The Great Divorce

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The Grey Town Symbol Analysis

The Grey Town Symbol Icon

The novel begins in a dull, grey town which, we come to realize, represents the afterlife. The grey town is lonely, and the people who live there are always fighting and yelling at one another. For some, the grey town is Hell—a place where humans are punished for eternity (though their punishment consists of arguing, fighting, and loneliness, rather than the stereotypical fire and brimstone). For others, though, the grey town is a form of Purgatory—a place where souls live for a time, before eventually migrating to Heaven.

The Grey Town Quotes in The Great Divorce

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

That's one of the disappointments. I thought you'd meet interesting historical characters. But you don't: they're too far away.

Related Characters: The Intelligent Man / Ikey (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Grey Town
Page Number: 11
Explanation and Analysis:

On the bus from the grey town, the Narrator speaks will several other passengers, including an intelligent man named Ikey. Ikey explains that he was somewhat surprised when he got to the grey town—he’d assumed that he would get to meet famous and interesting people from the past. In reality, Ikey explains, people who arrive in the grey town don’t get much of a chance to interact with historical people, though.

The passage represents one of the first explicit discussions of the fact that the grey town is a part of the afterlife—in other words, that Ikey and his peers have died. While Lewis hasn’t yet explained that the grey town is a version of Hell (or Purgatory), Ikey’s observations about it imply that the damned go to live in the grey town after they die.

One might think that it would be fun to spend time in the grey town, talking with famous damned souls. But, as Ikey explains here, damned souls almost never talk to one another—after they arrive in the grey town, they have a choice: either staying together, or slowly drifting apart. Because most of the souls in the grey town choose to drift apart, there are some who are now millions and millions of miles away. Many of the oldest (and, therefore, most famous) people in the grey town are now so far away that they’ll never be heard from ever again. The passage is interesting because it refutes one of William Blake’s key points in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, the long poem that inspired Lewis to pen The Great Divorce. Blake posits that Hell is a Mecca of creativity and enlightenment, since so many brilliant minds have presumably gone there over the centuries. Lewis takes pains to show that Hell is anything but the “creative colony” Blake described—on the contrary, it’s a dull, lonely place.

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I'd start a little business. I'd have something to sell. You'd soon get people coming to live near—centralization. Two fully-inhabited streets would accommodate the people that are now spread over a million square miles of empty streets. I'd make a nice little profit and be a public benefactor as well.

Related Characters: The Intelligent Man / Ikey (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Grey Town
Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Narrator continues his conversation with Ikey, who goes on and on about his elaborate plans to make a profit in the grey town. Ikey is traveling on the bus in the hopes that, during his trip, he’ll be able to find items to sell in the grey town.

Two important points here. First, and most obviously, Ikey’s plans are nonsensical—what would be the point of buying anything in the afterlife, particularly since (as the Narrator points out) the people of the grey town can imagine whatever they want? Perhaps Ikey’s plans to turn a profit are meant to symbolize the nonsensical nature of most human beings’ plans to make money—money may be a necessity for survival, but it can also be a distraction from more important things.

A second, subtler point, is that Ikey is a prisoner of his own desire for money. In the afterlife, one would think, the only thing that matters is one’s acceptance into Heaven. Ikey, however, is so used to thinking in financial terms that he continues to crave money long after it has lost all its value. The concept of being a prisoner of one’s own desires will be very important to The Great Divorce—Ikey won’t be the last such prisoner we’ll meet.

Chapter 4 Quotes

“What I'd like to understand,” said the Ghost, “is what you're here for, as pleased as Punch, you, a bloody murderer, while I've been walking the streets down there and living in a place like a pigsty all these years.”

Related Characters: The Big Man / Big Ghost (speaker), Len
Related Symbols: The Grey Town
Page Number: 26
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we begin to understand some of the rules of the Valley of the Shadow of Life. One of the passengers from the bus—now transformed into a ghost—reunites with someone he knew during his life: a Spirit named Len, who now lives in Heaven. Len, we learn, led a wicked life: he murdered another man, and yet he has been accepted into Heaven. The reason that Len went to Heaven while the Big Ghost went to Hell is that Len repented his sins and accepted God as his master, whereas the Big Ghost chose not to believe in God. Thus, a murderer went to Heaven while an “ordinary man” went to Hell.

This passage represents one of the most challenging aspects of The Great Divorce, and of Christianity itself: according to some Christian doctrine, sinners and even murderers can go to Heaven, so long as they repent their sins and worship God. As a result of this idea, a murderer could go to Heaven while an honest, decent atheist goes to Hell—a scenario that would strike many people as profoundly immoral and unfair. Morality, one might argue, is about rewarding and punishing people for what they do, not just what they say—therefore, murderers must be punished, no matter what God they worship.

In response to these objections, the novel suggests that all human beings are sinners until they accept God in their lives. In the passage, for instance, we see that the Big Ghost—quite aside from being a “nice, normal guy,” is really a jealous, small-minded sinner. As Len will explain, the Big Ghost led an unjust, immoral life, mistreating his wife and children. Thus, it could be argued, the Big Ghost didn’t lead a significantly better life than Len—in the grand scheme of things, they were both sinners, and therefore, Len, because he repented his sins, was more deserving of acceptance in Heaven than the Big Ghost. This explanation might not seem entirely satisfactory to some readers—and indeed, the argument that murderers can go to Heaven is one of the most controversial aspects of the Christian faith.

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.

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The Grey Town Symbol Timeline in The Great Divorce

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Grey Town appears in The Great Divorce. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1
Heaven, Hell, and the “Great Divorce” Theme Icon
Christianity and Common Sense Theme Icon
Free Will and Salvation Theme Icon
...explains that many people choose not to ride the bus because they prefer the “ grey town .” The Poet tried to survive in the town by forming a “circle” of intellectuals.... (full context)
Chapter 2
Dreams, Fantasy, and Education Theme Icon
Heaven, Hell, and the “Great Divorce” Theme Icon
Christianity and Common Sense Theme Icon
...throwing himself in front of the train, the Poet has spent his time in the grey town . (full context)
Heaven, Hell, and the “Great Divorce” Theme Icon
Love, Sacrifice, and Sin Theme Icon
...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. (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 that the grey town has existed forever. There are always... (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
...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... (full context)
Dreams, Fantasy, and Education Theme Icon
Heaven, Hell, and the “Great Divorce” Theme Icon
Christianity and Common Sense Theme Icon
...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,... (full context)
Christianity and Common Sense Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Chapter 3
Dreams, Fantasy, and Education Theme Icon
Heaven, Hell, and the “Great Divorce” Theme Icon
Free Will and Salvation Theme Icon
...back?” The Driver explains that the passengers are under no obligation to return to the grey town . Someone shouts out that the people would be happier back in the grey town,... (full context)
Chapter 4
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
...to walk around the river, while he has has to spend his time in the grey town . Len explains that the Big Ghost will understand soon enough. The Big Ghost continues... (full context)
Chapter 5
Heaven, Hell, and the “Great Divorce” Theme Icon
Christianity and Common Sense Theme Icon
Free Will and Salvation Theme Icon
...to know the spirit well; he refers to the spirit’s “father,” who lives in the grey town , a long way from the bus. The ghost claims that he refuses to believe... (full context)
Heaven, Hell, and the “Great Divorce” Theme Icon
Christianity and Common Sense Theme Icon
Free Will and Salvation Theme Icon
Dick explains that the fat ghost was sent to the grey town because he was an apostate—he committed “sins of intellect.” The ghost is confused—he claims that... (full context)
Heaven, Hell, and the “Great Divorce” Theme Icon
Christianity and Common Sense Theme Icon
Free Will and Salvation Theme Icon
...happiness in Heaven, but the ghost insists that he has to be back in the grey town to “read a paper.” He reminds Dick that Christ was “a very young man” when... (full context)
Chapter 9
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
...way out of Hell into Heaven?” MacDonald replies that the people who live in the grey town are in Hell. But the people who manage to leave the grey town behind will... (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
...souls who leave the Valley of the Shadow of Life and go back to the grey town have made a choice—but what choice, exactly, have they made? MacDonald replies by quoting the... (full context)