Analysis of Doris Lessing’s Novels

Doris Lessing (22 October 1919 – 17 November 2013) has been one of the most widely read and influential British novelists of the second half of the twentieth century. Her works have been translated into many languages and have inspired critical attention around the globe. Generally serious and didactic, Lessing’s fiction repeatedly urges the human race to develop a wider consciousness that would allow for greater harmony and less violence. Although known particularly as amaster of realism, Lessing is often experimental or deliberately fantastic, as shown in her science-fiction novels. Her interests are far-ranging, from Marxism and global politics to the mystical teachings of Sufism to the small personal voice of the individual.


Doris Lessing is a powerful writer committed to the lofty goal of changing human consciousness itself. The narrative voice that weaves throughout her prolific fiction is that of an intense thinker who observes, explores, and describes the contemporary world but whose ultimate sense of human life is that the individual, and indeed the human race, is meant to go beyond mere recognition of perceived reality and to struggle with visions of the possible. Her novels repeatedly suggest that changes in the way humans view themselves, their world, and their relationships with others are imperative if life on this planet is to survive.

Lessing’s scope is wide. Her creative imagination is able to provide a close analysis of a character with all that individual’s fears, longings, and contradictions and to relate that individual not only to his or her circle of acquaintances but to patterns of global economics and politics as well, and then to sweep beyond even this planet to the cosmos and a perspective that encompasses the metaphysical questions of existence. Her fictional explorations are multiple, multidimensional, and overlapping, suggesting that no one viewpoint is adequate or complete. This range is also reflected in her varied narrative forms, which include realism, naturalism, science fiction, utopianism and dystopianism, fantasy, fable, transcultural postmodernism, and experimental combinations of these. This heterogeneity of themes, techniques, and perspectives illustrates Lessing’s overriding premise that truth and substance cannot easily be compartmentalized or assigned fixed labels: Existence is always process, always in flux.

Lessing’s position as an exile is a prominent aspect of her work, both in content and in theme. Born in the Middle East of English parents, she spent her adolescence in Southern Rhodesia, first with her family on an isolated and impoverished farm whose workers were all native black Africans, and then on her own in Salisbury. In the city she became involved with a group interested in international politics whose most specific focus was increased rights for black Rhodesians. Her experiences there in the 1940’s, including two marriages and three children, became material for nearly all of her novels for the first twenty years of her writing career.

The Grass Is Singing

In 1949 Lessing arrived in London with her youngest son and the manuscript of The Grass Is Singing. In many ways this first book established a pattern for subsequent novels. Her manuscript was accepted for publication within three days of her submitting it to a publisher. The novel was well received and went through seven reprintings within five months. The title comes from part 5 of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922); Lessing’s wide reading included the twentieth century writers as well as the great British, French, and Russian novelists of the nineteenth century. She most admired those writers with a sense of moral purpose, a sense of commitment to all humanity. The Grass Is Singing clearly shows the horrific effects of apartheid and racial prejudice on both the white colonial rulers and the black people who make up the overwhelming majority of the populations of southern Africa.

In a stylistic technique directly opposite to that of a stereotypical detective story, the third-person narrator reveals at the outset of The Grass Is Singing that Mary Turner, the wife of a poor farmer, has been killed by a houseboy, Moses, who confessed to the crime. The opening chapter shows the confusion and emotional collapse of Mary’s husband, Dick Turner, and the reactions of Charlie Slatter, a neighbor, and Tony Marston, a young recent immigrant from England. The plot then becomes straightforward as it gives the background and chronology of events that led to the murder.

Mary grew up in the city and had established a pleasant though rather meaningless life after the death of her parents. At age thirty she begins to overhear acquaintances’ disparaging remarks about the fact that she has never married. Suddenly seeing herself as a failure, she agrees to marry virtually the first man available, an impractical farmer who comes to town for supplies. Dick Turner immediately takes her to his isolated shack, where they are surrounded by black workers; the nearest white neighbor is many miles away. Mary is unprepared for marriage and totally inept at dealing with the series of houseboys Dick brings from the field to do cooking and housework. In exile from her city life, Mary is further hampered by the typical white Southern Rhodesian belief that natives are basically nonhuman, or at least subhuman and destined to inferiority. She cannot handle the intimate day-by-day contact with the native houseboys who seem so alien to her, and with the advent of the arrogant Moses, the many psychological strains lead inexorably to her almost invited death. Mary and all of white culture are guilty, but it is the black Moses who will be hanged.

Mary’s failures are also a result of her inability to understand herself. She is not a reader. She has dreams and nightmares but makes no exploration of their possible significance. She has never examined social and political realities and has no one with whom to discuss her problems. She is unable to adjust to her current reality and unable to create any alternative reality.

The Children of Violence Series

Martha Quest, A Proper Marriage, A Ripple from the Storm, Landlocked, and The Four-Gated City trace in detail the growth and development of Martha Quest, an autobiographical character who, unlike Mary Turner, is intensely interested in knowing herself and making sense of the world. Together these novels make up the Children of Violence series. The first four are set in Africa, while The Four-Gated City, which nearly equals in length the preceding four, is set in London and traces Martha Quest’s life from her arrival there around 1949 to the late 1990’s. The novels set in Africa are categorized as social realism, while The Four-Gated City moves beyond that to discuss what are often considered paranormal capacities, and the work concludes after some unspecified disaster has destroyed much of life on earth. The futurist world Lessing depicts here is neither entirely utopian nor dystopian, and despite forces beyond the control of the individual, Martha Quest and some of the other inhabitants of the postcatastrophic world epitomize the continuing need for individual responsibility and commitment to a more harmonious world.

Martha Quest, as her surname suggests, is a quintessential Lessing heroine, always examining the human condition and searching for a higher consciousness to change herself and her world. The characterization is detailed and frank, including descriptions of Martha’s sexual relationships and, in A Proper Marriage, a lengthy and explicit description of childbirth. Yet Martha’s perceptions and innermost thoughts also provide a historical overview of an entire era and a challenge to the status quo. Central to all Martha’s struggles is her determination to grow and to envision a freer and more responsible world.

The Golden Notebook

It is good to note that Lessing interrupted the writing of the Children of Violence series to work on The Golden Notebook, published in 1962 and generally acknowledged as her most impressive and influential novel. “The two women were alone in the London flat,” begins the long novel, and from this simple statement Lessing creates a fascinating portrait of the modern world. The protagonist is Anna Wulf, a writer who says that she is suffering from writer’s block after a successful first novel about racial problems in Africa. Anna’s friend Molly is a divorced mother trying to make a life for herself. Through them Lessing perceptively examines the problems of the intelligent and disillusioned modern woman. Anna tries to create order out of chaos by keeping a diary, which she divides into four notebooks: a black notebook recounting her experiences as a young woman in Africa; a red notebook for her Communist and political activities; a yellow notebook, which includes her fictional attempts to understand herself, including the creation of an autobiographical character named Ella, who is also writing a novel; and a blue notebook to record the factual details of her daily life and her relationships with men. Sections of these notebooks are repeated sequentially four times and are finally superseded by another notebook, the golden one of the novel’s title, in which Anna attempts to integrate these compartmentalized and often-conflicting aspects of her life. In the golden notebook section, influenced by the mental breakdown of one of her lovers, Saul Green, Anna goes through layers of madness in herself and questions the idea of reality itself.

The shape of this pivotal metafictional novel is further complicated by sections called “Free Women,” which open and close the book as well as separate the repeated sections of the black, red, yellow, and blue notebooks. The five “Free Women” sections together form a conventional novel about sixty thousand words long. Although it deals with the same characters and events recounted in the various notebook sections, it does so in a reductive and more structured way. It is as though the “Free Women” novel were what Anna is able to produce to end her writer’s block, but a novel that shows that fiction is unable to capture the intricacies and complexities of actual existence. Since the sections of this conventional novel frame and appear throughout the larger work, the contrasts and variations with the notebook sections make The Golden Notebook as a whole a complex structural and stylistic achievement. While The Golden Notebook elaborates Lessing’s attitudes toward racism, sexism, and the interconnections between the personal and the political, it also shows the development of Lessing’s thinking to include the benefits of the irrational and the necessity of exploring areas beyond the layers of social pretense and conventionality. These areas are further addressed in The Four-Gated City and in three subsequent novels, Briefing for a Descent into Hell, The Summer Before the Dark, and The Memoirs of a Survivor. Each of these novels breaks from traditional versions of realism and insists upon a wider definition of the possible.

Briefing for a Descent into Hell

Briefing for a Descent into Hell, one of the very few Lessing novels with a male as the central character, presents Charles Watkins, a classics professor at the University of Cambridge, who is found wandering incoherently in the streets and is hospitalized for treatment of a mental breakdown. While in the hospital, Watkins, who has forgotten even his name, imagines himself taken away in a spaceship, and most of the book relates his various encounters with unfamiliar creatures and situations that seem almost mythological. Many of these experiences are painful or frightening. Often he is alone, yet he feels a sense of urgency and intense anxiety: He must accomplish certain tasks or risk total failure for himself and others. He also has times of exceptional joy, as he sees the beauty of creation and has revelations of a harmony that could prevail if each creature accepted its part in the scheme of things and made its responsible contribution. In the final pages of the book, Watkins is given electroshock treatment and yanked back into his old life, but both he and the reader are left with the sense that compared with his previous insights he has been forced back to a shallow and hollow “normalcy.”

The Summer Before the Dark

In The Summer Before the Dark, Kate Brown, a woman in her early forties, also goes through a period of “madness,” which reveals the extent to which she has previously succumbed to the pressures to become only roles: wife, mother, sex object, efficient organizer, selfless caregiver. During the summer that is the time frame of the novel, Kate’s husband and grown children are away from home; at loose ends, Kate accepts a position as translator for an international food organization. She soon finds herself traveling and organizing global conferences. She spends some time in Spain with Jeffrey Merton, a young man whose psychosomatic and psychological illnesses spill over into her own life, and she returns to London to deal with her doubts and confusions. She stays for a while in a flat with Maureen, a twenty-two-year-old who is establishing her own identity. Through her reactions to Maureen, Kate comes to understand much about herself and her own family, and she finally grasps the relevance of a recurring dream about a seal. The seal dream appears fifteen times in the novel, and the basic image is of Kate struggling to return an abandoned seal to the ocean. When Kate is finally able to finish the dream and return the seal to water, she realizes that what she has been burdened with is her own ego and that she must fight against the power of repressive institutions and roles.

The Memoirs of a Survivor

Lessing again shows the conjunction between the individual and the larger society, including the importance of responsibility and direction, in The Memoirs of a Survivor. In this dystopian rendering of the “near future,” the unnamed first-person narrator records her observations of a world in a state of cultural and social decline following an unexplained catastrophe. A stranger consigns into the narrator’s care a girl of about twelve, Emily, who has with her Hugo, an ugly cat/dog creature. Much of the novel describes Emily’s accelerated development through puberty and her association with Gerald, a young gang leader who, with Emily’s help, tries to rebuild some semblance of order or at least some system of survival in a degenerated and nonfunctional society. From the window of her flat the narrator watches groups abandon the city, never to be heard of again, and she witnesses the collapse of civilization, demonstrated particularly in the very young children who fend for themselves and who have only fleeting connections to others for immediate gain. In these children, not only respect for others but also language itself has broken down, and they attack their victims or one another with barbaric yaps.

In the midst of all this collapse, the narrator has become aware of another layer of reality in and through the walls of her flat. When she enters this space, she is confronted with a variety of scenes from the past, not necessarily her own past, and usually she sees something that she must do. On one journey through the walls she glimpses a figure of a woman, perhaps a goddess or some aspect of herself, who fills her with a sense of hope. Surrounded by despair in the present world, the narrator constructs an alternative visionary world, and at the end of the novel, when even the air is unbreathable, the collapsed world is left behind as the narrator steps through the wall through both a willed and a magical transformation. She takes with her Emily and Gerald and their group of youngsters as well as Hugo, transformed from an ugly beast into something shining with hope and promise.

The Canopus in Argos series

After a rare gap of five years without a novel, Doris Lessing burst forth with Shikasta, which she announced was the first in a series called Canopus in Argos: Archives, and in the next four years she published the other four books in the series. A number of loyal readers were disappointed with what Lessing called her “space fiction,” with its undeveloped, stylized characters and strangely unexciting interplanetary rivalries. Yet the series attracted a new audience of sciencefiction readers, and, taken as a whole, the series continues Lessing’s themes: the individual versus the collective, political systems and their interference with racial and sexual equality, the interconnectedness of all life, and the need for a more enlightened consciousness.

Some of the terms used to describe the varied genres in the Canopus in Argos novels include outer space fiction, science fiction, fantasy, psychomyth, allegory, utopian and indicate the variety within and among these books. They do not even comfortably fit the classification of series, or roman-fleuve, since traditionally a series centers on a single character, as Lessing’s Children of Violence had centered on Martha Quest. Shikasta is filled with reports, journals, and interviews by aliens who discuss the fate of Earth, or Shikasta. The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five does not seem to be set on another planet so much as in the realm of myth and legend as Al·Ith moves between the zones in search of her destiny. The Sirian Experiments is told by a woman named Ambien II, who is a leading administrator in the Sirian Colonial Service. She discovers that the rival Canopean Empire is actually in advance of Sirius in every way and more deserving of conducting experiments on Shikasta than is her own empire, though the Sirians certainly do not want to hear this. The Making of the Representative for Planet 8 is the story of a small planet whose inhabitants live comfortably until the time of The Ice begins, with ice and snow covering most of the globe. The inhabitants are unable to emigrate, but a few of them survive in some nonphysical but essential existence. Documents Relating to the Sentimental Agents in the Volyen Empire uses testimonies and histories to show that the Volyen Empire has failed to keep its promises to its inhabitants and to the cosmos. The empire suffers a rhetoric-induced downfall, as its leaders had become enamored with the sound of their grand ideas rather than performing the actions that should have accompanied them.

None of the narrators and voices in the Canopus in Argos series is entirely reliable, and many questions are left unanswered. Perhaps this confusion is itself Lessing’s goal: to make her readers question and reconsider ideas and actions. As Johor, an emissary to Shikasta, comments on the very first page of the series: “Things change. That is all we may be sure of. . . . This is a catastrophic universe, always; and subject to sudden reversals, upheavals, changes, cataclysms, with joy never anything but the song of substance under pressure forced into new forms and shapes.”

The Diaries of Jane Somers

The same year the final volume of Canopus in Argos was published, another novel appeared, titled The Diary of a Good Neighbour, purportedly by a new British writer, Jane Somers. It was not until the following year, and after the publication of another Jane Somers novel, If the Old Could . . ., that Lessing publicly revealed her authorship with the publication of the two novels together as The Diaries of Jane Somers. In her introduction to the book Lessing discusses some of her reasons for having used a pseudonym. One was to create a new persona as the narrator: How would a real Jane Somers write? Another was to show the difficulties unestablished writers have in getting published, and indeed the first manuscript was rejected by several publishers before it was printed by Michael Joseph in London, the same firm that had accepted the unknown Doris Lessing’s The Grass Is Singing nearly four decades earlier. Lessing also says that she wanted the novels to be judged on their own merit, apart from the Lessing canon. When the Jane Somers novels first appeared, they sold in only modest numbers and received favorable but very limited attention from reviewers. Lessing notes that the modern publishing business markets high-volume, high-profile authors with the planned expectation that the novels will have a short shelf life as big sellers for a few weeks but soon are replaced and out of print; such policies do not favor new and experimental novelists.

The Diaries of Jane Somers focuses on old age, especially the relationship that develops between the middle-aged Jane Somers, head of a high-fashion magazine, and Maudie Fowler, a poor but proud woman in her nineties. Set in a realistic London, the novels, particularly The Diary of a Good Neighbour, give an insightful analysis of contemporary health-care services and again show the impact of social attitudes and governmental policies on the individual. The social realism of the novel, with its discussions of aging and dying, is given contrast by the summaries of novels Jane writes about Maudie’s life. Maudie tells stories of her long, hard life, and Jane transforms them into successful romanticized fictions, which Maudie then enjoys hearing. Jane, whose friends call her Janna, is repeatedly mistaken for a “Good Neighbour,” a social worker, as though there could be no other explanation for her friendship with Maudie. The layers of illusion and reality, fictions and lives, add to the emotional power of the novel and make it an important addition to Lessing’s later works.

The Good Terrorist and The Fifth Child

The Good Terrorist shows rather stupid and totally unsympathetic would-be revolutionaries who move from city to city in England planning random bombings. Contrary to the title, there is no good terrorist in the novel, and it is just as well that these characters have a tendency to blow up themselves accidentally rather than killing others. A much more interesting novel is The Fifth Child, which can be read as an accurate and realistic account of an unfortunate English family, but which to other readers is a science-fiction fantasy, a tale of an alien being born into a human family. The novel hovers on some point that embraces both readings. The setting is England in the 1960’s. Harriet and David Lovatt want a big family and a settled home life. Everything seems to be working according to their plan until the birth of their fifth child. Ben has nothing childlike about him: He is gruesome in appearance, insatiably hungry, abnormally strong, demanding, and violent. In no way does he fit into the happy home. Yet Harriet, steeped in the idea of motherhood, cannot bear to abandon him in some mental institution and insists on keeping him with her. As the years pass, the older children escape though already harmed by Ben’s weirdness and violence, and even David finally recognizes that he cannot continue to live with such a creature. The novel ends in despair, the problems unresolved. Ben is well on his way to becoming a fully grown criminal, a rapist and murderer, with no one able to subdue him. The story of the Lovatts becomes a parable of the modern world, the vision of a simple and happy existence shattered within the family itself and a society unwilling to confront and unable to control its own most brutal aspects.

Love, Again

Lessing’s novel Love, Again confronts the uncertainty of love and the decisions made because of love. Sarah, an aging theater manager, writes a play based on the true story of a young, beautiful French mulatto named Julie Varion. Julie has many eligible suitors in her life, but none commits himself to her because of family pressures of status and community responsibility. Julie finally becomes engaged to an older gentleman, but she mysteriously dies before the wedding. Writing about this alluring character and her life is emotionally trying for Sarah, who feels she, unlike Julie, is unable to act upon her love interests because of her age. Unable to act on her feelings, Sarah suffers silently through her painful longings for a twenty-eight-year-old actor and a thirty-five-year-old director. Sarah eventually comes to terms with her age through painful moments of realization and acceptance.

All the characters are seen through the eyes of a narrator who focuses primarily on Sarah and reveals the characters as Sarah sees them. Like Julie and her suitors, Sarah and her friends are bound by obligations and social rules which affect the decisions they make for their own lives. Sarah is faced with decisions of loving but letting go. Sarah’s brother, Hal, realizes that his future only holds loneliness because of his inability to see others and their needs. Stephen, a dear friend of Sarah’s, ultimately commits suicide over his preoccupation and obsession with the deceased Julie Varion, which only become more intense as the production of the play about her continues.

Mara and Dann

Mara and Dann is an exciting adventure story set thousands of years in the future. The two main characters, Mara and her brother Dann, were kidnapped from their home with the Mahondi tribe when Mara was seven and Dann was four. In order to stay alive, the two are forced to change their names when they are taken to a village of the Rock People, a tribe considered less advanced than the Mahondi. Mara stays in the village until she becomes a strong young woman who desires to learn as much as possible even as she faces starvation and drought; she is sold into slavery and taken prisoner to be a breeder for other tribes. Dann suffers through abductions and addictions and becomes divided in his desires and duties toward his sister. Through his dream world, Dann faces his fears and eventually accepts his past experiences. Although the two are separated many times, they never stop searching for each other even at the risk of slavery and death.

The novel is an interesting tale of survival of the human mind and spirit even through the most severe times a new world can encounter after an ice age. Mara and Dann’s characters are well developed, and they change and learn from their experiences. Mara learns to love and to trust but also learns the price she must pay to survive in the world outside her home. Lessing portays issues of racism, greed, and power as they have affected every generation throughout time.

Lessing has had a wide readership. For many years she has been on best-seller lists, and her novels have been translated into many languages. Her work is widely anthologized and has been closely read by many contemporary authors, particularly women writers. The number of critical articles, books, and sections of books about her work is enormous and international in scope, reflecting the wide diversity of readers and the serious attention her work has commanded throughout her writing career.

Lessing’s novels, far-ranging in scope and treatment, resist any easy labels. Still, her major themes, though presented in a variety of ways, have been remarkably consistent. The individual has responsibilities, Lessing always shows, not only to achieve self-knowledge and inner harmony but to contribute to the greater harmony of society as well. Human consciousness must expand, and people’s attitudes and actions must change if human life is to survive.


Principal long fiction
The Grass Is Singing, 1950; Martha Quest, 1952; A Proper Marriage, 1954; Retreat to Innocence, 1956; A Ripple from the Storm, 1958; The Golden Notebook, 1962; Landlocked, 1965, 1991; The Four-Gated City, 1969; Briefing for a Descent into Hell, 1971; The Summer Before the Dark, 1973; The Memoirs of a Survivor, 1974; Shikasta, 1979; The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five, 1980; The Sirian Experiments, 1981; The Making of the Representative for Planet 8, 1982; Documents Relating to the Sentimental Agents in the Volyen Empire, 1983; The Diary of a Good Neighbour, 1983 (as Jane Somers); If the Old Could . . . , 1984 (as Somers); The Diaries of Jane Somers, 1984 (includes The Diary of a Good Neighbour, and If the Old Could . . .); The Good Terrorist, 1985; The Fifth Child, 1988; Playing the Game, 1995; Love, Again, 1996; Mara and Dann, 1999; Ben, in the World, 2000; The Cleft, 2007.

Other major works
Short Fiction: This Was the Old Chief’s Country, 1951; Five: Short Novels, 1953; The Habit of Loving, 1957; A Man and Two Women, 1963; African Stories, 1964; The Temptationof Jack Orkney and Other Stories, 1972 (also known as The Story of a Non-Marrying Man and Other Stories); This Was the Old Chief’s Country: Volume 1 of Doris Lessing’s Collected African Stories, 1973; The Sun Between Their Feet: Volume 2 of Doris Lessing’s Collected African Stories, 1973; Sunrise on the Veld, 1975; A Mild Attack of Locusts, 1977; To Room Nineteen/Her Collected Stories, 1978; The Temptation of Jack Orkney/Her Collected Stories, 1978; Stories, 1978; London Observed: Stories and Sketches, 1991 (pb. in U.S. as The Real Thing: Stories and Sketches, 1992); Spies I Have Known and Other Stories, 1995.
Plays: Each His Own Wilderness, pr. 1958; Play with a Tiger, pr., pb. 1962; Making of the Representative for Planet 8, pr. 1988 (libretto); Play with a Tiger, and Other Plays, pb. 1996.
Poetry: Fourteen Poems, 1959.
Nonfiction: Going Home, 1957; In Pursuit of the English: A Documentary, 1960; Particularly Cats, 1967; A Small Personal Voice, 1974; Prisons We Choose to Live Inside, 1987; The Wind Blows Away Our Words, 1987; African Laughter: Four Visits to Zimbabwe, 1992; Under My Skin, 1994; A Small Personal Voice: Essays, Reviews, Interviews, 1994; Doris Lessing: Conversations, 1994 (pb. in England as Putting the Questions Differently); Shadows on the Wall of the Cave, 1994; Walking in the Shade, 1997.
MiscellaneousMISCELLANEOUS: The Doris Lessing Reader, 1988 (selections).Bibliography Fishburn, Katherine. The Unexpected Universe of Doris Lessing: A Study in Narrative Technique.Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985.Galen, Muge. Between East and West: Sufism in the Novels of Doris Lessing. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997.Greene, Gayle. Changing the Story: Feminist Fiction and the Tradition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.____________. Doris Lessing: The Poetics of Change. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997.Kaplan, Carey, and Ellen Cronan Rose, eds. Doris Lessing: The Alchemy of Survival. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1988.Robinson, Sally. Engendering the Subject: Gender and Self-Representation in Contemporary Women’s Fiction. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991.Rubenstein, Roberta. The Novelistic Vision of Doris Lessing: Breaking the Forms of Consciousness. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979.Seligman, Dee. Doris Lessing: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1981.Sprague, Claire, and Virginia Tiger, eds. Critical Essays on Doris Lessing. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986.Whittaker, Ruth. Modern Novelists: Doris Lessing. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988.

Categories: Feminism, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature, Novel Analysis

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