From Women to Witches – Female Virtue in Literature

This piece was originally written for an English class at the University of Toronto, and therefore was entered into an essay database committed to stopping plagiarism. Therefore, if you’re going to use or copy any of it, do make sure to contact me for the full APA/MLA citation. Thanks!


Gender virtues – especially female virtues – have been an important theme in society for centuries. Outlines of the correct behaviour for a man or woman as expected by society permeate, then, into the literature of the day – particularly children’s literature. Through their writing, authors work to socialise children to behave in conformity of these virtues. In both, “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”[1] and, “Molly Whuppie”, the authors did just this; they wrote to show little girls how to act, and which virtues were acceptable or not to young ladies. Because of their different roots and time periods, however, while “Molly Whuppie” promotes female ingenuity and, to an extent, violence, “TLW&W” promotes the notion of a nurturing, kind, and healing woman. Joseph Jacobs looks to inspire girls to take their lives into their own hands, while C.S. Lewis underlines the notion of women as predominantly mother or nurse figures. In his promotion of these motherly characteristics, Lewis, to an extent, puts down Jacobs’ notion of an industrious woman, making she who is working for what she wants – that is, the White Witch – evil and unnatural. She disrupts the natural order through being almost mannish in her want of power, and by being quite the opposite of nurturing in her demeanour towards the children, and towards nature itself. The White Witch is comparable, then, more to the character Molly Whuppie than to any of the female characters in “TLW&W”. Through the behaviour of the women of “Molly Whuppie” and “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”, and the responses to their behaviours by supporting characters, I will show how Jacobs outlined industriousness and self-reliance as female virtues, while Lewis opted for a more nurturing woman figure.

It all began with a picture, or so C.S. Lewis said, but from that it evolved into so much more (Downing). Lewis’ book became a gift to his goddaughter, and a story for children of all ages to read and enjoy. Not only that, it became a guide for young women about what they should aspire to become. After World War II, as men returned from the front, they began to reintegrate themselves into the workforce, taking back jobs which, during the war, had been filled by women. Popular media, literature included, came to reflect this shift in roles for women, encouraging girls back into house and home, instead of encouraging them to fill more public roles. Lewis approaches this by using WWII and the roles of women therein to show young girls and boys what actions, roles and labels are appropriate for what gender. In the beginning of the novel, before I enter the story itself, in the pages preceding the table of contents, there is a dedication by the author to his goddaughter. In it, he notes that although she is too old for stories now, one day she will be old enough to begin reading them again, implying one day she will be the kind of mother which will read to her children; that is, the same kind of mother that the elder sister, Susan, seems to strive to be to her siblings (Lewis). There are many instances where Susan acts the mother role, and it is very early in the novel that Edmund calls her out on it. On page 4 of “TLW&W”, after trying to make their situation sound far better than her younger brother believes it to be, and telling him to go to bed, he snaps at her, telling her to stop “[t]rying to talk like Mother.” Later on, while Lucy is upset over Edmund’s betrayal[2], and Peter and Susan are talking about what to do about her, Susan expresses an almost motherly concern for her little sister (Lewis, 46). It is true that Susan’s actions are rebuked by Edmund, but because he is made out to be a weak male figure, his view of her actions are marred by his perceived dislike of authority, and poor attitude. Later on, Susan’s motherly instinct and gentle feminine tendencies, along with her sister’s, are reinforced by none other than Father Christmas as he brings the children as their companions gifts. For Susan, he brings a bow which will not miss, which she must use “only in great need”, and a horn which will call for aid wherever she is (Lewis, 108). For her sister, he brings a small dagger which he means her not to use for, “battles are ugly when women fight”, and a small bottle full of healing potion which she is to use to heal the sick (Lewis, 109). These gifts, along with Father Christmas’s explanations of them, underline the idea that a woman should not fight; should not seek to destroy. Instead, she should nurture and heal, and look to others to aid and protect her in her times of need. This is in sharp contrast to the White Witch, who spoils Edmund with promises and Turkish Delight, and later, when he comes to see her in need, as a child would to a mother, she speaks to him sharply  and does not  provide him with adequate sustenance (Lewis, 111). She is not, then, a nurturing motherly figure, just as her magic suggests – her ability to turn creatures to stone, her power over winter, and her disconnect with natural magic all point to a barrenness and lack of cohesiveness with the natural order of the world[3]. Her seeking to destroy this natural order[4] makes her unnatural, and a poor representation, in Lewis’ narrative, of a dishonourable woman.

Joseph Jacobs’ rendition of the story “Molly Whuppie”, unlike Lewis’ “TLW&W”, promotes the characteristics which the White Witch possesses. His protagonist, Molly, is industrious and intelligent, and works to enable hers and her sisters’ happily ever after. The women who are described as being mothers, alternately, are irresponsible and meet with undesirable ends. The motherly characters described are Molly’s mother, and the giant’s wife. Molly’s mother turns her three youngest children out of the house because she has borne too many and cannot afford to keep them. She then has not thought about her situation, but only fulfilled the ideal fertile wife position, thereby causing her family to starve and later divide. The giant’s wife, who fails in protecting her own daughters from her husband, as well as Molly and her sisters, suffers her husband’s violence at Molly’s trickery. The giant’s wife, by falling victim to Molly’s trick of repeating, “Oh if ye saw what I see,” ignites curiosity in the giant’s wife, but the wrong type of curiosity (Tatar, 211). Her curiosity is similar to that which existed in the character Lucy in “TLW&W,” where the prospect of seeing a wondrous sight is enough reason to pursue something[5]. Jacobs, then, is encouraging curiosity which promotes cleverness and ability instead of the pursuit of enjoyment. Later on, Molly puts this cleverness to use when she wins for her sisters and herself a husband apiece. She does not wait for a man to approach her, or for some man to save her and her sisters from their situation – as Susan is expected to do – but Molly enterprises to procure all things which the King asks of her (Tatar, 210). This royal encouragement highlights the importance of being able to provide for one’s self. Molly, through her cleverness and willingness to work for what she wants, is able to steal the items which the King requests, and secures her and her sisters’ futures. Like the White Witch, Molly takes opportunity and acts in a way which not womanly[6] to secure a comfortable and pleasing life for herself and those around her. This shift in ideal feminine virtue encourages girls, then, to act on their own free will, and do for themselves what C.S. Lewis would likely encourage them to seek aid from a man.

C.S. Lewis and Joseph Jacobs wrote for very different audiences, at very different times. In the late 1800s, when Jacobs was writing, women were, if not encouraged, able to hold jobs; live on their own; be enterprising. After WWII, however, during Lewis’ active years, women experienced a very different type of encouragement. They were brought back into the home to rebuild the ideal family structure, and give the jobs back to men (Robertson-East, 2010). This difference shows itself clearly in the two stories above: “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” spoke to the value of a nurturing woman, who would allow the men to protect her and support her in times of need. “Molly Whuppie”, however, outlined a young woman who is forced to make her own way in the world, and showed the virtue of being intelligent, and earning one’s own keep. The positions of protagonist and villain emphasise this differential. The White Witch’s industry and lack of mothering instinct is counted against her, while Molly Whuppie’s like characteristics are rewarded to procure her a husband, and lifetime of comfort. These two authors have manipulated their stories to help shape society and teach young people how they ought to behave and fill the places set out for them by their sex, both of them taking polar stances on what it is or is not to be a woman.





Downing, David C. Into the Wardrobe: C.S. Lewis and the Narnia Chronicles. Jossey-Bass, 2005.

Jacobs, Joseph. The Classic Fairy Tales. Ed. Maria Tatar. New York: W.M. Norton, 1999.

Lewis, C.S. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. New York: HarperCollins Children’s Books, 1978.

Robertson-East, Brianna. History: An Overview Jacinta Sarpkaya. 8 February 2010.



[1] Hereafter knows as “TLW&W”

[2] That he did not back up her story about Narnia.

[3]Examples include: Lewis 115; 20; 141/163; etc.

[4] Most emphatically displayed by her usurping of the throne within an monarchical system

[5] Such as occurred when Lucy entered the world of Narnia without thinking of the consequences first

[6] Stealing; trickery; proving herself valiant to her potential spouse’s father

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