The Great Divorce
|Author||C. S. Lewis|
|Original title||Who goes home?|
|Publisher||Geoffrey Bles (UK)|
|Media type||hard⁓ & paperback|
The working title was Who Goes Home? but the final name was changed at the publisher's insistence. The title refers to William Blake's poem The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The Great Divorce was first printed as a serial in an Anglican newspaper called The Guardian in 1944 and 1945, and soon thereafter in book form.
Lewis's diverse sources for this work include the works of St. Augustine, Dante Aligheri, John Milton, John Bunyan, Emanuel Swedenborg and Lewis Carroll, as well as an American science fiction author whose name Lewis had forgotten but whom he mentions in his preface (Hall, Charles F, The Man Who Lived Backwards). George MacDonald, whom Lewis utilizes as a character in the story, Dante, Prudentius and Jeremy Taylor are alluded to in the text of chapter 9.
The narrator inexplicably finds himself in a grim and joyless city, the "grey town", which is either Hell or Purgatory depending on how long one stays there. He eventually finds a bus for those who desire an excursion to some other place (and which eventually turns out to be the foothills of Heaven). He enters the bus and converses with his fellow passengers as they travel. When the bus reaches its destination, the passengers on the bus — including the narrator — are gradually revealed to be ghosts. Although the country is the most beautiful they have ever seen, every feature of the landscape (including streams of water and blades of grass) is unyieldingly solid compared to themselves: it causes them immense pain to walk on the grass, and even a single leaf is far too heavy for any to lift.
Shining figures, men and women whom they have known on Earth, come to meet them, and to urge them to repent and enter Heaven proper. They promise that as the ghosts travel onward and upward, they will become more solid and thus feel less and less discomfort. These figures, called "spirits" to distinguish them from the ghosts, offer to assist them in the journey toward the mountains and the sunrise.
Almost all of the ghosts choose to return instead to the grey town, giving various reasons and excuses. Much of the interest of the book lies in the recognition it awakens of the plausibility and familiarity, along with the thinness and self-deception, of the excuses that the ghosts refuse to abandon, even though to do so would bring them to "reality" and "joy forevermore". An artist refuses, arguing that he must preserve the reputation of his school of painting; a bitter cynic predicts that Heaven is a trick; a bully ("Big Man") is offended that people he believes beneath him are there; a nagging wife is angry that she will not be allowed to dominate her husband in Heaven. One man corrupted on Earth by lust, which takes the form of an ugly lizard, permits an angel to kill the lizard and is saved.
The narrator is met by the writer George MacDonald, whom he hails as his mentor, just as Dante did when encountering Virgil in the Divine Comedy; and MacDonald becomes the narrator's guide in his journey, just as Virgil became Dante's. MacDonald explains that it is possible for a soul to choose to remain in Heaven despite having been in the grey town; for such souls, the goodness of Heaven will work backwards into their lives, turning even their worst sorrows into joy, and changing their experience on Earth to an extension of Heaven. Conversely, the evil of Hell works so that if a soul remains in, or returns to, the grey town, even its happiness on Earth will lose its meaning, and its experience on Earth would have been Hell. Few of the ghosts realize that the grey town is, in fact, Hell. Indeed, it is not that much different from the life they led on Earth: joyless, friendless and uncomfortable. It just goes on forever, and gets worse and worse, with some characters whispering their fear of the "night" that is eventually to come.
According to MacDonald, while it is possible to leave Hell and enter Heaven, doing so implies turning away (repentance); or as depicted by Lewis, embracing ultimate and unceasing joy itself.
In answer to the narrator's question, MacDonald confirms that what is going on is a dream. The use of chess imagery as well as the correspondence of dream elements to elements in the narrator's waking life is reminiscent of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.
The narrator discovers that the vast grey town and its ghostly inhabitants are minuscule to the point of being invisible compared with the immensity of Heaven and reality. This is illustrated in the encounter of the blessed woman and her husband: she is surrounded by gleaming attendants while he shrinks down to invisibility as he uses a collared tragedian — representative of his self-punishing emotional blackmail of others — to speak for him.
Toward the end, the narrator expresses the terror and agony of remaining a ghost in the advent of full daybreak in Heaven, comparing the weight of sunlight to having large blocks fall on one's body (at this point falling books awaken him). This parallels that of the man with his dream of judgment day in the House of the Interpreter of The Pilgrim's Progress. The book ends with the narrator awakening from his dream of Heaven into the unpleasant reality of wartime Britain, in conscious imitation of The Pilgrim's Progress, the last sentence of the "First Part" of which is: "So I awoke, and behold, it was a Dream."
Philadelphia playwright and actor Anthony Lawton's original adaptation of The Great Divorce has been staged several times by Lantern Theater Company, including a weeklong run in February 2012. It also was adapted by Robert Smyth at Lamb's Players Theatre in San Diego, California, in 2004, and was included in their mainstage season for that year. Smyth originally adapted it for a C. S. Lewis conference in Oxford and Cambridge, England, before securing permission to include it in their season a year later.
In 2007 the Magis Theatre Company of New York City presented their adaptation in an off-Broadway run at Theatre 315 in the Theatre District with music by award-winning composer Elizabeth Swados and puppets by Ralph Lee. Lauded by the New York Times for its imagination, theatrical skill and daring, theatre critic Neil Genzlinger called the production thought provoking "with plenty to say to those interested in matters of the spirit." In the following years Magis worked closely with the C. S. Lewis estate to make its adaptation available to over a dozen theatre companies from Canada to Ecuador. The Taproot Theatre of Seattle chose the Magis adaptation to open its new Theater Space in 2010 and extended the run due to popular demand. The Pacific Theatre Company presented the Magis adaptation in its 2010–2011 season.
In late 2012, the Fellowship for the Performing Arts received permission from the C. S. Lewis estate to produce a stage version of The Great Divorce. The production premiered in Phoenix on December 14, 2013, and has continued touring throughout the United States in 2014 and 2015.
It has been announced that Mpower Pictures and Beloved Pictures are currently working on a film adaptation of The Great Divorce. Stephen McEveety will lead the production team and author N. D. Wilson has been tapped to write the script. A 2013 release was originally planned.
- Anderson, Douglas A (2008). Tales Before Narnia: The Roots of Modern Fantasy and Science Fiction. ISBN 978-0-345-49890-8.
- Great Divorce, Magis theatre.
- Great Divorce added performance (PDF) (press release), Tap root theatre, 2010.
- Main stage season, Pacific theatre, 2010–2011.
- "About", Screw tape on stage, Fellowship for performing arts.
- "About", Great Divorce on stage, Fellowship for performing arts.
- McNary, David ‘Dave’ (2010-06-22). "Producers wed for 'Divorce' fantasy". Variety. Retrieved 2012-02-10.