The Problem of Susan

12 Apr

Anyone who has read and loved C S Lewis’ Narnia books may have encountered what is usually referred to in literary circles today as ‘the problem of Susan’. Susan was the only one of the four Pevensie siblings who survived the train wreck (because she was not on the train or at the station) on Earth which sent the others to Narnia after The Last Battle. In that final book of the series, Susan is conspicuous by her absence. Why? Because, as Peter says, she is “no longer a friend of Narnia” and she is described, perhaps rather uncharitably, by Jill Pole as “interested in nothing now-a-days except nylons and lipstick and invitations”. Several people who are otherwise fans of the Narnia books have a big problem with Susan’s fate. Notably, Harry Potter author J K Rowling once commented: “There comes a point where Susan, who was the older girl, is lost to Narnia because she becomes interested in lipstick. She’s become irreligious basically because she found sex. I have a big problem with that”. In his Companion to Narnia, Paul F Ford writes at the end of the entry for Susan Pevensie that “Susan’s is one of the most important Unfinished Tales of The Chronicles of Narnia”. In his short story The Problem of Susan, Neil Gaiman creates a fix that attempts to highlight the issue of Susan’s exile within the world of The Chronicles and within the ‘real world’. Since the publication of Gaiman’s story, ‘the problem of Susan’ has become used more widely as a catchphrase for the literary and feminist investigation into Susan’s treatment.

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The Problem of Susan depicts its protagonist, Professor Hastings (who strongly resembles an adult version of Susan), dealing with the grief and trauma of her entire family’s death in a train crash, as she is interviewed by a college literature student regarding her opinion on Susan’s place in the Narnia books. Gaiman himself has said of the story that there is much in Lewis’s books that he loves, but each time he read them (or read them aloud to his own children) he found the disposal of Susan to be intensely problematic and deeply irritating. Dealing with this problem was one inspiration for the story, while the other was, in Gaiman’s own words “to talk about the remarkable power of children’s literature”. Hence Professor Hastings comments on “the Victorian notion of the purity and sanctity of childhood [which] demanded that fiction for children should be made… well… pure… and sanctimonious”. This observation is important because, while the story is primarily focused on the ‘problem of Susan’, through it Gaiman also illustrates that Lewis’s beliefs seem to be similar to those of the Victorians. Lewis’s Narnia tales are, on the surface, moralistic adventure books – but they also rely heavily on Christian allegory, and this is what Gaiman and other critics seem primarily to have taken issue with.

It is left ambiguous whether Susan’s absence from Narnia is permanent, especially since Lewis stated elsewhere that: “The books don’t tell us what happened to Susan. She is left alive in this world at the end, having by then turned into a rather silly, conceited young woman. But there’s plenty of time for her to mend and perhaps she will get to Aslan’s country in the end… in her own way”. What has caused Gaiman and other critics to question this is that Lewis is not consistent enough with his characterisation of Susan for his insistence upon her lack of faith (in Aslan, meaning Jesus) to be supported. Certainly, Susan is shown to be the most doubting character in the books. Upon first entering Narnia, she says, “I-I wonder if there is any point going on” and she also has a moment of doubt in Prince Caspian. In both instances, however, she overcomes her fears and in this sense doubts are part of her overall journey – indeed she is forgiven for them by Aslan. But Susan’s lack of faith and willingness to doubt do not emerge in the conversation wherein the Kings and Queens in The Last Battle discuss her exclusion from Narnia – she dismisses Narnia as “all those games we used to play as children”. Is Susan’s lack of belief in Narnia therefore linked, not to lack of faith, but to a different transgression – the desire to “grow up”? Or is it something else altogether?

Feminist critic Laura Miller focuses on Lewis’s purportedly anti-female line, maintaining that on one level Susan does not get to the heaven of Further Up and Further In because she is just like the two witches – White and Green – who similarly wear dresses and look pretty. The suggestion that Lewis is anti-female is borne out by the presence of a number of villains in Narnia who are beautiful women – the original incarnation of the White Witch as Queen Jadis of Charn is perhaps another example. This is problematic, as there are of course plenty of examples of females – pretty or otherwise – who are portrayed positively in The Chronicles. Lewis’s letters suggest that his prejudice is not necessarily towards women or the idea of beauty, it is towards vanity and particularly adolescent vanity. For example, he once decries what he calls the “pitiful attempt to prolong what, after all, is neither [life’s] wisest, its happiest, or its most innocent period”. This is echoed quite strongly by Polly in the The Last Battle, who criticises the fact that Susan’s “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”.

Whatever the truth of the matter, Gaiman’s story leaves the reader with plenty to ponder. The Problem of Susan is superficially the story of an aged children’s literature professor who is interviewed by a young journalist on the night before her death. The professor’s first name is never given, but she is Susan, truly all grown up and she represents the deeper truths of Susan being denied heaven. “[Susan] was available to identify her brothers’ and her little sister’s bodies,” the professor says, and makes the point that “I doubt there was much opportunity for nylons and lipsticks after her family was killed. There certainly wasn’t for me. A little money… from her parents’ estate to lodge and feed her. No luxuries”. It is intriguing to consider whether this was what Lewis intended – that the simple life that Susan was forced into was some form of lesson for her vanity. Or perhaps the truth of what Lewis was objecting to was not vanity at all, but simply sexuality. If so, Susan’s fate seems a harsh one – as Gaiman puts it in the story, “A god who would punish me for liking nylons and parties by making me walk through that school dining room, with the flies, to identify Ed, well… he’s enjoying himself a bit too much isn’t he?”.

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26 Responses to “The Problem of Susan”

  1. nrlymrtl April 12, 2015 at 2:48 am #

    Nice article on Susan. Other then a line or two from Susan about ‘all those silly games we played as children’ we don’t get her viewpoint. We mainly just have what all these other characters think of her, and many of those characters don’t interact with her on a day to day or even weekly basis. It always came across as gossip to me instead of folks truly being connected with Susan, and hence truly concerned about her.

  2. simon7banks April 12, 2015 at 3:52 pm #

    Interesting. I think Lewis probably did recoil from femininity and particularly assertive, adult femininity and there may also be an issue about sex (not the same since that’s as much a male as a female thing!) The comparison with his friend Tolkien is interesting. Tolkien seems to have had no problem at all (beyond the average) with any of these issues in real life and he viewed his wife as a partner in his literary fantasies, but he put hardly any female characters in Middle Earth. Lewis created female characters all right, but struggled with their transition to adulthood. But may that not be true of the boys too, killed off in one world so they can live in another? Susan survived and walled off a part of her life. Perhaps the issue is not so much male/female as child/adult.

    That suggests the central issue may be a fundamental one – how a child’s imagination and sense of wonder may survive or not among adult preoccupations and even how a visionary lives in a world unfriendly to visions.

    • aimclean May 7, 2015 at 6:36 am #

      To be fair, Tolkien had married his childhood sweetheart Edith Pratt, and Lewis did not meet Joy until quite late in life. I think he has a point in that quote of his about there being a lot to be said for being no longer young and the “neither happiest, wisest nor most innocent” phase and the over-sexualisation of our culture (his parody of Hawthorn’s The Scarlet Letter, called The Scarlet Letter Sweater, with the Puritans replaced by Impuritans and the A standing for Abstinence rather than Adultery, is both funny and true, but this does not justify the rather uncharitable attitudes of the other Seven Friends of Narnia.

      I am inclined to think that she is far from beyond redemption, especially if Edmund the Traitor can become Edmund the Just (while I had earlier related to Lucy despite our different genders, I have found this last rather reassuring. It is precisely because he knows that he was once a traitor that he is “a more serious man than Peter… strong in counsel and judgment” (I may not have that quite right) and that he is able to plea for mercy for Rabadash and confide in Eustace that, whereas the latter on his first visit to the world (he does not come to the Kingdom of Narnia proper until Silver Chair) had been a “only a beast. I was a traitor.”

      That said, he might have stuck up for Susan during the uncharitable gossip-fest in Aslan’s Country!

      I choose to believe that Susan the Gentle is by no means lost. Once a King or Queen of Narnia, always a King or Queen of Narnia!

    • EgregiousCharles August 1, 2016 at 8:06 pm #

      With the large number of female characters Lewis wrote, why on earth is Susan the only one that people think represents Lewis’s ideas on women?

  3. Nathan April 12, 2015 at 9:01 pm #

    This was a topic I addressed myself a few years back. I guess you could say that the obsession with “lipsticks and nylons” isn’t about sex per se as much as it is a commentary on the immature maturity in which some people participate. One thing I really like that Lewis once said was that a desire to be Grown Up is rather childish in and of itself. That said, I don’t see any reason why this should end up excluding her from Heaven, especially since her desire to be a society girl probably isn’t going to continue much longer after the shock of losing her family. Beyond the anti-feminist tone, I find it odd that Susan would have forgotten Narnia when she lived there for so long and met Jesus/Aslan. It almost seems like Lewis is leaving out something traumatic that happened to Susan even BEFORE the railway accident.

    • Susan September 30, 2015 at 12:51 am #

      yes he is in denial within his own soul about her trauma

  4. WhitneyCarter April 16, 2015 at 3:30 pm #

    Reblogged this on Invisible Ink and commented:
    This was a rather interesting read. I wasn’t aware of the “problem of Susan” concept, but now I’ll be on the lookout for it while reading, especially writing articles. I’m glad to see though that I’m not the only one who was bothered by C.S. Lewis’ handling of one of his female protagonists.
    As a teen I read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian for school after having seen the first movie adaptation. And to be honest, this is one of the few series where I enjoy the movies more than the books. Besides that the written originals were somewhat dull, they did have several anti-female lines that, quite frankly, ruined the magic. Which shouldn’t surprise anyone who understands that the books are heavy in their Christian allegory.
    This apparent tension between the story Lewis told (or didn’t really tell, in this case) and what his readers wanted from the story highlights an age old question every writer must think on at some point: to give the audience what they want, or tell the story he feels needs to be told?

  5. Sara Flower Kjeldsen April 19, 2015 at 7:24 pm #

    I appreciate this, because I found it very sad that Susan was made out to be a villain in the end just because she found her way to adulthood and chose to enjoy parties and lipstick. I found it particularly strange that Lewis felt that was necessary for not getting into Aslan’s country. Quite heartless, really.

    • aimclean May 7, 2015 at 6:49 am #

      But we are not told whether she ultimately entered Aslan’s Country or not, merely that she still lives in our world (or a fictionalised version of it). If allegedly frivolous interests were sufficient grounds to bar one permanently, she is unlike to feel especially frivolous after such a shocking bereavement. I get that it is still rather problematic, to imply that such interests would be sufficient to exclude one from Heaven even if persisted in. In any case all we learn is that Susan at least professes to neither still be interested in nor to believe in Narnia, and that the others despise this and her interests in lipstick and nylons. This may say more about them than her.

      I’d like accusations of sexism or racism against Lewis or Tolkien to be both acknowledged as not altogether without foundation (certainly Lewis had a number of prejudices) but for this to be heavily qualified. People are very complicated, after all and defy easy categorisation. We may have some idea how our time might be perceived by people of some previous times if they had a vision of it, but not at all how it may come to be perceived by future generations (although Lewis himself hated moderns patronising previous eras, infantilising and making allowance for those who had been born in them. Cultural changes not withstanding, we do have the capacity to see that there may be things wrong in our cultures and in our own hearts and minds.

  6. aimclean May 7, 2015 at 6:37 am #

    Also, Edmund is the readiest to believe Lucy in Prince Caspian precisely because he knows how badly he let her down before.

  7. Scáth May 9, 2015 at 7:20 pm #

    Do we really care what overly hyped writers such as Rowling or Gaiman have to say about the work of eternal luminary C. S. Lewis? Or what anybody else has to say for that matter? I am quite sure that Lewis does not care, his mind on far higher things now, which was his whole point as a writer on Earth. Susan represents the apostate within the Christian circle. According to the Bible, everyone outside of Christianity who has not heard or adequately understood the message of salvation (via the shed Blood of Jesus), and who follow natural moral law as best he understands it and can apply it, is also saved for eternity–while many people who call themselves Christians find themselves, like Barker’s Pinhead, having always been in Hell, which, to come full circle, was a Lewis idea from one of his theology books, I believe.

    • ashsilverlock May 10, 2015 at 11:06 am #

      Fair point, although I don’t think that this issue can be dismissed entirely in this way, given that it has been commented upon by a wide range of academics and literary critics, quite apart from the two writers whom you’ve described as ‘overly hyped’ (an interesting view, given that Gaiman and Rowling are in fact two of the most successful authors, both critically and commercially, writing today in multiple forms of media).

    • aimclean May 11, 2015 at 3:19 am #

      Was there not some quote about Heaven being full of those who say to God, “Thy will be done” and Hell of those to whom God says, THY will be done” which understands Hell as the ultimate fruit of self-choice, of idolising our own desires and concerns above God?

    • aimclean May 11, 2015 at 3:26 am #

      Whether their works will stand the test of the decades as Lewis’ has, or whether any of the three will stand the test of the centuries like Dickens or earlier Shakespeare, or their equivalents such as Hugo, Dumas and his collaborators, Cervantes, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky et al., Wu Ch’eng en, Valmiki among the many nations of the Earth, or whether any books other than those in the canonical scriptures of the Bible will pass the test of Eternity, remains to be seen, though I like to think the best survives in a library somewhere in Aslan’s Country… I have enjoyed these authors’ works (though obviously the foreign ones with the exception of the Bible only in translation; I have a little Hebrew and Greek.

    • Susan December 19, 2015 at 1:32 am #

      maybe she is daughter zion in the bible where it says “will a mother eat her own son?” all your prophets and priests were liars,they shed innocent blood..lamentations 2-3). bible says she is tormented and tossed to and fro.. on every wind of doctrine…she drained the cup of the lords wrath to its dregs and “pays double” for sins..she is captive… people lie to her and use and abuse her heart…. Christians do this to her too….we all know that….it says she is “never comforted” has many enemies and her maker is her husband…

  8. Sherry November 25, 2015 at 1:19 pm #

    When I was little, I thought I had connected more with Lucy. Of the four Pevensies, I wanted to be most like her, in the aspect of having the bravery and confidence to follow Aslan (or Christ) wherever He went. Yet as I grew, and as I faced life’s lows and highs, I forgot about this. I forgot about my wonderful, very real spiritual experiences with Him. Or, rather, much like Susan, I’d /wanted/ to forget and simply dismiss them in the way she did Narnia. I became obsessed with my own version of “nylons, invitations, and lipstick,” chasing down this skewed perception of adulthood I thought I’d wanted. Doing this felt easier, somehow. Although it was wrong (as the easy way almost always is), it felt right. Because I didn’t fully understand God’s love for me, nor God Himself.

    Then trouble came. I remember feeling upset with a God I’d told myself I didn’t believe in…. But still calling to Him for help. Because deep in my heart, I knew that if anyone could pull me out of this hole I dug for myself, it would be He who created all things. In the end, despite, or even perhaps due to all the trouble, I learnt who He truly is… And I’m still learning.

    What does this have to do with Susan, you may ask. Well, perhaps the troubling fate she has at the end of The Last Battle led her to a greater faith than what she had before as well. It certainly seems the case to me in how Lewis hinted at it, and even planned for it before his death. And seeing how she overcomes her fears, doubts, and anxiety in each adventure she had in Narnia is also very telling. On the surface, it may seem like Lewis chose a very anti-feminist path for her story to close… But I personally feel that things are more than they seem.

    (As for whether or not Lewis and his works were sexist, racist, or anything of the sort… Well, he was only human. All humans are flawed in some ways; therefore all the stories we tell are flawed in some ways. That does not, however, make the stories Right or Wrong. It simply means we learn and grow from those flaws.)

    • ashsilverlock November 26, 2015 at 9:27 am #

      Thanks for this thoughtful contribution – I agree that things are often more than they seem and it is very true that all humans are flawed.

  9. -M- December 17, 2015 at 6:20 pm #

    Reblogged this on Diary of an ADHD fellow and commented:
    From the advice of another person – I’ve been searching down details before I read it myself…

  10. RSGullett April 24, 2016 at 1:57 pm #

    It is my humble opinion that Lewis used Susan as a means to show that Aslan (Christ) can be as real as a lion standing before us, and yet we can still choose to ignore Him or pretend that He is simply a childish fantasy. The reference to “lipsticks and nylons” has less to do with sex or femininity and more to do with worldly distractions. I think certain people see scathing remarks by Lewis when there isn’t any. They simply choose to see it because of an overly sensitive nature brought about by other, more legitimate, sources of bias sexism. Yet with Lewis, I do not see it. If Lewis had said of Peter instead of Susan, “sports and skirts” would we have been so harsh?

    Lewis is issuing a warning to Believers of the many distractions that tempt us in this life. Things that will draw us away from Jesus. Susan is unfortunate to be the one who falls to these distractions and temptations, saying of Aslan and Narnia that it is mere make believe rather than the reality she touched, tasted, smelled, saw, etc. denying her own senses of the reality of Aslan. It causes one to question if we were to see Christ, and then return to our “normal” lives, would we still deny His existence and love for us?

    • Susan July 18, 2016 at 11:06 pm #

      it would be traumatic angering and feel like abuse to see Christ and then return to a “normal” life..as that would be “acting”
      it changes you forever and if we are then forced to pretend it didn’t exist..?
      satan in his mind gets “cast down to earth” (he was always here) Daniel says his “countenance within him has fallen/light out”…. daughter zion in the lords anger has “cast her from heaven to earth”
      she was here…
      its a mindset
      “jerked to and fro never comforted”
      and
      “i will not leave you there”
      its all mindset… when reality and fiction do not add up or even remotely match it feels akin to severe traumatic abuse
      if left stagnating like that for too long..one will seem fake altogether…
      “on earth as it is in heaven” and for the two to be together is what we all want
      not all that “cast down/cast out..rage… enmity between the two”
      you will NOT still feel someone loves you after being with him in perfect protective love and THEN raped and abused non stop til your grave
      you will feel the love is a lie and only astral and only something YOU have to work at to keep alive(a form of a denial)
      people do get raped murdered et c and make excuses for God.. and say “well he didn’t mean that”
      its gonna get tough
      Susan’s character is caught between two
      “daughter zion,she will be utterly forsaken by BOTH her “two dreaded kings”

  11. Louise July 29, 2016 at 8:03 pm #

    Great article and comments. I’d just like to add that I’ve always thought the Number Seven also had something to do with it. Lewis wanted the number of earlier protagonists entering Aslan’ country to add up to 7, a much more “magical” number than 8. So he found a sort of excuse to exclude one. Only a theory, but I think the fact that Susan’s exclusion isn’t really set up in the former books, that Edmund did something much worse yet is redeemed, and the improbability of Susan dismissing as fantasy the place where she actually grew up, where she spent at least ten years; might point to a pragmatic explanation like that.

    • Susan July 30, 2016 at 10:52 pm #

      wow! that’s important as biblically the 7 headed dragon? or ten and 3 kings subdued
      or in revelations
      “he is of the 7 yet is the 8th”
      and will go into perdition
      he is a 7 and an 8
      kind of like someone in two places at once?
      or someone who switches sides or places?
      or takes two sides?
      interesting its a female who takes the fall
      considering bible has a daughter of zion as virgin
      and a daughter of Babylon ‘whore’
      says they dwell together and to separate(become child again?) considering the issue with susan was she grew up/..they seem to attach sexuality with growing up.. which needn’t be!
      there is no sin in growing up..
      Jesus says enter heaven as a child or you will in no wise enter
      apostle paul says put childish things way “I became a man”
      jeremiah tells daughter zion in lamentations 2-3 let not the child cease! dandled on the knee/baby”
      no doubt Susans story same as daughter zions is one of her heart strings.. and emotional manipulation…
      as Bible even says they all “torment her” and drain her soul and feed off if it and it says they are not thankful and even mock her (yes those are verses)!
      they gloat too over her sexuality it says…and mock about how she was once pure.. and not anymore…
      seems same
      Susan as a daughter Zion… of whom it says she is never comforted and tossed to and fro.
      and none of her children hold her hand…
      and she never even gave birth ! (in the flesh)
      its a war………..
      for a soul her and ours
      evil to say Narnia cant be re entered just for lies
      her childhood was taken… they all talk “from afar” but offer no help then gloat and mock
      I cant tell what to do
      daughter zion is told to “write in agony when she is thrown out”
      sorry didn’t mean to get off track
      7 is serpent in ancient texts and wisdom.. but dragon was made to agree to give power to beast… for Gods purpose for a time…
      they have power together for one hour……….

  12. EgregiousCharles August 1, 2016 at 6:48 pm #

    “interested in nothing now-a-days except nylons and lipstick and invitations”
    ‘Notably, Harry Potter author J K Rowling once commented: “There comes a point where Susan, who was the older girl, is lost to Narnia because she becomes interested in lipstick. She’s become irreligious basically because she found sex. I have a big problem with that”’
    Nonsense. Susan is not lost to Narnia because of sex or adult interests. She’s not lost because she’s interested in lipstick. She’s lost because she’s interested in NOTHING BUT. We several times see heroic female characters like Lucy and Aravis interested in such things, like when they are settling Aravis into Archenland: “to talk about Aravis’s bedroom and Aravis’s boudoir and about getting clothes for her, and all the sort of things girls do talk about on such an occasion.” This is not presented as a fault.
    Lewis’s implication that Rowling misses is that if Susan went to see a Harry Potter movie, it would only be because of who else was seeing it.
    The Chronicles of Narnia are of course children’s books, if one reads Lewis’s Space Trilogy (or indeed any of his other books which are written for adults) one will see much more about how he saw Christianity working with adult life.

    • Atheist December 21, 2016 at 4:31 pm #

      I disagree. Susan is “lost” to Narnia because she was interested in something(s) other than Narnia. She is the token skeptic in the book and never accepted the unquestioned faith of all the other characters. She even said that Narnia and Aslan were children’s fantasies, much like the fantasy of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. Members of a church usually regard apostates as shallow and materialistic hedonists to be shunned unless they beg to return and repent their disbelief.

      Her family and friends act as if Susan was excommunicated and don’t express any personal grief in her absence, nor is there any sense of injustice. Susan didn’t fall; she escaped from a religious cult.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Book Review: The Chronicles of Narnia *spoilers* | A World of Randomness - April 13, 2015

    […] and didn’t keep her faith in Narnia? This issue is covered quite nicely by an article called “The Problem of Susan” by AshSilverLock over on her Fabulous Realms […]

  2. Collected Susan Pevensie links – Wednesday blog - February 9, 2017

    […] The Problem of Susan […]

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