Doris Lessing Doris Lessing World Literature Analysis

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Doris Lessing World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The years spanning Lessing’s adolescence and her young adulthood provide seed plots for her five related novels, the Children of Violence series, which were written over a twenty-year span. The first novel in the series, Martha Quest, was published in 1952. It was followed by A Proper Marriage in 1954, A Ripple from the Storm in 1958, Landlocked in 1965, and The Four-Gated City in 1969. Between the appearance of these serial books, Lessing wrote two other novels, as well as a considerable number of plays and short stories. Her most significant work, written during an interval between the Children of Violence novels, is The Golden Notebook (1962), which first brought her world acclaim. More than any other work, The Golden Notebook, still considered her masterpiece, affirmed her reputation as a major talent. The five books in the Children of Violence series and the single most definitive of Lessing’s novels, The Golden Notebook, are representative of the author’s prolific body of fiction, in that they contain all the themes and dominant imagery appearing throughout her work. Her reworking of basic material reveals the variety of her narrative techniques, that is, her ability to rework ideas through different story lines with novel and engaging effects.

Lessing’s fascination with opposition may be traced to her early experiences on the veld, where she was first impressed with the majesty and wonder of nature, deriving her first inkling of the human capacity for reaching a state of harmony with the universe. The integrity of the veld presented a sharp contrast to the divisions that she observed in her colonial community. Living in a divided society stratified by race and class caused her to develop an understanding of the opposition between the privileged and the oppressed. The cruelty of the collective that claimed her as one of its own not only sharpened her sense of morality but also sparked her intellect and instilled in her the drive to examine the system and its larger ramifications. Lessing, therefore, deliberately embarked upon a long process of self-education. At different times in her life, she became involved in most of the significant political and intellectual movements of her day: Jungian and Freudian psychology, Sufi mysticism, existentialism, sociobiology, futuristic scientific theories, Communism, and Marxism. Her narratives reflect the influence of all of these movements. In her stories, she uses insight gained from these various theories of the world to define and explore other opposites, such as the gap between the public self and the private self and the gap between the visionary and the pragmatic.

The reality of the ethical conflict that often exists between collectives and the commitment that one must make to his or her inner being is at the heart of Lessing’s fiction. On at least one occasion, she expressed surprise when critics, in their reviews of the first two books in the Children of Violence series, missed the point that she had written the series as a study of the relationship between individual conscience in opposition to the demands of the collective (A Small Personal Voice, 1974).

Lessing weaves her plots around a core of imagery that recurs in a number of key scenes throughout the novels. Visions of the veld, houses, and cities materialize at critical moments to represent conditions related to either the individual or the collective in different situations. The prevailing image of the veld comes straight from Lessing’s childhood experiences—the veld being the enduring reality that can be equated to unity and wholeness. The symbolic meaning of the veld as representative of the cosmic whole is contrasted with the compartmentalizations people make in their civilizing activities of building houses and cities.

Houses as images can represent one’s inner world or the socially constructed outer world at various times. For example, when Martha, the protagonist of the series, envisions herself in Landlocked as a...

(The entire section is 4,616 words.)