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Wherein I Take A Crack At ‘The Problem of Susan’

Narnia Susan

This week’s Classic Remarks prompt from Pages Unbound is brought to you by Susan Pevensie, problem child of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series. So, as you might expect:

Warning: major spoilers for the Narnia series ahead!

I always found the ending of The Last Battle so unbearably crappy and depressing. The Pevensies were in a terrible train accident and then got transported to the apocalyptic end of the Narnia they had known and loved to live in a suspiciously small-looking walled garden with all the people they’d met in Narnia, ever? (Remember, as a kid I had no idea that the series was an allegory, but even knowing that fact doesn’t make it any less of a crappy and depressing allegory.)

I’ve always been very close with my family, so the idea of the Pevensie family getting split up like that is just too awful to contemplate. Can you imagine coming home to the news that your family is gone, just like that, in one fell swoop? I don’t know which option is worse, living forever in this new version of Narnia – NarniaLite, if you will (I don’t care what they say about it being like the real thing but better, that’s exactly what they said about Coke Zero, too) – or living on in the real world knowing your family suffered a fiery and agonising death.

Narnia Pevensies
“Oh, by the way, kids, just a little heads-up: in a few years’ time you’re going to be in a fiery train crash and die. ‘Kaythanksbye!”

I really liked Briana’s post about this topic, and I think she’s right to point out that simply accusing Lewis of sexism here is a little too simplistic. But I’m also a little reluctant to say that gender plays no role in the way that Lewis represents Susan’s fate, even if it isn’t tied to his wider message. Here’s the passage itself:

“My sister Susan,” answered Peter shortly and gravely, “is no longer a friend of Narnia.”

“Yes,” said Eustace, “and whenever you’ve tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says, ‘What wonderful memories you have! Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.’”

“Oh, Susan!” said Jill. “She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly site too keen on being grown-up.”

“Grown-up, indeed,” said the Lady Polly. “I wish she would grow up. She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.”

I do think it’s significant that Susan’s crime seems to be vanity, perhaps even sexuality. After all, vanity is generally seen as a female weakness. If Lewis simply wanted to emphasise that Susan no longer believed in magic, was no longer a “friend of Narnia”, she could just as easily have become obsessed with the cinema, or crème brulee, or trainspotting, or any other twentieth-century ‘worldly’ luxury (although that last one may have been in slightly poor taste, given the circumstances). All of these things aren’t necessarily gendered. Even going out to parties and getting dressed up doesn’t have to be gender-specific, but lipstick (for the moment, alas) is still most definitely a gendered object.

Does this mean that Lewis was being deliberately sexist? Not necessarily. To me, this just means that the word “lipstick” in the passage above functions as a signal that we can, if we wish, draw certain readings about gender out of Susan’s story. I even think there’s the potential for some great insights when you read this passage in a feminist light. For instance, it’s interesting that the strongest criticism of Susan’s behaviour actually comes from the other women in the books: Jill and Polly are Susan’s harshest critics. Perhaps what Lewis is showing here (intentionally or not – personally my money’s on the old dear not having a bloody clue about the way he wrote gender) is the way that society tends to push women towards competition and distrust of other women, encouraging rivalry rather than co-operation.

Sure, they’re friends now, but…

You can think about it from a character-driven perspective too. This passage makes me wonder about what happened to Susan after she was told, at the end of Prince Caspian, that she wouldn’t be allowed back to Narnia. Could it be that Susan struggled with the experience of going from being an all-powerful queen (albeit one who still had to put up with the occasional metaphorical noogie from her big brother, High King Peter, or whatever the royal equivalent for that is) in a fantasy realm to being an attractive young woman in the twentieth century, at the tail-end of a World War and an upsurge in patriarchal attitudes? Coming back to reality after a (forgive me) spell in Narnia must be extraordinary painful, like waking up with the world’s worst hangover. Susan was returning to a world in which competition for husbands was extraordinarily high, and women still weren’t considered key members of the workforce. True, as a Queen she also had to worry about marriage, but she had the luxury of wealth, status, and soldiers with big pointy swords to teach a lesson to anybody who tried to get a little fresh.

So, no, I don’t think this passage is being deliberately sexist. But I do think that it reflects the attitudes of its time, and we can draw some interesting conclusions about gender in the period from it. I don’t think Susan has an easy time of it. At the end of the day, maybe Susan’s newfound obsession with lipstick and boys is, more than anything else, a survival instinct.


8 replies on “Wherein I Take A Crack At ‘The Problem of Susan’”

I do think you’re right that there’s a gendered component here, that when Lewis sat down and asked himself “What would a woman who has been seduced by the worldly instead of the spiritual look like?” his first impulse was “She’s vain. She likes parties and flirting and being admired by men.” It would probably never occur to him that a “worldly” woman might one who’s overly ambitious in her career and obsessed with power and money. But I also think you’re right that Lewis was largely unaware of his own biases in this matter. As far as I can tell, he subscribed pretty much to the accepted gender roles of his time, and personally I tend not to fault individuals for that. I’m not going to go off on a rant about how I will never read X author again because he wasn’t progressively feminist or whatever. I just kind of roll my eyes and move on. ;)

Yeah, that’s the tough thing about reading books set in the past – we can’t expect them to always be in tune with the same concerns that we have today. We can’t really blame them for their thinking, although it is interesting to see the ways that their texts can shed light on gender issues of their time. I guess it’s the difference between a text being feminist and being read in a feminist light. :)

Much as I love the Narnia books, on rereading them as an adult it becomes clear that Lewis did not put much conscious thought into them. And very definitely his personal and cultural prejudices are clearly reflected therein. I tend not to get too tied up in knots about it, and try to enjoy the good parts.

Also, I never thought that Susan’s banishment from Narnia was necessarily forever. The fact that she was not killed in the accident gave her some hope, after all! I could see her getting over her boy-crazy phase at some point and coming back to the truths of the imagination (which is what Narnia is about, after all). Though it’s a story that Lewis would probably not be at all interested in writing, I like that the possibility is there.

I agree, when it comes to Narnia you need to read for the good parts. And there sure are a lot of those!

It’s interesting, when I was younger I always read the section about Susan as fairly unoptimistic about her future. But Briana also suggested in her post that there was quite a lot of hope for Susan’s future, and having read a few things about it I’m now a little more inclined to be optimistic about it too. :)

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