As the Narrator surveys the river and the trees, he hears a sound, and two huge lions emerge from the trees. Quickly, the Narrator moves away from the lions and drifts toward the river. There, he finds a ghost talking with one of the Spirits, or “Bright People.” The ghost was the fat man who spoke to the Narrator on the bus.
The chapter is full of symbols whose meaning won’t be clear until much later. The lions, we’ll later learn, are possibly supposed to “scare” souls toward Heaven. Their presence also echoes a famous Bible verse about the “lion lying down with the lamb” in Heaven, and lions are otherwise common in Biblical symbology.
The fat ghost is talking to one of the Spirits, whom he refers to as Dick. Indeed, the ghost seems to know the spirit well; he refers to the spirit’s “father,” who lives in the grey town, a long way from the bus. The ghost claims that he refuses to believe in a literal Heaven and Hell. He claims that the grey town where he used to spend time is actually a kind of Heaven, “if only we have eyes to see it.” Dick insists that the ghost is wrong—the grey town is Hell, plain and simple.
The ghost of the fat man maintains that Hell—the grey town from which he’s just come—is actually a kind of Heaven. This bizarre idea parodies the poetry of William Blake, the English author of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. In part, Lewis wrote The Great Divorce to rebut Blake’s arguments and, like Dick, reiterate that Hell and Heaven are two entirely different places.
Dick explains that the fat ghost was sent to the grey town because he was an apostate—he committed “sins of intellect.” The ghost is confused—he claims that he was honest and bold in his beliefs, rejecting the doctrine of the Resurrection because it didn’t make logical sense to him. Dick accuses the ghost of writing provocative criticisms of the Resurrection doctrine so that the ghost could make money and be appointed to “a bishopric.” Furthermore, Dick claims, the ghost didn’t honestly “come by” his beliefs—in school, he just learned to write challenging essays that got good grades. The fat ghost denies this, claiming that his opinions and beliefs were his own, “sincerely expressed.” Dick compares the ghost to a drunkard who has already drunk so much beer that he believes another pint won’t hurt him. In life, the ghost reached a point where he sincerely believed his own lies—but in the beginning, he embraced provocative viewpoints just for the sake of being provocative.
The ghost—who, based on his position as a bishop, was a clergyman and a religious scholar—claims that he doubts the doctrine of the Resurrection (i.e., the idea that Jesus Christ died for man’s sins and was resurrected three days later). But Dick suggests that the ghost only holds such beliefs because for years he wrote provocative articles questioning Christianity. In other words, the ghost began by lying to other people, until eventually he started lying to himself. Dick’s argument is important because it suggests that at first it’s difficult to believe in one’s own heresies. On some level, sinners know that what they’re doing is wrong—even if, later on, they convince themselves otherwise.
Dick asks the fat ghost if he’ll repent his sins now that he’s seen Hell. The ghost refuses, claiming again that he sincerely believes in his own ideas. Dick offers to show the ghost truth in all its beauty. The ghost claims that he can only be happy in a place where he’s constantly being challenged—Heaven, as Dick describes it, sounds dull and stagnated. The ghost refuses to sacrifice “the free play of Mind” to get into Heaven, and claims that Dick is ordering him to become a child again. Dick insists that the ghost must submit to God, but the ghost claims to doubt that God exists, or that “existence” is an adequate way to describe God. Dick begs the ghost to embrace happiness in Heaven, but the ghost insists that he has to be back in the grey town to “read a paper.” He reminds Dick that Christ was “a very young man” when he died, and would have abandoned some of his naïve beliefs had he lived much longer.
At one point, the ghost believed in Christianity, and only pretended to doubt it in order to write popular articles. But now the ghost has come to believes his own lies, and as a result, can’t force himself to accept Heaven (even after he’s died and entered the afterlife). The ghost’s nonsensical arguments parody the self-conscious radicalism of modern intellectual life (at least as Lewis sees it). The fat ghost is so used to being counterintuitive for its own sake that he’s abandoned the concept of truth altogether. Thus, he leaves for the bus and goes back to the grey town.
As the Narrator observes the fat ghost’s interaction with Dick, he has an idea—perhaps he could walk on water. When the Narrator tries to walk in the river, though, he finds that the river, while solid, is still flowing in one direction—as a result, he falls on his face. The Narrator notices that the river has swept him downstream. By walking on the river upstream very, very quickly, he realizes, he could make “very little progress.”
The chapter ends with a key symbol: the Narrator walking on the river, against the flow of the current. The passage alludes to Christ’s famous miracle of walking on water, and could be considered a metaphor for the struggle for Christian redemption: the path to Heaven can be difficult, since it involves fighting one’s own sinful nature, but ultimately, it is possible to make slow, steady progress toward Heaven. (In the same vein, the “progress” in the passage could be an homage to John Bunyan’s novel The Pilgrim’s Progress, an allegory of a Christian’s progress toward salvation that inspired Lewis’s own writing.)