The Great Divorce

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The Apple Tree Symbol Analysis

The Apple Tree Symbol Icon

In the Valley of the Shadow of Life, the Narrator sees a large, beautiful tree, from which golden apples hang. The image of the tree evokes the Biblical story of Adam of Eve, in which fruits symbolize humanity’s inherently sinful nature. (The golden fruits may also symbolize the Greek myth of the Judgment of Paris. In this myth, the young, handsome Paris was asked to offer a golden apple to the most beautiful of three goddesses. Paris’s decision to offer the golden apple to the goddess Aphrodite led to the long, bloody Trojan War.) In the novel, Ikey tries to carry some of the golden apples back to the grey town with him—an apt symbol for the way that human beings cause themselves great pain and misery for the sake of supposed material gain. The symbol of the tree and the apple becomes more complicated when an angel invites Ikey to stay in the Valley of the Shadow of Life to eat the apples (suggesting that the true evil lies in Ikey’s desire to sell the apples, not the physical pieces of fruit). Ultimately, the apple tree symbolizes humanity’s wickedness and their ability to find evil and corruption in the most innocent things.

The Apple Tree Quotes in The Great Divorce

The The Great Divorce quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Apple Tree. 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 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.

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“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.

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The Apple Tree Symbol Timeline in The Great Divorce

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Apple Tree appears in The Great Divorce. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 6
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
...crouched near a hawthorn bush. The ghost is trying to move toward a big, beautiful tree, but because of the heaviness and stiffness of the grass, it’s very difficult to move... (full context)
Chapter 7
Heaven, Hell, and the “Great Divorce” Theme Icon
Christianity and Common Sense Theme Icon
Free Will and Salvation Theme Icon
...Narrator that there’s no point in staying by the river. The golden fruit of the tree looks delicious, but it’s just “propaganda,” since it can’t be eaten. The “Hard-Bitten ghost” claims... (full context)