Study Guide

Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing Essay - Lessing, Doris (Short Story Criticism)

Lessing, Doris (Short Story Criticism)

Introduction

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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 Tiger (drama) 1962

*Landlocked (novel) 1966

The Storm [adaptor; from a drama by Alexander Ostrovsky] (drama) 1966

Particularly Cats (autobiographical essay) 1967

*The Four-Gated City (novel) 1969

Briefing for a Descent into Hell (novel) 1971

The Singing Door (drama) 1973

The Summer before the Dark (novel) 1973

The Memoirs of a Survivor (novel) 1974

A Small Personal Voice: Essays, Reviews, and Interviews (essays, reviews, and interviews) 1974

Shikasta (novel) 1979

The Marriages between Zones Three, Four, and Five (novel) 1980

The Sirian Experiments (novel) 1981

The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 (novel) 1982

The Diary of a Good Neighbour [as Jane Somers] (novel) 1983

Documents Relating to the Sentimental Agents in the Volyen Empire (novel) 1983

The Diaries of Jane Somers (novel) 1984

If the Cold Could … [as Jane Somers] (novel) 1984

The Good Terrorists (novel) 1985

Prisons We Choose to Live Inside (essays) 1987

The Wind Blows Away Our Words (nonfiction) 1987

African Laughter: Four Visits to Zimbabwe (nonfiction) 1992

Playing the Game Graphic Novel (graphic novel) 1993

Under My Skin: Volume One of My Autobiography, to 1949 (autobiography) 1994

Love, Again (novel) 1996

Walking in the Shade: Volume Two of My Autobiography, 1949-1962 (autobiography) 1997

Mara and Dann: An Adventure (novel) 1999

Ben, in the World: The Sequel to The Fifth Child (novel) 2000

The Sweetest Dream (novel) 2001

*These novels are collectively referred to as the “Children of Violence” series and the “Martha Quest” novels.

†These novels are collectively referred to as the “Canopus in Argos: Archives” series.

‡The work comprises two earlier novels, The Diary of a Good Neighbour and If the Old Could …, that Lessing published under the pseudonym Jane Somers.

Criticism

Linda H. Halisky (essay date winter 1990)

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 child as he carries his wife upstairs. He puts her to bed and prepares a sleeping draught. The following morning, he brings her breakfast in bed and then lets her sleep until it grows “dark again” (26).

Here follow weeks of the woman's increasing retreat, until one day she wakes up needing urgently to be busy. From dawn to dusk for the next several days she engages in a flurry of activity—baking pies and several loaves of bread, roasting a turkey, glazing a ham, laundering sheets and shirts and towels, knitting sweaters, painting watercolors, writing stories and poems. Leaving her family this one last cornucopious gift of herself, the woman then retires to the little downstairs room she has appropriated, slips into bed—and dies.

Though one may, in the usual way, scratch beneath the deliberately cool surface of Godwin's fable-like plot for clues to the woman's behavior, reasonable explanations simply aren't easily come by. The woman does not seem to be “kept” or diminished, as Nora is, for example, in A Doll's House. Neither her talents nor her intelligence seems undervalued; she isn't deprived in any sense we can see; she doesn't want a job; there are no hints of unresolved conflict. This nameless everywoman simply, and seemingly without cause, withdraws—first from her family, then from her household responsibilities, and finally from life itself.

One can understand why Nora commits the almost inconceivable act of leaving her husband and children; Ibsen gives us discernible reasons, and when she does act, by slamming the door on the situation which has entrapped her, however much we may worry about her future, we applaud. But apart from her moment of frenetic domesticity, Godwin's heroine never seems to act, at least not in any sense we can meaningfully identify.

One key to the story's meaning and its heroine's plight may be suggested in its epigraph: “Once upon a time there was one wife and mother too many” (26). But even if we accept what this statement seems to imply, as Judith Gardiner does when she characterizes this story as “a parable of negative ideology in which the traditional roles of wifehood and motherhood are seen as in themselves existentially dead and death-creating,”2 we may still ask why this woman does nothing to free herself from such destructive roles. If no other course seems opens to her, why doesn't she just leave, as Nora does, accepting the consequences of societal disapproval and practical hardship she will probably find less formidable than those Ibsen's heroine would face? Why, the important question arises, is there seemingly no life force, no survival instinct compelling her to act?

Taking their cue from the woman's husband, perhaps, one group of my undergraduates recently came to a frighteningly clichéd conclusion: the lady is obviously nuts. “She's insane,” one young woman said. “There's no other explanation possible.” The ease with which most of the other students in the class embraced this dismissive conclusion is indeed troubling, for it reduces the story to little more than a voyeuristic peek at a crazy lady. It also points up the existence of disturbing cultural bias, reinforcing what sociologists, psychologists and feminist critics have been showing us over the past several years, that through the many centuries of our patriarchal history, it has become commonplace to view intractable women—women resistant to the patriarchal notions which have reasonably determined their places and identities—as mad. Sociological studies, like Chesler's Women and Madness and Showalter's The Female Malady; literary studies, like Gilbert and Gubar's Madwoman in the Attic; and the many examples in women's fiction and autobiography—“The Yellow Wallpaper,” Wide Sargasso Sea, The Bell Jar, The Summer Before the Dark. All these works point to the fact that both the culture at large and the women who feel themselves constricted by it tend to view their irrational, that is, non-rational, impulses as disturbing, sometimes frightening, sometimes conclusive indications of madness:

There is nothing wrong with me [Lara Jefferson says]—except I was born at least two thousand years too late. Ladies of Amazonian proportions and Berserker propensities have passed quite out of vogue and have no place in this too damned civilized world. … Here I sit—mad as the hatter—with nothing to do but either become madder and madder or else recover enough of my sanity to be allowed to go back to the life which drove me mad.3

It is true that the experience of patriarchal constriction and oppression has driven some women truly insane (in literature and in life). The attic passions of Bertha Mason, or of Gilman's heroine in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” for example, denote something we might call “true madness.” But Godwin's character does not behave in this pathologically frenzied way. Her only “act of passion” is when she strikes her child, and this single instance, performed in her husband's presence, seems more calculated to elicit his cooperation in her withdrawal than indicative of violent derangement. Even her last flurry of activity, though somewhat frenzied, supports her careful purpose of leaving a last gift. Her final act is peaceful, a putting of herself to bed, a sleeping into the dark, much as she had earlier gone to bed and slept into the darkness of the following evening. Not until her husband gently checks for signs of life—laying “his ear softly to her breast,” testing “the delicate bones of her wrist,” putting “down his face into her fresh-washed hair”—do we realize she is dead (30).

“A Sorrowful Woman” bears some quite marked similarities to another story of inexplicable feminine behavior, Doris Lessing's “To Room Nineteen.” In each, the wife and mother seems to have chosen her roles willingly, and to have fulfilled them competently, even creatively. In each, the roles have come to be experienced by the woman as threateningly oppressive. There's a sense of their being trapped, or hunted, by the affections of their families. Godwin's character feels herself pressed into a corner by the force of “two joyful notes” her husband and son have slipped under her door. “She had hardly space to breathe,” the narrator says (29). In Lessing's story, Susan experiences the embrace of her small twins as a “human cage of loving limbs.”4 Each woman spends an inordinate amount of time hugging the solace of her own solitude and brushing her hair.

Both women seem to have decent enough husbands: Godwin's, “durable, receptive, gentle” (26); Lessing's, “good and kind and insightful” (410). Each man tries hard to understand his wife and to accommodate himself to her needs, going so far, in each case, as to hire in a cheerful girl to help out. Each wife/mother struggles to affirm her chosen life as the right one; each categorizes the multiplying difficulties in her marriage as exclusively her fault; each chooses retreat rather than confrontation; and each experiences her new state of mind as inexplicable evidence of her alienation from the self she has carefully, rationally, defined. “What has happened to me, I'm not myself anymore,” Godwin's character says (27). “I'm simply not myself,” Susan says in Lessing's story. “I don't understand it” (407). In their attempts to attain that state of progressive removal where each can feel free and alone, both women take a series of steps away from the well-defined roles they have chosen. And each quietly, tenderly ushers herself across the borders of that aloneness into death. Susan puts herself to bed with the same kind of care Godwin's character exhibits. Feeling her legs cold after she turns on the gas, she gets up, finds a blanket and “carefully covers” them (428).

One marked difference in the two stories, of course, is that where Godwin's is truly a parable—spare, myth-like, redolent with archetypal suggestion5—Lessing's reads like an elaborate case history. Nevertheless, because the two stories possess such strikingly similar plots, we may take “To Room Nineteen” as a kind of analogue to Godwin's story, one which may help explain the seemingly inexplicable behavior of Godwin's heroine.

The first sentence of Lessing's story, for example, tells us what is wrong with the Rawlings' marriage: “This is a story, I suppose, about a failure in intelligence: the Rawlings' marriage was grounded in intelligence” (396). In the ensuing pages, the reader is made redundantly aware that this joyless marriage is grounded in reason. Susan and Matthew commend themselves on how well matched they are, on how sensible they have been in every choice, how practical, intelligent and appropriate each action has been. They reason together that it must be their love for one another that holds it all together. “Their love for each other? Well, that was nearest it. If this wasn't a centre, what was?” (398). And they use “their intelligence to preserve what they had created from a painful and explosive world: they looked around them, and took lessons” (398). They banish all passion, “the wildness and the beauty” (401), from their dealings with one another, settling for “the dry, controlled wistfulness which is the distinguishing mark of the intelligent marriage” (399). They learn to control every aspect of their lives, seeking to assimilate even the potentially explosive emotions of infidelity by understanding and thereby containing them. When Matthew comes home late after a party, confessing that he has slept with a girl, Susan sensibly forgives him. Yet even forgiveness, it seems, admits of too much irrational feeling: “forgiveness is hardly the word,” she decides. “Understanding, yes. But if you understand something, you don't forgive it, you are the thing itself: forgiveness is for what you don't understand. Nor had he confessed—what sort of word is that?” (400).

Godwin's “understanding husband” doesn't at first seem as oppressively reasonable as Matthew Rawlings. When looked at in the light of Lessing's story, however, his insatiable capacity for “understanding” becomes suspect, and Godwin's repetitive use of the term understanding to describe him seems more than utilitarian. When his wife tells him about her inexplicable feelings,...

(The entire section is 4917 words.)

Virginia Tiger (essay date autumn 1990)

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

...

(The entire section is 5431 words.)

Jean Pickering (essay date 1990)

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...

(The entire section is 4972 words.)

Stephanie Harvey (essay date 1993)

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...

(The entire section is 6218 words.)

Lisa Tyler (essay date 1994)

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...

(The entire section is 8403 words.)

Detlev Gohrbandt (essay date 1998)

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...

(The entire section is 6094 words.)

Jane Hotchkiss (essay date 1998)

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...

(The entire section is 4711 words.)

Janina Nordius (essay date spring 1999)

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...

(The entire section is 1043 words.)