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.
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.
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.