The unnamed Narrator of The Great Divorce has a long, vivid dream, during which he witnesses surreal scenes from the afterlife and learns valuable lessons about Christianity, morality, and love. The fact that the novel is structured as a dream suggests two important, closely related questions: first, what are the strengths and weaknesses of dreams and fantasy as Christian teaching tools; second, to what extent can Christianity be taught at all?
Because it’s framed as a dream, the novel presents the Narrator’s experiences as subjective, rather than literally and universally true, suggesting some limits on their educational content. In interviews and essays, Lewis made it plain that his account of the afterlife shouldn’t be taken literally. Lewis believed in the afterlife, but in his novel he never claims to know everything about Heaven and Hell; instead, the book represents his imagining of how Hell and Heaven might be. Indeed, Lewis’s imagining of Hell and Heaven are altogether different from the traditional Christian Heaven and Hell: in Lewis’s novel, damned souls can choose to travel out of Hell and go to Heaven (though few do so). To make it crystal-clear that his novel isn’t offering any kind of literal truth about the afterlife, Lewis presents the Narrator’s travels as a dream—an experience that is, by definition, subjective.
But by qualifying the literal truth of his novel, Lewis focuses readers’ attention on the spiritual, metaphorical truth of the Narrator’s experiences—a kind of truth that fantasies and dreams are ideally suited to present. In his dreams, the Narrator sees bizarre people and places that teach him important Christian ideas symbolically. Often, the people he meets have their innermost qualities represented in some external form. For instance, he meets a man who “carries” his lust in the form of a tiny red lizard, and a man named Frank who pretends to be offended by controlling a giant with a chain. Similarly, the Narrator travels to places whose very geography symbolizes an emotional state—for example, going to Heaven, in The Great Divorce, involves climbing a mountain—an apt metaphor for the struggle for salvation. By externalizing and literalizing abstract concepts—lust, redemption, self-pity, etc.—the novel makes these concepts particularly easy to understand. In general, the novel’s imaginary, dreamlike plot educates people—both readers and the Narrator himself—about key Christian concepts where a literal, abstract discussion of these same concepts might fall short. (There is also a long Christian tradition of using fantasy and allegory to teach religious lessons, arguably starting with the parables of Jesus himself.)
Another noteworthy consequence of the novel’s use of fantasy and allegory is that it emphasizes the common faith of all Christians, rather than the literal differences between Christian sects. Although the novel addresses many aspects of faith, such as free will, sacrifice, love, pity, and redemption, it contains few, if any, specific mentions of Christian practices. Totally absent are mentions of baptism, Holy Communion, confirmation, etc.—rituals that, according to many sects and denominations, are essential parts of the religion. Where a literal discussion of Christianity presumably would have to discuss literal Christian rituals, Lewis’s allegorical treatment of Christianity is better-suited for discussing the spiritual, or even psychological, aspects of the faith. (For example, it would be difficult for The Great Divorce to present a ritual like communion symbolically—particularly since communion is arguably a symbolic ritual to begin with.) By emphasizing faith and spirituality and downplaying specific rituals, the novel seems to imply that Christians are defined primarily by their morality and faith, rather than their fidelity to a set of complicated, arbitrary rules—or, put another way, Christians are defined primarily by what they believe, not what they do.
Even though fantasy and metaphor can be highly effective teaching tools, they’re not enough to convince people to lead virtuous, moral lives. Dreams cannot make a human being become a Christian; they can only encourage good, Christian behavior. Ultimately, humans must exercise their free will and choose to embrace religion (see Free Will theme). Partly for this reason, The Great Divorce ends with the Narrator waking up from his dream in a cold, dark room. The Narrator must decide whether to apply the lessons he’s learned to his daily life—the same choice facing readers as they finish Lewis’s novel.
Dreams, Fantasy, and Education ThemeTracker
Dreams, Fantasy, and Education Quotes in The Great Divorce
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.
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.
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.
“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.
This put me in mind to ask my Teacher what he thought of the affair with the Unicorns. “It will maybe have succeeded,” he said. “Ye will have divined that he meant to frighten her, not that fear itself could make her less a Ghost, but if it took her mind a moment off herself, there might, in that moment, be a chance. I have seen them saved so.”
“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.
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?
“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.
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.
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.
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.