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