The Good Place and The Great Divorce: Visions of Hell and Purgatory
The Good Place may be set in the afterlife, but it is not, first and foremost, about the afterlife. Its primary concern is the morals (or lack thereof) that landed its characters there. But a show that assumes the existence of an afterlife, and in particular an afterlife that judges its members on moral qualities, must deal with the question of not only how one can be a good person, but also why.
Must we want to do good for its own sake? Are we only doing it in pursuit of “moral dessert”? Do our motivations change if we know what awaits us after our time on Earth? All of these questions have been addressed on the show. However, that leaves one obvious question: How might we actually be judged after we die?
The afterlife in The Good Place is areligious and largely whimsical (the all-knowing judge of good and evil lives next door to an IHOP), never really suggesting that this is what really happens to us when we die. But it does continue in the long tradition of afterlives where people are tortured or rewarded based on their moral character, an idea which has been present in countless religions since ancient times. And the question of where the line should be drawn between the blessed and the damned in a world with an ever-increasing number of moral gray areas forms the central premise of the show: A group of people condemned to hell—or, rather, the Bad Place—discover that they have potential for self-improvement, and are determined to prove that they deserve to be in the Good Place.
For me, that question—is it possible to prove oneself worthy of heaven after death despite one’s flaws?—raised interesting similarities to another, vastly different work of fiction set in the afterlife: C.S. Lewis’s 1945 novel The Great Divorce. Like the show, this novel presents its own idea of post-death improvement while also complicating the divisions between Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory, but with a significantly different perspective. (And, while The Great Divorce was written from an explicitly Christian viewpoint, it, like TGP, was not intended to be an actual theory about the afterlife. “I beg my readers to remember that this is a fantasy,” Lewis wrote in his preface to the book. “The transmortal conditions are solely an imaginative supposal: they are not even a guess or a speculation at what may actually await us.”)
To illustrate the comparison it makes sense to start with the first and most obvious connection, which is: the characters begin the story in hell, or a version of it. But neither set of characters is aware of this fact, although they do notice some sense of deep wrongness. In The Great Divorce, the narrator begins the story in a perpetually dreary “grey town”, whose inhabitants’ only goal seems to be to stay as far away from each other as possible. In The Good Place, the human characters believe that they are in heaven (embodied, similarly, as a town, or “neighborhood”); but they are actually in a torture chamber, engineered by the demon Michael, that guarantees they are never truly happy there.
In The Great Divorce, what keeps people in the grey town is a fundamental flaw that they are unwilling to let go of. In the same way, the characters in The Good Place are each possessive of their own earthly ties: Eleanor of her independence, Tahani of her status, Chidi of the irresolution that muddles his search for truth (look at the difficulty he has throwing away the work he did on his complicated thesis, even after arriving in a place where the answers to life’s questions are there for the taking), and Jason of his material impulses. It is their dependence on these things that makes them the perfect subjects for a hell whose inhabitants don’t believe they deserve torture. Even Eleanor, who is well aware of the fact that she is not worthy of heaven, believes she should at least have gone to a “Medium Place.”
But what changes things in both stories is that the characters are able to change. In The Great Divorce, the inhabitants of the grey town are able to board a bus to a mountain range where they have the opportunity to learn to leave behind the things that are keeping them in hell, in order to reach heaven (and, in accordance with the Christian themes of the book, full communion with God). Many are unwilling to do so, and thus choose to return to the grey town; but some find the strength to go on. George MacDonald, who plays the role of the narrator’s spiritual guide through the world of the book, explains: “If they leave that grey town behind it will not have been Hell. To any that leaves it, it is Purgatory.”
The afterlife system of The Good Place provides no such bus route to heaven for the inhabitants of the Bad Place; but the idea that there should be one is a conclusion that the show slowly and surely comes to over the course of its first three seasons. Against all odds, the residents of Michael’s neighborhood, who were placed there on the assumption that they would be unable to change, manage to recognize and start to move past their flaws. As they spend the course of the show striving towards the real Good Place, their hell becomes less a hell, and more, like Lewis’s grey town, a form of purgatory. In season 3 of the show, when given the chance to state their case, the characters come to the conclusion that more people should be given the chance they had—a place where they can choose to improve, to let go of their flaws, rather than being automatically sorted into good or bad.
Is this an intentional philosophical parallel? Personally, I doubt it. But it is interesting that, through an extended reductio ad absurdium of the heaven-hell dichotomy, the writers of The Good Place have concluded that there must arise a kind of purgatory in order for the system to be fair; that, like the souls in The Great Divorce, people should be allowed the chance to improve before being doomed to stay in the grey town forever. This also shares something with the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory, which states that “all who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified…undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1030) In other words, you don’t have to be “freakin’ Gandhi” to have a shot at getting into the Good Place—you only need a sincere desire to do what it takes to get there. It’s that same spiritual optimism that makes the moral message of The Good Place so strong and sincere. It reminds us all that even though the moral state of humanity can sometimes seem dire, there’s cause for hope—even for all of us medium people.
Bonus content: process video of the above drawing!
Equipment: Adobe Photoshop CC 2019 + Wacom Intuos Pro tablet
Time elapsed: 7 hours, 32 minutes