I recently revisited CS Lewis’ The Great Divorce (1945, 4.27, 4.6), probably one of the founding blocks on which my moral values rest. I read it first close to a decade ago — I forget on what whim — but remember it filling a deep longing for moral truth I didn’t know I had. Studying psychology now, Lewis’ words are as on-target as ever. The book’s main premise of outlining commonly overlooked character flaws is something I think everyone would benefit from exploring. Here’s a peek at the story on stage, something I wish was available on DVD:
The plot twists along a journey from Hell to Heaven, as heavenly spirits try to bring their hell-tied close ones to redemption. The central theme is that this is a free choice — as is damnation — and comes about through a life of patterned behaviour. Throughout the book we eavesdrop on a series of these spiritual encounters where said choice is really highlighted, and where strong values either break and the person blossoms, or hold fast and the person continues down their spiral of selfishness. Of these, three stuck out in my mind.
The first was a mother who was so selfish she refused to see the passing of her child as anything but an affront to herself. In fact, controlling women make at least two appearances in this book… though, the more I think on it, the more this idea of wanting — of needing — control is probably a commonality shared by all the unfortunates. Through this, Lewis points out that it is only in letting go that we can really move forward. To return to this mother, Lewis uses her example to outline how sin can extend far past its traditional domains and enter even such sacred realms as what ought to be purest.
The second encounter is a man hiding behind a mask he’s created for himself. A very full character, Lewis dresses him up as a dwarf holding a mime on a leash. His wife, who comes to meet him and to get him to let go of this pitiful character, manages to get him to speak personally, but he eventually continues his habit of speaking through the mouth of the mime (whom his wife ignores completely). This story ends tragically, with the man disappearing until he’s literally swallowed by the mime, at which point his wife cuts the conversation short and the tragedian vanishes.
The final encounter that really struck me was that of a man addicted, quite probably to lust. Again, Lewis draws up a magnificent visual for the poor soul, with him almost schizophrenically muttering to a red lizard perched on his shoulder, a lizard who keeps trying to placate him and to control him with fear (“… without me for ever and ever. It’s not natural. How could you live?” — “And I’ll be so good. I admit I’ve sometimes gone too far in the past, but I promise I won’t do it again.”). This story ends happily, with the red lizard being destroyed and — through its complete destruction — transforming into a mighty steed. Lewis’ point here is clear: such great energy, when diverted and put on a rightful course, loses not an ounce of its power.
This book gets ★★★★½ stars, with full points for character development (so rich and relatable!), originality (never read something like it), and recommendability (this is a book I find myself recommending most often, and to all sorts of people). It gets ¾ points for both plot development and complexity, the first because this isn’t as much a plotted tale as it is a string of conversations, and the second because the read leans simple, at least this second time through (though I remember swallowing it up in one go when I was a teen).