Doris Lessing

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Doris Lessing’s many books include poetry, memoirs, reportage, plays, essays, and reviews. She is best known, however, for her novels, particularly The Golden Notebook (1962), and the five-volume Children of Violence series, which includes Martha Quest (1952), A Proper Marriage (1954), A Ripple from the Storm (1958), Landlocked (1965), and The Four-Gated City (1969). She explored the genre she terms “space fiction” in the volumes Shikasta (1979), The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five (1980), The Sirian Experiments (1981), The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 (1982), and Documents Relating to the Sentimental Agents in the Volyen Empire (1983), as well as “inner space fiction” in novels such as Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971) and The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974). In the mid-1980’s, she returned to more realistic fiction, publishing, among others, two novels under the pseudonym Jane Somers. In the 1990’s Lessing published the novels Playing the Game (1995), Love, Again (1996), and Mara and Dann (1999), as well as the dramatic Play with a Tiger, and Other Plays (pb. 1996) and the autobiographical Walking in the Shade (1997).


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Doris Lessing was a finalist for the Booker McConnell Prize for Briefing for a Descent into Hell, The Sirian Experiments, and The Good Terrorist (1985). She was nominated for the Australian Science-Fiction Achievement Award in 1982 for The Sirian Experiments. The Good Terrorist won her the W. H. Smith and Son Literary Award, the Palermo Prize, and the Premio Internazionale Mondello. In 1995 the nonfiction Under My Skin (1994) earned the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Walking in the Shade received a nomination for the 1997 National Book Critics Award in the biography/autobiography category. Lessing has been a nominee for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

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In addition to her works of long fiction, Doris Lessing has published numerous volumes of short stories. She has also published a volume of poetry and has written memoirs, documentaries, essays, reviews, plays, and librettos for operas.


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Doris Lessing has been one of the most widely read and influential novelists of the second half of the twentieth century and the early twenty-first. Her works have been translated into many languages and have inspired critical attention around the globe. Generally serious and didactic, Lessing’s fiction repeatedly urges the human race to develop a wider consciousness that will allow for greater harmony and less violence. Although known particularly as a master of realism, Lessing is often experimental or deliberately fantastic, as shown in her science-fiction novels. Her interests are wide-ranging, from Marxism and global politics to the mystical teachings of Sufism to the small personal voice of the individual.

In 1999, Lessing was made a Member of the Order of the Companions of Honour (a British honor for those who have done “conspicuous national service”), and in 2001, the Royal Society of Literature named her a Companion of Literature. Among the numerous awards Lessing has received are the Somerset Maugham Award, the German Shakespeare Prize, the Austrian Prize for European Literature, and the French Prix Médicis for Foreigners. In 1995, she won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and a Los Angeles Times Book Prize for the first volume of her autobiography, Under My Skin (1994). In 1999, she received Spain’s Premi Internacional Catalunya; in 2001, the David Cohen British Literary Prize as well as Spain’s Premio Príncipe de Asturias; and in 2002, the S. T. Dupont Golden PEN Award. In 2007, Lessing was awarded the world’s most prestigious honor for literary authors, the Nobel Prize in Literature.

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In what ways did Doris Lessing’s knowledge of the veld animate her fiction?

Summarize Lessing’s insights into the relationship between blacks and whites.

Lessing’s Martha Quest had a tendency to repeat some of her mistakes. What evidences of maturation do you see as her career develops?

Compare the sexual attitudes of Quest and Anna Wulf.

Does Lessing’s career suggest a conviction that only by becoming a member of a collective or of a sexual relationship can one understand such relationships?

Did the Nobel Prize in Literature awarded to Lessing in 2007 depend more on the short fiction than on her sequences of novels?


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Brewster, Dorothy. Doris Lessing. New York: Twayne, 1965. The first book-length study of the fiction. Provides a good general overview of Lessing’s work up to the fourth novel in the Children of Violence series, Landlocked. Includes a brief biography and a discussion of the early novels, including The Golden Notebook, a chapter on the short fiction, which analyzes stories published up to 1964, and a concluding chapter on attitudes and influences. Select bibliography, index, and chronology.

Butcher, Margaret. “‘Two Forks of a Road’: Divergence and Convergence in the Short Stories of Doris Lessing.” Modern Fiction Studies 26 (1980): 55-61. Asserts that “Homage to Isaac Babel” provides a rebuttal that Lessing’s later stories move away from her earlier larger concerns with moral and political issues and retreat into a feminine world of social satire. In her appreciation of Babel’s detachment and control, Lessing has at last learned that mannerism and a directness in writing are neither mutually exclusive nor antithetical.

Fishburn, Katherine. The Unexpected Universe of Doris Lessing: A Study in Narrative Technique. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985. This study considers Lessing’s science fiction from Briefing for a Descent into Hell through the Canopus in Argos series. It argues that the science fiction has the purpose of transforming reality and involving the reader in ideas and the intricacies of the texts rather than in characterization. Fishburn also published Doris Lessing: Life, Work, and Criticism (Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada: York Press, 1987), which provides a brief overview of Lessing’s life and works, including literary biography, critical response, and an annotated bibliography.

Galen, Muge. Between East and West: Sufism in the Novels of Doris Lessing. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997. This text applies the ideas of Sufism and its influence on Lessing and her novels. An introduction to Sufism and to Doris Lessing is included to help the reader understand the basic ideas of Sufism. Emphasis is placed on her space-fiction utopias as an alternative to the current Western lifestyles.

Greene, Gayle. Doris Lessing: The Poetics of Change. University of Michigan Press, 1997. Greene centers this study on how Lessing’s novels are concerned with change. Several different critical approaches to Lessing’s works, including Marxist, feminist, and Jungian, are included in the study.

Halisky, Linda H. “Redeeming the Irrational: The Inexplicable Heroines of ‘A Sorrowful Woman’ and ‘To Room Nineteen.’” Studies in Short Fiction 27 (Winter, 1990): 45-54. Discusses the inexplicable behavior of the protagonist of Lessing’s story by comparing it to Gail Godwin’s “A Sorrowful Woman.” Argues that the heroine of “To Room Nineteen” is inexplicable only if one is locked into a belief that reason is the only integrating, sense-making force. Discusses the redemptive force of mythic truth in the story.

Harris, Jocelyn. “Doris Lessing’s Beautiful Impossible Blueprints.” In The British and Irish Novel Since 1960, edited by James Acheson. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. A discussion of Lessing’s discarding of political and social blueprints such as Marxism and sentimental idealism about the brotherhood of man and her moving in her later fiction to mystical solutions and interventions.

Klein, Carole. Doris Lessing: A Biography. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2000. An unauthorized biography that nonetheless draws on extensive interviews with Lessing’s friends and colleagues. Klein draws many connections between events in Lessing’s life and episodes in her novels.

Lessing, Doris. A Small Personal Voice. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974. This collection of interviews and essays by Lessing gives the reader an insight into the novelist’s constantly expanding consciousness and agenda.

Perrakis, Phyllis Sternberg. Spiritual Exploration in the Works of Doris Lessing. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. An interesting collection of essays that look at spiritual themes in Lessing’s work, touching on both the realistic and the science-fiction novels.

Pickering, Jean. Understanding Doris Lessing. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990. A brief, clear overview of Lessing’s work. Begins with a chapter providing a biographical and analytical look at Lessing’s career, then continues with a short but sharp analysis of her fiction through The Fifth Child (1988). Includes an index and an annotated bibliography of books and articles about Lessing.

Pierpont, Claudia Roth. Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000. Evocative, interpretive essays on the life paths and works of twelve women, including Lessing, connecting the circumstances of their lives with the shapes, styles, subjects, and situations of their art.

Robinson, Sally. Engendering the Subject: Gender and Self-Representation in Contemporary Women’s Fiction. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991. A chapter of this book is devoted to Lessing and her works. Primary focus is placed on the Children of Violence series: Martha Quest, The Four-Gated City, Landlocked, A Proper Marriage, and A Ripple from the Storm. Robinson focuses on Lessing’s desire to present a humanist view in her characters and themes and how the female main characters tend to create contradictions when trying to reach their goals.

Taylor, Jenny, ed. Notebooks/Memoirs/Archives: Reading and Rereading Doris Lessing. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982. A collection of essays by British women, mostly from a political standpoint defined in the introduction, which looks at Lessing and Sufism, mysticism, and comparison with Simone de Beauvoir. Supplemented by a select bibliography of Lessing criticism and a complete index.

Thorpe, Michael. Doris Lessing. Essex, England: Longman, 1973. A good general introduction that is very thorough, including a select bibliography, with an emphasis on the short fiction. Although only thirty-five pages in length, this volume includes a biography, discussion of Lessing’s life and attitudes, and a sociopolitical analysis.

Tyler, Lisa. “Our Mothers’ Gardens: Doris Lessing’s ‘Among the Roses.’” Studies in Short Fiction 31 (Spring, 1994): 163-173. Examines the mother-daughter relationship in Lessing’s short story “Among the Roses”; argues that the breach between mother and daughter suggests a division between two worlds—one of female community and another of heterosexuality.

Whittaker, Ruth. Doris Lessing. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. A short but excellent overview of the fiction through The Good Terrorist. Ideal for a first reader of Lessing or to clarify points for those familiar with her work. Includes background and influences, the colonial legacy, in-depth analysis, an index, and a select bibliography that lists all Lessing’s work and the major books, articles, and interviews published to 1988. Also includes reference to the Doris Lessing Newsletter, published by the Brooklyn College Press.

Yelin, Louise. From the Margins of Empire: Christina Stead, Doris Lessing, Nadine Gordimer. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1998. The section on Lessing focuses on the process of her “Englishing” after leaving Rhodesia.

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