewis rouses curiosity about life after death only to sharpen awareness of this world.” (Guardian)
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The departure point is a huge, empty grey city that keeps spreading its borders because quarrelsome people only need to imagine a new house, and it's theirs. Some folk are happy to stay there, since they don't recognise it as a type of hell.
For those who do jump on the bus, their choice to settle in heaven depends on their willingness to give up whatever holds the greatest grip on their hearts. It's really all about our idols, and the passengers are filled with all sorts of attitudes and hang-ups which they're loath to relinquish. There's always something they insist on clutching tight, even at the price of misery.
There's 'Ikey' the businessman, who's determined to take plunder from the heavenly realm back down to the grey city, where he thinks he'll make a killing. He only manages to lift one tiny fallen apple through the sheer force of his will.
There's a pathetic society woman whose earthly finery, which she was so proud of, appeared like rags in heaven. She was devastated, because she felt it was her whole identity, which she'd devoted her life to maintaining.
There's a learned man who believes that the grey hell city could really be heaven, for its 'continual hope of morning and field for indefinite progress.' He's an ex-bishop who has written a book. In fact, libraries on earth turn out to be some of the most haunted places, filled with the ghosts of authors who keep wondering if people are still reading their books.
The plight of creative people in this story is interesting. One artist was stressed because he saw no need to paint anymore, since everything was so annoyingly perfect. It's Lewis' warning to creative folk of the trap of being sucked in to pay more attention to their own work and reputation, rather than what it's all about. 'Every poet, musician and artist, but for grace, is drawn away from love of the thing he tells to the love of telling.' Wow, I guess our world does have a way of honouring the conduit, until it's hard for them to stay humble.
One fascinating person in the new land is Sarah Smith of Golders Green, a lady of 'unbearable beauty and grace' with a procession in her honour. The narrator is anxious to learn her identity, but she turns out to be nobody he would have ever heard of. Just a humble person faithfully doing small things in her supposedly ordinary life. But people are regarded differently in heaven to how they ever were on earth. Great news for anyone who's ever felt overworked, unnoticed and under-appreciated.
The narrator, who presumably represents Lewis himself, gets to meet his hero, George MacDonald, who becomes his guide around heaven. I knew Lewis was a fanboy of MacDonald's (see my review of Phantastes) but what a tribute this is, as he tries to find words to tell him all his writing has meant to him, since his teens.
Overall, it's a great read for anyone who'd like a bite-sized, but meaty bit of C.S. Lewis, for it's short enough to read in one day. It leaves me with the impression that I would've liked being a witness when Lewis actually did meet MacDonald.
Here are some quotes.
'What can be called 'the Sulks' in children, has 100 different names in adults, such as injured merit, self-respect, tragic greatness and proper pride.'
'There are only two kinds of people. Those who say to God, "Thy will be done," and those to whom God says, "Thy will be done."'
'Joy on earth is defenceless against those who would rather be miserable. But in heaven, our light can swallow up your darkness, but your darkness can't affect our life.'
In the cartoon, the people in line have made life choices that sent them to hell. In his book The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis writes about the choices that people make in their spiritual path through life. This pretty well sums it up: "I do not think that all who choose wrong roads perish; but their rescue consists in being put back on the right road. A sum can be put right: but only by going back till you find the error and working it afresh from that point, never by simply going on. Evil can be undone, but it cannot ‘develop’ into good. Time does not heal it."
The Great Divorce is one of Lewis's earlier works. Chronologically, the book came just after The Screwtape Letters and before The Chronicles of Narnia. These were all works of fiction. After this period, Lewis wrote mostly nonfiction.
One note: Several reviewers mentioned the poor formatting in the book. I read the Kindle version on my Oasis, and the formatting was perfect.
Setting aside the Dantean structure, I think this book takes up the question posed by Blake in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and comes to the conclusion that heaven and hell are two distinct places under very different managements.
Ultimately, I think Lewis explores the issues of freedom and choice concluding that nobody who desires heaven will miss it, but that we can't take our sins with us.