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The Great Divorce | Study Guide

C.S. Lewis

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The Great Divorce | Symbols


The Lizard

The narrator witnesses a man with a lizard on his shoulder. The spirit asks the man if he can kill the lizard. The exchange is brief, but when the man does agree after some hesitation to allow the lizard to be killed, the lizard turns into a stallion, and the man begins to glow as he rides into Heaven. The lizard, the narrator is told, was the man's lust, and the stallion that rose from where the lizard fell was a reward for having trusted in God enough to discard his lust. Interestingly, the lizard is the only outward manifestation of sin; all other ghosts are grappling with internal conflicts that cannot be "killed" in the straightforward way the lizard is. This could simply be a way of showing the relationship between salvation and rejecting evil, or it could show the ways in which people can cling to sin without being consumed by it.

The Horizon

In the Valley of the Shadow of Life, the horizon features mountains and a dim light. The Grey Town also has a horizon that shows a dim light, but the two are very different. The light along the horizon in the Valley of the Shadow of Life seems to suggest a rising sun, while in the Grey Town ghosts believe the sun is setting. This speaks to Lewis's interest in the power of perspective in how people understand their place in the afterlife. Those who believe darkness is inevitable will perhaps be less likely to have the requisite faith needed to enter Heaven, while those who anticipate an approaching dawn have an optimistic vision of the future that would allow them to leave behind the sins they committed on Earth.

The Pain of Walking

When the ghosts arrive at the Valley of the Shadow of Life, they find that the ground is hard and sharp, making it difficult to walk. The ghosts are told that this is because they aren't solid yet and that it will not be painful once they travel further in toward Heaven and become solid. This can be seen as a representation of the emotional and spiritual difficulty of reaching true enlightenment and salvation. As he moves slowly and deliberately, the narrator is able to cover little ground. However, he also learns more and more with each step he takes, suggesting that even though it is painful, people gain much from making the effort to overcome their own difficulties.

The Chessboard

At the very end of his dream, the narrator is shown a large chessboard, on which people move seemingly freely. He asks MacDonald if choice is real, or if the actions on Earth are predetermined like in a game of chess. MacDonald refuses to answer, instead telling the narrator that he is dreaming. But the chessboard is an apt metaphor for the relationship between choice and salvation that Lewis explores. While a chess game can be planned in advance, playing the game requires an ability to respond to changes on the board that are not expected. In that way, God's plan for someone can be shifted by unexpected changes or choices. Ultimately, it is choice that determines whether or not someone is willing to let go of their sins and seek Heaven, with the "chessboard" of life simply setting them up for that final decision.

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