Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Doris Lessing gives this story two levels of meaning, one individual, the other social. The individual meaning has to do with Tom’s sexual and social confusion. Only seventeen years old, Tom is unsure of himself, envious of his mate Stanley’s easy ability to flirt with attractive women. For Tom, the sunbather initially represents the allure of consumer society: “She looked like a poster, or a magazine cover, with the blue sky behind her and her legs stretched out.” He feels a powerful sexual attraction: “He had caught her in the act of rolling down the little red pants over her hips, till they were no more than a small triangle. She was on her back, fully visible, glistening with oil.”

Tom’s sexual desire conflicts with his insecurity; he resolves the tension by romanticizing the sunbather. First, he fantasizes that she is tender with him. Then he dreams an explicitly erotic scene, imagined in the consumer idiom of the 1960’s, but romanticized. “Last night she had asked him into her flat: it was big and had fitted white carpets and a bed with a padded white leather headtop. She wore a black filmy negligée and her kindness to Tom thickened his throat as he remembered it.” Tom’s imaginary trysts with the sunbather become so real to him (for his desire is so powerful) that he thinks he knows her. Moreover, he thinks that she surely must see that he intervenes to protect her from Stanley’s crudities. It is all in his head, however,...

(The entire section is 492 words.)