Friday, January 7, 2011

The Great Divorce

And now for something completely least different from the epic fantasies I have been reviewing of late....

To preface the review, I am both a Christian and unapologetic C.S. Lewis fan.  While both of these things will obviously color my review, I think that any thoughtful reader will be able to take away a great deal from this short novel.

The Great Divorce (1945) by C.S. Lewis is a fantasy in which the narrator sets out on a bus excursion from a dull, gray city where he has inexplicably arrived.  He and his fellow passengers soon disembark at what turns out to be the foothills of heaven.  In this beautiful environment, they find themselves to be mere ghosts, unable to interact with the more substantive environment around them.  They are soon greeted by shining figures who are the incarnations of people they have known while on earth.  These spirits urge the passengers individually to turn away from their former lives and put their whole trust in heaven.  The narrator observes several interactions between passengers and spirits and finds that the majority for various reasons are unable to make such a commitment.  These passengers return to the bus and the drab existence that awaits them in the the gray world below (understood to be hell).

What I love about C.S. Lewis is his uncanny ability put into words the excuses, lies, and rationalizations that keep us all away from heaven.  The narrator observes a minister who can't believe he has arrived at heaven since it doesn't fit his preconceived notion, an artist who is incredulous that he will not be able to exhibit his art in heaven, and a mother who is outraged that her son did not greet her upon her arrival.  Each of these passengers returns to the bus (in fact, C.S. Lewis cleverly titled the original novel Who Goes Home?).  As in his work The Screwtape Letters, Lewis reminds us that one does not arrive at hell due to a single horrific act.  Rather it is the sum total of each word, thought, or deed in our lives (for what else are we?) that will decide our ultimate fate.

The narrator finally meets his own shining spirit who turns out to be the writer, George MacDonald (whose works highly influenced Lewis' own).  MacDonald explains that people are able to enter heaven only if they repent completely.  Upon doing so, the power of heaven is so great it is able to work backwards in a person's life, making their earthly existence an extension of heaven.  Conversely, for those who turn away, the power of hell can retroactively change the joy in a person's life into unbearable misery.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Great Divorce, and whether or not you understand the various literary allusions (and it has lots) or fairly hefty theology, a thoughtful reader can't help but come away from the novel with some interesting insights into humanity.

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