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.
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?”.