The Narrator sits on the bus, listening to the Tousle-Headed Poet for a very long time. The Poet has endless complaints. He was born to parents who “didn’t understand” him; he went to five different universities, but none of them could understand his “talent”; he believes that capitalism is a danger to all human beings. At the beginning of World War II, the Poet was briefly a Communist, but then he became a conscientious objector. The Poet moved to Sweden, where he had a bad relationship with a woman—as a result of his hardship, he jumped in front of a train. Since throwing himself in front of the train, the Poet has spent his time in the grey town.
The Poet is a caricature of the pretentious intellectuals of Lewis’s era: scattered, unpredictable, and unwilling to commit to any place, person, or ideology for long. The passage is important because it suggests that the dreamlike characters are in the afterlife; furthermore, the fact that the poet died by committing suicide (a sin, according to Christianity) suggests that he’s gone to Hell for his immoral actions.
The Tousle-Headed Poet pauses for a moment—there’s a brawl breaking out on the bus. People fight, using guns and knives—but strangely, the fight ends quickly, and the Narrator is completely unharmed. When the fight is over, the Narrator finds that the bus is still flying over the enormous grey town, and he’s sitting next to a different man, one who’s older than the Poet.
The fight implies two things: first, the passengers are nasty, sinful people; second, the Narrator is more of a passive observer than an active participant—he doesn’t become involved in many conflicts with the other characters. Put another way, the Narrator exemplifies the “everyman” archetype: he remains a “blank slate” throughout the book, observing the action more often than participating in it.
The Narrator asks his new neighbor, the “Intelligent Man,” about the grey town, and the neighbor explains that the grey town has existed forever. There are always new people flowing into the town, and almost as soon as they’ve arrived, they begin arguing and fighting. When newcomers arrive in the grey town, they arrive in the “Civic Center” of town. Then, they either walk toward the bus stop, or slowly drift away from it. Some people have taken centuries to move from the Civic Center to the bus stop, and some people have drifted millions of miles away from the bus stop. Some of these people are quite famous—Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, Napoleon, etc. The Intelligent Man speculates that the grey town will keep growing bigger and bigger, so long as its people keep drifting away from the bus stop.
The Intelligent Man provides some useful exposition here: we learn that the grey town is a place for dead souls, and it certainly isn’t Heaven. When the dead souls arrive in the grey town, they have two options: they can either try to leave by taking the bus, or they can adjust to their new, miserable existences. The grey town could be interpreted as a version of Hell—a place for sinful souls. However, while many Christians would say that Hell is a place for the damned to endure eternal punishment, the novel implies that it’s possible to escape from Hell through work and free will.
The Intelligent Man confides in the Narrator: he’s trying to find a way to convince the people in the grey town to move toward the bus stop instead of drifting away from it. The problem with the people in the grey town is that “they have no Needs”—if they want something, they can summon it to themselves by imagining it. On Earth, human beings have to live close by one another another in order to survive. But in the grey town, people can move wherever they want. The Intelligent Man hopes to bring some “commodities” back to the grey town. By selling these commodities in a store, he could make a “nice little profit,” while also convincing people to live close to the store. The Narrator is confused—why would people buy things from a store if they can imagine things for free? The Intelligent Man claims that people will want “houses that really kept out the rain”—as their current houses don’t.
So far, each one of characters in the grey town exemplifies a different sin. The Intelligent Man’s sin appears to be greed: even in the afterlife, he’s trying to find a way to turn a profit, despite the fact that there seems to be no clear reason to spend money in Hell. The Intelligent Man posits that humans live close to one another for practical reasons—commerce, safety, survival, etc. He takes an overly literal, materialistic view of human nature, one that Lewis (and Christianity itself) clearly disagrees with.
Outside, the light is dimming. Suddenly, the Intelligent Man drops his voice and whispers, “It will be dark presently.” He warns the Narrator that when it’s nighttime, “They” come outside. At this time, everybody in the grey town must be indoors for protection. The Narrator is confused—how could their houses keep “Them” out, but not the rain? As the Narrator and the Intelligent Man whisper, the Big Man yells for them to be quiet, addressing the Intelligent Man as “Ikey.”
Here the Intelligent Man suggests that there are other, more frightening beings in the grey town. Since grey town seems to be a fictional version of Hell, it follows that “They” are devils. Lewis is essentially telling a morality tale, but he does so in a fantastical, poetic way, and this sudden introduction of dark supernatural forces adds a new element to the story.
A fat man in the seat ahead of the Narrator turns around and informs that Narrator that the Intelligent Man is wrong: it will never be completely dark—instead, it’s going to get progressively lighter. Furthermore, the man claims, the Intelligent Man is wrong to try to sell commodities in the grey town; commodities are vulgar and “Earth-bound.” The man concludes by praising the grey town for allowing human beings to be completely free and creative.
The fat man offers a very different account of life in the grey town than the one we’ve just heard from the Intelligent Man: where the Intelligent Man is materialistic and pessimistic, the fat man is idealistic and optimistic. And yet, his “vision” seems just as wrong-headed as the Intelligent Man’s—from what we’ve seen, there doesn’t seem to be much creativity going on in the grey town.
Hours pass, and slowly, it becomes brighter outside. The Narrator opens the bus window to get a better view of the light, but the Intelligent Man shouts for him to close it at once—it’s too cold outside. The Narrator looks around, and realizes that everyone on the bus looks idiotic, ferocious, and generally “distorted and faded.” It’s getting lighter outside, but the light is “cruel.”
Light begins to shine on the passengers of the bus, seemingly proving the fat man right. And yet, this light doesn’t provide warmth or cheerfulness—instead, it just makes the passenger’s sinfulness more apparent. Light is one of the key symbols in the novel, representing how salvation can be painful before it is pleasurable.