Doris Lessing

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Linda H. Halisky (essay date winter 1990)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4917

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, he says he understands; “you need a rest from us,” he explains (27). After she one day locks herself away, and a few days later hits her child and collapses to the floor, he offers to get a girl in to help. “‘I want you to feel freer,’ he said, understanding these things” (27). When, much to his dismay, she dismisses the cheerful girl, saying, apropos of nothing, that now she doesn't know what to do, the husband, “still understanding these things,” says he'll think of something (28). And when she moves herself into the room the girl has vacated, he remains “receptive to her needs.” “He understood these things,” Godwin's narrator says one more time (28).

In the face of his wife's clearly non-rational behavior, this man rearranges, manages, comforts in “his richest voice,” assuring his wife, finally, that he wants only to be big enough to “contain” whatever it is she must do (28). That is, seeking refuge and equilibrium in the rational, he wishes to understand, to define, to fix, to create a coherent pattern so that he can find some reasonable way to account for her clearly unreasonable behavior. Yet Godwin's heroine, as Lessing's, wishes to be free of the deadening restraint of such patterning. Like the heroine of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's “The Yellow Wallpaper,” each woman finds herself trapped within the terms of a male-dominant cultural pattern. “In any kind of light,” Gilman's heroine says of the wallpaper in the attic room to which she has been consigned by her husband to rest, “in twilight, candlelight, lamplight, and worst of all by moonlight, it becomes bars! The outside pattern, I mean, and the woman behind it as plain as can be. … And she is all the time trying to climb through. But nobody could climb through that pattern—it strangles so.”6

What these women want is not to become one with the environment of reason that confronts and seeks to contain them, as Susan Rawlings says happens when one understands: “but if you understand something … you are the thing itself.” Instead, they want no longer to be usurped and explained by the powers of rationality, of pattern, that have limited their being. They want the freedom, the oneness, of a return to themselves. “I am not my self,” each says, but what each means is that she is no longer the self she set herself willingly, sensibly, reasonably to become. Some deeper self has hold of her; some inexplicable, non-rational self is rearing its head and asserting its due. And each woman is programmed, by the reason her culture has taught her to consider definitive, to label the expression of that self “madness.” Seeing her “sensible face” in the mirror as she brushes her thick healthy black hair, Susan muses, “yet that's the reflection of a madwoman. How very strange!” (415).

In her 1974 study, “Feeling and Reason in Doris Lessing's Fiction,” Lynn Sukenick traces Lessing's movement from a belief in the saving power of the rational to an opposing belief in the saving power of madness. In Lessing's early novels (1952, 1954), Sukenick argues, “rationality is personality … it is intelligence that gives one a sense of self and preserves some approximation of integration in the face of invading irrationalities.” Later, according to Sukenick, Lessing comes to view madness, particularly collective madness, as a prerequisite to enlightenment (hinted at in The Golden Notebook, 1962; prepared for in The Four-Gated City, 1969; and embraced in Briefing for a Descent into Hell, 1971). While merely personal madness may smack of self-indulgence, collective madness in a socio-political context, Sukenick says, takes on for Lessing the purging quality of insight. The barriers that intelligence has erected begin to come down: it is not only “the sane who are mad,” she quotes one of Lessing's characters as saying (in Landlocked, 1965), “but the mad who are sane.”7

Written in 1961, “To Room Nineteen” may represent a pivotal moment in the pattern of development Sukenick outlines, for it is a moment during which the balance between the value of the rational and the value of the irrational is tipping, when questions about the meaning and power of irrationality may be more prominent than the answers Lessing later affirms. The indeterminate nature of this moment is important, for within it Lessing seems to leave room for an alternative way of perceiving what patriarchal orientation calls “the irrational,” a way which rejects the unilaterally masculine norm supporting the rational-irrational dichotomy.

The bipolar reversal Sukenick points to—i.e., the “mad” coming to be seen as sane, the “sane” revealing themselves as mad—is not without its appeal. It's the same sort of appeal one feels in the feminist position which asserts that women can best affirm their value and achieve the power that has eluded them by appropriating to themselves the masculine norms which dominate this culture. To do this, women have been encouraged to deny their emotional, instinctive—irrational—natures in order to celebrate the cerebral, the rational: the singular key, we have been taught, to attaining such power. This view, however, reinforces a belief in the a priori superiority of those values traditionally labeled masculine. It diminishes the significance of what we have labeled feminine in women or in men.8 We hear it expressed in the familiar voice of the “father's daughter,” the female personality seeking acceptance and definition by aligning itself as far as possible with male norms. Athena is her archetype. “For I did not have a mother who bore me,” Athena says in the Oresteia. “No all my heart praises the male.”9 Anais Nin reflects the same point of view in Cities of the Interior: “I wouldn't feel the anguish and the fear … if only they would let me be Joan of Arc. Joan of Arc wore a suit of armour, she sat on a horse, she fought side by side with men. She must have gained their strength.”10

An alternative to affirming this view, which leads either to a trivializing of the feminine, on the one hand, or an abdication of the feminine through its identification with the masculine, on the other—the alternative the question-inducing stories of Lessing and Godwin point up—is not to play this “reasonable” game at all, but rather to quit, to retreat, to descend into other, non-rational, more authentically feminine modes of perception.

One of the chief concerns of much feminist criticism, significantly, has been that it not succumb too readily to “reasonable” methodologies. The heart of Hélène Cixous' theory, for example, is what amounts to her rejection of masculinist literary theory. Feminist writing, she says, “will always surpass the discourse that regulates the phallocentric system.”11 Women writers, Mary Ellmann contends, “often establish a subversively different perspective by undermining definiteness of judgment and fixity of focus.”12 “For some radical feminists,” Showalter says, “methodology itself is an instrument of patriarchy … which sets implicit limits to what can be questioned and discussed.”13 “The God Method,” writes Mary Daly, “is, in fact a subordinate deity serving higher powers. These are social and cultural institutions whose survival depends upon the classification of disruptive and disturbing information as nondata. Under patriarchy, Method has wiped out women's questions so totally that even women have not been able to hear and formulate our own questions, to meet our own experiences.”14 Susan Rawlings and Godwin's unnamed heroine have both attempted to read their lives—and we the fiction about their lives—according to Daly's “God Method,” looking for reasons, trying to fix categories, to establish logical pattern—to understand. But we as readers, just as they are characters, are finally brought to consider an alternative, a more authentically feminine way of perceiving the non-rational impulses these women share.

In the beginning of her essay on Lessing, Sukenick points to an earlier understanding of feminine non-rationality as indicative of a kind of primal saving power. “As nonreflective bios,” she says, “woman has been seen as the root, the source, the touchstone; she gives the surety of the natural.”15 By undercutting the value of the reflective, Lessing and Godwin create a window through which we might view this more mythic understanding of the female non-rational.

Though it has come slowly to feminist criticism,16 one of the most fruitful modes of reevaluating feminine consciousness in fields like psychology, for example, has been the large-scale reconsideration of female myths.17 Particularly interesting are examinations of those myths which predate patriarchal supremacy, myths having principally to do with fertility and renewal, and in which a movement into darkness signifies, not the aberrations of a crazy person, but a purposeful sacrifice, as Sylvia Perera explains, “to and for the repressed, undifferentiated ground of being with the hope of gaining rebirth with a deeper resonant awareness.”18 The early Sumerian myth of Inanna and Ereshkigal provides an interesting example.

In the myth, Inanna is a complex deity. Goddess of earth and sky, matter and spirit, vessel and light, she is also goddess of “the radiant and erratic morning and evening star.” As such, she rules the borderlands, ushering in or out her brother the sun god and her father the moon god. She represents, Perera says, “the liminal, intermediate regions, and the energies that cannot be contained or made certain and secure” (16). Having “set her heart from highest heaven on earth's deepest ground,” she abandons them both and descends to the Netherworld, the dark realm of Ereshkigal. Ereshkigal, whose name means “Lady of the Great Place Below,” represents defiantly undifferentiated unconsciousness. According to Perera, she is “the place where potential life lies motionless.” She represents “the primal matrix,” the “places of oblivion” where daylight consciousness fears to tread; she is “receiver of all, yet adversary and … inevitable victor” (22-23).

Angered that the day goddess has entered her dark realm uninvited, Ereshkigal insists that Inanna suffer the same consequences as anyone else entering her kingdom. She is to be tormented by Ereshkigal's demons, made naked and brought low. As a result, at each of seven progressively lower gates, a piece of Inanna's identifying regalia is removed, until “crouched and stripped bare,” she is judged. Finally, Ereshkigal kills her, hooking her corpse on a peg, where it will hang for three days, turning into a “side of green, rotting meat” (9). When, after three days, Inanna fails to return, her assistant, Ninshubar, sets in motion a series of events that eventually result in her fruitful reintegration into the world of the living, including what Perera calls “a new model of equal and comradely relationship between woman and man” (15).

Many of the qualities Inanna once represented—“the embodied, playful, passionately erotic feminine; the powerful, independent, self-willed feminine; the ambitious, regal, many-sided feminine”—have been lost to women's lives, Perera says, through the centuries-long process of patriarchal redefinition. Women have come to live mainly in the peripheral, personal realm of Western culture, veiling their needs for power and passion, living safely in secondary lives. “Constricted, the joy of the feminine has been denigrated as mere frivolity; her joyful lust demeaned as whorishness, or sentimentalized and maternalized; her vitality bound into duty and obedience” (19-20).

Ereshkigal represents the necessary cleansing immersion in the darkness of the unknown which, alone, can sustain Inanna's many and complex energies. Hers is the realm of dissolution, the place of “survival and earth and rock solid beginnings.” It symbolizes the abyss of the non-rational, the primordial, the source and the end, “the ground of all being” (25). Ereshkigal, then, represents both the stillness of energy subdued to stasis, which makes a woman able to separate unto herself, to survive alone, Perera says, as well as the renewed sense of demonic power and wholeness that prepare her for more equal and healthy participation in the world of light, including her relationships with men.

A number of things about this myth are relevant to the stories under consideration here. The first is that Inanna purposefully enters the realm of darkness and, once there, willingly submits to the death she knows awaits her. “Like any initiate,” Perera says, “she courageously surrenders to her own sacrifice, in order to gain new power and knowledge” (53). Her movement is a purposeful descent, step by step, away from the daylight order she commands. Secondly, Inanna truly dies in the Netherworld, gives over her identity completely to the dark forces surrounding her, accepting non-differentiation, becoming green meat. And, finally, she returns. After a series of rather ingenious machinations, and with certain concessions having been made to Ereshkigal, she ascends back into the daylight world, again whole, strong, and full of multi-faceted female power.

What can't be said, of course, is that the movement of Godwin's and Lessing's heroines away from the rational daylight worlds they inhabit reenacts the whole of this myth. The societal conditions these writers' works criticize are not congenial to the sorts of feminine and cultural renewal figured in the myth as a whole. Yet the behavior of these characters invites some provocative comparisons. Retreating from the claims of the rational world, drawn by the power of some non-rational part of themselves, each willingly enters the realm of death, moving progressively, a step at a time, away from the trappings which have defined her—her old bedroom, her old duties, her old family, her old energy patterns.19 Each seeks the stillness, the solace, the stasis of the dark.

In Susan's last hours, the demons that have sometimes taunted her are finally gone. “She was slipping already into the dark fructifying dream that seemed to caress her inwardly, like the movement of her blood,” Lessing says (emphasis added). She sits for a while, completely still, “delightfully, darkly, sweetly letting herself slide gently, gently to the edge of the river.” Her final emotion as she drifts off into “the dark river” is contentment (428). Though darkness and death are not explicitly equated in Godwin's story, as they are in Lessing's, the heroine's pattern of removal toward and into death is the same, as is the sense that each woman is entering a realm she need not ultimately fear. What Godwin's story gives us, additionally, is a hint of the renewal explicit in the myth, but not overtly a part of either story. The last gift Godwin's heroine prepares is truly a Thanksgiving feast, complete with turkey and pies, a harvest celebration (perhaps), suggestive of the period of infertility which accompanies Inanna's visit to Ereshkigal's Netherworld. As in Lessing's story, however, the sense of unmitigated tragedy seems undercut here as well by the fact that the feast is actually prepared in the spring. As a result of the woman's preparations, the narrator says, “the house smelled redolently of renewal and spring” (30).

The heroines of “A Sorrowful Woman” and “To Room Nineteen” are inexplicable only if one is locked into a belief that reason alone qualifies as an integrating, sense-making, truth-eliciting force. These women repudiate this norm by acting in ways which confound and leave it powerless. Read only as stories about the “real” lives of “real” women (which, of course, in one sense they are), they end tragically, women once again the victims of a world view which can only interpret their resistance to its norms as evidence of madness. But within the narratives of their seeming defeat emerge the pieces of a more redemptive vision. By giving us characters who quietly subvert the rational, death-creating patterns that seek to contain them, by moving these characters away from such destructive patterns toward the dark, inexplicable, but potentially redemptive spaces of mythic truth, Lessing and Godwin bring their readers, as well, “gently to the edge of the river,” to the brink of potentially healing new insights: about the limits of reason, about the mythically complex natures of women, about the need to construct lives as men and women in which the full-bodied expression of powers, masculine and feminine together, may lead to balance, health, even joy.


  1. Gail Godwin, “A Sorrowful Woman,” in The Bedford Introduction to Literature, ed. Michael Meyer (New York: St. Martins, 1987), p. 26. All further citations are in the text.

  2. Judith K. Gardiner, “‘A Sorrowful Woman’: Gail Godwin's Feminist Parable,” Studies in Short Fiction, 12 (Summer 1975), 286.

  3. Cited in Phyllis Chesler, Women and Madness (New York: Doubleday, 1972), p. 4.

  4. Doris Lessing, “To Room Nineteen,” in Stories (New York: Knopf, 1978), p. 410. All further citations are in the text.

  5. Judith K. Gardiner deals at length with the parable-like nature of this story in “‘A Sorrowful Woman’: Gail Godwin's Feminist Parable,” Studies in Short Fiction, 12 (Summer 1975), 286-90.

  6. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” in The Story and Its Writer, ed. Ann Charters (New York: St. Martin's, 1987), pp. 359-60.

  7. Lynn Sukenick, “Feeling and Reason in Doris Lessing's Fiction,” in Doris Lessing: Critical Studies, ed. Annis Pratt and L. S. Dembo (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1974), p. 113.

  8. I am indebted to Edwin Eigner for pointing out that Bartleby, in Melville's “Bartleby the Scrivener” (maddeningly persevering in his preference not to be “a little reasonable”) is an example of a male character destroyed by such rational norms.

  9. Cited in Chesler, p. 4.

  10. Cited in Chesler, p. 4.

  11. Cited in Raman Selden, A Reader's Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory (Lexington: Univ. of Kentucky Press, 1985), p. 145.

  12. See Selden, p. 138.

  13. Elaine Showalter, “Toward a Feminist Poetics,” The New Feminist Criticism, ed. Elaine Showalter (New York: Pantheon, 1985), p. 127.

  14. Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father: Towards a Philosophy of Women's Liberation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1973), pp. 12-13.

  15. Sukenick, p. 98.

  16. Gilbert and Gubar, for example, do little more than hint at it. See their discussion of Demeter in The Madwoman in the Attic (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1979), p. 95.

  17. See, for example, Sylvia Brinton Perera, Descent to the Goddess: A Way of Initiation for Women (Toronto: Inner City Books, 1981); and Marion Woodman, The Pregnant Virgin: A Process of Psychological Transformation (Toronto: Inner City Books, 1985). There are many others.

  18. Descent to the Goddess, p. 14. Further citations are in the text.

  19. Interestingly, in Lessing's story there are seven steps to Susan's withdrawal, the same number as there are in the myth of Inanna and Ereshkigal: she retreats first to her bedroom, then to a room at the top of the house, to her garden, to Mrs. Townsend's Hotel, to the countryside of Wales, to Fred's, and finally into death. In Godwin's story the heroine takes only three steps: to her bedroom, to the little room downstairs, and from there into death.


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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 767

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.

Virginia Tiger (essay date autumn 1990)

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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

—Mark Seltzer (507)

To view Doris Lessing's short fiction in relation to “the coercive network of seeing, power and surveillance” (Seltzer 508) that characterizes the literature of the realist enterprise invites triply the hazardous. Of first concern is the author's well-known opposition to theoretics. On principle, Lessing dismisses critical terms like realism (and its contemporary companion, feminism) as prescriptive about rather than descriptive of her project. Her position (itself prescriptive, especially as polemicized in the 1971 Introduction to The Golden Notebook, the 1979 Remarks upon Shikasta, and the 1984 Preface to The Diaries of Jane Somers) would seem to suggest hostility as much to the realist readings as to those of the feminist. Of second concern—although this has yet to be critiqued—Lessing aligns herself with those critics and readers who take as axiomatic that the authoring of texts represents an unassailable authoritative act. Hers becomes the claim that intertextual contexts can be ignored. Third—and finally in this article's critical speculations—there are the problematics of the shorter fiction. To speak of short and long fiction is to make the assumption that distinguishing between one kind of text and the other is defensible, a distinction encouraged by the practice of such writers as James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, and the later Nabokov. Like them, Lessing has extrapolated from and transformed several of her short stories, re-embedding them in longer narratives. Forming an enriching—although not so very rigorously examined3—part of her work, the sixty or more short stories raise intertextual matters about the shorter fiction's relation to the longer works as well as intriguing questions about the overall production of text.

The stories seem to have been written during periods especially crucial to the author's development, as has been observed in a discussion of Lessing's first decade in England (Sprague and Tiger 5). These turbulent, prolific years—the 1950s—saw a political novel, two reportorial works, plays, poems, essays, and reviews as well as a regiment of short stories. Appearing first in such magazines as the New Statesman and Nation, Encounter, the Partisan Review, and the Kenyon Review, the stories “contain[ed] most of the themes of her major novels, including concerns that did not clearly emerge till later” (Pickering 91). More than several of the stories from this period anticipated what in the 1970s appeared to be new dimensions in Lessing's fiction. Their marking of shifts in ideology and narrative strategies amounted to the laying of foundations for what Betsy Draine has since identified as the competing attitudes and warring styles upon which the later work was constructed (143-156). As Lessing's longer fiction has moved away from the realism and materialism of the first series, Children of Violence 1952-1969, toward the speculative fantasy and mysticism of the second series, Canopus in Argos 1979-1983, the English stories (in Britain collected in 1978 under the titles To Room Nineteen, Volume One and The Temptation of Jack Orkney, Volume Two) observed—sometimes, with a piercing malice—prevailing social arrangements. At the same time flickering across these canvases and diffusing overt meaning in the manner Jacques Derrida terms dissemination were incursions of the unreal, dream intimations, the unlocking of buried visions.

That there is an insistent continuity between the short fiction and the longer works seems incontrovertible. Several of the stories republished in the 1978 collection are related directly to later novels: Shikasta's (1979) intergalacticism earlier appeared as fictional landscape in “Report on the Threatened City” and the first Jane Somers novel, The Diary of a Good Neighbour (1983), derives inspiration and theme from “An Old Woman and Her Cat,” a short story about an eccentric and ancient woman who outwits the agents of Social Welfare by hiding, like a crafty wild cat, in the crevices of London. These reweavings are tempered reimaginings, their strategy like Joyce's first play with Ulysses in a Dubliners' story to have been called “Mr. Hunter's Day” (Hanson, Short Stories and Short Fictions 56). In contrast to such modified reimaginings, three stories by Lessing, “The Temptation of Jack Orkney,” “A Room,” and “To Room Nineteen” are substantially recast, finding their encodings in Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971), The Summer Before the Dark (1973), and The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974). And importantly, these three novels (ones so solidly linked to and developing amply from the shorter fictions' initial explorations) mark an interlude between Lessing's two major narrative series. Briefing for a Descent into Hell, The Summer Before the Dark, and The Memoirs of a Survivor appear in the years between the realism of Children of Violence and the speculation of Canopus in Argos.4 To argue from story to storied, one could make a sound case for Lessing's success in and need to test fictive limits in her interrogation of fiction's capacity to represent what she takes to be reality.

It is less the continuity between the story and its storied encoding and more the problematics of the short story that will here be attended. More precisely, I want to explore two questions. First, does the foreshortened discourse in the short story result in texts of singularity: that is, texts not evidencing plurality. Second, do Lessing's short fiction rehearsals reveal an early impatience with the realist project and its impulse to document, control, and supervise “things as they are.” To engage these questions, I will examine in some detail “To Room Nineteen” and “A Room,” both of which appeared in A Man and Two Women (1958). In these two stories, Lessing offers exemplary models of writing in the neutral discourse of the realist mode. Nevertheless, by means of their ruptured narrative surfaces, the two stories make eruptive what usually remains under control in a realist text: the operations of the libidinal, the anarchic. And the thematics of opposition between the intelligible and the irrational, the everyday and the aberrant becomes apparent by the calculated strategy of disfiguring the world of the realist project so as to refigure its significance.

More than many others “To Room Nineteen,” Lessing's much anthologized short fiction, demonstrates how problematic is the conventional notion that short stories thrive on unitary schema. For in this single text competes a diversity of narrative codes; indeed, the text seems at first to embarrass its own ruling system, showing contradictions that its novel counterpart, The Summer Before the Dark, does not embrace in its limpidly straightforward structure. Assessed significant enough in the production of the Lessing canon to lend its title to Volume One of the 1978 edition of her collected non-African stories—thus privileging by inference that period and narrative modality in subsequent discussions of Lessing's work5—“To Room Nineteen” first appeared as the nineteenth as well as final story in the most self-reflexive of Lessing's collections, the anthology, A Man and Two Women. Rather more variegated, indeed uncertain, than the African collection This Was the Old Chief's Country (1951) in terms of thematic consistency, these British texts heralded what was then still the colonial marginality of their author by their persistent tone of deflected detachment. Observing with clinical condescension the troubled attachments of the sophisticated, liberal bourgeoisie, the stories judged and found wanting conventional social creatures—publicists, journalists, set designers, professional layabouts working on the edges of the arts in the London of the late fifties.

In these texts, the author demands authority. So insistently does omniscient point of view control that ironical distance seems more authorial performance than narratorial stance. The “panoptic” eye/I of the narration conveys impatience with social codes and roles, its tone sometimes even that of the spiritual sneer. As “To Room Nineteen”'s first sentence commands: “This is a story, I suppose, about a failure in intelligence: the Rawlings' marriage was grounded in intelligence” (Stories 396) [Collected Stories].

Readers and critics alike have been seized by “To Room Nineteen,” celebrated by one Lessing scholar as “one of Lessing's most moving … texts” (Knapp 79). Introduced by way of summary and sketch is a middle-class English woman, a commercial artist sensibly married and sensibly attentive to her “handsome, blond, attractive” (397) husband, a sub-editor on a large London newspaper. “And this is what happened” (397), pronounces the narrative, its parodic discourse flat, dry:

Susan became pregnant, she gave up her job, and they bought a house in Richmond. It was typical of this couple that they had a son first, then a daughter, then twins, son and daughter. Everything right, appropriate, and what everyone would wish for if they could choose. But people did feel these two had chosen; this balanced and sensible family was no more than what was due to them because of their infallible sense for choosing right.


The effect of the discourse (what in another context has been described as Lessing's “exaggerated use of a particular linguistic register”) is to undercut “the characters [so as] to make us feel that they are no more than puppets, creatures of convention” (Hanson, “Free Stories” 7). The assertive commentary delivered by the narrator—who interrupts, interrogates, and then retires—intensifies the intended readerly perception that character is culturally scripted and behavior socially constricted:

And so they lived with their four children in their gardened house in Richmond and were happy. They had everything they had wanted and had planned for.

And yet

Well, even this was expected, that there must be a certain flatness …

Yes, yes, of course it was natural they sometimes felt like this. Like what?

Their life seemed to be like a snake biting its tail. Matthew's job for the sake of Susan, children, house, and garden—which caravanserai needed a well-paid job to maintain it. And Susan's practical intelligence for the sake of Matthew, the children, the house and the garden—which unit would have collapsed in a week without her.


What happens? Were this a text conforming to prescriptive definitions of the short story genre, Susan Rawlings would undergo change as a result of conflict, a change to which all elements in the narrative had contributed harmoniously and economically. However, so flattened is the portrayal of character that “To Room Nineteen” subverts conventional expectations, endorsing—it would first appear—the very typicality it has exposed through parody.

So what did it matter if they felt dry, flat? People like themselves, fed on a hundred books (psychological, anthropological, sociological), could scarcely be unprepared for the dry, controlled wistfulness which is the distinguishing mark of the intelligent marriage. Two people, endowed with education, with discrimination, with judgement, linked together voluntarily from their will to be happy together … one sees them everywhere, one knows them, one even is that thing oneself.

(399, italics mine)

By means of the pronominal shift from first-person to third, an intertextual conspiracy is set up between the narrator's construction and that of the reader. The “I”/eye of the first line (“This is a story, I suppose, about a failure in intelligence” [396]) shortly becomes the “one”/[unitary] one where effected is the merging of reader and narrator into one unit. As the text quoted above insists “one sees them everywhere, one knows them, one even is that thing oneself” (399, italics mine).

And what happens? Having negotiated a sensible, intelligent marital détente at the age of forty or so, sensible, intelligent Susan Rawlings—her husband (although dallying in thin affairs) still very much a good husband, a good father, her four children off at school, her Richmond house managed by an agreeable housekeeper—goes mad. And the text too goes berserk, its surface coherence being, as Lessing remarked of The Golden Notebook, “shot to hell.”

Like her counterpart, Kate Brown in The Summer Before the Dark, Susan Rawlings is that “well-documented and much-studied phenomenon, the woman with grown-children and not enough to do” (Summer 23). Unlike Kate Brown, Susan Rawlings is not permitted a summer of solitude—the text's foreshortening strategies forbidding the integrative psychic voyage the longer fiction (with its obligatory longer-leashed development) allows. Invaded, like Kate, by restlessness, irritation, resentment, “emotions that were utterly ridiculous, that she despised” (403), Susan tries to confront them calmly, intelligently: “She spoke to herself severely, thus: All this is quite natural. First, I spent twelve years of my adult life working, living my own life. Then I married … I signed myself over, so to speak, to other people. To the children. Not for one moment … have I been alone, had time to myself. So now I have to learn to be myself again. That's all” (403).

By this point in the narrative's progression, the gesturing narrator has withdrawn from commentary, judgment being conveyed largely through the protagonist's stream of thought. To a degree, the strategy permits the individuation of what was first presented as a merely typical character. More important, it extends the identification of narrator/reader (earlier valorized in the pronominal “one”) to include a now valorized protagonist. The reader observes from a centered vantage point of empathetic identification (the text's authorial sneer having vanished along with its posturing narrator) as Susan Rawlings—craving “a room or a place, anywhere, where she could go and sit, by herself” (406)—takes steps away from her big, beautiful Richmond house in order to begin to reinhabit herself. The room nineteen of the story's title is the seedy Paddington hotel cell Susan hires and visits daily.

That this room of her own should be expropriated by a concerned, proprietary husband sending detectives contributes in overt ways to the text's dénouement as well as the context of its reception by readers. The “easing hours of solitude” are invaded, as the text implores: “Several times she returned to the room, to look for herself there, but instead she found the unnamed spirit of restlessness, a pricking fevered hunger for movement, an irritable self-consciousness that made her brain feel as if it had coloured lights going on and off” inside it (423). Like her nineteenth-century counterpart, The Awakening's Edna Pontellier, Susan returns a final time to the place of her awakening and—turning on the gas—swims into that ultimate anonymity: death.

As with Edna's self-immolation, Susan's suicide is unassimilable: a negation. “Why did she kill herself?” undergraduate and graduate students alike have exploded, “she should have gone back to work.” “Or told her husband she was hurt by his infidelities,” they expostulate, using the same pragmatic “intelligence” the story is intent on subverting. Graduate students have tempered their sense of the text's displacement by arguing from the context of received feminism. Both responses amount to a production of text resembling one given in, for example, a 1984 reductive reading—twenty odd years after the story's publication and two decades after the construction of the contemporary Anglo-American feminist critique: “The story clearly implies that without the colossal middle-class apparatus to tie her down, and without a partriarchal system to require that she cheerfully welcome her bondage, her personality would never have been eroded to the point of breakdown and suicide” (Knapp 80). As pedantic this interpretation seems, it indicates how strenuously the voice of the nominally detached narrator commands and controls, how effectively the pronominal shift from “I” to “one” implicates the reader.

An alternate narrative code, submerged yet vital, calls into question any reading of the text as solely a realistic representation of contemporary women's estate. “To Room Nineteen's” surface design conceals a less accessible narrative code in which the author, Doris Lessing, is exploring spiritual possibilities, mysteries on the other side of the given, the typical, the representatively real. Here the text insists that crises of the spirit are resolvable through meditative modalities, that fluid motility should be associated with libidinal desire. As in Kate Chopin's The Awakening, the ending of “To Room Nineteen” undercuts its primary text: in both, death is vital, fructifying, caressing. Forces bathe each heroine in solipsistic pleasure, giving truth to Freud's insight in Beyond the Pleasure Principle that death is the ultimate object of desire.

Susan Rawlings and her husband plan everything “intelligently,” a word which appears in the text fifteen times, although its sense is carried, by my count, some fourteen additional times. Numerically the word allies itself with the cognate term “sensible” while warring with the libidinally evocative “garden,” a word appearing sixteen times and whose metaphoric sense is carried through seven scenes in which the protagonist visits the oceanic, heterogeneous, and haunting realm beyond her big, mortgaged, and beautiful white Richmond house. “She went to the very end of the garden, by herself, and looked at the slow-moving brown river; she looked at the river and closed her eyes and breathed slow and deep, taking it into her being, into her veins” (406). In this undergrowth with its “wild sullied river” she begins to prowl, a wild cat, “howling with rage” (409). She is terrorized by an image of her spirit: a demon she imagines invading her, the devil of “reddish complexion and ginger hair” wearing “a reddish hairy jacket, unpleasant to the touch” (410). Shortly, she will give this haunting hallucination form. “Well, one day she saw him. She was standing at the bottom of the garden, watching the river ebb past, when she … saw this person. … He was looking at her, and grinning … out of an absent-minded or freakish impulse of spite …” (410-411). The wild cat who prowls through the thickened garden appears in another libidinal image: the “intelligent” Susan Rawlings standing before a mirror, brushing back near-electric hair, its Medusa energy crackling. Glancing at her own image, she “thought: Yet that's the reflection of a mad-woman. … Much more to the point if what looked back at me was the gingery green-eyed demon with his dry meagre smile” (415).

Eruptive narrative codes like these recall doubling strategies deployed by nineteenth-century female gothic modes.6 As the example of Jane Eyre in the red room instructs, women and mirrors are intimately linked. In Lessing the motif of the mirrored mad double registers (and dislodges) competing modes of consciousness as well as competing codes of narration. To shatter the glass is to set free the mirror's enclosed prisoner and the realist text's supervised captive: the mystery below fact's surface. Put another way, Susan Rawlings' voyage through the looking glass will take the wayfarer-soul to room nineteen, there to remake interiority by unmaking intelligence. The “dark creative trance” (427) in which the protagonist is submerged by her author is an unsilencing of the irrational, libidinal pulse “intelligence” contrived to mute. Thus as disquieting as is the submerged/emergent text, its last sentence affirms the human spirit in all its heterogeneity: “She was quite content lying there, listening to the faint soft hiss of the gas that poured into the room, into her lungs, into her brain, as she drifted off into the dark river” (428).

In this tale of narratorial making, unmaking, and remaking there are unearthed the powerful workings of desire, the story having traced those stages of release that allow its protagonist to be free at last. Yet it is at the greatest of expenses, this freedom. For authorial homicide has occurred; Susan Rawlings is dead, however gently the text swims round her. The second short story under examination—one sharing with “To Room Nineteen” as privileged symbol the room—offers a redeeming rather than promissory note. It represents as well a very different modality of short fiction, hardly a story at all but rather a mediation, a sketch, a sojourn in (rather than voyage to) consciousness—titled, tellingly, “A Room.”

The title—invoking in feminist terms a now irreversible metaphor for physical, psychological, social, and gendered entrapment—recalls what the story will come to revoke. At the text's inauspicious beginning, an unnamed narrator observes: “When I first came into this flat of four small boxlike rooms, the bedroom was painted pale pink, except for the fireplace wall, which had a fanciful pink-and-blue paper” (Stories 276). The opening sentence announces the realist project, its uninflected tone being buttressed by other familiar strategies of realism. Factual detail abounds: for example, information as incidental as the commercial name for a dark purple paint that covers a fireplace's obtrusive bulk, its presence thereby appealing to the readerly wish for stable, predictable fictional worlds.

There is as well the presumed unproblematic matter of narratorial veracity. The narrator's stance as a visual observer and authorial recorder—an eye and an “I”—augments the reader's sense of the room as particular, substantial, real. Made memorable by the recording scrutiny of the narrator are the room's ugly iron fire grate, the grainy lumpy wall beside a bed, blue curtains, plum-colored woodwork, the square solid bronze gas fire that strikes discordant notes. “So the whole wall doesn't work, it fails to come off” (277), the disinterested narrator informs. Discursive commentary continues as the observing “I” annotates the flat's previous inhabitants and describes other occupants of the apartment building. For example, there is the Swedish woman in an identical flat one floor above. “Sometimes, when I sleep in the afternoons, which I do because afternoon sleep is more interesting than night sleep, she takes a nap too. I think of her and of myself lying horizontally above each other, as if we were on two shelves” (278).7 Recorded are the blended sounds of footsteps, quarrelsome voices and rattling cups that drift from the apartment house through the flat's walls; interrogating the room's stillness, they soon become (like Susan Rawlings' green-eyed double) its spectral tenants.

Here, the realist's scrutiny—its fascination with seeing, reporting, supervising, and controlling significant detail—represents not compliance with convention but a witty narrative ploy. Essentially, the subversive strategy furthers the text's intent to have its readers collude in constructing the credible in order to reinforce a jettisoning of realist/materialistic assumptions. Thus the non-naming of the unnamed narrator in the context of a story characterized by reliance on detail dislodges another realist mainstay. Un-named the narrator is not named. Divesting the narrator of all but the first person pronominal identification implies she has neither proprietary nor proprietory name—from the perspective of property as a species of the material order.

Yet the text also proposes that the “I”/eye narrator is an autobiographical projection of the author, the not un-named Doris Lessing: author in/of “A Room” by way of her performance before readers in the character of a writer. “I always drift off to sleep in the afternoons with the interest due to a long journey into the unknown,” records the dream-intent author:

with the interest due to a long journey into the unknown, and the sleep is thin and extraordinary and takes me into regions hard to describe in a waking state. But one afternoon there was no strange journey, nor was there useful information about my work. The sleep was so different from usual that for some time I thought I was awake.


In the text's voyage through thresholds—another journey through the looking glass—is a crossing over into unfamiliar regions whose “facts” are to be placed beside the constraining certitude of the physical world.

As so often in Lessing's longer fiction, the dream state here in “A Room” announces the locus for transpersonal metamorphosis. Brooding on the hideous black iron grate, the writer/narrator experiences herself as a child sitting before a smoking fire; the walls are now unpainted, the room mean with poverty. It is a time of war, and she is desolate with loneliness, the smoke tearing the back of her throat. Just as evanescently as it has appeared, the dream (“or memory—whose?” [279], wonders the writer) recedes. Left is the conviction that the other room exists, “under this room, or beside it, or in it” (279). Frontiers distant from the apparent certitudes of representational scrutiny with which it began, the text settles back into stasis, closing with two questions: “what? And why?” (280).

“To hear,” not “to see,” is the dominant prepositional verb in “A Room,” despite the text's seductive use of the realist project. The frequency with which hearing is used on a level of description and act (by my count seventeen times as compared to seven references to sight) suggests the significance of the attentive listener, not the documenting scrutinizer. Privileged is the passive soft receiver, the “soft dark intelligence” so favored as heroic material in Lessing's novel, The Memoirs of a Survivor. And if “A Room” marks an early critique of the idea of personality as fixed, Memoirs' recasting of the shorter fiction represents a conclusive rebuttal of the realist assumptions in favor of impersonal psychic economies. In the longer fiction another unnamed narrator journeys through dissolving walls to rooms; as these merge and separate, the anonymous voyager overlaps with other selves, merging and separating. Like the land visited by “A Room”'s narrator, the one entered by Memoirs' protagonist hides behind the face of the factual world. Some visited spaces, the benevolent ones, remain empty “impersonal” images of desire while a recurrent “personal” nightmare grows to compelling shape in one overheated, overstuffed Edwardian setting. Entering one room to reshape the past by soothing a miserable child, the narrator instead finds herself experiencing the mother's emotions. The child she finally reaches is not the sad daughter but the oppressive mother, shifted back in time to her own frustrated infancy.

What emerges from the longer fiction is a text that threatens to dismantle itself, so “warring [are its] codes” (Draine 143). Nevertheless, Memoirs (like its germinal story, “A Room”) provokes without pomposity. This cannot be said of Briefing for a Descent into Hell, the many layered novel whose “collage technique of … diary, letter, news report, science fiction speculation, medical dialogue, poetry, stream of consciousness, popular song, interpolated short story and afterward” (Sprague and Tiger 14) orchestrates bombastically a simple theme, one developed economically in what was the novel's donné, “The Temptation of Jack Orkney.” The shorter fiction is a singular example of a capacious plot being foreshortened and a steadfast theme—the temptation to get religion—being relentlessly foregrounded. A conventional chronological narrative marks the slow process undergone by the eponymous protagonist following his father's death, a death which disturbs the middle-aged liberal into questioning all his beliefs. The action culminates in Orkney's awareness of the possibility of an invisible world; the landscape he inhabits at the story's end is analogous to the one visited by the unnamed narrator of “A Room.” Nightly, Orkney enters behind “the face of the sceptical world”; his world of dreams is “another country, lying just behind his daytime one” (Stories 626). Nightly, Orkney voyages through walls and past partitions, and navigates dream-realms as promissory in their libidinal energy as the dark river Susan Rawlings was designated to drift down.

In bringing these three stories to their conclusions, Lessing expands the range of her subversive discourse. Disorderings are not confined to the narrative conventions of the short story. For Lessing also appropriates and reformulates the more massive conventions that have structured Western mythologies for three centuries: the tropes and typologies of realism. Michel Foucault, we recall, suggests that the realistic fiction “forms part of that great system of constraint by which the West compelled the everyday to bring itself into discourse” (Foucault 91).8 His is a claim that Doris Lessing—with her loathing of labels, her distrust of orthodox Western thinking, her increased impatience with the realist enterprise—might well applaud.


  1. Virginia Woolf, “To Roger Fry,” 27 May 1927, The Letters of Virginia Woolf (3: 385).

  2. I am indebted to Mark Seltzer's article, which links characteristic features of the realist's project with late nineteenth-century spy mania in England.

  3. Dee Seligman's “Checklist” compiles items up to 1977. The following have touched on the stories since then: Orphia Jane Allen, Margaret Atack, Linda Susan Beard, Margaret Butcher, Patricia Chafee, Sharon Dean, John Hakac, Claire Hanson, Maurine Magliocco, Harve Matsui, Helen Millar, Virginia Pruitt, and Lorna Sage.

  4. For a discussion of Lessing's speculative fiction see Patrick Parrinder's castigation of the Canopus series: “The author's combination of vitriolic attacks on earthly imperialism with the romantic fantasy of a benevolent and omniscient Empire ‘out there’ in space represents, to my mind, a self-deception which—after a century of science fiction dealing with galactic empires—one can only regret” (924). Katherine Fishburn, on the other hand, argues that Lessing's modifications of realism, fully blown in the five volume Canopus in Argos: Archives series, began with the apocalyptic epilogue to The Four-Gated City (1969), followed by the fabular voyage of Briefing for a Descent into Hell, the dream sequence in The Summer Before the Dark, and the fantasy world of The Memoirs of a Survivor.

  5. Volume Two of the 1978 collection was titled The Temptation of Jack Orkney, similarly valorizing the later period and its narrative modalities.

  6. The pivotal exegesis of madness, female rage, and the Gothic novel appeared in Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar's chapter on Jane Eyre (336-371).

  7. The narrator and her double belong to a large company of doubles in Lessing's fiction. For a discussion of the correlation between doubling strategies and Lessing's concern with fracturing and forming identities, see Claire Sprague's Rereading Doris Lessing.

  8. Mark Seltzer (to whom I am here indebted) uses the Foucault passage—taken from “The Life of Infamous Man”—in a different, but analogous context.

Works Cited

Allen, Orphia Jane. “Interpreting ‘The Sun Between their Feet.’” Doris Lessing Newsletter 5.2 (1981): 1-2.

———. “Structure and Motif in Doris Lessing's A Man and Two Women.Modern Fiction Studies 26 (1980): 63-73.

Atack, Margaret. “Towards a Narrative Analysis of A Man and Two Women.Notebooks/Memoirs/Archives: Reading and Rereading Doris Lessing. Ed. Jenny Taylor. Boston: Routledge, 1985. 135-163.

Beard, Linda Susan. “Doris Lessing: Africa Writer.” When the Drumbeat Changes. Ed. Carolyn A. Parker and H. Wylie. Washington: Three Continents, 1981. 241-260.

Butcher, Margaret K. “‘Two Forks of a Road’: Divergence and Convergence in the Short Stories of Doris Lessing.” Modern Fiction Studies 26 (1980): 55-61.

Chaffee, Patricia. “Spatial Patterns and Closed Groups in Lessing's African Stories.” South Atlantic Review 43.2 (1978): 45-52.

Dean, Sharon. “Marriage, Motherhood and Lessing's ‘To Room Nineteen.’” Doris Lessing Newsletter 5.1 (1981): 1,14.

Draine, Betsy. Substance Under Pressure: Artistic Coherence and Evolving Form in the Novels of Doris Lessing. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1983.

Fishburn, Katherine. The Unexpected Universe of Doris Lessing: A Study in Narrative Technique. Westport: Greenwood, 1985.

Foucault, Michel. Michel Foucault: Power, Truth, Strategy. Eds. Meaghan Morris and Paul Pallon. Sydney: Feral, 1979.

Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Imagination. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979.

Hakac, John. “Budding Profanity in ‘A Sunrise on the Veld.’” Doris Lessing Newsletter 10.1 (1986): 13.

Hanson, Clare. “Free Stories: The Shorter Fiction of Doris Lessing.” Doris Lessing Newsletter 9.1 (1985): 7-8; 14.

———. Short Stories and Short Fictions, 1880-1980. London: Macmillan, 1985.

———. “The Woman Writer as Exile: Gender and Possession in the African Stories of Doris Lessing.” Critical Essays on Doris Lessing. Eds. Claire Sprague and Virginia Tiger. Boston: Hall, 1986. 107-114.

Knapp, Mona. Doris Lessing. New York: Ungar, 1984.

Lessing, Doris. “A Room.” Doris Lessing: Stories. New York: Knopf, 1978. 276-280.

———. The Summer Before the Dark. New York: Knopf, 1975.

———. “The Temptation of Jack Orkney.” Doris Lessing: Stories. New York: Knopf, 1978. 564-626.

———. The Temptation of Jack Orkney. Vol. 2 of Collected Stories. 2 vols. London: Cape, 1978.

———. “To Room Nineteen.” Doris Lessing: Stories. New York: Knopf, 1978. 396-428.

———. To Room Nineteen. Vol. 1 of Collected Stories. 2 vols. London: Cape, 1978.

Magliocco, Maurine. “Doris Lessing's A Man and Two Women: Is It Universal?” Denver Quarterly 17 (1983): 29-39.

Matsui, Harve. “A Personal Observation on ‘The Sun Between their Feet.’” Doris Lessing Newsletter 2.2 (1978): 11.

Millar, Helen J. “Doris Lessing's Short Stories: A Woman's Right to Choose?” Literature in North Queensland 6.1 (1978): 24-38.

———. “Doris Lessing's Short Stories: The Male's Point of View.” Literature in North Queensland 6.2 (1978): 42-52.

Parrinder, Patrick. “Descents into Hell: The Later Novels of Doris Lessing.” Critical Quarterly 22 (1980): 5-25.

Pickering, Jean. “The English Short Story in the Sixties.” The English Short Story: 1945-1980. Ed. Dennis Vannatta. Boston: Hall, 1985. 75-119.

Pruitt, Virginia. “The Crucial Balance: A Theme in Lessing's Short Fiction.” Short Story Fiction 18 (1981): 281-285.

Sage, Lorna. Doris Lessing. London: Methuen, 1985.

Seligman, Dee. “Lessing Short Story Bibliography.” Doris Lessing Newsletter 2.1 (1978): 5.

Seltzer, Mark. “The Princess Casamassima: Realism and the Fantasy of Surveillance.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 35 (1981): 506-534.

Sprague, Claire, and Virginia Tiger. Introduction. Critical Essays on Doris Lessing. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1987.

Sprague, Claire and Virginia Tiger. Introduction. Critical Essays on Doris Lessing. Eds. Claire Sprague and Virginia Tiger. Boston: Hall, 1986. 1-26.

Woolf, Virginia. Letters, 1923-1928. Vol. 3 of The Letters of Virginia Woolf. Eds. Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann. 6 vols. New York: Harcourt, 1977.

Principal Works

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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.

Jean Pickering (essay date 1990)

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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 individual and the collective (by which Lessing means both institutions, like marriage or the educational system, and groups one elects to join, like a sports club or the Communist Party), between black and white, between men and women, between the settler and the land, between role and identity, and between the Freudian “nightmare repetition”1 and the Jungian task of individuation are related themes appearing in both the novel and the stories.2

In the preface to African Stories Lessing says, “When my first novel, The Grass Is Singing, came out, there were few novels about Africa. That book, and my second, This Was the Old Chief's Country, were described by reviewers as about the colour problem … which is not how I see, or saw, them.”3 Now at some remove from the newness of such overt discussion of race relations, it is easier to appreciate the complexity Lessing intended in The Grass Is Singing, which like her later works is a novel resistant to a single interpretation.

At the most obvious level it depicts a complex clash of value systems. Although the white settlers grew up in a class society, which may as in the case of Charlie Slatter still affect their personal relationships, the class attitudes of the collective have simplified into considerations of us, the whites, and them, the blacks. Other class gradations, such as exist in England, fade before this one great chasm. But there is another value system that complicates the issue. In white settler society men outrank women even more than they do at “Home” in middle-class England. Charlie Slatter can make a joke of this situation: “Niggers … keep their own women in the right place.”4 This “natural” relationship of dominant man and submissive woman becomes problematic in this society only when the man is black and the woman white: clearly if the sexes are reversed, there is no difficulty at all. Several of the characters in African Stories have bush wives—Captain Stocker of “The Black Madonna” and Leopard George from the story of that name, for example—without reproach from the collective. In 1978 Michael Thorpe noted that “since 1903 in Rhodesia it has been a criminal offence for a black man and white woman to have sexual intercourse but no such law applies where a white man and a black woman are involved.”56 This law recognizes that the relationship between white woman and black man is a point of tension, a weakness in colonial culture; and because black men rather than black women take jobs as domestic servants, the weak spot in the social system lies within the white man's home. Thus women especially must abide by the “esprit de corps,” a rule that Mary Turner inadvertently violates.

Charlie Slatter, spokesman for the collective, demonstrates how colonialism brutalizes, how easy it is for the oppressed to become the oppressor—a process that by the end of the novel has also overtaken Moses, the Turners' houseboy. Slatter, from the British underclass, a “proper cockney,” an ex-grocer's assistant, dominates his wife and his sons (whom he raises as “gentlemen,” a class of persons he both despises and admires). The complexities of his character are developed at greater length in “Getting Off the Altitude,” where his drive to domination takes sexual expression. His special fear, shared by the entire British community, is that one of them will go under, slide into hopeless poverty, for example, or otherwise demonstrate to the blacks the essential similarity of the races. In The Grass Is Singing only Mary Turner comes close to perceiving this common humanity, and then only in the twisted forms of mental breakdown. Macintosh, the mine owner of The Antheap, is forced to face it directly when Tommy Clarke, the white boy who seems like a son to him, refuses to attend the university unless Macintosh's illegitimate coloured7 son can go as well.

The beginning of The Grass Is Singing invokes the genre of the traditional murder mystery, although it establishes the identity of the murderer in the newspaper item that announces the murder, included as an epigraph to the first chapter. The item also establishes the stereotypic collective response, which is elaborated in the first chapter by an omniscient narrator. The overwhelming question, which the old colonials who have “become used to the country” (22) are determined to ignore, focuses on motivation. The collective here comprises the long-time British settlers, who have rigid codes on which they depend to keep their errant compatriots as well as the natives in line. The negative effect of such a collective on the individual is seen in “The Black Madonna,” where Captain Stocker, who must hide his tears from the nurse, is jeered into silence by his wife, “My little Hitler, … my Storm-trooper.” (AS 18) [African Stories]. This story suggests a positive alternative to the collective in the figure of an Italian painter, whose experiences as soldier and prisoner of war have put him in touch with his feelings. There is no such positive alternative to the rigidity of the collective in The Grass Is Singing, where, when the Turners reject the collective, they both in their different ways slip into alienation and madness.

In the first chapter of the novel Lessing uses Tony Marston, fresh out from England, to pose the questions the collective deliberately ignores. But he focuses on the personal histories of the Turners as though the collective is not implicated in their tragedy. He believes that to understand the murder, “the important thing … [is] to understand the background, the circumstances, the characters of Dick and Mary, the pattern of their lives” (17). The second chapter, switching away from the collective view of chapter 1, begins a chronological account of Mary's life by an omniscient narrator, although, as the narrative progresses, events are increasingly presented from Mary's point of view. This account continues for the next eight chapters, bringing the narrative up to the evening of the day before the murder, at which point there is a return to the collective view of the situation in the Turner household. The novel completes the circle, finally describing the events immediately before the first chapter. This last chapter stays close to Mary's point of view until the machete blow that brings her down, a structure that underscores the sense of inevitable repetition increasingly articulated throughout the novel. The narrative changes to omniscient narration in the last two paragraphs, which are focused on Moses.

The opinion of the collective is that Moses murdered Mary Turner for stereotypical reasons, in the course of a robbery, for example. They interpret it in the context of the master-servant relationship—in short, as a race matter. Early readings of the novel, which emphasized the race question, led to the conclusion that Mary represents the entire white race, or at least the British segment of it. But Lessing has guarded against this simplistic view by making the murder victim a woman. In light of the complexity of Lessing's later works, it seems clear that neither the problem of race nor that of gender can be subordinated to the other: Lessing has not made Mary a woman in order to suggest that, in Moses's dominating her, he represents the superior masculinity of the blacks, even though Tony Marston does believe that one of the foundations of “the colour bar … is the jealousy of the white man for the superior sexual potency of the native” (220). Nor has she made Moses a man in order to suggest that the novel's main focus is female oppression. Rather, it seems that women and blacks are both oppressed by the collective, the dominant white male British culture. Yet, as the adolescent girl of “The Old Chief Mshangla” realizes, to say that “I could not help it. I am also a victim” (AS 56) simply won't do. Further, blaming individual British settlers is too simplistic to explain the case of Dick Turner, a victim if ever there was one, a victim of his bullying father, of his own visionary nature, of his own dreams, his own poor grasp of cause and effect.

Throughout Lessing's African writings the farm that means freedom for a white man—freedom from the life of a clerk, of an employee, freedom from the restrictions of suburban England or from the poverty of the working class—means prison for his wife, even when the farm is successful, as in “The De Wets Come to Kloof Grange” or “Getting Off the Altitude.” Dick's love of the farm means imprisonment for Mary; she realizes that she will never leave, no matter how prosperous the farm becomes. Ironically, Mary's only chance to leave comes too late, when social pressure forces Dick—now poised on the edge of bankruptcy—to sell the farm to Charlie Slatter so that he can take his disturbed wife for an extended holiday. Like Alec, the visionary of “Eldorado,” who begins to believe he can divine gold much as a water diviner detects water, and his wife Maggie, who clings to the idea of education as a way of “getting on,” Dick and Mary Turner each have their conflicting inner worlds, but neither is strong enough either to support or to subsume the other's vision. As Kenneth of “Winter in July” says, “In a marriage it's necessary for one side to be strong enough to create the illusion” (AS 246)—which Maggie, out of a kind of maternal pity, manages to do for Alec. “The Second Hut” posits a situation very similar to that of Dick and Mary Turner. Major Carruthers escaped from the domination of his successful brother in England to a farm in Africa, where every year he and his wife, a middle-class English-woman, slide deeper into poverty. Although he is by no means impervious to his wife's sufferings and the hardships he imposes on his two boys, he resists the knowledge that her illness—physical rather than mental as in Mary Turner's case—would clear up if he left the farm. Both the Carruthers understand their situation; neither is driven by unconscious motivation, and the major foresees the consequences of his choice. Even so, it takes the appalling example of his Boer assistant's careless attitude toward the abject poverty in which he supports a wife and numerous children to make the major write to his brother for help. For Mrs. Carruthers release is the return to England, whereas for Mary Turner it is life in the city of her young womanhood; in both cases freedom is a return to the life before marriage.

The narrator's account of Mary's childhood gives the facts of her psychological development, but their full impact becomes clear only as her situation, increasingly approximating her mother's, reawakens her repressed emotions, which appear in dreams occurring more frequently as she sinks into madness. The seeds of her breakdown were sown years before Dick brings her to the farm. When her breakdown is far advanced, it becomes clear that its roots lie in her childhood experience. As a young woman she represses the memories of traumatic experiences and makes a safe life for herself. She is happy as an efficient secretary, as a valued elder member of the club for unmarried girls where she lives; she has many men friends, with whom she assiduously avoids sexual entanglements. This life is destroyed by the collective insistence on marriage for women. The fragile self she has built disintegrates when she overhears some of her friends criticizing her too-young clothes, laughing because sexuality seems left out of her makeup: “She just isn't like that, isn't like that at all. Something missing somewhere” (39). Because Mary knows so little about herself, what she overhears destroys her self-image, which she is unable to re-create. Instead, the vast hollowness that will later overwhelm her makes its first appearance: “she was hollow inside, empty, and into this emptiness would sweep from nowhere a vast panic, as if there were nothing in the world she could grasp hold of” (43). In this hollow state she becomes oversensitive to what others are thinking and marries Dick out of a desperate need for a husband to release her from the life she has built—a life she later looks back on as ideal.

At first, though frigid with Dick, she is happy enough on the farm, enjoying “putting things to rights and making a little go a long way” (64-65). She desperately tries to make an environment for herself, fixing up the wretched two-room house as comfortably as her small savings allow. Her energy and efficiency alarm Dick, first because he himself lacks these qualities and second because he does not see how she will keep herself occupied. This same efficiency so useful for white-washing walls and running up curtains out of flour sacks makes her relations with successive houseboys hostile. When the heat, beating through the corrugated iron roof, undermines her, she begins to complain in a new voice “taken direct from her mother,” a voice that is not her own but that of “the suffering female” (86). According to Freudian theory, only self-knowledge can prevent the neurotic repetition of an unhealthy family pattern—which knowledge is clearly beyond Mary's capacities. When Dick insists that Mary work in the kaffir store he builds, she recognizes in his plan the repetition of her childhood nightmare; to argue with it would have been like “arguing with destiny itself” (105). The only way she can break the cycle is to run away to the city. As her old boss refuses to give her a job, she returns to the farm with Dick, which binds him “to her in gratitude forever” (117). The emptiness again invading her, she touches the earth to reassure herself that she exists and takes pleasure in shivering when the rains come, an extreme awareness of her environment that returns to her in her last crisis. She tries to face her future with “a tired stoicism” (115) related to her sense of inevitability.

Another disruption comes into their relationship when Dick contracts malaria. Supervising the laborers in his absence, Mary hits a “magnificently built” native across the face with a sjambok. Although she regards the native as “cheeky,” she is as surprised by the blow as he is. His marvelous body, Lessing suggests, both frightens Mary and challenges her to try to dominate him. The fear of his physical power and of her own sexual impulses, combined with her frustration at Dick's inability to run the farm, challenge her to dominate the native.

But her response to the man is not merely personal. Her views on the proper relation of the races are those of the collective extreme: “her greatest anger was directed against the sentimentalists and theoreticians … who interfered with the natural right of a white farmer to treat his labour as he pleased” (136). Dick himself, a far more humane boss than Mary, speaks in much the same terms, though neither is as violent as Charlie Slatter, who was fined thirty pounds for killing one of his laborers in a fit of anger.

The “arid feminism” (33) Mary inherited from her mother has given her a feeling of superiority over men, which she has been unable to sustain since she became dependent on Dick. Only in relationship to black male servants and laborers can she press her will to victory over men in general because, after all, the collective condones it. Her desire to dominate Dick is ambivalent because of collective values; she believes she would respect a man who stood up to her, as the mores of the collective demand. No matter how feeble her husband, no matter how incompetent in comparison with herself, the relationship between them must appear to be based on male dominance: “When she saw him weak and goalless, and pitiful, she hated him, and the hate turned in on herself. She needed a man stronger than herself, and she was trying to create one out of Dick” (145). When the tobacco she bullies him into planting succumbs to drought, she finally collapses into despair, knowing that her life will never change.

For a short time she understands everything about her situation without illusion, “seeing herself and Dick and their relationship to each other and to the farm, and their future, without a shadow of false hope, as honest and stark as the truth itself.” In this mood she recognizes that Dick is a nice man who “did not try to get his own back” (157) when she makes him suffer. She cannot maintain this painful clarity of vision for long and gives way to an inertia so great that if she is thirsty she cannot fetch a glass of water or call the servant to bring one.

This inertia moves rapidly into breakdown under the influence of the Turners' next houseboy. When Dick brings in a field hand to be trained, Mary recognizes the scar across his face. Although she pleads for another boy, Dick insists on Moses, whom she reluctantly accepts. In spite of her efforts to maintain a master-servant relationship, a personal relationship develops, at least in part because she cannot forget the moment of fear after she hit him. This fear is not simply of his “powerful, broad-built body,” not even fear of black men in general, but of unknown Africa itself and, echoing Conrad, the impulses in herself the dark continent represents. In Jungian terms Moses comes to represent her shadow, that part of the unconscious where repressed elements of the personality accumulate.

As her madness progresses, she explicitly equates Moses with the bush. This relationship between the bush and the native is most completely worked out in “The Old Chief Mshlanga,” where the young narrator articulates her fear, calling it the “shapeless menace” (AS 53). She recognizes that what she feels is the terror of isolation, which is clearly Mary's condition. In this context, it is clear why Moses comes to represent all the fears of Mary's life. When she accidentally catches sight of him naked from waist up, she again feels fear and is “jerked clean out of her apathy” (166).

Becoming an automaton, she obsesses on Moses: “the knowledge of that man alone in the house with her lay like a weight at the back of her mind,” which dwindles into “a soft aching blank” (171-72). The only part of it still awake is the one responsive to him. When he wants to leave the farm, she bursts into tears and begs him to stay. Now Moses starts to become a father figure: his voice as he pushes her down onto the bed is “gentle, … almost fatherly.” She dwells on this voice, “firm and kind, like a father commanding her” (175-76). Mary tries to resume her angry tone to Moses, but he does not allow her to depersonalize him in this fashion, insisting that she treat him like a human being. When she refuses to eat, he brings her, unbidden, eggs, tea, jam, with a cup of bush flowers on the tray. His evident desire to please disturbs her, making her feel helplessly in his power; the omniscient narrator explains that she suffers from an unacknowledged, unrecognized “dark attraction” (179). She dreams of him standing over her, “powerful and commanding, yet kind, but forcing her into a position where she had to touch him” (181). She dreams of her own father in a nightmare with the quality of a repressed memory: he holds her face down in his lap with “his small hairy hands,” and his “unwashed masculine smell” makes her feel she is suffocating (190). Moses becomes identified not only with the father function but with her actual father: she joyfully dreams that Dick is dead, that Moses, comforting her protectively, is also “her father menacing and horrible, [touching] her in desire” (192). A sense of fate, of inevitability, connected with the nightmare of repetition that imprisons Mary on the farm in spite of her happy, independent young womanhood in the city overwhelms her: “she felt as if she were in a dark tunnel, nearing something final, something she could not visualize, but which waited for her inexorably, inescapably” (195).

Having brought the reader increasingly closer to Mary's state of mind, both conscious and unconscious, the narrative now reverts to the outside view of the first chapter, and the collective perception resumes. Although Mary never acknowledges a sexual relationship with Moses, the outsiders through whose eyes the action of the penultimate chapter is presented interpret Mary's behavior as sexual. Charlie Slatter is distressed by her disturbed coquetry when, dressed again in girlish clothes, she flirts with him; he is even more distressed when he hears her talk to Moses in the same tone. Marston, the outsider new from England, is amazed when he realizes that Moses dresses and undresses her with an air of “indulgent uxoriousness” (219). She accuses Marston: “It was all right till you came!” (223). Marston sees that nothing he can say will bring her back into the collective frame of mind: “She has forgotten what her own people are like” (221). He cannot know that she has always had trouble with the collective, whose insistence on marriage, combined with her ignorance of her own nature, is largely responsible for her circumstances.

In the last two chapters Mary's reactions, whether seen from without, as in the penultimate, or from within, as in the last, show clear dissociation. Her madness grows both from her years-long repression and from the irreconcilability of her desires. She has internalized the color bar, which makes her desire for Moses inadmissible even to herself; further, she associates him with her father. The two sexual relationships most vehemently forbidden by the collective thus in Mary's mind intersect in Moses.

Her disintegration, the first of many analyses of madness by Lessing, is the most powerful piece of writing in the novel. Her apathy dissipated, Mary runs through a great variety of emotions, becoming aware of the feelings she has repressed. She wakes “vastly peaceful and rested” (224) on what she knows will be her last day. Her complicity in her own death is clear, suggesting a suicidal tendency of which she herself seems unaware. Certainly death seems to be the only possible resolution of her conflicting impulses. She attains a larger vision than she has ever approached before, seeing the farm, “that immensely pitiable thing” (225), from a great distance; her vision extends to the future, in which she sees the house steadily killed by the bush, “which had always hated it” (231). From peace she runs through irritation, joy, panic, hope of rescue, pride, terror, and acceptance. Just as she considered the nightmare of repetition unavoidable in spite of her conscious intentions, so she believes her death inevitable, the logical outcome of her situation.

Like Mary's, Moses's motives are complex, and seem the more so because his mental processes are never directly shown. On the one hand he seems genuinely concerned about Mary when he first insists on a human relationship; on the other, he appears to revel in his mastery over her, even in front of Charlie Slatter, who notices his “conscious power” (208-9). He looks at Tony Marston, the apparent cause of his dismissal and Mary's planned departure, with a most unsubmissive “malevolent glare” (219). The last paragraph suggests revenge on Marston as a possible motive for killing Mary, because Dick “had been defeated long ago” (244). The narrator, however, specifically refuses to name Moses's frame of mind, which may include “thoughts of regret, or pity, or perhaps even wounded human affection” (245). His reactions to Mary have been varied: anger when she strikes him, resentment when she is cross toward him, tender when she is sick, bullying when she, shamed because of the judgments against her by Slatter and Marston, tries to send him away. In speculating upon what Michael Thorpe calls “the incomprehensible workings of the ‘native’ mind,”8 Lessing deliberately avoids tying down the motivation too glibly: she has no aversion to describing the thought processes of Africans, as Hunger demonstrates. Jabavu, the story's central character, has a psychological history as complex as that of Moses, with an equally powerful love-hate relationship to the white man's way of life. She reveals the hungers feeding Jabavu's dreams, however, while Moses's remain hidden. In thus avoiding a total emphasis on cause and effect, a dictum that the murder of Mary is a direct result of social circumstances and deterministic psychology even while she suggests its inevitability, Lessing refuses to blame the collective in order to exonerate the individual. Influenced by the existentialism of the post-World War Two years, she maintains that individuals cannot take refuge in collective judgment but must take responsibility for the conditions of their existence. As Orphia Jane Allen says, for Lessing “the prerequisite … for freedom is the choice of a creative mean between alienation and the mindlessness of the collective.”9 Because she does not understand that “she was made to live, by nature and upbringing, alone and sufficient to herself” (115), Mary, missing the “creative mean” altogether, manages to fall victim to both extremes.

Yet the final chapter indicates that Mary has some insight into the cause of her breakdown. From the beginning, readers have known that spiritual sterility is the main theme of the novel. The epigraph from T. S. Eliot's “The Waste Land,” from which the title is taken, highlights the symbolic relevance of Mary's hatred of the enervating heat, the seasonal dryness that can be alleviated only by the rains. In the last chapter Mary's thoughts become imbued with the language of traditional Christianity: words like vigil, prophecy, evil, innocence, salvation, guilt, and sin appear. This vocabulary should not surprise in view of Mary's and Moses's names. Mary is named after both the virgin and the whore, the mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Moses in murdering Mary suggests a future in which the blacks will oust the whites and regain a land of their own; like the biblical Moses he points toward a promised land that he himself will never enter. Mary's death thus carries both public and private implications of regeneration. Her vision of the bush taking over the house suggests the possibility, fully explored in Briefing for a Descent into Hell and The Golden Notebook, of mental breakdown as a healing mechanism. For Mary her realization is too late, but her perception that the rains will come after her death indicates that she finally understands her sterility of spirit.

This sterility of spirit, however, is not the cause of her breakdown, which is prompted by resistance to self-knowledge. A quick comparison with “Winter in July,” which is also about the evil of spiritual sterility, will clarify the point. Like Mary, Julia has a vision of evil, but at a much earlier stage in her life. It is the word she uses to name rootlessness, impermanence, a life without meaning. Rejecting the vision as “the result of being tired, and nearly thirty,” (AS 221), she marries the elder of two half-brothers, eventually becoming “a kind of high-class concubine to the two of [them]” (AS 245). Like Mary's, her situation has its roots in a childhood trauma, but in Julia's case the trauma is her husband's: “I suppose you must have been very jealous of [Kenneth], that was it, wasn't it?” (AS 233). Tom's real interest is not, like Dick's, the farm, but his half-brother Kenneth; he connives at the relationship between his wife and his brother because he wants to keep Kenneth on the farm. In short, he sells out his wife in much the same way that Dick sells out Mary; both men see their wives as accessories to some other need. Julia resents, much as Mary might if she had the intellectual capacity to phrase it thus, “the way they took their women into their lives, without changing a thought or a habit to meet them” (AS 243). Mary blames Dick's ineptitude and consequent poverty for the failure of their marriage—after all, money was the only thing her parents quarreled about, though they did so frequently. The brother's farm is prosperous to the point of wealth, but the evil recurring at the end of “Winter in July” is the same sterility that Mary recognizes in the last chapter of The Grass Is Singing. Julia is just as emotionally isolated, just as alienated, as Mary. Both women in the moment of crisis have a heightened sensitivity to the African landscape, to which they recognize they are strangers. What saves Julia from breakdown, though not from alienation, is her capacity for self-knowledge. Mary has based her identity on roles assigned by various collectives rather than on her own nature; when the gap between outer and inner becomes too great, she disintegrates into the madness that invites her death.


  1. Lessing, A Proper Marriage (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1962) 337.

  2. For a full discussion of individuation see C. G. Jung, Man and His Symbols (New York: Doubleday, 1964).

  3. Lessing, African Stories (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1965).

  4. Subsequent references to this volume will be noted AS in parentheses.

  5. Lessing, The Grass Is Singing (New York: Crowell, 1950) 19. Subsequent references will be noted in parentheses.

  6. Michael Thorpe, Doris Lessing's Africa (London: Evans Brothers, 1978) 12 n.

  7. Coloured is the southern African word for an individual of mixed racial parentage or an Indian.

  8. Thorpe 14.

  9. Orphia Jane Allen, “Structure and Motif in Doris Lessing's A Man and Two Women,Modern Fiction Studies 26 (Spring 1980): 74.

Stephanie Harvey (essay date 1993)

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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 called the battle between the sexes.1

Doris Lessing's ‘One off the Short List’ and Leo Bellingham's ‘In for the Kill’ are both short stories about a journalist who forces sex on a woman who does not want him and afterwards makes the humiliating discovery that he and his sexual attentions are of minimal importance to the woman's scheme of things.2 Though the subject is what Germaine Greer has characterised as ‘petty rape,’3 in both stories the women, without stooping to conscious retaliation, affirm their moral and intellectual superiority over a cocksure and intellectually manipulative male. Summarised briefly in these terms the two stories may seem rather too similar but the atmosphere, emphasis and handling of the two narratives could not be more disparate. According to an unofficial questionnaire which Leo Bellingham answered in 1987, ‘I read most of Doris Lessing's short stories some years ago. At their best they draw attention to pretty common aspects of human behaviour. She doesn't own a copyright on these aspects even when she got at them first.’4 In the present case, the theme of rape, and the unimpressed behaviour of the victim after the event, may be traced back at least as far as Samuel Richardson's novel Clarissa of 1747-48.5 It is also arguable that much of Bellingham's fiction has a strong autobiographical element: in the questionnaire already referred to he says, ‘I've done most of the things I write about. Or half done them. That's why I want to write about them.’6 It seems therefore that ‘In for the Kill’ owes nothing to ‘One off the Short List,’ except possibly the germ of an idea: certainly there is nothing in the way of verbal or symbolic parallels.

In ‘One off the Short List’ Graham Spence is a radio journalist, a failed writer, ‘a member of that army of people who live by their wits on the fringes of the fine arts’ (‘OOSL,’ p. 8) [‘One off the Short List’]. Barbara Coles is a talented theatrical designer, moderately attractive physically but interesting to Graham Spence mainly because she has ‘an assurance, a carelessness that he recognised as the signature of success’ (‘OOSL,’ p. 8) and because his way of compensating for his failure as an artist is to demonstrate his flair for establishing intellectual rapport with intelligent, successful women: it is a question of ‘an ironical dignity, a proving to himself not only: I can be honest about myself, but also: I have earned the best in that field whenever I want it’ (‘OOSL,’ p. 9). After a successful radio interview in Spence's best manner, he insists on sharing a taxi home with Barbara Coles, invites himself in for coffee, and after failing to make any positive impression on her by his conversation, grabs her when she stands up to show him out. For a while she merely submits passively to his kisses but eventually she agrees to go to bed with him:

His body hove up against hers to start the pressure of a new embrace. Before it could, she said: ‘Oh Lord, no, I'm not going through all that again. Right, then.’

‘What do you mean, right, then?’ he demanded.

She said ‘You're going to sleep with me. OK. Anything rather than go through that again. Shall we get it over with?’

(‘OOSL,’ p. 29)

As they are both aware, he does not really desire her and when they get into bed he loses his erection. Barbara Coles thinks, ‘The only way to get this over with is to make him big again, otherwise I've got to put up with him all night’ (‘OOSL,’ pp. 29-30). She sets to work on him, ‘Like a bored, skilled wife … or like a prostitute’ (‘OOSL,’ p. 30). He ejaculates prematurely and insists on staying the night: ‘He said aloud: “I'm going to have you properly tonight.” She said nothing, lay silent, yawned’ (‘OOSL,’ p. 30). In the morning she rises and dresses before he is awake, but he insists on accompanying her back to the theatre where she is currently engaged on the stage design:

‘I'd prefer to go by myself,’ she remarked. Then she smiled: ‘However, you'll take me. Then you'll make a point of coming right in, so that James and everyone can see—that's what you want to take me for, isn't it?’

(‘OOSL,’ p. 32)

He hates her for seeing through him; and at the theatre nobody is in the least interested by the fact that they are still in company after having left together fourteen hours previously:

He walked off slowly, listening for what might be said. For instance ‘Babs, for God's sake, what are you doing with him?’ or she might say ‘Are you wondering about Graham Spence? Let me explain.’

Graham passed the stage-hands who, he could have sworn, didn't recognise him. Then at last he heard James's voice to Barbara: ‘It's no good, Babs, I know you're enamoured of that particular shade of blue, but do have another look at it, there's a good girl …’

(‘OOSL,’ p. 33)

In Leo Bellingham's ‘In for the Kill,’ Martin Walsh is even less of a literary figure than Graham Spence. He is a reporter on a local newspaper. Jennifer Manley is also a designer, but also at a much less prestigious level than Doris Lessing's Barbara Coles: of West Indian origin she is a partner in a ‘style shop’ in Camden Town, a boutique specialising in Black Consciousness and Black Style: she lives in a council flat and at 22 is only just beginning to make a living wage. Martin Walsh and Jennifer Manley meet at the bus stop at the corner of the street where they both live; later they occasionally run into each other when Jennifer Manley comes home late from work, as she has to pass Walsh's house on the way to the council flats.

Martin Walsh tries to engage Jennifer Manley's interest by talking of doing an article about her, but since her boutique is in a part of London not convered by his local paper this is patently only a chatting-up ploy. (Both stories are set in London and require at least an elementary knowledge of London topography; thus, in ‘One off the Short List,’ when Barbara Coles asks ‘Where do you live?’ Graham Spence answers ‘“Wimbledon.” He lived in fact in Highgate; but she lived in Fulham’ (‘OOSL,’ p. 22). But the implications of such details, though possibly obscure to some readers, can fairly easily be understood, and in ‘In for the Kill’ it is even stated that, ‘One of the reasons why life in London was so fruitfully anonymous was that, even at the hub, it functioned only as a conglomerate of overlapping market towns’ (‘IFK,’ p. 147). As a journalist of the inner-city suburbs, Martin Walsh does not have any complexes about his failure as a literary genius and his marginality to the lives of the true creators; in any case, evidently younger than Doris Lessing's Graham Spence, he is unashamedly hungry for adventure and experience, cynically opportunist but also ‘open and inquisitive, a little bored by life but still eager to be surprised by it’ (‘IFK,’ p. 148). After the first one or two accidental meetings with Jennifer Manley he begins to lie in wait for her ‘on those evenings when he had nothing better to do, when it was not raining and when there was nothing worth seeing on television’ (‘IFK,’ p. 148). When, at their fourth or fifth encounter, he asks Jennifer for a date, she says, ‘I'm not trying to play hard to get but really I'm terribly busy at the moment, I will sometime, but not just right now, right?’ (‘IFK,’ p. 149). The more he sees of her the less interesting he finds her as a person.

If she had any topics of conversation he was unable to discover them. She had left school with one A-level. She never read a book: ‘Don't have time to.’ She was always too busy to go to the cinema. ‘Well, I do go out sometimes.’ ‘Where?’ ‘Well, sometimes I go to a club.’ He scarcely dared ask what kind of a club.

(‘IFK,’ p. 149)

On the other hand he finds himself becoming physically obsessed with her:

Her little bun of hair on top of her head (like a young Sikh male's) … her boyish figure [which] managed to seem leggy even though she was not very tall … under her customary bomber jacket or windcheater all he could detect of her bosom was a suggestion just above the level of her elbows, of convexity rather than concavity. All these details seem to scream out for elucidation. Was her hair naturally kinky and artificially straightened?—did she in fact have it tied up in a bun to straighten it?—did she sleep in the bun?—was her pubic hair straight or kinky?

(‘IFK,’ pp. 149-50)

Finally, after walking her to the entrance of her apartment block ‘for about the twentieth time’ he persuaded her to ask him in for coffee: ‘“It's only instant and I can't let you stay long.”’ Once in the apartment he closes ‘in for the kill,’ taking her in his arms and, ignoring her protests, he ‘progressively divested her, in that order, of her jeans, her panties, her left sock, her T-shirt, her bra and her monthly sanitary towel’ (‘IFK,’ pp. 151-2). After making love she ‘submitted rigidly to a final goodnight grope’ (‘IFK,’ p. 152), and they fall asleep side by side; but when he wakes in the middle of the night he discovers she is no longer in bed beside him:

She was probably in the kitchen, or even worse in the bathroom weeping her guts out, face ugly with tears, mouth ready with accusations, probably with threats. Oh God, he hated scenes.

(‘IFK,’ p. 153)

He searches the flat for her and finally discovers her at her work table, ‘deliciously naked (except for her remaining sock) perched on a chair, bun of hair still perched erect on her head. Not crying at all.’ She is frowning, not with displeasure but with concentration:

There was a pencil in her hand, fresh pencil shavings beside her exercise book.

‘I had an idea,’ she said distantly. ‘I was working.’

‘I thought—’

The pencil, and the dark point of a droopy little caramel-coloured boob, hovered over the exercise book.

‘Go on,’ she said uninterestedly. ‘Go back to bed.’

(‘IFK,’ p. 154)

Both stories deal with exploitative males who are eager to impose their diminishing, degrading view of womankind on individuals in whom they have no genuine interest. The socio-political aspect of macho aggression is, as one might expect, more explicitly stated in the Doris Lessing story, but ‘One off the Short List’ is something more—perhaps one should say less—than the study of the archetypal predatory male in action. Parallel to Lessing's all too plausible man versus woman theme is a less convincingly handled journalist versus genuine artist theme:

He understood that he was not going to make it: that he had become—not a hack, no one could call him that—but a member of that army of people who live by their wits on the fringes of the arts.

(‘OOSL,’ p. 8)

‘I've got to be interviewed,’ she said to the group. ‘Mr Spence is a journalist.’ Graham allowed himself a small smile ironical of the word journalist, but she was not looking at him.

(‘OOSL,’ p. 13)

… in that pub there would be the stage-hands, and probably James, and he'd lose contact with her. He'd become a journalist again.

(‘OOSL,’ p. 15)

This comradeship was extraordinarily pleasant. It was balm to the wound he had not known he carried until that evening when he had had to accept the justice of the word journalist.

(‘OOSL,’ p. 21)

Evidently Graham Spence is forced to make up for the inferiority of his status as a journalist by sleeping with women whose achievement is superior to mere journalism. He resents his exclusion from ‘the democracy of respect for each other's work, a confidence in themselves and in each other’ (‘OOSL,’ p. 13), which he recognises amongst Barbara Coles's colleagues. The limitedness of Graham Spence's psychological horizons and the inescapability of his failure to achieve status as a true artist is underlined by the final sentence of the story:

Luckily he had an excuse not to be home that day, for this evening he had to interview a young man (for television) about his new novel.

(‘OOSL,’ p. 33)

Being for television this interview is of more importance than the interview with Barbara Coles for radio; on the other hand the young man with ‘his new novel’ is simply a reminder of his own former status as a ‘poor youth with a great future as a writer’ (‘OOSL,’ p. 8), back in the days before he became a mere journalist. The problem is that one cannot quite see why a career as a journalist is morally inferior to a career as a stage designer, or why appearing in ‘some interviews in newspapers and on television’ (‘OOSL,’ p. 12) is morally superior to being the regular interviewer. It is not as if, by Doris Lessing's account, Barbara Coles is a particularly interesting stage designer. The backdrop ‘which had a design of blue and green spirals’ (‘OOSL,’ p. 13) and the key role of ‘Steven, the stage-hand’ in criticising and initiating decisions hardly seem in the mainstream tradition of Karl Friedrich Schinkel or Leon Bakst:7 in fact the whole business seems to be largely a matter of choosing cloth, something which men have always tended to leave to women. It is not that the question of Barbara Coles's talent requires amplification in order completely to realise the ‘character’ in the story—the presentation of Barbara Coles is on the whole very effective—but it is necessary to establish the difference between what it is that she has and what it is that Graham Spence represents. But perhaps the point about Graham Spence's sexual quest after successful women is that he needs to revenge himself for any level of achievement by a female. His acceptance of the idea of the natural inferiority of women is almost instinctive. Having attempted to win over Barbara Coles by announcing his intention to ‘get away from that old chestnut: Miss Coles, how extraordinary for a woman to be so versatile in her work,’ he is unable to prevent himself from falling back on exactly that line, till Barbara Coles pulls him up: ‘Do you mind if we get away from all that—my manifold talents, etc …’ (‘OOSL,’ p. 19). And when he sees her work room his first reaction is ‘I wouldn't like it if my wife had a room like this’ (‘OOSL,’ p. 23). Even his notion of ‘The thousand special women,’ chosen according to ‘Whatever it is that makes them outstanding’ (‘OOSL,’ p. 31), seems to have more to do with male ideas of bedworthiness than with genuine achievement by women: the women who have achieved most in the world are usually past the age of being prestigious sexual conquests by the time they have achieved real success status.8 It is the meaninglessness of the concept of ‘the thousand special women’ which provokes Barbara Coles's obscure remark (which gives the title to the story) ‘I hope at least there is a short list you can say I am on, for politeness' sake’ (‘OOSL,’ p. 31). It might even be that the sexual aspect of Graham Spence's competitiveness is only incidental. Only briefly does he experience ‘desire for her, instead of the will to have her’ (‘OOSL,’ p. 28). The reassurance he seeks is essentially not physical, not erotic:

He enjoyed the atmosphere he was able to set up between an intelligent woman and himself: a humorous complicity which had in it much that was unspoken, and which almost made sex irrelevant.

(‘OOSL,’ p. 10)

It was a question of knowing ‘I have earned the best in that field whenever I want it’ (‘OOSL,’ p. 9). It is not the wanting and the getting, but the knowing that he can get if he wants that is important: and this is related in the story to his objective failure to fulfil his original promise as a writer. His preying on women is a compensatory reflex deriving from his unacknowledged self-disgust: but the implication of the story is that if he had not initially deceived himself in his estimate of his own creative potential, neither the self-disgust nor its reflex of sexual predatoriness would have manifested themselves. In the end, therefore, the story dwindles from a parable of the war between the sexes to a more limited study of the neuroses of the failed artist.

There is none of this diversion of focus in ‘In for the Kill.’ Even though Martin Walsh is involved in a much less prestigious form of journalism there is no indication of dissatisfaction with his own journalistic career. It is simply an agreeable way of making a living and has nothing to do with the way he holds his ego together. Not that Martin Walsh's career as a journalist is irrelevant to the story: it provides a neatly economical means of sketching in his character, in place of the five or six pages Doris Lessing principally devotes to explaining the phenomenon of Graham Spence:

Martin Walsh was a journalist on the Hackney Gazette. He had done court reports, he had done flower shows, he had done council politics, he had done cockroaches at the maternity hospital. He had avoided doing sport and scandals in the local constabulary. On the whole he was not a bad journalist, being open and inquisitive, a little bored by life but still eager to be surprised by it. His special qualification for being on the staff of a local paper was that he liked local news and was bored by the kind of people who worked for the big nationals.

(‘IFK,’ p. 148)

If the last sentence in this passage refers to some deep-seated sense of failure and resentment in the professional field, or a disposition to envy success, the issue is not pursued. Nevertheless there is a hint of a certain readiness to make dismissive judgements of other people, singly or en masse, and this does have a role in the story. Graham Spence is not interested in Barbara Coles or her ideas:

The ideas, he thought, were intelligent enough; and he would agree with them, with her, if he believed it mattered a damn one way or another, if any of these enthusiasms mattered a damn.

(‘OOSL,’ p. 20)

For Graham Spence, Barbara Coles is simply one more means of proving a point. Martin Walsh is interested in Jennifer Manley: one has the impression of someone who, with a journalist's instincts and habits, enjoys hanging around, snooping around, pursuing whatever fancy attracts his attention: the problem is that, being fairly experienced in evaluating situations and not having any particular mental block about admitting the truth about himself to himself, he has no difficulty in seeing that, as far as he is concerned, Jennifer Manley is not interesting as a person. She is interesting as a body, as a sex object, as an aesthetic experience divorced from the complications of personality:

… she made him think of fresh breezes, of clear thrilling drafts of sweetly chilled spring water taken on a hot afternoon, pure poignant sensation without consequence or comeback …

(‘IFK,’ p. 149)

He is also interested in her because she is black:

He had never had a coloured girl before. As the Regent d'Orleans is said to have remarked, all cats are grey in the dark, but not all girls were as neatly and exquisitely put together as this one, and her trim muscular body had an additional allure from being associated in his mind with burly West Indian youths attending weight training classes and exercising in Clissold Park, as if keeping themselves in training for the coming race-war …

(‘IFK,’ p. 150)

This is close to being racist, as is:

She was evidently one of the up and coming generation of black businessmen—sorry, business-persons—which seemed to exist mainly in the combined fantasies of liberals and black primary school teachers: the archetypal Miss Young Gifted and Black.

(‘IFK,’ p. 150)

His sexual interest in her has an added piquancy from the colour of her skin: her status as prey, derived from the fact that she is a black woman. Walsh's sexism and his racism are of a piece. Whereas Barbara Coles's alleged talents cut across the simplicity of ‘One off the Short List’'s depiction of sexual exploitation, Jennifer Manley's undoubted blackness, ‘or rather coffee-colouredness’ (‘IFK,’ p. 149), simply emphasises the principle of exploitation which is at stake.9 At the same time, while Doris Lessing fumbles in the attempt to make Barbara Coles's talent convincing, the question of whether Jennifer Manley is really as dim as Martin Walsh assumes is not really at issue: one can accept Martin Walsh's estimate conditionally because he is not, like Graham Spence, trying to prove himself a more considerable person as a person than the woman he is pursuing: he is simply ‘on the look out for a screw’ (‘IFK,’ p. 148).

It is at this point that one confronts the issue of the different genders of the two authors, and their different sexual ideologies. ‘One off the Short List’ is a story by a woman who has written movingly about the psychological moral and sexual exploitation of women by men: this story itself has an important position in her contribution on this theme.10 ‘In for the Kill’ is written by a man who clearly enjoys writing about males pursuing females and who, though clearly very much aware of the exploitative aspect, does not regard this as an axe to grind.11 ‘One off the Short List’ is characteristic of an oeuvre which if anything is over-explicit, even inartistic, in its moral and ideological emphases; ‘In for the Kill’ is no less typical of an oeuvre (admittedly a much smaller one as yet) that is meticulously ambiguous in its revelation of authorial point of view. Even the status of what one might call the key fact in both stories is much more fully elucidated in ‘One off the Short List’:

He let her go, but said: ‘I'm going to sleep with you tonight, you know that, don't you?’

She said: ‘What am I supposed to do? Telephone for the police, or what?’ He was hurt that she still addressed the man who had ground her into sulky apathy; she was not addressing him at all.

She said: ‘Or scream for the neighbours, is that what you want?’

The gold-fringed eyes were almost black, because of the depth of the shadow of boredom over them. She was bored and weary to the point of falling to the floor, he could see that.

(‘OOSL,’ pp. 27-8)

Finally she capitulates: ‘Shall we get it over with?’ (‘OOSL,’ p. 29). Jennifer Manley resists for a shorter period, but never officially capitulates:

… she struggled with decreasing conviction and an increasing solicitude to avoid having her clothes torn as he pulled them off her. ‘Mind my T-shirt—it's a souvenir from St Lucia’ she expostulated, raising sharp-elbowed arms cooperatively, ballerina-like, and even half acknowledging the kiss he gave her mouth as soon as it emerged from the folds of the garment.

(‘IFK,’ p. 152)

As he tries to make love to her, Barbara Coles shrinks from Graham Spence: ‘He saw that she gritted her teeth against his touch’ (‘OOSL,’ p. 29), ‘he could feel the distaste of her flesh for his’ (‘OOSL,’ p. 30). Jennifer Manley is scarcely more enthusiastic, though ‘disposing her arms and legs apparently more out of inexperience than opposition’ (‘IFK,’ p. 152), but the degree of her rejection of Martin Walsh is never as unambiguous as Barbara Coles's repudiation of Graham Spence. If Martin Walsh is a less explicitly dreary specimen than Graham Spence it does not mean that the author portrays him as acting any better, but the author so to speak collaborates in his sexual abuse of Jennifer Manley partly by hinting that she may have been essentially compliant in her submission but also, more importantly, by describing her rape, or seduction, or whatever it is to be called, with enthusiastically graphic flourishes. It is not simply that by comparison with Leo Bellingham, Doris Lessing often seems a grey, colourless, understated prose-stylist. Their points of view are totally different. When Doris Lessing writes:

He lay on his side by her, secretly at work on himself, while he supported himself across her body on his elbow, using his free hand to manipulate her breasts

(‘OOSL,’ p. 29)

whether one thinks of grey prose style, classical restraint, clinical detachment, even hinted disgust, it is indisputable that Doris Lessing does not seem to find the picture she presents titillating. When Leo Bellingham writes of ‘delightful memories of pointy little titties and spread thighs’ and ‘an adorable little bum, each succulent buttock … as rounded and brown as farmhouse eggs, and as smooth, except down where little twists of black hair were to be glimpsed straying back from her pubic fuzz’ (‘IFK,’ p. 152), one supposes that this almost voyeuristic lyricism has the aim of making the narrative seem as sexy as Jennifer Manley seems to Martin Walsh: that is, sexy from an uncompromisingly male, macho, even sexist point of view.12 At the same time the eventual repudiation of Martin Walsh's evaluation of Jennifer Manley is as emphatic as anything in ‘One off the Short List,’ but less heavy-handed. This rejection is highlighted by the insistence right to the very end on Jennifer Manley as a sex-object:

The pencil, and the dark point of a droopy little caramel-coloured boob, hovered over the exercise book.

(‘IFK,’ p. 154)

The final line of the story is deceptively simple: ‘Go on,’ she said uninterestedly, ‘Go back to bed.’ The implications of what has happened have already been accepted even though their consideration in detail has been postponed on account of more important concerns. ‘Bed’ is where they sleep together, make love: the fact that this is their first night together and that he has forced the situation on her is less important, less interesting, than an idea she has had for her work. Yet throughout the story it has never been hinted or assumed that Jennifer Manley's work is of any objective artistic value: rather the opposite. She is presented as a boring and immature young woman pursuing a not untypical inner-city career: far from being interviewed in national newspapers and on television like Barbara Coles, the best she rates is being tempted half-heartedly by a philanderer with the talk of a possible feature in a local paper. Barbara Coles's home has the elegance one expects from the residence of a professional designer, with ‘a little bright, intimate hall,’ and ‘a white door’ leading to ‘a long, very tidy white room’ (‘OOSL,’ p. 23). Jennifer Manley's flat, inherited from parents who have returned to the West Indies, is simply ‘Vintage 1959 Council Flat, with touches of post-Bob Marley teenager, the overall stylistic concept less Upper Neo-Black than Lower Paleo-Inner City Eclectic’ (‘IFK,’ p. 151). Barbara Coles has ‘a table covered with drawings, sketchings, pencils’ and walls concealed by ‘swatches of coloured stuffs’ (‘OOSL,’ p. 23); Jennifer Manley has an angle-poise lamp and an exercise book. But the point is that the quality and importance of Jennifer Manley's work is not at issue: what matters is simply that it is hers, it is what she regards as important in her life, it is an area in which she has chosen to invest her personality. If she is as boring an individual as Martin Walsh is inclined to suppose, it is entirely consistent that her work should be as mediocre as he suspects; but it remains her right, by virtue of her autonomy as an individual, to choose her own order of priorities, her own scale of values, and it is on this subjective scale—irrespective of any supposedly objective assessment of their comparative value as human beings—that Martin Walsh finds himself so shockingly of little account in her eyes. His seduction, or rape, of her is an intrusion in her life that is insufficiently important to derange its rhythm. (The story can also be read as suggesting that their sexual encounter had given her an idea for her work, but even in this reading the idea remains more urgent than the man who was simply the accidental occasion for having it.) If anyone it is Martin Walsh who is thrown off balance:

If it had been up to him he would have sneaked out and left her weeping in the loo or wherever she had hidden herself. But there were those old notions of chivalry: after all, a word or two from him might make her feel better and then he would sneak off. It was mean of her, really: what should have been a pleasant uncomplicated screw was being fouled up: there was always going to be the ugly contracted face and the sense of being (once again) a classic shit and cad superimposed on which should have been delightful memories of pointy little titties and spread thighs.

(‘IFK,’ p. 152)

This provides a build-up sufficient to make the reader surprised that Jennifer Manley is discovered not weeping but working: Martin Walsh's surprise requires no more exposition than the strangled sentence ‘I thought—’; the reader's surprise is transferred to the character and in this process the reader's whole understanding of the point of the story is transformed. It is not a twist in the plot in the classic O. Henry sense: it is an ultimatum to the reader to reassess his moral and aesthetic judgement of what has gone before.

Nevertheless the story in some senses ends in the middle. What does Martin do next? Does Jennifer come back to bed eventually? Do they make love again? Do they part friends? In a way ‘In for the Kill’ is less a complete narrative than a vignette, focusing on one situation in a series of situations.13 The story ends with Martin Walsh experiencing a moment of truth. Perhaps something positive will come of it.

There is no moment of truth at the end of ‘One off the Short List,’ only the preparation of more lies:

Graham left the stage, went past the office where the stage-door man sat reading a newspaper. He looked up, nodded, went back to his paper. Graham went to find a taxi, thinking: I'd better think up something convincing, then I'll telephone my wife.

(OOSL, p. 33)

An unattractive episode is closed: now everyone is in a hurry to forget about it as soon as possible.

But at least Doris Lessing has made her point: or perhaps half-made two separate points. In the end the chief difference between the two stories is that one is trying to make points: the other is simply written with a somewhat elusive point of view, and with a stronger faith in the power of circumstances to speak for themselves. Perhaps a man could not have had the bitterness to write ‘One off the Short List,’ and perhaps a woman would not have had the slyness to write ‘In for the Kill,’ but ultimately it is not gender, or ideology, or underlying preoccupation but two different styles of narrative which distinguish the two stories: not a female writer's narrative manner and a male writer's narrative manner, but simply a point-making manner and a point-hinting manner: the different narrative manners of two very different writers who have happened to illustrate their difference by tackling a similar theme.


  1. This question is handled (from a somewhat different perspective) in two forthcoming articles: A. D. Harvey's ‘Living Together and Writing Apart—Richard Aldington and H. D.’ and Graham Headley's ‘Marrying for Position in Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey.’ The authors dealt with in the latter piece are not of course unrelated but the general theoretical issue is illuminatingly discussed in the introductory section.

    I am grateful to Ludovico Parra, who is currently working on a full-length study of Bellingham, for advice and access to unpublished materials relevant to this essay.

  2. Doris Lessing's ‘One off the Short List’ was originally published in Kenyon Review (1963), 25 (2), 217-44 and appeared in her collection A Man and Two Women (London, 1963). This article quotes page references from the 1965 Granada paperback edition which has been frequently reprinted. The story also appears in Doris Lessing, Stories (New York, 1978) and other collections of twentieth-century short stories, e.g. James H. Pickering (ed.), Fiction 100; an anthology of short stories (London, 1974).

    The following are useful articles on Doris Lessing's short fiction:

    Clare Hanson, ‘Each Other: Images of Otherness in the Short Fiction of Doris Lessing, Jean Rhys and Angela Carter,’ Journal of the Short Story in English (Spring 1988), 10, 67-82.

    Virginia Pruitt, ‘The Crucial Balance: A Theme in Lessing's Short Fiction,’ Studies in Short Fiction (Summer 1981), 18 (3), 281-5.

    Helen J. Millar, ‘Doris Lessing's Short Stories: A Woman's Right to Choose?,’ Literature in North Queensland (1978), 6 (1), 24-38.

    Helen J. Millar, ‘Doris Lessing's Short Stories: the Male's Point of View,’ Literature in North Queensland (1978), 6 (2), 42-52.

    Leo Bellingham's ‘In for the Kill’ was originally published in New Beginning (1986), 5 (2), 147-54, which is the edition quoted in this article; the story has also been published in Italian.

  3. Germaine Greer, The Madwoman's Underclothes: Essays and Occasional Writings 1968-85 (London, 1986), pp. 152-68. ‘Seduction is a four letter word’ at p. 159ff. This essay was first published in Playboy in January 1973.

  4. From a typescript communicated by Ludovico Parra.

  5. Samuel Richardson, Clarissa, 7 vols (London 1747-8), especially vol. 5, letter xlviii.

  6. From a typescript communicated by Ludovico Parra.

  7. Schinkel (1781-1841) is more famous as an architect but also produced some astonishingly romantic stage designs in the 1800s; Bakst (1886-1924) was, amongst other things, the most innovative of the designers working for Diaghilev.

  8. Perhaps one might adduce in this context Catherine the Great at the height of her power, Golda Meir, Margaret Thatcher, or Margaret Mead and Marie Curie. Perhaps significantly, women holding political power are characterised either as totally sexless, even anaphrodisiac (Thatcher) or else as desperate sexual predators (Catherine the Great).

  9. A. D. Harvey, Literature into History (London, 1988), pp. 31-2 discusses, in connection with Richardson's Pamela, the analogous process whereby class oppression fuses with sexual oppression.

  10. Doris Lessing's best-known book, and the classic statement on this topic, is The Golden Notebook which was written during the period which also produced ‘One off the Short List.’ First published in 1962 and reprinted three times during the next decade, The Golden Notebook was issued in a new edition in 1972 and thereafter became a key text in the Women's Movement.

  11. Leo Bellingham's only novel to date, Oxford: the Novel (London, 1981), may even be described as a set of variations on the theme of men pursuing women, though in a couple of chapters the experience is convincingly described from the woman's point of view. See Ludovico Parra, ‘Oxford: the Novel come romanzo storico,’ Annuario dell'Università degli Studi di Bari (1983), 2, 215-38, at pp. 220-2.

    One notes that Thomas Hardy showed himself, from A Pair of Blue Eyes onwards, almost as sensitive as George Eliot to the way in which contemporary society limited women to type-cast roles and psychologically hemmed in their strivings towards selfhood, but that, having completed his classic study of sexual exploitation in Tess of the D'Urbervilles, he went on to produce The Well-Beloved in which, at twenty-year intervals, a man evidently incapable of forming an adult relationship pursues a series of claustrophobic flirtations with girls belonging to three generations of the same family, it being clearly implied that women are only interesting as young girls to be picked up.

  12. Something similar may be seen in Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita (1955), a work which arguably has had considerable influence on Bellingham. Despite his notorious fondness for technicolor prose, and despite the claim made on its first appearance that Lolita was simply pornographic, Nabokov's lyrical descriptions of young girls in his novel have a key function in communicating Humbert's personality and in exposing the novel's theme of lost, displaced or wasted beauty. Note also the use of titillating description (with a more obvious sense of pastiche) in Nabokov's earlier Kamera Obskura (1933), translated by the author as Laughter in the Dark (1938), and his remark in The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941), ‘he used parody as a kind of springboard for leaping into the highest region of serious emotion’ (Penguin, 1964 edn, p. 76). The way in which Nabokov's apparent self-indulgence is always kept in check by an ironic framework is one of the elements of his influence that can be most readily identified in e.g. Oxford: the Novel.

  13. For a discussion of different categories of short narrative, see Johannes Klein, Geschichte der Deutschen Novelle: von Goethe bis zur Gegenwart (Wiesbaden, 1956), pp. 8-27.

Further Reading

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Nordius, Janina. “Teaching Modern Gothic: Discourses in Doris Lessing's ‘To Room Nineteen’.” Moderna Sprak 94, no. 1 (2000): 31-9.

Deems Lessing's “To Room Nineteen” “a modern gothic text which brilliantly illustrates the way discursive structures conspire to imprison the human subject.”

Peterson, Lorna M. “A Case of Chronic Anachronisms: Doris Lessing and the USSR.” In In Pursuit of Doris Lessing, edited by Claire Sprague, pp. 142-57. London: Macmillan, 1990.

Discusses Lessing's perception of the Soviet Union as well as the critical reception of her stories there.

Sprague, Claire, ed. In Pursuit of Doris Lessing: Nine Nations Reading. London: Macmillan, 1990, 163 p.

Critical reception of Lessing's work from around the world.

Additional coverage of Lessing's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: African Writers; British Writers, Vol. 1; Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1960 to Present; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9–12R; Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Vol. 14; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 33, 54, 76; Contemporary British Dramatists; Contemporary Dramatists, Ed. 5; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 6, 10, 15, 22, 40, 94; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Contemporary Women Dramatists; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 15, 139; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook,; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors and Novelists; Exploring Short Stories; Feminist Writers; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 4; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Reference Guide to English Literature, Ed. 2; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers, Ed. 4; Short Stories for Students, Vols. 1, 12; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 6; Twayne's English Authors; World Literature and Its Times, Vols. 2, 4; and World Literature Criticism Supplement.

Lisa Tyler (essay date 1994)

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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 to appreciate Rich's lament, it is necessary to recall the events first described in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, the oldest known version of the myth, which opens with the young Persephone at play with her friends in a flower-filled meadow. When she reaches to pluck an especially beautiful narcissus, the earth opens, and she is abducted and raped by Hades, god of the underworld. Demeter, grieved by her loss, refuses to allow seeds to sprout or plants to grow, and famine threatens humankind. A concerned Zeus—who earlier had given Hades his permission to take Persephone—asks that Persephone be restored to her mother. Hades agrees, but feeds her several pomegranate seeds, thus ensuring that she must return to the underworld to spend part of each year with him. She is then reunited with her mother, and fruitfulness is restored to the earth (Athanassakis 1-16; Foley 1-27).

The myth explains the changing of the seasons—winter returns when Persephone must leave her mother each year—but it also suggests the rich possibilities of the mother-daughter relationship.1 For example, feminist psychoanalytic critic Marilyn Arthur argues that the Demeter myth centers on “the achievement of a successful identification with the mother,” which works in the myth as a “form of female solidarity … whose basis is the special and particular comfort, affection, and general gratification which women are able to offer one another” (31). She suggests that this mother-daughter bond, which is central to the myth, is “a female solidarity which is discovered in the context of a patriarchal world” (30).

Virginia Woolf and Doris Lessing both explore this female solidarity in their revisions of the myth. Both writers were assuredly familiar with the myth, despite their relatively unorthodox educations. Lessing's knowledge of classical mythology is most evident in her novel Briefing for a Descent into Hell, in which the protagonist is a classics professor (Singleton 69). Woolf learned to read Greek so that she, like her male counterparts, could read the classics untranslated; one critic has even suggested that Woolf probably knew more Greek than James Joyce did (Herman 266). She greatly respected classical scholar Jane Harrison, and critics have begun to trace Woolf's use of Harrison's work in her writings.2

Woolf and Lessing use the myth in their fiction to subvert the traditional heterosexual romance plot, essentially by replacing it with the cyclical story of the preoedipal bond, separation, and reunion.3 The conventional expectation for a woman character is that she be involved (often passively) in a heterosexual romance with a man whom she ultimately marries, thus concluding the plot—or, alternately, that she becomes involved in an illicit romance and dies. Examples of the former include Evelina, Jane Eyre, Bleak House, and the novels of Jane Austen; examples of the latter include Wuthering Heights, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, and The Mill on the Floss. Works in which the central character is male sometimes add to the heterosexual romance a search for the father; Great Expectations is perhaps the best example of such a plot. In the works of Woolf and Lessing, however, women characters often specifically reject the romance plot. Mrs. Dalloway, for example, recoils from the excessive intimacy it demands, and the unnamed narrator of Lessing's “Flavours of Exile” retreats from what she perceives as the violence of heterosexuality. And instead of searching for the lost father, these women search for a mother or mother figure from whom they have been separated, often by men.

In fiction by Woolf and Lessing, the mother-daughter relationship is extraordinarily powerful for women and remains powerful for both mothers and daughters long after the daughter reaches adulthood. Perhaps most important, Woolf and Lessing suggest that heterosexual relationships fail many women and that women, unlike men, do not find in heterosexual relationships the emotional closeness and support they need; therefore women often turn (or return) to each other for emotional support (Chodorow 200). As Terence Hewet complains to his fiancée in Virginia Woolf's The Voyage Out, “I don't satisfy you in the way you satisfy me. … You don't want me as I want you—you're always wanting something else” (302).

Rachel's intense longing for her mother—and more generally, for intimate, loving relationships with other women—echoes the longing expressed in the myth. The mother and daughter in the Homeric Hymn experience an intense desire for each other's presence and physical closeness, a desire that today we might term homoerotic. In fact, classicist Helene P. Foley notes that in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, the Greek word used for Persephone's longing for her mother connotes sexual desire (131). A young girl's love for her mother is, of course, not specifically lesbian, but, like the young boy's oedipal love, it encompasses the desire for physical and sexual intimacy as well as the more socially acceptable need for attention, affection, and care.

While not literally “lesbian,” the homoerotic desire described here seems to fit within the “lesbian continuum” Adrienne Rich has proposed, which embraces not just “genital sexual experience with another woman,” but “many more forms of primary intensity between and among women, including the sharing of a rich inner life, the bonding against male tyranny, [and] the giving and receiving of practical support” (Rich, “Compulsory Heterosexuality” 51). Certainly Woolf, who seems to have been a lesbian, has written much more extensively of the mother-daughter romance than has the apparently heterosexual Lessing. Perhaps it is easier for lesbians to see the romance inherent in the mother-daughter relationship. This homoerotic desire makes what might be termed a lesbian reading—a reading alert to the possibilities of homoerotic romance between women—not only possible but necessary for a fuller understanding of the fiction involved.

Those of us who are heterosexual (and perhaps, given the heterosexism of our culture, homosexual readers as well) often have great difficulty even seeing homoerotic romance as a plot. In Mrs. Dalloway, for example, Clarissa is preoccupied with her daughter throughout most of her day; she worries rather more about her than she does about Richard, and indeed, Elizabeth is one of the focal characters of the story—yet Elizabeth's admittedly brief segment, unlike the longer passages centering on Clarissa, Peter, and Septimus, receives remarkably little critical attention. Similarly, Doris Lessing's short story “The De Wets Come to Kloof Grange” has traditionally been discussed in terms of colonialism and culture clash; the mother-daughter romance on which Lessing's story focuses simply becomes invisible. More generally, writers who foreground homoerotic romance between mother and daughter (or between women in general) are liable to see their work dismissed as plotless, trivial, or sentimental. It is, I think, exceedingly difficult for women writers to portray positive mother-daughter relationships without incurring such charges. Louisa May Alcott's Little Women is the most obvious example, but a case could also be made for such disparate works as Enid Bagnold's play The Chalk Garden, Edith Wharton's novella The Old Maid, Amy Tan's novel The Joy Luck Club, and popular films like Beaches, Terms of Endearment, Steel Magnolias, and Fried Green Tomatoes.

Despite our difficulty in perceiving and valuing homoerotic romance between women, we can learn to become better readers. In an essay entitled “‘Women alone stir my imagination’: Reading Virginia Woolf as a Lesbian,” Pamela J. Olano contends that “readers without lesbian experience, but open to lesbian possibilities, can develop the skills needed to read from a lesbian location and thus to open the space into which the lesbian narrative can come” (161). Olano further observes that lesbian narratives are “often expressed in an intertextual code” (162). The myth of Demeter and Persephone, I want to argue, is one such code, and in this essay I want to trace its presence in three novels by Woolf and three short stories by Lessing (with particular attention to “The De Wets Come to Kloof Grange”). I chose these works because each opens with an unresolved mother-daughter romance and each manifests several, if not all, of the motifs of the myth: the lyrically beautiful celebration of the mother-daughter relationship, the abrupt and often violent break with the mother and consequent grief of both women, the daughter's frightening confrontation with a violent heterosexuality which she experiences as a rape, and the desire for (if not necessarily the achievement of) a mother-daughter reconciliation. In several of the works I will discuss, either gardens or floral images play an important symbolic role, metaphorically representing the lost unity, the joy of reunion, or both.

Identifying those motifs helps us to trace in all of these works the often implicit or palimpsestic plots of homoerotic romance and the daughter's search for the mother that might otherwise be hidden from readers accustomed to plots centering on heterosexual romance and the son's search for the father. These writers' use of myth to inform their works also gives a depth and resonance to plots that readers operating on heterosexist assumptions might otherwise all too easily dismiss—as for example, with the initially slight-seeming short story, “Among the Roses,” in Lessing's latest collection, The Real Thing.

Neither of these writers is sentimental about the possibilities of homoerotic romance in a male-dominated society; both writers recognize that women cannot always offer each other the support they need. Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse, for example, does not support Lily's desire to become an artist, presumably because she considers marriage a safer alternative, and Helen Ambrose insensitively dismisses Rachel's reaction to the kiss that Richard Dalloway forces on her. Mothers and daughters (both biological and surrogate) often prefer men to each other, for sexual, social, pragmatic, economic, or personal reasons. Again, Mrs. Ramsay is the supreme example, valuing her husband more than Lily and her sons more than her daughters. The mother-daughter romance falters, at times, because women are taught not to value each other. As Susan Gubar explains, “the grievous separation of mother and maiden implies that in a patriarchal society women are divided from each other and from themselves” (305).

Woolf clearly acknowledged this separation in her work, often by making her female protagonists motherless. Woolf's own experiences resonate throughout her work; she had a particularly troubled family, and her introduction into heterosexuality was even harsher than Persephone's. Virginia Woolf lost her mother when she was thirteen and her older half sister when she was fifteen. She was molested by one of her half brothers when she was six and by the other after their mother died.4 As a teenage girl, she must have felt much like Persephone, trapped in an underworld where she was repeatedly raped; unlike Persephone, she had no mother to save her. Only gradually did she find other women who could mother her and, if not undo her abuse, at least help her to overcome it—including her sister, Vanessa; a number of important women friends; and her lesbian lover, Vita Sackville-West.5

Not surprisingly, then, given her own experiences, Woolf seems in her first novel to be particularly preoccupied with one of the myth's three elements, the daughter's separation from the mother and her induction into the underworld of violent heterosexuality. That novel, The Voyage Out, is arguably her most overtly autobiographical.6

The Voyage Out opens with a mother, Helen, grieving at her separation from her children (9-11); another mother, Clarissa Dalloway, later expresses the same sorrow (56). Ironically, both of these women have voluntarily left their children at the behest of their respective husbands. Thus Woolf simultaneously attributes the separation of mother and children to the father and criticizes the mother's compliance with the father's wishes—perhaps because of her own anger that her mother had literally (in Woolf's mind, at least) worked herself to death in service to the men in the family.

The novel's protagonist, Rachel, is a Persephone-like figure, young, unformed, passive, innocent, and completely ignorant of sex (VO 96). Helen mentally compares her to a six-year-old and sees her as a victim (25, 37). Evelyn Murgatroyd tells Rachel she looks as though she had “lived all [her] life in a garden” (248), an image reminiscent of the meadow of flowers from which Persephone is abducted.

Masculinity and heterosexuality are associated with violence throughout the novel (DeSalvo, First 61), just as they are in the Homeric Hymn. Rachel exclaims that “men are brutes” (VO 82), and Hewet says that the ordinary man is a bully (212). Helen suspects Rachel's father “of nameless atrocities with regard to his daughter” (24). Certainly he hits her (28). Richard becomes a metaphoric rapist when he abruptly kisses Rachel (76); the event is rapidly followed by the image of “withered rose-leaves” (79).7 That rape is echoed: Evelyn Murgatroyd is seized and kissed by Sinclair, and she condemns men as cowardly, undignified beasts (246-47). When Hewet and Rachel stumble across Arthur and Susan making love, Susan looks “not altogether conscious,” and they cannot tell “whether she was happy, or had suffered something” (140). Not surprisingly, Rachel thinks of love as an assault (Apter 17).

Marriage is consistently portrayed in negative terms (VO 241-42). Rachel herself advocates separatism, complaining that the sexes bring out the worst in each other (156). Terence Hewet, who is to induct Rachel permanently into the underworld of heterosexuality, is compared to a god (224), thus linking him to Hades, the god who abducts Persephone. Like the other representatives of heterosexuality in this novel, Terence seems to consider violence inherent to sexual relations. Earlier, fearing he had misplaced a book borrowed from Hirst, he had compared himself to a murderer of children (143)—an ominous suggestion given the comparison of Rachel to a six-year-old. He later shakes a fist at her and scuffles with her until he throws her to the floor, ripping her dress in the process (298).

Rachel herself is torn between Helen, her surrogate mother, and Terence, her fiance (311); she is, therefore, not unlike Persephone, who is torn between Demeter and Hades. Rachel is clearly frightened by what she perceives as the violence of heterosexuality (Naremore 49), but the possibility of lesbian sexuality with Helen seems violent, too;8 Helen more or less knocks her down to roll in the grass with her (283). Moreover, Helen's abandonment of her own children for no apparent reason does not bode well for her protection of Rachel (DeSalvo, First 37, 39); nor does her laughing dismissal of Richard Dalloway's kiss (VO 80). Rachel says of the dance, “This is my idea of hell”—but Helen enjoys dancing. Helen is unwaveringly loyal to heterosexuality, the pairing off that the dancing virtually parodies (152, 159). As Louise DeSalvo notes (First 57), Helen does not protect Rachel so much as threaten her.

Rachel dies because she has no mother to protect her from male brutality and abuse. Richard Dalloway can seize her and kiss her and blame her for tempting him, and neither Helen nor Clarissa will stop him. More seriously, the women around Rachel do not dissuade her from marriage, as she seems, unconsciously, to want them to do; instead they encourage her engagement. Rachel wants Helen to love her enough to save her from rape. That is what Hirst implies when he counsels Hewet against “[p]utting virgins among matrons” on their expedition (110); matrons might defend the virgins from the men. But Helen will not defend her from the depredations of men. Rachel is unable to find a Demeter, a satisfactory surrogate mother to protect her from male sexuality, and flowers, which traditionally symbolize the reunion of mother and daughter in the myth, simply remind Rachel of death (35). She therefore escapes the dangers of heterosexuality by dying (DeSalvo, First 94-95), even as she enacts her own loving return to Theresa, her dead mother.9 And in Rachel's death, unlike Persephone's, rebirth seems impossible (Fleishman 21). Woolf's divergence from the myth here disappoints readers' expectations and emphasizes Rachel's vulnerability and despair.

If Rachel consummates her mother-daughter romance in death, Lily Briscoe of Woolf's novel To the Lighthouse is similarly tempted but ultimately resists such a consummation, preferring instead a purely imaginative reunion with Mrs. Ramsay. Lily, whose very name is a flower, is a Persephone figure, virginal and small (77, 156). She is compared to “corn under a wind” (130), and, Mrs. Ramsay thinks to herself, she “is so fond of flowers” (156). The younger woman seeks the kind of preoedipal unity with Mrs. Ramsay that an infant shares with its mother (79).

Mrs. Ramsay is clearly a goddess figure, “[w]ith stars in her eyes and veils in her hair, with cyclamen and wild violets … [s]tepping through fields of flowers” (25).10 She feels that she becomes one with trees, streams, and flowers (97), and she reminds others of Greek temples (291). Woolf describes her as “very clearly Greek, straight, blue-eyed” (47), and like Demeter, the august Mrs. Ramsay presides over a “sanctuary” and preserves “some secret which certainly Lily Briscoe believed people must have for the world to go on at all” (78). When the regal mother of eight goes to join her guests at dinner, “like some queen” she “looks down upon them, and descends among them, and acknowledges their tributes silently, and accepts their devotion and prostration before her” (124)—much as the Greek goddess might have responded to those who worshipped her. The dinner party itself, like the Eleusinian mysteries celebrated in Demeter's name, is a kind of fertility rite at which the newly engaged couple “must be danced round with mockery, decorated with garlands” (151). Mrs. Ramsay and her guests are “celebrating a festival” (151) complete with “olives and oil and juice” (150), and in a particularly nice pun, the hostess is described as having “led her victims to the altar” (153).

In this novel, as in The Voyage Out, masculinity is once again associated with violence. Jasper is shooting birds (TL 41). James contemplates murdering his father (10), and his father, in turn, torments him with a weed (49-50).11 Mr. Ramsay is moreover perpetually reciting lines from Tennyson's “Charge of the Light Brigade,” a poem commemorating a particularly bloody (and futile) battle (29, 31, 49). His very presence is apocalyptic: “Every time he approached—he was walking up and down the terrace—ruin approached, chaos approached” (221).

And once again, heterosexuality is unpleasant, at best; when Andrew and Nancy accidentally come upon Paul and Minta kissing, they recoil in disgust (115-16). Lily believes that the worst human relations “were between men and women” (139) because love inexplicably transforms lovely young men into bullies (154). She later tells herself, “she need not marry, thank Heaven: she need not undergo that degradation” (154). Prue Ramsay's marriage is fatal (198-99), and Lily thinks of Prue's death in terms that rather pointedly recall the myth: “She let her flowers fall from her basket, scattered and tumbled them on to the grass and, reluctantly and hesitatingly, … went too” (299).

In this revision of the myth, it is Demeter, and not Persephone, who undergoes the (metaphoric) rape, which occurs when Mr. Ramsay ruthlessly insists that his wife fulfill his outrageous need for sympathy and support (Rosenman 96): “into this delicious fecundity, this fountain and spray of life, the fatal sterility of the male plunged itself, like a beak of brass, barren and bare” (TL 58). And it is the Demeter figure of Mrs. Ramsay, rather than the Persephone figure of Lily, who dies. Without Mrs. Ramsay, Lily thinks, the world is no longer fruitful: “It was all dry: all withered: all spent” (224). In the daughter's search for the mother, she has no torch, only “matches struck unexpectedly in the dark” (240). She grieves extravagantly for her loss: “And then to want and not to have—to want and want—how that wrung the heart, and wrung it again and again!” (266). When Lily does imaginatively envision Mrs. Ramsay's return, she sees her wearing a wreath of white flowers, returning through purple fields of lilies or hyacinths (269-70)—much as if the maternal figure had metamorphosed, through Lily's resurrection of her, into a Persephone yet unmolested by men.

Mrs. Ramsay cannot help Lily escape heterosexuality; on the contrary, helplessly implicated within it herself (Rosenman 95), Mrs. Ramsay encourages Lily to marry (Heilbrun 137). Her power, like Demeter's, is severely circumscribed by the patriarchal society in which she lives; in that society, marriage is perceived as a woman's only protection from rape, and even that protection is hardly secure, as Mrs. Ramsay's metaphoric rape by her husband makes clear. In such a society, women like Lily who do not wish to marry must remain alone and at risk; only in Mrs. Dalloway was Woolf openly able to suggest another alternative.

Lily Briscoe is a “woman seeking intimacy with another woman, not her mother but toward whom she turns those passionate longings” (Rich, Of Woman Born 228). Unlike Rachel, she is able to survive only because she is neither impelled into heterosexuality nor imperiled by men's violent sexual advances; like Rachel, she values her relationships with women (and especially her relationship with the dead maternal figure) more than her relationships with men. But it is in Mrs. Dalloway, “Woolf's most overt celebration of lesbian sexuality” (Cramer 178), that Woolf is able to envision a daughter's successful reconciliation with a living mother.12

In this novel, it is Clarissa who is Demeter, goddess of vegetation. She is associated with flowers from the opening sentence, and flowers are specifically and repeatedly associated with motherhood throughout the novel.13 Clarissa notes, for example, during her morning excursion, that “June had drawn out every leaf on the trees. The mothers of Pimlico gave suck to their young” (9). Clarissa's former suitor, Peter, in thinking of her, comments to himself, “She enjoyed practically everything. If you walked with her in Hyde Park now it was a bed of tulips, now a child in a perambulator …” (118). The parallel structure links flowers to maternity, just as later, at Clarissa's party, Sally Seton, the girlfriend of Clarissa's youth, is remarkable both for her five sons and for her conservatories (286). Perhaps most telling of all is the only moment in the novel in which Clarissa's own mother is mentioned: She is recalled “walking in a garden” (267).

Like Mrs. Ramsay, Clarissa, too, is compared to a goddess (MD 43). Peter, in telling Clarissa he is in love, speaks “not to her however, but to some one raised up in the dark so that you could not touch her but must lay your garland down on the grass in the dark” (66). And Clarissa's command to “Remember my party to-night!” (72) recalls Demeter's command in the Homeric Hymn that the people of Eleusis celebrate rites to propitiate her (Athanassakis lines 273-74).

If Clarissa is a Demeter figure, then Elizabeth, her daughter, is assuredly a Persephone. Like Helen Ambrose contemplating Rachel in The Voyage Out, Clarissa, in thinking of her daughter, above all stresses her youth and inexperience: “In many ways, her mother felt, she was extremely immature, like a child still, attached to dolls, to old slippers, a perfect baby; and that was charming” (MD 209). Elizabeth reminds people of the flowers, water, and springtime associated with the young maiden of the myth (186, 204, 205, 287, 294). Like Persephone, she tends to be passive (204).

Doris Kilman is the Hades figure in Woolf's revision of the myth; she tries to take Clarissa's daughter away from her. Her very name suggests violence, death, and perhaps masculinity, as well. Clarissa pronounces her a denizen of the underworld, “one of those spectres with which one battles in the night; one of those spectres who stand astride us and suck up half our life-blood, dominators and tyrants” (16-17). She later thinks of her in terms of Victorian melodrama: She is “Elizabeth's seducer, the woman who had crept in to steal and defile” (266).

Unlike Helen Ambrose and Mrs. Ramsay, whose first allegiance is always to their husbands, Clarissa, like her daughter, sees her relationships with women as emotionally primary. Although she apparently loves her husband and enjoys seeing her old flame Peter once again, she spends most of her day contemplating her connection to two women—mourning the loss of her intensely intimate relationship with Sally Seton, and longing to repair her troubled relationship with her daughter Elizabeth. Psychoanalytic critic Elizabeth Abel sees in this novel a palimpsestic plot that further underlines the novel's association with the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. She describes Clarissa's reminiscences as “Woolf's subversive account of the force required to break the daughter's attachment to her mother” (144 n.4). Sally is a maternal figure for Clarissa despite their closeness in age, much as Virginia's sister Vanessa seems to have been for Virginia. Abel suggests that Peter's intrusion into what Clarissa calls “the most exquisite moment of her whole life” (MD 32), the moment when Sally Seton kisses her, “suggests a revised Oedipal configuration: the jealous male attempting to rupture the exclusive female bond, insisting on the transference of attachment to the man, demanding heterosexuality” (Abel 32-33). Clarissa certainly describes his intrusion in violent terms that recall both Richard Dalloway's kiss in The Voyage Out and Mr. Ramsay's demands in To the Lighthouse: “It was like running one's face against a granite wall in the darkness! … She felt only how Sally was being mauled already, maltreated; she felt his hostility, his jealousy, his determination to break into their companionship” (53). Peter thus becomes a Hades figure, violently intervening in a mother-daughter romance. In an earlier manuscript, Woolf was even more explicit: Peter asks Clarissa outright, “Why didn't you marry me?” and Elizabeth walks into the room, almost as if in answer to Peter's question (Charles G. Hoffman 182).

Woolf links Peter more explicitly to Hades later, when she shows us Peter envisioning himself as “a romantic buccaneer” (MD 80); it is hardly coincidental that Demeter says that she was attacked by what some translations term “pirates” (Foley 8, line 24). As Makiko Minow-Pinkney notes (68), Peter even enacts a symbolic rape of Clarissa by “tilting his pen-knife towards her green dress” (MD 60). No wonder, then, that Clarissa and Sally share Demeter's (and Rachel Vinrace's, and Lily Briscoe's) apocalyptic view of heterosexuality: “they spoke of marriage always as a catastrophe” (50).

During her party, Clarissa vicariously dies when she learns of Septimus's death, and her return to her party constitutes a rebirth. And it is at the party that the daughter is returned to the mother. Woolf openly equates the daughter's decision to attend her mother's party with Persephone's return to Olympus; when she turns toward home, the clouds Elizabeth sees “had all the appearance of settled habitations assembled for the conference of gods above the world” (210). Only when Woolf imagines, in Clarissa, a mother who can put her ties to women above a heterosexual relationship, can she envision a successful (if not altogether rapturous) mother-daughter reunion.

Unlike Woolf, Doris Lessing is not known for her portrayals of loving mothers and daughters. It was, after all, her fiction which inspired Lynn Sukenick to coin the term “matrophobia,” defined as a woman's fear of becoming her own mother (519). Lessing's two best-known works are The Golden Notebook and her Children of Violence series; in the former, the protagonist's mother is barely mentioned, and in the latter, the protagonist's mother remains a lifelong enemy with whom she is never satisfactorily reconciled. There is some evidence, however, that Lessing's focus has since changed; in her Diaries of Jane Somers, she presents a moving mother-daughter relationship, although, as is typical of women in such positive relationships in Lessing's work, the two are not biologically related. Her most recent collection, The Real Thing, seems obsessed with maternity, including among its protagonists the teen mother in the opening story, two middle-aged mothers of adult daughters, a mother on government aid, the title character of “The Mother of the Child in Question,” and patients in the “Womb Ward.” Even the title of the collection's title story arguably refers to shared parental love and the precedence it takes over romantic love.

While the mother-daughter relationships in Lessing's novels have been analyzed and discussed, those in her short stories have largely been neglected.14 One of the most intriguing is that presented in “The De Wets Come to Kloof Grange,” in which an Englishman hires a new assistant, an Afrikaner whose wife finds adjustment to the isolation of the veld difficult. The story's central (and focal) character, Mrs. Gale, is a Demeter figure. She is associated with the corn; her husband describes her as “an elderly Englishwoman, as thin and dry as a stalk of maize in September” and observes that she has “small flower-blue eyes” (106). But unlike Woolf's mothers, she rejects her archetypal role, brushing off the beauty of Africa's vegetation with the one-word complaint, “Mosquitoes!” (103) and “impatiently” tending her torch-like “lamp, which did not burn well” (104).

Her reactions foreshadow her failure to respond to the Persephone-like Mrs. De Wet, who is so young that Mrs. Gale initially mistakes her for Jack De Wet's child rather than his wife (112). The girl—as the narrator calls her—wears flowered dresses (114, 116) and is later compared to “a queen who has been insulted” (123).

While Mrs. De Wet is not, like Persephone, abducted and raped, her life changes nearly as abruptly, as she confesses to Mrs. Gale: “He met me in a cinema and we got married next day” (112). Mr. De Wet is a Hades figure who physically abuses his young wife (114, 126). He brings her down to an underworld home, a house of death: “It looked dead, a dead thing with staring eyes, with those blank windows gleaming pallidly back at the moon” (108). And like Persephone, this girl, too, grieves for her loss—a loss which Mrs. Gale herself has experienced and which the older woman belatedly realizes she could have done much to mitigate:

“… I am so lonely. I wanted to get my mother up to stay with me, only Jack said there wasn't room, and he's quite right, only I got mad, because I thought he might at least have had my mother …”

Mrs. Gale felt guilt like a sword: she could have filled the place of this child's mother.


That the older woman has shared this experience is clear. Mrs. De Wet speaks to Mrs. Gale, at least initially, “as one girl to another” (113), telling her of late-night walks. Mrs. Gale remembers similar experiences in an acrimonious conversation with Major Gale: “‘Tell that fine young man that his wife often goes for long walks by herself when he's asleep. He probably hasn't noticed it.’ Here she gave a deadly look at her husband. ‘Just as I used to,’ she could not prevent herself adding” (123). Mrs. Gale also recalls staying up late trying to undo her own separation from all she had loved: “writing letters, reading old ones, thinking of her friends and of herself as a young girl” (118). Her letters to and from her old friend Betty help her preserve this sense of herself as a Persephone who “came to exile in Southern Rhodesia” (104).15

If the young Mrs. Gale was not exactly raped, neither was she an entirely willing sexual partner: “What a relief when he no longer ‘loved’ her! (That was how she put it.) Ah, that ‘love’—she thought of it with a small humorous distaste. Growing old had its advantages” (106). She later remembers getting up to read letters “in the early days after her husband had finished his brief and apologetic embraces” (118).

Upon her arrival, she changed the farm's name from Kloof Nek to Kloof Grange, to remind her of home (107), and even her furniture suggests her nostalgia: “Africa and the English eighteenth century mingled in this room and were at peace” (104). But Mrs. Gale has overcome much of her initial loneliness, as the peace of the schizophrenically furnished room perhaps implies. It is her husband, Major Gale, who makes the most explicit reference to the myth, telling her, “You always complain I bury you alive” (105). Ironically, it is in response to his comment that Mrs. Gale most clearly acknowledges her change of heart: “In fact, she had learned to love her isolation, and she felt aggrieved that he did not know it” (107).

Although she plans to do well by her new neighbor-woman, this Demeter is unwilling or unable to rescue Persephone. Mrs. Gale is cold and critical (115). She repeatedly experiences anger at Mrs. De Wet's situation (115, 122, 123, 125, 127), but her anger lacks the efficacy of Demeter's. Young Mrs. De Wet waits expectantly for her rescue, alternating between “bright chatter” and “polite silences full of attention to what she seemed to hope Mrs. Gale might say” (119). But the older woman has nothing new to tell her: “Mrs. Gale was saying silently under breath, with ironical pity, in which there was also cruelty: You'll get used to it, my dear; you'll get used to it” (121). She openly rejects the girl's mute appeals; the girl backs away from her husband and “reache[s] for the older woman's hand,” but Mrs. Gale does not respond—“this was going too far” (113). The older woman recognizes her failure, “[b]ut she felt more comfortable with the distance between them, she couldn't deny it” (119).

She offers to show Mrs. De Wet her lavish garden, believing that it will have a salutary effect (119). It is there that the older woman finds consolation, but the girl does not share her response to the greenery; this Demeter has failed to rescue her daughter from the underworld, and the long-sought-for reunion of mother and daughter does not take place. As she leaves, Mrs. De Wet “lag[s] up the path behind her husband like a sulky small girl, pulling at Mrs. Gale's beloved roses and scattering crimson petals everywhere” (121).

When the girl inexplicably disappears, Mrs. Gale responds much as Demeter did; she, too, begins to destroy vegetation, in a way that underscores her similarity to Mrs. De Wet: “… [Mrs. Gale] was walking crazily up and down her garden through the bushes, tearing blossoms and foliage to pieces in trembling fingers” (125). She refuses to sleep or eat or even sit down (126).

In the final moments of the story, when she belatedly attempts to take the side of the abused wife against her violent and insensitive husband, Mrs. Gale's failure becomes brutally clear: “Mrs. De Wet heaved herself off the floor, rushed on Mrs. Gale, pulled her back so that she nearly lost balance, and then flung herself on her husband. ‘Jack,’ she said, clinging to him desperately, ‘I am so sorry, I am so sorry, Jack’” (127). Abandoned by Demeter, this Persephone has chosen to love her abductor; in this, she is more like Mrs. Gale than either woman recognizes.

Nancy Chodorow notes that men are often unwilling or unable to provide the intensely close personal relationships that women need (203). Women therefore try to recreate the closeness they experienced with their mothers in one of two chief ways. First, they try to build relationships with other women, but given Western society's homophobia, they frequently find intimate relationships with women outside the family difficult to achieve. The second way in which women try to recreate these bonds, according to Chodorow, is by giving birth themselves and thus reexperiencing the closeness of the mother-child bond through their relationships with their own children (200-1).

In attempting to reassure the hysterical Mrs. De Wet, Mrs. Gale recalls her initial sense of isolation and thinks, “But that was before she had her first child. She thought: This girl should have a baby; and could not help glancing downwards at her stomach”; Mrs. De Wet “said resentfully: ‘Jack says I should have a baby. That's all he says’” (118). Clearly, both Mrs. Gale and Mr. De Wet are simultaneously correct and culpable; a child would probably help the girl by giving her the closeness she craves—but so could either her husband or the only woman available to befriend her. Mrs. Gale later realizes that advising the girl to have a child amounts to acknowledging the impossibility of intimate heterosexual relationships (Budhos 39). Mrs. Gale responds to Mr. De Wet with anger; “‘You don't realize,’ said Mrs. Gale futilely, knowing perfectly there was nothing he could do about it. ‘You don't understand how it is’” (“DW” 122) [“The De Wets Come to Kloof Grange”]. “There's more to women than having children,” she later contends (123). But part of her anger is, or should be, at herself, for failing the girl as much as the girl's husband has. Like Helen Ambrose and Mrs. Ramsay, Mrs. Gale is too deeply committed to heterosexuality to acknowledge its failures—or to feel comfortable with the younger woman's homoerotic desire for her love. In their initial meeting, the girl tells Mrs. Gale how she and her husband had met: “It seemed as if she were in some way offering herself to the older woman, offering something precious of herself” (112). It is Mrs. Gale's failure to accept this offering, to respond to a woman in need, that drives Mrs. De Wet to behave as she does.

If Doris Lessing is skeptical about the possibility of close relationships among women, she is even less sanguine about the possibility of creating and maintaining a deep affective relationship with men, as she demonstrates vividly and lyrically in her short story “Flavours of Exile.” “Flavours of Exile” simultaneously makes the most overt reference to the Demeter-Persephone myth and—superficially at least—seems of these three stories to be the one least concerned with mother-daughter relationships. In the story, a young girl, enamored of a boy at a neighboring farm, waits for a pomegranate on her mother's tree to ripen and then tries to show it to the boy who is the object of her love. Disgusted, he picks up a stick and brutally smashes the fruit.

The pomegranate, with which the girl identifies, is surely an allusion to the myth, and William's act of brutality is a symbolic rape (Allen 8). The story's narrator uses sensual imagery to link the classical myth of Demeter and Persephone with both the Biblical poetry of the Song of Songs and the modernist poetry of W. B. Yeats, as I have elsewhere argued (Tyler, “Classical”). The story contrasts the female narrator's sensuality with her young friend William's savagery, echoing the contrast in the myth between the idyllic unity of the mother-daughter relationship and the harshly uncaring coercion of Hades' rape. Like Rachel in Woolf's The Voyage Out, the unnamed protagonist of Lessing's story seems trapped; compelled into heterosexuality by society, she is nonetheless frightened and repulsed by the violence that, in this story at least, seems to be inherent in masculine sexuality.

Like Woolf, who began rather bleakly, but later, in Mrs. Dalloway especially, became tentatively confident about the possibilities for women's relationships with each other, Lessing has written most optimistically about the mother-daughter relationships in one of her most recent stories, “Among the Roses.”16 In this story, which appeared in Ladies' Home Journal before it was published in the collection entitled The Real Thing, a mother, Myra, reencounters her daughter Shirley in the rose gardens of Regents Park. It is clear that mother and daughter have missed each other during their three-year separation after a quarrel: “Soon Shirley came in, and Myra's heart hurt at the sight of that face,” and Shirley looks “discontented,” “sad,” “alone and lonely” (“AR” 120, 121) [“Among the Roses.”]. Shirley has had a series of unsuccessful heterosexual relationships, including a marriage to a physically abusive man she still speaks of with “admiration” (122); ironically, she later shrieks to her mother, “You always put up with everything” (124) and seems to be angered by those qualities in her mother that she most dislikes in herself.

Shirley has evidently taken up gardening, at least temporarily, to become closer to her mother, and Myra responds by inviting her to visit, an offer that Shirley accepts, adding offhandedly that she has missed her mother (123). Despite nearly beginning to quarrel all over again, both women are obviously trying to patch up an admittedly difficult relationship that nonetheless remains important to both of them. That they manage, despite their prickliness with each other, not to quarrel—“At least, not yet” (124)—suggests the depth of their need for each other. Their reunion is tense, tentative, and probably temporary, but it is a reunion, and between a biological mother and daughter at that (a rarity in Lessing's fiction, and Woolf's as well).

Both authors seem, in the works discussed here, to see heterosexual intercourse as inherently violent. They suggest that women's connections with each other came first; as Patricia Cramer observes of Woolf's fiction, “This pattern representing the arousal of sexual and emotional intimacy between women checked by a male intrusion suggestive of rape shows that Woolf saw male sexual violation as a curb on her sexual feelings and not a cause, as some have suggested, of her lesbian identification” (186). Unlike Woolf, Lessing has in her writing sometimes seemed harshly critical of lesbianism (see for example the lines from The Golden Notebook quoted in Rich, “Compulsory Heterosexuality” 26). Her characters have sometimes made comments suggesting that lesbians are bitter, frustrated heterosexual women who have turned to other women after giving up on men, and the lesbians she portrays in The Good Terrorist are unpleasant and disturbing women. But the characters in both Woolf's novels and the short stories by Lessing that I have analyzed in this essay assuredly fit within Rich's lesbian continuum by sharing each other's inner lives, bonding (at least in limited ways) against male tyranny, and giving each other practical support. These women characters choose to return to these connections for the nurturing and support they need, and they do so, or try to do so, in spite of the extraordinary range of forces aligned against them, forces that Rich documents in her essay on “Compulsory Heterosexuality and the Lesbian Existence.” That their reunions are muted and sometimes lack the “passion and rapture” Rich calls for is, I think, an effect of women's exhaustion at overcoming the barriers to relationships with each other that Rich herself identifies.

To unite with each other, women must implicitly deny the psychological self-sufficiency of the heterosexual couple. A woman like Helen Ambrose or Mrs. Ramsay must stop devoting so much of her time and attention and care to men and begin devoting more of that solicitousness to other women. But a woman must be financially and emotionally independent in order to take that risk. Many women must also overcome cultural homophobia—their own as well as others' fears of even the appearance of too intimate a relationship with other women. They may have to combat the kinds of class and ethnic differences that the bourgeois British Mrs. Gale and the working class Afrikaner Mrs. De Wet find insurmountable in “The De Wets Come to Kloof Grange.”

Perhaps the most difficult psychological barrier to overcome is the generational difference. Mothers frequently find it difficult to allow their daughters opportunities that the mothers themselves were denied. Elizabeth Dalloway, for example, has a host of educational and career opportunities that were not available to Clarissa—opportunities that Clarissa therefore has difficulty appreciating. In “Among the Roses,” Shirley's sexual freedom simultaneously intrigues and frightens her mother, the quietly conventional Myra. A mother who has learned to repress her own sexuality may not be pleased to see her daughter's enthusiastic participation in the sexual revolution. Even the most loving mother may feel ambivalent about the wider range of choices available to her daughter. And these are only the internal barriers to women's intimacy. I have not mentioned the obstacles that domestic violence, sexual abuse, economic hardship, geographical distance, and other external factors can present to women's relationships with each other. Struggling with such differences, the women characters in the fiction of Woolf and Lessing might well be diffident and subdued in rapprochement, rather than ecstatic.

These stories replace the traditional Freudian oedipal plots of heterosexual romance and the search for the father with homoerotic romance and the search for the mother. Woolf and Lessing are realistic in acknowledging that homoerotic romances also fail. But both women are nonetheless creating new plots for women, telling new stories in which Chloe likes (or at least wants to like) Olivia, stories in which women's relationships with each other matter as much as, or even more than, their relationships with men. In devising new ways to talk about women's lives, Virginia Woolf and Doris Lessing genuinely celebrate the passion and rapture of the mother-daughter romance.


  1. In my discussions of the symbolism and psychological implications of the myth, I am indebted to Mara Lynn Keller and C. Kerenyi. For an excellent introduction to the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, see Helene P. Foley's edition, which includes the text of the hymn in both English and Greek, a commentary on its text, and interpretive essays, including the article by Marilyn Arthur cited later in this essay. In her edition of the hymn, which was published when this essay was in revision, Foley, a classicist, discusses the myth's elements of mother-daughter romance (118-37) and its influence on later writers (151-69).

  2. See for example Eileen Barrett, Patricia Cramer, Carolyn Heilbrun, Judy Little, Patricia Maika, Jane Marcus (in “Pargeting”), Madeline Moore, Annabel Robinson, and Sandra Shattuck.

  3. Madeline Moore similarly sees the myth as central in Woolf's fiction, although she explicates its presence primarily only in The Voyage Out, To the Lighthouse, and Between the Acts, and her understanding of The Voyage Out differs from mine. On the nature of Woolf's homoerotic rather than heterosexual plots, see Rachel Blau DuPlessis (61), Susan Stanford Friedman (169), and Carolyn Heilbrun (70-71).

  4. For Woolf's own account of these experiences, see her Moments of Being, Martine Stemerick gives a brief overview of Virginia Woolf's relationship with her mother and her half sister Stella; see also Moore (10-15). Ellen Bayuk Rosenman presents a more thorough discussion of the relationship and its influence on Woolf's fiction. For the best book-length discussion of the troubled dynamics of the Stephen family, see Louise A. DeSalvo's moving and highly readable Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on Her Life and Work.

  5. For an overview of Virginia Woolf's relationships with other women, see Jane Marcus's “Virginia Woolf and Her Violin: Mothering, Madness, and Music.” On the influence of her lesbianism on her writing, see Blanche Wiesen Cook and Patricia Cramer.

  6. See George Ella Lyon for a brief discussion of the themes of the body and sexuality in The Voyage Out and in Woolf's own life (111-18). Christine Froula has suggested that Woolf attempted in this novel to transcend the traditional marriage plot but was unable to do so—an inability that Froula links to Woolf's breakdown immediately after finishing the novel (68). Jessica Tvordi has presented a somewhat strained lesbian reading of this novel, but she focuses on Rachel's relationships with Helen and Evelyn and barely touches on the mother-daughter relationship.

  7. Christine Froula also compares the kiss to a rape (73); for similar interpretations, see also Rachel Blau DuPlessis (52) and Helen Wussow (101, 103).

  8. It is perhaps doubtful whether, in her ignorance, Rachel is even aware of the possibility of lesbianism. When Clarissa Dalloway tells her she will enjoy walking someday, Rachel assumes she means walking with a man; “I wasn't thinking of a man particularly,” Clarissa responds (VO 64). Even the less sheltered Susan blushes in mortification at the idea of lesbianism (VO 136).

  9. As Mitchell Leaska emphatically concludes, Rachel practices withdrawal as a means of self-defense (38). Nancy Topping Bazin sees Rachel's dream and hallucination as reflections of Rachel's desire to return to the womb (66). Rosenman also sees Rachel's death as a return to her mother (23, 29-30).

  10. I am not the first to see the archetypal dimensions of To the Lighthouse; virtually every critic of the novel mentions Mrs. Ramsay's goddess-like quality. See Blotner for a detailed explication of the relationship between this novel and the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. Blotner, however, offers a more positive interpretation of Mrs. Ramsay than I do. See also Fleishman (especially 109-29) and Anne Golomb Hoffman. In “‘The Deceptiveness of Beauty’: Mother Love and Mother Hate in To the Lighthouse,” Jane Lilienfeld discusses the ambivalence implicit in the portrayal of Mrs. Ramsay; Lilienfeld's article, the best on the novel's conflicted mother-daughter relationship, informs my understanding of the novel. Like Lilienfeld, Susan Luck Hooks and Marjorie McCormick both suggest an ambivalent role for Mrs. Ramsay, casting her as the Great and Terrible Mother. See also Marianne Hirsch (113) and Madeline Moore (74, 85-86).

  11. For a discussion of the violence implicit in this scene and in the novel's family dynamics in general, see Jane Lilienfeld's excellent essay entitled “‘Like a Lion Seeking Whom He Could Devour’: Domestic Violence in To the Lighthouse.” Donna Risolo constructs a lesbian interpretation of To the Lighthouse, arguing that Mrs. Ramsay is both female-identified and lesbian; Risolo, too, briefly mentions the myth (245).

  12. For a more comprehensive discussion of the Demeter myth and mother-daughter relationships in Mrs. Dalloway, see Tyler's “Our Mothers' Gardens” (128-65).

  13. On Woolf's floral imagery and its association with female sexuality, see Cramer 183-86.

  14. For discussions of the mother-daughter relationships in Lessing's novels, see for example Rebecca J. Lukens, Katherine Fishburn, Grace Stewart (specifically 84-89), and Claire Sprague (Rereading, especially Chapter 6). Because Lessing's novels have received so much more attention than her short stories, I have chosen to focus on the Demeter myth in her short fiction. It is, however, an important structuring device in her Jane Somers novels, The Diary of a Good Neighbour and If the Old Could … ; her Marriages between Zones Three, Four, and Five is an almost literal retelling of the myth in many respects.

    An earlier version of the analysis of “The De Wets Come to Kloof Grange” was presented at the Sixth Annual Women's Studies Conference, Western Kentucky University, September 24, 1992. Because I have elsewhere discussed the other two stories I deal with in this essay (see Tyler, “Classical,” and note 16, below), I have chosen to discuss this story at somewhat greater length.

  15. Even the name Mrs. Gale suggests a possible allusion to another young woman who is involuntarily displaced to a strange and colorful alien land but who yearns only to return home—Dorothy Gale of Frank L. Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. For a discussion of the mother-daughter dynamics of Baum's novel, see Evelyn Silten Bassoff.

  16. The analysis of “Among the Roses” is a condensed version of an argument fully presented in an essay entitled “Our Mothers' Gardens: Doris Lessing's ‘Among the Roses,’” forthcoming in Studies in Short Fiction.

Detlev Gohrbandt (essay date 1998)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6094

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.]


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 to compare them, and to compare them as African writers? What exactly is one comparing? Ethnic or regional influences? Themes? Style and genre? Politics? Coloured the one and white the other, both of them are writers of fiction, non-fiction, historico-political semi-fiction, and autobiography. Women and expatriates both, one was a rebel against her bourgeois upbringing, and the other was rejected by the bourgeois society which had pronounced her parents unfit to bring her up. Both Head and Lessing are writers of place, meaning that it is through a careful examination of landscapes and settlements, and of the flora and fauna and humans inhabiting them, that they both advance towards a knowledge and evaluation of society and of human behaviour in society. At this level of description, the two writers no doubt share common ground, but it is not so clear how extensive this is, and if their very own territories are not more significant.

In an attempt to find out more about the position in literary history occupied by Head and Lessing, I wish to explore the idea that their writing is significantly influenced by an oral and literary tradition stemming from and informed by an archetypal genre, that of the fable narrative. In a way that I shall describe in a moment, the short fiction of Head and Lessing follows and develops the rules of the fable form and by so doing situates itself within traditions of world literature, as well as within currents of European and African writing today. Let me state this approach in three theses:

  1. The use of fable elements in the stories of Lessing and Head documents their position in African and in world literature, and helps to define the relation between these two literatures.
  2. Head's and Lessing's stories derive part of their generic identity (formal, thematic, interactional) from their use of fable elements.
  3. The use of fable elements provides a basis of comparison within a literary tradition—for example, with respect to the relation between the oral and the written.

More specifically, it seems that the use of fable elements can tell us a lot about a writer's political attitudes, her awareness of issues like class, the role of women, the distribution and exercise of power, the economic system, and the moral norms operating in a society. To the extent that such issues constitute a society, the fictional narratives expressing them can be said to contribute toward the constitution of a specific society. I am proposing, then, to use genre as a tool in an exercise in comparative literature.


The history of the fable in English literature, whether in Britain, the USA or in other anglophone cultures, can plausibly be seen in terms of the genre's slow but inevitable decline. While such a description is too simplistic to be at all accurate, it does suggest that, after a final flowering of fable literature in the eighteenth century (in the works of writers like Gay, Moore, Prior and Goldsmith), it gradually fell out of favour. The Romantic poets delighted in the rediscovery of ‘preliterary’ traditions, of forms written in what Wordsworth called the “language really used by men,”1 and resuscitated the old genre of the ballad in the process. The fable, however, was displaced by new forms of moral writing and has been revived only sporadically since. Only in the nursery and perhaps in the classroom has the fable survived, though there are signs of a new lease of life in feminist writing.2 The decay of the genre was made up for by the rise of the short story in the nineteenth century, which quickly displaced the fable as a viable adult form. At the same time, the new genre, as practised by writers like Poe, Hawthorne, Stevenson, Kipling, Saki, and Lawrence, adopted and adapted certain characteristics of the traditional mode, ensuring a degree of continuity which perhaps helps to explain the short story's unprecedented success.


While a definition of the fable, or a discussion of the various definitions proposed, is not called for here, it may not be amiss to call to mind the main traits that have characterized the genre through the centuries.3 Very briefly, the fable is a didactic genre, which expresses its meaning in a parabolic manner, either in an explicit moral or by implication. In form, it combines narrative with dialogic elements, and in the moral it tends to be hortatory. Most fables have something comic and fantastic about them, partly because they use animals as agents, partly because they lead to surprising and ironical resolutions, and partly because they tend to stand the natural and social order on its head, so as to put it back more firmly on its feet. In dealing with the moral foundations of society, the fable is always political. Finally, the co-occurrence of similar fable motifs in widely different and distant cultures, and the passage of individual fables and of collections through the centuries from one author to another, both suggest that the fable is preeminently the genre that transcends cultural barriers, i.e. that it is intercultural.

Bearing these features of the fable in mind, let us read some of Bessie Head's Botswana tales and Doris Lessing's African stories.


Bessie Head (1937-86) published one collection of stories during her lifetime, The Collector of Treasures (1977), followed by the posthumous Tales of Tenderness and Power (1990). The subtitle of the first collection specifies the genre as “Botswana Village Tales.” This accurately indicates the oral tradition of Botswana, her adopted country after 1964, as one source of her stories, as well as her view of herself as a traditional storyteller.4 Her oral history of Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind (1981), where she lived for many years, is a treasury of this tradition and indirect documentation of the sources tapped for her stories. It shows how Bessie Head interviews those men and women in Serowe who can give witness to the community's history and traditions, those who know how the community works and what it stands for. In the same spirit, the Botswana village tales speak of the values and aspirations of the Bamangwato nation, but also of “the incredible muddle and nonsense people made of their lives each day.”5

The Collector of Treasures consists of a sequence of thirteen tales, organized in such a way as to lead the reader step by step into the social and moral life of a Botswana community. Whereas, in South Africa, “people [did] not know how to speak for themselves,”6 in Botswana they do, and Head recognizes that especially the old men are living libraries and “repositories of all tribal learning and knowledge.”7 This discovery encouraged her to try to write “a continuous portrait of African history.”8 As contributions to such a portrait, her tales, she says, are reincarnations of tales told for generations. She is the re-teller of the tales, and as such she has a strong presence in them, commenting and moralizing and digressing in the manner of what we have learned to call an intrusive narrator. Let us look for examples of this narrative attitude and of other fable elements in two of her tales.

In “The Deep River: A Story of Ancient Tribal Migration,” the first tale from The Collector of Treasures, Head makes an important distinction that signals the merging of oral and literary modes. She introduces the members of the Talaote tribe as “a people who lived without faces, except for their chief, whose face was the face of all the people.”9 In other words, they possess no individual names, only the group name of their tribe and the patronym of their chief. This absence of individual names, a feature of the fable, goes along with an absence of individual volition: “their day-to-day lives granted them no individual faces either for they ploughed their crops, reared their children, and held their festivities according to the laws of the land” (1). To be defined in name and law by the community is the traditional way of things, though only recognizable as such from a post-traditional perspective, that of the immigrant Bessie Head. She provides us with a strikingly partisan comment on tradition when she calls it a “regimental levelling down of their individual souls” (2). This is unexpected, for tradition is her main source and the value of tradition one of her dominant themes. The point is that tradition is only half the story. Head is far from deluding herself that it is possible or desirable to return to the harmonious and innocent state of society imagined as existing before the white man came. The structure of this tale shows that the other half of the story is one in which individuality reigns, where it stands in a conflictual relationship with the old order. One day an event occurs that disrupts the old order's namelessness, or, as Head puts it: “On the day of dispute or when strife and conflict and greed blew stormy winds over their deep river, the people awoke and showed their individual faces” (2). The dispute is about the individual's right to decide his own emotional priorities, ie a conflict of love versus tribal policy. The protagonist is marked as an individual by having a name: Sebembele. His mistress and their child and Sebembele's rival brothers are also named. By contrast, there are two classes of participants without proper names, the people and the councillors. According to the rules of oral narrative, there is no need to individualize these—at most, they are subdivided into subsets, or “camps” as Head (rather like Henry James before her)10 calls them. On the other hand, names can be precarious, as when Sebembele's two junior brothers, Ntema and Mosemme, merge into a single name, as if it were hyphenated, and always speak with one and the same voice.11 Indeed, a good part of the drama of this tale derives from the way Head contrasts individual utterance, as in Sebembele's remarkable “The love between Rankwana and I is great” (3), with the speaking of a group in the very frequent “they said” phrase (3).

Two more fable elements in this tale should be mentioned. One is the use of sentential phrases, expressing the wisdom of the tribe rather than the insight of any individual member. Examples are: “If a man couldn't make up his own mind, other men could make it up for him” or “Women never know their own minds” (4). However, Head does not allow these phrases to remain uncontradicted: her narrative ironically subverts them, or, in the case of the second example, has them rejected by an individual voice, as when Rankwana speaks up for herself against her father. The second characteristic is the emphasis on social norms and moral values. The narrator's reference to greed as one of the prime causes of dispute has already been quoted (2). Other vices are secrecy and causing unrest, while respect for seniority and obedience are accepted as traditional virtues. The principal moral the tale seems to be asserting is the familiar Aesopian preference for deeds over words:12

They saw Rankwana and Sebembele walk together through the town. Sebembele held the child Makobi in his arms. They saw they had a ruler who talked with deeds rather than with words. They saw that the time had come for them to offer up their individual faces to the face of this ruler.

(“The Deep River,” 5)

In the end, then, individuality gives way again to the group identity from which it arose. This, no doubt, is the political message of the tale, and it seems to provide yet another link with the fable: namely, its function of upholding the norms of society and of protecting it against enemies from outside or within.

While this first tale of the collection refers to the origins of the Talaote tribe, so remote that even the oldest men give only “confused and contradictory accounts” (6), the second story refers to the more recent past, probably the final years of the nineteenth century, after the founding of the Bechuanaland protectorate in 1884, when the Christian missions were still new to the country. On the occasion of the death of a very old woman, Galethebege, her brother-in-law tells the assembled family the story of how she married his brother Ralokae. The story relates events that happened within living memory, so of course the two principal actors have proper names, as does the teller of the framed story. The only other identifiable character is the missionary, but as he is only a type, he has no name. Indeed, Modise, the narrator, describes him to his audience as “a short, anonymous looking man who wore glasses.”13 The conjunction of the two specifying details with the term “anonymous” signals that this is a figure half-way between history and fable. In a way, this is also true of Galethebege and her husband Ralokae, since she, as an ardent Christian, stands for Christianity while he, faithful to the old customs, stands for the traditional Setswana faith. To this extent they are parabolic characters whose significance goes beyond their individual identity. In this tale, Galethebege and Ralokae are intended to signify the contrast between Christian and Setswana traditions, and their dealings with the missionary signifies the contrast of African tolerance and the intolerance of the missions. While Ralokae can tolerate his wife's Christianity and she makes no sustained attempt to convert him, the missionary refuses to allow a Setswana marriage and even excommunicates Galethebege. But the really interesting conflict is more abstract, and that, I suggest, is another sign of the fable tradition. The key concept in the tale is not ‘sin’ or ‘faith’ or ‘tradition’ or ‘discipline’ or ‘obedience’—all of which are important moral concepts in the story—but the meaning of ‘love.’ The term ‘love’ is carefully defined in the course of the story, and it is also re-defined as against the meaning any listener or reader associates with it. At the beginning of the story, in the framing narrative,14 we are introduced to the concept in its religious meaning, when we are told that Galethebege loved God “with her whole heart” and that she had only been able to express “all her pent-up and suppressed love for God” after her husband's death (7). But this is not the whole meaning of ‘love’; it is only, so to speak, the official version, according to which Galethebege has been living in sin. The main meaning is the one to be revealed in the main part of the story, in the framed narrative. First we are told that the wish to marry is a part of “the normal life of man” (9), then the courtship is memorably represented in two brief sentences: “‘Let us two get together,’ he said. ‘I am pleased by all your ways’” (9). Then we learn how Galethebege falls in love despite her reservation that Ralokae is an ‘unbeliever’:

He always wore a black beret perched at a jaunty angle on his head. His walk and manner were gay and jaunty too. He was so exciting as a man that he threw her whole life into turmoil. It was the first time love had come her way and it made the blood pound fiercely through her whole body till she could feel its very throbbing at the tips of her fingers. It turned her thoughts from God a bit, to this new magic life was offering her.


If this description tends to cliché, that is no demerit, for the function of the passage is to supplement agape (divine love) with eros (human love). At least, this is how one would put it in Western terms. That these are not really adequate is shown when Ralokae responds to his bride's wish to be married in church by protesting against the concept of love propagated by the missionaries:

The God might be all right, he explained, but there was something wrong with the people who had brought the word of the Gospel to the land. Their love was enslaving black people and he could not stand it. That was why he was without belief. It was the people he did not trust. They were full of tricks. They were a people who, at the sight of a black man, pointed a finger in the air, looked away into the distance and said impatiently: ‘Boy! Will you carry this! Boy! Will you fetch this!’ They had brought a new order of things into the land and they made the people cry for love. One never had to cry for love in the customary way of life. Respect was just there for people all the time.


In this passage, an African self-interpretation, the concept of love is re-defined in an important way. In the Setswana way of life, love is coterminous with respect, an attitude which is permanent and consists in recognizing the dignity and identity of others. This respectful love can be relied on; it is always there, a kind of natural resource. It as naturally includes physical love as it excludes moral and physical bullying. The point I wish to make here is that in re-defining love in such a way this tale is not aiming at psychological subtlety or social realism. Its aim is didactic: namely, to identify false ideas and to define true ideas to replace them. This is characteristic of the mode of narrative employed in all of Bessie Head's tales, as well as being a feature of her novels. Her didacticism is also one of the ways in which she shapes the tales in The Collector of Treasures into a coherent whole.


The stories collected in the two volumes of Doris Lessing's African stories possess no such unity, nor are they meant to. In her preface to This Was The Old Chief's Country (1964), Lessing admits that the African setting “is all they have in common.”15 In the preface to the 1973 collection of the same name, she hesitantly proposes a minimal common denominator:

All the stories I write of a certain kind, I think of as belonging under that heading [This Was The Old Chief's Country]: tales about white people, sometimes about black people, living in a landscape that not so very long ago was settled by black tribes, living in complex societies that the white people are only just beginning to study, let alone understand.16

This can be taken as confirming that Head and Lessing are both writers of social and geographical landscape, but it also underlines the fact that white people and their society are as much at the centre of Lessing's writing as black people and theirs are at the centre of Head's. An important difference between the two writers follows from this, as Lessing herself acknowledges: “I am not able to write about what has been lost, which was and still is recorded orally. As a writer that is my biggest regret.”17 That she regarded the oral tradition of the East as in danger of being lost and worth recording is evidenced by the preface she wrote to an edition of the Fables of Bidpai.18 By contrast, Bessie Head's achievement may well be described as writing about what has been lost and so recovering it. But in spite of Lessing's disclaimer, there is indeed an oral component in her writing, which possibly derives from the tradition of the fable. A first clue in this direction is found in the titles of her stories, which sometimes imitate the binary form of fable titles or refer to animals, or to men as animals, e.g. “‘Leopard’ George” and The Antheap,19 or “The Pig,” “Plants and Girls” and “The Story of Two Dogs.”20 Let us look at the last two to see what other fabular elements they contain.

“Plants and Girls” begins with a single-line paragraph: “There was a boy who lived in a small house in a small town in the centre of Africa.”21 This reduced form of the fairy-tale beginning, a conventional enough trace of orality, is emphatically unspecific, and as neither country, town nor house are identified in the course of the story, the representative Africanness is all that counts. The boy is the only character to receive a name, Frederick, while the others remain simply “the father,” “the mother,” “the girl,” and “people.” Frederick is nicknamed “Moony” by the children in the street, emphasizing his odd, moonstruck, ‘loony’ behaviour at the expense of his individuality. But the two names are hardly ever used in the story, for the boy is usually referred to in generic terms as “son” or “youth,” and mainly as “he.” The boy is a type, not an individual. In the fable, this kind of unspecific reference is important as one of the features of the genre that invites what is known as the ‘application’: ie the movement from a literal to a figurative or allegorical meaning. In traditional fables, this application or moral can be provided or it can be left to the listeners to find for themselves. In Head's “Heaven is not Closed” a compromise strategy is used, when the teller of the tale, Modise, gives his listeners a partial interpretation but leaves it to them to work out the moral:

His listeners sighed the way people do when they have heard a particularly good story. As they stared at the fire they found themselves debating the matter in their minds, as their elders had done some forty or fifty years ago.22

In Lessing's story, which has no traditional teller, this ‘over to you’ technique is achieved in the implied shift from the spectators inside the story to the readers outside it:

When people glanced over the hedge in the strong early sunlight of next morning they saw him half-lying over the girl, whose body was marked by blood and by soil and he was murmuring: ‘Your hair, your leaves, your branches, your rivers.’23

Where the spectators of this scene will probably come to a conclusion something like “The crazy boy has killed her! Call the police!,” the wiser reader is expected to go a step or two further and to formulate a conclusion which includes the enigmatic words Moony is murmuring over the dead girl's body. In Lessing as in Head, the story is left to its readers to complete, ideally in a communal situation, as of sitting round the fire, and finding a social or political application to the here and now of that community.

In “The Story of Two Dogs” (echoing Aesopian fables like “The Two Frogs” or “The Two Pots”)24 we find a contrast between the unspecific title and a certain amount of naming in the style of realistic fiction: the dogs are called “Jock” and Bill,” and several other names are introduced casually (such as “Jacob, our builder” and “Stella, my puppy's mother”). At bottom, however, specific names are irrelevant and are even displaced, as when Mr and Mrs Barnes are referred to as “the man from Norfolk” and “the man from Norfolk's wife.”25 The periphrastic forms become more significant than the proper names: Jock and Bill become “Jock the good dog” and “Bill the bad dog.”26 Arbitrary proper names become names with a meaning, signifying names. This even becomes a topic when the first-person narrator, ie Doris Lessing as a fourteen-year-old, tells us about ritual names:

to reach the Great Vlei, which was beautiful, we had to go through the ugly bush ‘at the back of the kopje.’ These ritual names for parts of the farm seemed rather to be names for regions in our minds. ‘Going to the Great Vlei’ had a fairy-tale quality about it, because of having to pass through the region of sour ugly frightening bush first.


The remembered landscape of Rhodesia is moralized, just as the dogs of the narrator's childhood27 are turned into types and moral agents. The moralizing of dogs is, of course, a staple feature of Victorian juvenile literature.28 Here it is explicitly linked with the cautionary tale (163),29 in that the history of Bill's Ridgeback father is inserted as a kind of etiological explanation of why the puppy later reverts to the wild state: it is a matter of “bad blood” (162). The dogs provide a seemingly harmless field for the expression of racist and élistist notions: the “dirty Kaffir dogs in the compound” are set against “puppies of the most desirable sort” (166), mongrels against pure-bred dogs (162, 171). However, dogs and humans are not kept separate, for right at the beginning of the story we are told that “my brother's dog was his substitute” (148), just as later the older dog, Jock, becomes a substitute mother for the puppy (164). Just as Doris's mother used to call Jock “old boy” (while her husband calls her “old girl”!; 158), she now refers to the puppy as “the child.” In this way, the canine world becomes a parallel to the human world, and the fate of the dogs is finally shown to result from “the inner nature of the [human] family” (166) they belong to. Here, realistic history is merged with moralistic fable in a fictionalized autobiographical narrative.

As in the previous examples discussed, the story of the dogs further shows its relation to the fable through its focus on questions of vice and virtue. The opposition between “Jock the good dog” and “Bill the bad dog” becomes important when we are told about the family's efforts to train Bill. While Jock is “admirably obedient” (170), Bill “just plays all the time” and even seduces Jock (and Doris) into not taking the training sessions seriously. At this point, the traditionally unambiguous stance of the Aesopian fable is supplanted by a contradictory double perspective which sets the masculine stress on discipline and its practical uses, “this business of the boy and the two dogs” against the narrator's much more relaxed and empathetic attitude. Doris is fascinated by the puppy's antics; she enjoys the animal's physical beauty, and recognizes that its behaviour is a natural training for life in the wild. This contradictory perspective colours the rest of the narrative, so that Doris reports “moral disintegration” and “corruption” (174), without really endorsing the judgements. Indeed, the gap between the male, practical, domestic, white standpoint, on the one hand, and the female, aesthetic, natural and native attitude on the other gradually widens, until the reader recognizes that clear-cut judgement is not possible: training is corruption, corruption is training; it just depends on whose interests count. Again, this hesitant insight is brought to bear on human affairs, as when the boarding schools Doris and her brother attend are described as institutions “where we were supposed to be learning discipline, order and sound characters” (174). The implication that these may not be good things to learn is confirmed by Doris Lessing's reflections, in African Laughter, when she meets her brother again and sees what kind of man he has (been) turned into.

Not all the features of fable mentioned earlier have been identified in these four stories by Bessie Head and Doris Lessing: a more detailed analysis of all the tales and stories is required. Nonetheless, I hope to have established that both writers make extensive and significant use of elements of fable—perhaps, even, that they are key features of their short fiction. It now remains to assess in what way Head and Lessing differ in their use of the genre.


The quest for fable elements leads to at least four areas of comparison: autobiography, psychology, narrative style, and place. If it is true that an autobiographical approach informs many stories by both writers, there are no doubt differences in its use. For Head, personal experiences seem essentially a means to discover tradition through and beyond other individuals. Lessing, by contrast, uses her own history as a way of finding out about the tensions besetting Africa. These are often located in her characters, or in groups of characters such as a family, and these agents are often explored with considerable psychological subtlety. At the same time, one has a strong sense that even the most realistic figure has a parabolic dimension, ie represents an idea or a typical attitude. Head's figures tend to be types, ie representatives of roles and institutions, but they often achieve convincing psychological dimensions, especially in social interaction. Both writers tend to move between proper names and generic reference, with a larger distance between these forms of naming covered by Lessing. In her writing this is offset by a consistently sophisticated tone, even when she is narrating from the perspective of a mentally limited figure like Moony. By contrast, Head often seems stylistically clumsy, as in the use of cliché and pleonasm, although she is capable of memorable phrases, as when she describes a wished-for rapprochement between Setswana and Christian ways as “a compromise of tenderness.”30 As regards the construction of the tales, the shades of meaning developed on different levels of narration, and the interplay of narrator and listener, she is very skilful indeed. Lessing is more conventionally modern, eg in her insistence on unreliability and openness. Finally, the attitude to place is one further feature our writers share: Head writes of place as of finding the true Africa after losing a false or falsified one; she is a chronicler of a place that is indubitably there to be heard and seen and told. Lessing, writing at a greater distance from Africa, seems motivated by a sense of loss, a loss which she recuperates in her stories by re-writing place in her memory; place is a moral and political structure.

Neither Head nor Lessing writes fables in the strict sense of the term. However, what is characteristic of their writing can be identified by exploring its connections with traditional oral forms of telling. These also provide a tool for identifying what may be seen as specifically African about their African stories: a subtle brand of didacticism that springs from authentic experience.


  1. William Wordsworth, “Preface to the Lyrical Ballads,” l. 98-99, in Lyrical Ballads, ed. Michael Mason (London: Longman, 1992): 59.

  2. Most remarkably, this is the case in the work of Suniti Namjoshi, who brings Indian and European fable traditions together creatively in her Feminist Fables (London: Sheba, 1981) and The Blue Donkey Fables (London: Women's Press, 1988).

  3. A more detailed account of the characteristics of the fable is given in my “Gibt es englische Fabeln? Informationen und Anregungen zu einer vernachlässigten Gattung” [Are there English fables? Information and suggestions on a neglected genre], Der fremdsprachliche Unterricht 23.97 (1989): 15-20; and 24.99 (1990): 39-43. For a discussion of intercultural aspects, see my “Eigene Fabeln, andere Fabeln: Europäische und westafrikanische Tierfabeln im Vergleich,” in Verstehen und Verständigung durch Sprachenlernen? (Dokumentation des 15. Kongresses für Fremdsprachendidaktik 1993; Beiträge zur Fremdsprachenforschung, vol. 3, ed. Lothar Bredella; Bochum: Brockmeyer, 1995): 276-83.

  4. See Gillian Stead Eilersen's introduction to Tales of Tenderness and Power, 10, on Head as a ‘teller of tales,’ and Ursula A. Barnett, A Vision of Order: A Study of Black South African Literature in English (1914-1980) (London: Sinclair Browne/ Amherst MA: U of Massachusetts P, 1983): 199-200, on the ‘narrative note’ introduced by the term ‘tale.’

  5. Bessie Head, “Hunting,” in The Collector of Treasures and Other Botswana Village Tales (London: Heinemann, 1977): 109.

  6. Bessie Head, A Woman Alone: Autobiographical Writings, ed. Craig Mackenzie (London: Heinemann, 1990): 9.

  7. Head, A Woman Alone, 88.

  8. Head, A Woman Alone, 79.

  9. Head, “The Deep River: A Story of Ancient Tribal Migration,” in Collector of Treasures, 1. Further page references are in the text.

  10. For instance, in ch. 25 of Henry James, The Bostonians (1886; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966): 210 (“the whole question of sides and parties”).

  11. “Ntema and Mosemme” are mentioned six times in the course of the story, plus five times as “the/his/my brothers,” before Head herself makes the de-individualization explicit by describing them as “still working together as one voice” (6).

  12. As in “The Fox and the Woodcutter,” translated by Handford as “Actions speak louder than words”; see Fables of Aesop, tr. S.A. Handford (Penguin Classics; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964): 6.

  13. Head, “Heaven is not Closed,” in Collector of Treasures, 10. Further page references are in the text.

  14. “Heaven is not Closed” is a frame narrative consisting of an introduction (the first part of the framing narrative, 7-8, 1.12), a framed narrative (8, 1.12-12, 1.24), and a conclusion (the second part of the framing narrative, which has a preliminary beginning at 11, 1.34 and a proper one at 12, 1.24).

  15. Doris Lessing, “Preface for the 1964 Collection,” in This Was The Old Chief's Country: Collected African Stories, vol. 1 (London: Michael Joseph, 1973): 8.

  16. Doris Lessing, “Preface for the 1973 Collection,” in This Was The Old Chief's Country, 9.

  17. Lessing, “Preface for the 1973 Collection,” 9.

  18. Kalila and Dimna: Selected Fables of Bidpai, ed. Ramsay Wood, intro. Doris Lessing (London: Granada, 1982): ix-xix.

  19. These two stories are collected in Lessing, This Was The Old Chief's Country, 146-70, 301-49.

  20. These three stories are collected in Doris Lessing, The Sun Between Their Feet. Collected African Stories, vol. 2 (London: Michael Joseph, 1973): 63-9, 137-46, 158-79.

  21. Lessing, “Plants and Girls,” in The Sun Between Their Feet, 137.

  22. Head, “Heaven is not Closed,” 12; cf “It made the people of our village ward think,” 11.

  23. Lessing, “Plants and Girls,” 146.

  24. See Aesop's Fables, tr. V. S. Vernon-Jones, intro. G. K. Chesterton (1912, repr. New York: Avenel, 1975): 100, 126.

  25. Lessing gives an example of Africans employing periphrastic names for white people (“the man who barks like a dog”) in her autobiographical African Laughter: Four Visits to Zimbabwe (New York: HarperCollins, 1992): 302.

  26. Lessing, “The Story of Two Dogs,” in The Sun Between Their Feet, 168. Further page references to this story are in the text.

  27. Lessing reveals that the story is autobiographical in the preface to The Sun Between Their Feet, 7.

  28. Examples are R. M. Ballantyne's The Dog Crusoe and His Master (London: James Nisbet, 1861) and the moralized dogs that abound in Mrs Prosser's Original Fables (London: Religious Tract Society, c1880). In African Laughter, 350, Lessing tells us about two dogs she came across in a house in Harare, one “confused and happy,” the other “confident and successful.” Significantly, although this is a report, Lessing titles the passage “A Story of Two Unimportant Creatures.”

  29. The cautionary tale is a genre of didactic verse parodied and revitalized around the turn of the century by Hilaire Belloc in his Cautionary Tales (1907) and New Cautionary Tales (1930). A recent practitioner is Barbara Goldberg in her Cautionary Tales (Washington DC/San Francisco; Dryad, 1990).

  30. Head, “Heaven is not Closed,” 10.

Works Cited

Aesop's Fables, tr. V. S. Vernon-Jones, intro. G. K. Chesterton (1912). New York: Avenel, 1975.

Ballantyne, R. M. The Dog Crusoe and His Master. London: James Nisbet, 1861.

Barnett, Ursula A. A Vision of Order: A Study of Black South African Literature in English (1914-1980). London: Sinclair Browne/Amherst MA: U of Massachusetts P, 1983.

Belloc, Hilaire. Stories, Essays, and Poems. London: J. M. Dent, 1938.

Fables of Aesop, tr. S. A. Handford. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964.

Gohrbandt, Detlev. “Gibt es englische Fabeln? Informationen und Anregungen zu einer vernachlässigten Gattung,” Der fremdsprachliche Unterricht 23:97 (1989), 15-20; 24:99 (1990), 39-43.

———. “Eigene Fabeln, andere Fabeln: Europäische und westafrikanische Tierfabeln im Vergleich,” in Verstehen und Verständigung durch Sprachenlernen?, ed. Lothar Bredella (Dokumentation des 15. Kongresses für Fremdsprachendidaktik 1993; Beiträge zur Fremdsprachenforschung, vol. 3; Bochum: Brockmeyer, 1995): 276-83.

Goldberg, Barbara. Cautionary Tales. Washington DC/San Francisco: Dryad, 1990.

Head, Bessie. The Collector of Treasures and Other Botswana Village Tales. London: Heinemann, 1977.

———. Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind. London: Heinemann, 1981.

———. Tales of Tenderness and Power, intro. Gillian Stead Eilersen. London: Heinemann, 1990.

———. A Woman Alone: Autobiographical Writings, ed. Craig MacKenzie. London: Heinemann, 1990.

James, Henry. The Bostonians (1886). Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966.

Kalila and Dimna: Selected Fables of Bidpai, ed. Ramsay Wood, intro. Doris Lessing. London: Granada, 1982.

Lessing, Doris. African Laughter: Four Visits to Zimbabwe. New York: Harper Collins, 1992.

———. This Was The Old Chief's Country: Collected African Stories, vol. 1. London: Michael Joseph, 1973.

———. The Sun Between Their Feet: Collected African Stories, vol. 2. London: Michael Joseph, 1973.

Namjoshi, Suniti. Feminist Fables. London: Sheba, 1981.

———. The Blue Donkey Fables. London: Women's Press, 1988.

Prosser, Mrs. Original Fables. London: Religious Tract Society, nd..

Wordsworth, William. “Preface [to the Lyrical Ballads],” in Lyrical Ballads, ed. Michael Mason. London/New York: Longman, 1992): 55-87.

Jane Hotchkiss (essay date 1998)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4711

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 “art.” Lessing's work was often regretfully dismissed as “promising but artistically flawed” by her tendency to “standardiz[e] human beings to serve abstract ideas.” Her brief return to Africa in 1956 elicited a sharper response. Journalist Oliver Walker confidently claimed, in an article ominously titled “Novelist Given a Tarred White Feather in Bulawayo,” that black Africans preferred apartheid to “British hypocrisy” regarding race relations, but Lessing, a “prohibited immigrant” at that time and permitted to cross the border only by mistake, was kept under surveillance throughout her trip and, as Walker put it, “accused of putting ideas into the munts' heads” (47).1 Her meticulous representation of the monstrous quotidian was recognized, examined in aesthetic terms, and tidily discounted, while her possibly subversive presence stimulated the usual official response of vigilance and control.

More recently, Lessing's work has been found flawed in a different regard; it is neither too bitter nor realistic but rather too “romantic.” In her 1991 article “Veldtanschauung: Doris Lessing's Savage Africa,” Eve Bertelsen cites the need to consider “the ways in which literary tradition and its forms impose upon the writer, defining in advance the range of her creative freedom, and often seriously contradicting or undermining an explicit social or political project.”2 Bertelsen is speaking of the way the romantic/primitivist view of Africa pervades Lessing's early novel The Grass Is Singing; specifically, she draws a parallel between Lessing's writing of Africans and Africa and Conrad's in Heart of Darkness. Both writers present a “vision of Africa” that relies on “a set of literary conventions and a cultural myth that appears to be stronger than conscious intent” (p. 658). Zimbabwe critic Anthony Chennells has also criticized Lessing's early work for its perpetuation of a romantic view of “darkest Africa.” Questioning Lessing's inclusion in the literary canon of Zimbabwe by the Tabex Encyclopedia Zimbabwe, Chennells writes: “If one reads Lessing's stories as produced by a European romanticism rather than as the products of a liberal settler, the distinction between herself and writers who wrote Africa as primitive may not be as valid as the Encyclopedia entry assumes.”3

It is not difficult to find passages that support such a view in Lessing's early stories, collected in the anthology This Was the Old Chief's Country and published a year after The Grass Is Singing. But I would argue that the early work as a whole demonstrates Lessing's awareness of the problem presented by the literary tradition she is writing her way out of and that many occasions of “romantic primitivism” in that work are deliberately ironic. The story she chose to open the collection, “The Old Chief Mshlanga,” confronts the problematic of literary tradition and political intent which Bertelsen finds in the earlier novel. Through its implicit involvement with Conrad's representations of “savage Africa,” the text both recognizes and critiques the seductions of romanticism and writes the confrontation with that tradition as integral to the constitution of self-irony in the liberal settler. One might use Homi Bhabha's metaphor of the “tethered shadow” to describe the relationship of Conrad's text to Lessing's—Heart of Darkness dogs her discourse, and she deals with its inevitable echoes through parodic repetitions that underline the collusion of belated romanticism in the pathology of colonialism.

In addition, Lessing's African story suggests, avant la lettre, postmodern formulations of “identification,” in which apparent binary oppositions actually include a third aspect or property, the betweenness itself or “fissure,” the reciprocity of difference that both threatens and makes possible the identification. It is this fissure Lessing maps as the territory inherited by the African-born settler awakened to political awareness. Gilles Deleuze, in Logique de sens, posits “two readings of the world,” the first the mimetic type, which “asks us to think of difference on the basis of pre-established similitude or identity,” and a second which “invites us on the contrary to think of similitude and even identity as the product of a fundamental disparity.” The first “establishes the world as icon,” the second “presents the world itself as phantasm,” or, as Walter Benjamin put it, allows “the true surrealist face of existence [to break] through.”4

In the apparently faithful social realism of Lessing's early work, surrealism consistently breaks through; icons are subverted, phantasms shimmer on the surface of the prosaic. The permeability of the boundary between real and surreal, sanity and schism, was, for Lessing, fundamental: in her own words, “the quintessential eccentricity of the human race was borne in upon me from the beginning.”5 Lessing was no distanced academic observer of the dis-ease of patriarchal imperialism; she learned it at her father's knee. She “concluded at the age of about six” that her father was “mad”; she describes his “splendidly pathological character” as something she “spent a good part of [her] childhood coming to terms with.”

It was [my father's] wont to spend many hours of the day seated in a rickety deckchair on the top of the semi-mountain on which our house was built, surveying the African landscape which stretched emptily away on all sides for leagues. After a silence which might very well have lasted several hours, he would start to his feet, majestically splenetic in shabby khaki, a prophet in his country, and, shaking his fist at the sky, shout out: “Mad! Mad! Everyone! Everywhere! Mad!”

(p. 7)

The young Doris May Taylor learned how the skewed double standard of colonial “moral sense” worked. One early lesson, “comparatively uncomplicated, not to say banal,” as she puts it, occurred on a windless day when her father was burning a fireguard to protect the cowshed from the wild veld fires common in the dry season in Southern Africa. The fire burned slowly, “yet it was in the nature of things that any small animal, grounded bird, insect or reptile in the 200-yard-wide, mile-long stretch of fire would perish, not presumably without pain.” When a large field mouse ran out of the burning grass in front of Lessing's father, the “boss-boy,” an African man,

brought down a heavy stick across the mouse's back. It was dying. The boss-boy picked up the mouse by the tail, and swinging the still-twitching creature, continued to stand beside my father, who brought down his hand in a very hard slap against the boss-boy's face. So unprepared was he for this, that he fell down. He got up, palm to his cheek, looking at my father for an explanation. My father was rigid with incommunicable anger, “Kill it at once,” he said. … The boss-boy flung the mouse into a nest of flames, and stalked off, with dignity. “If there's one thing I can't stand it's cruelty of any kind,” my father said afterwards, in explanation of the incident.

(pp. 9-10)

This autobiographical anecdote bears some of the hallmarks of Lessing's fiction. She attempts no explication or analysis of the incidents; she merely presents it to the reader and moves on to another “more obliquely rewarding in its implications” (p. 10). One is left to imagine the child observing these “lessons” unprotected by the seasoned irony of the adult relating them: the successive shocks to her sensibility, her puzzling over “implications,” her gradual deconstruction of rank hypocrisies presented to her as self-justifying truths.

The spatial and verbal structures likewise echo Lessing's fictional strategies and suggest that she must be read with close attention to nuance and gesture. The two men stand side by side watching the controlled destruction of a landscape now inhabited only by “small animals,” creatures considered insignificant; yet the narrative voice posits their “presumable pain.” The men stand together but are differentiated by their designations as “my father” and “the boss-boy”; then they are once again aligned by the repetition of the phrase “brought down” to describe their actions. The contrast of those actions directly relates to the matter of “dignity.” Through the intimacy of the employer's gesture, the blow of hand against face, the suggestion of a father punishing and instructing a wayward child, Lessing extends the figure of her father to encompass colonial patriarchy and the “white enlightenment” of people of color. Through his wordless demand for an explanation and his silent gestures of refusal—“he flung the mouse … stalked off, with dignity”—the African man constructs an alternative discourse that rejects the colonizer's language and, to use Homi Bhabha's words, “deflect[s] the dominating ideologies being imposed on him.”6 The farmer's final pompous remark lamely follows the expressive gesture, and Lessing underlines the irony with her repetition of the word “explanation”; this delayed and oblique “reply” to the African's unspoken question inadvertently comments on the white man's actions as much as on the African man's.

In “The Old Chief Mshlanga,” Lessing repeats these techniques of juxtaposition and disjunction to construct her ironies. Moreover, the story seems to formulate a delayed response to an earlier male text; one repetition Lessing makes use of that links her text to Conrad's Heart of Darkness is the metaphor of the changing map. In setting up what Chinua Achebe has recognized as specifically a critique of Belgian colonialism, Conrad employed as extended metaphor the map of colonial Africa. Marlow's journey takes him not into the sound, red territories of British settlement, but rather through the poisonous yellow of Belgian holdings into the map's terrifyingly blank center, a nonspace inhabited by the blacks he sees as without cultural history—a chaos infected with frenzy, where corruption is contagious. At journey's end, he finds the fatally infected Kurtz, and the lie torn out of him in his encounter with Kurtz's intended shows that Marlow too has, as he feared, been “stained” by his journey into darkness, marked by the contagion bred of what Conrad represents as an intrinsically unhealthy contact between European civilization and the “primitive.”

Lessing's story also uses maps and landscapes to symbolize the progress of her protagonist “deeper” into Africa but in ways that critique both European romanticism and British colonialism. Lessing's protagonist is a female child, born into the doubleness inherent to second-generation settlers, for whom the place of birth is nonetheless not one's “native” place. The story, a miniature Bildungsroman of a liberal settler, opens with a prospect of the veld farm, which “like every white farm, was largely unused, broken only occasionally by small patches of cultivation. In between, nothing but trees, the long sparse grass, thorn and cactus and gully, grass and outcrop and thorn.”7 This is the “empty landscape” that strained the sanity of whites like Lessing's father; in reality, as the girl in this story comes to know, the land has been “emptied,” the people who inhabited it forcibly removed to native reserves far from their ancestral homelands, leaving the country “unmapped.” As Chennells puts it, “What Africans saw as places crowded with ancestral associations and spiritual presences, the whites saw as empty spaces waiting to be shaped by their creative will.”8

The settler child's position lies somewhere between these two perspectives—the veld for her represents both nativity and exile: “Opening [her] eyes curiously on a sun-suffused landscape, a gaunt and violent landscape, [she] might be supposed to accept it as her own … to feel her blood running free and responsive to the swing of the seasons.” But instead, the white child “could not see a msasa tree, or the thorn, for what they were” (p. 11) because a European template has been uneasily superimposed upon the African land in the child's mind: “Her books held tales of alien fairies … she knew the shape of the leaves of an ash or an oak, the names of the little creatures that lived in English streams.” Lessing emphasizes the connection to the tradition of romanticism with her inclusion of lines from Tennyson's “Lady of Shalott,” which also anticipate the shock of recognition that lies ahead for the child who sings: “Out flew the web and floated wide / The mirror cracked from side to side.” For her, the land is “crowded with ancestral presences” transplanted from European tradition, with northern witches, “bred of cold Northern forests,” with “a pale willowed river, a pale gleaming castle” (p. 11).

The disjunction between storybook and reality makes the surrounding veld seem “unreal,” and to the child, the Africans employed on her father's farm, the only ones she knew, seem “as remote as the trees and rocks. They were an amorphous black mass … faceless, who existed merely to serve, to say ‘Yas, Baas,’ take their money and go”; they are like part of the landscape, dehumanized, not even mysterious; she “was taught to take them for granted” (p. 12).

As the child grows, her range increases; she begins to “inhabit” the farm, to trek for miles a day with her two dogs, her rifle, and her unbreached racism. Here, Lessing presents her female settler, the liberal in her larval stage, so to speak, as a parody of the great white hunter and intrepid explorer whose gun and dogs “were an armor against fear.” Yet, like Marlow in the Congo, or like Conrad the writer, the child is aware that all is not right: “Certain questions presented themselves in [her] mind; and because the answers were not easy to accept, they were silenced by an even greater arrogance of manner” (p. 12).

The narrative stance has been third-person up to this point in the story; abruptly it shifts to first person. The occasion for this construction of subjectivity is the farm girl's first encounter—“one evening when I was about 14”—with Africans who exist on the colonial margins. She meets three men, two young, one old, who walk with an “air of dignity, of quietly following their own purpose” (p. 13). When the three do not move off the path at her approach, the girl does not brandish her gun or set her dogs on them—her usual response to what she calls “native cheek”; instead she restrains the dogs and greets the men “a little truculent[ly].” She learns that the old man is the Chief Mshlanga, on his way across the river to visit his brothers, and that this path on the farm's outer margins is an ancient native thoroughfare.

This small incident precipitates the girl's metamorphosis from self-justifying colonizer to self-questioning “white liberal”; Lessing represents its initial phase as an idealism as inappropriate as the blind racism that preceded it.

As the girl follows her newly aroused curiosity about the history of the place of her “nativity”—not its history of conquest and settlement but its African past—she finds, as will Martha Quest, that books can furnish her with little information because “from the British point of view, African history began with their arrival.” The sources she does find are linked to exploration and exploitation. An old book locates gold mines in “Chief Mshlanga's country,” and an old prospector who passes through the farm still refers to the area as “the Old Chief's country”: “That was his name for our district … ; he did not use our name for it—a new phrase which held no implication of usurped ownership” (p. 14). Already, this girlchild has far outstripped Marlow, who could no more conceive of Africans “owning” the Congo than of the trees and vines owning the soil from which they spring in strangling profusion.

The child's map is changing again—the fairy-tale map and the map of the farm as white territory have been irrevocably altered by her partial glimpses of the larger map of the veld as a continuously inhabited African place. Paradoxically, her recognition of the original ownership of Africa by free Africans allows her to experience the veld directly, to see and feel it: “When I saw a native approaching, we offered and took greetings; and slowly that other landscape in my mind faded, and my feet struck directly on African soil, and I saw the shapes of tree and hill clearly, and the black people moved back, as it were, out of my life” into their own African existence (p. 14). She sees a possibility of coexistence, ignoring, with youthful obtuseness, the weight of colonial inequities, and she expresses again the “double” position of the African-born settler, who inherits, but resists, an awareness of exile: “This is my heritage, too; I was bred here; it is my country as well as the black man's country and there is plenty of room for all of us, without elbowing each other off the pavements and roads. It seemed it was only necessary to let free that respect I felt when I was talking with Old Chief Mshlanga, to let both black and white people meet gently, with tolerance for each others' differences: it seemed quite easy” (p. 15). Of course, it is not easy. In what follows in the story, the maps of the colonial present intrude upon the girl's budding political consciousness: first the split map of African space and settler space with its uneasy boundaries and finally, inevitably, the map of power.

To complete her education as a white liberal settler, the girl must lose her idealism, must realize that innocence is not possible in the colonial position. Again, Lessing represents this spatially: the child enters the space of “fissure” as she journeys across the “wild” space of the open veld to visit the Old Chief's village. The impetus for that visit is her romanticization of the African patriarch; her former bigotry has ceded its place to what Frantz Fanon called “negrophilia,” a typical progression in the development of white liberal consciousness as Lessing portrays it.

The journey reenacts ironically the invasion of the “structured space” of the African veld by white Europeans. Chennells objects that Lessing's “epiphanies afforded by the veld” belong “to the same discourse as a man discovering his manhood in his encounter with the primitive.”9 But it is difficult to see this girlchild's “epiphany” in that light; it is too self-conscious, too aware of its Conradian resonances. The white child has brought her arrogance with her, expecting to travel free of fear, but she breaks out in “goose-flesh,” looks uneasily over her shoulder, and then “realize[s] suddenly that this was fear.” Significantly, she recalls that she “had read of this feeling” in books (p. 16); she is having a European experience of the Dark Continent, substituting the “fairy tales” of the literature of colonization for the old ones of witches and oak trees; moving, in effect, from Tennyson to Conrad.

Yet the girl realizes that her experience is “meaningless” even as it completely possesses her; here, Lessing initiates her heroine into the irremediably ironic condition of the politically awakened settler consciousness in a country where colonialism still prevails. The voice moves to second person as she describes the feeling she “had read of”: “You move warily, as if your very passing disturbs something old and evil, something dark and big and angry that might suddenly rear and strike from behind” as “the bigness and silence of Africa, under the ancient sun, grows dense and takes shape in the mind …, and a deadly spirit comes out of the trees and the rocks” (pp. 16, 17). Lessing clearly signals her satiric intent here: the girl perseveres in her journey “in a divided mind, watching [her] own pricking nerves and apprehensive glances from side to side with a disgusted amusement” (p. 17).

The visit to the village is a humiliating failure; expecting to effect some sort of intercultural meeting of minds, the girl finds instead an “indifferent village.” When she intrudes on its patriarchs, she becomes aware of her status as “a white girl” (emphasis added): that she is doubly transgressing in their eyes by “invading” their village and by “walking the veld alone as a white man might: and in this part of the bush where only Government officials had the right to move” (p. 18). She spends an awkward few minutes before the “guarded, aloof,” and implacably courteous elders and then leaves to retrace her ten-mile journey across open country. But she has learned that this is no romantically timeless enclave of the “primitive.” Although the village is picturesque, “not at all like our farm compound, a dirty and neglected place, a temporary home for migrants who had no roots in it,” she realizes that its population of “ancients and children and women” reflects colonial exigencies: “The young men were all away working on the white men's farms and mines, and the Chief must depend on relatives who were temporarily on holiday for his attendants” (p. 18). The repetition of the word “temporary” links the village to the compound; both are disrupted by the capitalist colonial enterprise.

Lessing's allegory of a settler's progress has moved from romantic delusion through liberal idealism to liberal self-conscious irony; after her visit to the village, the girl's education goes a step further: “I went slowly homewards, with an empty heart: I had learned that if one cannot call a country to heel like a dog, neither can one dismiss the past with a smile in an easy gush of feeling, saying: I could not help it, I am also a victim” (p. 19).

This “empty heart” predicts white postcolonial angst. The girl has lost her “burden” of arrogance only to discover that it is replaced by displacement. She cannot enter into a new, reciprocal relationship with the colonized: the “other” refuses to mirror her; her attempt at confrontation is deflected by the averted glance. The innocence of one “born” into the role of invader is ended by the knowledge of disparity, and the fallen take up residence in “fissure,” with its concomitant anxieties and ironies. This is the territory Lessing pioneers in her African stories. Nadine Gordimer, too, has written of the catch-22 of white liberalism, perhaps most vividly in July's People: the only moral choice in an apartheid society is one that can result only in alienation, first from the resistant mainstream society and then, if the desired end of liberation is achieved, from the no longer “oppressed.” It remains to be seen how this factor will play itself out in South Africa, where “white liberals” are now simply “whites,” part of a political minority no longer empowered by legalized racism.

Lessing's story culminates in a confrontation between two patriarchs—Chief Mshlanga and the girl's father—in which the map of white hegemony displaces all others. Against this absolute fact of colonial power, however, Lessing juxtaposes an alternative, African statement: the story's repeated phrase “This was the Old Chief's country” is finally brought into the present tense, first by the chief in his own language, then by his son in the invader's language.

The dispute is over the tribe's destruction of the farmer's mealie fields, the traditional mode of production in conflict with the colonial cash crop system. When the farmer plays his trump card, telling the Old Chief to “go to the police then,” the narrator remarks succinctly that “there was, of course, no more to be said.” But the old man says “more”; he stands, faces the farmer, and speaks “once again, very stiffly” in his own language, then turns and leaves. When the farmer insists that the Chief's son, who is the farm's cook, translate this final remark, the young man hesitates, then makes the dual decision to speak and to abandon his servant position: “‘My father says: All this land, this land you call yours, is his land, and belongs to our people.’ Having made this statement, he walked off into the bush after his father, and we did not see him again” (p. 20).

In the real world of colonial dominion which Lessing “bitterly” insisted upon portraying, discourse is not enough to alter power relations. It is the farmer who “goes to the police,” and the policeman, while playing tennis with the Native Commissioner, secures the order for the removal of the “kraal” on the veld to a native reserve some 200 miles from the tribe's ancestral holdings. The young girl visits the village site again, a year or so later, and her thoughts there are decidedly romantic in character: she waxes elegiac over the lush growth of pumpkin vines around the ruins of the mud huts that are returning to the earth. But her final image—of some “lucky” settler sinking a plow into this “vein of richness” in some inevitable future when the land has been opened for homesteading—may be less simplistic than it seems at first reading. Lessing has earlier, several times, remarked on the effects of European agricultural practices imposed upon the veld; “wide green valleys” filled with living creatures become, under colonial “wisdom,” farms “largely unused,” where “hundreds of acres of harsh eroded soil [bear] trees that had been cut for the mine furnaces and had grown thin and twisted, where the cattle had dragged the grass flat, leaving innumerable criss-crossing trails that deepened each season into gullies, under the force of the rains” (p. 16). This image—the bleak landscape of colonial exploitation—superimposes itself over the “lush warm valley” as in her vision “settler” replaces the Old Chief, and an imagined “mealie field” reminds us of the goats whose grazing triggered the dispute that led to the tribe's removal.

There are no easy resolutions in Lessing's tales of colonial “Zambesia,” the fictional name she derived to represent both Rhodesia and South Africa, “two countries … similar in atmosphere and political structure” in the time of which she wrote and for some time thereafter.10 After long struggle, those times have changed, and settlers' stories like Lessing's have become part of history. It is appropriate that even liberal “settler ideologies” be marginalized in an era when Africans write “themselves as subjects of African discourses.”11 The question arises, then, whether it is of any use to retain in social memory—in the literary canon, for example—white liberal stories of the era of white hegemony in Africa and elsewhere. I would reply that, in a postcolonial age more accurately characterized as neocolonial, examples of the art of bearing witness to political oppression are still of value, for that art is one we all must master. It would be romantic to suppose otherwise.


  1. Eve Bertelsen, “The Quest and the Quotidian: Doris Lessing in South Africa,” in In Pursuit of Doris Lessing: Nine Nations Reading, ed. Claire Sprague (London: Macmillan, 1990), p. 45. Walker's article is quoted on p. 47.

  2. Eve Bertelsen, “Veldtanschauung: Doris Lessing's Savage Africa,” Modern Fiction Studies 37 (1991): 647.

  3. Anthony Chennells, “Reading Doris Lessing's Rhodesian Stories in Zimbabwe,” in In Pursuit of Doris Lessing, ed. Sprague, p. 26. Although I take issue with Chennells's evaluation of Lessing as a romantic primitivist, I want to point out that Chennells places her Rhodesian discourse historically, in the 1940s and 1950s when “the collapse of European empires in Africa was impossible to foresee,” and he acknowledges that “her art recognizes equivalent tensions to those which are familiar today [he means rural-urban and class tensions in Zimbabwe] and her discourse around those tensions refuses closure” (p. 39).

  4. Quoted in J. Hillis Miller, Fiction and Repetition (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982), pp. 5, 6. Benjamin is quoted ibid., p. 10.

  5. This quotation and subsequent autobiographical material are from Lessing's In Pursuit of the English (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1961). Further references are given in the text.

  6. Homi K. Bhabha, from an interview by Brian Wallis in Art in America 79, no. 9 (Sept. 1991): 83.

  7. Doris Lessing, “The Old Chief Mshlanga,” in This Was the Old Chief's Country: Volume One of Doris Lessing's Collected African Stories (London: Michael Joseph, 1973), p. 11. Further references are given in the text.

  8. Chennells, “Reading Doris Lessing's Rhodesian Stories in Zimbabwe,” p. 25.

  9. Ibid., p. 26.

  10. Claire Sprague's introduction to In Pursuit of Doris Lessing, p. 6. In the Martha Quest novels, Lessing named her fictional colony “Zambesia,” a change, Sprague notes, which “metaphorically denies”—I would say, acknowledges—“white appropriation of the land and returns it to its owners” (p. 6).

  11. Chennells, “Reading Doris Lessing's Rhodesian Stories in Zimbabwe,” p. 39.

Janina Nordius (essay date spring 1999)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1043

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 pursues one of Eliot's most central themes in The Waste Land and writes back from the woman's point of view.

“To Room Nineteen” addresses Eliot's tableau in part 2 of The Waste Land that features a woman sitting before a mirror, brushing her hair:

Under the firelight, under the brush, her hair
Spread out in fiery points
Glowed into words, then would be savagely still.(2)

The scene is reproduced twice in Lessing's story, as Susan Rawlings sits “running the brush over her hair again and again, lifting fine black clouds in a small hiss of electricity,” while watching her husband in the mirror.3 In Lessing as well as Eliot, this scene stands out as an icon of the failure of genuine communication, even between would-be lovers, that both writers clearly blame on the general cultural and spiritual climate of the twentieth century; this might also, by some readers, be seen as a phenomenon of gender. The discourse of “intelligence,” which so completely dominates the Rawlingses in Lessing's story, effectively excludes speaking of any other, not-so-rational experience. And whereas historically, on a broader scale, this discourse may be seen as resulting from the seventeenth-century “dissociation of sensibility,” from which Eliot famously claims “we have never recovered,”4 it is often viewed by feminist readers as working specifically to the disadvantage of female self-expression.

By shifting the focus from the man to the woman in the sterile scene in front of the mirror, Lessing radically transforms Eliot's “story.” Thus, whereas the anonymous woman in The Waste Land comes across as plain neurotic and totally insensitive to her partner's more refined inner monologue, in “To Room Nineteen” the man is the one who fails to appreciate the register used by his wife. As Susan Rawlings gives up on intelligence, her experience of self “glows into” another kind of “words”—into the “hiss, hiss” of her hair under the brush (379), for example. The “hiss, hiss” in Lessing's story signifies much and draws as much on the imagery and the literary and mythical allusion used by Eliot as on The Waste Land itself. In this register of imagery and allusion, never voiced except as “hissing” but nonetheless manifest in Susan's thoughts, we are given an alternative story of Susan Rawlings.

In this alternative story, Lessing has her protagonist intuit the decline of her marriage in images of general cultural decay by drawing—like Eliot—on biblical as well as classical mythology. The Edenic garden which is the prominent setting of the “happy” marriage (353) soon turns into an arid “desert” as innocence is lost (357): Matthew embarks on his extramarital affairs and Susan finds herself a prisoner in her role as self-sacrificing angel-in-the-house. But perhaps the loss of the golden age might in fact be inherent in the construct of “intelligent” and responsible marriage itself. Thinking of her husband's affairs, Susan finds herself “secretly wishing […] that the wildness and the beauty could be his” (357)—the “wildness” and “beauty,” we are to understand, of unrestricted joy and delight, unhampered by marital bonds or moral obligations. But, she realizes, “he was married to her. She was married to him. They were married inextricably. And therefore the gods could not strike him with the real magic, not really” (357).

Just as Eliot did in The Waste Land, Lessing conspicuously uses the images of river and water as vehicles for her protagonist's critique of modern marriage. For Susan Rawlings, water comes to represent the vitalizing element in the dubious domestic bargain she enters into with her husband, a bargain that sentences “her soul” to stay put in the house, “so that the people in it could grow like plants in water” (373). It is by turning to the river for comfort, “taking it into her being, into her veins” (364), that Susan barely survives the draining of her powers implicit in this nurturing commitment. As it runs past the Rawlingses' garden-turned-wasteland at Richmond, the river Thames also serves to evoke, once more, the lost vitality of love. The contrast between “civilized” love gone stale and its lost “wildness” is poignantly captured in the image of the Rawlingses' “big civilised bedroom overlooking the wild sullied river” (358). Yet, the river is also said to be “sullied,” if not by the “empty bottles, sandwich papers, [… and] other testimony of summer nights” that litter Eliot's “Sweet Thames,” then by the same cultural squalor and spiritual decay affecting love and marriage that made Eliot look back to Spenser's wedding song for a lost golden age.5

Whereas in Eliot the use of myth and allusion seem ultimately to suggest some hope and consolation,6 no such relief awaits Lessing's protagonist. The “hissing” that we attribute to the snake in the garden and hear literally reproduced by the stream of gas sends her drifting “off into the dark river.” It suggests, in the end, only insanity and death (367, 386). This, then, is perhaps Lessing's most significant departure from Eliot: She uses his nostalgia to produce a woman's perspective on the alienation fostered by modern society and its celebration of “intelligence,” then finally dismisses this nostalgia, too, as an impracticable approach to contemporary life.


  1. Claire Sprague, “Lessing's The Grass Is Singing, Retreat to Innocence, The Golden Notebook and Eliot'sThe Waste Land,Explicator 50.3 (1992): 178.

  2. T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land, The Complete Poems and Plays of T. S. Eliot (1922; London: Guild, 1969) 108-10.

  3. Doris Lessing, “To Room Nineteen,” To Room Nineteen: Collected Stories, vol. 1 (1963; London: Harper, 1994) 372-73, 378. All quotations from the story are from this edition.

  4. T. S. Eliot, “The Metaphysical Poets,” Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot, ed. Frank Kermode (1921; New York: Harcourt, 1975) 64.

  5. Eliot, The Waste Land 176-79. Eliot's reference in line 176 to “Sweet Thames” echoes Spenser's refrain in Prothalamion.

  6. Eliot, The Waste Land 431.

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Doris Lessing World Literature Analysis


Lessing, Doris (Feminism in Literature)