C. S. Lewis intended The Great Divorce in part to be a rebuttal to a famous poem by the English author William Blake: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Essentially, Blake used his poem to argue that Hell gets a “bad rap.” While Christian theology claims that Hell is wicked, and should be avoided at all costs, Blake proposed that Hell—and evil in general—was a vital component of creativity, enlightenment, and happiness. In all, Blake suggested that the only way for humans to be truly enlightened was to “marry” Heaven and Hell in their lives—in other words, to be kind and lawful (Heavenly), but also proud and devious (Hellish). Blake further suggested that a life lived according to traditional Christian values would be boring, repetitive, and overly “prudish,” and even implied that God and Satan were allies. Lewis despises this theory, and tries to refute Blake’s argument, “divorcing” Heaven and Hell for good.
Lewis’s first line of attack against Blake (and Romanticism in general, which Blake is essentially representing) is to show that Heaven is the source of all human enlightenment, happiness, and beauty. Lewis’s argument is epitomized in the character George MacDonald’s claim that Heaven is “reality itself.” Heaven, and good, are “real” in the sense that they’re utterly rational; indeed, Lewis endeavors to show that Christianity is really just “common sense,” meaning that sinners have foolishly confused themselves into worshipping evil and Hell (see the following theme). Furthermore, Lewis suggests that true happiness is only possible in Heaven. Sinners may believe that they’re happy; but in reality, they’ve just embraced short-term pleasures and sacrificed the eternal, profound pleasures of Heaven. There is, in short, no true enlightenment without Heaven—contrary to what Romantics like Blake maintained. The novel also argues that God (as the ultimate Creator) is the source of all creativity, so there can be no beauty, art, or creativity that doesn’t originally come from him, and reflect the beauty of Heaven. While William Blake might claim that the greatest art is that which incorporates both Heaven and Hell into its design, Lewis suggests that Blake has a misunderstanding of what Hell really means—by its very nature, nothing beautiful or creative could ever come from Hell.
Lewis’s second major line of attack against Blake is to present Hell as a boring, repetitive, and ultimately meaningless place—essentially, taking Blake’s criticism of Heaven and applying it to Hell. Hell, as depicted by Lewis, is far from the creative haven that Blake posited. On the contrary, damned souls barely interact with one another at all, and most of them have drifted millions of miles away. There are many creative people in Hell, but because they lack the true “spark” of beauty and enlightenment that Heaven alone can provide, they’re incapable of producing great art or philosophy. Lewis then delivers the final blow to Blake’s ideas at the end of The Great Divorce when he reveals that Hell is tinier than Heaven—so tiny, indeed that it could fit inside a butterfly’s mouth. Lewis suggests that Hell, quite apart from being a worthy equal to Heaven, is actually almost nothing: put another way, evil is simply the absence of beauty, enlightenment, creativity, and all the other things that only Heaven can provide. In short, Lewis argues that Blake was wrong to fetishize Hell—the supposed merits of Hell are either 1) not really merits at all, or 2) actually found in Heaven.
Heaven, Hell, and the “Great Divorce” ThemeTracker
Heaven, Hell, and the “Great Divorce” 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.
That's one of the disappointments. I thought you'd meet interesting historical characters. But you don't: they're too far away.
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.
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.
“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.”
“When the doctrine of the Resurrection ceased to commend itself to the critical faculties which God had given me, I openly rejected it. I preached my famous sermon. I defied the whole chapter. I took every risk.”
"What risk? What was at all likely to come of it except what actually came—popularity, sales for your books, invitations, and finally a bishopric?”
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.
“I thought they were at war?”
“Of course you did. That's the official version. But who's ever seen any signs of it? Oh, I know that's how they talk. But if there’s a real war why don't they do anything? Don't you see that if the official version were true these chaps up here would attack and sweep the Town out of existence? They've got the strength. If they wanted to rescue us they could do it.”
“But I don't understand. Is judgment not final? Is there really a way out of Hell into Heaven?”
“It depends on the way ye’re using the words. If they leave that grey town behind it will not have been Hell. To any that leaves it, it is Purgatory.”
Hell is a state of mind—ye never said a truer word. And every state of mind, left to itself, every shutting up of the creature within the dungeon of its own mind—is, in the end, Hell. But Heaven is not a state of mind. Heaven is reality itself. All that is fully real is Heavenly.
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.
“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.”
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.