A Woman on a Roof

by Doris Lessing

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Last Updated June 20, 2024.

Introduction

"A Woman on a Roof" by Doris Lessing is set during a London heatwave during the 1960s. Lessing is a British author who likes to explore real-life issues in her writing. This story, published in 1963, is no exception. In "A Woman on a Roof," readers meet some working-class men stuck on a hot roof fixing gutters. Their day takes a surprising turn when they spot a nearly naked woman sunbathing on a nearby rooftop. This simple event sparks a story examining social class, expectations of masculine behavior, and dynamics between men and women in 1960s London. Lessing subtly uses a simple incident to explore deeper ideas about human desire and longing for connection.

Plot Summary

Three workmen, Harry, Stanley, and Tom, notice a woman sunbathing on a nearby rooftop during a scorching heatwave. She continues to sunbathe, seemingly unfazed by the men's whistles. The men, particularly Stanley and Tom, are curious and try to get a peek at her. Harry, the leader of the group, is annoyed by their antics. While they try to act tough and nonchalant, especially Stanley, who is newly married, they cannot help but steal glances.

The next day, the workers find the woman on the roof again, completely unfazed by their presence. They are upset, and even a little angry, at her indifference. They consider complaining to their foreman about the heat but decide to stay on the roof, feeling a sense of freedom from being up high. Later in the day, more people come up to the roof to escape the heat, including some couples who are also seemingly unbothered by being watched.

When Harry leaves to fetch more equipment, Stanley and Tom climb across rooftops to get a closer look at the woman. Despite their catcalling, she remains calm, reading a book. This infuriates Stanley. Tom, however, feels a strange affection for her. He sees her as beautiful and unattainable, separated by the gap between the rooftops. The men return to their work area, with Stanley still fuming and Tom secretly harboring feelings for the woman.

The intense heat continues, forcing the workers to find shade under their blanket for most of the day. They are exhausted and grumpy, especially Stanley, who remains fixated on the woman. When they check on her before leaving, she is seemingly asleep, exposing more skin. Stanley is furious and threatens to report her to the police. Harry questions his outburst, saying that she is not causing any harm. Tom, like Harry, is disturbed by Stanley's aggression, especially considering his usual positive demeanor. 

The next day is even hotter. Harry checks for the woman first, likely to avoid Stanley's bad mood. She is gone, leading Stanley to assume her husband stopped her from sunbathing. Harry and Tom share a knowing look. They suspect she is simply hiding from them. They get permission to work in the cooler basement, but Stanley insists on going to the roof for "fresh air."

They find the woman hiding behind a parapet. Stanley remains silent, but Tom fantasizes about approaching her. As she packs up, Stanley lets out a mocking yell, which startles her. She disappears down a ladder, visibly angry. Tom feels a secret pleasure because he believes her anger is directed at Stanley and Harry, not him.

The following day is hotter still. Working on the roof becomes unbearable. At noon, the woman finally appears in a white gown. Tom feels a sense of possessiveness because she is hidden from the other men. The heat intensifies, and they eventually stop working and hide in the shade. Stanley chats with...

(This entire section contains 895 words.)

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a woman watering plants nearby, contracting her friendliness with the "Lady Godiva" on their roof. Tom notes they did not whistle at the friendly women. He hatches a plan to stay behind after work and reach the sunbather somehow, but they all leave early due to exhaustion.

In a final act of defiance, Tom climbs a parapet to catch a glimpse of the woman. He sees her sunbathing and clumsily climbs down when Stanley asks about her. He lies and says she is not there, feeling a sense of protectiveness towards her. Tom even feels a sense of connection with the woman, believing she is grateful for his "protection."

The next day, the workers hesitate to go up to the hot roof. A neighbor, Mrs. Pritchett, offers them tea and chats with them. Stanley flirts with her, while Tom feels a strange sense of security because of it. They eventually have to go to the roof and see the sunbather again. Stanley gets angry and yells at the woman for no reason. Harry decides they should leave to avoid trouble. 

After the other workers leave, Tom approaches the woman's roof and finds her lying down. He tries to strike up a conversation and imagines romantic gestures, but she remains silent and disinterested. She tells him to go away. He eventually gets tired of waiting for her to talk and leaves full of resentment. He gets drunk that night, fueled by hatred for her. 

The story ends with a gloomy day reflecting Tom's mood. The rain has stopped people from sunbathing, and the workers are happy to finish the job in the cool weather. Tom, now disenchanted with the sunbather, thinks,

Well, that's fixed you, hasn't it now? That's fixed you good and proper.

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