C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce

One can be a ghost or a spirit. One can dwell in a Grey City and restlessly move constantly to new neighborhoods or abide in the Bright World and enjoy everlasting peace. One can confine pleasure to cinemas and fish and chips or delight in abounding spiritual joy. One can live in the shadowy grayness of a bleak atmosphere that signifies moral mediocrity and drab existence or revel in the glorious realm of goodness, truth, and beauty. The majority of the characters in Lewis’s novel—given the choice after they visit the Bright World and learn of its conditions—prefer the Grey City to the Bright World for a variety of motives but ultimately for one main reason. A heretical bishop rejects the invitation because “I have to be back next Friday to read a paper. We have a little theological society down there.” To the cynic called “the hard-bitten ghost” the Bright World offers the same old thing: “A human being couldn’t live here. All that idea of staying is only an advertisement stunt.” To enter the Bright World the ghosts must surrender their attachments, opinions, addictions, and pride.

A woman who visits the Bright World cannot sacrifice her vanity, her love of fashion and clothes. Embarrassed at her inappropriate dress for the heavenly realm where the pure spirits do not wear clothes to accent their beauty—their shining souls radiating purity—the stylish woman protests, “Do you really think I am going out there among all those people like this?” The Spirit who instructs her urges one necessary thing to qualify for the heavenly life–to stop gazing at herself in the mirror in self-admiration and to behold the grandeur of a glorious world filled with sublime waterfalls, rushing lakes, golden apples, and gorgeous flowers. The Spirit asks the fashion-conscious woman, “Could you, only for a moment, fix your mind on something not yourself?” Studying herself in a mirror and fixing on articles of clothing, the woman misses the beautiful sights and joyous sounds of a world that resembles “the revelry of a whole college of giants together laughing, dancing, singing, and roaring at their high works.”

Another spirit who marvels at the enormous golden apples attempts to stuff them in his pockets and return to the Grey City with his weight of gold, only to be told, “There is not room for it in Hell. Stay here and learn to eat such apples.” Instead of wondering at the radiance of the apple and relishing its sweetness, the ghost taints the beauty with the avarice he brings from the Grey City. Rather than accept Heaven on its own terms—heavy apples, grass hard as diamonds, unbreakable daisies, spirits without clothes—the Ghosts reduce and level the solid, luminous clarity of the Bright World to the dreary, banal colorlessness of the Grey City where complaining and bickering are the way of life. As one ghost murmurs, “You can’t eat the fruit and you can’t drink the water and it takes you all your time to walk on the grass.”

Of course, as the Spirits keep urging, ghosts can eat the fruit, drink the water, and walk on the grass if they prefer light to darkness, do God’s will rather than their own, and conquer pride with humility. The narrator (C.S. Lewis), one of the ghosts who desires to enter the heavenly kingdom and not return to the city, enjoys a conversation with the Spirit addressed as Teacher, George Macdonald, one of Lewis’s mentors in the art of fantasy literature. The Teacher explains the strange psychology of the Ghosts as the mentality of Milton’s Satan who boasted, “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” Macdonald compares these ghosts to a petulant child who “would sooner miss its play and supper than say it was sorry and be friends.” Of course Macdonald is defining the deadly sin of pride in all is many expressions, whether it assumes the form of Achilles’ wrath or Satan’s sense of “injured merit.”

The narrator learns from his master that the Ghosts who come to Heaven and leave have only one purpose: to bring Hell to Heaven, “the desire to extend Hell, to bring it bodily, if they could, into Heaven.” The artist ghost who visits the Bright World comes with just that purpose in mind–to paint some of the scenery to enhance his fame– only to be told by the Spirit, “I wouldn’t bother about that now” and “Looking comes first.” The painter cannot comprehend the fact that art, which imitates Nature or represents reality in the human city, serves no purpose in the Bright World. Good art that provides a window into the good, the true, and the beautiful (“glimpses into Heaven”) has no function in a realm that is pure Heaven, absolute truth, perfect goodness, and ideal beauty. Why does one need paintings of loved ones when they are present in the fullness of their living reality?

The Ghosts, then, as the Teacher explains to the narrator, remain in a closed state of mind, one left to gaze in a mirror or to stare in a narrow room with no windows and doors: “every shutting up of the creature within the dungeon of its own mind—is, in the end, Hell.” These ghosts possess an insensibility that lacks all receptivity: “Good beats upon the damned incessantly as sound waves beat on the ears of the deaf, but they cannot receive it.” While a ghost looks inward and studies only its own beauty, accomplishments, opinions, fame, and self-interest, the Spirit looks above, beyond, around and sees “the abundance of life” flowing everywhere in concentric circles in a dance of life and shares “the invitation to all joy”—an invitation which the Spirits refuse because “Their fists are clenched, their teeth are clenched, their eyes shut fast. First they will not, in the end they cannot, open their hands for gifts, or their mouths for food, or their eyes to see.” God and the Spirits can do no more than give, offer, and invite. As the narrator learns from the Teacher, Heaven and Hell exist because of two kinds of people: “those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’”

Mitchell Kalpakgian


Dr. Mitchell A. Kalpakgian is a native of New England, the son of Armenian immigrants. He was Professor of English at Simpson College (Iowa) for 31 years. During his academic career, Dr. Kalpakgian received many academic honors, among them the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar Fellowship (Brown University, 1981); the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship (University of Kansas, 1985); and an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities Institute on Children's Literature.

  • justamom

    Wonderful commentary on a fabulous book. My children and I often enjoy listening to it on Audio. My high school sons even suggested it for their school’s summer reading booklist they like it so much. It is a great way to explain hell to children and that it is always OUR choice to be there or not. Thank you!

    • Martha Renner

      Haven’t heard that one on audio, justamom, but I do have The Screwtape Letters narrated by John Cleese! Just can’t beat his voice for its sardonic tones as Screwtape. Also a good teaching moment. 🙂

      • Robert Wolske

        John Cleese is a very funny man and for me, his reading comes across as a little too humorous, like a blustering (but malevolent) petty bureaucrat. If you can find it, Joss Ackland’s reading is much heaver, with just the right hint of menace behind his “advice” and the “good wishes” he expresses to his nephew.

        • Martha Renner

          Thanks, I’ll check it out. Indeed, there is not much ‘menace’ to Cleese’s voice!

  • Senior lady

    I love this book. I think I’ve read and reread it several times. Each time I read it I see more that I missed. It took me a reading or two to realize that that grey place was hell. And I also get glimpses of myself. Thanks for a wonderful commentary.

  • John200

    One of the best and most important books ever written (according to me). Mr. Lewis got through to me on first reading, some years ago.

    Nothing ever hit me harder, although Mere Christianity was in the running.

    Thanks, Dr. K. Please keep them coming.

  • pnyikos

    This is a superb summary of the book, which is one of my favorites and the most important single book in my reconciliation with the idea of Heaven and Hell. The only detail with which I take exception is the following statement:
    “The painter cannot comprehend the fact that art, which imitates Nature
    or represents reality in the human city, serves no purpose in the Bright World.”

    I do not have the time now to check whether this conclusion is actually endorsed by Lewis.
    If it was, then Lewis went too far in my opinion and should have stuck with the emphasis on “now” in the quotation which precedes Kalpakgian’s statement. The message in this quotation is that before one can paint something worthy of Heaven one must first have a very good idea of the riches Heaven has to offer. Art must then become what it is to all good artists nowadays: an addition to, rather than a copy of, what one sees, with a beauty similar in grandeur to, but not identical with, what one sees.

    I am reminded of Churchill, who loved to paint, saying that he is looking forward to Heaven, where red and yellow will be among the least bright colours, and a whole new world of painting will be opened up by the bright colours which we cannot even imagine now.

    • Mitchell Kalpakgian

      Lewis’s point about the artist who wants to paint in heaven to enhance his reputation is the difference between imitation and reality: his art is unnecessary or superfluous. If one sees the beloved before him with his own eyes in all the splendor of beauty’s glory, then no paintings or photographs(imitations or copies) are needed before the fulless of the reality.

      • pnyikos

        Perhaps the comma in your statement is out of place: instead of “art, which…, serves no purpose in the Bright world,” you wanted to say that the kind of art which imitates Nature or represents reality in the human city is the kind of art which serves no purpose in the Bright World.

        But then, what is one to make of the sentence immediately following, which seems to reinforce the original version, with the comma after “art”? If one takes seriously the verse that says man is made to the image and likeness of God, then part of that image is the creativity of us in art and music and literature and science and mathematics. Unable to create physical objects *ex nihilo,* we can at least add to the creative work of God in other ways.

        If there is no place for such kinds of human creativity in Heaven, then in that one respect the people in the “hell” of The Great Divorce were more in God’s image than the ones in the Bright world. They even seemed capable of making houses *ex nihilo*, and could live in them for a while, but eventually those houses dissolved.

  • MItchell kalpakgian

    In my interpretation about the artist who brings his paints and canvas to the Bright World, the main issue is not whether or not the Bright World allows or does not allow art but the attitude of the artist. Either the artist sees the form in matter as Michelangelo saw a David in the rock, or the artist begins to believe that he creates beauty that is lacking and needs his touch.

    The ghost artist needs to learn to look and “see” as the Spirit says. The ghost needs to learn that he does not create beauty but finds it just as other ghosts like the bishop need to learn that they do not invent or change the truth but discover it. The ghost artist is attempting to bring the Grey City into the Bright World instead of letting the Bright World set the standard. The ghost artist needs to acquire humility and overcome his vainglory.