BORN: 1919, Kermanshah, Persia
GENRE: Fiction, nonfiction, drama
The Grass Is Singing (1950)
The Golden Notebook (1962)
Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971)
The Summer before the Dark (1973)
Doris Lessing. AP Images
Considered among the most powerful contemporary novelists, Doris Lessing has explored many of the most important ideas, ideologies, and social issues of the twentieth century. Her works display a broad range of interests, including such topics as racism, communism, feminism, psychology, and mysticism. Lessing created strong-willed, independent heroines who suffer emotional crises in a male-dominated society, thus anticipating many feminist concerns. These works, particularly the five-volume Children of Violence series and The Golden Notebook (1962), were especially praised for their complex narrative techniques and convincing characterizations. During the 1970s and 1980s, Lessing attempted to function as a visionary figure for what she termed the ‘‘emancipated reader.’’ Her works of speculative fiction, which make use of science fiction elements, are characterized by a sense of imminent apocalypse. Lessing was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Growing Up in Africa. Doris May Tayler was born in Kermanshah, Persia, on October 22, 1919, to Alfred Cook Tayler, an employee of the Imperial Bank of Persia, and Emily Maude McVeagh Tayler, a nurse. In 1924 Lessing’s father took the family to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), hoping to make a fortune growing corn and tobacco and panning for gold. The family found little fortune on its new farm, which was located in a remote corner of the Rhodesian bush not far from the border with Mozambique. Lessing was educated first at a convent school and then at a government school for girls, both in the capital city of Salisbury. She returned home at about age twelve because of recurrent eye troubles and received no further formal education. At age sixteen she began working as a typist for a telephone company and was later employed by a law firm. She also worked as a Hansard secretary in the Rhodesian Parliament, then as a typist for the Guardian, a South African newspaper based in Cape Town.
In the 1940s, South Africa functioned under a system known as apartheid, which is Afrikaans for ‘‘separateness.’’ This government-sponsored system involved designating certain buildings, areas, and services for use only by certain races and forbade people of different races from marrying. It also led to the segregation of living areas within South Africa, with black citizens of different cultural groups kept separate from each other; this allowed the white Afrikaners, who were descended from European colonists and made up a small percentage of the population, to remain in control of the large nonwhite population.
In 1949 Lessing left Africa behind for London. Her first novel, The Grass Is Singing (1950), was published the following year and was immediately well received. Like many of the novels and short stories that would follow its debut, The Grass Is Singing deals with settings, characters, and issues very close to its author’s experience of Rhodesian society and, in particular, relations between white colonists and black citizens. ‘‘The Grass Is Singing,’’ an essayist for Feminist Writers explained, ‘‘was hailed as a breakthrough look at the horrors of South African apartheid. However, upon a second reading, the novel may seem focused on the desperate situation of a lively woman who is beat down by the grayness of her married life and the bleakness of anything the future might hold. Yet another reading of the novel brings out the harshness of the African landscape, the overwhelming power of nature, and the impending defeat of any human who tries to challenge those obstacles. Therein lies the strength of Lessing’s talent, the layering of story within story.’’
The Golden Notebook and Beyond. Lessing’s major and most controversial novel is The Golden Notebook (1962), wherein she explores, as a New Statesman reviewer noted, what it is like to be ‘‘free and responsible, a woman in relation to men and other women, and to struggle to come to terms with one’s selfabout these things and about writing and politics.’’ Lessing once explained that the work is ‘‘a novel about certain political and sexual attitudes that have force now; it is an attempt to explain them, to objectivize them, to set them in relation with each other.
So in a way it is a social novel, written by someone whose training—or at least whose habit of mind—is to see these things socially, not personally.’’ In its structure, the novel is really two novels, divided in four sections. Lessing split it into four parts to ‘‘express a split person. I felt that if the artist’s sensibility is to be equated with the sensibility of the educated person, then it is logical to use different styles to express different kinds of people.’’ She felt that the ‘‘personality is very much what is remembered; [the form] enabled me to say to the reader: Look, these apparently so different people have got so-and-so in common, or these things have got this in common. If I had used a conventional style, the old-fashioned novel,... I would not have been able to do this kind of playing with time, memory and the balancing of people.... I like The Golden Notebook even though I believe it to be a failure, because it at least hints at complexity.’’
After her initial flourishing as a writer, during which time she explored the Africa of her youth from her new home in London, Lessing turned away from the land of her past and toward new settings: inner space and outer space. Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971) is a novel of ideas based on her interest in the views of British psychiatrist R. D. Laing. In subsequent novels, Lessing has continued to produce work critiquing modern society. In contrast to the realism that marked her earlier novels, Lessing’s work of the late twentieth century would take startling new forms. In the five ‘‘Canopus’’ books she explores the destruction of life brought about by catastrophe and tyranny.
Return to Africa. After leaving Southern Rhodesia in 1949, Lessing returned to Africa only once, in 1956, an experience she recounts in Going Home. After this first homecoming, the white minority government blocked any future returns because of Lessing’s criticism of apartheid. It was not until the 1980s, after years of civil war and thousands of deaths brought the black majority to power in the newly christened Zimbabwe, that Lessing could return. In African Laughter: Four Visits to Zimbabwe she chronicles her trips to southern Africa in 1982, 1988, 1989, and 1992. On one level, this book offers the keen observations of a new nation’s growing pains through the eyes of someone who is neither an insider nor an outsider. She saw first a country trying to come to terms with the outcome of a long and bloody civil war based on race. In subsequent trips, she found exuberance, corruption, and finally decline.
Accolades and Criticism Late in Life. In 2007, Doris Lessing was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. That same year, she published The Cleft, a novel almost universally panned by critics. In her 2008 novel Alfred and Emily, Lessing returns to the subject of her childhood in Rhodesia and the profound effects of World War I on her parents.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Lessing's famous contemporaries include:
Thomas Keneally (1935—): This Australian novelist is best known for his novel Schindler's List (1982), which was later adapted into a film of the same title.
Iris Murdoch (1919-1999): An Irish novelist renowned for such works as Under the Net (1954).
Aldous Huxley (1894-1963): English novelist, essayist, poet, and short story writer best known for his novel Brave New World (1932).
John Cheever (1912-1982): An American fiction writer most famous for his highly acclaimed short stories, including ''The Enormous Radio'' (1947).
Nelson Mandela (1919-): After spending twenty-seven years as a political prisoner of the apartheid government of South Africa, Mandela became president of South Africa in 1994 after the country's first fully racially representative election.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Lessing's work often revolves around journeys, both literal and psychological. Here are some other works about journeying and how they change a person's soul and mind.
Into the Wild (1996), a nonfiction work by Jon Krakauer. Based on the life of Christopher McCandless, this text follows the last days of a young man who leaves behind his privileged family to explore the world only to perish in the wilds of Alaska.
The Pilgrim's Progress (1678), a religious allegory by John Bunyan. This allegory describes the journey that Christians must take in order to avoid sin and, ultimately, make it to heaven.
The Lord of the Rings (1955), a trilogy of novels by J. R. R. Tolkien. The three novels describe the journey of Frodo, a hobbit, to Mordor to destroy a ring of evil power while facing along the way bigger and fiercer enemies who wish to kill him.
Works in Literary Context
Lessing’s influences are diverse. Throughout her career as a writer, she has espoused various philosophic allegiances, and, not surprisingly, her fiction reflects these commitments. Retreat to Innocence (1956) is an explicitly pro-Marxist work, but since her defection from the Communist party, she has disowned that novel. The Golden Notebook reflects a Jungian interest, partly in the nature of the psychoanalyst whom Lessing’s protagonist in that novel consults. Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971), the novel published immediately after The Golden Notebook and the last two parts of the Children of Violence series, shows a distinct correlation to and dependence upon the work of psychiatrist R. D. Laing.
While Lessing’s work has its referents, particularly psychiatrists and psychologists, Lessing is unafraid of carving out new ground for her work.
Journey through Inner Space. When Briefing for a Descent into Hell was published, critics noticed the contrasts between it and Lessing’s previous work. Even though the same dominant themes of mental imbalance and psychic phenomena that were used in The Golden Notebook and in The Four-Gated City (1969) are to be found here as well, there are some major differences. For one thing, Briefing for a Descent into Hell has as its protagonist one of the few men to serve this purpose in any of Lessing’s longer fiction: Charles Watkins is a classics professor at Cambridge University, and his mental and emotional ‘‘journey’’ and eventual restoration to psychic health constitute the book’s plot. Lessing called this book ‘‘inner-space fiction,’’ a label intended to suggest that it is Watkins’s mental health rather than any actual physical journey that is at the heart of the book.
Structural Experimentation. The Golden Notebook (1962) has generally been acclaimed as Lessing’s masterpiece, though it is considerably less accessible than any of her earlier novels or most of her subsequent ones. It is a complex maze of differing perspectives on the same woman’s life and circumstances and structurally is an exceedingly carefully controlled series of overlapping ‘‘notebooks.’’ Lessing has repeatedly said that ‘‘the point [in this book] was the relation of its parts to each other’’ and that its ‘‘meaning is in the shape.’’ Her original intent was to write a short formal novel that would serve to enclose all the rest of her material in the book, but since the formal novel is ‘‘ridiculous’’ when it ‘‘can’t say a... thing,’’ she split up the material not included in the short formal novel into four ‘‘notebooks,’’ each concerned with a different though similar aspect of one woman’s life, and then in turn divided each notebook into four parts. The result is a technique in which first a part of the short novel—called ‘‘Free Women’’—is given, then one part each of the black, red, blue, and yellow notebooks; this pattern is repeated four times. Then there is a short section of the entire novel, also called ‘‘The Golden Notebook,’’ followed by the concluding ‘‘Free Women’’ section that ends the novel. Hence the reader can either read from page one to the end of the book, or, if the reader wishes, read all the parts of each notebook and ‘‘Free Women’’ together.
Works in Critical Context
Although Lessing has enjoyed a long and fruitful career, critical response to her work has been sharply divided. She has at times received near universal acclaim for works like The Golden Notebook, but then readers must contend with The Summer Before the Dark, which has the ironic distinction of being both one of Lessing’s most popular— and profitable—novels and one of the most severely criticized.
The Golden Notebook. When The Golden Notebook was published in 1962, it was welcomed with both enthusiasm and some apprehension at its unique structure. Frederick R. Karl, writing for Contemporary Literature called it ‘‘the most considerable work by an English author in the 1960s,’’ though he also considers it a ‘‘carefully-organized but verbose, almost clumsily written novel.’’ Where the author succeeds, according to Karl, is ‘‘in her attempt to write honestly about women.’’ Walter Allen expressed similar sentiments in The Modern Novel, stating, ‘‘As a work of art, The Golden Notebook seems to me to fail. The structure is clumsy, complicated rather than complex.’’ However, he considers the book impressive ‘‘as an exposition of the emotional problems that face an intelligent woman who wishes to live in the kind of freedom a man may take for granted.’’ Paul Schlueter concurs, noting that the novel ‘‘captures the authentic quality of what it is to be a woman, especially a woman in a man’s world.’
Responses to Literature
1. Read The Golden Notebook. Analyze your reaction to the formal experimentation of the text. Do you believe this form for this text is the best? Why or why not?
2. Read Dante’s Inferno and Briefing for a Descent into Hell. Both of these texts describe hellish journeys. Compare Lessing and Dante’s portrayals of ‘‘hell.’’ Analyze the effects each achieves in your understanding of the texts.
3. Using the Internet and the library, research the word apartheid, particularly as it relates to the racial divisions in Africa. In a brief essay, compare your findings to Lessing’s representation of racism in Africa.
Bertelsen, Eve, ed. Doris Lessing. Johannesburg: McGraw-Hill, 1985.
Chown, Linda E. Narrative Authority and Homeostasis in the Novels of Doris Lessing and Carmen Martin Gaite. New York: Garland, 1990.
Christ, Carol P. Diving Deep and Surfacing: Women Writers on Spiritual Quest. Boston: Beacon, 1980.
‘‘Doris Lessing (1919-).’’ In Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 1. Edited by Carolyn Riley. Detroit: Gale Research, 1973.
Draine, Betsy. Substance under Pressure: Artistic Coherence and Evolving Form in the Novels of Doris Lessing. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983.
Fahim, Ahadia S. Doris Lessing and Sufi Equilibrium: The Evolving Form of the Novel. New York: St. Martin’s, 1994.
Fishburn, Katherine. The Unexpected Universe of Doris Lessing: A Study in Narrative Technique. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1985.
Gardiner, Judith Kegan. Rhys, Stead, Lessing and the Politics of Empathy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989.
Greene, Gayle. Doris Lessing: The Poetics of Change. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994.
Morris, Robert K. Continuance and Change: The Contemporary British Novel Sequence. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1972.
Roberts, Robin. A New Species: Gender and Science in Science Fiction. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993.