As an initial disclaimer, I should say that if anyone reading this post has not read The Chronicles of Narnia (particularly The Last Battle), then I must warn you that this post contains revelations of important plot details from those books.
C. S. Lewis has come under criticism from various quarters (particularly the Lewis-haunted Philip Pullman) over the years, for aspects of his series The Chronicles of Narnia that seem out of step with modern sensibilities, and in particular for the supposed disservice he does to the female characters in those books. Pre-eminent amongst these accusations is Lewis’ treatment of Susan Pevensie – not only that he consigns her to a place outside of the paradisal ‘inner’ Narnia which many have equated with her damnation, but that the reasons for her exclusion are drawn from a seeming dislike of her developed femininity and sexuality.
The first accusation (that Susan is condemned to some sort of literary damnation, forever unable to reach the eternal plains beyond the ‘stable door’) is perhaps the easier one to answer. First though, I think it best to examine the passage from which both the above accusations draw their strength – a conversation which takes place after all the other characters are reunited in the Narnian afterlife:
‘“Sir,” said Tirian, when he had greeted all these. “If I have read the chronicle aright, there should be another. Has not your Majesty two sisters? Where is Queen Susan?”
“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 sight 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 time 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.”’
The Last Battle (1990), pp.127-128, Lions.
All that is said here is that Susan forgot the adventures that the Pevensie children enjoyed, considering them to be the fruits of juvenile imagination. In her eagerness to grow up, she had cast aside all that she had experienced and learned during her time in Narnia, and thus it can no longer have any claim on her – she is not there because she no longer sees it as being any real place that she could be. The possibility of her re-discovering those memories, and seeing them as something not only substantive but compelling, so that she may again consider Narnia (and all that it stands for) as a place worth giving attention to, is never discounted. In fact, Lewis himself, in a letter to a young fan (22nd January 1957) states 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.’
So, all we really have evidence for here (both extra-textually and from the passage in The Last Battle itself) is that at that moment Susan had cast Narnia aside, and that she was therefore excluded from the Narnian reunion then. The question of whether her casting off the memory of several years of concrete experience in Narnia and immersion in the textures and rhythms of its life could signify a deeper resolution to permanently reject what she had learned there is left open, with Lewis’ letter suggesting that Susan having a change of heart is a real possibility.
In Lewis’ letter he also refers to Susan as having become ‘a rather silly, conceited young woman’, and this ties into the second question of whether or not Lewis’ portrayal of Susan represents a deeper distrust of all things feminine (particularly those women who embrace nylons and lipstick!) Following on from what I have just written, it is clear that Susan’s absence from ‘Aslan’s country’ is due to her having forgotten Narnia despite having had the benefit of seeing it and living in it, and that this forgetting is due to an excessive desire to (as the Lady Polly says) ‘race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can’.
This is, I think, the key to understanding the other comments Lewis makes. Contrary to what many of his critics have said, Lewis is not here making out the discovery of sexuality, or adulthood per se, to be a bad thing. Rather, in Susan, we have a character who has cast aside vivid experiences (and it is important to remember that these are analogous to the experience of Christian faith) in favour of rushing forward to embrace what is fashionable and ‘now’. In fact, Polly’s statement serves as a very good summary of what Lewis was already seeing in his own time, and what is almost endemic now – the worship of youth. Susan was following the path of many others, who made getting to early adulthood as quickly as possible and staying there for as long as possible her priority, so much so that other things (i.e.; Aslan – the Christ figure) lose out.
One could even say that Susan’s embracing the cult of youth actually displays a failure to grow up; a desire to remain in perpetual young adulthood – a point which is heavily implied in Lady Polly’s statement. We were shown a fully grown-up Susan in The Horse and His Boy, where she has been courting Prince Rabadash of Tashbaan – clearly Lewis did not have a problem with his characters (and Susan in particular) either growing up, or embracing their sexuality. The comment that Jill makes is that Susan is ‘interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations’ – i.e.; her interests are exclusively superficial, and this is what has led her to forget Narnia, not her femininity or the growing awareness of her sexuality.
This serves to emphasise that in the Chronicles, what is being displayed, described and explored is faith. The Pevensie children, in their Narnian adventures, and their encounters with Aslan, are given the opportunity to breath a new air, to see life with new horizons, and this is all meant by Lewis to represent the ‘flavour’ of new life in Christ. Susan’s (and, in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, Edmund’s) rejection of the gracious gifts they have received therefore have the character of denying or sidelining Christ, not because of a lack of information about Him, but because of a personal preference for other things (nylons and invitations, or Turkish Delight and power over others) – they have put secondary things first.
Contrary to Lewis doing a disservice to his female characters then, when we see the Chronicles in this light, it is clear that by far the most meritorious (and most endearing) character is female – Lucy. She is consistently shown to be faithful where others are not, as well as more honest and reliable, and has the purest and most ardent devotion to Aslan, always seeing him before the others do. Whilst it is true that the boys tend to have more ‘air time’, as they are involved in a lot more of the action, Lewis also often uses his female characters to point out how slow-witted and short-sighted the boys can be (very much like the way the evangelists consistently show the Apostles as slow to believe, whilst presenting the women as models of faithful discipleship).
When considering all this then, it is hard to see the accusations against Lewis with regard to Susan’s fate and his treatment of female characters as having much substance to them. In fact, I would argue that the criticisms levelled against Lewis here display a great deal of prejudice themselves, assuming that the only way Susan can properly be considered grown-up is by ‘embracing’ her sexuality – something not really present in the text itself, and more suggestive of the way our over-sexualised age tends to read agendas into things in a way that is not justified by context.
Furthermore, the overlooking of Lucy as a strong and highly significant female character points to the desire of many critics to focus on what they perceive as sexism elsewhere in the Chronicles (suggesting a determination to marginalise Lewis for other reasons – his Christianity perhaps?) to the detriment of his positive characterisations of women. The singling out of Susan as the female character to be concerned with however may also highlight some underlying negative attitudes on the critics’ part – Susan is the ‘pretty one’ after all, and despite the fact that Lewis does not himself reduce her to her this, the arguments of many critics have simply assumed that this is the case, which suggests that they are perhaps harbouring stereotypical ideas about womanhood themselves – Lewis must have excluded her on that basis.
Perhaps though the truth is that Lewis had both a higher and a more realistic view of women than many do today. His portrayals of Lucy and Susan (as well as Aravis, Jill and Polly) give vivid counter perspectives to chauvinism, which encourages people to believe either that women can only be valued for their appearance, and/or that their opinions are not of value relative to those of men. Lewis’ critics seem to assume these two points in such a way that suggests their views are more shaped by them than Lewis’ were, to the point that they have created subtexts to fight against within the Chronicles that are not there – they are incapable of reading the text without the female characters therein being seen through a chauvinist lens.
Lewis however, despite the supposedly more prejudiced age in which he lived, seems freer of these assumptions, and has left us with characters that should make us question how our views of femininity and women’s rights have been shaped. If, as the tone and angle of his critics’ accusations seem to suggest, current views of femininity are actively shaped in reaction to chauvinistic prejudices, then perhaps we are not as liberated as we think we are. Perhaps there may be something we can learn from Lewis and his age, who, in embracing the differences between the sexes, and not setting them against one another, represent a viewpoint which could offer better means for protecting female dignity than ours.