Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“A Woman on a Roof” is told by an impersonal narrator, but from the character Tom’s point of view. The narrator knows what is happening in Tom’s mind, what his nighttime dreams are, and what he wants from the sunbathing woman. To a lesser extent, one learns of Harry’s motives in deflecting Stanley’s anger so that the work can go on. However, the narrator’s perspective is curiously limited. The narrator tells of Stanley’s feelings only by attaching to them labels such as “furious,” “bad humour,” “bitter.” The sunbathing woman is seen exclusively from the outside.

Lessing heightens the story’s tension by focusing on the environment of the roof. The reader learns of the basement only that it is gray and cool. The scene in Mrs. Pritchett’s kitchen establishes the contrast between the cool flat and the sunbaked roof, between the friendly housewife and the indifferent sunbather. Most striking is the way that Lessing keeps the focus on the roof by revealing next to nothing about the men’s lives; it is as if they have no existence beyond the roof. What little information the narrator divulges—that Stanley has been married for three months and that Harry has a son Tom’s age—relates directly to the story.

Finally, Lessing uses the image of the heavy boots that the three laborers wear to draw an image of crudity. As Stanley and Tom scramble up the roof levels, they edge along parapets and cling to chimneys “while their big boots slipped and slithered.” These big workmen’s boots remind the reader of the class and gender contrasts between the relaxed sunbather, her sexually desirable body glistening with sweat and oil, and the three workers, whose own sweat comes from almost unendurable toil.

Lessing’s control over the development of this story is superb. The story is spare in the sense that every scene is telling; there are no superfluous words or unnecessary passages. She uses words, dialogue, and description to focus attention where she wants it and nowhere else.