The Great Divorce

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The Great Divorce Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on C. S. Lewis's The Great Divorce. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of C. S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis was born and raised in Ireland. He then attended Oxford University, where he distinguished himself as a scholar of English, Classics, and Philosophy. Lewis fought in World War I, and, partly as a result of the carnage he witnessed, he was an atheist for most of his twenties. For more than thirty years, Lewis taught at Oxford University. During this time he converted to the Anglican Church, and became an articulate proponent of Christian values. Lewis’s love for Christianity, as well as his vast knowledge of mythology and linguistics, inspired him to write his most famous book, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe—the first volume of the Chronicles of Narnia—in 1949. Over the course of his life he wrote poetry, essays, literature, autobiography, fantasy, science fiction, and non-fiction works of academic criticism, philosophy, and Christian apologetics. Lewis taught at Cambridge University until his death in 1963.
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Historical Context of The Great Divorce

The Great Divorce alludes to the First and Second World Wars, which occurred from 1914 to 1918 and 1939 to 1945, respectively. In both conflicts, European (and some non-European) countries fought against one another and millions of people were killed, challenging many people’s faith in a merciful, all-powerful God. Lewis also alludes to the growing secularization of the academic and artistic spheres, and the rise of Marxism—the doctrine that history is a struggle between different class groups for control of the economic means of production—in Europe in the years leading up to World War Two.

Other Books Related to The Great Divorce

The book alludes to many famous works of Christian literature. Perhaps the most important such work is William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (composed between 1790 and 1797). In this long poem, Blake constructs a complicated argument about why good and evil are “two sides of the same coin,” and equally necessary to life. Lewis disagreed with Blake’s argument so strongly that he wrote The Great Divorce as a response to Blake—as the title suggests, Lewis wants to reiterate the differences between Heaven and Hell instead of blending them together. There are also many other literary allusions in the novel. The spirit of the author George MacDonald guides the Narrator through the Valley of the Shadow of Life, alluding to MacDonald’s own work but also to Dante’s Divine Comedy (composed between 1308 and 1320), in which the spirit of the Roman poet Virgil guides Dante through the stages of the afterlife. Another work of Christian literature that influenced Lewis heavily is John Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), an allegorical work about an everyman who moves from Earth into Heaven.
Key Facts about The Great Divorce
  • Full Title: The Great Divorce
  • When Written: 1943-44
  • Where Written: London and Oxford
  • When Published: October 1945
  • Genre: Religious fiction, Allegory, Fantasy
  • Setting: The Grey Town, the Valley of the Shadow of Life
  • Climax: The game of chess
  • Antagonist: Sin, hate, and pain could all be considered the antagonists of the novel—as Lewis sees it, these concepts are different versions of the same fundamental evil—the denial of the glory of God
  • Point of View: First person, Present tense

Extra Credit for The Great Divorce

Famous fans. C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia books are some of the most famous children’s novels of all time, and they’ve inspired some other classics of children’s literature. Lewis’s fans include J. K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, Philip Pullman, authors of the His Dark Materials trilogy, and Lemony Snicket, author of A Series of Unfortunate Events. Pullman, an atheist, claims to despise Lewis’s Christian ideas, but has “boundless respect” for the Chronicles of Narnia.

Best buddies. Lewis was a popular professor at Oxford University, and had lots of book friends on the faculty. His closest friend, another expert in Classics and English literature, also penned a series of Christian-inspired fantasy novels for intelligent young readers. His name? J. R. R. Tolkien, author of the Lord of the Rings books!