The Narrator sits by the river, feeling miserable after his talk with the Hard-Bitten Ghost. When he first met the Spirits who lived by the river, he assumed that they were essentially benevolent. But now he realizes that the Spirits who live by the river don’t care about the ghosts. Perhaps the only purpose of the ghosts’ visit to the river is to be mocked by the Spirits there. He remembers what the Hard-Bitten Ghost said about the rain, and fears that he could be horribly hurt.
The Hard-Bitten Ghost hasn’t given the Narrator many answers, but he’s posed some disturbing questions about good and evil, causing the Narrator to fall into a paranoid state of mind. Previously, the Narrator optimistically assumed the best of his new environment—now, he questions everything he sees.
The Narrator decides to move toward the trees, where he might be safe from the rain. He isn’t sure if he should get back on the bus or not. As he approaches the trees, he sees another ghost. The ghost is arguing with a Spirit. The Spirit claims that he’s just trying to help the ghost, but the ghost insists that the Spirit is taking advantage of her.
The Narrator is in the midst of a crisis—should he go back to the grey town or stay by the river? On a symbolic level, the Narrator’s crisis symbolizes the crisis of the Christian skeptic—should he continue on in his faith even when things get hard, or return to what seems easier?
The ghost explains that she’s afraid of going to the mountains without a solid body. She would be embarrassed if she arrived in the mountains without a body, especially when the Spirits do have bodies. The Spirit insists that the ghost will eventually get a solid body. The ghost sobs and cries, “I wish I’d never been born.” The Spirit assures the ghost that she’ll be able to enter the mountains without a problem—the only obstacle is the ghost’s own shame. Shame, the spirit explains, is like a long, hot drink—hard to carry, but very nourishing when it’s consumed.
The ghost is afraid of going to the mountains—a symbol of Heaven—because she’s ashamed of not having a body. Two things to note: 1) the passage emphasizes how shame and self-hatred can deter souls from worshipping God; 2) the passage features one of the first female characters in the novel. Lewis has been criticized for associating his female characters with stereotypically feminine problems, arguably painting a picture of women as conceited, superficial, and overly concerned with appearances.
The Narrator finds that he’s become very invested in the ghost’s decision. He hopes the ghost will endure the shame of having no body and go with the Spirit to the mountains. But suddenly, the ghost cries out, “I can't!” The Spirit responds by producing a large horn and blowing through it. A loud sound comes out of the horn, and suddenly a herd of unicorns appears in the distance. The Narrator, along with the ghost, tries to run away from the unicorns. In the confusion, the Narrator loses sight of the ghost.
The significance of the Spirit’s actions won’t be fully clear for a few more chapters, when it’s suggested that the Spirit is trying to use surprise and even fear to nudge the female ghost toward the mountains.