Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

In “Homage for Isaac Babel,” Doris Lessing treats two major themes: the nature of early adolescent girlhood and the response to the cruelty of the world. Lessing uses Catherine’s two experiences—seeing a film and trying to read a short story—to explore what it is like to be an intelligent young girl.

Catherine clearly is intelligent. She can hold up her end in serious conversations with the adult narrator, who does not condescend to her. When she goes to films, she thinks about what she sees rather than simply watching passively for momentary entertainment. Similarly, she thinks about what she reads, rather than reading for mere escapism, and is willing to try demanding books.

Catherine also reflects the interests and patterns of behavior of early adolescents. Her admiration for others takes the form of exaggerated and romanticized devotion. Because she admires the narrator, she helps straighten up the narrator’s flat, showing that for her small flats are more romantic and desirable than large houses, such as the house in which she lives. Because she idolizes Philip, she wants to like the same things that he likes, adjusts her reading tastes to his, and picks the film that he would want to watch. Philip, his tastes in books, food, and music, and his opinions on issues of the day are the focus of her conversation.

Catherine’s schoolgirl idolatry extends to ideas. She appropriates the ideas of those she admires, experiments with making them her own, and adopts them with enthusiasm. After watching The Hoodlum Priest she is upset at the world’s cruelty and wants to stop...

(The entire section is 667 words.)