The Problem with the Problem of Susan

…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?

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18 Responses to The Problem with the Problem of Susan

  1. Crude says:

    When the topic switches to sex, the world turns upside-down for a lot of people. It’s at once a thing almost everyone feels strongly about, but just about no one wants to discuss in anything approaching detail or frank terms. Which is probably one reason why you’re getting the ‘unworthy of discussion’ reply – because any deeper discussion about this particular thing will inevitably turn to talk of sex, and it’s just a minefield.

    • Yeah, the short version of why I hate this objection is that it’s a good way for liberals to shut down the discussion and then sit there smugly as if they’ve made some brilliant irrefutable point.

      My teacher was doing the same thing, but nicely, and she took the time to address what I was saying (she’s not a bad teacher at all). Saying “She didn’t make it in because she discovered sex!” Is another way of saying “I find this offensive, thus I will not even consider it seriously!”. Because, you know, that’s just an observation, and not even an entirely correct one. There’s no real thought to it, and there certainly isn’t anything like fairness being applied.

      • Crude says:

        Yeah, the short version of why I hate this objection is that it’s a good way for liberals to shut down the discussion and then sit there smugly as if they’ve made some brilliant irrefutable point.

        Well, the reason for the ‘shutdown’, I really believe, is that most people will automatically drop the subject as soon as possible, or struggle to keep it in the vaguest possible terms with euphemisms like crazy. My own experience is that the moment someone starts talking about sex graphically – and I don’t mean Dice Clay vulgar, but the acts, hungers, drives, etc that people really are subject to – just about everyone, conservative and liberal, heads for the hills almost immediately. Now and then you run into someone who tries to up the ante (I had this happen on my blog, in fact) but even that often won’t last because upping the ante is supposed to be the conversation-stopper. If the conversation doesn’t actually stop, if someone doesn’t blink and request to walk things back, a lot of people just get mortified.

        And I think that’s necessary with a discussion like Susan’s. Someone has to ask, “Well, if sex was involved, what could have happened – what was Susan doing, what could she have done, that may have driven a wedge between her and Aslan?” And that’s usually a question that has people wanting to talk about anything else but that.

      • I think you’re definitely right, but I do genuinely think that another reason people use this objection as a bludgeon is because if Lewis is condemning Susan for her sexual acts then, in modern America, you’re either going to have done the same things Susan has done or want to have done the things that Susan has done. So people are angry that he’s pointing the finger at them, because otherwise Lewis was all about making people feel comfortable with their choices.

        Oh, wait…

  2. Res says:

    You’ve probably hit the nail on the head with the comment about modern America, etc. Part of the reason why sex (when people decry the church for being strict, it pretty much always comes down to, ‘they hate/fear sex.’ Liberals are predictable, this is because they are card-carrying automatons) seems to shut down discussion is Paul’s observation that fornication, unlike other sins, is not ‘outside the body,’ and while in the realm of ideas and arguments one can be persuaded of anything, when one identifies the sin with one’s body it becomes harder to shake and another person may as well give up (and generally don’t have the authority in any case, except as derived from Christ and the kingdom; in either case, one can’t deny their body, surely.) The sin rather than the body.

    The argument isn’t simply drifting in the air, it’s personal, or becomes explicitly an argument to die to the world and to the self and so on, while evidently most people against abortion, Obamacare, etc., are evil. This is especially clear in Nietzsche, for example, who was the first modern philosopher, and, like J. K. Rowling, was more of an artist than a philosopher, although Nietzsche would at least qualify as a proper artist. Hence, fornication, marriage, etc., can make its practitioners hostile towards the suggestion of anything higher, sexually or otherwise, because this appears intrinsic to their identity or unshakeable, which can manifest itself in the form of either outright rejection or hypocritical agendas, as with the Pharisees who didn’t disapprove of adultery, but only used it to tempt Jesus assuming either answer would betray him, didn’t disapprove of Rome when they would kill Jesus, and didn’t disapprove of Barabbas or criminality except insofar as it could be used for similar purposes. That said, St. Paul was allegedly decent at shaking these relatively unshakeable things, presumably due to his aloofness and inflated self-conception.

    As far as Crude’s comments go, they seem relevant to the point on C. S. Lewis. In this case, it seems more likely that sex wasn’t the cause of things, but rather a symptom of a different shift towards seeking approval from the world and engaging in it, etc., as you said, which places the existence of a kingdom and the world in stark relief. (For what it’s worth, I’m not sure that the problem of people being excluded from Heaven is that much of an issue for a believer, they pretty much know that a person wiser than them is deciding. #relax) As a person seeks to belong to the world, and boys tend to represent precisely the adult world, the world of those who are in tune with reality and which females can only guess at (whence the stability of marriage over past centuries), the sex-drive is an important vehicle for the search for social belonging. If people were interested in sex as such, they would talk about it more often. They might even write sex scenes in novels which weren’t about everything but, although in doing so people might be able to tell their real gender and it would in short be anti-feminist. But generally speaking it’s subordinate to social need, which is more fundamental to the human personality, and the real problem doesn’t seem to be so much their desire for sex or otherwise, which is never self-supporting in people, but their becoming ordinary, and any comments from teachers about this should be taken in this light. If homosexuals can’t be ordinary, then heterosexuals can’t be ordinary either, and neither can people who drown after eating too many 0-calorie burqas in anger, and in general it’s all very humble, sociable and happy, like an attractive female, or an attractive male by derivation.

    So, in brief, a religion of love should have no problems with sex, and, if C. S. Lewis had followed it from his birth on, he wouldn’t have either.

    • Stefanie says:

      Conservatives definitely are automatons – automatically thinking that anything the rich have the right to do anything vile and immoral and hurt anyone (especially children) and not think of anyone other than themselves. They also are automatons in the automatic dislike of science and real spirituality. However, this topic is not about politics or political labels – real Christians don’t have those or at least don’t consider them anywhere near as important as spiritual issues. According to both Christ and C.S. Lewis , the only label a Christ follower has is Christian or mere Christian – not matter what their denomination is. At any rate, this topic is about religion and Susan Pevenise from the Chronicles of Narnia – there is no valid reason for politics to enter into it.

  3. Drew says:

    A lot of people dislike sad endings. And a lot of people, including me, disbelieve in the doctrine that a saint can lose salvation. So those are the two issues. Saying that Susan went to hell is like saying that the Apostle John went to hell. It seems ridiculous. Of course, Lewis’s doctrine about hell was fairly absurd, too. A good writer, but not the best theologian.

    • Really? I thought “The Great Divorce” was brilliant. It wasn’t really meant to be his literal take on the relationship between Heaven and Hell, more of an allegoric take on salvation and how you achieved it.

      In any event, Susan was not a Saint, at least in the official Catholic use of the term, because she had not died.

      • And under a Calvinist interpretation — which is where I think Drew is coming from — Susan presumably wasn’t “really” saved in the first place, she just appeared to be.

  4. I totally agree with the OP, and with Crude’s and Res’ comments down below. Further to what Res said, I’d like to add that sexual activity is one of the few ways in which people (and especially boys) can mark their adulthood. After all, we don’t have any real coming-of-age ceremonies like Jewish Bar Mitzvahs, and neither the US nor the UK has national military service or any other secular equivalent. Society encourages people to drag out their adolescence for as long as possible. More and more people are spending longer and longer in higher education instead of getting a job right after high school. The traditionally “male” jobs have mostly been outsourced or replaced by machines. Marriage has been progressively (ha) drained of meaning and significance for at least forty years. What is there really left to mark the transition from childhood except having sex and drinking alcohol? And is it really a coincidence that teenagers and young adults are doing both those things at an increasing rate?

  5. Pat D. says:

    It always seemed to be obviously about Susan discovering social status to me. I never even thought of it being about sex until I saw comments about such online.

  6. I’ll add something else – In Narnia Susan was a Queen, and thus her social status was naturally high by default. While this was probably quite welcome to her, it also went hand in hand with responsibilities, which probably provided a check for the boost her ego was getting due to her role as Queen.

    On Earth, Susan is once again finding herself high status, this time due to her beauty. The difference is that she has no real responsibilities to go with it. Easy gratification with no strings attached, it’s no wonder it corrupted her.

  7. Marissa says:

    Maybe J.K. Rowling’s explanation is wrong because she used the wrong word:

    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 sexfornication. I have a big problem with that.

    The liberal conflation of the sin of fornication with sex itself is the issue in all of these types of conversations.

  8. I always got the impression that Susan was basically led astray when she got into “the adult world”, though that didn’t involve anything sexual. But she could have been manipulative, you’re right…
    I think the other reason why people have a problem with this is because some people believe that no one is excluded from Heaven except Hitler and the mass murderers on the news. (This seems to be what J.K. Rowling is getting at.) Thus, because Susan hasn’t made it to Aslan’s Country yet, they seem to believe that Aslan is “vindictive” or unjust. However, what they overlook is that, because she’s still alive, she still has a chance to enter Aslan’s country.
    As to the fact that Susan was mentioned and dropped, I agree. It could have been done better. But if they had had a huge long conversation about Susan, it would have jarred me out of reading the book. Maybe the real reason for it was because Lewis was struggling at a balance?

    • I don’t think any writer has ever done a better job than Lewis of giving an explanation of how the “little sins” can keep us away from God. “The Great Divorce” is a masterpiece.

      • Indeed. 🙂 I have yet to read “The Great Divorce,” but in “The Screwtape Letters” Wormwood suggests a similar thought. If we (the humans) start with small sins, it snowballs very rapidly. Exponentially, I dare say.

  9. Pingback: TCWT: Beginnings and Endings (HAPPY BIRTHDAY, BILBO AND FRODO!) | The Upstairs Archives

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