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Literature / The Problem of Susan

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"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."

"The Problem of Susan" is a short story by Neil Gaiman which is part-homage to The Chronicles of Narnia, part-homage to "the power of Children's Literature".

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A young journalist profiles a retired professor of children's literature. During the ensuing conversation, both consider the influences that literature has had on them.


Tropes:

  • Action Survivor: Greta at the end determines that Susan was this, surviving the events of Narnia as well as a God that betrayed her.
  • Adult Fear:
    • Professor Hastings as a teenager had to identify her siblings' dead bodies after a train accident, and her younger brother "Ed" was decapitated.
    • Greta discusses that her teacher said Susan had to repent for "Not believing, I suppose. And the sin of Eve." Plenty of teachers, parents and theologians use this to justify the mistreatment of women.
  • Aesop Collateral Damage: The Professor, who is a stand-in for Susan, describes having to identify her siblings' bodies and that Susan would've had to do the same after such an accident, making her exclusion from heaven worse than C.S. Lewis would lead one to believe.
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  • Bittersweet Ending: Greta finds her answer— that Susan survived the events of Narnia as opposed to being left out of heaven— but she finds it after a horrific nightmare. The professor also dies in her sleep finally, but in her dream she finds books that help her Face Death with Dignity and look on her life happily.
  • Cats Are Mean: A cat leaves a mouse head and a paw on Professor Hastings's porch mat. And there's Neil's take on Aslan within Greta's dream.
  • Celebrity Paradox: Greta during her interview makes reference to the Narnia books and actually derails it by ranting about the Problem of Susan. It's later hinted that the professor doesn't keep those books in the house.
  • Cerebus Retcon: It's discussed in the Narnia books that Aslan is not a "tame lion" in reference to how he stays as long as he's needed and leaves when he likes. Here, it's established that Aslan is still a lion within Greta's dream, and has a taste for human flesh.
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  • Disproportionate Retribution: Professor Hastings says that it was cruel if a god punished Susan for liking nylons by killing off all her family and leaving her as the survivor.
  • Dying Dream: While sleeping Professor Hastings dreams that she is reading a Mary Poppins book that was never written, and then her own obituary. She also finds an old copy of the Narnia books.
  • Et Tu, Brute?: In Greta's dream, Aslan and the Witch make a deal to split up the boys and girls— Susan included— among themselves. Aslan eats up the girls, leaving Susan's head for last, while the Witch changes the boys into monstrous things.
  • Expy: Lampshaded in the end, but Professor Hastings is an Expy for Susan Pevensie.
  • Forced to Watch: In Greta's dream, Susan's head after Aslan eats her body is forced to look on her sister getting eaten, her brothers getting forcibly changed, and the lion and the witch having sex. Talk about Too Much Information.
  • Identifying the Body: The elderly professor recalls having to go to the school where her relatives, victims of a terrible train collision, were taken after death, to identify them, and says Susan of the Narnia books must have gone something similar as well.
  • I Was Quite a Looker: Professor Hastings cannot believe she looked so young in her old photographs.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Technically, nothing supernatural happens in the real world. Half of the story is a conversation between Greta and Professor Hastings, while they discuss Susan and the professor being the Sole Survivor of her family. It's never confirmed one way or the other if Professor Hastings is the Susan, since the Narnia books exist in their world. The other half details the dreams that the women have, where Greta imagines being Susan and betrayed by Aslan, and Professor Hastings finds one last book to read, as well as her obituary. Greta also thinks that the professor needs to avoid her spare room with the wardrobe, and the Professor is implied to die in her sleep there. Italicized passages hint that Greta's dream was real because the story ends with one after Greta wakes up, detailing the White Witch riding Aslan.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: In Greta's dream, the Witch takes charge of the boys and turns them into a "twisted thing." A Baleful Polymorph? A Fate Worse than Death? Just plain death? Gaiman doesn't dwell on the matter...
  • Smite Me, O Mighty Smiter!: Inverted; Hastings says that a god that would punish her for "liking nylons and parties" is "enjoying himself a bit too much, isn't he?"
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome: The professor describes the reality of being the only survivor of a family caught in a train crash; she not only had to identify the bodies, but also had to live on her own with few luxuries.
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