Doris Lessing Lessing, Doris (Vol. 170)

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Doris Lessing 1919-

(Born Doris May Taylor; has also written under the pseudonym Jane Somers) Persian-born English novelist, short story writer, essayist, playwright, poet, nonfiction writer, autobiographer, and travel writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Lessing's career through 2002. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 3, 6, 10, 15, 22, 40, and 94.

Considered among the most significant writers of the post-World War II generation, Lessing has explored many of the most important ideals, ideologies, and social issues of the twentieth century in her prolific body of work. Her oeuvre displays a broad spectrum of interests and concerns, ranging from racism, communism, and feminism to psychology and mysticism. Lessing began her career in the 1950s, writing fiction in the realist mode that focused on the theme of racial injustice. As her writing developed, Lessing began focusing on strong-willed, independent heroines who suffer emotional crises in male-dominated societies, anticipating many of the major feminist concerns of the late 1960s and 1970s. The major unifying theme of her work explores the need for the individual to confront his or her most fundamental assumptions about life as a way of avoiding preconceived belief systems and achieving psychic and emotional wholeness.

Biographical Information

Lessing was born in Persia (now Iran) to English parents who moved their family to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) when she was very young. She was educated in a convent school and later a government-run school for girls before her formal education ended at the age of thirteen. A voracious reader, Lessing had excelled in school and continued her education on her own through the wealth of books her mother ordered from London. By age 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 autobiographical The Grass Is Singing—centering on an unhappy woman living on an impoverished, isolated farm in Rhodesia—until 1950. In 1939 she married Frank Wisdom, a much older man, with whom she had two children. The marriage, which lasted only four years, inspired A Proper Marriage (1954), considered one of her most autobiographical novels. Lessing joined the Communist Party in the early 1940s—she severed her ties to the party during the early 1950s—and subsequently met and married Gottfried Lessing, a Jewish German with whom she had a son, Peter. In 1949 the couple separated when Gottfried moved to East Germany and Lessing and Peter moved to England.

Major Works

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 life on a Rhodesian farm. The wife vents her hatred of her social and political situation on an African man, whom she eventually provokes into killing her. Lessing's highly acclaimed “Children of Violence” series traces the intellectual development of Martha Quest, a fictional heroine who resembles Lessing in several ways. 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, later facing the tragedies of World War II. Over the course of the series, Martha progresses from personal, self-centered concerns to a larger awareness of others and the world around her as she explores various beliefs in pursuit of psychic wholeness. Martha Quest (1952) is a bildungsroman in which 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 (1966)—a novel considered by many to be an abrupt departure...

(The entire section is 42,164 words.)