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, and Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam. The novel follows Martha as she travels to England where she experiences an apocalyptic vision. Britain—and later the entire world—are destroyed in The Four-Gated City (1969), a novel in which Martha comes to realize the limitations of rational thought and seeks to understand and embrace the collective consciousness and the higher truth of her own intuition.
The Golden Notebook (1962) centers on novelist Anna Freeman Wulf, whose life is represented by four "notebooks." Characterized by a symbolic color and narrated from different perspectives, each notebook incorporates aspects of Wulf's latest novel in narratives that assume multiple levels of significance. The title of the novel refers to Anna's desperate attempt to integrate her fragmented experiences in order to achieve wholeness through art. Similarly, The Summer Before the Dark (1973) focuses on a middle-aged woman who has a brief affair with a younger man as a means to rediscover a sense of identity. Lessing's "space fiction" series—"Canopus in Argos: Archives"—concerns three competing galactic empires: the benign Canopeans, the self-centered Sirians, and the evil Shammat. The series continues Lessing's interest in Sufism, stressing the interconnectedness of one's own fate and well-being to that of others. Manipulating events on Earth to retain a gene pool for their own immortality, these empires continue to affect human history through the intervention of immortal beings. Lessing's series of novels written under the pseudonym "Jane Somers"—The Diary of a Good Neighbour (1983) and If the Old Could … (1984)—feature the diaries of a woman named Janna who struggles with her mistakes and an acceptance of herself. In The Good Terrorist (1985) a middle-class woman's extreme liberal idealism leads her to organize a group of would-be revolutionaries who commit an act of terrorism. The rhetoric of contemporary political slogans plays a key role in the novel. The Fifth Child (1988) concerns a violent, antisocial child named Ben who wreaks havoc on his family and society. Its sequel, Ben, in the World (2000), follows Ben as he enters adulthood. In 2001 Lessing published The Sweetest Dream, a novel that examines the lasting effects of war through the relationship of Frances Lennox—a self-described "earth mother" living in the 1960s—and a group of post-war children that she takes into her home. In The Grandmothers (2004), Lessing continues to probe the human condition and questions about love, identity, and race.
Lessing has been recognized as one of the most accomplished writers of the twentieth century. Critics have praised the tension and immediacy in Lessing's work that is generated by her use of realistic descriptions, symbolism, and detailed imagery. Lessing's distinct, unapologetic rendering of marriage and motherhood, her anti-apartheid stance, and her experimentation with genre and form have made Lessing an exciting—and often controversial—literary figure. Initially criticized by some commentators for her "unfeminine" depictions of female anger and discontent, Lessing is now often commended for her candid portrayals of female characters who struggle with their roles and the division between their emotional and intellectual needs. According to Ellen W. Brooks, Lessing's appeal in her fiction "rests largely on her treatment of woman in modern life, the most thorough and accurate of any in literature. Her achievement is all the more significant in that so few writers have presented women with whom one can identify—complex, intelligent, questioning women who are not content with the status quo, who rebel against the established order."