The Great Divorce

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Love, Sacrifice, and Sin Theme Analysis

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
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Love, Sacrifice, and Sin Theme Icon

According to the novel, the only way for a human being’s soul to be accepted into Heaven is for the human to love God above all other things. But why, then, must humans love God in order to be saved—and why is it often so difficult to love God?

The Great Divorce, following Christian theology, posits that true morality is only possible if it comes from God. While Lewis never explicitly states why it’s necessary to believe in and love God in order to be truly good, his argument takes two different forms. First, he suggests that to believe in God is to believe that infinite goodness is possible. A human being who believes in God, and therefore infinite goodness, will be capable of treating all other human beings with goodness—there is, in a sense, no upper limit to their capacity for goodness, kindness, and morality. Second, and more importantly, believing in God is the ultimate form of “humble love.” A Christian who loves an all-powerful being knows how to love others selflessly. By contrast, an atheist or agnostic sometimes mistakes love for desire—in particular, the desire for ownership. For instance, the Narrator encounters a woman named Pam, who’s spent the final decades of her life mourning for her dead son, Michael, to the point where she’s neglected everyone else in her life, including her friends and husband. Pam insists that she loves her son, but it quickly becomes clear that her “love” is just a form of selfishness and clinginess—precisely the opposite of the calm, selfless love that a good Christian feels. Thus, the novel shows that even love—if it’s not grounded in love for God—can be twisted into sin and become an obstacle to salvation. By the same token, the novel suggests that the only way for atheists and doubters of God’s existence to enter Heaven is to love God completely—which, in practice, means “sacrificing” their feelings for earthly things, (including money, non-Christian ideology, sex, and even other human beings) and resituating these feelings within the context of a universal love for God.

Unsurprisingly, most of the souls the Narrator meets over the course of the book find it very difficult to give up short-term, sinful pleasures for the sake of God. They’ve become so accustomed to enjoying earthly pleasures such as lust and wealth, or even more abstract “pleasures” like curiosity and art, that they’ve forgotten about loving God—in Lewis’s view, the only true source of pleasure there is. A particularly clear example of this principle is Ikey, a damned soul who endures enormous physical pain in order to steal apples to sell in the Grey Town—an apt metaphor for the way that sinners foolishly sacrifice their spiritual happiness for the sake of supposed material rewards. The Narrator encounters many other sinners who’ve turned their back on loving God. Some of these sinners are fully conscious of what they’re doing, while others have deluded themselves into believing that other pleasures are better. In either case, the novel shows that sinners have denied themselves true, eternal happiness in Heaven by declining to sacrifice their selfish love for other things.

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Love, Sacrifice, and Sin ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in The Great Divorce related to the theme of Love, Sacrifice, and Sin.
Chapter 2 Quotes

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.

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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 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

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

“I want my boy, and I mean to have him. He is mine, do you understand? Mine, mine, mine, for ever and ever.”
“He will be, Pam. Everything will be yours. God Himself will be yours. But not that way. Nothing can be yours by nature.”
“What? Not my own son, born out of my own body?”
“And where is your own body now? Didn’t you know that Nature draws to an end? Look! The sun is coming, over the mountains there: it will be up any moment now.”
“Michael is mine.”

Related Characters: Reginald (speaker), Pam (speaker), Michael
Page Number: 103
Explanation and Analysis:

In this challenging passage, the Narrator sees a damned soul named Pam. Pam, we learn, spent the final years of her life mourning the death of her young child, Michael. Pam became so fixated on her beloved child that she turned her back on her other loved ones, included her family and friends. In the afterlife, the Spirit of Pam’s brother, Reginald, tries to convince Pam that she was a sinner for fixating on Michael. Here in the afterlife, Reginald advises his sister, she must give up and transform her love for Michael by first loving God. Pam stubbornly refuses to love God—indeed, she insists that it would be a grievous sin to love anyone more than Michael, her son.

The passage is morally challenging because it suggests that loving one’s child more than God is a sin. As MacDonald will explain to the Narrator, however, the only way to be a truly loving person is to love God—the being of infinite goodness—above everything and everyone else. Loving God allows human beings to love each other fully and selflessly. On the other hand, parents like Pam who claim to love their children “more than anything” have turned their backs on God, and therefore will be unable to love their children fully, or live truly moral lives.

It might seem barbaric to accuse a grieving mother of being a sinner—and yet, as the passage suggests, Pam doesn’t truly love her son at all. Because Pam has turned her back on God, her supposed “love” for her child is greedy and selfish. She claims that “Michael is mine,” and acts as if Michael is a part of her own body. Pam’s feeling for her child don’t seem like love so much as a desire for power and control. This reinforces MacDonald’s argument that true love for other people is only possible when one loves God first and foremost—otherwise, “love” can be just another form of selfishness.

“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.

Ye must ask, if the risen body even of appetite is as grand a horse as ye saw, what would the risen body of maternal love or friendship be?

Related Characters: George MacDonald (speaker), The Narrator
Related Symbols: The Lizard
Page Number: 115
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Narrator and MacDonald continue to discuss what they’ve witnessed in the Valley of the Shadow of Life. They’ve seen a man with a lizard—symbolizing his lust—whispering to him and keeping him from Heaven. When the man allows an angel to kill his lust, the lizard transforms into a stallion that carries the man toward Heaven. The implication of this scenario, as MacDonald explains, is that when people sacrifice their desires—whether it’s a lustful desire for sex, or a more wholesome love for one’s child—God rewards them for their sacrifice, transforming the sacrificed desire into something beautiful, and arguably returning the corrupted virtue of sin to its original, godly quality (just as the lizard was transformed into a stallion). If Pam, the woman who stubbornly refused to give up her love for her dead child, could only sacrifice her love for Michael, MacDonald explains, her love would be transformed into a “risen body” of incredible beauty and power, and Pam would be amply rewarded in Heaven. Indeed, though it is more difficult to give up her selfish love than it was for the man to give up his clearly sinful lust, that corrupted motherly love has the potential to be transformed into something far more beautiful and powerful than the “stallion” that the lustful lizard became.

The passage, when studied alongside the other three quotes from this chapter, helps to clarify Lewis’s complicated, somewhat controversial ideas about love. The notion that a mother who obsessively loves her dead child can be a sinner might strike some people as cruel. Here, Lewis arguably makes this idea more acceptable (and palatable) by showing that Pam’s reward for sacrificing her love for Michael would be enormous—since such a sacrifice is very difficult to make. In short, Lewis acknowledges that it’s very difficult for a mother to give up her love for her child and “turn back to God”—and it’s because such an act is so difficult that God rewards people who find the strength to do so.

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

“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.