Last year I assigned C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce as an independent study course to one of our advanced English students at the seminary in Zaporozhye. For each chapter except the very last one I formulated questions for discussion, which we’d go over in our meetings.
It occurred to me that others might find the questions useful or stimulating, either for personal reading of the book or perhaps in a small group. So here they are. Pardon the references to page numbers that might not correspond to an edition you have in hand.
Discussion Questions to The Great Divorce
1. Why do people perennially attempt to “marry” heaven and hell?
2. Why does Lewis take the above attempt to be a disastrous error?
3. In Lewis’ opinion, how do we undo a wrong?
4. According to the author’s speculation, what will people in heaven discover about the sins they gave up in their earthly lives?
5. Why does the author warn us against anticipating that “retrospective vision”; what is the danger in doing so?
6. In what sense does the author say that Earth is part of both heaven and hell?
7. What idea did Lewis get from the story in the science fiction magazine?
8. If you had written to C.S. Lewis and asked him what heaven was really like, how do you think he would have answered you?
1. Why did the author attach himself to the queue?
2. Why do you think the “small, waspish woman” decided not to go on the bus?
3. Describe the attitude of the Short Man.
4. How did someone bilk the lady out of five bob?
5. Why did the people in line immediately react so antagonistically to the appearance of the bus driver?
6. What attitude does the tousle-haired youth have about himself?
1. Characterize (describe) the attitude of the first young man the narrator converses with in this chapter (pages 7-9). What are his core assumptions about life, i.e., about how everyone in the world should treat him and what his role in the world is?
2. The "Intelligent Man" tells the narrator (pp. 9-11) why the city is so empty but also so big. In your own words, explain what motivates people in this gray city to keep moving farther and farther out.
3. The Intelligent Man tells the narrator that Napoleon is tired but still can't stop walking back and forth blaming everybody else for what happened in his life. In your own words, explain why Napoleon can't stop.
4. What is the Intelligent Man's primary motivation in going on this trip to "up there"? What use does he want to make out of the place he's going to visit?
5. The things the Intelligent Man says in a hushed, secretive voice—what do they suggest about the future of the Gray City?
6. The next man who speaks to the narrator (p. 16) has a very different philosophy about the Gray City and its future. Can you identify what is really at the center of this man's "faith"?
7. What did the light that suddenly flooded the bus reveal about the spiritual condition of these people?
1. What does the immediate behavior of the passengers, after the bus came to rest in the land above the cliff, tell you about the impression this new place has made on them so far? (p.19)
2. The writer tries to convey his impressions of this place but "despairs," telling the reader there is no adequate way to express it (p.20). But, from the small clues he gives us, can you formulate in your own words what the relationship is between the unfamiliar place to which the bus has brought him and "this little ball of earth" that the writer is accustomed to?
3. The biggest initial shock to the writer is that he and his fellow travelers are all transparent! Why do you think they are transparent?
4. On page 21 he says that a certain 're-adjustment of the mind or some focussing' of the eyes made everything look different. The people from the bus were no longer transparent, but by comparison the heavenly environment was even "solider." What common conception about Heaven is Lewis is trying to correct by this depiction?
5. Starting on page 22, we begin to see the variety of reactions on the part of the people from the grey city. One woman darts back into the bus and never comes out again. Another man is annoyed by the presence of the others from the grey city. He says he came here specifically to get away from them. On the basis of his comments, is he ready to "move" to this new place? Why or why not?
6. On page 23 Lewis mentions that light "brooded" at the top of a range of mountains in the distance; he also mentions perceiving "the promise—or the threat—of sunrise" resting "immovably up there." Lewis juxtaposes concepts we usually don't juxtapose: "light" and "brooding", "sunrise" and "threat". Why does he do this?
7. Lewis says that "long after that", he noticed the approaching "bright" people from the direction of the mountains. After he first noticed them they were still approaching "mile after mile." What is Lewis saying to us, between the lines, about time in this place?
8. From Lewis's description of these bright people, how would you characterize them with respect to age? How old are they?
1. On page 25, what does Lewis mean by "affecting scenes", and why does he move off (away)? And in what manner does he do so?
2. When Lewis describes the bright man who speaks to the "Big Ghost" as "established in... youthfulness", what kind of youthfulness does Lewis mean here?
3. Why does the Big Ghost consider himself a better person than this bright man? What is the Big Ghost incapable of processing (mentally analyzing and comprehending)?
4. What does the Big Ghost want from this bright man that the bright man cannot give him?
5. When Lewis says that the Big Ghost said, "Personally" with an emphasis that contradicted the ordinary meaning of the word, what is Lewis telling us about this Big Ghost's personality (character)?
6. What was the relationship of the Big Ghost and this bright man when they lived in our world?
7. In what different ways do the Big Ghost and the bright man understand the word "rights"?
8. In what different ways do the Big Ghost and the bright man use the phrase "bleeding charity"?
9. When Lewis mentions that there was a kind of triumph in the Big Ghost's voice when he rejected the bright man's help, what was the basis for that "triumph"? What did the Big Ghost consider to be "victory"?
10. In your own words, characterize the Big Ghost's final state/condition as he walked away after rejecting the invitation to go to the mountains.
1. What is unusual about the heavenly river (p.33), i.e., in connection with its "texture" and its speed? How is this different from earthly rivers?
2. What do the gaiters suggest to us about this ghost? How did he like to spend his time living on earth?
3. The ghost reminds the Bright Man (p.34) that the Bright Man's father would always fall asleep when they started talking "seriously" (about religion) during their lives on earth. What does this suggest about the content of their conversations?
4. The early part of the conversation between these two (pp. 34-35) shows that they understand the gray city in completely different ways. Characterize these two different views.
5. The ghost's attitude toward the Bright Man is what we call "patronizing" in English. Please give some examples of this patronizing attitude.
6. The Bright Man's attitude is simple, frank and realistic. Give some examples of this.
7. The Bright Man says some things that people in our world would consider judgmental and intolerant. But why are they not judgmental or intolerant when he says them?
8. Both of these men mention that the Bright Man became "narrow" near the end of his life. What do you think they are referring to?
9. Why does the ghost think he showed courage by rejecting the Resurrection, and why does the Bright Man tell him it wasn't really courage?
10. Why, according to the Bright Man, was their earthly fall into liberalism intellectually dishonest?
11. When the ghost says the Bright Man's argument is "interesting" and "a point of view", what does he really mean?
12.Why is it so hard for the ghost to comprehend the simple things the Bright Man is saying to him (for example, on pages 38 and 39)? What has happened to the ghost's understanding of language?
13. Why does the ghost characterize absolute truth as "stagnation"? What does this tell us about his way of thinking?
14. A climactic moment in this chapter is on page 41 when the Bright Man offers the analogy of a man who is not free to be thirsty while he's drinking. He is free to drink and enjoy it, but he is not free to remain thirsty. The ghost can't understand this analogy at all. Why?
15. Twice in this chapter, Lewis very creatively lets us know by indirect means that the Bright Man is repelled or disgusted by what the ghost says. The first instance is on page 42 in the paragraphs starting "Exists?" and the second is on page 44, after the ghost says, "...what a tragic waste...so much promise cut short." Describe how the Bright Man is reacting in these two instances and why.
16. The ghost walks away humming a Christian hymn. Describe his self-image as he does this. And why did he choose to hum this particular hymn?
1. On pages 46-47 Lewis describes his perception of a huge waterfall. He says that on earth such a waterfall would have been too big for human senses to "take in" (comprehend, perceive, register) as a single phenomenon, but here his "sensibility" (perception) "took" (adjusted to) both the sound and size of this waterfall. Even though the noise was gigantic, he could enjoy it. What is Lewis saying here about the nature of heaven?
2. On pages 46-47 Lewis describes the strange behavior of "Ikey", who takes about an hour to move, "stealthily," a distance of about ten yards from the hawthorn bush to the "great Tree." What does Ikey's behavior tell the reader about Ikey's intentions? Also, what does the fact that Ikey only covered (crossed) ten yards of ground in an hour tell us about the difference between the characters' experience in this story and the reader's experience in reading this story?
3. As the description of Ikey's actions continue on page 48, it gets both funner and more pathetic. Explain what is funny about this scene, and also what is pathetic about it. Also, characterize Ikey's attitude: what is the difference between how he perceives himsef and how Lewis (or the reader) perceives him in this scene?
4. On page 49 Lewis characterizes Ikey's return path to the bus as a via dolorosa. What is the common understanding of this phrase, and why does Lewis use it here?
5. The angel of the waterfall suddenly speaks. What do you think Lewis means by this depiction? Is the waterfall really an angel? Is the angel really a waterfall? Is Lewis implying that in heaven everything is really alive, including "inanimate" objects? Or...something else? Does Lewis's use of the word "crucified" imply that the angel is suffering?
6. What is the angel's main reason for telling Ikey to give up the idea of taking the apple with him?
1. How did Lewis's attitude (feeling) change after Ikey walked away? Why was he uncomfortable in the presence of the waterfall angel?
2. The next ghost Lewis meets is the "hard-bitten" one. "Hard-bitten" means callous(ed) and cynical, skeptical and "tough." This ghost likes to use the word "they" a lot, talking about the people who "run" things and the lies "they" tell. What does this tell us about his view of life? In his worldview, who is trustworthy?
3. What does he mean by "the same old Ring"?
4. The hard-bitten ghost says that "all this stuff up here (in Heaven) is run by the same people (who run) the (grey) Town. They're just laughing at us." In a way, he is right, but in a deeper way he is wrong. Explain.
5. On page 51, Lewis says that the hard-bitten man's "account of the matter" struck (impressed) him as "uncomfortable plausible." Why did it strike him as plausible, and why was this uncomfortable to him?
6. What do we often call people in the world today who think and talk like this hard-bitten ghost?
7. The hard-bitten ghost gives an impression of being very clever and insightful, of knowing the real story behind everything, but suddenly this impression falls apart, when Lewis asks him what he'd do if he had his choice. Why does it fall apart? What is the truth behind the hard-bitten ghost's façade?
8. What is the hard-bitten ghost most afraid of?
9. How does Lewis's answer to the ghost, "There doesn't seem to be much point in going anywhere on your showing (i.e., on the basis of your argument)," show the crucial fault in the hard-bitten ghost's way of thinking?
10. The hard-bitten ghost's final words, "But they won't catch me that way," points out the central reason why this soul is incapable of repentance. What is it?
1. This chapter begins with the narrator suffering a stream of doubts, questioning the nature of this place and wondering whether it is all a deception. What is the possibility that he most fears?
2. His terror whispers to him, "This is no place for you." In what limited sense is this fear proper and accurate? In what sense is it distorted?
3. Why doesn't he decide immediately to go back to the bus? In other words, what is still keeping him there, in spite of his fear and discomfort?
4. When we first see her (p.59), how is the woman Ghost behaving similarly to the "capitalist" Ghost of chapter 6? How is her behavior also different from his?
5. What is upsetting this woman Ghost? And why? And how does this relate to our spiritual lives in the real world?
6. She tells the Solid Man that she's not afraid of being hurt, and "You know that." What does this last assertion suggest to us about the relationship between them?
7. The woman says the Solid Man is "dressed" but he says he isn't dressed at all. What does she mean?
8. On page 61 the narrator seems to identify thoroughly with this woman. He feels that his own destiny "hangs on" her reply. Remembering his doubts and fears at the beginning of the chapter, explain why he identifies so closely with her and experiences such a torturous suspense waiting for her answer.
9. Why did the Solid Man summon the unicorns?
10. What do you think (speculating)—did the woman Ghost run toward the Solid Man or away from him?
1. When Lewis realizes the Solid Man speaking to him is Geo. MacDonald, he immediately pours out his heart to him, telling him how powerfully MacDonald’s work effected him. But he does this also with a sense of shame or apology. Why?
2. On page 67, Lewis tells MacDonald that, while he is still curious about the matter that disturbed him so strongly before, he no longer feels anxiety about it? Why did Lewis’ anxiety disappear?
3. On page 68, MacDonald refers to this heavenly place as “The Valley of the Shadow of Life.” What does Lewis (as author) mean by this?
4. On page 70, MacDonald agrees that “hell is a state of mind” but he means it in a different way than people on earth might say it. What is the difference? And why can’t Heaven be described similarly as “a state of mind”?
5. The answer that MacDonald gives in the second full paragraph of page 71 can also be taken as Lewis’s answer to readers who can’t understand what Lewis is trying to say about “life after death.” In your own words, what is this answer?
6. Also on page 71, MacDonald emphasizes the role of preference in damnation. According to him, what is this role?
7. The example MacDonald gives, of a Sir Archibald, illustrates the role of “preference”. How can we explain a soul that would prefer the study of the afterlife to the actual, wonderful Heaven God offers after death? What were Sir Archibald’s controlling values, and, also, which other Ghost that we’ve met so far is he most similar to?
8. On page 74, Lewis mentions that he was “moved by a desire to change the subject.” Why was the subject uncomfortable to him?
9. What sacrifice did each Solid Person make to come and meet the Ghost appointed to him?
10. In the statement, “Of course it is also joy to do so, but ye cannot blame us for that!”, there is a surprising twist of logic. We could expect MacDonald to say, “Don’t blame the Solid People for being unhappy about coming back to meet the Ghosts; remember how deeply they desire to go to the mountain!” But instead MacDonald seems to say, “Do not blame the Solid People for being happy about coming back to meet the Ghosts....” Can you finish this explanation logically?
11. On pages 76-77 we read about the Grumbler. According to MacDonald, why is there hope if the woman is still only a “grumbler”? And what is Lewis, as author, telling us about the ultimate effects of sin on the human soul?
12. On pp.79-80, Lewis tells about a lot of the Ghosts whose aim was to become something like celebrities in Heaven. On what basis did they want to do that? What was their central, crucial misunderstanding?
13. The most frightful species of Ghost to Lewis were the “monsters”, the ones who had to come thousands of miles (what does this tell us about them?) even to get on the bus, and came to Heaven only to vent their hatred and resentment. He cannot understand why this was even allowed. Why was it allowed?
14. On pp.82-87 we read the story of the Artist. Give two or three words that represents this Artist’s highest values.
15. If the Artist Ghost went into Heaven and if, after some time, he were allowed to paint again, how would his motivations be different from his motivations for painting at the end of his earthly life? What commentary do you think Lewis is making between the lines about the proper place and use of art in life?
1. What is the relationship between the female Ghost and the Bright Woman she is talking to?
2. When the Ghost says she is ready to forgive, what is her understanding of forgiveness?
3. From the Ghost's account of their early married years, on pp. 90-91, describe how the same years possibly seemed to her husband.
4. From the Ghost's description of how she "entertained" Robert's old friends, describe how such an evening must have seemed to his friends.
5. What is the uniting principle in the way the Ghost forced Robert to give up his writing and his old friends? What does it tell us about what the Ghost wanted most to do?
6. Why did Robert's getting "old and silent and grumpy" (p.93) madden the Ghost so much?
7. Why did Robert simply stare at his wife when she scolded him for being a wet blanket and going to seed?
8. On page 94, the Ghost is summing up why it's impossible for her to...but she doesn't finish the sentence. What was she going to say was "impossible," and what stopped her, and why did she change her mind?
9. What is the real desire of this Ghost that becomes clear in the end? And why does she finally flame out and vanish?
1. The Bright Spirit Reginald tells the Ghost Pam (pp.97-98) that even if Michael came he wouldn’t be able to see her. Reginald can see her because he has “specialized in this sort of work.” What do you think Lewis is telling us here about the varied natures of interpersonal relationships?
2. Pam thinks the main point is when she will be allowed to see Michael, but Reginald points out that the point is actually when it will be possible. What further nuance does this add to the previous question?
3. Clearly, the focus of this chapter is on “mother love” and, by association, all the deepest human love relationships that threaten to become idolatrous. On page 101 Pam deplores and ridicules the mother-son relationship presented by the Guthries in the grey city, with full certainty that her and Michael’s relationship, were Michael with her in the grey city, would have been “perfectly happy.” Explain how Pam is deceiving herself. Why is her theory impossible? Also, how does Romans 2:3 relate to all this?
4. On page 102, when Pam says, “Oh, of course. I’m wrong. Everything I say or do is wrong, according to you,” what kind of response is Pam expecting? What kind of manipulation is this, and in what ways is it dishonest? Whom does it deceive?
5. Also on page 102, Pam insists that Heaven give her her boy. In the previous chapter the Ghost similarly insisted, “Give him to me.” What are the key similarities and key differences between these two Ghosts?
6. On page 103, when Pam instinctively and automatically snaps, “Who told you that?”, as she would have on Earth had anyone indicated knowledge of something Pam was keeping secret, it shows that Pam still doesn’t understand intrinsic differences between her old life and the life now being offered to her. Describe these differences.
7. Lewis terminates our eavesdropping on this conversation when the Ghost Pam is momentarily shocked into silence (“wilted”) by Reginald’s informing her she can’t possibly “hurt anyone in this country.” Unlike the previous chapter, where the Ghost finally, hopelessly, flamed out, here Lewis leaves us with a notion of redemptive hope: perhaps Pam will begin to understand. How does Pam’s reaction to Reginald’s last statement provide a glimmer of hope?
8. How do McDonald’s words on page 105—“Every natural love will rise again and live forever in this country: but none will rise again until it has been buried”—relate to Luke 14:26?
9. The second part of this chapter illustrates a different kind of idol, in the figure of the Ghost with the lizard on his shoulder. The lizard represents perverse passions and lusts. At the climax of this story, both the man and the lizard are marvelously transformed. It is not surprising to the reader that the man is transformed, but perhaps surprising that the lizard changes into a glorious horse. What do you think Lewis is saying here about the nature of sin?
10. On page 113, when Lewis depicts Heaven’s Nature itself breaking out in a hymn of joy, what scriptural passage or passages might Lewis have been thinking of?
11. Chapter 12 commences with a lively procession of Heaven’s inhabitants. The crowd of boys and girls, musicians and “spirits” are accompanying a glorious woman. Lewis asks, “Is it...?” Who is he thinking of? What is Lewis saying to us in the fact that it’s not “her” but just what the world would have considered an unremarkable, ordinary person?
12. McDonald explains (page 119) that the lady’s love on earth didn’t steal young people from their parents or men from their wives but instead made them love their parents and wives even more. How does this illuminate the difference between health and unhealthy love?
13. The lady meets her earthly husband, Frank. Frank appears as a pair of figures simultaneously: the real, dwarfish Frank, a stunted, ingrown soul, and the fake, theatrical, “Tragedian” Frank, a doll that the real Frank projects his voice into, like a ventriloquist does with a dummy. The Tragedian is always melodramatic and expects others to understand how much he suffers (and how patiently, nobly, and selflessly). The lady never talks to the Tragedian, only to the real Frank. How does the Tragedian Frank constantly twist the lady’s words to mean something different?
14. What does Frank want most of all? And why is it impossible for him to get it here in Heaven?
15. At the end of chapter 12, it seems the lady might conquer Frank’s self-centered, self-pitying melodrama. What approach is she taking to counter Frank’s pose as a poor, misunderstood martyr?
16. The conversation continues into chapter 13, where Lewis begins by describing the Dwarf’s titanic struggle against joy, Why would anyone ever struggle against joy?
17. Lewis ironically calls the chain connecting the Dwarf to the Tragedian a “death-line,” modifying a more commonly known term. What is the term, what does it mean, why did Lewis change it as he did, and what is significant about the allusion to the commonly known term?
18. On page 130 the Dwarf starts shrinking, and is no longer speaking directly but only through the Tragedian, who is increasingly playing the role of the wounded, tragic victim. When the Dwarf finally disappears completely, along with the chain, only then does the lady speak directly to the Tragedian. What has happened to Frank? What has he become?
19. It is hard for Lewis to grasp how the lady can be happy, knowing that Frank is lost. In response, McDonald explains the difference between the “Passion of Pity” and the “Action of Pity” (pp. 136-137). Do you find this explanation convincing? Why or or why not?
20. On page 139 McDonald alludes to the Incarnation. Why is Christ the only one who could make Himself “small” enough to penetrate the depths of “hell” for the sake of redemption?
21. On pages 140-141 McDonald argues that there is a mistake which both Universalism and Predestination (Calvinism) commit. He compares this mistake to looking into the wrong end of a telescope. This mistake is dangerous because of the way it denies “Freedom”. What is this mistake?