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The Great Divorce and Dante's Inferno

Dante's Inferno and C. S. Lewis' Great Divorce

Chris Reichow
Mr. Meester
Dante's Inferno and C. S. Lewis' Great Divorce Essay
14 January 2002

There are only a few great authors who tend to tackle the enormous burden of trying to
write their thoughts about life after death and succeed beyond anyone's expectations. Two of
these timeless authors are Dante Alighieri with his Inferno and C. S. Lewis with The Great
Divorce. Although the two deal with many of the same topics, the two authors both take their
own unique approach to the eternal realm.
When Dante began to even consider writing the Inferno he knew that no great epic had
been written in his own native language. Part of his purpose was to prove that an epic poem with
a lasting impact could be made in Italian, yet he also wrote because he wanted others to think
about the "wrong" actions that people made against others. Lewis had a different motivation for
writing his own book. He had recently become a Christian, and he was searching for truth within
the Bible and outside of it (what he was able to deduce through logical reasoning). He also wrote
to encourage others to begin thinking about where they would go after death, and to make people
to decide whether or not they wanted to go to heaven or hell. It was not meant, however, to be a
serious portrayal of the after-life, as he mentions in the preface.
Dante's Inferno is a journey through Hell, whereas Lewis' Great Divorce is a journey
through Heaven and Hell, although he spends most of his time in heaven. In this respect, the
plots of the two take completely different turns, but there are a few similarities between the two.
For instance, Virgil, one of Dante's favorite authors, led him through Hell and Lewis also had a
guide through heaven, George McDonald, his own favorite author. These guides showed them
the toils and failures of others, so that the reader would understand why people fail to find true
happiness. Also, through the books, both Dante and Lewis think that sometimes the punishments
or judgments of God are sometimes unfair. Dante believes that the people in the First Circle of
Hell really don't deserve to be there. He also thinks that some of the punishments are too harsh,
such as people gnawing at each other's necks. Lewis, although walking through Heaven, doesn't
think that Hell is all that bad, since everyone their gets everything that they can dream up. He
also doesn't understand why God doesn't let some people into heaven, like the woman who
loved her son more than anything.
Quite a few literary techniques were used in each book, the most noteworthy being that of
symbolism. For instance, in Lewis' Great Divorce the "Solid People" represented those who
were made whole in their identity within Christ. The state that we live in now (separation from
God) is completely different than the state that we will attain once in heaven. Dante also uses
symbolism in Inferno by Dante's constant play with numbers, such as the number 3 representing
the trinity, as well as power and wisdom. The two stories also take place from the same
perspective, both Dante and Lewis write their book in the first person to further draw the reader
into the book and make it seem more real.
Neither of the two books' interpretations of the after-life is like what the Bible truly says.
The Bible depicts Hell as the "lake of fire," (Rev. 20:14) or a place of torment (Luke 16:23). But
it never goes through and shows in such detail as either Great Divorce or Inferno the torments of
man. The Bible also depicts Heaven quite differently than Great Divorce saying "I saw the Lord
sitting on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple." (Isiah 6:1) Most
other references are merely allusions to a place where all worship God without ceasing. The idea
of being able to choose whether or not to go to Heaven or Hell, such as that in Great Divorce is
unheard of in the Bible. "It does not depend on man's desire or effort, but on God's mercy."
(Romans 9:16)
One of the primary purposes in both these books was to make one think about the after-
life in a way they probably hadn't before. And from that, one could apply a few lessons to his/her
own life. Through Dante's Inferno he communicated the idea that there are many different
avenues through which a person can sin, and some of these sins are to be taken more seriously
than others. Through Virgil, one can learn that God's judgment is just and that everyone's
punishment is equal to the sin they committed. There are eternal consequences for the actions of
people during their time on earth. Lewis had a basic moral concept that he wanted to
communicate through his book. He wanted a person to realize that if we accept Christ, then we
are saved for all eternity, becoming full and complete with Christ. He shows this through the
concept of the "Solid People" and how they fully recognized the eternal truth.
Although Dante's Inferno and Lewis' Great Divorce had many similarities, and could
even be seen as parallels, they are two books with different perspectives on the after-life. Dante
looks at the intricacies of eternal punishment, whereas Lewis tends to look upward into the realm
of Heaven and thus eternal happiness. One can read these books as mere entertainment, but if
they are taken with the author's original intent in mind, it can begin a journey that lasts longer
than a lifetime.