This summer, EPIC students are reading The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis and blogging about it together. This week’s post comes from Jon Fedele.
I just finished reading Chapter 10 of C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, and I feel thankful. I appreciate all those people in my life who help make me better.
The tenth chapter consists entirely of a conversation that the protagonist overhears, and this conversation is almost all one-sided. It involves a dutiful (to a fault) wife, recounting her life for her husband and all she did for him. “‘Robert’s idea was that he’d just slink off by himself every now and then to see what he called his old friends … and leave me to amuse myself! But I knew from the first that those friends were doing him no good. ‘No, Robert,’ said I, ‘your friends are now mine. It is my duty to have them here, however tired I am and however little we can afford it.’” The wife-ghost clearly believes she has gone to great lengths to civilize her husband.
She apparently brought her husband along pretty far in life too. “Well, I got him into the new house at last. … It was a little more than we could really afford at the moment, but all sorts of things were opening out before him. … I began to entertain properly. No more of his sort of friends, thank you. I was doing it all for his sake.” The wife-ghost brought her husband further than he wanted to go, it seems.
I think we’re lucky to have people in our lives who want to grow with us, who see our benefit as in their interests or even appreciate it as an end unto itself. I imagine that the wife-ghost deeply wished to be such a person to her husband, and I feel a bit sorry, even though it’s fiction, that it didn’t work out that way for them. We ought to try to feel happy that others wish for our benefit, even if we don’t all agree on what a good life is.
But when we try to make others improve while not growing ourselves, trouble is afoot. In the case of the tenth chapter, the ambitious wife and the self-contented husband did not go well together. In the wife-ghost’s words, “‘Instead of realizing that we now had a chance to spread out a bit, all he said was, ‘Well now, for God’s sake let’s have some peace.’ That nearly finished me.’” It seems like the husband was satisfied with modest earthly gains, while the wife’s vicarious ambition for getting things done was boundless, undirected—progress for the sake of progress. So, knocking on heaven’s door, she was unable to let go of the grudge that her husband, who was already inside, hadn’t properly appreciated her attempts to improve him in life.
The chapter ends when the wife-ghost decides she wants the opportunity to rule over her husband in heaven and improve him more. In the grey town, she’s been without anything to do things to, and others were unwilling to accept her tutelage. She then throws a fit, snaps, and is no more. Without things to manipulate, there is nothing more of the wife-ghost left and she becomes nothingness. That’s a pretty grim consequence for being a control freak.
I began this post by expressing my gratitude for people like the wife-ghost because I think that’s something that a lot of people need: gratitude, especially if these people think, truly or otherwise, that they are acting for our benefit. Now of course, I don’t think that the husband in the story should have done whatever his wife wanted and been glad about it, but I’d like to think that there was some way that they could have compromised concerning their choice of lifestyle, and such compromise would start with a spirit of generosity. And if such a compromise couldn’t be reached, why spend your life with someone? Scenarios like this are why I think divorce is a good invention on balance.
Vicarious ambition can lead to being consumed by a need to modify others, a need to have someone to ‘do things to,’ at least in C. S. Lewis’s estimation. I think chapter 10 teaches us a few important things. First, ambition should have an end in mind and not be merely for its own sake. Second, be nice to people, and if you can’t be nice to them, don’t marry them. Third, if you’re spending too much time doing things to others, find something else to do.