Every few years or so, I’ll get a PM on my Twitter or my Tumblr that asks what is essentially the same question. These followers know my love of all things C.S. Lewis, particularly the Chronicles of Narnia, have heard me wax poetic about gender theory, and have heard me scream about feminism in varying posts or tweets. All of these factors lead to one question:
How do you solve a problem like Susan Pevensie?
Oh, Susan. The most maligned and misinterpreted of Pevensies. And, incidentally, my favorite character. Let’s talk a moment about these misinterpretations, particularly the ones that have absorbed themselves into the popular consciousness despite how many times I yell about them on Twitter.
In a Time Magazine interview, J.K. Rowling described her debt to C.S. Lewis.
“I found myself thinking about the wardrobe route to Narnia when Harry is told he has to hurl himself at the barrier in King’s Cross Station—it dissolves and he’s on Platform Nine and Three-Quarters, and there’s the train to Hogwarts.”
However, she points out that there were aspects of the Narnian chronicles that bothered her. She also points out that Susan Pevensie
“…is lost to Narnia because she becomes interested in lipstick. She’s become irreligious basically because she found sex. I have a real problem with that.”
On that note, Philip Pullman penned an angry Guardian article where he claimed that for Lewis, a girl’s achieving sexual maturity was
“so dreadful and so redolent of sin that he had to send her to Hell.”
“Sir,” said Tirian, when he had greeted all these. “If I have read the chronicles aright, there should be another. Has not your Majesty two sisters? Where is Queen Susan?”
“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 sight too keen on being grownup.”
“Grownup, 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.”
“Well, don’t let’s talk about that now,” said Peter.
Fair point, Peter. Let’s talk about it now.
To respond to Philip Pullman, anyone with basic reading comprehension skills can see that Susan is NOT sent to Hell. There is quite a difference in being sent to Hell and being absent from the final adventure. Susan was left alive in this world. Lewis wrote in a letter that she grew up to be a “silly and vain young woman” but that she “had plenty of time to mend.”
Susan was not left behind. She chose not to be present in The Last Battle. To deny her that choice robs her of her own agency, her own right to make bad choices and deal with consequences.
As for the accusations of sexism, I will grant that Lewis was not perfect in terms of gender. There are reams and reams of problems in the Cosmic Trilogy (for as much as I love them) and my final senior thesis dealt with three of Lewis’ worst short stories. (In terms of gender, that is.) And while I would never dare to call the Narnian chronicles the Holy Grail of “Unproblematic”, I think the accusations of sexism are unfair.
I strongly, strongly dispute the idea that the “lipsticks and nylons” line in The Last Battle was sexist. Susan’s fatal flaws were her trying to “act grown up”, not her being sexually active or femininely vain.
The first time we meet her, in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, her very first lines show her “trying to act grown up”.
“We’ve fallen on our feet and no mistake,” said Peter. “This is going to be perfectly splendid. That old chap will let us do anything we like.”
“I think he’s an old dear,” said Susan.
“O, come off it!” said Edmund, who was tired and pretending not to be tired, which always made him bad-tempered. “Don’t go on talking like that.”
“Like what?” said Susan; “and anyway, it’s time you were in bed.”
“Trying to talk like Mother,” said Edmund. “And who are you to say when I’m to go to bed? Go to bed yourself.”
This expands into a literal arc for Susan and foreshadows her exclusion from the final Chronicle. We see this in the next novel, Prince Caspian.
In Prince Caspian, Lucy attempts to convince her siblings that she has seen Aslan and that Aslan wants them to follow Him. None of the Pevensies are able to see him so they doubt Lucy, choosing to make their own decisions—particularly Susan.
The first time Lucy sees Aslan, the others outvote her and proceed a different route. The second time, Lucy announces she will be following Aslan whether they come or not. Susan insists Lucy was dreaming and progressively gets nastier as they follow her.
Susan was the worst. “Suppose I started behaving like Lucy,” She said. “I might threaten to stay here whether the rest of you went on or not. I jolly well think I shall.”
But as they walk, all of the Pevensies begin to see Aslan. Susan sees him last. And then:
“Lucy,” said Susan in a very small voice.
“Yes?” said Lucy.
“I see him now. I’m sorry.”
“That’s all right.”
“But I’ve been far worse than you know. I really believed it was him—he, I mean—yesterday. When he warned us not to go down to the fir wood. And I really believed it was him tonight, when you woke us up. I mean, deep down inside. Or I could have, if I’d let myself. But I just wanted to get out of the woods and—and—oh, I don’t know. And whatever am I to say to him?”
These lines are key to Susan’s entire characterization. What’s more, this entire scene foreshadows exactly what happens to Susan in The Last Battle. It’s not about Lewis being afraid of female sexuality (he wasn’t, I point to Joy Davidman’s personal and explicit letters about their married life as evidence), it’s about Susan “trying to act grown up”. A form of superiority, of pride—something Lewis himself struggled with all his life. Lewis said,
“When I was ten, I read fairytales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty, I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”
This is a particular theme of Lewis’ we encounter in his works time and time again. People acting “too grown up”. We certainly can be bothered by Susan’s exclusion from the final chapter. After all, she is my favorite character. And there’s something to be said about the fact that by the end of the Chronicle, she has lost her entire family and is left alone in the world. But this was not a “punishment” for going to parties or wearing lipstick or having sex. The invitations and lipstick (and perhaps the sex) were secondary to the bigger flaw—Susan’s pride and her mocking her siblings for playing with childish things.
This is not to say that Lewis was a perfect feminist and that there are zero problems with his female characters. What I would give for someone to chat with me about Jane Studdock or the Green Lady. How I hunger for a complicated, nuanced debate about Orual. But it always comes back to Susan.
Particularly annoying because the hyperfocus on Susan tends to ignore the other dynamic and interesting female characters in the Narnian chronicles such as Lucy, Jill, Polly, and Aravis.
But that’s how we solve the problem of Susan. By adding more feminist readings of his work. Once we get past this Susan stumbling block, we can really start complicating the discussions.
If you liked this post, see the editor follow-up post by Brenton Dickieson, “8 Questions about the Problem of Susan Narnia Debate, or How to Read Well.”
Kat Coffin (@KatinOxford) is a part-time serious academic and full-time writer/musician, currently residing in St. Louis, Missouri. Her academic field specializes in the works of C.S. Lewis and gender theory. She completed her second fantasy novel last year and it is being shopped between publishers. When she’s not writing dry twenty-page essays on the evolution of C.S. Lewis’ female characters or writing stories about the horrifying and hilarious ramifications of demon summoning, she enjoys long car rides, playing guitar, a good stout, and tearing her hair out over politics. She is in the process of applying to several programs for her PhD and is a contributing author on Fellowship & Fairydust. Kat blogs at: https://phoenixinoxford.wordpress.com/.