Lessing, Doris (Short Story Criticism)
Doris Lessing 1919–-
(Full name Doris May Lessing; has also written under the pseudonym Jane Somers) Persian-born English novelist, short story writer, essayist, dramatist, poet, nonfiction writer, journalist, and travel writer.
The following entry presents criticism of Lessing's short fiction works from 1990 to 1999. See also Doris Lessing Literary Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 3, 6, 15, 22, 94, 170.
Considered a powerful contemporary writer primarily in the realist tradition, Lessing has explored many of the most important social, political, psychological, and spiritual issues of the twentieth century. Her works display a broad range of interests and focus on such specific topics as racism, communism, feminism, and mysticism. While Lessing is perhaps best known for her acclaimed and controversial novel The Golden Notebook, many critics find the short story form more suited to her temperament and concerns.
Lessing was born in Persia (modern-day Iran) to English parents. At an early age she moved with her family to Rhodesia, in southern Africa, where her father struggled as a farmer. She attended public schools until her teenage years, when chronic eye problems forced her to return home, thus ending her formal education. As a young woman, Lessing relocated to Salisbury, the capital of Southern Rhodesia, where she supported herself through various secretarial jobs. During World War II, she was active in pro-communist organizations, and in 1949 she emigrated to London, England. In London, Lessing established herself as a fiction writer, critic, journalist, and political activist. She joined the English Communist Party in 1952 and resigned about five years later. In 1956 she was banned from returning to Rhodesia, presumably for anti-apartheid sentiments expressed in her writings, and she continues to live in England. Although details of Lessing's personal life are sketchy, critics agree that in her fiction, Lessing draws significantly from her own experiences.
Major Works of Short Fiction
When Lessing began her literary career in the 1950s, she was promptly recognized as an accomplished short fiction writer in the realist mode. The tales collected in her first short story volume, This Was the Old Chief's Country (1952), introduce the theme of alienation, which Lessing delineates chiefly through protagonists of English descent living as colonialists in Africa. Isolated from each other and from the native people by class, age, gender, and racial barriers, these characters suffer the fragmentation that Lessing views as a direct consequence of apartheid. In African Stories (1964), Lessing further chronicles racial issues from a variety of social perspectives. In these and many other of her African stories, including The Antheap, “Eldorado,” and “Flavours of Exile,” Lessing accentuates the estrangement of her characters by portraying the vapid nature of their lives against lush African landscapes. Among Lessing's most acclaimed volumes of short fiction, Five: Short Novels (1955), The Habit of Loving (1957), and African Stories contain tales concerning racial problems in African settings, the dynamics of married life, and the emancipation of modern women.
Much of Lessing's fiction has definite political intentions; her involvement with communism is evident in many of her early works. In the novella Hunger, a straightforward social commentary in the manner of Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist, Lessing relates the experiences of Jabavu, an impoverished African boy from a small village who comes to a large modern city to better his condition, only to be assaulted by the town's depravity and inequities. Although some critics feel Jabavu's ultimate victory over his own cultural inadequacies and the evil forces operating in such an urban white environment strains believability, Hunger remains one of Lessing's more popular novellas. The pieces in Lessing's later collection The Temptation of Jack Orkney, and Other Stories (1972) contain analyses of the volatile international political situation during the 1960s. In other stories, Lessing examines the nature of marriage and childbearing, focusing on how the roles of wife and mother affect her characters' creative lives. In these works, Lessing often presents strong-willed, independent heroines whose needs for love do not counteract their desires for self-sufficiency—a recurrent theme that anticipated many feminist concerns.
Lessing is generally recognized as one of the most important writers of the twentieth century. Using detailed, realistic descriptions, symbolism, and imagery to evoke a wide range of environments and moods, Lessing achieves what Edward J. Fitzgerald termed “tension and immediacy” in her work. Critics argue that her enlightened portrayal of marriage and motherhood, her anti-apartheid stance, and her experimentation with genre and form have made her an exciting—and often controversial—literary figure. In fact, commentators have regarded her exploration of such complex issues as racism, communism, feminism, psychology, and mysticism as courageous. Several critics have discussed her place within world literature and have investigated her influence on other writers.
This Was the Old Chief's Country 1952
Five: Short Novels (novellas) 1955
No Witchcraft for Sale 1956
The Habit of Loving 1957
A Man and Two Women 1963
African Stories 1964
Winter in July 1966
Nine African Stories 1968
The Story of a Non-Marrying Man and Other Stories 1972 [also published as The Temptation of Jack Orkney and Other Stories]
Collected Stories. 2 vols. 1978 [also published as Stories]
The Fifth Child 1988
The Real Thing 1992
The Grass is Singing (novel) 1950
*Martha Quest (novel) 1952
Before the Deluge (drama) 1953
*A Proper Marriage (novel) 1954
Retreat to Innocence (novel) 1956
Going Home (essays) 1957
Each His Own Wilderness (drama) 1958
Mr. Dollinger (drama) 1958
*A Ripple from the Storm (novel) 1958
Fourteen Poems (poetry) 1959
In Pursuit of the English: A Documentary (documentary) 1960
The Golden Notebook (novel) 1962
Play with a...
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SOURCE: Halisky, Linda H. “Redeeming the Irrational: The Inexplicable Heroines of ‘A Sorrowful Woman’ and ‘To Room Nineteen.’” Studies in Short Fiction 27, no. 1 (winter 1990): 45-54.
[In the following essay, Halisky finds parallels between the female protagonists in Gail Godwin's “A Sorrowful Woman” and Lessing's “To Room Nineteen.”]
The heroine of Gail Godwin's short story “A Sorrowful Woman” seems inexplicable. Apparently healthy, married to a “durable, receptive, gentle” husband,1 and mother of a three-year-old son, she seems to have no aspirations beyond the roles of wife and mother she more than competently fulfills. And yet, one day, as the result of no discernible cause, the sight of her husband and child “made her so sad and sick she did not want to see them ever again” (26). When she tells her husband about her feelings, he comforts her, says he understands, and asks what he can do to help: “He was attuned to her; he understood such things. He said he understood. What would she like him to do?” (26). She asks him to settle their child for the night and goes upstairs to bed. The next night it happens again. Noticing her child's “approving” eyes upon her as she puts away the warm dishes after supper, the woman begins “yelping without tears, retching in between.” Again her husband is understanding. “Mommy is sick,” he tells the frightened...
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SOURCE: Tiger, Virginia. “‘Taking Hands and Dancing in (Dis)Unity’1: Story to Storied in Doris Lessing's ‘To Room Nineteen’ and ‘A Room’.” Modern Fiction Studies 36, no. 3 (autumn 1990): 421-33.
[In the following essay, Tiger considers the relationship between Lessing's short fiction and her longer works through a reading of two of her short stories: “To Room Nineteen” and “A Room.”]
“To see” is the dominant verb in the realist text “à la gastronomie de l'oeil” as Balzac expressed it—and realist fiction is preeminently concerned with seeing, with a seeing in detail.2
—Mark Seltzer (507)
To view Doris Lessing's short fiction in relation to “the coercive network of seeing, power and surveillance” (Seltzer 508) that characterizes the literature of the realist enterprise invites triply the hazardous. Of first concern is the author's well-known opposition to theoretics. On principle, Lessing dismisses critical terms like realism (and its contemporary companion, feminism) as prescriptive about rather than descriptive of her project. Her position (itself prescriptive, especially as polemicized in the 1971 Introduction to The Golden Notebook, the 1979 Remarks upon Shikasta, and the 1984 Preface to The Diaries of Jane Somers) would seem to suggest hostility as...
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SOURCE: Pickering, Jean. “The Grass Is Singing 1950): African Stories (1964).” In Understanding Doris Lessing, pp. 18-37. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990.
[In the following essay, Pickering explores the related themes of the stories in African Stories and her novel The Grass Is Singing.]
The Grass Is Singing was written before Lessing left Rhodesia and published the year after she emigrated to England, where she wrote most of the stories later collected as African Stories. The interrelatedness of her work, so evident later in her career, was apparent even at this early period. The relations between the individual and the collective (by which Lessing means both institutions, like marriage or the educational system, and groups one elects to join, like a sports club or the Communist Party), between black and white, between men and women, between the settler and the land, between role and identity, and between the Freudian “nightmare repetition”1 and the Jungian task of individuation are related themes appearing in both the novel and the stories.2
In the preface to African Stories Lessing says, “When my first novel, The Grass Is Singing, came out, there were few novels about Africa. That book, and my second, This Was the Old Chief's Country, were described by reviewers as about the colour...
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SOURCE: Harvey, Stephanie. “Doris Lessing's ‘One off the Short List’ and Leo Bellingham's ‘In for the Kill’.” Critical Survey 5, no. 1 (1993): 66-76.
[In the following essay, Harvey disavows the influence of Lessing's “One off the Short List” on Leo Bellingham's “In for the Kill.”]
The practice of comparing works by different unrelated writers on ostensibly similar themes is open to fairly obvious objections, but will often serve to highlight characteristic peculiarities in the different way the subject is handled. Perhaps this will be especially so when the two writers are of different sexes and the common theme is an aspect of what used to be called the battle between the sexes.1
Doris Lessing's ‘One off the Short List’ and Leo Bellingham's ‘In for the Kill’ are both short stories about a journalist who forces sex on a woman who does not want him and afterwards makes the humiliating discovery that he and his sexual attentions are of minimal importance to the woman's scheme of things.2 Though the subject is what Germaine Greer has characterised as ‘petty rape,’3 in both stories the women, without stooping to conscious retaliation, affirm their moral and intellectual superiority over a cocksure and intellectually manipulative male. Summarised briefly in these terms the two stories may seem rather too similar but the...
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SOURCE: Tyler, Lisa. “Our Mothers' Gardens: Doris Lessing's ‘Among the Roses’.” Studies in Short Fiction 31, no. 2 (spring 1994): 163-74.
[In the following essay, Tyler examines the troubled mother-daughter relationship in “Among the Roses.”]
Doris Lessing has long demonstrated in her work a love-hate relationship with women's magazines, which he seems to regard as contemporary equivalents of conducts books: repressive, didactic works that stress conformity to tired gender roles and celebrate frivolity at the expense of thought. Ella, the fictional figure that Anna creates in The Golden Notebook, works for Home and Hearth; its parodically conventional name perhaps suggests a certain disdain on Anna's part, and quite possibly Lessing's. Lessing is more openly scornful in Play with a Tiger. When Harry taunts Tom with the prospect that his new job will entail “administering to the spiritual needs of the women of the nation through the ‘Ladies Own’ [sic]” (13), Tom responds, “I'm only going to be on the business side. I won't be responsible for the rubbish key—” and “stops, annoyed with himself. Harry and Mary laugh at him” (13). Clearly, women's magazines epitomize the establishment, and writing for them amounts to selling out
Lessing modifies her stance slightly in The Diaries of Jane Somers, in which Janna edits a women's magazine...
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SOURCE: Tyler, Lisa. “Mother-Daughter Passion and Rapture: The Demeter Myth in the Fiction of Virginia Woolf and Doris Lessing.” In Woolf and Lessing: Breaking the Mold, edited by Ruth Saxton and Jean Tobin, pp. 73-91. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994.
[In the following essay, Tyler asserts that Virginia Woolf and Lessing use the Demeter myth “in their fiction to subvert the traditional heterosexual romance plot.”]
In her now classic work on motherhood entitled Of Woman Born, Adrienne Rich laments Western culture's loss of the “mother-daughter passion and rapture” once celebrated in the ancient Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone (237). In order to appreciate Rich's lament, it is necessary to recall the events first described in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, the oldest known version of the myth, which opens with the young Persephone at play with her friends in a flower-filled meadow. When she reaches to pluck an especially beautiful narcissus, the earth opens, and she is abducted and raped by Hades, god of the underworld. Demeter, grieved by her loss, refuses to allow seeds to sprout or plants to grow, and famine threatens humankind. A concerned Zeus—who earlier had given Hades his permission to take Persephone—asks that Persephone be restored to her mother. Hades agrees, but feeds her several pomegranate seeds, thus ensuring that she must return to the underworld to spend...
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SOURCE: Gohrbandt, Detlev. “Fable Traditions in the Stories of Doris Lessing and Bessie Head.” In Across the Lines: Intertextuality and Transcultural Communication in the New Literatures in English, edited by Wolfgang Klooss, pp. 129-40. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1998.
[In the following essay, Gohrbandt compares the use of fable elements in the African stories of Lessing and Bessie Head.]
1 THE PROBLEM OF COMPARABILITY
The art of narrative in Africa is fed from so many sources that it is extremely difficult to gain a sense of what is characteristic and particular about it. Take two novelists, Bessie Head and Doris Lessing, say—what does it mean to compare them, and to compare them as African writers? What exactly is one comparing? Ethnic or regional influences? Themes? Style and genre? Politics? Coloured the one and white the other, both of them are writers of fiction, non-fiction, historico-political semi-fiction, and autobiography. Women and expatriates both, one was a rebel against her bourgeois upbringing, and the other was rejected by the bourgeois society which had pronounced her parents unfit to bring her up. Both Head and Lessing are writers of place, meaning that it is through a careful examination of landscapes and settlements, and of the flora and fauna and humans inhabiting them, that they both advance towards a knowledge and evaluation of society and of human...
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SOURCE: Hotchkiss, Jane. “Coming of Age in Zambesia.” In Borders, Exiles, Diasporas, edited by Elazar Barkan and Marie-Denise Shelton, pp. 81-91. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998.
[In the following essay, Hotchkiss provides a stylistic and thematic analysis of Lessing's African stories.]
When Doris Lessing's collection of African stories first appeared in 1951, white South African reviews revealed the peculiar double vision of colonial settlers. Her sketches of Southern African societies were applauded for their realism, yet the urgent issues they raised were left lying, as if inert, and the urgency was evaluated as a “bitterness” that spoiled her “art.” Lessing's work was often regretfully dismissed as “promising but artistically flawed” by her tendency to “standardiz[e] human beings to serve abstract ideas.” Her brief return to Africa in 1956 elicited a sharper response. Journalist Oliver Walker confidently claimed, in an article ominously titled “Novelist Given a Tarred White Feather in Bulawayo,” that black Africans preferred apartheid to “British hypocrisy” regarding race relations, but Lessing, a “prohibited immigrant” at that time and permitted to cross the border only by mistake, was kept under surveillance throughout her trip and, as Walker put it, “accused of putting ideas into the munts' heads” (47).1 Her meticulous representation of...
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SOURCE: Nordius, Janina. “Lessing's ‘To Room Nineteen’.” The Explicator 57, no. 3 (spring 1999): 171-73.
[In the following essay, Nordius regards T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land as an important subtext in “To Room Nineteen.”]
In her illuminating discussion of Doris Lessing's debt to T. S. Eliot, Claire Sprague traces allusions to The Waste Land and other poems in four of Lessing's novels.1 In addition to those instances, The Waste Land is also an important subtext in Lessing's short story “To Room Nineteen.” Charting the failure of communication and subsequent decline of love in a mid-twentieth-century marriage, Lessing both pursues one of Eliot's most central themes in The Waste Land and writes back from the woman's point of view.
“To Room Nineteen” addresses Eliot's tableau in part 2 of The Waste Land that features a woman sitting before a mirror, brushing her hair:
Under the firelight, under the brush, her hair Spread out in fiery points Glowed into words, then would be savagely still.(2)
The scene is reproduced twice in Lessing's story, as Susan Rawlings sits “running the brush over her hair again and again, lifting fine black clouds in a small hiss of electricity,” while watching her husband in the mirror.3 In Lessing as well as Eliot, this scene stands out as an icon of...
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Nordius, Janina. “Teaching Modern Gothic: Discourses in Doris Lessing's ‘To Room Nineteen’.” Moderna Sprak 94, no. 1 (2000): 31-9.
Deems Lessing's “To Room Nineteen” “a modern gothic text which brilliantly illustrates the way discursive structures conspire to imprison the human subject.”
Peterson, Lorna M. “A Case of Chronic Anachronisms: Doris Lessing and the USSR.” In In Pursuit of Doris Lessing, edited by Claire Sprague, pp. 142-57. London: Macmillan, 1990.
Discusses Lessing's perception of the Soviet Union as well as the critical reception of her stories there.
Sprague, Claire, ed. In Pursuit of Doris Lessing: Nine Nations Reading. London: Macmillan, 1990, 163 p.
Critical reception of Lessing's work from around the world.
Additional coverage of Lessing's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: African Writers; British Writers, Vol. 1; Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1960 to Present; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9–12R; Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Vol. 14; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 33, 54, 76; Contemporary British Dramatists; Contemporary Dramatists, Ed. 5; Contemporary Literary Criticism,...
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