Through the Tunnel

by Doris Lessing

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"Through the Tunnel" within Lessing's other Works

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Doris Lessing is known for being a writer whose work affects people. She tackles political issues but refuses to limit herself to being a political writer, and is equally acclaimed for her essays, fiction, and even science fiction dealing with interests ranging from nature to the status of women. "Through the Tunnel," which is ultimately a story about a boy growing up, seems at first glance to stand apart from her usual concerns.

Lessing was born in what is now Iran in 1919 to a German father and British mother, and then moved with her family to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1924. She embraced Communism and immigrated to England in 1949. Then she returned to Africa in 1956, but was labelled a "prohibited immigrant" because of her political views, and returned to England shortly thereafter. She then quit the Communist Party in protest of Stalin's atrocities.

Just as Lessing has divided her time between living in England and Africa, her stories have been classified as either "British" or "African," the latter having been published together in a volume called African Stories. "Through the Tunnel" appeared in Lessing's collection The Habit of Loving, which was published in 1957, shortly after her return to England. "Through the Tunnel," which presumably takes place in the south of France, is one of her British stories, though Lessing never overtly identifies its location and it has many of the characteristics of her African stories.

In her preface to African Stories, Lessing writes of the need for African writers to be able to write non-politically. "Writers brought up in Africa have many advantages—being at the centre of a modern battlefield; part of a society in rapid, dramatic change. But in a long run it can also be a handicap: to wake up every morning with one's eyes on a fresh evidence of inhumanity; to be reminded twenty times a day of injustice, and always the same brand of it, can be limiting. There are other things in living besides injustice, even for the victims of it." In "Through the Tunnel," as in other of her British stories, Lessing allows herself to look away from the turmoil of South Africa. As Lessing says later in the same preface, "Africa gives you the knowledge that man is a small creature, among other creatures, in a large landscape," and it is this aspect of the African experience that Lessing seems to focus on in "Through the Tunnel," as Jerry, the boy, struggles for survival in an indifferent sea.

Lessing "lays bare the really important problems that face us today: survival, and beyond that, the potential of the human spirit," according to critic Mary Ann Singleton. Certainly this applies to Jerry, who strives to fulfill his human potential and ends up fighting for his life in the tunnel. Jerry's struggle is that of an individual trying to find his place in the world, and is thus about survival and the human spirit in an emotional, personal sense rather than in the larger sense of human extinction. He wants to be accepted by older boys and to leave behind the safe beach of his childhood where his mother watched over him. Jerry wants this so badly that ultimately he is willing to risk his life to demonstrate that he is ready. The personal aspect of a story can be as important as the political, and for that reason "Through the Tunnel" has been included in anthologies such as Great Stories from the World of Sports and Breath of Danger: Fifty Tales of Peril and Fear by Masters...

(This entire section contains 1648 words.)

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of the Short Story.

South African writer Nadine Gordimer also sees the human potential theme in "Through the Tunnel," but with a slightly different emphasis. In her review of The Habit Of Loving, Gordimer highlights "the habit of loving and needing love, of seeking acceptance through achievement, like the boy in "Through the Tunnel." Gordimer would disagree with critic Clare Hanson, who, apparently viewing Lessing primarily as a political writer, says in her essay "Doris Lessing in Pursuit of English, or, No Small, Personal Voice," that "critics agree we read [Lessing] for content not style." Gordimer sees "Through the Tunnel" as a story "of great beauty and the style that comes of itself from a synthesis of theme and the background in terms of which it is worked out."

According to critic Mona Knapp in her book Doris Lessing, nearly all the British stories focus on "a modern European individual. These protagonists are steeped in civilization and culture, thus in radically different circumstances from their solitary African counterparts, but they share with them the fight against existential, if not demographic, isolation ... Each protagonist comes into conflict with a given collective force, and wrests from the ensuing battle her or his identity and self-definition." Young Jerry can be viewed as a "modern European individual, wresting his self-definition from his battle with the tunnel." He is not of this place. Unlike the French boys, he is not adapted to the sea and must buy goggles before he is able to see underwater. Moreover, he ends up altering the environment in order to make it through the tunnel: the white sand under the water is "littered now by stones he had brought down from the upper air." As soon as he achieves his goal he wants "nothing but to get back home and lie down."

On the other hand, Jerry's actions fit in with the characteristics of the African stories as well. According to Knapp, what is common to all 30 African stories is the theme of the "individual's collision with an oppressive environment. While the young may emerge temporarily unscathed from this skirmish, the adults, whose strength is already eroded by poverty and hardship, are nearly always doomed." While Jerry's "collision" with the ocean is voluntary, the aquatic environment can still be viewed as "oppressive" to the extent that Jerry's determination to conquer it puts him at risk of dying and determines the course of his activities throughout his stay, bloody noses and all. Not only that, but it also distances him from his widowed mother who tries not to interfere with his life. Likewise, as a widow, her strength can be seen as having been somewhat "eroded by hardship." It is interesting to note that Jerry swims out twice to check that she is safely on the beach, while she never checks on him; maybe she knows that he must go off and face certain challenges and that he is doing so on her behalf, too.

Most of the African stories focus on the lives of the white settlers with the natives in the background. Knapp notes that many of these stories are told from the point of view of a white child, "who is at one with the teeming veld and nature itself. The child's eyes focus on three major subject groups: the color bar and native custom, the social hierarchy among the settlers, and, most important, the basic workings of life and death within unadulterated nature." While there is no overt "color bar" guiding the interactions between Jerry and the older boys as he watches them diving, he is a pale-skinned intruder, intent upon observing "native custom," while they are "of that coast ... burned smooth dark brown and speaking a language he did not understand." Similarly, the wild sea teeming with fish can be viewed as analogous to the African veld; Jerry is not quite one with it—hence the fierceness of his struggles—but that is what he is striving to become. That he loses interest as soon as he achieves his aim demonstrates that he is more a child of the city than of nature.

One story included in African Stories that is an example of a white child at one with the veld and which has many striking parallels to "Through the Tunnel" is "A Sunrise on the Veld." The boys in the two stories seem to be so similar that the country each story is set in seems to be the primary difference between them. The boy in "A Sunrise on the Veld," a white settler, pushes himself physically and mentally as Jerry does, training himself to wake at half-past-four every morning, delighting in controlling his brain and "every part" of himself. "He had once stayed awake three nights running, to prove that he could, and then worked all day, refusing even to admit that he was tired." Upon waking, he walks outside with his shoes in his hands to avoid waking his parents, pushing past pain as Jerry does in order to achieve his freedom: "his hands were numbed ... and his legs began to ache with cold." This boy wakes to go hunting out on the veld; he feels there is "nothing he couldn't do, nothing!" Like Jerry this boy confronts the possibility of death, and gains the "knowledge of fatality, of what has to be." He comes upon an injured buck; seeing its carcass devoured by black ants, he realizes that he may, on any given morning, have caused similar anguish to an animal that he has shot and not followed. Jerry inflicts no cruelty, but he does worry his mother and risk his life needlessly.

Singleton writes of Lessing's protagonists who encounter the veld that they are not "separated from creation as a whole but [take] part in the cyclical repetition of life and death ... If the result is the loss of Eden, it is the gain of full humanity with consciousness, and its corollary, responsibility. It is Milton's Adam and Eve leaving the Garden." Both Jerry and the boy in "A Sunrise on the Veld" gain maturity from their encounters with mortality, and this helps explain why afterwards Jerry is entirely ready to leave.

Source: Judy Sobeloff, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997. Sobeloff is a lecturer and instructor at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

"Through the Tunnel" The Search for Identity and Acceptance

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Doris Lessing's—"Through the Tunnel" examines the experience of "rite d'passage" for Jerry, a young English boy. This story tells of a young man's determination to prove to himself that he can do the impossible, which is to swim down where the older boys swim and emerge a man, so to speak. Parallel to this, Lessing also explores the total isolation that the reader and Jerry experiences, as he struggles to find his own identity.

The reader learns the protagonist is Jerry, an 11-year-old, only child, with a widowed mother. Initially, he feels unsure and isolated and he becomes even more so with the emergence of the group of boys, who frequent the beach. Not only do they make him feel unwelcome at first, but they already have a clique formed and are not very enthusiastic about welcoming another member. Despite his feelings of isolation and the feeling that he is being judged, he wants more than anything to be a part of the group: "To be with them, of them, was a craving that filled his whole body." According to Jerry, even the slightest acceptance would satisfy his craving for camaraderie. When they see him and identify Jerry as a stranger, they "proceed to forget him." Despite the boys' aloofness towards Jerry, "he was happy" because "he was with them." Jerry realizes that this whole "friendship" will be short-lived, but for the present he has friends and an identity as a part of a group.

As the boys begin to dive, Jerry decides to join in. Each time he dives, he feels "proud of himself." However, when the diving becomes quite challenging, Jerry is not sure what to do, so he does what every normal 11-year old kid would do—he begins to make faces and show off with the hopes of winning their approval again. This is the act of a scared child who feels that if he can get them to laugh, they will forget all about his failed attempts at the "diving game." As he begins to make faces and clown around, he is met not with the boys' approval, but with their disapproval. They are not laughing; instead, they begin to swim and ignore him. Again, we see a situation where Jerry seems totally isolated. It also shows that despite the number of people around him, he is still alone.

It appears that the only time Jerry is sure of himself is when his mother is around. Even then, he appears to tolerate and get around her eccentric and nurturing ways. He says that the way to deal with his mother is through "contrition." Despite his toleration of her, he still relies on her though she tries not make him feel like a "mama's boy." As often as he tries to avoid her, she is still his safety zone as he looks to her for silent strength on the beach. This is where we see Jerry, the boy.

Here is a young boy, who appears to want to have friends so badly that he is willing to act childish with the hopes of gaining their acceptance. It seems that he truly wants to fit in; he just does not know how. They are the "older" boys and one can surmise these are truly teenagers.

That these teenagers do not accept him forces Jerry into a ritualistic pattern to gain not only confidence in himself, but discipline and maturity as well. Usually, when a child takes an interest or strives for some sort of transformation, be it spiritual or physical, most likely that child will have the support of a parent, relative or friend to ease some of the confusion, answer questions, or just listen to their concerns. For Jerry, there is no one. He does discover that no matter how badly he wants to "fit in," in the end, it is up to him. He must find a way to transform into an adult by himself. This moment occurs when Jerry is sitting on a rock and the boys are swimming around him and scaring him by "flying down past him." As he counts how long they are under the water, he becomes more and more scared until they surface and walk right past him. He concurs, "They were leaving to get away from him. He cried openly, fists in his eyes. There was no one to see him, and he cried himself out." Finally, he decides to go find his mother.

He is still aware of his mother's presence. As he feels her presence, he begins practicing the dive the older boys did, and his determination is greater than ever. The only problem is that he is going from child to adult to child again. He is as determined as an adult, but going about his transformation as a child. When he finally dives down far enough, the salt overpowers his eyes, so he surfaces and goes to find his mother. Jerry is now approaching a very great transformation.

We also see that the mother is completely blind to her son's struggles and transformation. As Lessing writes, [the mother] "was determined to be neither possessive nor lacking in devotion." She has a very realistic and stoic attitude toward her only child; however, we find she is in a situation where there appears not to be any males present in either the mother's life or the son's life, where a strong role model should be present. For him, he journeys through life alone, just as his rite d'passage is experienced—alone. His acceptance into adulthood is a painful, but meaningful experience, as he never does gain acceptance with the older boys. However, it never does matter once his mission is finished, because their existence becomes inconsequential. He finally knows what it is like to be a man.

Once he purchases the goggles, he assumes a whole new identity, "Now he could see." As Jerry realizes, "It was as if he had eyes of a different kind—fish eyes that showed everything clear and delicate and wavering in the bright water." Even his swim takes on symbolic meaning. He swims past the "myriads of minute fish" and sees where he needs to go in order to accomplish his mission. This goal is not going to be an easy one. He first has to get ready to attempt this feat; he cannot just swim through the gap like a child. He has to learn control. The reader begins to see a very different Jerry emerge. A child would jump in and go through the tunnel blindly; however, once he obtains the goggles and sees things in a different light and studies where he is headed, he begins to develop into a mature teenager.

One thing he does is gain control. He "exercised his lungs as if everything, the whole of his life, all that he would become depended on it," knowing that without this control, he would be dealing with a futile attempt at developing an identity. The only problem with this whole mission is that it appears to be self-imposed with pain. He deals with nosebleeds, exhaustion, and dizziness. All to prove to himself that he can do something the older boys can already do.

His goal has to wait until he can gain control over his own lungs and body. Children usually show little or no patience in waiting for something they really want. Here, Jerry develops "A curious, most unchildlike persistence, a controlled impatience." This is where the transformation is taking effect. He practices without any type of support from anyone; this is something he finds he must do on his own. As he attempts to dive through the tunnel, he realizes that he is still scared, but he also realizes "this was the moment when he would try." For Jerry, his goggles seem to present him with a kind of hidden strength and new insight into maturity. As he proceeds with the challenge to himself, he emerges victorious and understands, "He was at the end of what he could do." The only thing left was to go back home and rejoice in the fact that he achieved something he never thought he could do, despite all odds.

When Jerry tells his mother what he has done that morning, he does not explain all the details, but tells her only of his achievement of holding his breath under water. She appears to humor him and the mother-mode switches on as she cautions him on "overdoing it." As an adult now, Jerry has not only learned how to hold his breath, but also how to hold his temper and how to understand what is truly important, as opposed to what is truly nothing more than a mother's reaction. When Jerry finally achieves his goal, there is no fanfare, no applause, just a quiet celebration within himself knowing that he succeeded.

Source: Karen Holleran, "'Through the Tunnel': The Search for Identity and Acceptance," for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997. Holleran is an adjunct instructor at Robert Morris College and a frequent writer on literary subjects.

Free Stories: The Shorter Fiction of Doris Lessing

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Lessing's short fiction falls into the general category of the "free story," a term coined by Elizabeth Bowen to describe the kind of fiction that she and writers such as V. S. Pritchett were writing in the years immediately following the modernist period. The free story has been the dominant type of short story or fiction produced in this country over the last fifty years and has been much favoured by novelists who have also been attracted to the short form. The freedom of the free story consists primarily in its potential for plotlessness, or narrative inconclusiveness. Elizabeth Bowen has made the point that the short story, "free from the longueurs of the novel is also exempt from the novel's conclusiveness—too often forced and false." Nadine Gordimer has also written persuasively of her short fiction, stressing the way in which the "new" convention of plotlessness (for it is of course a convention) implies a particular epistemological stance on the part of the author: the form reflects and imposes limits on the quality and quantity of knowledge available to him or her:

Each of us has a thousand lives and a novel gives a character only one. For the sake of the form. The novelist may juggle about with chronology and throw narrative overboard; all the time his characters have the reader by the hand, there is a consistency of relationship throughout the experience that cannot and does not convey the quality of human life, where contact is more like the flash of fire-flies, in and out, now here, now there, in darkness. Short story writers see by the light of the flash; theirs is the art of the only thing one can be sure of—the present moment. Ideally, they have learned to do without explanation of what went before, and what happens beyond this point.

The form of the free story thus offers a freedom which may or may not eventually act as a constraint. It is a form sharply marked off from the traditional short story—the "plotty story"—on the one hand, and the more radical modernist and post-modernist short fiction on the other. The free story, for example, retains a concept of character in some respects like the one that obtains in the realistic novel: character is seen as relatively consistent through time, which is not the case in modernist short fiction. The free story is also unlike modernist and postmodernist fiction in being much involved with the contingent and specific: it tends to be marked and stamped by a particular climate and atmosphere. Like the novel in England over the period 1930 to 1960, the free story has been much occupied with social change and has been responsive to social settings and pressures. This characteristic may be ascribed in part to the impact of the Second World War, which affected civilian life in ways in which the First World War did not.

Doris Lessing left Rhodesia in 1949, and most of her English short fictions were written in the period 1950-1970. Many of her early stories deal with the disruption and chaos caused by the Second World War and in subject matter and technique overlap with the contemporary short fictions of Elizabeth Bowen, V. S. Pritchett, and William Sansom. Like these writers, Lessing is closely involved with social issues. Yet there is something stoking, even jarring, in the tone she employs in the examination of such issues. The prevailing tone is one of irony and distance: Lessing rarely writes of English character or setting without the use of imaginary, or real, quotation marks. It may be that this stance of ironic detachment stems from Lessing's position as an exile, but the question seems to run deeper than that, since the sense of distance is often equally present in the African stories. By adopting an endlessly ironic stance, Lessing does more than reveal her own inability to identify successfully with specific types of English men or women: she creates a sense of alienation and detachment from all forms of society so far known. This quality of alienation seems to point forward to Lessing's later fiction. In the earlier stories she has a Swiftean ability, not to defamiliarize, but to create a sense of critical alienation from social or conventional forms and mores.

Specifically, Lessing achieves her effects through a self-conscious manipulation of codes of language and behaviour. She plays endlessly with different linguistic codes and available discourses; her work is more experimental in this respect than is sometimes recognized. So in "Not a Very Nice Story" (first collated in 1972) she catches, through an exaggerated use of a particular linguistic register, the middle-class "decency," and complacency, of her four main characters:

This was the peak of their lives; the long tedium of the war was over, the men were still in their early thirties, the women in their twenties. They were feeling as if at last their real lives were starting. They were all good-looking. The men were of the same type; jokes had been made about that already. They were both dark, largely built, with the authority of doctors, "comfortable" as the wives said. And the women were pretty. They soon established (like showing each other their passports, or references of decency and reliability) that they shared views on life—tough, but rewarding; God—dead; children—to be brought up with the right blend of permissiveness and discipline; society—to be cured by common sense and mild firmness but without extremes of any sort.

In "The Temptation of Jack Orkney" (first published in 1972) the eponymous hero is placed for us by his self-conscious use of an ironic code, a language, or style, which he himself deprecates but cannot transcend:

It had been a long time since he had actually organized something political; others had been happy to organize him—his name, his presence, his approval. But an emotional telephone call from an old friend, Walter Kenting, before seven that morning, appealing that they "all" should make a demonstration of some sort about the refugees—the nine million refugees of Bangladesh this time—and the information that he was the only person available to do the organizing, had returned him to a politically active past.

The effect of these layers of irony is to undercut the characters, to make us feel that they are no more than puppets, creatures of convention. In practice, such a view of human nature is one which we tend to hold temporarily, as we see the communal, the social elements of "character" exposed as in a sudden flash of light: we then relax back into our habitual sense of the reality of a person's human/humane identity and individuality. It is this kind of dialectical movement which is reflected in the structure of Lessing's short fictions, in which there is a continual interplay between a socially and genetically deterministic view of human nature, and a sense of transcendent individuality. The form of the free story is especially well-suited to the rendering of such ambivalence, and I would suggest that this is why Lessing has been more successful in presenting character as she sees it—produced somewhere between the individual and the social—in the form of short fiction rather than the novel, pace Lukacs' and her own statements about the dialectical possibilities of the novel form.

In the early story "Notes for a Case History" (1963) Lessing seems initially to make out a complete case for social determinism, describing the childhood of Maureen Watson as seen by "the social viewer," or in contemporary terms probably the social worker:

Maureen Watson, conceived by chance on an unexpected granted-at-the-last-minute leave, at the height of the worst war in history, infant support of a mother only occasionally upheld (the chances of war deciding) by a husband she had met in a bomb shelter during an air raid—poor baby, born into a historical upheaval which destroyed forty million and might very well have destroyed her.

But this little "report"—and again, we note, Lessing is playing with social and linguistic codes—is inset into a text which continues:

As for Maureen, her memories and the reminiscences of her parents made her dismiss the whole thing as boring and nothing to do with her.

Immediately we are brought up against the notion of her, the self which Maureen feels herself to possess independently of environment and conditioning. Ironically, Maureen tries to find her self through identification with ready-made social stereotypes, emulating specific social models in order to free herself from her background. Slowly, she drags herself up out of her social class by dint of careful attention to the advice given by fashion magazines, attention to her voice (her accent), and later through more sophisticated self-education via a trip to Italy and subsequent visits to art galleries.

Quietly, in her lunch hour, she went off to the National Gallery and to the Tate. There she looked, critical and respectful, at pictures, memorizing their subjects, or main colours, learning names. When invited out, she asked to be taken to "foreign" films, and when she got back home wrote down the names of the director and the stars. She looked at the book page of the Express (she made her parents buy it instead of the Mirror) and sometimes bought a recommended book, if it was a best-seller.

Her progress is measured by the social status of boyfriends, exactly monitored by Lessing. Eventually she becomes engaged to her male counterpart, an apprentice architect—"she knew, by putting herself in his place, that he was looking for a wife with a little money or a house of her own, if he couldn't get a lady." But at the moment when she must finally commit herself to an existence with Stanley, her sense of self reasserts itself. Her doubts about Stanley surface through an encounter with Tony, a young accountant, also from her own background, who reflects something in Maureen herself when he laughs good-humouredly at her attempts to escape from her class. When Maureen finally rebels against the false values she has imposed on herself, she tells herself that she is doing it "for Tony"; however, the most striking thing about the scene is its feminist content and implications, the way in which Maureen acts as and for herself. Lessing uses a demasking device which occurs repeatedly in her fiction, as Maureen literally strips herself of her painfully acquired sexual and social identity:

At four Stanley was expected, and at 3:55 Maureen descended to the living room. She wore a faded pink dress from three summers before; her mother's cretonne overall used for housework; and a piece of cloth tied round her hair that might very well have been a duster. At any rate, it was a faded gray. She had put on a pair of her mother's old shoes. She could not be called plain, but she looked like her own faded elder sister, dressed for a hard day's spring cleaning.

The fiction ends in defeat: we are made to feel, in this case, the impossible weight of social and external forces with which the individual has to contend. However, the possibility of transcendence through (and perhaps of) the self is intermittently suggested in this early fiction: the mock brusqueness of the title itself suggests this.

"Not a Very Nice Story," a fiction from Lessing's middle period, brings to the fore questions about the relationship between the novel and the short form in Lessing's work. It requires us to consider the possibility of telling this particular story in novel form. The plot is so rich, and extends over such a long period of time, that it seems to demand novel treatment, and in consequence we begin to construct a notional novel from it. Yet Lessing's adoption of the short form here is undeniably apt and strategic. It allows her to foreground certain issues, as we read off the actual, and scanty, information that we are given against the "novel" that we wish to construct. The techniques of summary and sketch, which seem at first so inappropriate to the material, in practice makes us reconsider the ways in which we usually process and code such material. Lessing invites us to share her impatience with conventional (and social) forms and the level of judgement and awareness that their use implies:

For ten years the marriages had prospered side by side. The Joneses had produced three children, the Smiths two. The young doctors worked hard, as doctors do. In the two comfortable gardened houses, the two attractive young wives worked hard as wives and mothers do. And all that time the marriages were being assessed by very different standards, which had nothing to do with those trivial and inelegant acts of sex—which continued whenever circumstances allowed, quite often, though neither guilty partner searched for occasions—all that time the four people continued to take their emotional pulses, as was their training: the marriages were satisfactory, no, not so satisfactory, yes, very good again.

In "Not a Very Nice Story," as in "Notes for a Case History," the tone of the title points to one of the fiction's major preoccupations. Lessing suggests, in effect, that most of our complex social forms and processes can be reduced to very basic feelings and desires, and that until we recognise this, there can be no possibility of transcendence of such feelings. In "Not a Very Nice Story" the possibility of transcendence awaits the women in the story. They have lived with lies about themselves and their relationships with their husbands for years, lies of which both they and the husbands have sometimes been aware, sometimes not. As the fiction moves to its close, each of the women is granted a vision of a husbandless future, a vision which is undeniably bleak, but which nonetheless seems to hold a potential for greater freedom and self-knowledge. Through the consciousness of Althea, in particular, Lessing seems to be moving towards a recognition of the importance of those areas of dream and vision which will dominate her later fiction:

Sometimes Althea would see that room without its centre, without Frederick. She and Muriel were alone in the room with the children. Yes, that is how it would all end, two aging women, with the children—who would soon have grown up and gone. Between one blink of an eye and another, a man could vanish as Henry had done.

In the long evenings when Frederick was at the clinic, or on call, and it was as if the whole house and its occupants waited for him to come back, then Althea could not stop herself from looking across the living room at Muriel in the thought: Coming events cast their shadow before. Can't you feel it?

But this is our future, Althea would think. Their future, hers and Muriel's, was each other.

She knew it. But it was neurotic to think like this and she must try to suppress it.

The reality and force of such a dream seems greater when it occurs in a structurally indeterminate, free-floating story, rather than in a novel tied in any way to the conventions of social realism.

"The Temptation of Jack Orkney," the concluding story in the Collected Stories (1978; the story was first published in 1972) is a latter-day Faustian tale in which Jack Orkney is tempted to sell his radical, committed soul in order to abandon himself to the reality of a dream. The fiction starts from the crisis of his father's death, which sparks off the feelings of disenchantment and alienation which sustain the fiction; it also seems to stand as a portent, pointing to the possibility of a transcendence specifically associated with death and disintegration. This idea circles the story: so Jack's father is described in these terms near its close:

During that night he could feel his face falling into the lines and folds of his father's face—at the time, that is, when his father had been an elderly, rather than an old, man. His father's old man's face had been open and sweet, but before achieving that goodness—like the inn at the end of a road which you have no alternative but to use?—he had had the face of a Roman, heavy-lidded, sceptical, obdurate, facing into the dark: the man whose pride and strength had to come from a conscious ability to suffer, in silence, the journey into negation.

Jack Orkney's disenchantment with his world is no simple matter and raises considerable narrative difficulties. Lessing's project is to expose Jack Orkney's "false consciousness" by accumulating his reactions and responses to what he perceives as the false consciousness of others. This makes for great difficulties of tone, not just because the narrator is required to move smoothly or coherently from one discordant discourse to the next but also because the narrative can by definition come to rest at no stable point of view. The narrator must recognize that "his" own view is as false, as culturally determined and contingent as that of any of the "character's": again, such a relativistic viewpoint is, I suggest, more easily accommodated in the form of the free (inconclusive) story rather than in the novel.

The territory which Jack Orkney occupies at the close of the fiction is analogous to that occupied by the narrator of Memoirs of a Survivor. The freestanding world of dream does not conflict with "reality," does not seem discrepant. Jack Orkney's world of dream is coterminous with the visionary world of Memoirs it waters the arid plains of his life like a swift, deep, fast-flowing stream:

He had once been a man whose sleep had been—nothing, nonexistent, he had slept like a small child. Now, in spite of everything, although he knew that fear could lie in wait there, his sleep had become another country, lying just behind his daytime one. Into that country he went nightly, with an alert, even if ironical, interest: the irony was due to his habits of obedience to his past—for a gift had been made to him. Behind the face of the sceptical world was another, which no conscious decision of his could stop him exploring.

Lessing characteristically ends her free story here, in an open-ended way. Such indeterminacy affirms the reader's freedom for further exploration after the novella's formal close.

Source: Clare Hanson, "Free Stories: The Shorter Fiction of Doris Lessing," in The Doris Lessing Newsletter, Vol. 9, No. 1, Spring, 1985, pp. 7-8, 14.


Critical Overview