Doris Lessing Lessing, Doris (Feminism in Literature) - Essay


(Feminism in Literature)

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."

Principal Works

(Feminism in Literature)

The Grass Is Singing (novel) 1950

* Martha Quest (novel) 1952

This Was the Old Chief's Country (short stories) 1952

Before the Deluge (drama) 1953

Five: Short Novels (novellas) 1953

* A Proper Marriage (novel) 1954

A Retreat to Innocence (novel) 1956

Going Home (essays) 1957

The Habit of Loving (short stories) 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

A Man and Two Women (short stories) 1963

African Stories (short stories) 1964

* Landlocked (novel) 1965

The Storm [adaptor; from a drama by Alexander Ostrovsky] (drama) 1966

Winter in July (short stories) 1966

Particularly Cats (autobiographical essay) 1967

Nine African Stories 1968

The Four-Gated City (novel) 1969

Briefing for a Descent into Hell (novel) 1971

The Story of a Non-Marrying Man and Other Stories [also published as The Temptation of Jack Orkney and Other Stories] (short stories) 1972

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

Collected Stories. 2 vols. [also published as Stories] (short stories) 1978

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 Old Could … [as Jane Somers] (novel) 1984

The Good Terrorist (novel) 1985

Prisons We Choose To Live Inside (essays) 1987

The Wind Blows Away Our Words (nonfiction) 1987

The Fifth Child (novel) 1988

African Laughter: Four Visits to Zimbabwe (nonfiction) 1992

The Real Thing (short stories and sketches) 1992

Under My Skin: Volume One of My Autobiography, to 1949 (autobiography) 1994

Playing the Game (graphic novel) 1995

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

The Grandmothers: Four Short Novels (novellas) 2004

* 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.

Primary Sources

(Feminism in Literature)

SOURCE: Lessing, Doris. "Preface to The Golden Notebook." In A Small Personal Voice, edited by Paul Schlueter, pp. 23-43. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974.

In the following excerpt from the preface to The Golden Notebook, Lessing discusses the mixed reaction of women to the novel, the novel's original intent and central themes, and her support for the women's rights movement.

The shape of this novel is as follows:

There is a skeleton, or frame, called Free Women, which is a conventional short novel, about 60,000 words long, and which could stand by itself. But it is divided into five sections and separated by stages of the four Notebooks, Black, Red, Yellow, and Blue. The Notebooks are kept by Anna Wulf, a central character of Free Women. She keeps four and not one because, as she recognises, she has to separate things off from each other, out of fear of chaos, of formlessness—of breakdown. Pressures, inner and outer, end the Notebooks; a heavy black line is drawn across the page of one after another. But now that they are finished, from their fragments can come something new, The Golden Notebook.

Throughout the Notebooks people have discussed, theorised, dogmatised, labelled, compartmented—sometimes in voices so general and representative of the time that they are anonymous, you could put names to them like those in the old Morality Plays, Mr. Dogma and Mr. I-Am-Free-Because-I-Belong-Nowhere, Miss I-Must-Have-Love-and-Happiness and Mrs. I-Have-to-Be-Good-at-Everything-I-Do, Mr. Where-Is-a-Real-Woman? and Miss Where-Is-a-Real-Man?, Mr. I'm-Mad-Because-They-Say-I-Am, and Miss Life-Through-Experiencing-Everything, Mr. I-Make-Revolution-and-Therefore-I-Am, and Mr. and Mrs. If-We-Deal-Very-Well-with-This-Small-Problem-Then-Perhaps-We-Can-Forget-We-Daren't-Lookat-the-Big-Ones. But they have also reflected each other, been aspects of each other, given birth to each other's thoughts and behaviour—are each other, form wholes. In the inner Golden Notebook, things have come together, the divisions have broken down, there is formlessness with the end of fragmentation—the triumph of the second theme, which is that of unity. Anna and Saul Green the American "break down." They are crazy, lunatic, mad—what you will. They "break down" into each other, into other people, break through the false patterns they have made of their pasts, the patterns and formulas they have made to shore up themselves and each other, dissolve. They hear each other's thoughts, recognise each other in themselves. Saul Green, the man who has been envious and destructive of Anna, now supports her, advises her, gives her the theme for her next book, Free Women—an ironical title, which begins: "The two women were alone in the London flat." And Anna, who has been jealous of Saul to the point of insanity, possessive and demanding, gives Saul the pretty new notebook, The Golden Notebook, which she has previously refused to do, gives him the theme for his next book, writing in it the first sentence: "On a dry hillside in Algeria a soldier watched the moonlight glinting on his rifle." In the inner Golden Notebook, which is written by both of them, you can no longer distinguish between what is Saul and what is Anna, and between them and the other people in the book.

This theme of "breakdown," that sometimes when people "crack up" it is a way of self-healing, of the inner self's dismissing false dichotomies and divisions, has of course been written about by other people, as well as by me, since then. But this is where, apart from the odd short story, I first wrote about it. Here it is rougher, more close to experience, before experience has shaped itself into thought and pattern—more valuable perhaps because it is rawer material.

But nobody so much as noticed this central theme, because the book was instantly belittled, by friendly reviewers as well as by hostile ones, as being about the sex war, or was claimed by women as a useful weapon in the sex war.

I have been in a false position ever since, for the last thing I have wanted to do was to refuse to support women.

To get the subject of Women's Liberation over with—I support it, of course, because women are second-class citizens, as they are saying energetically and competently in many countries. It can be said that they are succeeding, if only to the extent they are being seriously listened to. All kinds of people previously hostile or indifferent say: "I support their aims but I don't like their shrill voices and their nasty ill-mannered ways." This is an inevitable and easily recognisable stage in every revolutionary movement: reformers must expect to be disowned by those who are only too happy to enjoy what has been won for them. I don't think that Women's Liberation will change much, though—not because there is anything wrong with their aims but because it is already clear that the whole world is being shaken into a new pattern by the cataclysms we are living...

(The entire section is 2118 words.)

Elayne Antler Rapping (Essay Date 1975)

(Feminism in Literature)

SOURCE: Rapping, Elayne Antler. "Unfree Women: Feminism in Doris Lessing's Novels." Women's Studies 3, no. 1 (1975): 29-44.

In the following essay, Rapping explores how Lessing's female protagonists shape feminine identity and experience, especially within the context of a male-dominated society, in The Golden Notebook and Children of Violence.

The men that we call great are those who … have taken the weight of the world upon their shoulders; they have done better or worse, they have succeeded in re-creating it or they have gone down; but first they have assumed that...

(The entire section is 6461 words.)

Agate Nesaule Krouse (Essay Date November 1976)

(Feminism in Literature)

SOURCE: Krouse, Agate Nesaule. "Doris Lessing's Feminist Plays." World Literature Written in English 15, no. 2 (November 1976): 305-22.

In the following essay, Krouse asserts that Lessing's plays Each His Own Wilderness and Play with a Tiger are "essential to understanding precisely the feminism of Doris Lessing."


Critics of Doris Lessing's work have concentrated primarily on her fiction. Her novels, especially The Golden Notebook and the Children of Violence series, have received careful attention. Her numerous short stories have been...

(The entire section is 7522 words.)

Title Commentary

(Feminism in Literature)


SOURCE: Brooks, Ellen W. "The Image of Woman in Lessing's The Golden Notebook." Critique 15, no. 1 (1973): 101-09.

In the following essay, Brooks studies Anna, the protagonist of The Golden Notebook, as she struggles to transcend her divided self and archetypal female roles in order to emerge as a more aware, liberated woman.

Doris Lessing is one of the most wide-ranging and comprehensive of contemporary novelists. Her strong, straightforward prose has embraced a number of modern social, political, and psychological...

(The entire section is 2984 words.)

Further Reading

(Feminism in Literature)


Seligman, Dee. Doris Lessing: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1981, 139 p.

Comprehensive bibliography of criticism on Lessing's canon through 1978.


Brewster, Dorothy. Doris Lessing. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1965, 173 p.

Biography that traces major plots and themes in Less-ing's early fiction.

Klein, Carol. Doris Lessing: A Biography. London: Duckworth, 2000, 283 p.


(The entire section is 665 words.)