…Or rather, one particular response to it.
For those who don’t know, the Problem of Susan is the term Neil Gaiman coined for what was probably the most controversial plot point in the entire Chronicles of Narnia: Susan Pevensie’s exclusion from the New Narnia (i.e., Heaven or the New Earth prophesied in Revelation). I always found his decision rather fascinating, one of the many reasons being that dislike of it seems to me to be almost universal. For one thing, the reactions of people actually in the New Narnia seem shockingly blase considering that, in the Pevensies’ case, their sister is being barred from Paradise, and in Tirian’s case he just learned that one of the great Queens of Narnia is no longer considered a Friend of Narnia. They all acknowledge Susan once, in the space of maybe four or five paragraphs at most, and then never mention her again. For another, Susan’s whole family, parents included, all died at essentially the same time. Poor Susan back on boring old Earth has to feel rather crushed.
I think Lewis always struggled with the idea of how the saved should react to the fates of the damned. In “The Great Divorce” he has Lewis discuss the issue with his mentor, and they never really seem to come to a wholly satisfactory conclusion about the issue. Eventually they settle on something along the lines of “God will work it out”, or really, “It’s a mystery, but it’ll make sense once we experience it ourselves”. In “The Last Battle” when it comes to Susan he briefly mentions Susan’s fate, and then just stops talking about it. It is indeed one of the weaker sections of the book – in fact, probably the weakest.
One objection, however, always annoyed me, because I always felt it missed the point entirely. it was articulated well by J.K. Rowling (at least according to Wikipedia, and I’m going to use this quote because it is a very commonly expressed view whether or not Rowling said these exact words):
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 a presentation I gave to my Myth and Culture class in college, I said this:
As all Narnia fans know, Susan is the only major character who was a good guy NOT to make it into the new Narnia. J.K. Rowling says it was because she “discovered sex”. I’m a huge Harry Potter fan, but Rowling is not only dead wrong, she’s obviously dead wrong.
[Here I quote the relevant story passage]
Notice that sex and boys are not mentioned, and nobody who reads Lewis seriously believes he has any sort of problem with sex.
My teacher then expressed her agreement with Rowling. I groaned dramatically and we went back and forth on it for a bit, but ultimately she was a good sport about it. Still, the incident did help me clarify some of my thoughts.
Indirectly, people like Rowling actually have a point – focusing exclusively on materialism is only a part of the story. While Lewis might not have been directly trying to connect Susan’s sins to sex, there’s certainly an element there of Susan using her beauty to get attention. With talk of “lipsticks and nylons and invitations” I think Lewis was trying to give the impression that Susan knew she was an attractive girl and was taking full advantage of it, basically using her beauty to manipulate people into getting what she wanted – something I think is a common sin for females in particular.
Does this mean Susan put out? I suppose the answer would probably have to be yes, but it’s also besides the point. The point is not that Susan had decided to start having sex, it’s that Susan was enjoying the attention her beauty was giving her so much that she rejected Narnia and what it stood for in favor of a life where her happiness was dependent on something fleeting and false. She is vain and rather foolish, and thinks that what she has in her life now is worth more than the life Narnia used to offer to her.
My teacher pointed out that the adult Susan seen in “The Horse and His Boy” is quite mature. This is true, but a common theme of the Chronicles is the effect one’s environment has on your maturity, conscience, and temperament. Lewis makes a point of saying that Edmund started to turn bad once he started going to “that awful school”, Eustace is raised by terrible parents and also goes to an awful school, and finally we see that when Susan is raised outside of the influence of Narnia she is taken in by the false culture of vanity and materialism around her. And so it is no coincidence that Susan has NOT died – Lewis is giving her a chance. This is his subtle way of acknowledging that ultimately, Susan still has the ability to be a Queen of Narnia. It is notable that while Lewis repeatedly talks about the influence of environment on behavior, he never let’s it be an excuse to absolve people of their actions. Susan might not yet be damned, but she hasn’t been saved either. Ultimately the choice (and it is a choice) is still hers.
So yes, Susan DID probably discover sex. But that doesn’t mean it’s the true reason Susan is not in the New Narnia. If Susan is a problem for you, then address it. Don’t act offended and then use that as license to dismiss it as unworthy of discussion. People don’t like to think that Lewis was talking about sex because then the finger becomes pointed at THEM…and it’s not as if he can POSSIBLY have a real point if that’s the case, right?