Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Ostensibly, “Mrs. Fortescue” is the story of a sexual initiation told in Freudian terms. More broadly interpreted, it compares with other Lessing stories of adolescents attempting to prove themselves by accomplishing what at first seems impossible, whether staying underwater long enough to swim through a tunnel or “losing one’s virginity.” In these stories, Lessing adheres to a clear narrative pattern: The protagonist sets a goal for himself spurred on by sudden feelings of alienation; he circles around the goal and works toward eliminating the obstacles that stand in his way over a seemingly long and difficult period of time; in the end he achieves his goal and is returned to the sense of equilibrium he possessed before he set out to test himself. The significance of this apparent threshold experience is ultimately undercut by the emphasis on returning back, rather than leaping forward.

Lessing’s great theme in many of her stories, whether about adolescents, middle-aged women, or aging men, is the existential moment. Each of her characters awakens one day to the reality that something is fundamentally wrong with his or her life. For whatever reason—the onset of illness, a husband’s confession of adultery, the sudden realization of one’s own mediocrity brought home by a critical review—these characters experience a profound sense of alienation from self and world. The split between thinking and feeling threatens to widen into a chasm...

(The entire section is 501 words.)