The Great Divorce, Chapter 12

This summer, EPIC students are reading The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis and blogging about it together. This week’s post comes from Becky Gregg.

Becky Gregg
Becky Gregg

The twelfth chapter of C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce opens with the narrator and George MacDonald witnessing mass numbers of Solid People singing, the combined brightness almost too much to look at directly. Looking closer, they see that the singing is to celebrate a woman who is at the center. She is radiating extreme light and happiness. Several children and animals are on either side of her. She is glorified and celebrated by everyone around her. At first it seems she is looking in the direction of the narrator and his Teacher, but in fact she is looking past them, at another Ghost.

This Ghost is seemingly not one being, but two: a tall, lanky Tragedian with a collar and chain led by a dwarf. The Ghosts and this woman know each other. The woman Spirit, named Sarah Smith, addresses the dwarf, not the Tragedian. She kisses the dwarf, who is named Frank, and apologizes to him. She asks Frank for a pardon in regards to any wrong she did him and for all the things she did not do. Instead of Frank responding, the Tragedian does, saying “We’ll speak no more about it, we all make mistakes.” The Tragedian goes on to explain that he was not even worried about any wrongdoing, but that Sarah was spending her time in the afterlife worrying about him. He is devastated to learn that she has not worried or pitied him, because there is no need for that in Heaven.

He asks her if she missed him, and again, she says there’s no need for that in the country of Heaven. They continue to go back and forth where through the mouth of the Tragedian Frank tries to get Sarah to pity him. She tells him she would not be miserable just for misery’s sake, that there was no need for guilt or pity, and that she was able to fully love.

Frank asks then if she did not love him on Earth. She explains that her love for him in the old days was fostered from her need to be loved. She loved Frank for her own sake when they were alive. Now, in Heaven, Sarah has no needs. She can love Frank fully now and is no longer loving for her own needs. Frank interprets this as Sarah no longer needing him, and he tries to make Sarah pity him. Sarah just laughs, because all of it is so unnecessary. The laugher makes Frank the dwarf more solid and less pity-seeking. Yet in the end his “unselfishness” and pity-seeking behavior conquer his desire for true happiness.

I think this spirit woman’s name even represents maybe how ordinary she was on Earth. Her being a glorious Solid Person is a symbol of how her devotion and faithfulness as an ordinary human made her a glorious celebrated spirit in Heaven. It is almost like Lewis is saying that those who are devoted in their faith during their life will be rewarded in the afterlife with celebration, like an incentive.

Later when she is telling Frank that she did not totally love him, I believe Sarah is talking about how we, as humans, have needs. Human nature calls for relationships and also the feeling of being needed and loved. I looked a little into this and found Lewis’ The Four Loves. In this he talks about Gift Love vs. Need Love. Gift Love is giving love to someone or something without personal benefit, whereas Need Love is giving love out of personal need. Humans can’t solely give Gift Love, because we have needs. There was no way Sarah could solely feel Gift Love toward Frank on Earth, because her mortal nature got in the way.

The persona of Frank being split into two beings confuses me almost. Why are both beings not optimal? It is not like one version is amazing and the other hideous. They both are odd-looking creatures. Also, why is the Tragedian being pulled by a collar and chain? There are several different paths I could go down. Could the tragedy-fueled characters symbolize the need for Frank to be pitied? Frank’s persona has become the actual man. His unselfishness – Frank giving Sarah the last stamp even though he wanted to send a letter – needed to be noticed. This leads to the self-pity that follows Frank to the afterlife.

Another reasoning for the two people representing one is the divided nature of Frank. His desire for true happiness and his desire to be pitied and recognized for his selflessness combine into one being.

This chapter gave me a lot to think on. I suppose it widened my perspective about how the way we live our lives on Earth can carry on into the afterlife, and also how “worldly thinking” (selfishness, those seven deadly sins, etc.) can honestly make us different people than who we were “meant” to be.


The Great Divorce, Chapter 11

This summer, EPIC students are reading The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis and blogging about it together. This week’s post comes from Richard Hill.

Richard Hill
Richard Hill

In the eleventh chapter of The Great Divorce, the narrator continues following the teacher and comes upon two more “ghosts” from the bus. The first is a mother who has just arrived talking to her brother, a “spirit,” about how she wants to meet her son Michael, who died years ago and is already in heaven. All this time her brother is trying to explain to her that she cannot see him because she is no longer loving God in her relationship with her son, and is hardly loving Michael either.

This relationship is a good example of a problem that I’ve encountered. In this situation, this woman was so focused on getting access to her son that she lost sight of loving him and God. I’ve found that in many situations it’s not very hard to do things without remembering why I’m doing them, and I’ve then lost some of the significance of why I was doing them in the first place. This situation was particularly bad, as the woman had not only lost sight of loving God and her son, but had also been so focused on the memory of her son that she lost sight of other things and neglected the other members of her family in the process.

The narrator leaves that scene before we learn whether she ever comes to understanding and is able to stay in heaven. The narrator seems hopeful of her stay, but the teacher he is following seems to suggest otherwise.

The next pair they come upon is a man talking to what we figure out to be an angel. The man is accompanied by a lizard, which seems to loosely represent the man’s bad ideas and negative thoughts. The angel is repeatedly asking if the man wants it to kill the lizard, and the man is hesitant to let it happen. This situation seems to point out that even though the man knows that the lizard is a problem, he’s gotten so used to it, that he isn’t sure if it’s a good idea to get rid of.

Eventually the angel eventually kills the lizard, which turns into a stallion, and the man rides off on it into the mountains. This seems to be showing that even though this ghost is particularly nasty, he is able to go into the mountains after what seems like a pretty simple acknowledgment of his lizard and letting the angel kill it.


The Great Divorce, Chapter 10

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.

Jon in CamasThe 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.

The Great Divorce, Chapter 9

This summer, EPIC students are reading The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis and blogging about it together. This week’s post comes from Meredith Bee.

Meredith Bee

In chapter 9, the narrator meets a Scottish spirit who is described as ageless and weather-beaten with a flowing beard. When our narrator learns that the ghost’s name is George MacDonald, he suddenly seems to trust the spirit and is enthusiastic to talk to him because he has read his books. Our narrator then seems comfortable asking the spirit if the ghosts can stay and if they really have a choice to stay. The spirit answers ambiguously, saying that the narrator can’t understand in his current state.

The spirit explains that the ghosts sometimes go on trips to earth or heaven, and that most who visit heaven will go back to the gray city. The two continue to have a conversation about how the ghosts can get hung up on certain things. Some ghosts get hung up on the fact that they are actually ghosts (a deep horror to themselves) and will go back to haunt the earth. Some ghosts get hung up on a purpose and lose all meaning in what they are doing.

One part that I think is really powerful is when the spirit explains that Hell is a state of mind. When people get stuck on material wealth or a purpose in life they are locking themselves into a “dungeon of their own mind.” The spirit tells the narrator, “Heaven is reality itself. All that is fully real is Heavenly.”  I think that this is a powerful understanding, that to obtain all that is true and real you need to not be stuck in a frame of mind.

One example of this is when the narrator and spirit overhear a famous painter talking to another spirit. The painter just wants to paint everything and doesn’t understand when the spirit tells him that there is no point in painting right then. The spirit tries to explain that in order to paint he first needs to look around and understand a little more. He continues by telling the painter that on earth he was a good painter because he could capture pieces of heaven and portray it for other people to see. But in heaven, all the spirits already can see it, so there is no point until he can understand something they don’t. In order to understand more, he needs to go into the mountains and go to a fountain. The painter doesn’t seem so opposed to this until the spirt (after the painter asks) explains that there are no famous people in heaven, because everyone is famous in heaven. The painter, unwilling to give up his reputation, decides to go back to the gray city to save the “future of art.”

It makes me reflect on my life. What have I been hung up on? Is it helping me find a closer relationship with God, or am I trapping myself in the dungeons of my own mind?

The Great Divorce, Chapter 8

Tommy Tubbs

This summer, EPIC students are reading The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis and blogging about it together. This week’s post comes from Tommy Tubbs.

In chapter 8, the narrator witnesses an encounter between a ghost and a spirit. The ghost is a very pessimistic being, lamenting that it exists in constant pain, saying, “I wish I’d never been born. What are we born for?” The spirit then tells the ghost, “We are here for infinite happiness,” and that said happiness can be reached at any moment. The ghost continues to reject the spirit’s offer. The conversation is cut short when a heard of unicorns runs through the field, and the ghost flees, as well as the narrator.

Despite being cut short, this conversation leaves a big impact on the narrator. The conversation between the ghost and the spirit reminds me of those between Jesus and the Pharisees in the gospels, with Jesus promising infinite bliss in the Kingdom of God, but the Pharisees and others rejecting his offer for fear of commitment. I particularly liked how Lewis chose to make both the ghost and the spirit featureless so each reader can project their own ideas onto them (again, not unlike parables). Despite this being a short chapter, I felt there was a lot to think about in here. In some cases we can be our own worst enemies on our spiritual journey. Our fears of inadequacy can sometimes be the only thing holding us back.


The Great Divorce, chapters 6 and 7

Halley Egnew
Halley Egnew

This summer, EPIC students are reading The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis and blogging about it together. This week’s post comes from Halley Egnew.

Chapter six tells the story of the bowler-hatted ghost, Ikey, going after one of heaven’s golden apples. Our narrator recounts how he witnesses Ikey struggling across the piercing grass toward a tree laden with heaven’s golden apples. Ikey darts as fast as he can between trees, as if he were sneaking up on the tree, looking to steal a golden apple.

Ikey is struggling so much to retrieve one of the apples, just like we all struggle to find contentment. He is so obviously in pain as he journeys to claim one of the apples. Our narrator describes how the ghost Ikey would “clasp its hands and writhe in the agony of its frustration.” And nonetheless, Ikey persists towards his goal. Once he has received one of the apples, he slinks away in shame and the booming, liquid voice of an angel declares “Fool, put it down… 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.” Still, Ikey ignores the voice of the angel, and painfully and guiltily he makes his way out of the grove.

What do these golden apples represent? They could be material wealth—they are gold, after all. They could be prosperity. Or, they could be true happiness and fulfillment. The latter is what I’m inclined to believe. Why else would Ikey go to such literal pains to retrieve one? He won’t even be able to eat it—it’s so heavy I doubt he could lift it to his mouth.

I see Ikey as representing one who uses material means to try and achieve true happiness, while ignoring his spiritual self. He must work doubly—triply—hard to retrieve the apple than if he were able to just walk over and pick it up. This is because he isn’t doing so with a faithful heart. If he were to “learn to eat such apples” and grow in faith, he would find that he can enjoy pocketfuls of them, instead of hauling away the smallest one shamefully and with such pain. You can’t really achieve fulfillment if you don’t accept it with your spirit, no matter how many golden apples you drag around.

Jesus has told us that the world “will delight” to teach us to grow in the Spirit. Why then do we insist on dragging our burdens with us? Ikey’s story shows how painful, and fruitless, it is to try and achieve happiness without acknowledging our spirituality. Let us realize the opportunity offered in learning how to harvest the fruits of our lives—the good times, the love, and the fulfillment. Let us accept our spirituality and turn with an open heart to God to let God develop it, and us, in the way that God wishes. Let’s learn how to have our golden apples, and eat them too!

Chapter seven details a conversation between our narrator and someone he calls the “Hard-Bitten Ghost.” I found this conversation to be very familiar, covering details that I can recall discussing with other college students.

Basically, this Hard-Bitten Ghost is a big “Debbie Downer.” Our main character states that, on first glance, the ghost appeared as a man with “a gruff but not uneducated voice … the kind of man that I have always instinctually felt to be reliable.” We’ve all met someone like this, an “everyman” whose words seem to echo our own thoughts in ways that we never thought to express them, and whose statements have been put to the test. By all accounts, he seems to be a preacher of common truth. But as our hero begins talking with him, his sweeping statements about life begin to show a little pessimism.

When our hero expresses how he is considering staying in Heaven, the Hard-Bitten Ghost replies, “That’s all propaganda … of course there never was any question of our staying.” He points out that not only are Heaven’s grasses piercing and the food and water inedible, but in fact the rain will shoot the unsuspecting ghosts full of holes. “All that idea of staying is just an advertisement stunt.” What a woeful outlook! The Hard-Bitten Ghost goes on to complain that, all of his life, he’s been sold short. Authority figures keep telling him to hold out for the next thing and he’ll grow to like it, but he never does.

It’s easy to fall into the Hard-Bitten Ghost’s mindset. The beginning of critical thinking is questioning everything, but if you never move on from that you’ll always be unhappy. The ghost’s story is always the same. Wherever he was, he always questioned why, and asked for more, and was disappointed. Like our hero, I have found myself drawn to those who claim to be preachers of truth, people who are quick to call up short the institutions that make up our society. These people seem revolutionary, for a time. But it is easy to point fingers, and true wisdom and truth don’t come merely from questioning what is going on. Sometimes, as our narrator realizes, you need to trust.

True growth, love, and happiness come from relationships built on trust, not relationships built out of mutual hatred. This is why the Hard-Bitten Ghost has never found fulfillment—he isn’t looking for it! He looks to poke holes in every opportunity for the rush that he gets from it. And he is successful. I believe that the lesson of this chapter is that, in order to live a happy life, you have to accept happiness into your life. The Hard-Bitten Ghost has had a hard life and is bitter about it. But I wonder, has he ever asked for help? Has he ever stopped just to enjoy himself without questioning? These are skills that we must cultivate if we hope to live a fulfilled life.


The Great Divorce, Chapter 5

Jon and Abe
Jon Fedele

This summer, EPIC students are reading The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis and blogging about it together. The fifth post in our series comes from Jon Fedele.

C. S. Lewis writes The Great Divorce, about those past dead traveling on a bus from hell to heaven. They are not prevented from going to heaven (as a prisoner cannot leave prison at will or as we could not leave the Milky Way Galaxy tomorrow – which is to say, by practical or physical constraint). Rather, they seem to be kept there or bound to return there by various levels of stubbornness, unwilling to accept the reality that they have wound up in hell at last.

At first, the book reads to me a little like someone talking at me, saying things that I don’t find particularly engaging—it’s too fanciful and dream-like. But by the fifth chapter, the one I am writing about, I’ve actually begun to find it interesting. It’s about a biased intellectual, the Fat Ghost, who was a bishop in life but ended up in hell, talking with his old friend Dick, one of the Fat Ghost’s intellectual contemporaries in life who became “narrow-minded” in his later life and spends the afterlife in heaven.

At first I felt tempted to write about this remark by the Fat Ghost. When Dick asks him if he believes God exists, the biased intellectual replies,

“Exists? What does Existence mean? You… keep implying some sort of static, ready-made reality which is, so to speak, ‘there,’ and to which our minds have simply to conform. … If there were such a thing… I should not be interested in it.”

I first wished to write about metaphysics, since there are a very many ideas which intellectuals send our way, the existence of which we should question. The popular parlance among people under fifty goes, “X is a thing,” where X is a noun whose existence in reality has been asserted, and not always a material substance. But before I got too deep into those things I learned in philosophy class, I realized I was missing a larger picture. To wit, if it’s cold outside and you are outside, the cold is a part of reality you must conform to. I find, in such situations, that abstractions about what existence is are much less comforting than fire.

The human mind can invent many fictions to keep from acknowledging reality. We are much more skillful than we know at explaining why things are the way we said they were. It can hold us back in life, and the worry Lewis explores is that it might hold us back in death too. When confronted by evidence that he has wound up in hell, the Fat Ghost invents ideas that say evening is morning.

The Fat Ghost has been sent to hell—although he doesn’t see it as hell and believes Dick should discuss it reverently—because of apostasy. I’m an open-minded fellow most of the time, so it makes me a little uneasy when it is suggested that one might be damned for what one has thought, for the contents of one’s mind. But the hell that C. S. Lewis sets up doesn’t seem that bad when compared to fire and brimstone; it is more eternal listlessness than eternal agony. Moreover, the Fat Ghost’s friend offers that he may turn from his old ways now, even after he has already lived in the hell for some time.

Maybe the essential part of the Fat Ghost’s damnable apostasy was that he refused to look for the truth. He’s offered the chance to accept what would take him out of the gloomy town he began in. Failing that, he’s again offered to go on a difficult journey and see new things. But this thinking man, having made a profession for himself based on inquiry, cannot stand too many incontrovertible answers.

I suppose the lesson to be taken from all this is “seek out the truth”–the truth, not what is fashionable to say is the truth. But how will you know you have found it? Well, I suppose we should all hope that the answer to this question will manifest itself hereafter. After all, as Lincoln observed, “Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.”