• On the Problem of C. S. Lewis’s Susan

    by  • December 16, 2013 • Narnia, You are probably sorry you asked • 9 Comments

    Among the many things that bother contemporary readers in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia is his treatment of Susan, the eldest sister and second-oldest sibling of the four Pevensie children who defeat the White Witch to become the rules of of Narnia in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. In The Final Battle, the last book of the series, the other Pevensies (Peter, Edmund, and Lucy) are killed in a train crash, along with their parents and other series protagonist (Digory, Polly, Eustace, and Jill) and then admitted to heaven, which turns out to be a second, better Narnia.*

    Susan does not come with them.

    Her brother, Peter, says of this, “My sister Susan is no longer a friend of Narnia.”

    Their cousin Eustace adds that whenever you try to get her to talk about Narnia, she dismisses all the adventures as “those funny games we used to play when we were children.”

    Eustace’s friend Jill bemoans that Susan is interested in nothing but “nylons and lipstick and invitations.” She says Susan is obsessed with being grown-up, but elderly Polly corrects her: Susan is not grown-up, she is just fixated on arriving at “the silliest time of one’s life” and staying there as long as possible.

    Many interpret this sequence as indicating that Susan has been rejected from Narnia because she embraces her femininity and sexuality. J. K. Rowling and Philip Pullman both criticize Lewis on this point. Neil Gaiman wrote a short story about it. And, as you might have seen around on the Internet, Faith Erin Hicks wrote this amazing blog entry on what Susan could have, should have been.

    It’s fantastic. You should read it. And I would read and love Hicks’s Chronicles of Susan in a flash.

    However, although I could agree that the Walden movies’ Susan lays the groundwork for a story like hers, I don’t think this view of Susan is consistent with the Susan Pevensie C. S. Lewis wrote in his books. And here’s why.

    First, let me agree about a few things: C. S. Lewis’s work is sexist and anti-feminist. The most devastating literary betrayal I have ever felt was at the age of thirteen when I understood that not being Christian, male, or what C. S. Lewis would consider white made me a permanent second-class Narnian. Even Lewis agreed that he was sexist: in Mere Christianity and other works, he essentially writes, yes, these different roles for men and women seem unfair, but that’s what God wants.

    I also stand by my previous commitment to the idea that the author is dead. I’m not critiquing Rowling’s or Pullman’s or Gaiman’s or Hicks’s interpretations of Susan as invalid or wrong. I’m just want to add my own thoughts to the plurality of voices on this topic.

    Also, The Last Battle is seriously the worst and most boring book of the entire series.

    But as I read it, Susan Pevensie is not Ginny Weasley, a sex-positive brave young lady. She’s Petunia Dursley. She has chosen to follow fear of rejection and discomfort over faith in what’s right.

    Susan is no longer a friend of Narnia because she has chosen not to be, not because Narnia rejects her. She could have been on that train too — her siblings and cousins and friends asked her to join them, but she turned them down. She is the person who is scared to admit that fantasy and science fiction have value because they are not “real”–and who knows what people might think of you if you admit to finding truth in lies? In Prince Caspian, Miraz and his men suppress the truth of Aslan because they’re afraid of it; likewise, Susan suppresses the truth about Narnia because giving up the regard of her peers scares her.

    (“Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children!”)

    She’s the person who would laugh at our discussions about her because “they’re just kids’ books” and “omigod, it’s about a lion who’s Jesus. Seriously, guys?” but also because having to confront privilege and restrictive values and sexuality, having to rock the social boat, would privately terrify her.

    In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Susan wants to turn back and admits she wishes they’d never come but still is able to admit that they must stay and “try to do something” for the captured Mr. Tumnus. But when the Stone Table cracks, she wants to run away until Lucy makes her investigate. By Prince Caspian, she almost lets herself get mauled by a bear because she is too scared that it might be a Talking Bear to shoot it. She repeats that Lucy’s “been dreaming” when Lucy claims to have seen Aslan but she admits later that she really did believe it was Aslan. Instead of standing up for what’s right, as she did in the beginning, she’s learned instead to “listen to fears” (as Aslan puts it).

    Although I understand why “nylons and lipstick and invitations” can be interpreted as symbols of sexuality, I read them differently as a teenager. In part, that was because of my personal experience. I don’t and didn’t  care much about make-up or fashion, and I was never interested in popularity and the “right” kind of clothes or music or movies. Now, there’s nothing wrong with caring about those things. There’s nothing wrong with caring about anything.

    But as a teenage girl, I often felt that others, my peers and authority figures, were trying to either force those things on me or judge me because I didn’t want them. And it made me saddest of all to see people I loved dismiss things I knew interested them as “for losers” because they were afraid of getting mocked. Lipstick and nylons represented to me not free expression of sexuality but social convention restricting the expression of self (and gender and sexuality to boot).

    Now, I’m perfectly happy for those who want to wear lipstick and nylons to do so and don’t think they’re better or worse than anyone else, but my feelings about how they were enforced as a social norm still informed my interpretation of Lewis. I felt Susan’s tragedy was that she’d hidden away the way she saw the world in favour of the way she thought the world wanted to see her. C’mon, guys, Narnia is for babies. All the cool people only care about parties.

    To me, then,  Susan’s crime, then, is the human and often sensible one of considering consequences both practical and social before acting. It’s thinking–or overthinking, depending on where you stand on her final decisions. It’s cutting yourself off from who you really are out of fear of that person not being attractive enough or good enough or cool enough. And it’s not permanent–just like my friends and me eventually did, you can grow out of caring whether other people think you’re cool. I always figured Susan could choose to return to Narnia at any time.

    Now, this is still horrible. Nobody deserves to have all the rest of their beloved family die because they entertained reasonable doubts and cared about being socially accepted just like every other person on the planet does at some point. And how the heck is it Susan’s fault she doesn’t have Lucy’s wide-eyed credulity (the girl goes home with a stranger who intends to kill her within five minutes of meeting him)? Or that she’s not as selfish as Edmund, who only comes around to Aslan because he betrays his siblings and then has to face the consequences of his actions? I’m not saying that there’s no problem with Susan.

    There is definitely a problem with Susan.

    I’m saying the girl has 99 problems.** And each one can spark discussion.

    * If my writing style sounds stranger than usual, it’s because I’ve been reading nothing but George Bernard Shaw for the past few weeks in order to finish the last of my books before the new year. When I start to spell “show” S-H-E-W, stage an intervention.

    ** Could be wrong, but I don’t think that phrasing is Shaw’s influence.

    About

    I write SFF, young adult, and middle grade fiction, and I’ve been known to knock off a play here and there. I’m represented by Bridget Smith of Dunham Literary, Inc. Stick around – who knows what might happen?

    http://www.srkriger.com

    9 Responses to On the Problem of C. S. Lewis’s Susan

    1. December 17, 2013 at 10:49 am

      Great post Sarah! I was always disappointed at Susan’s decision to turn away from Narnia. I will have to go and read the articles and stories you have suggested!

    2. May 27, 2014 at 9:04 am

      Its awkward that pevensie family had die .it sad that Susan turned back narnia.

    3. Kellen
      August 27, 2014 at 2:14 am

      I don’t see the crash as happening to punish Susan: people die in accidents every day, everywhere. The others asked her to come with them; she didn’t, no doubt thinking that there’d be plenty of other times to be with them. (And the others accepted her refusal, no doubt thought there’d be plenty of other times as well.) Most of us have done the same, and some of us, like Susan, find out that there won’t be a next time. We all know that we could lose the people we care about at any moment, but we don’t keep that knowledge in the forefronts of our minds, because if we did, sooner or later we’d go off the deep end and try so hard to keep them safe that they’d have no life at all.

      It’s not hard to imagine Susan finding her way to ‘Narnia’ in the end: she’s simply gotten so distracted by what seems important at the moment that she lost sight of what’s important long-term. Most of us have done the same, and because of it, may find that our path forward isn’t the same as the path taken by someone/other people we care about. I think Lewis chose that particular course for her because it was something he knew about from direct experience: in other writing, he speaks of a time at which he longed to be sophisticated. He apparently discovered that elegance in thought and manner is very pleasant, but no substitute for wisdom and kindness, so he wouldn’t doubt that sooner or later Susan’s going to want something more substantial than the endless procession of desserts that seemed so delightful when it began, and set off looking for it.

      Imo, all the children are types. There’s Lucy, the young innocent; Edmund, who’s painfully aware of having caused consequences that he didn’t foresee and that there’ll never be anything he can do to correct; and Peter, the ‘rock’, who makes his choice once and for all. Susan is the rest of us, neither wholly innocent And then there’s Susan, who is most of the rest of us, who aren’t wholly innocent any longer, but haven’t done anything irretrievable, either, and haven’t yet reached the point at which we’ll do what we know we ought to do even if the thought of doing it doesn’t make us dance down the street.

      I believe it was Lewis who said that there were two kinds of people: those who would say to God “Thy will be done” and those to whom God would say “thy will be done”. Which Susan will be, we’re left with no idea, so the story of Narnia didn’t end at all, and I have to admit that I liked that far better than I would have if Lewis had tied everything up neatly in “and they all went to Heaven and lived happily ever after”. Life’s seldom that neat; why should stories be?

      • September 1, 2014 at 5:43 pm

        Thanks for reading and for your thoughtful reply!

        I agree that Susan has much in common with the way C. S. Lewis saw his younger self, though for me, this doesn’t come across in the Narnia books themselves, only through reading his other works.

        I don’t think that treating Susan differently would have necessarily made the Narnia stories neater — in fact, I like that just as we see that with effort, Eustace can change himself from ignorant to “good,” it’s possibly to let one’s own goodness lapse. It’s Lewis ideas I’d criticize there, not his storytelling :P

    4. November 19, 2015 at 4:06 pm

      i think she survived the crash to give her time to spiritually mature. The time had come and Susan was not ready. Or perhaps there were still things in this world she was meant to do.

      • November 20, 2015 at 6:26 pm

        I like the interpretation that Susan isn’t being punished but given the opportunity to grow and keep contributing.

      • Zarohk
        November 20, 2015 at 9:07 pm

        Exactly, this story here shows that as an alternative: http://faitherinhicks.tumblr.com/post/69689895588/ink-splotch-there-comes-a-point-where-susan
        Also, the book “Bad Monkeys” has a young woman who encounters a secret agency out of science fiction (essentially sci-fi to Narnia’s fantasy), and the organization proceeds to tell her nothing except for “you don’t get to join”, not out of malice or dislike, but because the agency is for people who have nothing left to contribute to the world. Similarly, I like to imagine that Susan was left behind both because she was not ready to accept Narnia again (and so it would not have been heavenly for her), but more importantly because she was able to return to the world where her siblings were not really, and so she was given the world to live in while the rest of the family was whisked off to Aslan’s Country as a consolation prize.

    5. Rouen
      February 5, 2016 at 6:15 pm

      Great post. I think there is a key issue on this problem, Susan was expelled from Narnia twice without her consent. First when all her siblings wanted to follow the White Stag, she didn’t want to go but nevertheless followed them and got kicked out with the rest. Being practical she might have been worried of the consequences Narnia felt with their absence(there are no heirs or appointed regents). Second they get pulled to Narnia by the horn (again without their consent), a thousand years have passed everything and everyone they new is dead, Aslan has again left the land without protections and has been conqured; then after helping a guy they don’t know become king she is kicked out again for bieng “too old”.
      Hell if I was her I would also try to quickly forget Narnia, I can’t come back and talking about it would only cause me pain; better to learn to live in this world.

      • February 8, 2016 at 10:48 am

        Thanks, Rouen! Yeah, if I were Susan, I might associate Narnia with pain rather than happy memories. I’d probably be concerned about my siblings constantly trying to get back instead of accepting life in the “real world.” And, hey, even Aslan tells the kids that they have to learn to know him in England instead of constantly trying to find ways to get back to Narnia. I guess that’s an aspect Lev Grossman’s The Magician’s Trilogy commented on.

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