The Great Divorce | Study Guide

C.S. Lewis

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Course Hero, "The Great Divorce Study Guide," December 20, 2019, accessed January 28, 2022, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/The-Great-Divorce/.

The Great Divorce | Themes

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Heaven and Hell

The Great Divorce poses a vision of what Heaven and Hell mean in relation to one another. Although Lewis makes clear that Heaven and Hell are two different places, he suggests over the course of the story that while Heaven is a destination, Hell is a state of mind. The Grey Town, which is Hell for some, is seen only briefly and explained as something that depends on who is experiencing it. Heaven, in comparison, is not seen at all. It remains distant, a place to which a ghost must journey. Hell is not so much a threat as a regression; Heaven requires change, while Hell does not.

Free Will and Salvation

In some interpretations of Christian teachings, free will is both a gift and a potential curse. According to this perspective, humanity makes choices, which in turn impact their eventual salvation or damnation. But in The Great Divorce, free will continues into the afterlife, and salvation is not a settled matter when a soul reaches the Valley of the Shadow of Life. The choice between Heaven and Hell is the source of the story's conflict. Ghosts are given the option of rejecting the wrongs they did on Earth in exchange for help getting to Heaven, but many choose instead to go back to the Grey Town, where they are able to cling to what they valued in life.

The Nature of Sin

Throughout The Great Divorce, ghosts are confronted with their actions in life and are asked to reject the wrongs they did on Earth in order to reach Heaven. But Lewis doesn't rely on traditional perspectives about what sin is, instead complicating ideas about right and wrong by suggesting that the ultimate sin is a refusal to acknowledge one's own failings. The narrator is able to accept this argument better than some of the others; when he sees a grieving mother denied Heaven because of her obsession with her own loss and a man allowed into Heaven because he allows a spirit to "kill" his lust, he questions how the former is worse than the latter. MacDonald explains that seeing themselves clearly and putting faith in God requires that people part ways with earthly needs, wants, and concerns. Sin, then, is the refusal to do so, which is ultimately what damns souls to Hell.

Love and the Self

Lewis explores numerous ways in which the love of self can overshadow the love of the divine, which in turn becomes an obstacle to salvation. Whether it's a grieving mother who becomes lost in her own pain, an artist who values his reputation over his gift's ability to spread a vision of beauty, or a bishop who challenges orthodoxy not to expand knowledge but to expand his importance, selfish love is seen as one of humankind's greatest failings. But a greater love is personified by one of the bus riders: Sarah Smith. Sarah, who was good to all she met on Earth and did her best to be kind, is now beloved in Heaven. This is because she loved and acted without selfish motives and, therefore, enacted divine love.

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