Doris Lessing Lessing, Doris (Vol. 6)

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Lessing, Doris (Vol. 6)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Lessing, Doris 1919–

Ms Lessing, an English novelist, short story writer, poet, essayist, and playwright, was born in Persia and raised in Southern Rhodesia. John Wain has written that, "for sheer poise, I don't think there has been a writer to touch her since Jane Austen." Doris Lessing's two great themes are the shameful mistreatment of blacks by whites and the equally deplorable role of women in a male-oriented society. Although most frequently praised for her long fiction, this prodigiously talented writer has been called the most masterful short story writer since D. H. Lawrence. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

[Doris Lessing] has tried to see personal and social conflicts removed from dry dogmatism, glib pragmatism, or unimpeachable but generally unworkable philosophies, and to gain an objective but passionate view of man by examining the "individual conscience in its relation with the collective" at those points of rest operating within the eye of the storm.

This has, again and again, been the theme of most of her prolific writing, best developed in two works: the energetic, skillful, somewhat overweight but immensely forceful Golden Notebook, and her extraordinary novel sequence, Children of Violence…. The Golden Notebook is technically less adroit than The Counterfeiters (which Gide pulled off with the minimum of longeurs), or The Death of Virgil (which Broch inflated with the maximum of poetic instinct), and in the long run less satisfying or comprehensive—and perhaps somewhat less relevant—than Children of Violence which works equally well as Bildungsroman, autobiography, political and social history, science fiction and prophecy, and as a tentative statement of a writer committed to (and consequently alienated from) our age. (pp. 1-2)

Though her great theme is violence, Mrs. Lessing writes coolly, dispassionately, logically, using the standard novelistic techniques of repetition, reinforcement, and—until the final plunge into the future in volume five—strict chronology. Seldom is she self-indulgent, save for an occasional sortie into Lawrencean impressionism when filling in the beauty or bleakness of a landscape, or in describing varieties of sexual tension. Her prose, however, is never as obliquely charged or—surprising for a poet—as poetic as Lawrence's, but direct and explicit, even when rhapsodic. Such predictability and dispassion lend a certain aura of disenchantment to long sections of the series, and the virtue of fidelity often points up an irritating flaw: a scrupulous exactitude for telling Martha's every germinating hope or fear in the early volumes and for setting down her emotional and political dialogues in the later ones. [Martha Quest is the heroine of the Children of Violence novels.] And all this free of innuendo, surprise, or comedy. Like Snow's, Mrs. Lessing's work attains a kind of suprarealism, but unlike his, her style is not a matter of inability to flog language into novelistic servitude. Rather we have a bold attempt at showing how an intelligence theoretically primed for every commitment fails before the actuality of the commitment itself. Martha—particularly in her obsession to be free—is cast ironically, though it is evident that the author sides with her heroine more often than against her, the gap between them bridged as much by sympathy as by the preoccupation of rationalizing Martha's every act. (pp. 3-4)

[In] Children of Violence "growth" and "change" are made more synonymous than they ought be, the distinction between them is more blurred than it should be, or they are both written off by the author. Martha is … a freakish vestige of all the idealists of our time who looked for sanity and happiness at "the growing point," a parody of change in a world that now evolves rapidly through mutation, a world of monsters created out of our own monstrosity. (pp. 6-7)

Martha's reactions are distressingly uniform (withdrawal, introspection, petulance, anger, pessimism,...

(The entire section is 16,179 words.)