As Ikey limps away with his apples, the Narrator looks closely at the huge angel. The angel, whom the Narrator calls “the Water-Giant,” does not say anything to the Narrator, but the Narrator begins to feel tired as he stares at the Water-Giant. He wishes that he could bathe in the river instead of walking on it.
The river could be interpreted as a symbol of salvation—thus, the Narrator’s desire to bathe in the river echoes the Christian’s desire for baptism and relief, or the longing to go to Heaven immediately (rather than living a long, morally challenging life on Earth).
The Narrator turns and sees another ghost—a tall man with grey hair and a gruff voice. The Narrator has always instinctively trusted people of this kind. The ghost tells the Narrator that there’s no point in staying by the river. The golden fruit of the tree looks delicious, but it’s just “propaganda,” since it can’t be eaten. The “Hard-Bitten ghost” claims that he’s come to the river to see it for himself—in life, he traveled around the world in order to see exotic sights. But none of these sights pleased him—he always thought they were “advertisement stunts,” run by the same people. Even Hell, according to the ghost, is a “flop”—he was expecting a big, fiery pit full of devils, but it’s just a boring town.
The Hard-Bitten Ghost is a compulsive cynic: no matter how beautiful the sights he sees are, he assumes the worst of them. Thus, the ghost claims that the golden apples are useless and inedible—even though, as the Water-Giant has explained, it would be possible to eat the fruit by spending more time by the river. In short, the Hard-Bitten Ghost is a prisoner of his own pessimism. He speaks as if the world is always miserable, but really, the misery is in his own head.
The Narrator guesses that by staying by the river, he and the Hard-Bitten Ghost could become “solider,” an idea that the ghost promptly rejects. The ghost complains that people have always been telling him to be good and well-behaved—but he’s never gotten anything in return for his good behavior. He points out that “the same old people” run everything. It was “the same people” who controlled both sides of “the wars,” and it was these same people who were behind “the Jews and the Vatican and the Dictators and the Democracies.” He reasons that, if “the official version” were true, “They” could send an army to wipe out Hell forever. The fact that “They” allow Hell to exist at all proves that both sides are controlled by the same people.
The Hard-Bitten Ghost’s belief is arguably another caricature of William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (the poem to which The Great Divorce responds). The ghost insists that Heaven and Hell are run by the “same people” (somewhat like Blake’s idea that good and evil are two sides of the same coin). The Hard-Bitten Ghost poses some valid questions about the nature of evil, but ultimately he’s revealed as a paranoid “conspiracy theorist.”
The Hard-Bitten Ghost tells the Narrator he has to be getting along. Before he leaves, though, he tells the Narrator that it’s going to rain soon—and when it rains, the raindrops will be as hard as bullets. With these words, the ghost moves off, and the Narrator finds himself in a state of “great depression.”
The Hard-Bitten Ghost’s cynical questions cause the Narrator to question his own desire for salvation. Notice that the Ghost makes the Narrator afraid of water (an important Christian image in in the novel)—symbolically underlining the way he turns the Narrator temporarily into despair.