Doris Lessing Lessing, Doris (Vol. 94)

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Doris Lessing 1919–

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

The following entry provides an overview of Lessing's career from 1988 through 1995. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 3, 6, 10, 15, 22, and 40.

Considered among the most significant writers of the postwar generation, Lessing has explored many of the most important ideas, ideologies, and social issues of the twentieth century. Her works display a broad range of interests and concerns, including racism, communism, feminism, psychology, and mysticism. The major unifying theme of her work is the need for individuals to confront their 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 still very young. She was educated in a convent school and then a government-run school for girls before her formal education ended at the age of thirteen. Always a precocious reader, Lessing had excelled at 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—which centers 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 that she neglected and left in the care of relatives. 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. The marriage was short-lived, however: Gottfried went to East Germany and Lessing and Peter moved to England. She has lived in London since 1949.

Major Works

Lessing's first novel, The Grass Is Singing, was one of the first books to confront the issue of apartheid. In this story of an impoverished white couple's farm life, the wife vents her hatred of her social and political situation on a black man, whom she eventually provokes into killing her. The novel established two of Lessing's early major concerns: racism, or "the colour bar," and the way that historical and political circumstances can determine the course of a person's life. Lessing also established a strong reputation as a short story writer early in her career. Among her most acclaimed volumes of short fiction are Five: Short Novels (1953), The Habit of Loving (1957), and African Stories (1964), all of which deal with racial concerns in African settings and with the emancipation of modern women. Her growing reputation was secured with the highly acclaimed "Children of Violence" series, in which she traces the intellectual development of Martha Quest, a fictional heroine who resembles Lessing in several ways. Martha, like Lessing, is a "child of violence" born at the end of World War I, raised in the bleak postwar era of social struggle, and faced with the tragedies of World War II. In the course of the series, as Martha progresses from personal, self-centered concerns to a larger awareness of others and the world around her, she pursues various beliefs to gain 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 oriented men and her involvement in...

(The entire section is 48,457 words.)