A Mild Attack of Locusts
A Mild Attack of Locusts
Doris Lessing's short story "A Mild Attack of Locusts" tells of Africa's vast open spaces. The setting makes one feel insignificant in relation to the land and the power of nature, as reflected in the experience of the protagonist, Margaret. Through the eyes of Margaret, Lessing absorbs the reader in the experience of helplessness, as a seemingly unending swarm of locusts blackens the skies as far as Margaret can see, devouring the crops that she and her husband, Richard, depend upon for a living. Margaret and Richard's sense of devastation and feelings of hopelessness resonate through the story. But the story is about more than devastation. There is a robust and prevalent undercurrent in this story that is portrayed through the locusts, which stand as a metaphor for the power of nature. What happens, the author asks through this story, when people are forced to face this power?
Lessing's "A Mild Attack of Locusts" was first published in 1955 in the New Yorker magazine and was later published in Lessing's collection of short stories The Habit of Loving in 1957. This short story is also included in Lessing's short story collection African Stories (1981).
Lessing was born Doris May Tayler on October 22, 1919, in Kermanshah, Persia (now Iran) to British parents, Emily Maude McVeagh and
Alfred Cook Tayler. When Lessing was six, her father decided to invest in land in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in Africa. He wanted to try his hand at farming, which was reputed to be a good investment. The family tried to raise maize (corn) on the thousand-acre farm but failed to make the money they had envisioned. Although the experience was not financially rewarding, living in the natural setting of the farm became a strong influence on Lessing. The natural world and her experiences in Africa are present in many of Lessing's stories.
Lessing attended a convent school until she was thirteen. After that, she escaped the rather harsh conditions of farm life by developing a voracious appetite for books, mostly novels written by late nineteenth-century Russian, French, and English authors. At the age of fifteen, Lessing's parents sent her to a family in South Africa, where she worked as a nanny. Recognizing Lessing's intellectual curiosity, the family supplied Lessing with different kinds of reading material. They helped to broaden her education by providing her with books on politics and sociology. It was during this time that Lessing also began her first attempts at writing.
In 1937, Lessing moved to Salisbury (which was then capital of Rhodesia), where she took a clerical position. That same year, Lessing married Frank Wisdom and shortly afterward found herself the mother of two children, one boy and one girl. The marriage did not last long, as Lessing felt stifled by both the marriage and the role of motherhood. In 1943, she divorced Wisdom, leaving the children with him. Two years later, she married Gottfried Lessing, the central figure in the local Communist Party and a refugee from Nazi Germany. Gottfriend would later be named East German ambassador to Uganda. The couple had one son, Peter.
In 1949, after divorcing her second husband, Lessing took her son to London. In 1950, her first novel, The Grass Is Singing, a tragic love story set in Africa, was published. She would go on to write many short stories in that decade, many of which were collected in This Was the Old Chief's Country (1951), Five: Short Novels (1953), and The Habit of Loving (1957), which includes "A Mild Attack of Locusts" (first published in 1955 in the New Yorker). Lessing wrote several more novels, but it was the novel she had published in 1962, The Golden Notebook, that confirmed Lessing's reputation as a major female British author.
During her career as a writer, Lessing has won many awards, including the Somerset Maugham Award in 1954 for her book Five: Short Novels; and the James Tait Black Prize in 1995 for Under My Skin, the first volume of her autobiography. In 2001, Lessing was awarded the David Cohen Memorial Prize for British Literature. The following year, she received the S. T. Dupont Golden PEN Award for a Lifetime's Distinguished Service to Literature. In 2007, Lessing received the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Lessing's "A Mild Attack of Locusts" is set on a farm in what may be presumed to be Rhodesia (now called Zimbabwe). The protagonist, Margaret, lives with her husband there and acts as an observer of the daily events. One of the narrator's first comments about Margaret is that "She never had an opinion of her own on matters like the weather, because even to know about what seems a simple thing like the weather needs experience," especially when it came to farming. Margaret thinks that the weather has been going well, that there has been enough rain to help the crops grow, but she is not certain. She takes cues from what she hears the men who work the fields say, or from what she interprets their words to mean.
The two main men whom Margaret observes are Richard, her husband, and Stephen, her father-in-law. The narrator explains that the reason Margaret is not sure of her interpretations of whether the weather has been good or bad is that Richard and Stephen often argue for hours about whether the rains they have had are good for the crops or if the amount of precipitation has been so heavy, the crops might die.
Margaret has been living on the farm with her husband for three years and is surprised that her husband has not declared bankruptcy. Again, she makes these observations based on what she hears her husband and his father discuss. The two men are always complaining about the weather, or the soil, or various government policies that affect them. From overhearing these conversations and observing the men's attitudes, Margaret is surprised the farm is doing as well as it is. They are not rich, she says, but neither are they living in poverty. They live a comfortable life, raising maize on their 3,000 acres.
The farm lies on a high rise of land, which the narrator refers to as the Zambesi escarpment, a ridge of land along the Zambesi River that marks the border of the northwestern section of the country. The farm, the narrator relates, is often a dry, dusty piece of land, except in the rainy season. The rain changes the landscape, which becomes green and lush in the wet season. In the distance the narrator states, there are mountains. The sky is such a bright blue that it often hurts Margaret's eyes. She is not used to looking at the sky so much, as she comes from the city, where watching nature was not as important as it is when one lives on a farm and depends on the weather.
One night, Margaret hears the two men discussing a government warning about swarms of locusts that may be coming from the north. Margaret imagines insects all around her and the thought makes her shudder. The men talk about the locusts in a more practical manner. They are aware that locusts live in a cycle, appearing once every seven years. It has been seven years since locusts have swarmed; so they expect that their maize crops will be devastated should the locusts come their way. This fact does not stop them from their daily chores, though. That is, until, one day, Stephen notices the first edge of the swarm. When Stephen shouts out: "Look, look, there they are!" everyone who is inside runs out. The locusts arrive from the direction of the mountains.
At this first sighting, everyone begins running around to collect whatever they can find to ward of the locusts. They bring tin cans and other odd bits of metal to bang on. Stephen and Richard yell out orders and tell everyone to hurry. They build fires and throw wet leaves upon them to create more smoke. Neighbors telephone warnings to one another. The ones farthest away tell stories of having their crops completely destroyed. Margaret is the one who answers the phone, but otherwise she stands and watches all the action.
The swarms of locusts are so thick, the sky blackens with the masses, like thick smoke. Margaret has no idea what she is supposed to do. Meanwhile, Stephen shows up, back at the house, and tells Margaret that the locusts will eat away everything they have planted. He also explains that this is just the first edge of the swarm. More are coming. He has retained a little bit of hope, however. If they can fight off the locusts with smoke and noise until the sun sets, the insects might settle for the night somewhere else.
As Margaret makes tea for the workers, she hears the locusts dropping on the metal roof. She also hears, in the distance, the banging sounds that the workers are making as they beat against the metal cans they have collected. The locusts, the narrator relates, fall from the skies like hail. Margaret experiences a sudden urge to be of some help. She clenches her teeth and runs out into the swarming insect storm. "What the men could do, she could." But it is of no use. The locusts knock into her and catch on her clothing with their hooked legs. She tries to brush them off, then runs back into the house. She stares out of the window. The trees are coated with locusts. The ground is a seething mass, as if the dirt were moving. The skies grow darker still as the bulk of the swarm falls upon them. They lay upon the branches of the trees in such enormous numbers that the branches first lean to the ground and then snap with the weight of them.
Margaret's father-in-law returns, covered in locusts. He attempts to rid himself of them before he steps into the house. Again he tells Margaret that the crops are lost. But Margaret can still hear the banging, still see the smoke. She asks Stephen why the men don't quit if there is nothing to save. Stephen tells her they do this so the main part of the swarm does not settle. The female locusts are heavy with eggs. The farmers do not want the females to lay those eggs in their fields. Immature locusts, called hoppers, will then emerge and continue to damage future crops. Stephen predicts that there are still more swarms on the way, and with the problem of the females laying millions of eggs, the farm could be devastated for two or three years. He insists that they are ruined.
Margaret sits down to think about all these details. She feels helpless. But if the farm is truly ruined, then they would all have to move back to the city. Then she looks over at her father-in-law. He has been farming for forty years. He has gone bankrupt twice before, but he is still farming. She cannot imagine the old man living in the city, making a living as a clerk in some office building. Then she watches Stephen as he pulls out a locust that had managed to find its way into his pocket. He talks to the locust, complimenting it on its strength, then gently takes it outside and lets it go. Margaret is stunned by the irony. Stephen, for the past three hours has been doing his best to round up the locusts and throw them into the fires. Why would he let this one go? Stephen's action makes Margaret feel good, as if maybe there is some hope. Maybe Stephen, as he has done in the past, is exaggerating their losses.
But Margaret's good mood does not last long. Soon, as she continues to stare out at the unending swarm, forever coming toward them, she begins to cry. She again feels hopeless. There were so many things in that environment that could mean their doom. If it was not locusts, it was something else: worms, droughts, fires. When she looks outside, she imagines that the masses of locusts might get so thick and heavy that they will soon make the roof collapse or burst through the doors. She feels like she is about to drown.
Then she notices that she can see patches of blue in the sky. The swarm is thinning out. The sun is setting, and in the distance, she makes out the figures of men coming toward the house. As they draw nearer, she sees that all the men's bodies are crawling with locusts.
Richard is a bit more optimistic than his father. He believes that if it does not rain that night, the locusts will be all gone in the morning. Although they will have some hoppers, Richard is thankful that they will not be swamped by the main portion of the swarm. Margaret wipes away her tears. She does not want her husband to see that she has been crying. Then she listens to the men talk over their dinner. She learns that all the maize has been destroyed. They must plant a whole new crop. Then the men discuss the government plan of eliminating the hoppers. They must dig trenches around their crops and fill the trenches with poison. As Margaret listens, she realizes that the men's conversation sounds as if they are planning a war.
In the morning, Margaret wakes and goes to a window. She is amazed by the sight. The locusts are all whirling their wings as they sit on the ground and cling to the trees. Their wings are a golden brown and shine in the early light of the rising sun. "There was a shimmer of red-tinged gold light everywhere." Although the land has been devastated, Margaret finds beauty in it still. Not everyone, she realizes, has seen such a sight. Suddenly, the locusts all begin to alight from the trees and ground and take to the skies once again. After the swarm flies away, all that is left behind is a brown landscape. There is no green in sight.
As the workers sweep up the wounded and dead locusts left behind, Stephen comments on how once, after his crops were ruined and he had nothing to eat, he lived off of sun-dried locusts. They kept him alive. Margaret does not want to think about this.
When the men go back to the fields, Margaret wonders what it will be like to have to live under the threat of locusts for the next three years. Then she has a new sensation. She feels like a survivor, a survivor of a war. When the men come home to dinner, their final comment is "It could be much worse."
Margaret is the protagonist of this story, which contains only three main characters. She is married to Richard. Prior to her life as a farmer's wife, Margaret lived in an unnamed city. She reflects that she went through many transitions in order to become a proper farm wife. She was impractical, at first, wearing pretty clothes rather than clothing appropriate for her work. In the course of her life on the farm, though, Margaret has discovered many new things about nature; she now reads the skies for signs of changing weather. However, in the presence of her husband and her father-in-law, Stephen, Margaret feels too inexperienced to offer any of her personal observations. Instead, Margaret lives in the background, observing the people around her, attempting to read them, like she reads the weather, so she knows how to react to what is happening.
An example of the way Margaret observes rather than acts is the way she barely steps out of the house once the locusts begin to swarm over the farm. Instead, Margaret watches what is happening from inside her home. She hears the thumping of the locusts on the roof. She sees the locusts close up only when her father-in-law accidentally brings one into the house. She supports Richard and Stephen by providing drinks and food. But she does not directly make any effort to save the farm. Margaret is not much more effective in ridding her farm of the locusts than are the plants. She depends on the men around her to deal with the locust swarm. In many ways, Margaret exists merely as a witness to her own life. She does have strength, though. It is presented in her ability to see the beauty around her, despite the devastation. She is awed by the masses of insects and the splendor in the scene that occurs at sunrise as the locusts get ready to fly away. Margaret's character represents the resilience of the human spirit. Margaret will not let the devastation completely defeat her. Unlike Stephen, though, Margaret is not as committed to farming. Her resilience is defined by her willingness to move, to adjust to a different life.
Richard is Margaret's husband. He is the least present character in this story. Most of the story takes place while Richard is out in the field. However, Richard provides a positive element to this story as he tempers his father's more pessimistic attitude. Sometimes in the reading, statements are attributed to both of the men, as if they speak in unison, such as in the line: "‘We haven't had locusts in seven years,’ they said." In some of the closing lines of the story, lines are quoted while both Richard and his father are present. However, no attribution is attached to the lines, leaving the reader to guess which man is speaking. Two such lines that run one after the other are: "If it doesn't rain in the night and keep them here—if it doesn't rain and weight them down with water, they'll be off in the morning at sunrise." This line is followed by "We're bound to have some hoppers. But not the main swarm—that's something." These lines support a more optimistic point of view, though the reader cannot tell who is speaking them. However, when Richard is not present in the scene, Stephen speaks more pessimistically, so readers might assume that Richard is the more hopeful of the two men.
Stephen is the protagonist's father-in-law; and it is with Stephen that Margaret converses the most. Stephen has farmed most of his life and therefore has seen many other swarms of locusts and the damage that they can cause. When Stephen talks with Margaret, his outlook on the future is often dismal. He tells Margaret that he does not have much hope in the farm surviving after the locusts have passed by. It is ironic, however, that Stephen also provides some of the more tender emotional moments in this story, as he shares his love of the land, despite the calamities that plague the African environment. For brief moments, as he comes back to the house to satisfy his thirst and to fill cans of water for the laborers in the fields who are fighting the locusts, Stephen demonstrates his fascination with nature. Although he has spent hours in the field burning the locusts, when he finds an insect hiding in his pocket, he carefully takes the locust to the door of the house and throws it outside. It is also Stephen whom Margaret finds in the early hours of the next morning, standing in awe of the beauty of the locusts fanning their red-rimmed golden wings in the air to dry.
Stephen, at times, makes it sound like he is willing to give up, willing to give in to the forces of nature. But he has proven himself to be a fighter. He tells Margaret that he survived a similar devastation as the one encountered in this story by eating locusts for three months in order to stay alive. Margaret, though concerned by Stephen's constant reminder that they may lose everything, knows that Stephen has lost his farm several times to bankruptcy and somehow pulled through it all to plant yet another crop. Stephen represents one of the original colonizers, European citizens who were the first to come to the African continent in an attempt to make money off the unruly land. Although his rather pessimistic attitude is most noticeable when he speaks, there is a stubbornness beneath his language that suggests he does not easily give up. Stephen understands his place in the realm of nature. He knows that every seven years or so the locusts will return. He also knows that even when all he sees is devastation around him, he will figure out a way to survive. Whereas Stephen shares Margaret's appreciation of the natural world, he is more willing to take an active role in preserving his crops. What Stephen wants is to be able to live off the land, and he is willing to do anything to do this.
Devastation and Resilience
The theme of devastation in Lessing's "A Mild Attack of Locusts," dominates this story. In just twenty-four hours, the swarm of locusts has completely devoured every piece of green vegetation (grass, tree leaves, and maize) that exists on the thousand-acre farm. Because of this, the finances of the farming family have also been devastated. The narrator makes it sound as if this is the first experience of locusts that Margaret and her husband have suffered through. However, Stephen, Richard's father, has witnessed several other swarms over the years and the subsequent devastation that the locusts cause. In some ways, the author uses the overwhelming devastation to set up an oppositional force. On one side are the locusts that destroy the crops. But on the other side is Stephen, who has lived through several such calamities only to replant his fields and make another attempt at making a living in farming. So the author uses the devastation to demonstrate the other side of the issue, which in this case is the resilience not only of the field (and thus nature) but also of humankind.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Research plagues of locusts. In what countries and in what yearly cycles do they most often occur? What environmental circumstances stimulate the swarms? Are there locust plagues in North America? Have there been? What is the economic cost to the countries where these plagues occur? What is the social cost to the families or the individuals that are directly affected? Are the plagues so devastating that the entire farm collapses or are farmers today able to protect themselves? Present your findings in a report to your class.
- What was life like in colonial Rhodesia in the 1940s? Compare the different lifestyles of the local people versus the lifestyles of the British colonizers. Also compare the lives of the British who lived in Salisbury versus those who lived on the farms. What clothes did they typically wear? What type of houses did they live in? Write a report on your findings.
- Read Lessing's autobiography Under My Skin (1994), which is about her early years in Africa. Write an essay in which you compare and contrast the experiences Lessing relates in her autobiography with the events in "A Mild Attack of Locusts."
- Study the life cycle of a locust. Then provide a vivid portrait of this insect using visual aids. What foods do they eat? What do they look like? Do they appear alone or only in large masses? What is their habitat? When they form migrating masses, how far do they travel? What is their life span? Do they make noise? If so, provide a sound recording, if possible. Present all the material you have collected to your class.
Hope and Hopelessness
Stephen, the father-in-law of the protagonist, exhibits much of the hopelessness in this story, one of the major themes. How could one not feel hopeless when faced with the losing battle of saving one's crops in the face of the seemingly unending voracious appetites of the locusts? And yet, like the theme of devastation, the author again sets up an oppositional force. At first Stephen has nothing to say that suggests hope. The farm will definitely be lost, he believes, and with that the family will be in ruin. And yet, at the same time, Stephen represents a person (or a facet of human nature) that never gives up hope. Stephen is willing to do whatever he has to do (such as existing on a diet of locusts for three months) in order to stay alive and continue to work the land. It is possible that the author sets up the hopelessness of this situation in order to demonstrate that hope need not die. In the face of great calamity, when on the surface all hope seems to disappear, there is a stirring, a hint that maybe, with time, hope will sprout again, just as the grass and the leaves may one day return. This is demonstrated in one of the final scenes in which there is no hint of green left on the earth for miles around but the characters are still awed by the beauty of the locusts drying their wings in the early morning sun.
The Underlying Presence of War
There is a slight hint of war presented in this story, although it is not a major theme. The story was written following World War II, and part of the author's experiences in Africa were colored with relationships she had with military men involved with the Allied forces. At one point in the story, Margaret reflects on the maneuvers that her husband and her father-in-law discuss as they prepare to defend themselves and their crops against the locusts. The two men read government pamphlets, which provide them with tactics that Margaret suggests sound like warfare. Some of the suggestions involve poisoning the insects, which is reminiscent of how chemical weapons are used in war. Trenches were to be dug, like those dug in World War I to provide protection for the armies. The government provided these instructions as a worldwide plan to eliminate the pests from the earth forever. These sentiments have also been declared as a reason to go to war; a parallel is drawn between the men preparing to rid their land of locusts and Hitler's aims to rid the world of people whom he felt did not belong to the Aryan race. Then at the end of Lessing's story, while Margaret scours the landscape and absorbs the devastation that the locusts have caused, she says that she feels like a survivor of a war. Although the crops all around her have been lost, she and her family have been spared, much like those who have survived a bomb attack.
Survival in Varying Forms
There are various levels of survival portrayed in Lessing's story and thus survival can be considered one of the major themes. From a human perspective, the most important aspect of survival is that of the main characters. How do they survive the swarm of locusts and the loss of their crops? Humans have a well developed intellect, so they could give up the farm after the locusts have destroyed the crops and find jobs in the city. Humans are capable of devising plans, altering them, and coming up with new solutions to their problems. Although their freedoms may be somewhat lost, such as if the main characters were forced off their farm and made to dress up in city clothes and become submissive to the rules of their city job, at least they would make money with which they could buy food and secure a place to sleep. Survival can also be seen through the actions of Stephen, who has, in the past, found a way to stay on his farm, even if it meant eating wild plants and insects. Richard's plan differs slightly. He has saved seed and is determined to plant a new crop, fight off the young locusts who were dropped in his field as eggs and will soon hatch, and hopefully turn the devastation around. Margaret is more passive about her survival, relying on the men to tell her what to do. She feeds them both emotional and physical nourishment, but hides and waits inside the house, ready to stay if the men say so, or leave if that is the men's plan.
On another level, there is also the survival of the locusts themselves. Their survival depends on their biological instincts rather than on their intellect. They have but one plan. Every seven years, when they have grown a set of wings and the environmental conditions signal a need, they take off in swarms so large it is practically impossible for humans to stop them. They eat what they can, lay eggs, and eventually die, leaving the next generation to repeat the process. Their sheer numbers guarantee them success.
On yet another level, there is the vegetation. With roots planted deep into the ground, the wild grasses and the trees have a good chance to survive the locust attack. With rain and nutrients stored in the soil, chances are the grasses and leaves will once again bloom. The maize crops, however, are not as fortunate. They are a cultivated crop. Their roots do not go as deep as the grasses and the trees. However, their survival, at least on a symbolic level, is maintained through the next generation, contained in the seeds. With the help of man, the maize will also survive, as long as some humans continue to plant a new crop.
In this story, there is also death, the opposite of survival. Many of the locusts do not make it.
The crops in the field will not return (without a new planting of seed). But overall, the theme of survival runs throughout the story. The swarm of locusts rises into the morning skies to fly off to another farm. The hoppers (baby locusts) that are left behind will hatch and many will mature. The vegetation and the humans who live on this farm will all live to see another season.
The Role of Passive Observer
Margaret, the female protagonist in this story, plays a very passive role. Unlike the men in the story, Margaret takes a very minor part in protecting the farm from the locusts. Mostly, she watches, as if she is viewing a television show or a movie, standing inside the protection of her house, as the locusts descend and the men try to ward them off. Rather than living life, Margaret observes it. She listens to the men discuss the weather, the soil, and the possibilities that they will have a good crop. She either has no opinions or she is too uncertain that her opinions hold any merit. Either way, she is a silent observer, allowing the men to dictate her fate. Margaret is like the crop of maize that must be tended to. She has been transplanted from the city to the countryside, just as the maize has been transplanted to long, cultivated rows, as opposed to growing randomly amongst the natural vegetation. Margaret, like the maize, stands helplessly while the locusts attack. She has no idea what to do. Her world, for the duration of this story, is contained inside the four walls of the house. When the men come in, they are devoid of locusts, which they shake from themselves before they enter. Margaret is never touched by the disaster. The locusts will leave, the men will replant the crop, and Margaret will continue to cook the dinners. This theme points out the submissive and dependent role of some women; it is a portrayal of the woman's submissiveness to, and reliance on, a man.
Limited Omniscient Narrator
A narrator is the voice that is telling the story. Sometimes the narrator is one of the characters in the story. But at other times, the narrator does not embody a character and merely acts as an observer. There are many different types of narrator. One is an omniscient narrator, who knows everything that is going on, both in the outer realm of the characters' world as well as inside all the characters' heads. In contrast to this is the limited omniscient narrator, who is aware of the outer realm of all the characters but only knows the inner thoughts of one of the main characters. Lessing's short story, "A Mild Attack of Locusts," is told through a limited omniscient narrator. This narrator is capable of describing the surroundings of the three main characters, whether or not the protagonist, Margaret, is present; but that same narrator relates only the inner thoughts of Margaret. So when Richard and Stephen are walking down the path from the fields to the house, readers are told of conversations between the two men, even though Margaret is not with them. That narrator does not, however, make any indication of how the men feel or the thoughts they might have had that stimulated that conversation. In contrast, readers know that Margaret is concerned about whether the farm will survive when she listens to the men talking. They know that Margaret wonders what she can do to help the men fight the locusts and that she feels insecure about offering her observations and conclusions to the men because she does not think they will take her seriously.
The benefit of an omniscient narrator is that the readers gain insights from the characters' thoughts. By limiting the omniscient narrator, though, more emphasis is placed on the main character, whose thoughts the limited omniscient narrator is privy to. So in this story, the reader is put in a similar situation as Margaret. Neither the reader nor Margaret hear, or know, the thoughts of Stephen or Richard. In this way, the reader comes to relate to Margaret more than to the two men. Thus, the readers sees the story almost entirely through Margaret's experience.
Vivid Setting as Partial Character
The setting of this story is a farm in rural Africa (Zimbabwe). Lessing's lush descriptions of the landscape as well as the prevalence of the swarms of locusts are so predominant in this story, it can be said that the setting almost has the same power as some of the characters in this story. There is great attention put on the dependence on rain, the fragility of the crops, the harsh climate of dry heat, as well as the mountains in the distance and the brilliance of the sky. Then, as the locusts appear, the characters' attention is focused on the swarms of insects; every statement made thereafter involves the plant-devouring pests. The exotic setting and the plague of locusts make the story come alive. The whole basis of the story is how the characters react to this environment, thus giving the setting a major role in this story.
Fast Pace and Short Length
Whether Lessing did it on purpose or not, the fast pace and short length of this story emphasize and reflect what is happening. By the third paragraph, the swarming locusts are seen. The swarms come in fast and quickly devour all the crops in a matter of hours. Although the men work as fast as they can, trying to keep the locusts from landing, the locusts move even faster, eating everything green they can find. In a matter of hours, what took weeks of planting and months of growing is laid to waste by the locusts. A once-thriving farm is quickly turned into a disaster zone; and the lives of the farmers go from profit to possible bankruptcy. The lives of the characters are completely turned around in less than a day. The story is ten pages long, short for even a short story. The day progresses quickly as the narrator takes the reader through the changes that are happening on the farm. Afternoon quickly turns to night, and a couple of pages later it is morning. This fast pace of the story reflects both the speed of the thousands of locusts and also emphasizes how quickly life on a farm can change.
Brief History of Zimbabwe/Rhodesia
There is a main plateau in the central part of what is now known as Zimbabwe. People have inhabited this land well back into prehistoric times because the land was fertile, water was available through the surrounding Zambesi and Limpopo Rivers, and there were many animals to hunt. Some of the first known people who lived in this area are the San or Bushmen hunters. In more modern times, the descendents of these people are called the Shona people. During the eleventh century, the people in this area settled down on farms and mined for gold. They also built great houses out of stone. The name Zimbabwe means "houses of stone."
Through the centuries, the area of Zimbabwe has been ruled by either local chieftains or by European forces lured to the continent for the natural resources found there, especially the gold. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive in the late fifteen century. They tried to conquer the land but failed, at first. It would not be until the early part of the seventeenth century that the Portuguese would be successful. However, before that century ended, the Portuguese were pulled out of power and pushed off the land. Local chieftains once again ruled, but peace did not last. African tribesmen from the south invaded the Zimbabwe area, taking control of the land until another group of tribal warriors arrived.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1950s: During the 1950s, Rhodesia experiences a large influx of British-born white settlers. In 1952, the British-funded University College of Rhodesia opens its doors to students; it is forward thinking for its time in that academic readiness is the primary consideration for acceptance. Following trends in other African colonies, many in Rhodesia call for independence from colonial rule. In 1953, the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland is formed by the United Kingdom. Many reformers consider this to be a step backward.
Today: After Zimbabwe is plagued by many years of fighting, almost to the point of civil war, and after the country has gained independence from Britain, Robert Mugabe is elected in 1980 to lead the country. In the nearly three decades since he has been in office, he has ordered land reforms, forcing white farmers from their homes. The consequences of these actions have caused widespread starvation and the highest inflation rates in the world caused by huge shortages of food. Mugabe has gained a worldwide reputation as a dictator, and his country, which was once a major food source for southern Africa, continues to suffer from widespread famine.
- 1950s: Locusts swarm across Africa and the Middle East. There are fears that the swarms could even hit Europe. Because of the after-effects of World War II, there are little resources available to fight the locusts off.
Today: Locusts continue to devastate farmlands across Africa and the Middle East, and swarms today are the largest seen, in some areas, since the 1950s. Scientists around the world help to develop ways to stop the locust swarms. For example, small planes are used to dust the swarms with deadly chemicals.
- 1950s: Maize, probably brought to Africa during the seventeenth century by Europeans, thrives on small farms in Zimbabwe. Maize grows so well that other grain crops, such as wheat, are replaced.
Today: Plagued by droughts, which are followed by years of heavy rain that encourage swarms of locusts, scientists search for a genetically modified form of maize that will withstand the threats of unstable weather and abuse by microorganisms and insects.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, Europeans were coming to the area as hunters. They were after the ivory found in elephant tusks. There were vast herds of elephants at that time. These hunters, while they were in Africa, also learned of the Zimbabwe gold. Soon the governments of Portugal, Germany, and Britain were vying for the territory. It was the British who were finally given permission to mine for gold by a local African king, Lobengula. Cecil Rhodes was appointed to head the British South African Company, which eventually lead to British colonial rule over this area. In 1890, Rhodes established the city of Salisbury (now Harare) as the central city of the colony; he oversaw the building of roads and railways to improve transportation. In 1895, the country was named Rhodesia after Rhodes. Then Rhodes sent out troops, took control from the king, confiscated farms and cattle from the local population, and gave them to white settlers. Between 1895 and 1897, two large local tribes, the Shona and the Ndebele, united in an attempt to overthrow the white settlers and British rule, but they were unsuccessful. Also in 1897, Rhodesia was divided into Southern Rhodesia (now called Zimbabwe) and Northern Rhodesia (now known as Zambia).
European control of Southern Rhodesia intensified over the next decades. White farmers controlled most of the land, with black Africans supplying most of the cheap labor. In 1923, Southern Rhodesia became a self-governing British colony. Seven years later, the Land Apportionment Act was passed, separating black and white landowners. White farmers received a little more than half the land, despite the fact that they represented only 5 percent of the population. In 1953, the British government united Southern and Northern Rhodesia plus Nyasalan (now the country of Malawi) to become the Central African Federation. The white population boomed and economic progress was so successful that the Central African Federation's economy became the second strongest after the country of South Africa. Most black people in the area did not share in this success. In attempts to rectify the lopsided economy, blacks united through labor unions and political parties.
Ian Smith took over the rule of Rhodesia in 1964 and led his fellow colonists to declare independence from Britain, whose legislators were moving toward a constitutional change that would lead to black African rule. Smith and his followers were against this and defied the British government and its United Nations-imposed sanctions. Around this same time, two black African political groups, Zimbabwe National African Union (ZANU) and Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU) became more militant, using guerilla warfare to gain power. In 1980, after peace negotiations between the black Africans and the white administers of the current government were brokered, elections were held and ZANU leader Robert Mugabe was elected prime minister. Later, Mugabe changed the constitution, which then named him as president and gave him more power.
Since Mugabe has come to power, Zimbabwe's social, political, and economic status has faltered dramatically. Mugabe has been accused of fixing elections, which he continues to win by landslides. Long bouts of drought as well as the forced takeover of white farms by blacks has led to starvation. The shortages of food have added to Zimbabwe's rapidly increasing inflation. As a result, according to a 2007 article by Michael Wines for the New York Times, public services, such as electricity, are nonexistent for either part or all of the day due to mechanical breakdowns and a lack of money to pay for repairs. Teachers and medical staff have threatened work slowdowns, demanding better pay. Even though rainfall has returned to previous levels, Zimbabwe's once thriving maize production is at the lowest level ever.
White Farmers in Africa
White farmers were encouraged and inspired to leave their European (mostly British) homes and move to Rhodesia at the turn of the nineteenth century. Financiers, hoping for a good return on their money, invested in some of these men and their families because vast amounts of land were available as well as long, warm growing seasons. Crops such as tobacco, wheat, and rice were grown, as well as coffee. But the crop that eventually won out over all the rest was maize. The conditions were excellent for this crop, and it soon became not only the major planting in the fields but also one of the main ingredients in the population's diet. Many farmers prospered due to the cheap labor that was provided to them, as the black population was taxed very heavily but had no money to pay, and thus were forced to take any jobs they could find, even at the lowest wages.
To protect their investments, the white population ruled the country without allowing the black population a voice. Whites took over the more fertile lands and controlled at least half of the available farmland. The profits helped to build roads, railroads, and other services. Good communications with governments in South Africa provided profitable and secure access to sea ports for the transport of goods to other countries. Because of this, the Rhodesian economy grew rapidly.
With the advent of open elections, black Africans regained power. With Robert Mugabe in office, white farmers found themselves under the authority of a blackman who wanted to return the lands to other black Africans. In 2000, angry black men seized several farms, killing two white farmers, Martin Olds and David Stevens, in the process. Another farmer was abducted and a fourth farm was burnt down to the ground. According to
a CNN report on April 18, 2000, Mugabe declared that white farmers were the enemy of Zimbabwe. According to another CNN report on March 30, 2005, the number of white farmers in Zimbabwe had dwindled from about 5,000 down to 500. Mugabe is reputed to have stated that these farmers are not welcome and if they do not leave, they will be imprisoned.
Lessing has not always attracted a large critical audience, especially in the United States. Indeed, much of her early works went unnoticed. Only in the past three decades has she gained significant attention from U.S. readers and scholars, and that attention has been largely positive. Although most of the studies of Lessing's work have focused on her novels, especially her 1962 novel The Golden Notebook, literary scholars have made sweeping comments about the particular themes, characterizations, and forms that characterize Lessing's long and short fiction.
For instance, in the preface to The Novels of Doris Lessing, Harry T. Moore states that "Dorris Lessing is an author of great complexity." All of her writing, Moore points out, is either set in Africa or in England and usually is presented from a female point of view. Moore praises Lessing, calling her "certainly one of the most important post-war [World War II] novelists."
In another study of Lessing, Elizabeth Maslen begins the introduction to her book Doris Lessing with this statement:
It is not easy to know where to begin when discussing Doris Lessing's works, as they cover such a range of ideas and experience. She is always engaged with the world of Now, wrestling not only with those matters which are central debates of the moment at which she writes, but also with issues which ought to be debated, but which the society she writes for is not quite ready to face.
Maslen also points out that Lessing "is always aware of the power and complexity of language" in all her works. Maslen then notes that Lessing has a special gift for detailing "moments of crisis." Lessing "excels at showing such moments." Lessing is able to demonstrate how politics and social status affect her character's words. "She is remarkably clever at placing different languages in situations where we can hear their differences clearly and, as it were, listen to the debate and draw our own conclusions." Maslen concludes that Lessing is "one of the most wide-ranging and challenging explorers of the contemporary world, and her understanding of what language does to us as well as for us would be difficult to overestimate."
In her study, The City and the Veld, Mary Ann Singleton writes: "Few people can read Doris Lessing and then just forget about her; she affects lives—the way people view themselves and their world." Singleton further explains what she is talking about with the thought that she knows "people who, having glimpsed themselves here [in Lessing's fictional characters], are then unable to remain fixed by the patterns of life and thought that Lessing exposes so artfully." After studying Lessing's work more closely, Singleton has found that Lessing seems to believe "that our civilization is slipping ever-faster toward the precipice" of calamity. "Almost from the beginning, her work has explored what in human nature is causing this catastrophe and what, if anything, can be done about it. I believe that no novelist writing today has treated these crucial issues with her art, perception, and persuasiveness." Lessing's writing turns toward "humanity's destructive weaknesses and potential strength." In her stories about Africa, Lessing, Singleton believes, uses the open space of the African veld as a symbol of the human unconscious. The veld, like humankind's unconscious mind, "nourishes mankind with its unity but also inflicts its own mindless repetition and, in human terms, cruelty and indifference." Through her stories, Singleton continues, Lessing "lays bare the really important problems that face us today: survival, and beyond that, the potential of the human spirit."
These critical comments point out Lessing's strengths as a writer. Indeed, Lessing is able to open up the inner world of her female protagonists, such as Margaret in "A Mild Attack of Locusts," through carefully articulated language that makes her readers not only witness the story but also feel the characters' experience and, in this particular short story, their resilience. Whether the challenge is an exterior one, such as the locusts in this short story, or, as Singleton suggests, the psychological fear when one's survival is threatened, Lessing's writing demonstrates that no matter where one lives or what one's challenges are, the inner workings of the psyche are universal.
Joyce M. Hart
Hart has degrees in English and creative writing, and she is a freelance writer and published author. In this essay, she examines the theme of nature versus humanity in the short story "A Mild Attack of Locusts."
Lessing, in her short story "A Mild Attack of Locusts" creates what might be compared to an ancient Chinese painting. In some of the old pictures painted on Chinese scrolls, nature, in the form of mountains, forests, large bodies of water, and waterfalls, fills the majority of the depicted scene. Lost in the shadows of this grand natural setting are delicate and somewhat insignificant human figures, often standing less than a half inch high and somewhat hidden in a small corner. This gives the viewer of such paintings the sense of his or her position in the universe and acts as a reminder of humankind's insignificance. So too does Lessing's story.
Like an ancient Chinese painting, Lessing's story is also about the power of nature and humankind's position in the natural world. She does not waste much time in demonstrating how insignificant people can feel when they must deal with the forces of nature. Instead of mountains and waterfalls like those in Chinese paintings, Lessing places her characters on the African veld—miles of uninterrupted, open land, dotted with wild grasses and brush. It is upon this wide veld that Lessing's characters are attempting to raise their crops, trying to tame the wild spaces to feed and to nourish themselves. As the story opens, readers are already aware that Lessing's characters are fully at nature's mercy. They are dependent on the rain that will break down the nutrients in the soil so their crops will thrive. They have no other source of water. If their crops do not grow, the characters will not eat. Although Margaret and her family could move to the city and find jobs and thus survive, the lifestyle that they have grown accustomed to would vanish. Nature would force them to transform their lives.
As the story continues, Lessing further develops the roles of humans and of nature. She has her narrator point out the two sides of nature. On one hand, the African veld is beautiful. The land rises in green folds up to the Zambesi River. The weather, throughout the winter months, is pleasant: windy and dry. As the rains begin to fall, bringing the needed water for the parched land, a steamy heat engulfs the veld and the farms. The rain and heat, in turn, stimulate new growth—sprouts develop and old foliage turns green and grows more dense. But there is also the other side of nature. The amount of rain might be too little for the crops to reach their full potential. Or the rains might be too heavy, and the grounds could flood. The farmers cannot control the amount of precipitation that nature offers and must rely on the dictates of the clouds and the moisture they produce. The other needed factor for the growth of the crops is the sun. The narrator relates that the skies, though a gorgeous blue, are so bright that they hurt Margaret's eyes. In other words, the same sun that helps to create life can also be painful. The farmers can wear hats or hide in the shade when the sun becomes too hot; but their crops cannot move. They need the sun; but too much sun and not enough rain can scorch the plants. If that happens, the farmers would go hungry. They might even lose their farms.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Lessing has written a two-volume autobiography. The first is called Under My Skin and was published in 1994. It covers her life up until the 1950s. The second volume is Walking in the Shade. Published in 1998, it chronicles the 1950s through to 1962.
- Lessing has another collection of stories, all set in Africa and aptly titled African Stories (1981). This collection provides a comprehensive view of Lessing's observations and experiences in Africa.
- Nadine Gordimer has lived in South Africa all her life, and her writing exposes many of the racial and political conflicts there, as well as ordinary day-to-day life. Her 1991 collection of short stories, Jump, which shares similarities to Lessing's writing, explores various aspects of human relationships in the context of the political repression in South Africa.
- David Harold-Berry collects nonfiction essays in his Zimbabwe: The Past Is the Future (2000). The essays, written by people who live in Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia), cover topics such as politics, land ownership, the environment, and civil rights.
Then suddenly, nature throws another element into the picture as the focused calamity of this story begins to unfold. A swarm of locusts are coming. At the sight of the swarm, the people of this story start running about, animated with fear and the fight for their farm. The small, usually solitary insects, which have the ability to drastically transform their bodies to meet their biological needs, have grown more powerful wings than they had before they gathered and have aroused their instincts to come together in a swarm. They too have the drive to survive and have come together for efficiency. The locusts need new sources of food, and they need them quickly and in large quantities. Their great numbers provide assurance that many of them will live to lay eggs and produce the next generation. So they fly over the African veld, coming across the skies like a terrible storm. The locusts may be small as individuals, but in their swarming state, their numbers make the humans look small. The locusts land in thick and broad blankets; there are so many locusts that their massive quantities cover the humans and everything else on the veld.
In attempts to ensure their own survival, the human characters shout and yell and run all about, trying to scare off the insects. They build fires to either burn or smother the locusts with smoke; but it is of little use. Thousands of insects might lose their lives, but there are hundreds of thousands more. Farmers telephone other farmers warning of the destruction. They can not do much more than that. The insects have no way of using the modern technologies that the humans have invented; but then, the locusts have no need of them. They communicate better through their movements, an instinctive communication system that humans have lost over time. Despite the fact that humans seem to have the advantage with their advanced language skills and inventions, Margaret has no idea of what to do when she sees the locusts coming. She wants to help, but no one is telling her what to do. She must have someone direct her, because as noted earlier, she does not trust herself and she has no experience with a swarm of locusts. If the locusts acted as Margaret is acting, they may never have gotten off the ground. Humans may be more intelligent; but the locusts (and thus raw nature) are winning this battle.
Then Margaret's father-in-law appears and announces the obvious. The army of locusts has won. There is nothing left to do. The battle is over. The humans have been defeated by an insect not much bigger than a man's thumb. Stephen refers to the locusts as beggars; but surely he has mislabeled them. Beggars have never been so strong as these locusts. The locusts might be thieves, but they are no beggars. Stephen might have wanted to diminish the strength of the locusts by dismissing them in calling them beggars. However, there is no mention, in this story, that any of the locusts asked for food. They just took it. Stephen might be asking himself, as he picks up a locust that has fallen into his pocket, how such a small insect, a bug that Stephen dissects between his finger and thumb, could bring a man to his knees.
When the battle is over and the humans have resigned themselves to their fate, Stephen and Margaret take a step back from their worries and admire the power and the beauty of their natural surroundings. Their farm has been devastated in a few short hours. There is not a sign of green as far as they can see. The landscape, which now even includes fallen trees, is mired in the weight of millions of locusts. They are everywhere. The ground is so filled with them that any movement of the locusts makes the earth look as if it is pulsating. And yet, as the sun rises on the new day, the rays of light catch the golden color of the locusts' wings as the insects fan their wings to dry. And Stephen and Margaret stand off to the side watching awestruck. They are amazed, not only by the mass destruction and the strained transformation of their land, but also by the sheer numbers of the locusts. It must have been like standing on a beach at the end of a hurricane, watching the ocean rise and then crash onto the shore, astonished by the force of nature. It is no wonder that Margaret explains that she felt like a survivor after a war. She has realized her own insignificance and is thankful to be alive.
There is one other note to be made. To make sure that readers have not missed the point of insignificance of humans in the face of nature, Lessing has singled out her characters in a significant way. Although she describes the African landscape in such a way that readers can almost feel the heat of the sun, can see the rolling hills that make their way to the mountains, can see the locusts' startling faces and crooked legs, Lessing provides no descriptions of her human characters. Readers leave this story with more vivid images of the locusts than of the people. What color is Margaret's hair? What does Stephen's face look like? Readers aren't given any clue. The characters, though they play a role in this story, are almost invisible. They are as small as the people depicted in a Chinese ink drawing; they are hidden in the corner of Lessing's story. Readers may ask: Aren't humans also a part of nature? The answer is, of course, yes. What is at question here is not the existence of humans in nature but rather their role. In the face of nature, Lessing's story demonstrates, that role is very small.
Source: Joyce M. Hart, Critical Essay on "A Mild Attack of Locusts," in Short Stories for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2008.
In the following excerpt, Hotchkiss critiques Lessing's African Stories, offering a thorough stylistic and thematic analysis of the collection.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.
Source: Jane Hotchkiss, "Coming of Age in Zambesia," in Borders, Exiles, Diasporas, edited by Elazar Barkan and Marie-Denise Shelton, Stanford University Press, 1998, pp. 81-91.
Fiona R. Barnes
In the following essay, Barnes gives a critical analysis of Lessing's work.
Doris Lessing's literary career spans more than four decades; consequently her texts, both fiction and nonfiction, are valuable at the most basic level as historical records that tackle the central political, spiritual, and psychological questions of the last half of the twentieth century. In most of her works Lessing's focus is on marginal characters—people living on the fringes of society, sometimes collected in resistant subcultures—whom she tends to champion as underdogs. Despite her disavowal of feminism she is perhaps most successful (and most renowned) for her portrayals of the changing female consciousness as it reacts to problems of the age. Her works display a continuing self-conscious exploration of the limits of genre and form; most of her texts work on metafictional levels.
While known primarily for her novels Lessing has written short fiction throughout her career, and it forms an integral part of her oeuvre. Her stories are often closely linked with the novels she is working on at the time. As Claire Sprague asserts in Re-Reading the Short Story (1989):
Doris Lessing is not unusual in having begun her career with short stories. She is unusual in having continued to write short stories for a long time after she established her reputation as a novelist … her short story writing paralleled her novel writing, perhaps her very best novel writing, for a very long time. Sometimes they preceded and deeply affected her novel writing.
Doris May Tayler was born in Kermanshah, Persia, on 22 October 1919. Her father, Alfred Cook Tayler, had gone to work for the Imperial Bank of Persia after being invalided out of World War I with a wounded leg. Her mother, Emily Maude McVeagh Tayler, met her husband while nursing him after his amputation. In 1924 the Taylers moved to a large farm in Southern Rhodesia, looking for a brighter financial future and better education for their children, Doris and her younger brother, Harry. However, Alfred Tayler's attempts at farming were unsuccessful, so the family struggled with poverty for at least twenty years in an isolated area in the district of Banket, one hundred miles west of Mozambique.
Doris 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 1939 Doris married Frank Wisdom, a civil servant in Salisbury. They had two children, Jean and John, who remained with their father when the parents divorced in 1943. In 1945 the author married Gottfried Lessing, a half-Jewish German immigrant whom she had met at a Marxist discussion group. In 1947 their son, Peter, was born, and in 1949 she moved to England following another divorce. Although she has traveled widely, Lessing has lived in London ever since; she has never remarried.
In 1950 Lessing published her first novel, The Grass Is Singing, which was hailed as one of the first honest presentations of the horrors of the apartheid system and the hypocrisies of the white colonial society that maintained it. However, Lessing was not pleased with such narrow political or sociological readings of her work. She complained that The Grass Is Singing and her first collection of short stories, This Was the Old Chief's Country (1951), "were described by reviewers as about the colour problem … which is not how I see, or saw, them."
Throughout her career Lessing has resisted labels and external literary proscriptions. She was well aware of the material expected of her as a new colonial writer from Rhodesia, and she found such expectations limiting. Lessing sums up the advantages and disadvantages of being a writer from Africa:
Writers brought up in Africa have many advantages—being at the centre of a modern battlefield; part of a society in rapid, dramatic change. But in a long run it can also be a handicap: to wake up every morning with one's eyes on fresh evidence of inhumanity; to be reminded twenty times a day of injustice, and always the same brand of it, can be limiting. There are other things in living besides injustice, even for the victims of it.
And yet despite Lessing's impatience with those who would hold her to a proscribed role, she has continued unrelentingly to expose injustice and inhumanity in her short fiction as well as her novels. Her short stories benefit from the creative tension caused by the unsettling contrast between the ethical, at times political, commitment of her vision and the cool, frequently humorous, detachment of her ironic tone.
The ten stories in This Was the Old Chief's Country present a dramatic, realistic portrait of the social history of white-settler society in southern Rhodesia, which Lessing calls "Zambesia" in her fiction. She translates the divided nature of the hierarchical society into the antagonistic narrative structure of the stories. All of them are structured on polarities or conflicts: between white and black, male and female, English settlers and Afrikaners, children and adults, and dreams and reality. She crafts her fiction so that both content and structure enact the contradictions of colonialism. The high-handedness of the white settlers' attitudes toward their adopted country is seen in their dealings with the land and its people. The male settlers, mostly farmers, view the land as a challenge, their own virgin territory to conquer and control. This militaristic attitude is underlined by the titles of the male protagonists, Majors Gale and Carruthers, in "The De Wets Come to Kloof Grange" and "The Second Hut."
In the stories that depict interactions between blacks and whites, Lessing clearly details the feudal nature of the master/servant relationships in Southern Rhodesia, exposing the injustices and inequities of what she calls "that monstrous thing, the colour bar" in Going Home (1957). The title character of "Leopard George" initially appears to be the one exception to the bigoted white landowners in Zambesia. Regarded as an eccentric by his community, this bachelor prefers a wild, isolated piece of land to a lush farm and does not permit hunting on his property. As a result of this—as well as his friendship with his father's servant Old Smoke—George has an unusual closeness to Africa and Africans.
However, he destroys this trust by sleeping with Old Smoke's young wife. George sends her home at night, and she is killed by a leopard. After this episode he places his fear, guilt, and anger at himself onto leopards as symbols of the Africa he cannot tame, and he becomes a ruthless hunter alienated from his African workers. He eventually marries an older white woman and assimilates into white-settler society.
Hence Lessing portrays Africa as an adventurous escape—or at least an elemental challenge—for the men who seek to conquer the land. However, for the white women who marry these men and try to make homes for their families, Africa is both a prison and a cultural desert. If the white men sometimes break through to a limited understanding of Africa, the white women seldom connect with the land or the culture. Lessing portrays white-settler women as doubly alienated from African life: they remain exiles because of their stubborn British identification and outsiders by virtue of their gender.
In "The Second Hut" Major Carruthers's wife is homesick and incapable of being assimilated into her environment. In "Winter in July" Kenneth says, "In a marriage it's necessary for one side to be strong enough to create the illusion," and Lessing portrays how this duty generally falls to the wives. This story shows the chilling results of emotional dishonesty and sterility in relationships; there is a growing moral corruption that seemingly infects most of the white population in Lessing's Zambesia.
"The Second Hut" and "The De Wets Come to Kloof Grange" not only expose gender differences and inequalities in Southern Rhodesia's farm communities, but also explore the ethnic differences between English settlers and their Afrikaans counterparts. While the English farm owners are repelled by the Afrikaners' poverty and lack of sophistication, they grudgingly recognize their ability to survive and adapt to African soil in ways impossible for the English settlers. In the uncomprehending exchanges between blacks and whites, English and Afrikaners, Lessing depicts how the stratified racist society in Rhodesia dehumanizes and separates the people who need each other's strengths and skills in order to survive. In "The De Wets Come to Kloof Grange," for example, Mrs. Gale attempts to "save" the Afrikaans overseer's wife from what she judges to be a lonely and limited existence, but she ends up alienating the young couple by her total misunderstanding of their culture.
Lessing has a gift for realistic dialogue, especially when expressing social codes through her white characters' accents, vocabularies, and tones; the silences and gaps in their conversations are even more subtly revealing. In contrast, in most of her early stories Africans are silent background figures, although they figure prominently in three of the stories, "No Witchcraft for Sale," "The Nuisance," and "Little Tembi." However, the African characters in "No Witchcraft for Sale" and "Little Tembi" are presented rather paternalistically by Lessing as naive moral touchstones who highlight the callousness of the whites. The little black boy Tembi is "adopted" by the tenderhearted farmer's wife Jane when she is childless, but he is thrown over by her once she has her own children. He is unwilling (or unable) to understand her subsequent abandonment of him and resorts to a life of crime partly as revenge and partly in order to regain her attention. In this tragic story of mutual incomprehension Lessing attacks the inefficacy of liberal values and the misguidedness of charity work without a concomitant program of political and social reform.
In "No Witchcraft for Sale" the protagonist, Gideon, retains his dignity and independence by resisting Western conscription of his healing arts. Lessing portrays the whites' disrespectful behavior as disgracefully uncivilized; they unsuccessfully badger the supposedly uncultured Gideon for his secrets. She also reveals that the whites are the losers in their determined struggle to dominate another culture:
The Magical drug would remain where it was, unknown and useless, except for the tiny scattering of Africans who had the knowledge, natives who might be digging a ditch for the municipality in a ragged shirt and a pair of patched shorts, but who were still born to healing, hereditary healers, being the nephews or sons of the old witch doctors whose ugly masks and bits of bone and all the uncouth properties of magic were the outward signs of real power and wisdom.
In "The Nuisance" Lessing shows how a good black worker literally gets away with murder in the corrupt society. The fate of the Long One's old wife—the nuisance of the title, she is murdered and thrown down a well—underlines the fact that a black woman's life in this country is valueless. Because the Long One is an invaluable worker, the white family shuts its eyes to his wife's murder, thereby supporting his cruelty and violence.
"The Old Chief Mshlanga" and "A Sunrise on the Veld" are the first of Lessing's many perceptive and powerful coming-of-age stories in which the child's-eye view is dramatically presented. In these two mythic stories the children confront for the first time the fear of isolation and alienation in a foreign land. "The Old Chief Mshlanga," set on a farm in the 1930s, is probably the best-known story of the collection. A sensitive fourteen-year-old white girl confronts the reality that her father's farm originally "was the Old Chief's Country" and that she also bears the collective burden of her race's guilt for dispossessing the original inhabitants. Her mental alienation from Africa, compounded by an education rooted in European myths and literature, is contrasted with the old chief's literal displacement at the end of the story when her father has the offending tribe removed from its ancestral place. She learns the painful lesson that her youth and gender do not exonerate her from culpability: "If one cannot call a country to heel like a dog, neither can one dismiss the past with a smile in an easy gush of feeling, saying: I could not help it. I am also a victim."
In "Sunrise on the Veld" a boy's initial romantic idealization of the rural world that surrounds him as he leaves home before dawn to hunt culminates in an adolescent epiphany:
There is nothing he couldn't do, nothing! A vision came to him, as he stood there, like when a child hears the word "eternity" and tries to understand it, and time takes possession of the mind … and he said aloud, with the blood rising to his head: … there is no country in the world I cannot make part of myself, if I choose. I contain the world. I can make of it what I want. If I choose, I can change everything that is going to happen: it depends on me, and what I decide now.
This arrogant, imperialistic vision of life—so characteristic for Lessing of the white colonials' attitude to the land—is crushed by the final scene of the story. The boy's hunt is destroyed by the sight of a wounded duiker being eaten alive by thousands of ants. This countervision confronts him with the impersonal power of nature and the knowledge of his own fragility and mortality:
It was a swelling feeling of rage and misery and protest that expressed itself in the thought: if I had not come it would have died like this: so why should I interfere? All over the bush things like this happen; they happen all the time; this is how life goes on, by living things dying in anguish. He gripped the gun between his knees and felt in his own limbs the myriad swarming pain of the twitching animal that could no longer feel, and set his teeth, and said over and over again under his breath: I can't stop it. I can't stop it. There is nothing I can do.
In 1952 Lessing published Martha Quest, the first in her five-volume Children of Violence series. The novel is based on autobiographical details, but, in response to what she saw as reviewers' misreadings of the texts, Lessing emphasizes that the series is a "study of the individual conscience in its relations with the collective." The five novels—which also include A Proper Marriage (1954), A Ripple from the Storm (1958), Landlocked (1965), and The Four-Gated City (1969)—progress from a conventional bildungsroman form to an apocalyptic global vision. The first four give an extended view of the white-settler society in Rhodesia through the eyes of a disaffected young girl who can find no place for an independent woman in that community. The last novel shows her as an immigrant in London—once more in exile—who turns to various modes of consciousness in order to construct a new society able to survive the inevitable apocalypse.
In Five: Short Novels (1953) Lessing experiments with the form described by Dorothy Brewster, in Doris Lessing (1965), as "too long for a short story and too short for a novel." "Hunger" seems formulaic and didactic, yet it has proved popular with many readers. The story features the classic "country boy comes to the city" plot, in which the protagonist experiences many trials, succumbs to temptation, but finally breaks through to a vision of truth and redemption. Jabavu—an intelligent, ambitious African boy full of hubris and helpless anger against his menial life—learns from his sufferings and disappointments that he needs a vision of community to sustain him against his isolation.
In Doris Lessing's Africa (1978) Michael Thorpe likens "Hunger" to a morality tale, stating that "because there is so much ammunition in the story that may be used against white rule and for African solidarity it has been, as Lessing thinks, one of her ‘most liked’ despite, or because of, its artistic simplification." The simplistic political message at the end contrasts with the subtler messages in Lessing's other African stories; in Doris Lessing (1983) Lorna Sage describes it as "a version of urban pastoral, tinged with a dubious nostalgia for the collective conscience."
"A Home for the Highland Cattle," a highly ironic tale, tells of the "new" kind of settler in Rhodesia: "These days, when people emigrate … all they want is a roof over their heads." The story opens with dry geographical, historical, and sociological descriptions of Salisbury. The liberal-minded Gileses come looking for wealth, good company, and a house of their own; instead they find narrow-mindedness, prejudice, and a housing shortage. Marina is left behind in a subleased, semidetached box of an apartment while Philip travels in pursuit of his agricultural research. She confronts the everyday realities of racism, and her liberal values trap her into a paternalistic attitude toward her black male servant, Charlie.
The highland cattle of the title are portrayed in a mid-Victorian painting that symbolizes for Marina the hidebound, tasteless life of its owner. For Charlie, however, the African symbolism of cattle as wealth causes him to revere the awful heirloom piece. The increasing significance of the painting in the story demonstrates how skillfully Lessing infuses even the most mundane, realistic tales and objects with symbolic resonance. The inability of each character to understand the other's attitude toward the picture is symbolic of the cultural chasm that lies between them and their failure to appreciate the other's perspectives. With time Marina inevitably becomes just another white settler who accepts the racist values of the society into which she realizes she must assimilate in order to survive.
"Eldorado," Lessing's rewriting of the classic adventure story, focuses on a trio of people who love each other yet can never understand one another's dreams. Alec Barnes, the father, is a dreamer who begins farming maize but then is lost to his family in his visions of discovering gold. His practical Scottish wife, Maggie, sees his dream merely as "getting something for nothing." She desperately believes that "knowledge freed a man," but their son, Paul, cannot live up to his mother's dreams for his advancement through education because he lacks the ability. Maggie wants both men to adhere to the ways of their hardworking, pragmatic forefathers, but both have been infected by the romantic adventure tales of Africa. The mythic figure of the gold prospector entrances both father and son, and the story ends ironically on a qualified success story when Paul and his miner-mentor, James, find gold on the farm.
"The Antheap" is based on the triangular relationship between old Mr. Macintosh, a millionaire mine owner; Tommy Clarke, Macintosh's engineer's son, whom Macintosh loves as his own; and Dirk, Macintosh's real son, a half-caste rejected by his father. The friendship that develops between the two boys breaks through the barriers of race so that they form a brotherhood united against Macintosh's hypocrisy and pride. Both strive for an equality in the stubborn old man's eyes and finally achieve a grudging concession on his part when he agrees to pay for their university education.
Tommy's art is the key both to his heightened sensitivity toward the emotional and political issues at stake in their lives and to his close relationship to African earth. His creative use of the African soil is in direct contrast to Macintosh's rape of the land. Ironically it is Dirk, born into an oppressed race, who will go on to study law and government in order to claim back power from his oppressors. But the future will not be so simple, and Lessing evades a sentimental conclusion by generalizing outward to the larger political issues behind the story: "The victory was entirely theirs, but now they had to begin again, in the long and difficult struggle to understand what they had won and how they would use it."
"The Other Woman"—a painful tale of love, trust, and abandonment—is the only story set in England. Rose learns to move outward from her parents' home, where she lives as a dutiful daughter, to accept responsibility for herself and to recognize her need to love others. She falls in love with Jimmy, who mistakenly loves her for what he sees as her vulnerability and helplessness. Once she assumes the role of wife and the power in the relationship shifts, he tries to leave. Enlightened by Jimmy's savvy first wife, Rose bands together with her to raise his children and the daughter of Rose's former boyfriend, who was killed during World War II.
This final, bittersweet scene dramatizes how women were assuming more central, active roles in order to support themselves and their children in the disrupted society brought on by the war. All five stories depict societies in transition. Much as Lessing experiments with new forms in the collection, her protagonists struggle to come to terms with new modes of living and social structures.
In 1956 Lessing produced A Retreat to Innocence, a novel that she has since disowned and blocked from republication. The text, with its uncritical pro-Communist stance, is a product of Lessing's continuing commitment to Marxism in the 1950s. After the Soviet Union invaded Hungary in 1956, Lessing left the English Communist party as did many other disillusioned members. A Retreat to Innocence, while propagandist in nature, is interesting as a historical marker in Lessing's career and ideological development. In 1956 Lessing visited Rhodesia after seven years in England. She was declared a prohibited immigrant on her departure because of her opposition to the racist regime, expressed in Going Home (1957), a factual, anecdotal account of her return to Rhodesia.
The Habit of Loving, Lessing's third collection of short stories, was also published in 1957. Only six of the seventeen stories are set in southern Africa, indicating her gradual shift from African themes and settings. Thorpe chronicles Lessing's African narratives, placing The Habit of Loving within what he calls her "African period": "The African stories belong almost entirely to the early and mid-'fifties, the period during which the first three books of the ‘Children of Violence’ sequence came out—in 1952, 1954, and 1958. This period, 1950—1958, may truly be called her ‘African’ period, when her work drew most intensively upon her African experience and involvement."
"Lucy Grange" and "Getting off the Altitude" sympathetically describe the deprivations and emotional stagnation of white women confined to isolated farms in Rhodesia. "Getting off the Altitude" gives the young-girl narrator a glimpse into the emotional and sexual entanglements of the Slatters' marriage. Mrs. Slatter's helplessness in the face of her husband's brutality and her continued presence despite his flagrant infidelity do not promise an independent or happy future for the narrator as she becomes a woman.
Lucy Grange is yet another cultured woman married to an unsympathetic partner. Her alienation from her surroundings leads her to give herself to the first sympathetic man who presents himself—an unattractive insurance salesman. From this opportunist she learns that "in a country like this we all learn to accept the second-rate," Lessing's succinct condemnation of the transplanted-settler society and its future.
In "Flavours of Exile" Lessing portrays a mother's perpetuation of what M. J. Daymond (Ariel, July 1986) calls "the cultural lie"—her blind clinging to the nostalgia of a long-dead English past idolized as "Home." While her daughter's "thoughts were on my own inheritance of veldt and sun," the mother refuses to accept the needs and realities of the present. "A Mild Attack of Locusts" is a story of survival and adjustment. The swarm of locusts that devastates a farm precipitates a crisis in which Margaret is forced to change from a city girl who does not understand or appreciate the rigors of farm life to a woman who has confronted the awful power of nature and learned to survive.
In three of the coming-of-age stories in this collection—"Flavours of Exile," "The Words He Said," and "Through the Tunnel"—Lessing explores how the male socialization process seems far less complicated than that of females. The boy in "Through the Tunnel" puts himself through a physical test in order to prove to himself that he is a man, whereas the two young-girl protagonists are initiated into womanhood by being rejected and hurt by two young men. The latent sexual danger in these stories is made manifest in the menacing, surrealistic "Plants and Girls," in which the male protagonist kills a young girl in a pantheistic sexual frenzy.
The coming-of-age stories in The Habit of Loving are counterbalanced by stories centered on the dilemmas and deprivations of middle and old age. The old-age stories feature various selfish old men. In "The Woman" two old men remember sexual conquests and vie for the attention of a young waitress who regards them with contempt. In "The Witness" a self-deluded voyeur and drunkard loses his last shred of dignity at work but refuses to come to terms with himself in his one brief moment of self-recognition. In "The Habit of Loving" aging George Talbot, who has made his living through the theater, is ironically taken in by the role-playing of Bobby, a thirty-five-year-old cabaret artist. Her rejection of all romantic illusions is the final blow that destroys George's protective screen, and he comes face-to-face with his own selfishness. However, this self-knowledge comes too late to save their relationship or end her suffering.
In contrast to the brutal tales of old age's disappointments, "Flight" is a sympathetic treatment of the selfishness and jealousies of old age. Lessing treats a grandfather's inability to let go of his granddaughter with compassion and honesty. In a symbolic last scene of leave-taking and love the grandfather releases his favorite racing pigeon into flight, much as he learns to let his last granddaughter go to find happiness with her future husband.
The stories of old men's weaknesses are counterbalanced by stories of middle-aged women's limitations and disappointments in love. "Wine" is told by a dispassionate narrator who simply names the protagonists as "the man/he" and "the woman/she," thereby universalizing the couple and their tired alienation from each other in Paris, traditionally the city of lovers. In "He" a downtrodden wife, after a brief mutinous period, finally decides to return to a life of drudgery with a selfish husband rather than settle for a lonely but independent existence without someone who needs her. In these stories Lessing exposes how both genders are trapped in their conflicting social roles, incapable of helping the other change or compromise and therefore doomed always to disappointment in each other.
Lessing scrutinizes tourists and tourism in at least two stories in The Habit of Loving. In "Pleasure" Mary Rogers confronts her self-aggrandizing motives for traveling to the south of France for her annual vacation. In "The Eyes of God in Paradise" two British doctors discover that the past lives on to menace the present while on a vacation in Bavaria in 1951. Instead of enjoying a picture-postcard holiday in the mountains, the couple are oppressed by the shadow of Nazism looming over every social contact and event. This Kafkaesque story is weighted too heavily with historical and sociological observations that darken, and at times overwhelm, the action. In both stories Lessing emphasizes the voyeuristic nature of tourism.
"The Day Stalin Died" is an anomaly in the collection. This dry, diary like piece chronicles the narrator's day in London, full of incidental conversations, meeting, decisions, actions, and thoughts. At the end of the story the news of Joseph Stalin's death is presented as one of these daily trifles. The tone and subject matter are in marked contrast to those of A Retreat to Innocence, and the story is the epitome of the ironic, detached style for which Lessing is so well known.
Lessing's 1950s short stories demonstrate her commitment to social realism. As Jenny Taylor explains in Notebooks/Memoirs/Archives: Reading and Rereading Doris Lessing (1982): "Her colonial identity also contributed to her passionate and explicit adherence to classic realism both as a style and as an attitude—that of racial liberal humanism—in the 1950s." From 1957 to 1962, however, Lessing experimented with other genres of writing, including the nonfictional Going Home; a collection of poetry, Fourteen Poems (1959); In Pursuit of the English: A Documentary (1960), in which, as an immigrant, she defamiliarizes and lightly satirizes English society; and two plays, Each His Own Wilderness (1959) and Play with a Tiger (1962), both of which were produced in London.
In 1962 Lessing published The Golden Notebook, which is generally regarded as her greatest work. This complex novel tells of Anna Freeman Wulf's life and struggles for self-definition through interlocking "notebooks." The novel is set entirely in England, and Sprague asserts in Re-Reading the Short Story (1989), that "The Golden Notebook is Lessing's first successful novel about her ‘adopted’ country; in that novel her fiction, so to speak, catches up with her life." A Man and Two Women (1963) contains stories written during the composition of The Golden Notebook. As a consequence the two texts are intimately related, both in form and content. The form of The Golden Notebook is episodic, what the protagonist denigrates as "pastiche" and what Sprague describes as "a loosely woven collection of short stories and novellas." Lessing incorporates short stories within the novel, in which she also examines the generic assumptions about and limitations of the short-fiction form. As a result The Golden Notebook is a highly self-conscious text that also introduces issues explored in Lessing's later literary projects.
A Man and Two Women contains nineteen stories that interrelate in various ways and appear to move inexorably toward the final story as a result of its teleological title, "To Room Nineteen." The collection examines relationships between men and women who are attracted or repelled by one another in various social configurations and emotional situations. Lessing appears to hold out little promise of compromise or mutual understanding between the sexes. These stories generally portray private psychological dramas and are consequently stylistically more disjointed and experimental than her earlier stories.
Three stories dramatize the explosive quality of sexual attraction and the closeness of its connection with the lust for power. In the opening story, "One Off the Short List," a self-hating former novelist thinks he can regain his lost self-esteem by sexually dominating a series of up-and-coming women on his "short list." He forces himself on a successful theater designer in order to prove himself both personally and publicly. However, the woman retains her dignity despite his raping her, and the man ultimately recognizes that he has engineered his own humiliation and defeat.
In "A Woman on a Roof" three men working on a roof during a hot summer day in London are piqued by a sunbathing woman's indifference to their attentions. They transfer all their frustrations or fantasies onto her until the insufferable tension is broken by cooling rain, which also drives away the sunbather. "Each Other" is a Wagnerian tale of sister/brother incest in a London flat. While Freda's husband is a traditional male who attempts to dominate his wife, her brother, Fred, offers her a relationship that is an equal melding of personalities. And yet the two men seem to be complementary for the woman in this triangular relationship. With one she allows only sexual bonding, and with the other she achieves spiritual and emotional union. This story presents Lessing's perspective on the limitations of both familial and social relationships.
Some of the stories present the struggles of middle-aged women trying to create new lives and roles that allow them a measure of independence. In "Our Friend Judith" the narrator is frustrated in her attempts to analyze and mold her friend Judith, who is equally determined in her efforts to maintain detachment from other people. While the reader is partially sympathetic to Judith's evasiveness as an attempt to maintain her privacy, she ultimately alienates herself from life because of her determination to repress all emotions.
"To Room Nineteen" details the tragic result of such sustained repression of emotion and instinct in favor of the total domination of the intellect. Lorna Sage terms this story "a suicidal variant on The Summer Before the Dark," the 1973 novel in which Lessing also presents a middle-aged woman's confrontation with her loss of identity. "To Room Nineteen" is told by a detached third-person narrator, a device that emphasizes the way in which the protagonist pitches intelligence against emotion. The first sentence explains Susan Rawlings's problem dispassionately and incorrectly: "This is a story, I suppose, about a failure in intelligence: the Rawlings' marriage was grounded in intelligence."
Lessing portrays how a middle-aged woman finds herself trapped in the socially sanctioned roles of wife and mother, without identity or privacy. Susan tries to combat her emptiness by escaping her home, husband, and children in the dingy hotel room of the title. This room becomes symbolic of the space that Susan needs in order to learn how to reconstruct her identity. However, her husband invades this space when he has her followed by a private detective, so that Susan's final refuge is violated and she is driven to commit suicide to escape fully. Lessing presents Susan's death more as a release than a negation.
"Between Men" and "How I Finally Lost My Heart" are two humorous tales with serious undertones. "Between Men" satirizes the survival attempts of two aging women who have been betrayed by the men who keep them and for whom they live. Their drunken promises to renounce men and regain their self-respect and independence together are clearly doomed to failure, for Lessing portrays how these two women are purely male-directed. "How I Finally Lost My Heart" is a playfully parodic story that poses as an instructional tale of romance but is actually antiromantic. The female protagonist, disappointed in love one too many times, determines literally to rid herself of her heart, the root of all her sorrow. The surreal events that follow are unsettling and compelling, as is the disjunction between the protagonist's jaunty tone and her tragic subject.
The collection includes four South African stories: "The New Man," another coming-of-age story; "The Story of Two Dogs," based on Lessing's childhood memories of two dogs that ran wild; "A Letter from Home," a farcical story told in a South African vernacular that does not quite ring true; and "The Sun Between Their Feet," the most successful of the four. Another story, "Outside the Ministry," details the meeting of two African politicians and their henchmen as they decide the fate of their hapless country in a corrupt neocolonial power struggle.
"The Sun Between Their Feet" dramatizes how powerless the individual creature is to change nature's course. Lessing does not romanticize the natural order here; the actions of the dung beetles appear both mindless and courageous. Beauty and horror are inextricably linked, as are courage and futility, in the repeated attempts of the dung beetles to scale the heights of a rock with their precious cargo. The dung beetles are the symbolic center of the story, but the emotional duality experienced by the narrator gives the story its depth and subtlety.
Two stories deal directly with madness and schizophrenia, topics that fascinate Lessing and inform many of her novels and short stories. "England versus England" is her reworking of the "scholarship boy" tale. She explores the tragic effects of the class system on a sensitive young man who is driven to the point of a nervous breakdown by the conflicting codes of the two worlds in which he lives. He is haunted by a self-hating inner voice that mocks him when his divided self is at odds. His intellect is unable to save him when he becomes increasingly incapable of reconciling the values and behavior of his poverty-stricken mining family and his student life at Oxford.
"Dialogue" explores the split between the outer, visible world (the shabby London street) from which the visiting woman comes and the inner, silent world (the enclosed tower flat) of her former lover, who describes himself as "the disconnected" in his mental fragmentation and fragility. By portraying the closeness of the two characters and their struggle to connect over a common abyss, Lessing makes the reader question the nature (and interchangeability) of sanity and madness. The protective yet confining rooms in this story and "To Room Nineteen" are crucial psychological symbols.
Two stories address the importance of art in women's lives. In "A Man and Two Women" the birth of a baby upsets the fragile balance not only between marriage and career, but also between the friendship of two couples. Dorothy's postnatal withdrawal from her husband, together with her loss of interest in her art, raises questions about the all-consuming potential of motherhood for women. Lessing also satirizes the artist's self-conscious posturing, which is undermined completely by the woman's instinctual behavior after birth.
"Two Potters" questions the nature of reality and the relationship of dreams and art to life. As in The Summer Before the Dark, the narrator/writer is caught up in interpreting a serial dream—this time about an African potter—that develops in response to outside events. The writer takes poetic license with her dream, but she is shown by her friend the potter how best to integrate her own creative whimsy into the narrative, much as the potter integrates her own artistic vision into her everyday family life. The stories about the relation of art to life and the interconnectedness of women's creativity with their emotional well-being make it clear why Virginia Tiger (Modern Fiction Studies, Autumn 1990) calls A Man and Two Women "the most self-reflexive of Lessing's collections."
African Stories (1964) is important not only for its inclusion of Lessing's thirty stories set in Africa, but also for its succinct author's preface, which details much of Lessing's philosophy about short-story writing. Lynn Suckenick, in Doris Lessing: Critical Studies (1974), analyzes awareness of "the bifurcation of sense and sensibility and the meaning it presents to women." Lessing's consciousness of the intellectual/emotional split between men and women is expressed in the preface to African Stories:
"The Pig" and "The Trinket Box" are two of my earliest. I see them as two forks of a road. The second—intense, careful, self-conscious, mannered—could have led to a kind of writing usually described as "feminine." The style of "The Pig" is straight, broad, direct; is much less beguiling, but is the highway to the kind of writing that has the freedom to develop as it likes.
While Lessing points to these two stories as being the poles of two separate styles of writing, many of her stories incorporate both styles successfully. "The Pig"—written in the "masculine" style—appears simple and direct, but it is actually carefully crafted so that the events and consequences seem inevitable and the action linear. The story presents a double masculine-revenge plot: it pits the white farmer against his black workers and the overseer against his wife's lover.
In contrast "The Trinket Box" has a feminine cast of characters, narrator, and theme, while its style is personal, emotionally laden, and sensuous. It appears to be more complex than "The Pig" because it focuses on emotions rather than actions. Despite Lessing's separation of the masculine and feminine styles, her best stories are usually an amalgam of both; her talent lies in her ability to integrate both emotional and narrative development in her fiction.
"The Black Madonna" opens African Stories, probably because Lessing feels so strongly about it: "I am addicted to ‘The Black Madonna,’ which is full of the bile that in fact I feel for the ‘white’ society in Southern Rhodesia as I knew and hated it." The story could almost be characterized as Lessing's revenge against white colonial Rhodesian society, for she brutally exposes Zambesian philistinism and bigotry in a tragicomic tale of friendship and betrayal. Michele, an Italian intern in Zambesia during World War II, paints amateur frescoes and portraits that are revered by the ignorant white colonials. He is befriended by another exile figure, a fascist soldier named Captain Stocker, who fears women and can therefore find happiness only with subordinate black women, putting his emotions in conflict with his racist beliefs. The story ends with the collapse of their friendship when Michele laughs at the white colonial society that Captain Stocker must uphold for his own survival. With Michele's departure Stocker loses his chance at confronting his loneliness and emotional sterility.
Lessing classifies Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971) as "inner-space fiction." This novel is unusual for Lessing in that a man, a classics professor named Charles Watkins, is its chief protagonist. He suffers a mental breakdown and journeys through various regions of consciousness as he searches for mental unity. Charles travels from innocence to experience in a confrontation with his own evil and that of humanity, coming to the realization that disaster threatens humankind. When he is restored to his "normal" self at the end of the novel, however, he forgets this urgent message. Once more Lessing strives for the realization that much can be learned from what is classified as "madness."
The Story of a Non-Marrying Man and Other Stories (1972; published in the United States as The Temptation of Jack Orkney and Other Stories, 1972) is a collection of thirteen stories. While it is notable for its diversity of narrative style and subject, all the stories demonstrate Lessing's increasingly cynical vision of human weakness and self-destructiveness. "Side Benefits of an Honourable Profession" and "An Unposted Love Letter" focus on the theater as a medium for human expression and fallibility. These two sardonic pieces examine the interchanges between art and life, truth and fiction. The anecdotal gossip that fills "Side Benefits of an Honourable Profession" exposes the human frailties evinced by the artists when offstage, in contrast to their godlike qualities when on show. In "An Unposted Love Letter" the monologue, which Lessing frames in an epistolary form, accentuates the isolated quality of the aging actress's life; she is alone because of her decision to sacrifice her personal life for her art. An integral part of her artistry and dedication to her craft has involved the creation of a theatrical persona as her lifework.
Two related stories, "Not a Very Nice Story" and "Out of the Fountain," are metafictional pieces that explore their own narrative methods, specifically how the choice of perspective or point of view dictates meaning in life as in art. "Out of the Fountain" is presented as a modern fairy-tale allegory that ends abruptly and without the traditional happy conclusion. "Not a Very Nice Story" is, in contrast, a mundane tale of two married couples and infidelity, told in a dry, ironic style by a narrator who appears more concerned with how to tell the tale effectively than with what is being told. This device forces the reader to examine and question the characters' inner motivations, as well as to analyze the mechanics of the story. "Not a Very Nice Story" and "Out of the Fountain" are good examples of how Lessing's fiction was becoming increasingly self-referential. She exposes the limitations of language and narrative forms along with the limitations of social institutions. As her narrative control grew, she began increasingly to explore the conventions and restraints of narrative as they affect life and epistemology.
There are only two African pieces in the collection. The title "Spies I Have Known" spoofs the secrecy of espionage, while the ironic, anecdotal style adopted by the narrator emphasizes the absurdity of such tales of misunderstanding and double-dealing. "The Story of a Non-Marrying Man" is told from the perspective of a ten-or twelve-year-old who meets the man of the title, Johnny Blakeworthy, "at the end of his life." Blakeworthy goes "native" after a life of moving from wife to wife and place to place but never finding the peace and simplicity for which he longs. Finally he settles in a remote African village with a black wife who makes no demands on him and knows nothing of Western "civilization." This piece is unusual among the African stories for its sympathy toward the masculine viewpoint; Lessing portrays the women in Blakeworthy's life as domestic drudges who care only for their own material well-being.
"The Temptation of Jack Orkney" continues in the mode of Briefing for a Descent into Hell as Jack Orkney, thrown into self-scrutiny by his father's death and his own temporary sabbatical from work, explores the depths of his consciousness. On his psychic journey Orkney encounters the ever-present threat of madness, and, as the title suggests, he toys with religious commitment in the face of his helplessness. Ultimately, however, Orkney realizes that religion, together with politics and the responsibilities of family, merely permits people to avoid their existential aloneness. Lessing's controlled ironic tone holds Orkney's conflicting experiences and insights in a precarious balance, skillfully mirroring the fragility of his psyche. While some critics consider the collection inconsequential, most agree that "The Temptation of Jack Orkney" is an extremely powerful story.
An apocalyptic story that foreshadows Lessing's science-fiction phase, "Report on the Threatened City" features the observations of intelligent, sympathetic alien beings who come to Earth to save humans from certain disaster. These narrators frustratedly document the intransigent stupidity of earthlings until they are forced finally to give up their mission of rescue. Lessing's dark vision of global disintegration is also portrayed in a more realistic story, "An Old Woman and Her Cat." This violent, tragic tale exposes the cruelty of humanity and its social institutions in their abandonment of an old lady to a life of wandering and destitution. She finds refuge in a dead area of London ripe for "development": "There was no glass left anywhere. The flooring was mostly gone, leaving small platforms and juts of planking over basements full of water. The ceilings were crumbling. The roofs were going. The houses were like bombed buildings." Such scenes of desolation and collapse are taken up in Lessing's novel Memoirs of a Survivor (1974).
The cynical, apocalyptic aspects of The Story of a Non-Marrying Man are broken up by three deliberately interspersed, idyllic pastoral pieces that celebrate the natural beauty of London parks: "A Year in Regent's Park," "Lions, Leaves, Roses," and "The Other Garden." These descriptive, lyrical sketches contrast starkly with the revelations of human frailty and evil in the other stories. The structural division of the collection between the dark and light sides of modern society and the human psyche is almost schizophrenic. The collection marries utopian natural beauty with dystopian human works and juxtaposes Lessing's sardonic narrative style with lyrical descriptive passages. In the three park sketches humans and nature manage to achieve a harmonious existence in scattered green oases in the heart of London, giving the reader some hope of regeneration to counter Lessing's increasingly apocalyptic visions. After The Story of a Non-Marrying Man Lessing concentrated on novel writing for twenty years before she returned to the short-fiction genre.
In 1978 Lessing's English stories were collected in two volumes; the collection was published in the United States in one volume, Stories (1978). The thirty-five stories are mostly set in England and focus on women. All but one, "The Other Woman" (Five), are from The Habit of Loving, and The Story of a Non-Marrying Man.
In 1992 Lessing produced two books: a collection of eighteen new short stories, The Real Thing: Stories and Sketches and African Laughter: Four Visits to Zimbabwe. In African Laughter, a nonfictional sequel to Going Home, Lessing sympathetically continues to document the political and social upheavals in Zimbabwean society. This work, together with Lessing's latest novels, seems to signal her return to social and literary realism, a trend that she continues in her most recent short-fiction collection. Consequently, The Real Thing appears to be a retreat into a traditionalism of style and content for those readers and critics who have become accustomed to Lessing's fictional experiments. As Katherine Fishburn states in her review of the collection for the Doris Lessing Newsletter (Winter 1993): "At first glance, what seems remarkable about these eighteen pieces is how unremarkable they are…. Just a lot of ordinary folks trying to muddle through life and loving in late-twentieth-century London." For the first time Lessing appears to have put her African roots behind her in her short fiction; The Real Thing is a completely English collection. Nonetheless, she remains true to her original role as social critic as she continues to chronicle a society in decline.
Many of the stories demonstrate the collapse of societal structures that ironically harm the very people they are supposed to support. As the title suggests, the medical profession portrayed in "Womb Ward" dehumanizes and reduces women to their physical parts and defects. In "Casualty" the waiting patients compete pettishly for the doctors' attention until confronted with a fatality, a reminder of their own mortality. "D.H.S.S." is a bitterly ironic commentary on how the social services create resentment and dependence in those they are supposed to serve. "The Mother of the Child in Question" portrays the quiet revolt of a jaded social worker who, despite her obstruction of his work, applauds a stubborn mother's refusal to accept the labeling of her daughter as "subnormal."
Many critics have attacked the somewhat sprawling narrative style and uneven prose in Lessing's novels. Her ability to write tight, spare prose is perhaps best seen in her short fiction and is shown to particular advantage in the vignette "Principles." Here Lessing returns to one of her most central concerns: the chasm of misunderstanding and miscommunication that yawns between the genders. With an understated tone Lessing transforms the confrontation of two anonymous protagonists in a traffic jam into an ironically symbolic event.
The "schizophrenia" of The Story of a Non-Marrying Man is also in evidence in The Real Thing, for Lessing appears split between her need to expose the dark side of human nature and the fallibility of social structures and her desire to celebrate the eternal, inspirational quality of her environment. Some of the stories offer sensuous sketches of London that point out the beauty and oases that still serve to rejuvenate and delight the jaded city dwellers who take the time to enjoy and notice them. "In Defence of the Underground" is a humorous apologia for London in which Lessing celebrates the very things that most malcontents deplore about the city. The English edition of The Real Thing is titled London Observed, which perhaps sums up the serene tenor and everyday content of this work most succinctly. Critics have been strongly divided about this latest collection; some applaud Lessing's new relaxed humor and lyrical prose, while others deplore what they consider to be the slightness of her subject matter and the conservatism of her form.
Critics have found it extremely hard to categorize Lessing, for she has at various stages of her life espoused different causes and been labeled over again: feminist, Marxist, mystic, materialist, experimentalist, realist, conservative. While she displays a powerful commitment to causes she views as vital to the survival of humankind, her greatest strength lies in her flexibility. She is always prepared to change her views to accommodate new insights and contradictions.
Lessing's oeuvre encompasses an assortment of genres: science fiction, drama, essays, bildungsroman, autobiography, short stories, and poetry. She displays a tireless interest in the interplay of idea and form; consequently her texts also explore the shaping qualities of the genre in which she writes. Feminists have found her works a fruitful ground for investigating the interplay of gender and genre. Despite her experimentation with other genres Lessing's commitment to the short story is clear: "Some writers I know have stopped writing short stories because, as they say, ‘there is no market for them.’ Others like myself, the addicts, go on, and I suspect would go on even if there really wasn't any home for them but a private drawer."
Source: Fiona R. Barnes, "Doris Lessing," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 139, British Short-Fiction Writers, 1945-1980, edited by Dean Baldwin, Gale Research, 1994, pp. 159-72.
In the following excerpt, Chaffee discusses the use of space in Lessing's stories, particularly the space between men and women.
… Perhaps the most significant spatial definition in African Stories is that which creates the mutually exclusive circles of men and women. The circles, of course, overlap superficially as husband and wife or lovers share a room, a table, or a bed. The separateness of the groups is, again superficially, indicated in the seating patterns that arise naturally at different gatherings: "But there was always a stage [at parties] when the women sat at one end of the verandah and the men at the other"; "When lunch was over, things arranged themselves as usual with the men on one side of the room and the women on the other." But the real difference between these two groups, that which underlies much of the tension in the stories, is profoundly spatial. It arises from categorically opposite responses to the very experience of pioneering, of colonizing a land that is repeatedly described as endlessly expansive. Story after story emphasizes this expansiveness. The "bigness and silence of Africa" includes, in a child's perspective, "thousands and thousands of miles of unused Government land" as well as actual three-thousand-acre farms "with the sky blue and brilliant halls of air and the bright green fields and hollows of country beneath and the mountains lying sharp and bare twenty miles off across the rivers." It is "this rich soil, this slow-moving water, and air that smelt like a challenge …"; it is "Four Winds, lifted high into the sky among the great windswept sun-quivering mountains, tumbled all over with boulders, offering itself to storms and exposure and invasion by baboons and leopards …" Finally, it is a country so limitless that a "pocket" of land can mean an area "hundreds of miles in depth."
This country is a wedge that cleaves ever more deeply into whatever originally bound the married couple who settle in it. The man, having chosen a country life because he felt enclosed in an office and cramped in town, feels himself expand as he surveys his land, organizes his laborers, and gradually tames the wild space, seeing it take the shape he plans for it, thus filling it with himself. His farm or his mine becomes more and more solidly his world; he occupies it from sunup to sundown, and it occupies him always. His consciousness, fixed on outward space, becomes alien to small spaces or to inner space. A man is judged on the degree to which he measures himself against his land. Major Carruthers in "The Second Hut" feels that he announces failure when he tells his wife "I've written for a job at Home." And in "Eldorado" Alec Barnes's survival depends upon his being allowed to live in the illusion that he can command the gold under his land, since he has failed to control the soil on it.
But only these two white men fail in the stories; the rest identify with their particular interest in the land, growing so far beyond the space occupied by their wives or mistresses that they can no longer enter it. When, after listening to her husband and his assistant discuss farming for two hours, Mrs. Gale ventures a comment, "De Wet looked around absently as if to say she should mind her own business, and her husband remarked absently, ‘Yes, dear,’ when a Yes dear did not fit her remark at all …" During one of Tom's absences in "Winter in July," Kenneth enjoys sharing his bed with Tom's wife Julia, but he is not willing to share her world: "‘What do you want then?’ he enquired briefly, giving what small amount of attention he could spare from the farm to the problem of Julia, the woman." Even when the men are "cheque-book farmers" like Mr. Hackett and Mr. Lacey, they cannot enter a woman's space. They "came in to meals and did not so much as glance at the work that had been done … They were so clearly making preparations for when the restless thing in them that had already driven them from continent to continent spoke again …" And as Margaret in "A Mild Attack of Locusts" contemplates the devastation wrought by the locusts, "She felt like a survivor after war." To her this was ruin. "But the men ate their supper with good appetites." They were planning the replanting and hoping for rain.
While the man's spatial consciousness expands outward in ever broadening and deepening swathes, the woman's world shrinks to a point within herself. Her outer limits may extend to the garden near the house, where she can feel that she plays at the grown-up work of planting and harvesting. Or they may correspond to the walls of the house, as in "Lucy Grange": "Even on the verandah there were sacks of grain and bundles of hoes. The life of the farm, her husband's life, washed around the house …" Managing the house, however, soon becomes as much non-work as maintaining the garden. Any necessary role is filled by black servants. If the woman is a Mrs. Black ("A Home for the Highland Cattle"), a Mrs. Farquar ("No Witchcraft for Sale"), or a Mrs. Grant ("The New Man"), she enjoys her "freedom" and fills it with gossip, complaints, sleep, some sewing, and whatever part of mothering she does not trust to the African servants.
If a woman is sensitive and vital, she rebels against her confinement. In the exceptional case her rebellion may prove to be fulfilling, as when Jane McCluster, in "Little Tembi," assumes the role of public health nurse to her husband's laborers and their families. More often the rebellion is a futile gesture of defiance, like Lucy Grange's gloves, Van Gogh print, and salesman lover or like Rosalind Lacey's glass wall and white carpet. When the woman is sensitive but submissive, she responds to her useless allowance of space by withdrawing even from that limited area. Though she may occupy a room in the house and stroll through the garden, her living room is within herself, where she buries herself either in stoic resignation or in reverie. For these women the land that their husbands see as challenge and potential is alien and hostile. Maggie Barnes, in "Eldorado," succumbs to a "kind of fatalism" as she begins to realize that "the very country was against her." Annie Clarke, in "The Antheap," finds herself finally desiccated: "Living here, in this destroying heat, year after year, did not make her ill, it sapped her slowly, leaving her rather numbed and silent." Mrs. Carruthers, whom "chance had wrenched … on to his isolated African farm into a life which she submitted herself to, as if it had nothing to do with her," retreats completely into herself: "she turned her face to the wall and lay there, hour after hour, inert and uncomplaining, in a stoicism of defeat nothing could penetrate."
Other women, like Caroline Gale, Julia, and the mother in "Flavors of Exile" fill their inner space with fantasies of bringing genteel English style and friendship into their farms or of buying an inviolable security by their acceptance of confinement. But the illusion is less safe even than cold resignation, for when its explosion forces the women to confront the reality of their "place," they re-discover the pain of its emptiness. For both women reality enters in the form of a new bride whose arrival into the country they watch or anticipate. Mrs. Gale, torn from her fantasy world by the desperate loneliness of the assistant's wife, and forced to acknowledge the false defenses she has built over the years, becomes "furious with that foolish couple who had succeeded in upsetting her and destroying her peace." Julia contemplates the future confinement that Kenneth, oblivious of any injustice, plans for his bride, and says: "I know what evil is."
Space, then, functions in African Stories as a thematic image. Conflicts flare up or smolder not so much between individuals as between "insiders" and "outsiders." The conflicts are expressed in terms of physical and psychological boundaries; that is, in terms of inner space and outer space, whether that space is an area of land or an area of consciousness. Furthermore, Lessing portrays this fragmentation, with its arid, sterile inbreeding, against the vastness and lush fertility of the African landscape. The final effect is more than pathetic irony; it is prophecy. The unresolved endings of most of the stories acknowledge the continuance of a society of closed systems, which must remind the reader of Thomas Pynchon's vision of entropy at work in human society. In her novels Lessing offers hope through various kinds of openness, but in these short stories, her statement is grim indeed.
Source: Patricia Chaffee, "Spatial Patterns and Closed Groups in Lessing's African Stories," in South Atlantic Bulletin, Vol. 43, No. 2, May 1978, pp. 45-52.
Lessing, Doris, "A Mild Attack of Locusts," in The Habit of Loving, Popular Library, 1957, pp. 115-25.
Maslen, Elizabeth, Introduction, in Doris Lessing, Northcote House Publishers, 1994, pp. 1-3.
Moore, Harry T., Preface, in The Novels of Doris Lessing, Southern Illinois University Press, 1973, pp. vii-viii.
Singleton, Mary Ann, Preface, in The City and the Veld: The Fiction of Doris Lessing, Bucknell University Press, 1977, pp. 9-11.
Wines, Michael, "As Inflation Soars, Zimbabwe Economy Plunges," in the New York Times, February 7, 2007.
Fishburn, Katherine, Doris Lessing: Life, Work, and Criticism, York Press, 1987.
Fishburn provides a biography of Lessing as well as essays that explore the role of Lessing's work among other twentieth-century female British authors.
Hill, Geof, Battle for Zimbabwe: The Final Countdown, Struik Publishers, 2005.
Hill interviews the opposing parties in the political struggle for Zimbabwe and provides insider information about the contrasting points of view from both sides, their opinions about the future, and the views of how the international community sees the country and the tasks they need to perform to save Zimbabwe from complete political and economic collapse.
Ingersoll, Earl G, ed., Putting Questions Differently: Interviews with Doris Lessing, 1964-1994, Flamingo, 1996.
Ingersoll has gathered twenty-four interviews that Lessing gave over the course of thirty years. Interviewers include the famed novelist Joyce Carol Oates and the author Studs Terkel. In these interviews, Lessing discusses her life in Africa, her writing, and her views on feminism.
Reader, John, Africa: A Biography of the Continent, Vintage, 1999.
Reader, a photojournalist, has spent much of his life traveling through and studying Africa. In this book, Reader relates the struggles of the people who have lived there, from the early indigenous cultures, through the period of colonization, and up to contemporary political and economic challenges.
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