A short story originally published in Partisan Review (1960) and later collected in Doris Lessing’s volume of short stories A Man and Two Women (1963). Written more than a decade before the mainstream feminist movement and two years before her influential novel “The Golden Notebook” (1962), “Our Friend Judith” portrays an independent, intelligent, and selfsufficient woman who is a source of bewilderment and rumor to those around her.
Judith Castlewell, the protagonist, is a woman whom others find impossible to categorize. At the story’s beginning, the unnamed first-person narrator says that Judith has been called a “typical English spinster,” but that this label is clearly insufficient. The narrator laments that Judith is so misunderstood but is frustrated by her own inability to understand her friend. The story is structured around a series of anecdotes about Judith, each of which is a source of gossip between the narrator and her close friend Betty. Whenever Betty or the narrator sees Judith, they call the other to “report” on her, as though Judith is a source of excitement in their own more mundane lives. The story is typically realist in that the narrator probes Judith’s motives, psychology, and inner life by analyzing the outer “facts” of her existence, but it is also critical of psychological realism as a genre, since Judith remains an enigma no matter how many “facts” the narrator uncovers. Judith has lived alone for 20 years, in a small, shabby London flat. She is beautiful yet dresses to appear plain; she attracts men but prefers to live alone and maintain casual sexual relationships with married men. She is a poet, but her poems focus on “scientific, mechanical, and chemical imagery” rather than personal expression. She likes cats but cannot inhibit their freedom by keeping them as pets.
In the second half of the story, Judith takes a long trip to Italy to get away from her lover, who has annoyed her by offering to divorce his wife and marry Judith. Betty decides to visit Judith and writes a long letter to the narrator describing Judith’s life in Italy: She has adopted a cat and begun a romance with an Italian barber named Luigi Rineiri. Judith’s behavior in Italy upsets Betty because it is uncharacteristic of the cool and aloof person she imagines Judith to be. Intrigued, the narrator decides to go to Italy herself. By the time she arrives, however, Judith has unexpectedly left. The traumatic death of a cat, it seems, has led Judith to believe there is a “complete gulf of understanding” between herself and the Rineiri family. Back in London, the narrator asks Judith to explain her actions. Judith is offended by the narrator’s snooping and ironically proclaims in the last lines that Betty and the narrator are strange and incomprehensible women.
Like much of A Man and Two Women, this story focuses on a relationship among three people: Betty, Judith, and the narrator. Betty and the narrator are very much alike; they are both conventional, middleaged, married housewives. As the title “Our Friend Judith” suggests, the two women have nearly identical views and imagine that this consensus gives them moral authority: They are “normal”; Judith is “abnormal.” Nonetheless, Lessing suggests that Judith’s independent femininity is both incomprehensible and secretly tantalizing to them. Like much of Lessing’s fiction, the story opposes traditional and modern women and reveals women’s growing discontent with limited social roles. The story is also characteristic of Lessing’s postmodernism in that it challenges the traditional enlightenment conception of self. The narrator and Betty struggle to locate Judith’s “real” or “authentic” self, but the story suggests that no such self exists. Judith is a fragmented, unpredictable character rather than a unified and knowable one. And at the end of the story, when Judith calls the narrator and Betty “strange,” Lessing reminds readers how little they know of the story’s anonymous narrator. She, it seems, is just as enigmatic as Judith.
Gardiner, Judith Kegan. “Gender, Values, and Lessing’s Cats,” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 3, no. 1–2 (1984): 111–124.
Michael, Magali Cornier. Feminism and the Postmodern Impulse: Post–World War II Fiction. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996.
Sprague, Clair. Rereading Doris Lessing: Narrative Patterns of Doubling and Repetition. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987.
Waugh, Patricia. Feminine Fictions: Revisiting the Postmodern. London: Routledge, 1989.