Classic Remarks: The Fate of Susan Pevensie

Classic Remarks 1

Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.  Feel free to comment even if you are not officially participating!  This week’s prompt is:

Susan Pevensie’s fate in C. S. Lewis’s The Last Battle has been criticized for being sexist. Do you think it’s sexist or is Lewis trying to do or say something else?


The Last Battle

WARNING: Spoilers for The Last Battle by C. S. Lewis.

Context

For those who don’t quite remember, Susan Pevensie is noticeably absent from The Last Battle, at a time when nearly every other beloved Narnia character gets to make a reappearance.  When confronted with her absence, the other kings and queens have a lot to say.  Readers who think the passage is sexist, as today’s discussion question indicates, tend to fixate on the fact that Susan is now said to be wearing lipstick (gasp!).  Here’s the full passage for better context:

“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.”

Atheism, Vanity, or Sexism?

I’ll be the first to admit I do not like everything C. S. Lewis has to say about women and the role of women; however, reading this passage as a sexist condemnation of Susan because she’s become obsessed with stereotypical female items is short-sighted.  The problem is bigger and more complicated than a personal dismissal by Lewis of womanly vanity. Rather, the issue is that Susan is no longer interested in Narnia and she is interested in things one might consider “worldly.”

The fact that the Chronicles of Narnia is Christian allegory is incredibly important for interpreting this passage.   The words say that Susan no longer believes in Narnia because she finds it childish to believe in magic.  But a disbelief in Narnia is also a disbelief in Aslan, and since Aslan is the way Christ manifests in Narnia, the implication is that Susan has lost some of her belief in God.  There’s not a lot elaboration here. Is she atheist? Agnostic? Nominally Christian but not really practicing ? At any rate, there’s a distinct issue with Susan’s lack of faith.  She’s essentially become too adult (too “intelligent?”) to believe in myths and things she cannot see.

Lewis hammers this point home by suggesting that, since Susan no longer concerns herself with spiritual matters, she has concerned herself too much with worldly matters.  To me, the mention of “nylons and lipstick and invitations” is just Lewis’s way of saying she’s obsessed with passing material things.  It is unfortunate that “lipstick” becomes an obvious stand-in for “vanity” since make-up isn’t inherently either good or bad, and implying women who wear it are spiritually corrupt is a low blow.  However, I don’t think we should read too much into it.  First, Lewis is obviously not saying women are more likely to be corrupted by the world than men are. Second, I think critics’ focus on the word “lipstick” overlooks so much else in the passage.  It even overlooks the “invitations” that come right after it, which simply implies Susan is prioritizing her social life over her spiritual life, and that’s not a specifically female failing.

However, Susan’s situation might not be so dire as readers generally interpret it to be.  Polly certainly has a strong opinion on the matter, suggesting Susan will grow up to be the type of woman who’s continually chasing after her lost youth.  However, Polly isn’t Aslan; she doesn’t actually know the future, and this is just her disillusioned best guess.  In reality, we simply don’t know what happens to Susan.  Yet we do know that she has lost her entire family. Peter, Edmund, and Lucy have died, but so have their parents (as well as all the Narnian kings and queens that Susan is evidently friends with).  People respond to tragedy in many ways.  This may drive Susan to seek even more comfort in worldly pleasures, or it may be the wake-up call that reminds her what’s important and brings her back to God.

I like to think there’s hope for Susan.  Lewis definitely gives a dig at lipstick, but it’s clearly not what he meant the focus of the passage to be; it’s what we, decades later with our feminist reading lenses, have chosen to focus on.  It may be an unfortunate or thoughtless stand-in for vanity or other moral failings, but the message is really not that “Susan is damned because she likes make-up” and critics who have said so have missed the point (I’m looking at you, Emily Wilson).

Briana

22 thoughts on “Classic Remarks: The Fate of Susan Pevensie

  1. TeacherofYA says:

    I’ve honestly never read a Narnia book, not even The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe…but I saw the movie as a kid (the old one).
    Very good textual analysis: you’ll do great in college if you’re attending this semester!

    Like

    • Briana says:

      I loved the whole series as a child…except The Last Battle, actually. I do find it’s one of the series that hasn’t quite grown with me as an adult, though. There’s certainly a lot of interesting stuff to analyze, but in terms of the magic of the plot, I 100% enjoyed the books more as a child.

      Liked by 1 person

        • Briana says:

          I always feel like a bad C.S. Lewis fan when I say they didn’t live up to adult rereads for me. :p But I reread The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe a couple years ago and was sort of baffled that so little seemed to happen in it. I think I used my imagination and that’s was really colored in the world for me. I do still like the books. But I’m also a little wary about gushing endlessly about the books to adults and maybe overhyping them, because that seems likely to lead to their disappointment.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Krysta says:

            I read the books differently now. Before they were magical fantasy adventures. Now they’re sort of more interesting when I compare them to Lewis’s other work.

            Like

  2. daleydowning says:

    It’s very true that we often are encouraged to only see the classics through the single lens of how we’d view or analyze things today… We need to remember how people thought in the time they were originally written in, and what other meanings could be.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      I also think it’s just very easy to make a black-and-white argument. Saying “Lewis is sexist!” sounds shocking and exciting, but it’s not a nuanced reading of the work and doesn’t really engage with all the textual evidence. It pinpoints one word, “lipstick,” and tries to say that Lewis is saying “Lipstick is evil.” This is kind of reductionist and I’m always surprised people make this argument in all seriousness.

      Then you have Philip Pullman writing: “[Lewis] didn’t like women in general, or sexuality at all, at least at the stage in his life when he wrote the Narnia books. He was frightened and appalled at the notion of wanting to grow up. Susan, who did want to grow up, and who might have been the most interesting character in the whole cycle if she’d been allowed to, is a Cinderella in a story where the Ugly Sisters win” (http://www.crlamppost.org/darkside.htm). I’m really not sure how one passage in a book lets us know that Lewis hated women.

      And Pullman is again missing the point. Lewis is probably referencing the Christian notion of childlike faith and saying that sometimes grown-ups think they “know better” than God. He is not actually against growing up in practice. Just, as Briana noted, in focusing on material things like beauty, success, money, whatever, that one would value so much that they would lose their spiritual way. You don’t have to agree with Lewis’s faith to recognize that what he is saying is more complex than “Sexuality is bad” or “Make-up is bad” or “Invitations are bad.”

      Liked by 1 person

  3. kimmie.gg says:

    This is an interesting post. I never thought of C.S Lewis to being sexist in that passage, as normally we grow up and material things do take precedence over more abstract things such as Narnia…Susan was my favorite character, however, so it was sad to see her go. I thought C.S Lewis was simply showing how Narnia was there for the younger children who have been untainted by reality.

    Like

    • Briana says:

      I think as a child I read it very generically as “Susan grew up to be vain and obsessed with herself,” and I could see why that might be a moral failing. Admittedly, the women in my family were not very into make-up or the like, and maybe that would give children a different perspective on the passage. However, I just never thought that “lipstick” or “nylons” were specifically the point, just the idea that Susan was more interested in herself than in helping other people, as she helped people when she was Queen of Narnia. I was really said she was written off as “unworthy,” too, though! I always like to think she puts her life back together later, off-page.

      Liked by 1 person

      • kimmie.gg says:

        Oh I see how that can be seen that way… I jus thought of the passage as explaining how Narnia was reserved for those strong in imagination and not tainted by the real world and the greed that accompanies it. It was only when Susan “grew up to be vain and obsessed with herself” that she forgot about Narnia, just like we forget the fantasies of our childhood. I have to agree with you though 🙂 It does mean that Susan was more interested in herself than others.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Briana says:

          Yes, I do think there’s a strong emphasis on the idea that Susan no longer believes in Narnia. And that works nicely both for arguing that she has lost her imagination and for taking the book as a Christian allegory and arguing she’s lost her faith. She just doesn’t believe in things she can’t see and is dismissive of people who do.

          Like

  4. majoringinliterature says:

    Really interesting post, Briana! I agree there’s probably a lot of different ways to read this excerpt, and gender may not be the reason behind Lewis’ decision not to kill off Susan. I do like the idea of looking at Susan’s future optimistically… it’s certainly nice to imagine that she’ll be reunited with her family one day, and as you rightly say, people do respond to tragedy in different ways.

    Here’s mine: https://majoringinliterature.wordpress.com/2016/08/12/wherein-i-take-a-crack-at-the-problem-of-susan/. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Briana says:

      Agreed! I think it’s really dire to say “Well, she’s lost her religion at the age of (I don’t remember exactly, but, what, 18 tops?); she must be doomed for the rest of her life! Lewis himself came back to religion at an older age than that, so I can’t imagine this is just the end for Susan.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Krysta says:

        I never thought it was the end. As you note, I always assumed losing her entire family as well as her friends would cause Susan to reevaluate her life and what mattered in it. When death is so close, she might very well reconsider if her social life is the most important thing to her.

        Like

        • Briana says:

          I think people assuming Susan must be lost for good are people who are taking Polly’s words at face value. You know because “it says in the book that Susan will grow up to be a woman forever chasing her youth!” It says that, and it’s an option, but it’s also just one character’s opinion. I think if Aslan said it, or some authoritative narrative voice said it, that would be different. But there’s no reason to assume Polly must be right with her prediction.

          Liked by 1 person

  5. Lost In A Good Book says:

    It didn’t sound to me like he was being sexist. It sounded to me like he was commenting on her loss of faith. She was losing her focus on spiritual things and moving on to more worldly things. It is in keeping with the christian focus of these books.

    Like

    • Briana says:

      It honestly would never have occurred to me to read the passage as sexist, if it weren’t a thing other people complain about. Is “lipstick” a stereotypically female thing to represent worldliness? Sure. But it’s also one thing in an entire list that people tend to ignore, and I think Lewis could be equally stereotypical about men when he wanted to be. A “worldly” male character would probably be someone obsessed with sports, to him. :p

      Liked by 1 person

  6. looloolooweez says:

    Sorry, a little late to the party here, but this was such an interesting post!

    I remember being disturbed by the fate of Susan as a kid, not because of perceived sexism, but because she’d been left behind. All her family had died suddenly, and she was the only one left, dealing with it alone, and now the other characters are grimly discussion her lack of faith (or at least interest in faith)?

    I’m not really a huge fan of Neil Gaiman’s take on “The Problem of Susan”, but one of the passages from this short story really reflects what I thought of the situation:

    The professor cuts herself a slice of chocolate cake. She seems to be remembering And then she says, “I doubt there was much opportunity for nylons and lipsticks after her family was killed. There certainly wasn’t for me. A little money less than one might imagine, from her parents’ estate, to lodge and feed her. No luxuries …”

    “There must have been something else wrong with Susan,” says the young journalist, “something they didn’t tell us. Otherwise she wouldn’t have been damned like that, denied the Heaven of further up and further in. I mean, all the people she had ever cared for had gone on to their reward, in a world of magic and waterfalls and joy. And she was left behind.”

    “I don’t know about the girl in the books,” says the professor, “but remaining behind would also have meant that she was available to identify her brothers’ and her little sister’s bodies. There were a lot of people dead in that crash. I was taken to a nearby school, it was the first day of term, and they had taken the bodies there. My older brother looked okay. Like he was asleep. The other two were a bit messier.”

    “I suppose Susan would have seen their bodies, and thought, they’re on holidays now. The perfect school holidays. Romping in meadows with talking animals, world without end.”

    “She might have done. I remember thinking what a great deal of damage a train can do, when it hits another train, to the people who were travelling. I suppose you’ve never had to identify a body, dear?”

    I know the book’s focus is on whether or not Susan is still (or can eventually again be) a friend of Narnia, but … frankly, that’s the kind of thing that sometimes make people lose faith entirely, and I think it would be unfair to characterize Susan’s lack/loss of faith as mere worldliness after an event like that.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      The funny thing is, most criticisms of the infamous nylons and lipstick line seem to forget that Susan’s been left without her entire family as well as without a good many of her old friends, all at once and unexpectedly. We are, as you point out, watching Lucy and the rest calmly discuss her invitation obsession while they all seem perfectly fine, so it’s easy to forget that Susan’s literally alone in the world and that this time no one is coming back from Narnia. (I’ve always assumed that maybe Lucy and the rest are discussing her views on Narnia so apparently callously both because they’re dead and in a place where you can’t be touched by sadness and because maybe they’re all still a little annoyed? I’m sure Lucy found her big sister quite trying at times!)

      For me, the important thing to remember is that the nylons and lipstick line is NOT the final word on Susan. Most critics take it at face value and assume because a character said Susan forget Narnia and likes socializing, she’s lost forever and C. S. Lewis hates women who wear makeup. But Susan has her life ahead of her. Maybe the train wreck will make her remember Narnia again. Maybe it won’t. We have no way of knowing either way, but the point is that the possibility of a return has been left open for her regardless of how we feel about Lewis’s views on lipstick.

      Like

Leave a Reply! We'd love to read your thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s