The Good Terrorist

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

The Good Terrorist takes an unflinching look at the sad and largely wasted lives of young amateur revolutionists in London. They are mostly unemployed but not ordinarily engaged in obvious pleasure seeking—that is, heavy drug scenes or sex orgies. They are, or pretend to be, “serious,” a term which they use to suggest commitment to the betterment of human society. The more literate among them are fond of quoting Lenin. They demonstrate for currently popular liberal causes such as banning the bomb, supporting the rights of women and minorities, saving the whale. They indulge in minor civil disobedience and seem to enjoy confrontations with the police. Some admire and would like to join the “professionals”—that is, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) or the Soviet State Security Committee (KGB).

The protagonist, Alice Mellings, seems to be permanently arrested in a naïve stage of rebellion against well-meaning parents and, in more general terms, capitalist society. Though she has attended college, she reads little and has only a few stereotyped ideas about politics. She agrees with others of her group that the “system” is entirely corrupt, and the salvation of society demands its total destruction. This sentiment is sometimes expressed in vulgarly forceful invective, as in fellow rebel Faye’s insistence that they “want to put an end to thisfilthy lying cruel hypocritical system.” Faye is more irrational than Alice, a fact amply demonstrated by the inept non sequitur Faye offers as her reason for destroying the system: “so that children don’t have a bad time, the way I did.”

Alice vigorously despises the middle-class preoccupation with money-making and accumulation of private property. Nevertheless, she is continually in a desparate search for cash to make improvements in the abandoned dwelling where she and her friends are temporary squatters.

Alice actually has quite conventional, middle-class preferences regarding cleanliness, order, and housekeeping. She has an intuitive, practical intelligence, an incredible capacity for work, and considerable skill in coping with indifferent bureaucrats, hostile police, and neurotic companions. Nothing enrages her more than the callous waste of the council, which has deliberately filled toilets with cement and torn electrical wiring from the walls of abandoned buildings to discourage the homeless from taking shelter there. Yet, Alice herself displays the most willful and tragic waste of her own human resources of intelligence, compassion, and hard work, which seldom result in any lasting benefit to anyone. Indeed, they tend to intensify or focus the destructive tendencies that otherwise remain latent in indolent or disorganized companions.

The novel focuses on the internal contradictions of the protagonist, whose instincts lead her to create a loving, cohesive, social group in a protective environment—in short, a family in a home of its own. Even in the happiest moments around the kitchen table, however, when the ill-assorted members of the commune enjoy the nourishing soup she cooks for them, Alice is too shrewd and perceptive to think that this peaceful accord will last. She knows from experience how fragile such genial companionship is.

If there is one element of experience that all seem to share, it is the feeling of rejection and the anger that it evokes. In one way or another, each of these social misfits expresses anger that erupts in rebellion or, directed inwardly, in despair.

The individual causes of antisocial attitudes remain mysterious and complex, however, and, in this sense, true to real-life perplexity about human behavior. Purely individual causes are sometimes vaguely suggested but seldom explored deeply. Faye, the obviously neurotic or even psychotic lesbian, is said to have been an abused child. This may be a convenient rationalization, however, offered by her overprotective lover, Roberta. The reader observes only Faye’s hysterical fits of anger and her suicide attempt.

Even loyalty seems to be a neurotic defect in some circumstances. Alice is unaccountably loyal to her companion Jasper, who seems to be altogether unlovable. He is an irresponsible hanger-on, selfish, dishonest, sometimes cruel, given to homosexual binges from which he returns exhausted and ill to be nurtured again by Alice’s devotion. The reader can only guess at the reasons for Alice’s unrewarded attachment, though it may be some psychological defense for her personal rejection of sexuality.

The roots of this malady, if such it is, may stem from her childhood, but her background is hardly bleak enough to account for her emotional difficulties. She remembers and deeply resents those occasions in the past when her parents made her give up her room to houseguests and sleep elsewhere, sometimes on the floor of her parents’ bedroom. She was aware that they were restrained from some kind of behavior because of her presence, but she offers no particular evidence that she witnessed sexual intercourse and interpreted it negatively, in Freudian fashion, as painful. The reader shares in Alice’s reminiscences, but with no greater understanding than she herself has as to their significance. This is, perhaps, a device of psychological realism.

Her conscious outrage seems to be with the idea that she could be willfully dispossessed of her private domain. Her drifting mode of life as an adult perpetuates this pattern and the rage it engenders. As a matter of fact, her mother has been sheltering both her and Jasper for the last four years, a fact that does nothing, apparently, to endear Dorothy Mellings to her daughter. Then, after Jasper and Alice quarrel with her mother and flounce out, Dorothy tries to sell the house because she can no longer afford to maintain it. Alice is again outraged, like the wronged child deprived of her private room. Lessing does not offer any analysis of this odd, but perversely believable, set of circumstances. Dorothy’s embittered...

(The entire section is 2459 words.)

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Good Terrorist depicts a group of disturbed middle-class young people who use radical politics as an outlet for their feelings of rage and deprivation. They are portrayed as politically irresponsible and personally reprehensible. The story is centered on Alice Mellings, the “good terrorist” of the title, an unsettling combination of maternal solicitude and destructive anger. She and her feckless companion Jasper move back to 43 Old Mill Road, one of the many abandoned houses in a poor section of London. Thirty-six-years old and still living the life of a political agitator, Alice occupies this “squat” with Jasper and other members of their group, the Communist Centre Union. For all of her radical politics, Alice takes on the caretaking and housekeeping responsibilities traditionally assigned to women. She almost single-handedly turns the filthy house into a livable home, tackling such thankless tasks as burying buckets of feces that the former tenants have left behind. She also nurtures the rest of the group, especially the only two genuinely working-class residents of the house, Jim and Philip.

Because the novel is told from Alice’s point of view, and because she is shown energetically trying to improve a woefully neglected house, readers at first identify with Alice and her goals. Her skills as a homemaker and caretaker are offset, however, by her rage at everyone in the outside world, particularly her parents. Contemptuous of her...

(The entire section is 583 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Like Lessing’s earlier novel The Diary of Jane Somers (1983), The Good Terrorist explores what is known as “women’s work.” Lessing suggests that the caretaking traditionally assigned to women is devalued and scorned in modern society. Alice, who gives her comrades a house, food, community, warmth, and order, is both exploited and unappreciated by her mates. Although Alice’s domestic skills are wasted on her ungrateful comrades, her good offices transform her ragtag group into a terrorist gang. She keeps them together long enough for them to detonate a bomb.

The women in this radical group are depicted as both more competent and more enraged than the men. Jasper and Bert are weak and passive,...

(The entire section is 438 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Lessing masterfully develops the careful balance between honest, outright dialogue between the characters and instinctual reactions more...

(The entire section is 433 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The varying degrees of political activism within one small group of individuals practicing a common set of goals provides opportunities for...

(The entire section is 100 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Doris Lessing's once active membership with socialist organizations provided her with the necessary background to develop believable...

(The entire section is 428 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

A number of contemporary authors have explored the breakup of active political groups. However, Lessing's book remains groundbreaking. Karl...

(The entire section is 70 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

A number of Lessing's novels deal with the splintering relationships among a common group of political activists for the Communist cause....

(The entire section is 82 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Blackstone Audio Books released an audio book version of The Good Terrorist, read by Nadia May, in 1999.

(The entire section is 17 words.)


(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Bloom, Harold, ed. Doris Lessing. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. Includes an important review of The Good Terrorist by Alison Lurie, who praises it as one of the best novels she has read about the terrorist mentality since Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907). The book also contains some of the better-known articles, organized chronologically, indicating changing attitudes in Lessing criticism.

Christian Science Monitor. LXXVII, October 10, 1985, p. 24.

Commonweal. CXII, November 1, 1985, p. 613.

King, Jeannette. Doris Lessing. London: Edward Arnold, 1989. A reading along lines developed by French psychologist Jacques Lacan, arguing that Lessing’s work is implicitly feminist in its interrogation of a culture that ascribes value to what has been traditionally defined as male. Includes a brief chronology and an excellent analysis of The Good Terrorist.

Library Journal. CX, September 1, 1985, p. 212.

The London Review of Books. VII, September 19, 1985, p. 15.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 13, 1985, p. 3.

Ms. XIV, October, 1985, p. 24.

The New York Times Book Review. XC, September 22, 1985, p. 3.

The New Yorker. LXI, October 14, 1985, p. 136.

Pickering, Jean. Understanding Doris Lessing. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990. A guide or companion for students. The analysis of The Good Terrorist emphasizes its depiction of radicals as an irresponsible leisure class supported by the lower orders.

Sprague, Claire. Rereading Doris Lessing: Narrative Patterns of Doubling and Repetition. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987. Sprague considers The Good Terrorist in an examination of Lessing’s characters and narrative patterns, especially the use of A, M, and J names and the numbers three, four, and five. She also discusses The Good Terrorist in the context of unresolved conflicts between mothers and daughters found in earlier novels.

Time. CXXVI, October 7, 1985, p. 75.

Washington Post Book World. XV, September 22, 1985, p. 4.