Doris Lessing Lessing, Doris (Vol. 94) - Essay


(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 left-wing, anti-apartheid, and communist activities. Landlocked (1966), a novel considered by many to be an abrupt departure from the realistic concerns of the series, reflects Lessing's emerging interest in telepathy, extrasensory perception, and Sufism, an offshoot of Islam that proposes that mystical intuition should replace rationalism as a means of alleviating world problems. In this novel, which focuses on Martha's mother, May, Martha travels to England and experiences an apocalyptic vision. Britain, and then the 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 embrace and understand the higher truth of her intuition. Although faulted for its radical ideas, this novel was praised for its skillful evocation of apocalyptic and psychic elements. The Golden Notebook (1962) is widely considered Lessing's masterpiece. This complex novel centers on Anna Freeman Wulf, various aspects of whose life are collected in four notebooks, each of a symbolic color, and are viewed from numerous perspectives. Parts of a novel Wulf is writing are juxtaposed with sections from the four notebooks; the sections can be read in many ways to assume different levels of significance. The "golden notebook" of the title is Anna's desperate attempt through art to integrate her fragmented experiences and to become whole in the process. The Summer before the Dark (1973), one of Lessing's most popular novels, centers on a middle-aged woman who has a brief affair with a younger man as a means of rediscovering her identity. During the 1970s, Lessing began writing what she called "inner space fiction." These works reveal the influence of Carl Jung and particularly R. D. Laing, a well-known radical psychologist who proposed that insanity is merely a convenient label imposed by society on those who do not conform to its standards of behavior. In Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971), two psychiatrists attempt to restore a delirious Cambridge professor to their idea of sanity. The professor undergoes an odyssey through the space/time warp of his own psyche, envisioning the oneness of creation and a future apocalypse. This novel hinges on the question of whether his vision is valid or the product of hallucination. The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974) expands upon a similar idea. In this novel, Lessing suggests that humanity, given a choice between extinction or a radical change of values and behavior, must reject rationalism and develop a more intuitive approach to existence and survival. In the late 1970s, Lessing dismissed her acclaimed realist work as trivial and began a "space fiction" series, "Canopus in Argos: Archives." In these volumes, three competing galactic empires—the benign Canopeans, self-centered Sirians, and evil Shammat—are revealed to have manipulated earth history to retain a gene pool for their own immortality. These forces continue to influence events on earth through the intervention of immortal beings. Shikasta (1979), the first volume of the series, is a collection of records accumulated by Johor, a Canopean agent whose mission is to divert humanity from the destructive course set by the Shammat. The Marriages between Zones Three, Four, and Five (1980) is an allegory that centers on an enforced marriage between rulers of two seemingly antithetical regions in the hope of adapting a peaceful coexistence. The Sirian Experiments (1981) consists of a series of documents in the manner of Shikasta narrated by a female member of an insensitive colonial administration. The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 (1982) evidences Lessing's interest in dystopian themes in its story of a slowly freezing planet whose inhabitants expire while awaiting a promised transport to a warmer environment. Documents Relating to the Sentimental Agents in the Volyen Empire (1983) is a satire on language in which rhetoric is used as a tool for social enslavement. Writing under the pseudonym of Jane Somers, Lessing published two novels, The Diary of a Good Neighbor (1983) and If the Old Could … (1984), to dramatize the problems faced by unknown writers and to receive unbiased critical appraisal. Ten publishers rejected the first novel, and when it appeared in a limited, hardcover edition, many literary magazines ignored it altogether. The major concerns of the Somers books are similar to those of Lessing's feminist works: love, loneliness, and the problems of women. Both novels feature the diaries of Janna, whom critics presume represents Somers/Lessing. Following Lessing's exposure of the pseudonym, both works were collected under Lessing's name and published as The Diaries of Jane Somers (1984). In the novel The Good Terrorist (1985), a middle-class woman's extreme liberal idealism leads her to organize a group of would-be counterculture revolutionaries who commit an act of terrorism. Here Lessing examines the role of such rhetorical devices as political slogans in contemporary life. Somewhat similarly, The Fifth Child (1988) concerns a violent, antisocial child who wreaks havoc on his family and society. The first volume of Lessing's autobiography, Under My Skin (1994), covers the first thirty years of her life in Persia and Rhodesia, up to her departure for London in 1949. The first half of the book examines her unhappy childhood on a Rhodesian farm with her parents and younger brother. In the second half of the book, Lessing focuses on her early writing and her two failed marriages.

Critical Reception

Lessing is generally recognized as one of the most important writers of the twentieth century. Using detailed, realistic descriptions, symbolism, and imagery to evoke a wide range of environments and moods, Lessing achieves what Edward J. Fitzgerald termed "tension and immediacy" in her work. Critics argue that her enlightened portrayal of marriage and motherhood, her anti-apartheid stance, and her experimentation with genre and form have made her an exciting—and often controversial—literary figure. Although many critics have not thought highly of her science fiction and mystical works, contending that her abandonment of realism entailed neglecting the social analysis that made her earlier works so valuable, Jeannette King argues that even "in her most experimental fantasies, Lessing has consistently explored the relationship between the individual psyche and the political, sexual, and religious ideologies that structure it…. For if Lessing's work has a single 'message,' it is probably this: only by distancing ourselves from our own most deeply held assumptions and beliefs can we ensure individual or social growth."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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
No Witchcraft for Sale (short stories) 1956
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...

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Katherine Fishburn (essay date Summer 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Wor(l)ds within Words: Doris Lessing as Meta-Fictionist and Meta-Physician," in Studies in the Novel, Vol. 20, No. 2, Summer, 1988, pp. 186-205.

[In the following essay, Fishburn contends that Lessing's novels are highly complex, subtly self-conscious "metafictions" and that "Lessing has never truly been the realist (we) critics thought her … [she] only masqueraded as one."]

—A book which does not contain its counter-book is considered incomplete.

Jorge Luis Borges

Although Doris Lessing is probably best known as the author of The Golden...

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Virginia Tiger (essay date Autumn 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'Taking Hands and Dancing in (Dis)Unity': Story to Storied in Doris Lessing's 'To Room Nineteen' and 'A Room,'" in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 36, No. 3, Autumn, 1990, pp. 421-33.

[Tiger is a Canadian critic and educator. In the following essay, she focuses on Lessing's short stories "To Room Nineteen" and "A Room" in her discussion of the author's use of narrative voice and realistic literary techniques. Tiger also examines the ways in which these two stories relate to the novels Lessing constructed from them, The Summer Before the Dark and The Memoirs of a Survivor, respectively.]

"To see" is the dominant verb in the realist...

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John Bemrose (review date 24 August 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "London Calling," in Maclean's, Vol. 106, No. 34, August 24, 1992, p. 62.

[In the following positive review of The Real Thing, Bemrose singles out "The Pit" as "the collection's finest story."]

In 1777, the English writer and wit Samuel Johnson remarked, "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life." By that standard, British novelist Doris Lessing, 72, has a good deal of vitality left. She first arrived in London in 1949, a young, unpublished novelist from Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) intent on winning her literary spurs in the imperial capital. More than 40 years and almost 40 books later, she still makes London her home. The city appears in the...

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K. Anthony Appiah (review date 28 June 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Art of Sympathy," in The New Republic, Vol. 208, No. 26, June 28, 1993, pp. 30-4, 36-7.

[Appiah is an English-born American critic and educator who has written extensively on philosophy, literature, and African culture. In the following largely positive review of African Laughter, he discusses some of the major themes of Lessing's work, namely her depiction of "the moral intricacy of human life."]

Early in African Laughter, Doris Lessing recalls a childhood visit to her brother's colonial school:

Everything was clean and tidy and there were green English lawns. I felt alien to the place. This was because I...

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Harriet Ritvo (review date 13 January 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Dog's Life," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XLI, Nos. 1-2, January 13, 1994, pp. 3-4, 6.

[Ritvo is an American critic and educator whose works include The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age (1987). In the following excerpt from a review in which she also discusses the books The Hidden Life of Dogs (1994) by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas and Cats: Ancient and Modern (1993) by Juliet Clutton-Brock, she examines the revised version of Particularly Cats … and Rufus, arguing that Lessing implicitly criticizes "many of those who study animal behavior [and] automatically treat anthropomorphism as a weakness that...

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Lisa Tyler (essay date Spring 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Our Mothers' Gardens: Doris Lessing's 'Among the Roses,'" in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 31, No. 2, Spring, 1994, pp. 163-73.

[In the following essay, Tyler examines Lessing's short story "Among the Roses" from a feminist perspective, elucidating its mother-daughter theme in relation to the ancient Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone.]

Doris Lessing has long demonstrated in her work a love-hate relationship with women's magazines, which she seems to regard as contemporary equivalents of conduct books: repressive, didactic works that stress conformity to tired gender roles and celebrate frivolity at the expense of thought. Ella, the fictional figure that...

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Richard Eder (review date 20 October 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Storytelling by Reluctant Extraction," in Los Angeles Times, October 20, 1994, p. E8.

[An American critic, Eder has won the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. In the following review, he laments that "Lessing proclaims but does not convey the wretchedness" of her early life in Under My Skin.]

In the first volume of her autobiography [Under My Skin], Doris Lessing writes that in 1947 and 1948 she went through the worst time in her life. Living in Salisbury in what then was Southern Rhodesia, she had left her first husband and two small children and moved into a leftist bohemian circle, where she met and married a...

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Basil Davidson (review date 22 October 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "She Had a Farm in Africa," in The Spectator, Vol. 273, No. 8676, October 22, 1994, p. 48.

[An English novelist and historian, Davidson is a prominent scholar in the field of African history. In the following review, he remarks favorably on Under My Skin.]

Does anyone remember Southern Rhodesia? An echo of Cecil Rhodes and the Cape-to-Cairo 'project' must still linger somewhere at the back of the English mind, as relating to unknown places vaguely north of South Africa where such as Selous used to shoot their kudu and various other beasts. Yet the imperial memory, above all in metropolitan terms, is notoriously short and shallow. Even to the English of South...

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Michiko Kakutani (review date 1 November 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Reality's Chaos, Translated Into Art," in The New York Times, November 1, 1994, p. C17.

[In the following review, Kakutani praises Lessing's evocation of Africa and colonial life but laments that the author's self-portrait is "an incomplete one, filled with rationalizations and evasions."]

A third of the way through this intriguing memoir [Under My Skin], Doris Lessing describes herself as a young girl, watching her parents sitting side by side in front of their house in the Rhodesian countryside, their faces anxious, tense and full of worry: "There they are, together, stuck together, held there by poverty and—much worse—secret and...

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Caroline Moorehead (review date 4 November 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Memoirs of a Survivor," in New Statesman & Society, Vol. 7, No. 327, November 4, 1994, pp. 38-9.

[Moorehead is an English journalist and nonfiction writer. In the following review, she praises Under My Skin for its vivid and evocative depiction of Rhodesia and for the insights the book offers into the relationship between Lessing's life and fiction.]

Neither Bertrand Russell nor John Cheever emerged well from their children's portraits of them; one was Olympian and cruelly exacting, the other alcoholic and homosexual. Maude McVeagh was not successful or well-known, but as Doris Lessing's mother she has come to prominence in the first volume of her...

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J. M. Coetzee (review date 22 December 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Heart of Me," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. 41, No. 21, December 22, 1994, pp. 51-4.

[Coetzee is a South African novelist, critic, essayist, and translator. In the review below, he offers a summary of Lessing's life and career, remarking on Lessing's thoughts concerning feminism, politics, sexuality, and her mother.]

Presented with snapshots of the Tayler family and asked to pick out the artist or artist-to-be among them, one might at a pinch settle on the father, rather stiff and military but clearly not unintelligent; certainly not on the daughter, pleasant enough but ordinary as a loaf of bread. Yet the daughter had it in her not only to escape...

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William H. Pritchard (review date Summer 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Looking Back at Lessing," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XLVIII, No. 2, Summer, 1995, pp. 317-24.

[Pritchard is an American educator and critic. In the following review, he remarks on the theme and style of Under My Skin and summarizes Lessing's development throughout her literary career.]

A little over two decades ago when Doris Lessing published her ninth novel, The Summer Before the Dark (1973), she could lay claim to consideration as the foremost female writer of fiction then working in English. The women's movement was in full swing and among many of the more literarily inclined Lessing occupied a position of respect second only to Virginia...

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Carol Franko (essay date Summer 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Authority, Truthtelling, and Parody: Doris Lessing and 'the Book,'" in Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. 31, No. 3, Summer, 1995, pp. 255-85.

[In the following essay, Franko examines "Lessing's ambivalent attitude toward canonical authorities" by focusing on the ways in which the narrators of her novels and short stories—including The Golden Notebook, Briefing for a Descent into Hell, and "The Sun Between Their Feet"—use and view language.]

It's O.K. to hate your mom, it's in the book. (Lessing, The Golden Notebook)

What is the function of the story-teller? [Heide Ziegler and Christopher...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Brightman, Carol. "Doris Lessing: Notes of a Novelist." Book World—The Washington Post (16 October 1994): 1, 14.

Favorably reviews Under My Skin.

Burroway, Janet. "An Unfashionable Woman." The New York Times Book Review (6 November 1994): 1, 42.

Argues that the two major themes shaping Under My Skin are "the twin workings of memory and projection."

Innes, Charlotte. "A Life of Doing It Her Way." Los Angeles Times (8 December 1994): E1, E8.

Essay based on an interview...

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