The Great Divorce

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Heaven, Hell, and the “Great Divorce” Theme Analysis

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Heaven, Hell, and the “Great Divorce” Theme Icon
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Heaven, Hell, and the “Great Divorce” Theme Icon

C. S. Lewis intended The Great Divorce in part to be a rebuttal to a famous poem by the English author William Blake: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Essentially, Blake used his poem to argue that Hell gets a “bad rap.” While Christian theology claims that Hell is wicked, and should be avoided at all costs, Blake proposed that Hell—and evil in general—was a vital component of creativity, enlightenment, and happiness. In all, Blake suggested that the only way for humans to be truly enlightened was to “marry” Heaven and Hell in their lives—in other words, to be kind and lawful (Heavenly), but also proud and devious (Hellish). Blake further suggested that a life lived according to traditional Christian values would be boring, repetitive, and overly “prudish,” and even implied that God and Satan were allies. Lewis despises this theory, and tries to refute Blake’s argument, “divorcing” Heaven and Hell for good.

Lewis’s first line of attack against Blake (and Romanticism in general, which Blake is essentially representing) is to show that Heaven is the source of all human enlightenment, happiness, and beauty. Lewis’s argument is epitomized in the character George MacDonald’s claim that Heaven is “reality itself.” Heaven, and good, are “real” in the sense that they’re utterly rational; indeed, Lewis endeavors to show that Christianity is really just “common sense,” meaning that sinners have foolishly confused themselves into worshipping evil and Hell (see the following theme). Furthermore, Lewis suggests that true happiness is only possible in Heaven. Sinners may believe that they’re happy; but in reality, they’ve just embraced short-term pleasures and sacrificed the eternal, profound pleasures of Heaven. There is, in short, no true enlightenment without Heaven—contrary to what Romantics like Blake maintained. The novel also argues that God (as the ultimate Creator) is the source of all creativity, so there can be no beauty, art, or creativity that doesn’t originally come from him, and reflect the beauty of Heaven. While William Blake might claim that the greatest art is that which incorporates both Heaven and Hell into its design, Lewis suggests that Blake has a misunderstanding of what Hell really means—by its very nature, nothing beautiful or creative could ever come from Hell.

Lewis’s second major line of attack against Blake is to present Hell as a boring, repetitive, and ultimately meaningless place—essentially, taking Blake’s criticism of Heaven and applying it to Hell. Hell, as depicted by Lewis, is far from the creative haven that Blake posited. On the contrary, damned souls barely interact with one another at all, and most of them have drifted millions of miles away. There are many creative people in Hell, but because they lack the true “spark” of beauty and enlightenment that Heaven alone can provide, they’re incapable of producing great art or philosophy. Lewis then delivers the final blow to Blake’s ideas at the end of The Great Divorce when he reveals that Hell is tinier than Heaven—so tiny, indeed that it could fit inside a butterfly’s mouth. Lewis suggests that Hell, quite apart from being a worthy equal to Heaven, is actually almost nothing: put another way, evil is simply the absence of beauty, enlightenment, creativity, and all the other things that only Heaven can provide. In short, Lewis argues that Blake was wrong to fetishize Hell—the supposed merits of Hell are either 1) not really merits at all, or 2) actually found in Heaven.

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Heaven, Hell, and the “Great Divorce” ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Heaven, Hell, and the “Great Divorce” appears in each Chapter of The Great Divorce. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Heaven, Hell, and the “Great Divorce” Quotes in The Great Divorce

Below you will find the important quotes in The Great Divorce related to the theme of Heaven, Hell, and the “Great Divorce”.
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.


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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 3 Quotes

I had the sense of being in a larger place, perhaps even a larger sort of space, than I had ever known before: as if the sky were further off and the extent of the green plain wider that they could be on this little ball of earth. I had got out in some sense which made the Solar System itself seem an indoor affair. It gave me a feeling of freedom, but also of exposure, possibly of danger, which continued to accompany me through all that followed.
It is the impossibility of communicating that feeling, or even of inducing you to remember it as I proceed, which makes me despair of conveying the real quality of what I saw and heard.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 20
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Narrator finally arrives in the Valley of the Shadow of Life, though he doesn’t yet know where he is. As we’ll later learn, the Valley of the Shadow of Life is located on the “outskirts” of Heaven—it’s a kind of “decompression zone” between Purgatory and salvation. The Narrator will soon find that the damned souls who’ve traveled to the Valley of the Shadow of Life face a difficult choice: they can either choose to remain her and gradually work their way toward salvation, or they can return to the grey town for eternity.

The Valley of the Shadow of Life feels distinctly different and indescribably vast to the Narrator, perhaps reflecting the novel’s argument that Heaven—and God—is the only truly “real” thing in the universe (and again Lewis turns to fantasy and dream-logic to describe the potential wonders of God and the afterlife). Furthermore, it’s important to recognize that the Valley of the Shadow of Life represents a time for choosing, because this partially explains the Narrator’s reaction in the passage. The Narrator feels an almost indescribable sense of danger and fear—it’s as if he can sense the vast importance of the choices being made in his new environment. The passage arguably symbolizes the challenge of free will itself: although it might seem obvious that the damned souls in the Valley of the Shadow of Life should choose to be in Heaven forever, many of them choose to go back to Hell, either because they’re intimidated by the pressure of their new environment, or because they’re so used to the inertia of their life in the grey town. As the Narrator’s behavior might suggest, it’s easier for most people to continue doing the same thing than it is for them to exercise their free will and choose to do the right (but often difficult or frightening) thing.

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 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

“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 7 Quotes

“I thought they were at war?”
“Of course you did. That's the official version. But who's ever seen any signs of it? Oh, I know that's how they talk. But if there’s a real war why don't they do anything? Don't you see that if the official version were true these chaps up here would attack and sweep the Town out of existence? They've got the strength. If they wanted to rescue us they could do it.”

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), The Hard-Bitten Ghost (speaker)
Page Number: 54
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Narrator meets an old, Hard-Bitten Ghost—a cynic who doubts everything he sees. During the course of his conversation with the Hard-Bitten Ghost, the Narrator begins to have profound doubts about Christianity and Heaven. As the Hard-Bitten Ghost points out, the fact that both Heaven and Hell (i.e., the mountain and the grey town) exist would suggest that God—who, according to Christian doctrine, is all-powerful—has chosen to allow Hell to continue. In other words, the Hard-Bitten Ghost is offering the Narrator a slightly modified version of a familiar theological argument: the fact that sin and suffering exist mean that God wants human beings to be unhappy—if God wanted humans to be happy, he would let everybody into Heaven. The Hard-Bitten Ghost further implies that God must, on some level, be responsible for Hell and evil.

Interestingly, Lewis presents the Hard-Bitten Ghost as a cynical, world-weary paranoiac, rather than a sincere, intellectually engaged thinker. As before, Lewis used ad hominem attacks to discredit important theological arguments—in other words, it’s so abundantly obvious to us that the Hard-Bitten Ghost is an unlikable person (he’s an anti-Semite, for instance) that we’re inclined to doubt the legitimacy of his ideas, too. Nevertheless, Lewis seems to take the Hard-Bitten Ghost’s questions seriously—throughout the novel, he will strive to explain why the Hard-Bitten Ghost is wrong about Heaven and Hell, and why God allows Hell to continue.

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.

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 13 Quotes

“The demand of the loveless and the self-imprisoned that they should be allowed to blackmail the universe: that till they consent to be happy (on their own terms) no one else shall taste joy: that theirs should be the final power; that Hell should be able to veto Heaven.”

Related Characters: George MacDonald (speaker), The Narrator
Page Number: 135
Explanation and Analysis:

MacDonald argues that it would be wrong for the virtuous to pity the damned, contrary to what many people would assume. While one might think that a good Christian should be overcome with sorrow and pity whenever she sees a damned soul, MacDonald explains why this wouldn’t be good: if good Christians allowed themselves to pity the damned, then the damned would be able to control the virtuous, passing on their misery and self-hatred to others. As we saw in the previous chapter, there are many who try to manipulate good people into pitying them—effectively trying to “infect” good people with misery. Therefore, it follows that the only way for the virtuous to remain virtuous is for them to refrain from pitying the damned. This certainly doesn’t mean that virtuous people shouldn’t try to help sinners find God—rather, it suggests that Christians must “lead by example,” rather than stooping to the level of the damned.

The passage is important because it addresses a point that Lewis brought up earlier in the book: why don’t the Saved come to Hell to rescue the Damned? (and, by the same token, Why doesn’t God free sinners from Hell and bring them all to Heaven?). A partial answer to this question, we can now see, is that attempts to save the damned will always be flawed by self-pity. Thus, if Sarah Smith went to Hell to save Frank, her presence would plunge Frank deeper into self-pity, and therefore damnation, rather than actually saving his soul. The only way for humans to enter Heaven is to choose to love God—good Christians’ pity for the damned, while well-meaning, cannot lead the damned to salvation, and sometimes actually leads the damned deeper into sin.

All Hell is smaller than one pebble of your earthly world: but it is smaller than one atom of this world, the Real World. Look at yon butterfly. If it swallowed all Hell, Hell would not be big enough to do it any harm or to have any taste.

Related Characters: George MacDonald (speaker), The Narrator
Page Number: 138
Explanation and Analysis:

In this crucial passage, MacDonald reveals to the Narrator that Hell is tiny—so tiny, in fact, that it could fit in the mouth of a butterfly in Heaven. On a literal level, MacDonald’s point has some interesting implications: during the course of his travels from Hell to Heaven, the Narrator grew physically, with the result that the only way for him to return to Hell would be for him to shrink again.

On a symbolic level, MacDonald’s point suggests a number of other things. First, the idea that Hell is smaller than Heaven—indeed, almost infinitely smaller—reinforces the most fundamental point of Lewis’s novel: that Hell is not a “worthy partner” of Heaven, but a small, banal, and thoroughly insignificant part of the world. The poets and philosophers (such as William Blake) who would place Hell alongside Heaven as a vital part of the human experience are giving Hell too much credit. Evil isn’t a vast, majestic force of nature—it’s a speck of dust, an ineffectual corruption of true reality and goodness.

Furthermore, the smallness of Hell suggests another reason why the Saved can’t travel down to Hell to help the damned—they’re “too big.” Previously, the Narrator was troubled by the idea that God doesn’t send the virtuous to Hell to save the damned. But now, he sees why this should be the case: the only way for the damned to achieve salvation is for them to choose salvation: they have to “grow,” rather than forcing saved souls to “shrink.”

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.