The Great Divorce

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The Chessboard Symbol Analysis

The Chessboard Symbol Icon

At the end of the novel, the Narrator travels with George MacDonald to an enormous chessboard, across which chess pieces move constantly. As MacDonald explains, the chessboard symbolizes the universe as God sees it: predetermined, perfectly controlled, and yet utterly mysterious to human beings, who still act with free will within the system God has created.

The Chessboard Quotes in The Great Divorce

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


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The Chessboard Symbol Timeline in The Great Divorce

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Chessboard appears in The Great Divorce. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 14
Dreams, Fantasy, and Education Theme Icon
Heaven, Hell, and the “Great Divorce” Theme Icon
...realizes that these “forms” are the souls of human beings. The souls are watching a chessboard, upon which there are chess pieces representing human beings as they appear to one another.... (full context)