Doris Lessing (22 October 1919 – 17 November 2013) engaged in a lifelong process of self-education, becoming involved with all the important intellectual and political movements of the twentieth century: Freudian and Jungian psychology, Marxism, feminism, existentialism, mysticism, sociobiology, and speculative scientific theory. All these interests appear in her fiction, which consequently serves as a record of the changing climate of the times. She has also displayed in her writing an increasing anxiety about humanity’s ability to survive.
In Doris Lessing’s short fiction, the reader meets characters remarkable for their intelligence, their unceasing analysis of their emotions, and their essential blindness to their true motivations. The people who move through her stories, while very vividly placid in the details of their lives, are in essence types. As Lessing says in her preface to The Golden Notebook, they are “so general and representative of the time that they are anonymous, you could put names to them like those in the old Morality Plays.” Those whom the reader meets most frequently in the short fiction are Mr. I-am-free-because-I-belong-nowhere, Miss I-must-have-love-and-happiness, Mrs. I-have-to-be-good-at-everything-I-do, Mr. Where-is-a-real-woman, and Ms. Where-is-areal- man; and there is one final type Lessing names, Mrs. If-we-deal-very-well-withthis- small-problem-then-perhaps-we-can-forget-we-daren’t-look-at-the-big-ones. This last type is the character so often met at the beginning of Lessing’s stories, the character who has become uneasily aware of a discrepancy between intention and action, between the word and the deed, but who would prefer not to take the analysis too far. Lessing is inexorable, however, and in story after story characters are driven to new, usually unpleasant knowledge about themselves and their motivations. Typically, the stories end with the situation unresolved. The reader sees the awakening but not the translation of new knowledge into action. For Lessing, the jump from dealing very well with small problems to looking at the big ones is the jump from History to Vision and lies beyond the scope of short fiction.
The great obstacle facing Lessing’s characters in their movement toward selfknowledge, toward vision, is emotion—particularly romantic love. Lessing sees romantic love as essentially egocentric; people love what they wish to see in the beloved, not what is really there. They love so that they will feel loved in return. They love, in the terms of the title story of one of her collections, from “the habit of loving.” This, Lessing insists, is nothing but masochistic self-indulgence. Love robs people of their ability to reason clearly, diverts their energy into useless and potentially harmful channels, causes them to agonize over choices which make, in the end, very little real difference.
Worse, in terms of her visionary philosophy, romantic love, by keeping people focused on the particular, prohibits their making the necessary connections between the individual and the collective consciousness. In story after story, readers watch people live out the same patterns, search for love at all costs, focus on the small problems, the matter at hand: Does he love me? Readers watch them try to believe that this is fundamentally what matters, that there is meaning in the small patterns of their lives. Lessing would deny that this is so. There is meaning, she seems to say, but it lies beyond these insignificant details. One must break through them, destroy them, in order to find it.
Some of her characters, although by no means all, do so. Anna Wulf, the writer-heroine of The Golden Notebook, succeeds in first dismantling the old patterns and then in synthesizing new ones, as does the anonymous narrator of “How I Finally Lost My Heart.”
How I Finally Lost My Heart
An uncharacteristic story in its resemblance to fable, “How I Finally Lost My Heart” is fascinating in its diagrammatic exposition of Lessing’s views on romantic love. The story opens as the unnamed “I,” a woman, is awaiting the arrival of her escort for the evening, a man designated only as C. The narrator explains that C is the third “serious” love of her life, the first two being A and B. Earlier in the day, the speaker has had lunch with A and tea with B and is pleased that she has been able to enjoy their company with equanimity; she is, finally, “out of love” with them. Recognizing her sensation at this discovery as one of relief, the speaker begins to question her exhilaration at the thought of spending the evening with C, “because there was no doubt that both A and B had caused me unbelievable pain. Why, therefore, was I looking forward to C? I should rather be running away as fast as I could.”
The narrator’s questioning leads her to a new recognition of what lies behind the human desire to be “in love.” It is not, she concludes, that “one needs a person who, like a saucer of water, allows one to float off on him/her, like a transfer.” It is not, then, that one needs to “lose one’s heart” by blending with another. Rather, “one carries with one a sort of burning spear stuck in one’s side, that one waits for someone else to pull out; it is something painful, like a sore or a wound, that one cannot wait to share with someone else.” One needs to “lose one’s heart” literally, to get rid of it by giving it to someone else. The catch is that we are expected to take their heart in return. Lessing envisages a grotesque sort of barter, two people demanding of each other, “take my wound.”
Moving to the telephone to call C and suggest that they agree to keep their hearts to themselves, the speaker is forced to hang up the phone:
For I felt the fingers of my left hand push outwards around something rather large, light and slippery—hard to describe this sensation, really. My hand is not large, and my heart was in a state of inflation after having had lunch with A, tea with B, and then looking forward to C. . . . Anyway, my fingers were stretching out rather desperately to encompass an unknown, largish, lightish object, and I said: Excuse me a minute to C, looked down, and there was my heart, in my hand.
There her heart stays, attached to her hand, for four days, growing to the flesh of her palm. She cannot remove it by any “act of will or intention of desire,” but when, distracted by events outside her window, she temporarily forgets herself, she feels it begin to loosen. One can “lose one’s heart” only by forgetting about it, but it is still attached, and who is one to give it to?
She has previously covered the heart with aluminum foil, in part because it is messy and in part because, unaccustomed to the air, “it smarts.” Now wrapping a scarf around her hand, heart and all, she walks about London, finally taking a train on the underground. In the train, she sits across from a woman maddened by love, who ceaselessly, jerkily, accuses her lover or husband of giving his mistress a gold cigarette case. The woman is on the verge of total breakdown, of lapsing into total immobility and, watching her, the narrator forgets herself. She feels the heart loosen from her hand, plucks it off and gives it to the mad woman:
For a moment she did not react, then with a groan or a mutter of relieved and entirely theatrical grief, she leaned forward, picked up the glittering heart, and clutched it in her arms.
The woman has “taken heart”; she now has the energy of the heart and the “theatrical” grief it brings with it. She can once again play love as a game, insisting that her husband or lover “take her wound.” The narrator, finally, is free. “No heart. No heart at all. What bliss. What freedom.”
“How I Finally Lost My Heart,” although uncharacteristic in its style, can serve as a paradigm for most of Lessing’s stories on the relations between men and women. It is valuable because it points out so clearly her vision that the important choice is not among A and B and C, but it is rather the choice of freedom or bondage. If people choose freedom and break out of the patterns of romantic love, they are then able to see clearly and can move on to new ways of loving. This will necessitate new forms of the family, which Lessing sees, in its traditional structure, as the institutionalized destruction of its individual members. If, however, they remain convinced that the important choice is that of who to love, not how to love, they remain in delusion.
A Man and Two Women
This same lesson is exemplified in the more traditional story “A Man and Two Women,” one of Lessing’s many explorations of the strains and restrictions of marriage. The plot is simple: Two couples, good friends, arrange to spend some time together in a country cottage. The couple who own the cottage, Dorothy and Jack, have recently had a baby. Of the visiting couple, Stella and Paul, only Stella is actually able to come. The story is impressive in its precise delineation of the relationships among the members of the quartet and in its explorations of Dorothy’s languor and withdrawal after childbirth. The real excitement, however, lies in Stella’s slow examination of her own marriage in light of the situation she finds between Jack and Dorothy. Both marriages are perceived by the couples to be extraordinary in their strength and exuberance, yet both are strained. The connection between Jack and Dorothy is threatened by the strength of Dorothy’s attachment to her new son. Also, Stella realizes that her connection with Paul has been more strained by their occasional infidelities than she has realized.
In the final scene, Jack begins to make love to Stella, something Dorothy has goaded him into, declaring that she does not care what he does; he has become insignificant to her. At first, Stella responds:
She thought: What is going to happen now will blow Dorothy and Jack and that baby sky-high; it’s the end of my marriage. I’m going to blow everything to bits. There was almost uncontrollable pleasure in it.
Remembering the baby, however, she pulls back and waits for Jack to drive her to the station, making the final comment “It really was a lovely night”—a mundane comment for a return to the usual.
Using the paradigm of “How I Finally Lost My Heart,” readers see that the story ends with Stella’s struggle over choosing A or B, Jack or Paul, and with her desire to abandon herself to love. “There was almost uncontrollable pleasure in it.” She agonizes only over whom she will ask to “take my wound.” Although she perceives that both her marriage and Jack’s marriage are failures, she leaves with her heart in her hand, carrying it back to Paul. She sees more clearly than she did at the opening of the story, but she is not yet able to act on her perceptions. She has not yet lost her heart.
“A Man and Two Women” ends, then, in ambiguity but not in pessimism. Stella may not yet be able to act on her perceptions, but she is admirable in her willingness to reexamine her life. Readers should consider emulating her. They are left not with a blueprint for action but with feelings and emotions that must be examined. It is typical of Lessing’s short fiction that they, like Stella, are awakened to reality and then are left to take their own directions.
The New Café
In her collection The Real Thing: Stories and Sketches, Lessing offers glimpses of life in her hometown of London in the 1980’s, played out in a series of everyday human experiences. As usual, Lessing’s stories on a surface level are simple enough, common to even the most detached observer of urban life. However, her aim is much deeper, as demonstrated in “The New Café,” the story of a woman entranced by the conduct of a fellow customer who appears at once distant and interested in his flirtatious banter with female acquaintances, but whose charms suddenly disappear during a mysterious encounter with a young mother and her child on a London street. In recalling the story, Lessing’s narrator notes:
here, as in all good cafés, may be observed real-life soap operas, to be defined as series of emotional events that are certainly not unfamiliar, since you are bound to have seen something like them before, but to which you lack the key that will make them not trite, but shockingly individual.
With “Sparrows,” set again in a café, the trite once more becomes the profound, as a series of diners react to a family of sparrows who persist in feeding off scraps of food thrown by guests or left at tables. The seemingly innocuous behavior of the birds elicits reactions ranging from outright indifference to the intrigue expressed by members of one family who see in the sparrows’ actions a lesson that applies to their own personal situations.
In “Casualty” matters of life and death are clearly distinguished, as Lessing relates the tale of a group of hospital emergency room patients and their reactions not only to their own plights but also to the hysterics of an elderly woman who feels her condition warrants immediate attention, despite being deemed minor by the head nurse. Only when a critically injured young workman is rushed into the room do the others give pause to their situations, and then only temporarily in the case of the older woman, who appears to the reader to be a casualty of another kind.
Lessing’s love of London comes through clearly in “Storms,” the story of a woman’s encounter with a cranky old taxi driver with whom she is paired upon her return from a visit to Frankfurt. Adding to the driver’s dim disposition is the debris covering the streets through which he is attempting to maneuver following an overnight storm. With each compliment the woman expresses for her hometown on the drive back, the driver immediately counters with an invective. By journey’s end the woman comes to the realization that the litany of complaints she was hearing was born of sorrow, not of age.
Two Old Women and a Young One
“Two Old Women and a Young One” explores the seemingly unlimited capacity of people to deal in delusional thoughts, particularly when engaged in social intercourse with the opposite sex. Beginning with the two women of the title who grossly misinterpret the charms of their young male host at a business luncheon, to the host himself, who later mistakes the attentions of an attractive young woman at the same affair, there is little but empty rhetoric. The conversations reflect neither the personal needs nor the identities necessary to building a human connection. It is a rampant self-absorption that inflicts many of Lessing’s characters throughout her work, no matter the setting.
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.
Novels: 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 (also known as Re: Colonized Planet 5, Shikasta); 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 Jane 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; Canopus in Argos: Archives, 1992 (5 novel cycle includes Re: Colonized Planet 5, Shikasta, The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five, The Sirian Experiments, The Making of the Representative for Planet 8, and Documents Relating to the Sentimental Agents in the Volyen Empire); Playing the Game, 1995; Love, Again, 1996; Mara and Dann, 1999; Ben, in the World, 2000; The Sweetest Dream, 2001; The Story of General Dan and Mara’s Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog, 2005; The Cleft, 2007.
Miscellaneous: The Doris Lessing Reader, 1988 (selections).
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; A Small Personal Voice: Essays, Reviews, Interviews, 1994; Doris Lessing: Conversations, 1994 (also known as Putting the Questions Differently: Interviews with Doris Lessing, 1964-1994, 1996); Shadows on the Wall of the Cave, 1994; Under My Skin, 1994 (autobiography); Walking in the Shade, 1997 (autobiography); Time Bites: Views and Reviews, 2005.
Poetry: Fourteen Poems, 1959.
Butcher, Margaret. “‘Two Forks of a Road’: Divergence and Convergence in the Short Stories of Doris Lessing.” Modern Fiction Studies 26 (1980): 55-61.
Fishburn, Katherine. The Unexpected Universe of Doris Lessing: A Study in Narrative Technique. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985.
Greene, Gayle. Doris Lessing: The Poetics of Change. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997.
Halisky, Linda H. “Redeeming the Irrational: The Inexplicable Heroines of ‘A Sorrowful Woman’ and ‘To Room Nineteen.’” Studies in Short Fiction 27 (Winter, 1990): 45-54.
Klein, Carole. Doris Lessing: A Biography. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2000.
May, Charles E., ed. Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition. 8 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
Perrakis, Phyllis Sternberg. Spiritual Exploration in the Works of Doris Lessing. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999.
Pickering, Jean. Understanding Doris Lessing. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990.
Tyler, Lisa. “Our Mothers’ Gardens: Doris Lessing’s ‘Among the Roses.’” Studies in Short Fiction 31 (Spring, 1994): 163-173.
Yelin, Louise. From the Margins of Empire: Christina Stead, Doris Lessing, Nadine Gordimer. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1998.