Book Review: The Great Divorce

The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When it comes to titles, “The Great Divorce” leaves much to be desired. Before I first read it (which was something like 18 years ago now), I always pictured it as being some long, densely-written tome that discussed . . . I don’t know. Some abstract thought thing that would put me to sleep after about three lines. Yes, it’s by CS Lewis, but come on. “The Great Divorce”? It practically screams “Don’t read me!” right from the cover.

But I was forced to read the book as part of a class I took on CS Lewis back at BYU, and I was so glad I got shoved into the act. And while I’m stuck in-doors, I decided to revisit it, and it was just as good the second time as it was the first. I gave it a 9/10, and I really recommend it to anyone who’d like a good book that will make you think. It’s an excellent companion to his more well-known Screwtape Letters.

Why will you like it? For one thing, it’s anything but long and dry. It clocks in at 146 pages, and much of it breezes along. It tells a first person account of a supposed dream Lewis has, in which he begins in hell and travels from there to heaven. Except hell is anything but the fire pool of torment you would typically imagine. It’s a world very like our own, peopled entirely by individuals who choose to remain there, and the bulk of the book is devoted to examining the different reasons people have for staying in hell rather than going to heaven.

Basically, it’s a series of character studies, as Lewis sees one interaction after another, with each person from hell giving a different reason for why they don’t want to go to heaven. Many of them can be hit quite close to home. There are a few times when Lewis really dives into some dense thoughts, and those are the few times I think he flounders a bit to try to capture what he’s trying to say. At least, those were the time that the book felt weakest to me (though perhaps others would love them). For me, the book (and Lewis in general) is strongest when he’s talking about big thoughts in very easy to understand terms. Here are a couple of highlights from the text that stood out to me:

“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened.” (p59)

“That is what mortals misunderstand. They say of some temporal suffering, “No future bliss can make up for it,” not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory. And of some sinful pleasure they say “Let me have but this and I’ll take the consequences”: little dreaming how damnation will spread back and back into their past and contaminate the pleasure of the sin. Both processes begin even before death. The good man’s past begins to change so that his forgiven sins and remembered sorrows take on the quality of Heaven: the bad man’s past already conforms to his badness and is filled only with dreariness. And that is why, at the end of all things, when the sun rises here and the twilight turns to blackness down there, the Blessed will say “We have never lived anywhere except in Heaven,” and the Lost, “We were always in Hell.” And both will speak truly.” (p54)

But there’s a ton more in there that’s really worthy of reading. So if you’re stuck inside for a while, and you’d like to raise your thinking a bit, give The Great Divorce a chance. Just don’t be too stuck on the title.

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