Suddenly the Narrator, still with MacDonald, finds himself surrounded by a “great assembly of gigantic forms.” The Narrator gradually realizes that these “forms” are the souls of human beings. The souls are watching a chessboard, upon which there are chess pieces representing human beings as they appear to one another. The chess pieces move around the board, and the Narrator realizes that the pieces symbolize the history of the universe itself. The chessboard on which the chess pieces move symbolizes time.
In the previous chapter, the Narrator asked MacDonald whether God knows the ultimate fate of humanity. To illustrate the answer to the Narrator’s question, MacDonald shows him a huge chessboard, symbolizing the structure of the universe. The difference between a human being and God is as vast as the difference between a chess piece and a chess master. The crux of the chessboard image is that humans themselves, while they control their own individual actions, don’t control the overall actions of the chessboard, and can’t even see the chessboard—only God (the chess master) can.
The Narrator asks MacDonald about freedom and fate. Were the choices that the ghosts made—choices which sometimes led them into Heaven and sometimes sent them back to Hell—predetermined in the same sense that a chess piece’s moves can be planned in advance? MacDonald replies, “Do not ask of a vision in a dream more than a vision in a dream can give.” The Narrator is confused, but MacDonald explains that the Narrator has been dreaming this entire time. MacDonald urges the Narrator to make it very clear to other people that his vision of the afterlife was just a dream—not the truth about the afterlife.
The Narrator reiterates his concerns about salvation and free will, but MacDonald declines to answer him, suggesting that the answer is beyond human comprehension, and reminding the Narrator that he’s just dreaming. MacDonald’s refusal to answer the question might suggest that it is possible for human beings, with their imperfect knowledge of the world, to exercise free will and for God, who is all-knowing, to know their fate—the two options aren’t mutually exclusive, especially when humans operate only within time, and God operates outside of time, seeing past, present, and future at once.
The Narrator notices that MacDonald is becoming brighter. He hears voices singing, “Sleepers awake!” The sun rises high in the east, and the Narrator tries to hide from the light, since he’s only a humble ghost. He tries to hide in the folds of MacDonald’s clothing, only to find that he’s pressed his face into the cloth of his study table. A book has fallen on his head. He looks around and realizes that he’s in a cold room, there’s a siren howling overhead, and the clock is striking three.
It’s important that the book should end with the Narrator returning to his waking life, emphasizing the fact that the Narrator’s work (and our work) isn’t done yet: the Narrator must use the lessons he’s learned to live morally and truly give up himself to God—a challenging task. Also notice that the Narrator’s “real” world seems cold and lonely—in fact, not so different from the grey town. In this way, the novel again implies that Hell and Earth aren’t so different, and in fact one can be a continuation of the other (as is the case with Heaven as well).