Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Lessing writes in a cold, calculated style that makes her stories read as if they were case studies in psychology textbooks. Added to this style is the use of a classic, third-person narrator whose selective omniscience lets the reader see the protagonist from the inside and all other characters from the outside. The reader knows what Fred thinks about his sister and Mrs. Fortescue, but never what they think about him. Instead of using such a perspective to encourage sympathy with Fred’s adolescent turmoil, Lessing allows Fred’s thoughts, gestures, and words to reveal his own egocentricity and disregard for others. Morever, there is an ironic tension created between the violence of Fred’s dreams and actions and the hard-boiled, realistic tone of the narrative. This irony further serves to mock his sense of triumph as the story ends.

Many Lessing stories also contain the apparent symbolism of an allegory that itself can be interpreted ironically. Thus, for example, in “To Room Nineteen” the female protagonist’s irrational belief that a demon awaits her in her backyard expresses both her psychological fear of losing control over her life and a symbolic expulsion from paradise. The irony derives from the fact that the garden from which she feels driven is a prison she herself has constructed. Fred Danderlea is also plagued by demons who threaten to destroy him, but like so many literary men, he has a gun to help him regain control. In “Mrs. Fortescue,” Lessing uses the gun both as a symbol of the real violence Fred has committed and in mockery of the archetypal allegory of killing as a male initiation rite.

Other Lessing stories may have more complex plots and characters than “Mrs. Fortescue.” Most, however, share the same ironic tone, austere symbolism, carefully established narrative perspective, and grim endings. It is no wonder that so many critics and readers admire her work but few love it.