The Great Divorce

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The Narrator Character Analysis

The Narrator of The Great Divorce is never named. Furthermore, the novel contains little information about his personality, his personal life, or his interests. While we know that he’s of a literary turn of mind, and is in some ways modeled on Lewis himself (hence his respect for the author George MacDonald), it’s hard to think of words that could describe him clearly—as he travels through the afterlife, learning about Christian doctrine, readers learn relatively little about him. The Narrator, in short, exemplifies an archetype called the “everyman”—a character who’s supposed to be as ordinary and relatable as possible. The original everyman was the protagonist in a 15th-century morality play of the same name. Indeed, one of the most common purposes of the everyman archetype is to teach an audience about a moral point of view, especially Christianity. In The Great Divorce, the Narrator’s ordinariness and open-mindedness make him an ideal “stand-in” for the book’s readers—as he experiences the afterlife and learns about Christianity, Heaven, and Hell, so do we.

The Narrator Quotes in The Great Divorce

The The Great Divorce quotes below are all either spoken by The Narrator or refer to The Narrator. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Dreams, Fantasy, and Education Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the HarperOne edition of The Great Divorce published in 0.
Chapter 2 Quotes

He had found himself once more isolated and had to become a conscientious objector. The indignities he suffered at this stage of his career had, he confessed, embittered him. He decided he could serve the cause best by going to America: but then America came into the war too. It was at this point that he suddenly saw Sweden as the home of a really new and radical art, but the various oppressors had given him no facilities for going to Sweden. There were money troubles. His father, who had never progressed beyond the most atrocious mental complacency and smugness of the Victorian epoch, was giving him a ludicrously inadequate allowance. And he had been very badly treated by a girl too.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), The Tousle-Headed Poet
Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Narrator is sitting on the bus that transports damned souls out of Hell and into Heaven. On the bus, he begins talking to a young man, the Tousle-Haired Poet. Like many of the people on the bus, the Poet is a complainer: here, he complains about his parents, the army, the avant-garde, etc. In short, the Poet believes that the entire world is against him—he’s so arrogant, and so certain of his own talent and genius, that he has no choice but to blame the rest of the world whenever something goes wrong in his life.

It’s interesting to note that the Poet thinks of himself as being “different” from (and, presumably, better than) the other people on the bus. While the other people on the bus are more overtly aggressive and unlikable than the Poet, the passage suggests that everyone on the bus is guilty of the same problem: egotism. The Poet is so concerned with his own pleasure and success that he seems to have no real interest in other people, except as 1) scapegoats for his own problems, or 2) an audience for his life story. The Tousle-Haired Poet could also be considered Lewis’s caricature of the young, pseudo-Romantic intellectuals Lewis encountered during his time as a professor at Oxford and Cambridge: selfish, spoiled, idealistic to a fault, and unable to commit to anything difficult for long.

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Chapter 3 Quotes

I had the sense of being in a larger place, perhaps even a larger sort of space, than I had ever known before: as if the sky were further off and the extent of the green plain wider that they could be on this little ball of earth. I had got out in some sense which made the Solar System itself seem an indoor affair. It gave me a feeling of freedom, but also of exposure, possibly of danger, which continued to accompany me through all that followed.
It is the impossibility of communicating that feeling, or even of inducing you to remember it as I proceed, which makes me despair of conveying the real quality of what I saw and heard.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 20
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Narrator finally arrives in the Valley of the Shadow of Life, though he doesn’t yet know where he is. As we’ll later learn, the Valley of the Shadow of Life is located on the “outskirts” of Heaven—it’s a kind of “decompression zone” between Purgatory and salvation. The Narrator will soon find that the damned souls who’ve traveled to the Valley of the Shadow of Life face a difficult choice: they can either choose to remain her and gradually work their way toward salvation, or they can return to the grey town for eternity.

The Valley of the Shadow of Life feels distinctly different and indescribably vast to the Narrator, perhaps reflecting the novel’s argument that Heaven—and God—is the only truly “real” thing in the universe (and again Lewis turns to fantasy and dream-logic to describe the potential wonders of God and the afterlife). Furthermore, it’s important to recognize that the Valley of the Shadow of Life represents a time for choosing, because this partially explains the Narrator’s reaction in the passage. The Narrator feels an almost indescribable sense of danger and fear—it’s as if he can sense the vast importance of the choices being made in his new environment. The passage arguably symbolizes the challenge of free will itself: although it might seem obvious that the damned souls in the Valley of the Shadow of Life should choose to be in Heaven forever, many of them choose to go back to Hell, either because they’re intimidated by the pressure of their new environment, or because they’re so used to the inertia of their life in the grey town. As the Narrator’s behavior might suggest, it’s easier for most people to continue doing the same thing than it is for them to exercise their free will and choose to do the right (but often difficult or frightening) thing.

Chapter 5 Quotes

Next moment I stepped boldly out on the surface. I fell on my face at once and got some nasty bruises. I had forgotten that though it was, to me, solid, it was not the less in rapid motion. When I had picked myself up I was about thirty yards further down-stream than the point where I had left the bank. But this did not prevent me from walking up-stream: it only meant that by walking very fast indeed I made very little progress.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Related Symbols: Water
Page Number: 44
Explanation and Analysis:

In this symbolically loaded passage, the Narrator realizes that he can walk on water. There is a large, fast-flowing river in the Valley of the Shadow of Life, and the Narrator finds that he can walk on it, since he doesn’t yet have a solid body. Although the river is flowing away from the mountains in the distance, the Narrator finds that by walking very quickly, he can walk toward the mountains (sort of like someone walking up a “down” escalator).

The key word in this passage is “progress.” Indeed, the entire passage could be considered a metaphor for the good Christian’s struggle to achieve salvation. Going to Heaven (symbolized by the mountains in the distance) can be incredibly difficult—sometimes, external situations and human nature pulls humans away from Heaven and toward sin and damnation (symbolized by the river flowing away from Heaven). And yet, it’s possible—if difficult—to choose to go to Heaven anyway, even if it means fighting the “pull” of nature (i.e., walking toward the mountains against the river’s flow). Lewis further reinforces the holy, Christian nature of the Narrator’s progress by alluding to Christ’s famous miracle of walking on water—by walking on the river, the Narrator is, quite literally, modeling his actions after Christ’s, and therefore, striving to be a good Christian. The word “progress” also alludes to John Bunyan’s early Christian novel, The Pilgrim’s Progress, an important influence on The Great Divorce. Like the protagonist of Bunyan’s book, the Narrator struggles to be good in a world full of evil, and, slowly but surely, approaches salvation.

Chapter 6 Quotes

I could hardly help admiring this unhappy creature when I saw him rise staggering to his feet actually holding the smallest of the apples in his hands. He was lame from his hurts, and the weight bent him double. Yet even so, inch by inch, still availing himself of every scrap of cover, he set out on his via dolorosa to the bus, carrying his torture.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), The Intelligent Man / Ikey
Related Symbols: The Apple Tree
Page Number: 49
Explanation and Analysis:

In this important passage, the Narrator—having just walked on water against the flow of the river—sees Ikey, whom he met on the bus, pushing through the grass toward a large apple tree. Ikey, who doesn’t have a solid body, either, endures a lot of pain in order to get to the tree—he has to push against the thick, heavy grass. When Ikey finally reaches the apple tree, he hurts himself by carrying the apples back through the grass (like a lot of fantasy books, The Great Divorce blurs the laws of physics—sometimes, ghosts can touch solid objects, and sometimes they can float through them altogether).

The mention of an apple tree immediately alludes to the Adam and Eve story, one of the quintessential Christian stories. Just as Adam and Eve, the original two human beings, sinned by plucking the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, Ikey sins in the act of plucking the fruit of the apple tree and dragging himself back through the grass. Whereas Adam and Eve’s sin was to disobey God and desire knowledge of the world, Ikey’s sin is to try to “turn a profit” in the afterlife by selling the apples—he’s so blinded by greed and materialism that he’s willing to cause himself significant physical pain in order to make money in Hell.

Another phrase worth noticing in this passage is “via dolorosa,” the term often used to describe Christ’s grueling walk to his own crucifixion, during which he was mocked and tortured. While Ikey seems to be enduring a comparable amount of pain during his walk back to the bus, the phrase is ironic: Christ endured physical suffering in order to redeem mankind for its sins—Ikey, on the other hand, endures pain because he’s deluded himself into thinking that his get-rich-quick schemes justify the pain.

“Fool,” he said, “put it down. You cannot take it back. There is not room for it in Hell. Stay here and learn to eat such apples. The very leaves and the blades of grass in the wood will delight to teach you.”
Whether the Ghost heard or not, I don't know. At any rate, after pausing for a few minutes, it braced itself anew for its agonies and continued with even greater caution till I lost sight of it.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), The Water-Giant (speaker), The Intelligent Man / Ikey
Related Symbols: The Apple Tree
Page Number: 49
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage adds another layer of complexity to the symbolism of the apple tree. Ikey, a greedy, materialistic ghost, picks the fruit of an apple tree and tries to carry the fruit back to Hell, in order to sell it for money (despite the fact that damned souls would never spend money on apples). As Ikey drags his fruit away from the tree, an angel appears in the form of a waterfall, and tells Ikey that he’s foolish to try to bring the fruit back to Hell with him—he’ll never be able to carry it (and, as we later learn, the apple is far larger and more “real” than the entirety of Hell itself, and thus would never even fit). Furthermore, the angel insists that Ikey should stay in the Valley of the Shadow of Life and eat the fruit.

The passage is somewhat surprising, because of the Christian symbolism of the apple tree. Since the presence of the apple tree seems to allude to the Biblical story of Adam and Eve (who fell from grace after eating an apple that gave them knowledge of good and evil), one might think that consuming the apples is a sinful act, on par with Adam and Eve’s crime against God. However, the passage suggests that Ikey’s irrational desire to sell the apples in Hell is the real sin—not the consumption of the apples themselves. This is an important distinction, because it suggests that humans sin by corrupting good things—all sin is a corruption of virtue, just as the “evil” apples are only evil because of the purpose to which they are put. Moreover, the passage might suggest that knowledge and salvation aren’t mutually exclusive—according to Lewis, it is possible to have knowledge of good and evil (i.e., eat the apple) and also go to Heaven.

The passage reinforces Ikey’s obliviousness to reason and morality. He’s deluded himself into enduring physical pain, all for the sake of ephemeral material rewards. Rather than listen to reason, Ikey continues with his nonsensical business ventures.

Chapter 7 Quotes

“I thought they were at war?”
“Of course you did. That's the official version. But who's ever seen any signs of it? Oh, I know that's how they talk. But if there’s a real war why don't they do anything? Don't you see that if the official version were true these chaps up here would attack and sweep the Town out of existence? They've got the strength. If they wanted to rescue us they could do it.”

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), The Hard-Bitten Ghost (speaker)
Page Number: 54
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Narrator meets an old, Hard-Bitten Ghost—a cynic who doubts everything he sees. During the course of his conversation with the Hard-Bitten Ghost, the Narrator begins to have profound doubts about Christianity and Heaven. As the Hard-Bitten Ghost points out, the fact that both Heaven and Hell (i.e., the mountain and the grey town) exist would suggest that God—who, according to Christian doctrine, is all-powerful—has chosen to allow Hell to continue. In other words, the Hard-Bitten Ghost is offering the Narrator a slightly modified version of a familiar theological argument: the fact that sin and suffering exist mean that God wants human beings to be unhappy—if God wanted humans to be happy, he would let everybody into Heaven. The Hard-Bitten Ghost further implies that God must, on some level, be responsible for Hell and evil.

Interestingly, Lewis presents the Hard-Bitten Ghost as a cynical, world-weary paranoiac, rather than a sincere, intellectually engaged thinker. As before, Lewis used ad hominem attacks to discredit important theological arguments—in other words, it’s so abundantly obvious to us that the Hard-Bitten Ghost is an unlikable person (he’s an anti-Semite, for instance) that we’re inclined to doubt the legitimacy of his ideas, too. Nevertheless, Lewis seems to take the Hard-Bitten Ghost’s questions seriously—throughout the novel, he will strive to explain why the Hard-Bitten Ghost is wrong about Heaven and Hell, and why God allows Hell to continue.

Chapter 9 Quotes

“But I don't understand. Is judgment not final? Is there really a way out of Hell into Heaven?”
“It depends on the way ye’re using the words. If they leave that grey town behind it will not have been Hell. To any that leaves it, it is Purgatory.”

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), George MacDonald (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Grey Town
Page Number: 68
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, the Narrator meets a key character, the spirit of the author George MacDonald. In real life C. S. Lewis was a huge admirer of George MacDonald, an important 19th-century Christian thinker, who—much like Lewis himself—used fantasy and children’s literature to teach important Christian ideas. MacDonald will serve as the Narrator’s guide throughout the remainder of the novel, explaining the complicated ideas that the Narrator encounters during his time in the Valley of the Shadow of Life.

In this passage, for instance, MacDonald explains to the Narrator that the grey town is both Hell and Purgatory at the same time. For those who choose to remain in the grey town forever, the grey town is Hell: a lonely, sad place where it’s impossible to be truly happy. For those who choose to leave the grey town, however, the grey town is just Purgatory—a temporary place before souls migrate to Heaven.

It’s crucial to see the implications of MacDonald’s explanation. Following MacDonald’s argument, it would seem that Hell is in the “eye of the beholder.” Put another way, it’s possible for one person to experience the grey town as Hell and another person to experience it as mere Purgatory. Therefore, it follows that Hell is in some ways a self-imposed state—the damned souls in Hell could choose to leave Hell if they wanted to do so; instead, most of the souls in Hell choose to continue their own damnation. The self-imposed nature of Hell helps explain the fact that the grey town is altogether unlike the traditional Christian model of Hell: there are no fires or devils with pitchforks in Lewis’s version Hell, with the result that nobody is being held involuntarily. Ultimately, damnation is a choice.

Hell is a state of mind—ye never said a truer word. And every state of mind, left to itself, every shutting up of the creature within the dungeon of its own mind—is, in the end, Hell. But Heaven is not a state of mind. Heaven is reality itself. All that is fully real is Heavenly.

Related Characters: George MacDonald (speaker), The Narrator
Page Number: 70
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, MacDonald clarifies some important theological ideas. As we’ve already seen, Hell is a state of mind: the damned souls who go to Hell after they die could choose to leave Hell and go to Heaven—and yet most of them choose to continue with their own damnation, drifting farther and farther from the possibility of salvation. However, MacDonald continues, Heaven is not a state of mind: on the contrary, Heaven is reality itself.

MacDonald’s equation of Heaven and truth fits with Lewis’s own ideas about salvation, as expressed in The Great Divorce. As we’ve already seen, the Spirits who live in Heaven have attained a state of enlightenment, while the damned exist in a state of constant irrationality and delusion. So one interpretation of MacDonald’s statement is that Heaven is a place where the saved can see the truth about the world: they can see the contradictions of sin and the basic rationality of Christianity. Furthermore, Lewis is being very literal here—all reality comes from God, and so it is inherently good, and it’s only the corruption of pure reality and goodness that leads to evil. This is why Lewis portrays the Valley as painfully bright and real, and the grey town as small, weak, and ghostlike.

This put me in mind to ask my Teacher what he thought of the affair with the Unicorns. “It will maybe have succeeded,” he said. “Ye will have divined that he meant to frighten her, not that fear itself could make her less a Ghost, but if it took her mind a moment off herself, there might, in that moment, be a chance. I have seen them saved so.”

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), George MacDonald (speaker)
Page Number: 79
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, MacDonald explains something the Narrator witnessed in a previous chapter. The Narrator saw a Spirit talk to a ghost who was reluctant to walk toward the mountains in the distance. In order to compel the ghost to walk toward the mountains (i.e., Heaven), the Spirit summoned a frightening herd of unicorns, which scared the ghost so much that the ghost ran off to escape them. MacDonald explains that the Spirit was trying to “shock” the ghost into running toward Heaven, and adds that sometimes, this technique has worked.

It’s important to notice that MacDonald isn’t saying that Spirits can scare souls into salvation. Throughout its history, Christianity has used fear and shock to scare people into behaving virtuously (the traditional model of Hell as a place of “fire and brimstone” is a great example). While MacDonald approves of such methods, he argues that fear itself cannot make a person believe in God or behave virtuously—rather fear is an important teaching tool because it can help people to get out of their own heads and think about their lives in a new way. At the end of the day, the only way for a person to go to Heaven is to choose to go to Heaven—fear can be helpful, not because it forces people to be good, but because it helps them think differently about themselves and the world, and perhaps can correct some of their sins and delusions.

Chapter 11 Quotes

“Brass is mistaken for gold more easily than clay is. And if it finally refuses conversion its corruption will be worse than the corruption of what ye call the lower passions. It is a stronger angel, and therefore, when it falls, a fiercer devil.”
“I don't know that I dare repeat this on Earth, Sir,” said I. “They’d say I was inhuman: they'd say I believed in total depravity: they'd say I was attacking the best and the holiest things. They'd call me . . .”
“It might do you no harm if they did,” said he with (I really thought) a twinkle in his eye.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), George MacDonald (speaker), Pam
Page Number: 105
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, MacDonald and the Narrator discuss some of the implications of the exchange they’ve just witnessed between Pam and the Spirit. The Narrator has seen that, when damned souls give up their sinful desires and impulses, the desires will be “transformed” into strengths and virtues. For instance, when a sinner gives up his lust, the lust is transformed into strength and joyful desire—symbolized by a beautiful stallion that transports the sinner to Heaven. The moral challenge, as the Narrator sees it, is this: it is easier for a lustful sinner to give up his lust than it is for a “loving” mother to give up her love for her child (a love that, as we’ve seen, can be a dangerous distraction from salvation). This leads us to the seemingly unfair conclusion that a sinful adulterer has an easier time getting into Heaven than a mother who loves her son. As MacDonald puts it, “brass is mistaken for gold more easily than clay is”—in other words, Pam’s love for her child, because it’s so easily mistaken for virtuous behavior, is a dangerous deterrent to salvation, whereas an adulterer’s lust, because it’s so obviously sinful, isn’t as much of a distraction from salvation.

In the passage, Lewis (in the guise of the Narrator) acknowledges that his ideas about love and salvation might seem offensive and wrong to many people. While many people believe that love is inherently good, MacDonald stresses that love can be good or bad—at its worst, it can distract people from their love for God, and therefore, from their chances of getting into Heaven. The passage shows that Lewis isn’t afraid to hold controversial opinions, if they stem from Christian doctrine. MacDonald’s final statement also reiterates the common Christian idea that it’s better to be hated and persecuted on Earth for the sake of the truth than to be popular on Earth but betray one’s faith in the process.

Ye must ask, if the risen body even of appetite is as grand a horse as ye saw, what would the risen body of maternal love or friendship be?

Related Characters: George MacDonald (speaker), The Narrator
Related Symbols: The Lizard
Page Number: 115
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Narrator and MacDonald continue to discuss what they’ve witnessed in the Valley of the Shadow of Life. They’ve seen a man with a lizard—symbolizing his lust—whispering to him and keeping him from Heaven. When the man allows an angel to kill his lust, the lizard transforms into a stallion that carries the man toward Heaven. The implication of this scenario, as MacDonald explains, is that when people sacrifice their desires—whether it’s a lustful desire for sex, or a more wholesome love for one’s child—God rewards them for their sacrifice, transforming the sacrificed desire into something beautiful, and arguably returning the corrupted virtue of sin to its original, godly quality (just as the lizard was transformed into a stallion). If Pam, the woman who stubbornly refused to give up her love for her dead child, could only sacrifice her love for Michael, MacDonald explains, her love would be transformed into a “risen body” of incredible beauty and power, and Pam would be amply rewarded in Heaven. Indeed, though it is more difficult to give up her selfish love than it was for the man to give up his clearly sinful lust, that corrupted motherly love has the potential to be transformed into something far more beautiful and powerful than the “stallion” that the lustful lizard became.

The passage, when studied alongside the other three quotes from this chapter, helps to clarify Lewis’s complicated, somewhat controversial ideas about love. The notion that a mother who obsessively loves her dead child can be a sinner might strike some people as cruel. Here, Lewis arguably makes this idea more acceptable (and palatable) by showing that Pam’s reward for sacrificing her love for Michael would be enormous—since such a sacrifice is very difficult to make. In short, Lewis acknowledges that it’s very difficult for a mother to give up her love for her child and “turn back to God”—and it’s because such an act is so difficult that God rewards people who find the strength to do so.

Chapter 13 Quotes

“The demand of the loveless and the self-imprisoned that they should be allowed to blackmail the universe: that till they consent to be happy (on their own terms) no one else shall taste joy: that theirs should be the final power; that Hell should be able to veto Heaven.”

Related Characters: George MacDonald (speaker), The Narrator
Page Number: 135
Explanation and Analysis:

MacDonald argues that it would be wrong for the virtuous to pity the damned, contrary to what many people would assume. While one might think that a good Christian should be overcome with sorrow and pity whenever she sees a damned soul, MacDonald explains why this wouldn’t be good: if good Christians allowed themselves to pity the damned, then the damned would be able to control the virtuous, passing on their misery and self-hatred to others. As we saw in the previous chapter, there are many who try to manipulate good people into pitying them—effectively trying to “infect” good people with misery. Therefore, it follows that the only way for the virtuous to remain virtuous is for them to refrain from pitying the damned. This certainly doesn’t mean that virtuous people shouldn’t try to help sinners find God—rather, it suggests that Christians must “lead by example,” rather than stooping to the level of the damned.

The passage is important because it addresses a point that Lewis brought up earlier in the book: why don’t the Saved come to Hell to rescue the Damned? (and, by the same token, Why doesn’t God free sinners from Hell and bring them all to Heaven?). A partial answer to this question, we can now see, is that attempts to save the damned will always be flawed by self-pity. Thus, if Sarah Smith went to Hell to save Frank, her presence would plunge Frank deeper into self-pity, and therefore damnation, rather than actually saving his soul. The only way for humans to enter Heaven is to choose to love God—good Christians’ pity for the damned, while well-meaning, cannot lead the damned to salvation, and sometimes actually leads the damned deeper into sin.

All Hell is smaller than one pebble of your earthly world: but it is smaller than one atom of this world, the Real World. Look at yon butterfly. If it swallowed all Hell, Hell would not be big enough to do it any harm or to have any taste.

Related Characters: George MacDonald (speaker), The Narrator
Page Number: 138
Explanation and Analysis:

In this crucial passage, MacDonald reveals to the Narrator that Hell is tiny—so tiny, in fact, that it could fit in the mouth of a butterfly in Heaven. On a literal level, MacDonald’s point has some interesting implications: during the course of his travels from Hell to Heaven, the Narrator grew physically, with the result that the only way for him to return to Hell would be for him to shrink again.

On a symbolic level, MacDonald’s point suggests a number of other things. First, the idea that Hell is smaller than Heaven—indeed, almost infinitely smaller—reinforces the most fundamental point of Lewis’s novel: that Hell is not a “worthy partner” of Heaven, but a small, banal, and thoroughly insignificant part of the world. The poets and philosophers (such as William Blake) who would place Hell alongside Heaven as a vital part of the human experience are giving Hell too much credit. Evil isn’t a vast, majestic force of nature—it’s a speck of dust, an ineffectual corruption of true reality and goodness.

Furthermore, the smallness of Hell suggests another reason why the Saved can’t travel down to Hell to help the damned—they’re “too big.” Previously, the Narrator was troubled by the idea that God doesn’t send the virtuous to Hell to save the damned. But now, he sees why this should be the case: the only way for the damned to achieve salvation is for them to choose salvation: they have to “grow,” rather than forcing saved souls to “shrink.”

For every attempt to see the shape of eternity except through the lens of Time destroys your knowledge of Freedom. Witness the doctrine of Predestination which shows (truly enough) that eternal reality is not waiting for a future in which to be real; but at the price of removing Freedom which is the deeper truth of the two. And wouldn't Universalism do the same? Ye cannot know eternal reality by a definition.

Related Characters: George MacDonald (speaker), The Narrator
Page Number: 141
Explanation and Analysis:

At the end of this chapter, MacDonald brings up a final point about Christian theology. Throughout the novel, MacDonald has spoken of the importance of free will and choice: the damned, it would appear, have the freedom to choose to go to Heaven. But the Narrator raises an interesting possibility: if God is all-knowing, then surely he knows the names of the souls who will be saved in Heaven and those who will remain in Hell. Thus, it follows that the damned and the virtuous aren’t truly “choosing” their fate—God has already planned their decisions in advance.

MacDonald’s reply to the Narrator is highly complicated. His most important point is that humans differ from God because they experience the universe through the “lens” of time—whereas God, being all-powerful, experiences all moments simultaneously. (Lewis borrowed this idea from The Consolation of Philosophy by the early Christian philosopher Boethius). So although humans experience reality as a free choice between multiple options, God can see humans’ choices and the outcomes of these choices simultaneously. In short, MacDonald argues that human beings experience their decisions as free will as a consequence of their existence in time. Thus, free will exists from humans’ perspective, even if God already knows the outcome of all human choices. MacDonald’s argument parallels the ideas of the poet John Milton (a huge influence on Lewis)—Milton argued that the idea of an all-knowing God and a free humanity are not mutually exclusive at all: mankind is created “sufficient to have stood yet free to fall.” Humans “cannot know eternal reality,” and therefore they have the burden and the gift of free will.

Chapter 14 Quotes

Ye saw the choices a bit more clearly than ye could see them on Earth: the lens was clearer. But it was still seen through the lens. Do not ask of a vision in a dream more than a vision in a dream can give.

Related Characters: George MacDonald (speaker), The Narrator
Related Symbols: The Chessboard
Page Number: 144
Explanation and Analysis:

In the final chapter of the novel, the Narrator witnesses the surreal spectacle of an enormous chessboard, across which move human beings. MacDonald clarifies what the chessboard represents: as he explains here, the chessboard represents the universe as God sees it—a complex, interlocking set of forces and objects. God controls the universe, using his infinite wisdom and power—and yet the universe remains mysterious and unclear to a mere mortal like the Narrator.

The passage accomplishes two major things. First, it clarifies MacDonald’s complicated points about time and free will. From the perspective of the Narrator, the world is uncertain, meaning that the Narrator is always choosing what to do next. From the perspective of God, however, the universe is perfectly certain and ordered: God can see every instant in time simultaneously. The difference between God and the Narrator is as profound as the difference between a chess-piece and a chess master.

The second, arguably more important thing that the passage accomplishes is to qualify the analogies and metaphors that Lewis offers, both in this chapter and in the entire book. MacDonald uses the image of a chessboard to explain the concept of omniscience to the Narrator—but even this image, MacDonald acknowledges, can only do so much to educate the Narrator. At the end of the day, understanding the “mind of God” is beyond all human comprehension. By the same token, the surreal images and metaphors that the Narrator has witnessed during his dream might help him understand some complicated ideas and concepts, but they’re not perfect illustrations of these complicated ideas and concepts. The book itself is just about a “vision in a dream,” and not an attempt to portray the literal afterlife or the mind of God.

I awoke in a cold room, hunched on the floor beside a black and empty grate, the clock striking three, and the siren howling overhead.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 146
Explanation and Analysis:

At the end of the novel, the Narrator wakes up from his dream to find that it’s early in the morning—he’s been asleep at his desk, dreaming about the afterlife.

The final sentence of the novel is very important, because it shows that the Narrator has his work cut out from him. He’s learned a lot about Christianity, good, and evil, but it’s not enough to experience these concepts in a dream. Now, the Narrator’s challenge is to go out into the world, living a life in accordance with the lessons he’s learned over the course of the novel. Being a good Christian is more difficult in real life than it is in a dream, because in real life, good and evil come in many different shapes and forms—the Narrator had an easy time separating Spirits and ghosts in his dream, but he might not be able to separate good and evil so easily in his waking life.

The passage is also full of subtle symbolism. The clock “striking three” could be an allusion to the Holy Trinity, one of the key concepts of the Christian faith. Similarly, the echo of the siren could symbolize the constant presence of death in the Narrator’s life (the novel was written during World War II, when nightly sirens alerted the English to German bombers overhead). Note also how the cold, dark room resembles the “Grey Town” of the dream—as the Narrator learned earlier, Earth has the potential to become Hell itself unless one makes the conscious choice to seek Heaven. In short, the passage illustrates the moral challenge ahead of the Narrator, and readers: to be a good Christian in a world full of religion, danger, and temptation.

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The Narrator Character Timeline in The Great Divorce

The timeline below shows where the character The Narrator appears in The Great Divorce. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1
Dreams, Fantasy, and Education Theme Icon
An unnamed Narrator finds himself standing by the side of the street in a long line for the... (full context)
Dreams, Fantasy, and Education Theme Icon
Heaven, Hell, and the “Great Divorce” Theme Icon
Love, Sacrifice, and Sin Theme Icon
The Narrator notices the other people standing in line for the bus. Almost everyone seems to be... (full context)
Heaven, Hell, and the “Great Divorce” Theme Icon
Christianity and Common Sense Theme Icon
Free Will and Salvation Theme Icon
...has taken a seat, only half the seats in the bus are filled. As the Narrator sits down, a Tousle-Headed Poet sits next to him and observes that the “present company”... (full context)
Chapter 2
Dreams, Fantasy, and Education Theme Icon
Heaven, Hell, and the “Great Divorce” Theme Icon
Christianity and Common Sense Theme Icon
The Narrator sits on the bus, listening to the Tousle-Headed Poet for a very long time. The... (full context)
Heaven, Hell, and the “Great Divorce” Theme Icon
Love, Sacrifice, and Sin Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Dreams, Fantasy, and Education Theme Icon
Heaven, Hell, and the “Great Divorce” Theme Icon
Christianity and Common Sense Theme Icon
Free Will and Salvation Theme Icon
The Narrator asks his new neighbor, the “Intelligent Man,” about the grey town, and the neighbor explains... (full context)
Dreams, Fantasy, and Education Theme Icon
Heaven, Hell, and the “Great Divorce” Theme Icon
Christianity and Common Sense Theme Icon
Free Will and Salvation Theme Icon
Love, Sacrifice, and Sin Theme Icon
The Intelligent Man confides in the Narrator: he’s trying to find a way to convince the people in the grey town to... (full context)
Dreams, Fantasy, and Education Theme Icon
Heaven, Hell, and the “Great Divorce” Theme Icon
Christianity and Common Sense Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Christianity and Common Sense Theme Icon
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... (full context)
Christianity and Common Sense Theme Icon
Free Will and Salvation Theme Icon
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... (full context)
Chapter 3
Dreams, Fantasy, and Education Theme Icon
Heaven, Hell, and the “Great Divorce” Theme Icon
Free Will and Salvation Theme Icon
...over a large cliff. Slowly the bus descends, until it lands on the cliff. The Narrator and his fellow passengers get off the bus, and find that they’re near a river,... (full context)
Dreams, Fantasy, and Education Theme Icon
Heaven, Hell, and the “Great Divorce” Theme Icon
Christianity and Common Sense Theme Icon
Free Will and Salvation Theme Icon
Love, Sacrifice, and Sin Theme Icon
As the Narrator looks around, he has the feeling that the grass and trees are made of an... (full context)
Dreams, Fantasy, and Education Theme Icon
Heaven, Hell, and the “Great Divorce” Theme Icon
Free Will and Salvation Theme Icon
The Narrator looks up and sees what is either an enormous cloudbank or a mountain range. The... (full context)
Chapter 5
Dreams, Fantasy, and Education Theme Icon
Heaven, Hell, and the “Great Divorce” Theme Icon
Free Will and Salvation Theme Icon
As the Narrator surveys the river and the trees, he hears a sound, and two huge lions emerge... (full context)
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Christianity and Common Sense Theme Icon
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Love, Sacrifice, and Sin Theme Icon
As the Narrator observes the fat ghost’s interaction with Dick, he has an idea—perhaps he could walk on... (full context)
Chapter 6
Dreams, Fantasy, and Education Theme Icon
Free Will and Salvation Theme Icon
Love, Sacrifice, and Sin Theme Icon
The Narrator walks on the river, against the flow of the current. After walking for an hour,... (full context)
Heaven, Hell, and the “Great Divorce” Theme Icon
Christianity and Common Sense Theme Icon
Free Will and Salvation Theme Icon
Love, Sacrifice, and Sin Theme Icon
The Narrator sees a ghost crouched near a hawthorn bush. The ghost is trying to move toward... (full context)
Dreams, Fantasy, and Education Theme Icon
Heaven, Hell, and the “Great Divorce” Theme Icon
Christianity and Common Sense Theme Icon
Free Will and Salvation Theme Icon
Love, Sacrifice, and Sin Theme Icon
...voice cries, “Fool. Put it down.” The voice seems to come from the waterfall—and the Narrator realizes that what he’d thought was a waterfall is really a bright angel, who floats... (full context)
Chapter 7
Heaven, Hell, and the “Great Divorce” Theme Icon
Christianity and Common Sense Theme Icon
Love, Sacrifice, and Sin Theme Icon
As Ikey limps away with his apples, the Narrator looks closely at the huge angel. The angel, whom the Narrator calls “the Water-Giant,” does... (full context)
Heaven, Hell, and the “Great Divorce” Theme Icon
Christianity and Common Sense Theme Icon
Free Will and Salvation Theme Icon
The Narrator turns and sees another ghost—a tall man with grey hair and a gruff voice. The... (full context)
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The Narrator guesses that by staying by the river, he and the Hard-Bitten Ghost could become “solider,”... (full context)
Dreams, Fantasy, and Education Theme Icon
Heaven, Hell, and the “Great Divorce” Theme Icon
The Hard-Bitten Ghost tells the Narrator he has to be getting along. Before he leaves, though, he tells the Narrator that... (full context)
Chapter 8
Dreams, Fantasy, and Education Theme Icon
Heaven, Hell, and the “Great Divorce” Theme Icon
The Narrator sits by the river, feeling miserable after his talk with the Hard-Bitten Ghost. When he... (full context)
Heaven, Hell, and the “Great Divorce” Theme Icon
Christianity and Common Sense Theme Icon
Free Will and Salvation Theme Icon
Love, Sacrifice, and Sin Theme Icon
The Narrator decides to move toward the trees, where he might be safe from the rain. He... (full context)
Heaven, Hell, and the “Great Divorce” Theme Icon
Christianity and Common Sense Theme Icon
Free Will and Salvation Theme Icon
The Narrator finds that he’s become very invested in the ghost’s decision. He hopes the ghost will... (full context)
Chapter 9
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The Narrator flees from the herd of unicorns. He then hears a low, Scottish voice, asking, “Where... (full context)
Dreams, Fantasy, and Education Theme Icon
Heaven, Hell, and the “Great Divorce” Theme Icon
Christianity and Common Sense Theme Icon
Free Will and Salvation Theme Icon
Love, Sacrifice, and Sin Theme Icon
George MacDonald, addressing the Narrator as “Son,” thanks the Narrator for his enthusiasm and respect. He explains to the Narrator... (full context)
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Free Will and Salvation Theme Icon
The Narrator, trying to understand MacDonald, asks if it’s true that Heaven and Hell are only states... (full context)
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Christianity and Common Sense Theme Icon
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The Narrator is confused. He asks MacDonald about his Roman Catholic friends, who claim that the souls... (full context)
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Christianity and Common Sense Theme Icon
Free Will and Salvation Theme Icon
The Narrator asks MacDonald about the role of choice in the afterlife. The souls who leave the... (full context)
Free Will and Salvation Theme Icon
Love, Sacrifice, and Sin Theme Icon
The Narrator asks MacDonald about vice and sensual sin. MacDonald explains that some people go to Hell... (full context)
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Free Will and Salvation Theme Icon
The Narrator asks MacDonald why the Spirits don’t go down to Hell to rescue the damned. MacDonald... (full context)
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MacDonald and the Narrator turn to see a ghost talking to one of the solid Spirits. The ghost is... (full context)
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MacDonald invites the Narrator go for a walk—the Narrator grabs MacDonald’s arm, and MacDonald carries him around the woods.... (full context)
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The Narrator tells MacDonald about the herd of unicorns who frightened away the ghost earlier. MacDonald explains... (full context)
Heaven, Hell, and the “Great Divorce” Theme Icon
Christianity and Common Sense Theme Icon
Free Will and Salvation Theme Icon
MacDonald brings the Narrator to a group of ghosts who have gotten close to Heaven only in order to... (full context)
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Free Will and Salvation Theme Icon
Love, Sacrifice, and Sin Theme Icon
The Narrator discovers that many of the ghosts he meets with MacDonald have tried to “bring Hell... (full context)
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Christianity and Common Sense Theme Icon
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Love, Sacrifice, and Sin Theme Icon
The Narrator also meets ghosts who scarcely look like human beings anymore. Some of these ghosts have... (full context)
Heaven, Hell, and the “Great Divorce” Theme Icon
Love, Sacrifice, and Sin Theme Icon
MacDonald brings the Narrator to a ghost whom the Narrator recognizes—in life, the ghost was a very famous artist.... (full context)
Chapter 10
Heaven, Hell, and the “Great Divorce” Theme Icon
Christianity and Common Sense Theme Icon
Free Will and Salvation Theme Icon
George MacDonald continues carrying the Narrator around the Valley of the Shadow of Life. They come to a female Ghost arguing... (full context)
Chapter 11
Dreams, Fantasy, and Education Theme Icon
Love, Sacrifice, and Sin Theme Icon
The Narrator recalls another discussion he overheard while he was with George MacDonald. He saw a woman’s... (full context)
Dreams, Fantasy, and Education Theme Icon
Heaven, Hell, and the “Great Divorce” Theme Icon
Christianity and Common Sense Theme Icon
Free Will and Salvation Theme Icon
Love, Sacrifice, and Sin Theme Icon
MacDonald carries the Narrator away from Pam and Reginald, explaining that their conversation will go on for a very... (full context)
Heaven, Hell, and the “Great Divorce” Theme Icon
Christianity and Common Sense Theme Icon
MacDonald leads the Narrator on to another ghost, who’s carrying something on his shoulder. The ghost is carrying a... (full context)
Dreams, Fantasy, and Education Theme Icon
Love, Sacrifice, and Sin Theme Icon
...and bigger, until he’s a huge, naked man, almost as big as the angel. The Narrator also notices that the lizard is growing—it changes into a large stallion with a golden... (full context)
Dreams, Fantasy, and Education Theme Icon
Heaven, Hell, and the “Great Divorce” Theme Icon
Christianity and Common Sense Theme Icon
Love, Sacrifice, and Sin Theme Icon
MacDonald explains to the Narrator that the lizard was lust—a creature who has no home in the mountains. With the... (full context)
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Heaven, Hell, and the “Great Divorce” Theme Icon
Christianity and Common Sense Theme Icon
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The Narrator is confused. It would seem that the ghost’s lust was less of an obstacle to... (full context)
Chapter 12
Dreams, Fantasy, and Education Theme Icon
Heaven, Hell, and the “Great Divorce” Theme Icon
As George MacDonald walks with the Narrator, the Narrator sees light flashing in the trees, as if reflected from a river (hence... (full context)
Heaven, Hell, and the “Great Divorce” Theme Icon
Christianity and Common Sense Theme Icon
Love, Sacrifice, and Sin Theme Icon
The Narrator sees a lady, and realizes that the Spirits are singing and dancing to celebrate her.... (full context)
Heaven, Hell, and the “Great Divorce” Theme Icon
Free Will and Salvation Theme Icon
Love, Sacrifice, and Sin Theme Icon
As Sarah approaches the Narrator and MacDonald, she stares off into the distance. Following her gaze, the Narrator sees two... (full context)
Dreams, Fantasy, and Education Theme Icon
Heaven, Hell, and the “Great Divorce” Theme Icon
Free Will and Salvation Theme Icon
...Tragedian say to each other, in unison, “You’ll notice she hasn’t answered our question.” The Narrator begins to understand what’s going on: the small and tall ghosts are two halves of... (full context)
Chapter 13
Dreams, Fantasy, and Education Theme Icon
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Love, Sacrifice, and Sin Theme Icon
Immediately following the events of the previous chapter, the Narrator watches Sarah laughing. The Dwarf tries his hardest to keep from laughing along with Sarah.... (full context)
Heaven, Hell, and the “Great Divorce” Theme Icon
Christianity and Common Sense Theme Icon
Free Will and Salvation Theme Icon
Love, Sacrifice, and Sin Theme Icon
As Sarah moves away, the Narrator asks MacDonald about Frank—he can’t help but think that it’s wrong for Sarah to be... (full context)
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Heaven, Hell, and the “Great Divorce” Theme Icon
Christianity and Common Sense Theme Icon
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The Narrator wonders aloud why Sarah didn’t go down to Hell to visit Frank—she could have gone... (full context)
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The Narrator asks Macdonald what happens to human beings who remain in Hell instead of choosing to... (full context)
Chapter 14
Dreams, Fantasy, and Education Theme Icon
Heaven, Hell, and the “Great Divorce” Theme Icon
Suddenly the Narrator, still with MacDonald, finds himself surrounded by a “great assembly of gigantic forms.” The Narrator... (full context)
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Christianity and Common Sense Theme Icon
Free Will and Salvation Theme Icon
The Narrator asks MacDonald about freedom and fate. Were the choices that the ghosts made—choices which sometimes... (full context)
Dreams, Fantasy, and Education Theme Icon
Heaven, Hell, and the “Great Divorce” Theme Icon
Free Will and Salvation Theme Icon
The Narrator notices that MacDonald is becoming brighter. He hears voices singing, “Sleepers awake!” The sun rises... (full context)