The Great Divorce is the story of a man, a man dreaming of an exploratory trip to Heaven. He arrives on a bus with many other riders, all of whom are approached by angels, who are trying to help the people to overcome their issues and fears, so that they can enter the kingdom of Heaven.
They are all pretty much given the options of Heaven or Hell, Hell being not so much the fiery pit described by Dante, but more a matter of Not Heaven. The title refers to William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, which C.S. Lewis refutes, saying “If we insist on keeping Hell (or even earth) we shall not see Heaven: if we accept Heaven then we shall not be able to retain even the smallest and most intimate souvenirs of Hell.” (Hell being described as Not Heaven brings Buffy to mind, of course….she sings, “I live in Hell, ’cause I’ve been expelled from Heaven”. Sorry for the Buffy tangent.) In The Great Divorce, the riders of the bus are sadly mainly determined to hang on to their Earthly faults, unwilling to forgive or forget, or simply be happy, and thus condemn themselves to Hell.
The scenes in which the riders argue with the angels about leaving Earth behind reminded me of nothing so much as the scene in Lewis’s The Last Battle, when the characters enter the tent, and all see what it is that they hope to see in their deepest hearts. One might assume that one’s deepest wish would be to see Heaven, but for some of us, the desire for revenge, or self-glorification, for vindication or validation or justification, might be stronger than the desire for redemption, joy, and eternal happiness.
The angels, who have been sent to welcome the riders into Heaven, are the spirits of people they knew in their life on Earth. Sometimes it is someone they loved and cared for, and other times it might be a mortal enemy.
The segment that struck me most was an angel, talking to her newly arrived love (The Tragedian), who is dismayed to discover that she has been quite happy in Heaven without him.
“You mean,” said the Tragedian, “you mean, you did not love me truly in the old days.”
“Only in a poor sort of way,” she answered. “I have asked you to forgive me. There was little real love in it. But what we called love down there was mostly the craving to be loved. In the main I loved you for my own sake; because I needed you. ”
“And now!” said the Tragedian with a hackneyed gesture of despair. “Now, you need me no more?”
“But of course not!” said the lady; and her smile made me wonder how both the phantoms could refrain from crying out with joy.
“What needs could I have,” she said, “now that I have all? I am full now, not empty. I am in Love Himself, not lonely. Strong, not weak. You shall be the same. Come and see. We shall have no need for one another now. We can begin to love truly.”
A very interesting observation, that so much of love is based on our own desires and fears. Our fear of being lonely, alone and scared. Our desire for family and companionship. But what of love that is based not on our own fears or dreams, but instead, solely on a love for the other person, a desire to make that person happy, and to be happy together.
I’m not sure if our Earthly lives will allow for such a pure love, but it is wonderful to contemplate.