The Great Divorce

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Water Symbol Icon

The Great Divorce is full of water imagery: rivers, waterfalls, rain, etc. More than once, the Narrator expresses his desire to bathe or drench himself in water: to jump in the river, pass under a waterfall, etc. These images arguably evoke the Christian practice of baptism, in which a human being bathes in water, accepts Jesus Christ as their lord and savior, and is “born anew.” Thus, the water imagery in the novel symbolizes mankind’s desire to cast off sin, embrace God, and achieve salvation.

Water Quotes in The Great Divorce

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

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Water Symbol Timeline in The Great Divorce

The timeline below shows where the symbol Water appears in The Great Divorce. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 3
Dreams, Fantasy, and Education Theme Icon
Heaven, Hell, and the “Great Divorce” Theme Icon
Free Will and Salvation Theme Icon
...Narrator and his fellow passengers get off the bus, and find that they’re near a river, with green trees and thick grass. The Narrator has a sense of being in a... (full context)
Dreams, Fantasy, and Education Theme Icon
Heaven, Hell, and the “Great Divorce” Theme Icon
Free Will and Salvation Theme Icon
The Big Man, now a ghost, asks the Driver, “when have we got to be back?” The Driver explains that the passengers are under... (full context)
Dreams, Fantasy, and Education Theme Icon
Heaven, Hell, and the “Great Divorce” Theme Icon
Free Will and Salvation Theme Icon
...dressed in robes. The Narrator realizes that these people are Spirits who live by the river. Some of the ghosts scream at the sight of these Spirits and run back to... (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
...demands to know why Len has a solid body and gets to walk around the river, while he has has to spend his time in the grey town. Len explains that... (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 from the trees.... (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
...an idea—perhaps he could walk on water. When the Narrator tries to walk in the river, though, he finds that the river, while solid, is still flowing in one direction—as a... (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, he’s moved a few... (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
Suddenly, a 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,... (full context)
Chapter 7
Heaven, Hell, and the “Great Divorce” Theme Icon
Christianity and Common Sense Theme Icon
Love, Sacrifice, and Sin Theme Icon
...tired as he stares at the Water-Giant. He wishes that he could bathe in the river instead of walking on it. (full context)
Heaven, Hell, and the “Great Divorce” Theme Icon
Christianity and Common Sense Theme Icon
Free Will and Salvation Theme Icon
...this kind. The ghost tells the 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... (full context)
Heaven, Hell, and the “Great Divorce” Theme Icon
Christianity and Common Sense Theme Icon
Free Will and Salvation Theme Icon
The Narrator guesses that by staying by the river, he and the Hard-Bitten Ghost could become “solider,” an idea that the ghost promptly rejects.... (full context)
Dreams, Fantasy, and Education Theme Icon
Heaven, Hell, and the “Great Divorce” Theme Icon
...be getting along. Before he leaves, though, he tells the Narrator that it’s going to rain soon—and when it rains, the raindrops will be as hard as bullets. With these words,... (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 first met the Spirits... (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
...that “the damned have holidays.” Occasionally, the people of Hell are allowed to visit the river, although most opt to visit Earth instead. The Narrator asks MacDonald, “Is there really a... (full context)
Chapter 12
Dreams, Fantasy, and Education Theme Icon
Heaven, Hell, and the “Great Divorce” Theme Icon
...the Narrator, the Narrator sees light flashing in the trees, as if reflected from a river (hence his question at the end of Chapter 11). But then, the Narrator sees that... (full context)