A Discussion on The Great Divorce
By Lynn Johnson & Rick
The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis
The Great Divorce was written by C.S. Lewis around 1944 as a complimentary book to The Screwtape Letters. It has been described as Lewis’s Divine Comedy and definitely has some resemblance to that work.
The basic plot is the plight of a ghost (resembling Lewis himself) who finds himself in a bus queue that leads him from the “grey city” to a substantial, real, paradise. There he and other ghosts must choose to stay and become real or hold on to what condemns them to the “grey city”.
Like The Screwtape Letters, Lewis’s observations in The Great Divorce about human nature and our choices hits very close to home for many of us. A very small book, it has a huge message to impart.
Rick Wiedeman and I agreed to read through The Great Divorce and discuss the book. I don’t know if he knows what he got himself into. Anyway, the format is to be thus. We’ll post our discussion on my blog. One of us will write his original thoughts on a chapter and then the other can kick off the discussion by commenting. We will alternate the original thoughts posts, with me starting with chapter one.
We will be discussing the book, but would be very pleased with any comments and observations from other readers. So if you have something to add and think he and/or I are completely missing something, let us know.
Introduction of the Discussers:
I hope these introductions will simply help you see the perspective from which the writer is coming from. I debated on whether or not to include them in the first place. Then I significantly edited and reduced my introduction to make me sound much less like a heartless #^&$#@.
Lynn currently attends the Mt. Pleasant Church of Christ in Center Texas. He is what many would call a conservative evangelical fundamentalist. He believes the Bible is the inspired word of God. It is not a living document, and not something you can take this part of but ignore this other part of. A man who claims to be the Son of God and the “THE way and the truth and the life” is not just a great teacher. He is not just a profit. Jesus Christ was one of three things 1) Insane 2) a Liar or 3) The Son of God. Your answer to this question releases you to eat, drink and be merry OR opens up a whole new world of questions, paths, and ultimately answers.
I’ll let Rick Wiedeman write his own introduction when he does the next chapter. He’s way too deep for me to adequately describe anyway.
So with hopefully all our T’s crossed and our I’s dotted… we will proceed.
CHAPTER 1: The Queue to the Omnibus
I personally think there are concepts that the human mind cannot fully grasp; and Jesus/Christianity has to deal with some of these. I’ll name three right now; Eternity, Heaven, and Hell.
When the Bible discusses Heaven as mansions, and streets of gold; or Hell as fire and brimstone; I’ll admit I don’t necessarily take those descriptions literally and I don’t think Lewis does either. Jesus (or Paul, etc) had to describe the indescribable and did their best with the medium (language) at hand.
That said, I believe Heaven is the eternal encompassing presence of God, and Hell is the eternal void or the absence of God.
So, the book begins by giving us a glimpse of Hell as envisioned by C.S. Lewis, and I have to admit I like his depiction. Hell is an every expanding grey city, the streets are empty, and time has paused at twilight. It is eternally dreary and rainy.
Ghosts move about the grey city eternally focused on what defined them in life. And I think that’s a key aspect of “The Great Divorce”. We see one of the key warnings from Jesus come to fruition.
Luke 9:23-25 (King James Version)
And he said to them all, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it. For what is a man advantaged, if he gain the whole world, and lose himself, or be cast away?
The ghosts have done the exact opposite of “let him deny himself”. Here (and I suspect in life) everything is about himself for these ghosts. The ghosts have found a way to save their old lives by hanging on to worldly habits, inhibitions, and things. And the result is they have lost everything as they use these things to create Hell.
Our main protagonists (I’m going to call him Jack… I don’t know why) finds himself standing in a bus queue. He says he’s been traveling for some time throughout the grey city and never finds the “better part of the town”. This first description makes me think of Jack as a soul in search of… something… and who knows how long he’s been searching.
We get our first descriptions of ghosts who inhabit the grey city. From what I see they all have one thing in common (including Jack). They are all very selfish; thinking of nothing but themselves; and how circumstances seem to be affecting them.
Jack has a “stroke of luck right away” when an argumentative couple in front of him leaves the queue. The wife punishes her husband by refusing to go (where ever the bus would take them); and the husband states he was only going to preserve peace between them and didn’t really want to go. My immediate impression is that these ghosts are repeating what they did in life over and over again.
The next ghost we meet is the Short Scowling Man who sees himself above the riff-raff in the queue (including Jack). He makes some comment to that effect and is sent into the gutter with a punch by our next ghost; the Big Man.
The Big Man ghosts, who we’ll see again later punches the Short Scowling Man ghost for not giving him “my rights” meaning in this case the respect he thinks he deserves. This ghost immediately begins to represent pride to me. We often see people who have a form of pride that demands those they meet respect them. If they feel slighted in the least, they are ready to sooth that pride through physical violence.
The Short Scowling Man ghost limps off and Jack simply closes the empty spot in the queue and thinks again of how lucky he is.
Our next ghosts are two “trousered (I think this means neither wore a dress), slender, giggly, and falsetto” young people; who voluntarily leave the queue. These two ghosts represent those dominated and controlled by their sexual desire. The interesting text here is where Lewis/Jack says “I could be sure of the sex of neither”. Did our author cover both heterosexual and homosexual lust in the same example characters? Personally, I think it was deliberate.
Finally, another lady is cheated out of her spot with the promise of a “five bob”. (Note: a bob is English slang for a shilling. A five bob would be a five shilling note of currency.) When she leaves the queue, the group laughs and quickly closes in to fill her now empty spot. I don’t see this lady as representing any vice in particular. This was simply another example to demonstrate the selfishness of those boarding the bus.
So at the end of the ordeal, we have six ghosts (the quarreling couple, the short scowling man, the young lustful couple, and the cheated lady) who never even make it to the bus arriving. It’s interesting that none ever just get to the back of the queue. We soon see that the queue wasn’t that big; and that all would have fit on the bus easily. My next question is will these people every find their way back to the queue? My gut feel is some will, and some won’t.
“So what with one thing and another the queue had reduced itself to manageable proportions long before the bus appeared.”
Finally the bus arrives. Now since I’ve read this book before I’m a bit familiar with its purpose, destination and such like; but to discuss the book, I kind of need to set this aside. Lewis describes the bus as “wonderful”, “blazing with golden light”, “heraldically coloured”; so we immediately realize it does not belong here in the grey city. It is something from the outside world passing through.
Based on what I’ve seen and hear so far about the grey city, wherever this bus is going… this I got to see…
The driver is described in the same manner as the bus, “full of light.” “He had the look of authority and seemed intent on carrying out his job.” Right away, he’s the first and so far only character not looking out for themselves. He too is out of place here. He is not of this world and is only here to do a job and leave.
It’s interesting that the ghosts immediately dislike the driver. Complaints from the ghosts consist of: he’s “pleased with himself”, “can’t behave naturally”, snobbish in how he is dressed, and “too good to look at us”.
Now just before boarding is where I get a hint that the ghosts, know there is an us and a them. An unidentified ghost says, “Why don’t they spend some of the money on their house property down here?” Sure we’re back to the envy, the class warfare, the man is keeping us down, they have made a decision that I perceive is affecting me; sure the idea that “they” would own property down here is ludicrous, but there is an acknowledgement of I (a ghost) am in the grey city, and it’s not nice here, and I know another place exists.
Boarding and Leaving
The ghosts “fought like hens” to get on board. There was no need; the bus was only half full. Still we see the selfishness and infighting among the denizens of the grey city.
Jack takes a seat in the back. You can tell Jack is kind of a loner. He has spoken not a word to another ghost and has now shown his preference to avoid the others all together. That is not to be. He is joined by a “tousle-headed poet” ghost.
The tousle-headed poet immediately engages Jack as a perceived kindred spirit; not like the others. What’s more, this guy seems to know where he is, what the bus is and where it’s going. I don’t think Jack does.
The tousle-headed poet doesn’t think the other ghosts will like where they’re going; but it will be different for him and Jack.
We get a few more details about the grey city from the poet. It has cinemas, fish and chip shops, advertisements, and other things the ghosts are comfortable with. He laments there is no intellectual life, but most ghosts don’t miss it. He, on the other hand, does and would have caught the first bus if he hadn’t wasted his time trying to “wake people up”.
I did research Cyril Blellow whom the poet mentions as someone he wanted to engage intellectually. I wanted to know if this was or represented a real person. It seems he does not. The best analysis I found, theorized that Cyril Blellow represents the literary establishment of his day; poets, critics, novelists, journalists… those who consider themselves the cultural elites. This person also thought that the last name Blellow was a combination of the words “bellow” and “bluster”. Very insightful.
I’m a little confused by this poet ghost here in the first chapter. I question if he knows as much as he implies. By the end of this chapter, I think he has facts which he imparts to Jack (and us), but I think he is sorely mistaken about his readiness to take the bus to its destination (and beyond). He may be one of the most ready people on the bus, but he is still clinging to his worldly past. He still seeks acceptance and recognition for his creations (poems). It’s still about him.
We close the chapter with Jack realizing that “Hullo! We’ve left the ground”; the grey city “spreading without a break as far as the eye could reach.”