Monday, September 23, 2013

C.S. Lewis and Misogyny

There are a lot of different opinions on whether or not C.S. Lewis was a misogynist or not. I think that the confusion is due to at least two separate issues: one, the difference between traditional gender views and misogyny, and two, who Lewis was pre and post his wife Joy.

First off, what is misogyny? I would argue that there is a distinction between "traditional" (read: pre- Second Wave feminism) and pure hatred or dislike of women on principle. At face value, C.S. Lewis was clearly a proponet of the first, but his views could be subtle. Most of us have heard of the infamous line in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, in which Father Christmas tells Susan and Lucy that they won't fight in the battle because "wars are ugly when women fight." I personally think Lewis is being a bit tongue in cheek here. The battle scenes he describes in the Narnia books are far uglier than the cleaned up versions in most children's literature of that time.In Peter's battle with the wolf attacking Susan, he sees red, feels sick, and is not even aware of the exact moment when he kills the wolf. In The Horse and His Boy, Shasta is overcome with fear when he realizes how unprepared he is for the realities of battle. In Narnian battles, favorite characters are injured, sometimes killed, and the sense of foreboding and anxiety mixed with sudden action are ever present. So the wars are "ugly" even when no women are present. Readers should also note that Lewis was stationed in the trenches during World War I, exposed to the raw horror of modern warfare. So he was no stranger to the ugliness of wars, with or without women. It could be that his terrible experiences filled him with the desire to shield women from the trauma.

Another book is more damning however, and that is That Hideous Strength. There are many good things about this book, most of them surrounding Mark and his tendency to blindly follow an evil crowd to be accepted. But every time the action shifted to Mark's wife Jane I wanted to throw the book across the room. She was "perhaps not an original thinker;" she was a "modern" women in need who was "chastened" by the demi-god Ransom; Merlin considered her a candidate for beheading based on her (presumed) contraceptive use; worst of all, her marriage was on the rocks because she had "never attempted obedience." To underline his point, Lewis quotes the Donne line: “Hope not for minde in women; at their best / Sweetness and wit, they are but Mummy possest” which Jane puzzles over while working on her Donne thesis. Now, I think Jane does have serious character flaws, chief among them her inability to open herself to others out of fear of losing control. But the antidote Lewis prescribes is poison. And don't even get me started on the creepy character Ransom and how he kisses the married women so they can give his kisses to their husbands (!). The passages between him and Jane made me want to take a shower.

What I found most irritating about this book, however, is his portrayal of Mrs. Hardcastle, a cheroot-smoking, sadistic and probably lesbian chief of police at the evil NICE. Her only makeup is lipstick, which she smeared on with "no attention to the shape of her mouth." She doesn't wear a corset in spite of being overweight. Most damning of all (in Lewis' view) she associates solely with the men, making crude jokes and acting like one of the boys (when she's not torturing pretty women prisoners, that is). His associates claimed this was a thinly veiled critique of women academics, who made Lewis profoundly uncomfortable.

And who can forget his obsession with "sexually frigid women"? This comes up in Mere Christianity, That Hideous Strength, and The Four Loves, off the top of my head. This sounds just like those needy boys in the "manosphere" who bemoan the fact that intelligent women don't like them. This just smacks of an inferiority complex and a need to blame women for Lewis' relationship struggles.

Now, to be fair to Lewis, there is a part two: he had rarely ever been around women. His mother died when he was young, whereupon he was promptly shipped to a brutal boys' school that he called "Belson." His subsequent life experiences included war and an academic career at the overwhelmingly male Oxford. One of his greatest joys was "the sound of male laughter." So I can't really blame him for his fear of what he didn't understand.

What is clear is that after falling in love with Joy, his perspective on women changed drastically. Joy is not the meek, submissive wife that he extols in That Hideous Strength. She's a brass American Yankee divorcee with a tendency to hang with the boys, and Lewis can't get enough of her. The Narnia books that he writes after marrying Joy have a different tone towards women. Consider Jill, who is a superior marks-woman, wood scout, and all-around courageous girl. Not only does she fight in the last battle, but she is the one who recklessly enters the stable and finds the poor donkey. Prince Rillian says she was disobedient, but he says it with a smile. Most notably, Lewis wrote the beautiful Till We Have Faces, with its complex female protagonist Orual struggling to find real love and peace in this retelling of the Cupid and Psyche story. It's important here that we are seeing things through the first-person account of the older sister Orual, who covers her "ugly" face with a veil in the latter half of the book, not through the feminine Psyche. This shows a complete about-face in Lewis' view of women.

I think the earlier misogyny stemmed from misunderstanding and lack of contact with real flesh-and-blood women, not mere antipathy. But doesn't it always?


  1. Interesting! I have no problem with the line that "war is ugly when women fight:" Narnia is centered around a fairytale concept of medieval chivalry, and in that concept, battle can be a noble exercise in which the knight defends his liege, his honor, and his lady. The battle in The Last Battle, in which Jill fights, really is ugly (completely desperate and doomed). War is ugly when you cannot protect the civilians in any way. War is especially ugly when there aren't any civilians.

  2. I hadn't thought about the difference with The Last Battle and the destruction of civilization - good point! And that's true, there really weren't any civilians at that point.

  3. Hi, Just stumbled across your blog again from . . . I forget where. Probably 7QT. . . . I kept thinking "yes"! to so many points. THS drove me craaaazy for the reasons you mentioned (tho Hardcastle didn't bother me), yet I love it and C.S. Lewis despite of it. It consoles me, somehow, that he married such a strong woman.

  4. My favorite novel of all time is Till We Have Faces. While reading it, every now and then I'd have to stop and think, "Wait, a man wrote this??" Insightful enough to be creepy.

  5. I could not refrain frokm commenting. Very well written!

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