Published in 1973 in The Sun between Their Feet, the second volume of Doris Lessing’s Collected African Stories, “The Story of a Non-marrying Man” is paradoxically titled since it concerns a man who has in fact married bigamously many times. The story opens with an adult narrator recounting a time from her childhood on a South African farm when an aging vagrant, Johnny Blakeworthy, called on her parent’s hospitality and stayed with them for a night. This being an unremarkable occurrence in the 1930s Depression, the experience is remembered by the narrator only because of the letter sent by Johnny a few days later, thanking the family for their hospitality. It was a “bread and butter letter” (31), as the narrator calls it, a sign of Johnny’s now long-distant upbringing as a polite English boy. Years later, now a young woman, the narrator hears a story of a friend’s aunt who had been happily married for a number of years to man called Johnny, only to have him walk out on her without explanation, leaving only a letter thanking her for a nice time, “like a letter after a party or something” (32). The man, it turned out, was already married. Eventually the narrator uncovers the story of Johnny Blakeworthy through a short story in a local newspaper: Johnny has left a trail of “wives” across Southern Africa, and the pattern is always the same: The women have considered Johnny a good husband and then have been shocked by his sudden departure followed only by his “thank you” letter which despite its good intentions, has wounded them with its implication that he was only ever a guest in their lives.
In Lessing’s novels marriage is frequently portrayed as an enclosure for women (Budhos, viii). Here, the same is true for the man. A predominant theme in the story is that of “going native.” The aging Johnny whom the narrator meets “at the end of his life” and “at the beginning of mine” (28) has discarded the paraphernalia of life in white society and appears to live a nomadic existence, living on maize-meal porridge as the Africans do. Later we learn that he lives in an African settlement, living “in kindness” (40) with an African woman whom the community elders have chosen for him. One of the most interesting allusions in Lessing’s economic but richly suggestive prose comes when the narrator refers to white society’s attitude toward going native. Alongside the anger—the white man gone native perhaps fails to uphold the distinctions that racist ideology demands—is a “bitter envy” (29), as if they too have yearned for the lifting of the restrictions of life in colonial society.
The word “marrying” takes on a larger significance in the story than the uniting of husband and wife and should perhaps be read instead as any act of joining or fixing together that might be considered constraining. Johnny is a drifter who has refused to be married to any place, occupation, or relationship in a white town life that he finds “suffocating” (40). As a figure in the text, he also resists being married to any one narrative. Johnny is an elusive character who is only partially captured through the multiple narratives that structure the text. His story is told in fragments by the anonymous narrator, by the narrating “I” of the newspaper fiction, by the “true-life” account of its author, and in the reported stories of Johnny’s fictional and real wives. Johnny is the only person not to tell his story, writing only his “thank you” letters to the women he possibly loved but could not stay with. “The Story of a Nonmarrying man” is in some ways a narrative about a man who eludes narrative, leaving only traces to be interpreted by those who are established in the white society, for which the figure that rejects its values exerts a powerful fascination.
Budhos, Shirley. The Theme of Enclosure in Selected Works of Doris Lessing. New York: Whitson, 1987.
Lessing, Doris. The Sun between Their Feet: Collected African Stories. Vol. 2. London: Michael Joseph, 1973.