Considered a significant writer of the post-World War II generation, Lessing has explored many of the most significant ideologies and social issues of the twentieth century. Her prolific body of work displays many interests and concerns, ranging from racism, Communism, and feminism, to psychology and mysticism. Lessing began her career in the 1950s, writing realist fiction that focused on themes of racial injustice and colonialism. As her writing developed, Lessing began to compose fiction that anticipated many major feminist concerns of the late 1960s and 1970s. Her strong-willed, independent heroines often suffer emotional crises in male-dominated societies and must struggle with dominant sociopolitical constructs to reach higher levels of identity and liberation. A consistent theme cultivated throughout her work is the need for individuals to confront their fundamental assumptions about life in order to transcend preconceived belief systems and acquire self-awareness.
Lessing was born in Persia (now Iran) to English parents who moved their family to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in the hopes of successful farming. She was educated in a convent school and later a government-run all-girls school, but her formal education ended at the age of thirteen. A voracious reader, Lessing had excelled in school and continued her education by reading the wealth of books her mother ordered from London. By the age of eighteen, Lessing had written two drafts for novels and was selling stories to South African magazines, although she would not publish her first novel, The Grass Is Singing, until 1950. In 1939 she married Frank Wisdom, a much older man with whom she had two children. The marriage, which lasted four years, inspired A Proper Marriage (1954), considered one of her most acutely autobiographical novels. Lessing joined the Communist Party in the early 1940s and also met and married Gottfried Lessing, a Jewish German with whom she had a son, Peter. In 1949 the couple separated, and Lessing and Peter moved to England. In London, Lessing established herself as a fiction writer, critic, journalist, and political activist. Though she severed her ties to the Communist party in the mid-fifties, in 1956 she was banned from returning to Rhodesia, presumably for anti-apartheid sentiments expressed in her writings. Although details of Lessing's personal life are limited, critics agree that her fiction draws significantly from her own experiences. Lessing continues to live in England.
The Grass Is Singing introduces two of Lessing's major recurring themes: the causes and effects of racism ("the colour bar") and the myriad ways that history and politics can determine the course of a person's life. The novel focuses on a white couple's impoverished, isolated life on a Rhodesian farm and the wife's reaction to her social and political condition. Lessing's highly acclaimed Children of Violence series is a bildungsroman that traces the intellectual and emotional development of Martha Quest. Like Lessing, Martha is a "child of violence" born at the end of World War I and raised in a bleak post-war era of social struggle, who must later face the tragedies of World War II. Over the course of the series, Martha moves away from personal, self-centered concerns to a broader awareness of others and the world around her. Imbedded in this process, though, is a keen exploration of feminine identity, creativity, and sexuality within a male-dominated space. In Martha Quest, (1952) Martha attempts to escape her restricted upbringing and her domineering mother. A Proper Marriage and A Ripple from the Storm (1958) recount Martha's two unsuccessful marriages to politically ambitious men and her involvement in left-wing, anti-apartheid, Communist activities. Landlocked (1965)—considered by many as an abrupt departure from the preceding concerns of the Children of Violence series—reflects Lessing's emerging interest in telepathy, extrasensory perception,...
(The entire section is 21,312 words.)