Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 492

Doris Lessing gives this story two levels of meaning, one individual, the other social. The individual meaning has to do with Tom’s sexual and social confusion. Only seventeen years old, Tom is unsure of himself, envious of his mate Stanley’s easy ability to flirt with attractive women. For Tom, the...

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Doris Lessing gives this story two levels of meaning, one individual, the other social. The individual meaning has to do with Tom’s sexual and social confusion. Only seventeen years old, Tom is unsure of himself, envious of his mate Stanley’s easy ability to flirt with attractive women. For Tom, the sunbather initially represents the allure of consumer society: “She looked like a poster, or a magazine cover, with the blue sky behind her and her legs stretched out.” He feels a powerful sexual attraction: “He had caught her in the act of rolling down the little red pants over her hips, till they were no more than a small triangle. She was on her back, fully visible, glistening with oil.”

Tom’s sexual desire conflicts with his insecurity; he resolves the tension by romanticizing the sunbather. First, he fantasizes that she is tender with him. Then he dreams an explicitly erotic scene, imagined in the consumer idiom of the 1960’s, but romanticized. “Last night she had asked him into her flat: it was big and had fitted white carpets and a bed with a padded white leather headtop. She wore a black filmy negligée and her kindness to Tom thickened his throat as he remembered it.” Tom’s imaginary trysts with the sunbather become so real to him (for his desire is so powerful) that he thinks he knows her. Moreover, he thinks that she surely must see that he intervenes to protect her from Stanley’s crudities. It is all in his head, however, because to the sunbather he is just another ogling worker.

The story’s social meaning has to do with the barriers of gender and class that separate the men from the woman. The gender barrier is the more obvious of the two. The woman is physically attractive, but does not respond to the men’s calls, even though they think that she is signaling her availability. This angers and insults the men, for their masculinity is spurned. Their feelings relate to the class barrier between them and the woman. Stanley practices a standard of sexual morality that expects men to monitor and control their wives’ behavior. His anger at the sunbather stems as much from his belief that women should not be allowed to behave “like that” as it does from the woman’s actual rejection. Women who behave “like that,” in his view, have husbands who cannot “put their foot down” to keep them from expressing their sexuality. Stanley’s view of women reflects the prudery of the British working class.

The class barrier also appears in the theme of work. The work that the three men do is physically hard and demanding; their resentment at having to labor in extreme heat is magnified by the privileged nature of the sunbather’s time. Her very presence is a reminder to them that some people do not have to work as hard as others.

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