The Great Divorce

Pdf fan Tap here to download this LitChart! (PDF)
Themes and Colors
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
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Great Divorce, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Christianity and Common Sense Theme Icon

In The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis uses fiction and fantasy to make a strong argument for the truth and value of Christianity. Surprisingly, though, the novel never offers a specific definition of Christianity; indeed, it would seem that the only two beliefs that a Christian must have are a belief in the existence of God and a belief in the divinity of Jesus Christ. Using this simple, straightforward definition of Christianity, the novel aims to show that Christian morality isn’t a complicated set of arbitrary rules; deep down, it’s just “common sense.”

The Great Divorce makes the somewhat surprising argument that Christianity is the most obvious, intuitive way to think about life, morality, and happiness. In order to make such a point, Lewis makes use of the reductio ad absurdum technique: in other words, he proves that Christianity is common sense by showing that the alternatives to Christianity are irrational, nonsensical, or otherwise ill-founded. The damned souls who refuse to believe in God or the divinity of Christ are deeply confused about themselves and their place in the world. They want to hurt themselves or hurt other people, and some of them even deny the existence of any afterlife at all—despite the fact that they’re in the afterlife. Furthermore, souls who deny the existence of God and Christ often fail to show basic human emotions like compassion, respect, or dignity. Even if non-Christians seem virtuous on Earth, the afterlife exposes their true irrationality and moral callousness—suggesting that Christianity alone can lead humanity to enlightenment and virtue (or alternately, that true enlightenment and virtue only comes from God).

Principled, compassionate atheists are conspicuously (and maybe inevitably) absent from The Great Divorce. Damned souls insist that they’re capable of love and reason, but George MacDonald—the Spirit who guides the Narrator through the afterlife—shows that, in fact, these damned souls are incapable of loving or thinking logically about the world. Even the “fat ghost” who claims to be a reasonable, intelligent man, in spite of denying Christ’s resurrection, is shown to be a foolish contrarian, denying Christ’s divinity for the sake of denial (and not because he really doubts Christ’s divinity). Arguably, Lewis uses a series of “straw men” to make his argument—instead of seriously exploring the possibility that one can be reasonable, good, and agnostic, he invents easy targets like the fat ghost to confirm the rationality and morality of Christianity. But this is also the nature of the work, as Lewis isn’t trying to present an all-encompassing argument for Christianity, but rather a short, entertaining, and hopefully enlightening story—so perhaps he’s allowed to indulge in straw men for brevity’s sake.

Get the entire Great Divorce LitChart as a printable PDF.
The great divorce.pdf.medium

Christianity and Common Sense ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Christianity and Common Sense appears in each Chapter of The Great Divorce. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
How often theme appears:
Chapter length:

Christianity and Common Sense Quotes in The Great Divorce

Below you will find the important quotes in The Great Divorce related to the theme of Christianity and Common Sense.
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.


Unlock explanations and citation info for this and every other The Great Divorce quote.

Plus so much more...

Get LitCharts A+
Already a LitCharts A+ member? Sign in!

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.

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 5 Quotes

“When the doctrine of the Resurrection ceased to commend itself to the critical faculties which God had given me, I openly rejected it. I preached my famous sermon. I defied the whole chapter. I took every risk.”
"What risk? What was at all likely to come of it except what actually came—popularity, sales for your books, invitations, and finally a bishopric?”

Related Characters: The Fat Man / Fat Ghost (speaker), Dick
Page Number: 36
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Narrator witnesses a conversation between two beings—a Spirit named Dick, who’s been accepted into Heaven, and a fat ghost, who knew Dick in life, and worked alongside him as a clergyman. As Dick reminds the fat ghost, the fat ghost had some pretty controversial beliefs during his life: he maintained that Jesus Christ was not, in fact, resurrected after three days. Although the fat ghost arrogantly insists that he was “brave” for holding such a view, Dick knows the truth: the fat ghost didn’t argue against the Resurrection out of bravery—he did so because he knew that such a controversial argument would make him popular. Indeed, the fat ghost’s gamble paid off: he was rewarded with book sales and a “bishopric” (i.e., the church appointed him to be a bishop).

The passage suggests that human beings can only be accepted into Heaven if they believe in the existence of God and the divinity of Jesus Christ. The fat ghost, in questioning Christ’s divinity, has ceased to be a true believer, and therefore can’t go to Heaven. Second, the passage implies that some of those who doubt Christian doctrine do so not because they sincerely believe in their own arguments, but just because they want to be controversial and popular. The fat ghost now sincerely doubts that Christ was resurrected, but when he was a younger man, he chose to write willfully provocative books questioning Christ’s divinity—after years of doing so, he’s deluded himself into believing his own lies. Third, and more generally, the passage could be interpreted as Lewis’s critique of modern intellectual culture—most so-called” great thinkers” don’t really believe in their own ideas; they adopt deliberately counterintuitive positions, calculated to sell books. Finally, the passage could be considered a good example of Lewis’s tendency to use “straw man” and ad hominem arguments. Instead of addressing the possibility that an honest human being could doubt Christ’s divinity, Lewis arguably creates an easy target—an amoral, publicity-starved “shock jock”—and uses this target to discredit all possible arguments against Christ’s divinity, without ever delving into the content of these arguments. (Of course, Lewis might deny that the fat ghost is a straw man—he’d probably argue that most of the arguments against Christ’s divinity really are provocative for the sake of provocation.)

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 9 Quotes

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.

There was nothing more to prove. His occupation was clean gone. Of course if he would only have admitted that he'd mistaken the means for the end and had a good laugh at himself he could have begun all over again like a little child and entered into joy. But he would not do that. He cared nothing about joy. In the end he went away.

Related Characters: George MacDonald (speaker), Sir Archibald
Page Number: 73
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, MacDonald tells the Narrator about a man named Archibald, whose life illustrates the potential dangers of knowledge and curiosity. Archibald, Macdonald explains, spent his entire life studying the world—he devoted himself to learning about earthly matters. The problem with Archibald’s curiosity was that he became more interested in the act of discovery than in the information itself—he was at his happiest when he was pursuing knowledge, not when he attained this knowledge. The result was that, when Archibald and came to the Valley of the Shadow of Life, he refused to go to Heaven. In Heaven, he realized, he would have no reason to search for knowledge—all the happiness and joy he needed would be right in front of him. As a result, Archibald went to Hell.

Archibald’s story illustrates an important distinction between means and ends. Knowledge is important, but it’s a means to the “end” of happiness and truth. Many people mistakenly think that knowledge is important for its own sake—but according to MacDonald, this simply isn’t true. Archibald (and many other intelligent people) became so accustomed to searching for knowledge that he forgot that knowledge was just a way of attaining happiness for oneself. MacDonald will give many other examples of people who confuse ends and means, and go to Hell because of their refusal to accept their mistake.

One grows out of [light]. Of course, you haven't seen my later works. One be- comes more and more interested in paint for its own sake.

Related Characters: The Artist (speaker)
Related Symbols: Light
Page Number: 85
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, the Narrator witnesses a Spirit talking to a damned soul, the Artist. The Spirit is trying to convince the Artist (who had a long, successful career before he died) to join him in Heaven. However, the Artist is too obsessed with his career and his paintings to want to go to Heaven. In particular, the Artist is afraid that in Heaven, there will be no more need for paintings or art of any kind.

The passage makes an important distinction between means and ends that parallels some of MacDonald’s points in the previous quotes. The Artist began to paint because art was a way of expressing the beauty of the universe—and therefore, the beauty of God. But, as the Artist went on in his career, he became less and less concerned with expressing the beauty of the world, and more concerned with expressing “paint for its own sake” (Lewis doesn’t say, but the transition in the painter’s career from art as a reflection of the real world to the concept of art for art’s sake might reflect the growing abstractness of 20th century art). In other words, much like Sir Archibald, the Artist has forgotten about the ultimate “end” of art (expressing the beauty of the world) and become singularly fixated on the “means” (painting itself). As a result, the Artist refuses to go to Heaven, where the “end” of beauty will be self-evident, and wants to return to Hell, where he’ll be free to indulge in the “means” of painting for its own sake.

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.

Chapter 12 Quotes

“Don't you see what nonsense it's talking.” Merriment danced in her eyes. She was sharing a joke with the Dwarf, right over the head of the Tragedian. Something not at all unlike a smile struggled to appear on the Dwarf's face. For he was looking at her now. Her laughter was past his first defenses. He was struggling hard to keep it out, bur already with imperfect success. Against his will, he was even growing a little bigger.

Related Characters: Sarah Smith (speaker), Frank / Dwarf / Tragedian
Page Number: 126-127
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Narrator witnesses a beautiful Spirit named Sarah reunite with a ghost she knew on Earth, Frank. Frank has gone to Hell, but he appears in the Valley of the Shadow of Life in two distinct forms: a Tragedian (an enormous, overly theatrical figure) and a Dwarf (who manipulates the Tragedian with a chain). When “Frank” meets Sarah, he (the Dwarf) manipulates the Tragedian to pretend to be offended and hurt by Sarah’s behavior. Whenever Sarah says or does anything, the Tragedian overreacts and tries to manipulate Sarah into pitying him.

In short, “Frank” embodies the artificial, divided nature of self-pity. Human beings who pity themselves, as Frank clearly did, try to manipulate other people into pitying them (not unlike the way the Dwarf tries to manipulate Sarah into feeling sorry for him by moving the Tragedian into offended, hurt “poses”). The key insight of the passage is that self-pity, of the kind embodied by Frank, is a struggle against happiness. On some level, Frank knows that he’s being overdramatic and manipulative: deep-down, he wants to be happy and join Sarah in Heaven, which is why, when Sarah laughs at his theatrical posing, the Dwarf is tempted to join in.

The passage is a particularly clear example of how Lewis uses metaphor and symbolism to explain complicated psychological and philosophical ideas. By using the surreal image of a dwarf controlling a giant with a chain, Lewis gets to the heart of self-pity, showing that self-pitying people are sometimes just pretending to be hurt in order to pass on their misery to other people. Self-pity is an especially dangerous form of sin, furthermore, because it’s rooted in the denial of joy—self-pitying people could be happy if they wanted to, but they’ve become so irrational that they prefer misery.

Furthermore, Lewis suggests in this passage that laughter has a powerful quality and potential for goodness. Just like fear (in some cases), it can cause people to step outside themselves and see their narrow worldviews as ridiculous, potentially allowing them to see the larger truth. As Lewis says here, laughter can slip past even the most stubborn sinner’s “first defenses.”

Chapter 13 Quotes

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.