Doris Lessing

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Lessing, Doris (Vol. 1)

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Lessing, Doris 1919–

A British novelist, poet, and playwright, Mrs. Lessing was born in Persia and grew up in Southern Rhodesia, the setting of many of her novels. She is best known for The Golden Notebook and the five-volume "Children of Violence." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-10.)

[The] three novels [of "Children of Violence"] after a promising start have declined into trivia. The main line of the narrative has become lost in details, the characterization drowned in inconsequential acts. When Miss Lessing moves away from what she knows best—the land, family relationships, the frustration of meaningless affections—then she loses her vigor and becomes tedious. The three novels of the series do not maintain the standard set by The Grass Is Singing, which whips itself into a fury and provides as fine a first novel as any in the fifties.

Frederick R. Karl, in his A Reader's Guide to the Contemporary English Novel (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1962 by Frederick R. Karl), Farrar, Straus, 1962, pp. 282-83.

One of the best first novels of our time was Doris Lessing's The Grass Is Singing (1950)…. It heralds one of Doris Lessing's two main themes, the relationship between the races in Africa. The other is the problem of being a woman in what is largely a man's world….

As a work of art, The Golden Notebook seems to me to fail. The structure is clumsy, complicated rather than complex. But all the same it is most impressive in its honesty and integrity, and unique, it seems to me, as an exposition of the emotional problems that face an intelligent woman who wishes to live in the kind of freedom a man may take for granted. The comparison commonly made by English reviewers was with Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex: the comparison indicates its merit, the nature of its interest and also, perhaps, its limitations as a novel. Its main interest seems to be sociological; but that said, it must also be said that it is essential reading for anyone interested in our times and the response of them of a formidably intelligent and independent-minded woman.

Walter Allen, in his The Modern Novel (© 1964 by Walter Allen; published by E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc. and used with their permission), Dutton, 1964, pp. 276-77.

Since the conspicuous success in 1950 of her first novel, The Grass Is Singing, Doris Lessing … has been recognized as one of the most gifted of the younger group of English novelists…. Those of Doris Lessing's novels and stories that deal with the people and ways of life of Southern Rhodesia before, during, and after World War II have acquired something of the significance of social and political history. They illumine aspects of that past out of which the present is being painfully shaped. (p. 5)

[The Grass Is Singing] leaves an impression of controlled detachment…. One feels that everything—people, landscape, social order, and attitudes—has been closely observed and reflected upon, that there have been pity and indignation in the process, which make themselves felt in a bitter undercurrent of judgment on the conditions that make such tragic failures possible…. Detachment and understatement increase the horror of the book. But there is another feeling, which grows stronger towards the end, of a compulsive drive toward death and ruin. (p. 40)

All [of Mrs. Lessing's] African stories create in the reader's imagination a total impression of an African landscape—south-central geographically—a landscape with figures and an immense overarching sky…. And not only human figures....

(This entire section contains 2275 words.)

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Because of the vivid descriptions of insect and animal life, the reader carries away nightmarish visions of ants, destroying abandoned homes, stripping the bones of dead or dying animals, eating out galleries in mud walls…. Mrs. Lessing conveys the beauty of the landscape as naturally as she writes. But there is another impression, too, and that is fear…. This fear is never made the dominant theme of a story, but it recurs as a minor note often enough with different people to make it a significant part of our impression of Africa. (pp. 60-1)

Mrs. Lessing early in her career chose the straight, broad, direct style of narrative—a style that would be familiar to a devoted reader of the great nineteenth-century novelists. She writes in that style in most of [her] fiction … up to The Golden Notebook. There she had things to say that required a departure from the formal novel, and she tried to find a shape that would contain them. (pp. 160-61)

The world is very much with [Mrs. Lessing]. She is deeply committed to the humanism of the nineteenth-century classics: the warmth, the compassion, the love of people, which makes these old novels a statement of belief in man.

For a time she was depressed because she thought it likely that the novel might be on its way out altogether—born of the middle class, it might die with it. But the novelist has one advantage denied to many other artists: the novel is the only popular art form where the artist speaks directly in clear words to his audience…. Mrs. Lessing's personal voice speaks out of the experience of having been brought up at the center of a modern battlefield, in a society undergoing rapid dramatic change. (p. 162)

Dorothy Brewster, in her Doris Lessing, Twayne, 1965.

Mrs. Lessing has been concerned in virtually all her fiction with [these] problems …: the white-black struggles in southern colonial Africa, the physical and emotional relationships between men and women, the acute struggle of the "free woman" to survive and create for herself a meaningful life in a man's world, the left-wing movements to which idealistic young people pledged their allegiances in the 1930's and 1940's, and, especially in what is surely one of the finest English novels of our time and Mrs. Lessing's finest accomplishment, The Golden Notebook (1962), the role of the novelist in today's society. Mrs. Lessing is frequently linked with two other woman writers also concerned with sex, communism, and the "free woman," but Mary McCarthy is considerably more acidly satiric and self-consciously intellectual, and Simone de Beauvoir is more deliberately "philosophical" and less a novelist and craftsman than a propagandist. But the unique thematic and conceptual qualities of Mrs. Lessing's fiction, and the manner in which these are developed and expanded, warrant a discussion of her as a major writer in her own right, not merely as an English parallel to other writers. For there is no one quite like, or even close to, Mrs. Lessing in the intensity of her commitment both to the social and personal issues suggested above and, also, to certain theories of the novelist's craft….

["Children of Violence," comparable] in scope and breadth with the series currently in progress by such other contemporary British writers as C. P. Snow and Anthony Powell, but surpassing these, I believe, in depth of character analysis, tells of Martha Quest's maturation and invitation into all the areas of life mentioned in the earlier works. Martha, a highly idealistic younger girl, desires not only to be "free" but also to change the world in terms of criteria not shared by the white rulers of colonial Africa….

The "Children of Violence" series was interrupted after the third volume for a novel [The Golden Notebook] which has come not only to be Mrs. Lessing's best known and most widely praised work, but also one of the most significant, original pieces of fiction written in the postwar years. Aside from the all-absorbing power with which Mrs. Lessing's familiar themes are developed, and aside from the magnificent writing with which the book abounds, it is important on purely structural grounds, since it … attempts to make the novel as a form do more than it has done in this generation, and to present, in an admittedly complex and complicated manner, the several identities of the human psyche, to develop these identities in parallel and contrapuntal fashion, and to carry the entire series of relationships these identities imply through both time and space. But it is considerably more than a virtuoso performance, more than a clever tour de force of incomprehensibility. Despite the novel's complexity of form, it contains perfectly comprehensible characters, incidents, relationships between people, and language; its complexity arises more from a structural than a stylistic technique….

In theme, The Golden Notebook parallels Mrs. Lessing's other novels, and in some ways develops the themes to their logical extreme. Anna Wulf appears at times to be a middle-aged Martha Quest, with the same history, the same concerns and interests, the same all-encompassing obsession with self-analysis, freedom as a woman in a man's world, and the desire to commit oneself to some lasting, satisfying raison d'être. Anna presumably is a representative "free woman," concerned not only with the self-analysis with which contemporary novels abound, but also with important issues of the larger world—political, social, literary, racial, etc. Highly intelligent and sensitive to human desires and motivations, Anna chooses deliberately to be what she is, and, wtih manifest self-dignity, creates her own life….

Probably more than in any other novel, The Golden Notebook captures the authentic quality of what it is to be a woman, especially a woman in a man's world, and even more especially a woman who frankly admits the existence of her sexuality, her neuroses, her intellect, her desperation in living, her disgust at the mediocre so feverishly sought by those of either sex who are themselves mediocre, her refusal to compromise her essential being….

[The] commitment she has made to writing, the commitment she as a free woman has found most meaningful in our world today, is an opportune and gratifying one, and is likely to become one of the most felicitous commitments ever made to English literature.

Paul Schlueter, "Doris Lessing: The Free Woman's Commitment" (© 1965 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), in Contemporary British Novelists, edited by Charles Shapiro, Southern Illinois University Press, 1965, pp. 48-61.

When I first read Lessing, I was aware that she echoed some other humanist, but I was unable to identify him. Then I read Irving Howe's review of The Golden Notebook; of course, Lessing's humanism reiterated Forster's. Suddenly, I saw her works as dealing with the reconciliation of opposites as his do. Thinking further about Lessing in conjunction with Forster proves fruitful. Her definition of humanism is fleshed out by his. Admittedly, her liberalism is more strident, her prose more tough-headed. Yet if the two are not identical, they are close in spirit, and Forster can be admirably used to illuminate Lessing….

While Lessing seems to say that what one sees when one sees steadily and whole is fragmentation, The Golden Notebook is far different from the "golden notebook." Lessing's work is an aesthetic whole uniting all the fragments. Equally important, while the characters are rendered as "split" and aware of that division, they try desperately to heal themselves. The image of a world in which neither sex is divided, in which both right personal and right collective relationships are possible, is the implicit background against which the novel must be seen….

Both Forster and Lessing have taken "connecting" as their primary theme. Lessing has explicitly stated her intention in "A Small Personal Voice." Implicitly, those of her works which demonstrate the tragic effect of not connecting the public and private sphere, of not consistently balancing the inner and outer life, of not honestly and openly expressing the affections reassert that intention.

Selma R. Burkom, "'Only Connect': Form and Content in the Works of Doris Lessing," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XI, No. 1, 1968, pp. 51-68.

Doris Lessing's The Four-Gated City brings to definitive conclusion the ["Children of Violence"] novels. The fifth novel in this Bildungsroman (Mrs. Lessing's own term), it traces Martha Quest's … adventures from the time she lands in England, a self-imposed exile from the racist, reactionary regime in Zambesia, which she had found intolerable. There is no question about the finality of the book, for in the epilogue Martha is one of the relatively few survivors in the 1970s from a catastrophe that annihilated the British Isles. In the last pages we learn also that Martha dies in 1998: We are in some uncertainty as to the origin of the holocaust, but it was an apparent accident, a leaking from a chemical gas tank or a fortuitous explosion of nuclear weapons. The catastrophe is the more gratuitous and senseless for being accidental, but the more incisive for its implicit comment upon bourgeois civilization as one that foments its own destruction.

Frederick P. W. McDowell, in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 11, No. 3, 1970 (© 1970 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), p. 424.

The most considerable single work by an English author in the 1960s has been done by Doris Lessing, in The Golden Notebook (1962). It is a carefully organized but verbose, almost clumsily-written novel, and if we were to view it solely as an aesthetic experience, we might lose most of its force. The book's strength lies not in its arrangement of the several notebooks which make up its narrative and certainly not in the purely literary quality of the writing, but in the wide range of Mrs. Lessing's interests, and, more specifically, in her attempt to write honestly about women. To be honest about women in the sixties is, for Mrs. Lessing, tantamount to a severe moral commitment, indeed almost a religious function, in some ways a corollary of her political fervor in the fifties.

Frederick R. Karl, "Doris Lessing in the Sixties: The New Anatomy of Melancholy," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 13, No. 1, 1972 (© 1972 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), pp. 15-33.


Lessing, Doris (Feminism in Literature)


Lessing, Doris (Vol. 10)