How far will a man go to get the attention of a woman? “A Woman on a Roof” by Doris Lessing evaluates this question. If the woman does not respond to the man’s overtures, good sense would tell the man that she is not interested. Apparently, to some men, rejection has to hurt before it can be accepted.
The story’s narration is third person point of view. The narrator is an involved limited omniscient narrator. The setting of the story is London in June in a building complex. It is hot and the men find the working conditions uncomfortable.
The only distraction for the men is a lady who is sunbathing on a nearby roof almost in the nude. The woman comes out every day to lay out in the sun, so the men begin to watch for her. Their obsession goes to the extreme of moving around on the roof top so that they can see more of her.
There is no clear protagonist until the end of the story. The young workman Tom then asserts himself as the character that the reader follows with interest to see how he handles himself in the sexual conflict with the woman on the roof.
Tom, a young worker, is at his sexual peak. Tom seems to have little experience with females. He romantically dreams about naked women. The woman on the roof becomes his sexual focus.
After having several nights of these pornographic dreams, Tom goes up on the roof where the woman is lying. He tries to start a conversation with her but is completely rejected. She tells him to get lost. With his feelings hurt, he joins the other men and gets drunk. Now, he hates the woman.
When Tom comes to try to get to know her, she completely rejects him:
…if you get a kick out of seeing women in bikinis, why don’t you take a sixpenny bus ride to the Lido? You’d see dozens of them, without all this mountaineering.’
Then she totally ignores him.
The other two men are involved with the whistling and yelling at the woman. Stanley has just been married and keeps asserting that he would never let his wife do what the woman is doing. However, he also, tries to get her attention. Stanley feels the rejection by the woman more intensely and personally.
Harry, the older man, stays on the fringes of involvement with the woman. He wants to get the job done. As the voice of reason, he tries to get the other younger men to concentrate more on work and less on the woman.
Little is known about the woman. Apparently determined to get a tan, she comes out every day. She is aware that the men have been running around on the roof based on her comment to Tom.
With no one there to hold the reigns of common decency, the men continue to try to get her attention. It does not matter how foolish they look. The men are upset by the fact that she chooses to ignore their demonstrative behavior.
The theme of the story stems from the male perception of women. Men too often think it is okay to objectify women. The whistling and yelling to the men were complimentary to the woman. To the men, a woman should feel glad that they men find her sexually attractive.
Of course, most of the time, this is not the case. A woman wants to be accepted as a total person, not just for her outward persona. It has never been okay to stereotype a woman as a sexual object. Just as a man wants to be perceived as a total person, so does a woman. Kudos to this woman, who despite the challenges presented by the men for privacy, she ignores them and takes care of herself.