The Great Divorce, the narrator suddenly, and inexplicably, finds himself in a grim and joyless city (the “grey town”, representative of hell). He eventually finds a bus for those who desire an excursion to some other place (and which eventually turns out to be the foothills of heaven). He enters the bus and converses with his fellow passengers as they travel. When the bus reaches its destination, the “people” on the bus — including the narrator — gradually realize that they are ghosts.
Although the country is the most beautiful they have ever seen, every feature of the landscape (including streams of water and blades of grass) is unbearably solid compared to themselves: it causes them immense pain to walk on the grass, and even a single leaf is far too heavy for any of them to lift. Shining figures, men and women whom they have known on earth, come to meet them, and to persuade them to repent and enter heaven proper. They promise that as the ghosts travel onward and upward, they will become acclimated to the country and will feel no discomfort.
These figures, called “spirits” to distinguish them from the ghosts, offer to assist them in the journey toward the mountains and the sunrise. Almost all of the ghosts choose to return instead to the grey town, giving various reasons and excuses. Much of the interest of the book lies in the recognition it awakens of the plausibility and familiarity, along with the thinness and self-deception, of the excuses that the ghosts refuse to abandon, even though to do so would bring them to “reality” and “joy forevermore”.
The narrator is met by the writer George MacDonald, whom he hails as his mentor, just as Dante did when encountering Virgil in the Divine Comedy; and MacDonald becomes the narrator’s guide in his journey, just as Virgil became Dante’s. MacDonald explains that it is possible for a soul to choose to remain in heaven despite having been in the grey town; for such souls, their time in hell has been a period of testing, and the goodness of heaven will work backwards into their lives, turning even their worst sorrows into joy, and changing their experience on earth to an extension of heaven.
Conversely, the evil of hell works backwards also, so that if a soul remains in, or returns to, the grey town, even its happiness on earth will lose its meaning, and its experience on earth would have been hell. None of the ghosts realize that the grey town is, in fact, hell. Indeed it is not that much different from the life they led on earth: joyless, friendless, and uncomfortable. It just goes on forever, and gets worse and worse, with some characters whispering their fear of the “night” that is to eventually come.
According to MacDonald, heaven and hell cannot coexist in a single soul, and while it is possible to leave hell and enter heaven, doing so implies turning away (repentance); or as depicted by Lewis, giving up paltry worldly pleasures and self-indulgences — which have become impossible for the dead anyway — and embracing ultimate and unceasing joy itself. In answer to the narrator’s question MacDonald confirms that what is going on is a dream.
The use of the chess game imagery as well as the correspondence of dream elements to elements in the narrator’s waking life are reminiscent of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. The narrator discovers that the vast grey town and its ghostly inhabitants are minuscule to the point of being invisible compared with the immensity of heaven and reality. This is illustrated in the encounter of the blessed woman and her husband: she is surrounded by gleaming attendants while he shrinks down to invisibility as he uses a collared tragedian to speak for him.
Toward the end of the narrative the terror of the dreaming narrator of remaining a ghost in the advent of full daybreak in heaven is that of the man with his dream of judgment day in the House of the Interpreter of The Pilgrim’s Progress. The book ends with the narrator awakening from his dream of heaven into the unpleasant reality of wartime Britain, in conscious imitation of The Pilgrim’s Progress, the last sentence of the “First Part” of which is: “So I awoke, and behold, it was a Dream”.
Main Characters The Narrator (it is implied that this is Lewis himself) — main focus of the narrative George MacDonald — the writer, who acts as guide to the narrator. And also many other small characters that play some pretty important roles in explaining Lewis’ ideas. Allusions/references to other works Lewis consciously draws elements of the plot from Dante (The Divine Comedy) and Bunyan; for example, comparing his meeting with MacDonald to “the first sight of Beatrice. He also credits the idea that hell exists within heaven but is “smaller than one atom” of it to his scientifiction readings; travel by shrinking or enlargement is a common theme in speculative fiction, and the narrator alludes to its presence in Alice in Wonderland. In the preface, Lewis explains the origin of his idea that heaven is immutable to the ghosts from hell, referencing an unnamed science fiction work which gave him the notion of a character being unable to affect matter around him because he had traveled back in time to the ‘unchangeable’ past.