Lessing, Doris: General Commentary

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SOURCE: Rapping, Elayne Antler. "Unfree Women: Feminism in Doris Lessing's Novels." Women's Studies 3, no. 1 (1975): 29-44.

In the following essay, Rapping explores how Lessing's female protagonists shape feminine identity and experience, especially within the context of a male-dominated society, in The Golden Notebook and Children of Violence.

The men that we call great are those who … have taken the weight of the world upon their shoulders; they have done better or worse, they have succeeded in re-creating it or they have gone down; but first they have assumed that enormous burden. This is what no woman has ever done, what none has ever been able to do. To regard the universe as one's own, to consider oneself to blame for its faults and to glory in its progress, one must belong to the caste of the privileged; it is for those alone who are in command to justify the universe by changing it, by thinking about it, by revealing it; they alone can recognize themselves in it and endeavor to make their mark upon it.…

Simone de Beauvoir

The difference between the "male" approach to art and the "female," is not, as some like to think, simply a difference of "style" in treating the same subject matter … but the very subject matter itself. The sex role system divides human experience; men and women live in these different halves of reality; and culture reflects this.

—Shulamith Firestone

One can hardly think of Doris Lessing without thinking of the issue of feminine art raised in these two statements. For no other novelist has explored so deeply or charted so fully the conflicts and paradoxes of feminine creativity in a male-defined and dominated culture. Indeed, Lessing's two major works epitomize the two conflicting tendencies or demands which women have had to confront and resolve or choose between in their art. On the one hand The Golden Notebook, with its innovative use of diary entries to project the reality of the heroine's subjective inner life, is a nearly pure expression of feminine consciousness, of the need to create a fictional world which honestly reflects the truths of feminine experience as they differ in substance and quality from the male. And on the other hand Children of Violence, modeled after the nineteenth-century epic novels which portrayed the life of a hero against a background of social and historical change, expresses the need to move beyond the limits of subjective feminine consciousness to a perspective which includes and speaks meaningfully to all of human knowledge and experience.

That a single author should, in a single decade, produce two such different works is itself indicative of the ambiguities and conflicts besetting every woman who takes seriously both her art and her feminity. For to create fiction is to be true to one's vision, one's senses, one's experiences; but to be a woman is to be given a very special set of experiences, and thus, a very special kind of vision. It has been the goal of Lessing's career to overcome this paradox, to write seriously about the world of empires and revolutions without denying or compromising her feminity; to incorporate the feminine perspective into the mainstream of literary tradition; to find a place for feminine power and creativity in a world which at best ignores and at worst forbids them.

In pursuing this goal Lessing has considered herself a "humanist" rather than "feminist" writer, in the tradition of the nineteenth-century novel which, for her, marks "the highest point of literature";1 and it was only insofar as she found it impossible, as a woman in the twentieth-century, to preserve and contribute to that tradition that she turned, after completing three volumes of Children of Violence, to the more narrowly feminist and experimental Golden Notebook, in an effort, as she put it, "to express my sense of despair about writing a conventional novel."2 In recognizing and exploring fictionally the roots of her failure, however, she seems to have arrived at a solution to her problem. For The Four-Gated City, the final and most important volume of Children of Violence, is in fact a synthesis of humanism and feminism, convention and experimentation, unlike anything previously written by a man or woman; and the seeds of its brilliance and originality lie in the very flaws which led Lessing temporarily to abandon the series.

To understand this, one need only read through Children of Violence and note the increasingly dramatic conflict between the range and scope of Lessing's political vision and the limitations of her female protagonist. For as Martha Quest moves further from the private world of childhood and adolescence into the public world of politics and society she seems to dwindle before our very eyes, becoming smaller and less significant with each succeeding volume as the forces of history grow larger, more complex and more menacing, until at last she is stripped of her autonomy, her powers of rational action, her very status as a heroine, proving once and for all that there can be no female heroes in a male world, at least not in the conventional sense of heroism.



In a world of peoples trying to free themselves, no one is more aware than Doris Lessing of the ironies implicit in her choice of the words "Free Women" to describe the condition of the heroines in The Golden Notebook. If these women are "free" of marriage, they are still bound to men, whether current or ex-lovers or ex-husbands in the flesh or in memories of the flesh. If they are "free" to work at politics or a profession, they are bound, as divorced women, also to raise children without husbands. Most of all, if they are "free" to function as money-earning heads of households, they are also bound both biologically and culturally to their female functions. As heterosexual women, they are sexually dependent on men. They are also bound by biological as well as cultural drives to child-bearing and motherhood. Hence, the "free" woman is free only in a most limited sense. She is free to choose between her divided selves: free to attempt the "precarious balance" of living with both of them; free to be "female" or to be a "free woman." Finally, free comes to mean divided. The free woman divided, in Mrs. Lessing's novels, suffers most from a feeling of failure.

Howe, Florence. "Doris Lessing's Free Women." The Nation 200, no. 2 (11 January 1965).

Lessing triumphs over this conflict not by resolving it but by yielding to it, for it is just this traditional sense of individual heroism which she finally and ingeniously abandons in The Four-Gated City, but only after thoroughly exploring the implications of Martha's failure to be a heroine in an anti-novel about an anti-heroine. For if Children of Violence was to have been "a study of the individual conscience in its relations with the collective,"3 a feminine contribution to the great tradition of nineteenth-century humanism, The Golden Notebook is a nightmare version of the same theme, a self-mocking caricature of the individual conscience trapped within itself in which the very concept of "the collective" is either meaningless or terrifying. Anna Wulf, the anti-heroine, is a former political activist and novelist now paralyzed by a sense of impotence and futility. Like her creator, she "suffers torments of dissatisfaction and incompletion" because she is "incapable of writing … a book powered with an intellectual or moral passion strong enough to create order, to create a new way of looking at life."4 ("I'm tormented by the inadequacy of the imagination … the conflict between my life as a writer and the terrors of our time," said Lessing recently, but although "I feel the writer is obligated to dramatize the political conflicts of the time … I am unable to embody my political vision in a novel."5) Psychologically blocked, politically disillusioned, abandoned by her lover, Anna retreats into the privacy of the four personal diaries which symbolize her life, and the four walls which she covers with news clippings to symbolize the world outside herself as perceived and interpreted through an isolated feminine intelligence. She approaches the brink of madness but returns, in the end, to care for her child, take a job as a social worker and complete the novel she had abandoned when she began her notebooks.

The conflicts in the novel and in Anna's life are thus resolved, but the resolution is anti-climactic. For the fruits of Anna's (and Lessing's) heroic quest into the unexplored depths of feminine existence remain trapped in the privacy of the diaries, cannot be expressed in the public form of the novel. This ironic truth is at the heart of the structure of The Golden Notebook which is based on a constant interplay between the diary entries, which are the bulk of the text, and the novel-within-a-novel, ironically entitled "Free Women," which Anna finally produces out of the material of the diaries, and which serves as a structural framework enclosing and integrating the various notebook sections.

There are, then, two novels in The Golden Notebook, two models or images of reality, which remain separate and distinct. On the one hand the diaries, full of details and daydreams, chaotic patches of thought and feeling, shifting roles and relationships, great and small things thrown willy-nilly together, insights which connect to nothing, fantasies and rages which find no outlet or expression; and on the other hand "Free Women," the slight, shallow narrative of acts and events which progresses from beginning to end, from conflict to resolution, flattening and distorting all the rest into a predictably if superficially comforting pattern.

To those for whom The Golden Notebook has been an important personal and literary experience there can be no doubt of the significance of those disconnected bits and pieces of feminine existence which comprise Anna's diaries. But for Lessing, primarily committed to traditional fiction, the problem still remains: how to integrate the world of the diaries into that other world of the novel. The Golden Notebook failed to solve the problem because it was too much a statement of it. In focusing so intensely on the heroine's personal failures it revealed the complex web of psychological, cultural and historical forces which trap and isolate us, and the inadequacies of conventional fiction which necessarily falsifies and omits so much of life. But because it stopped there, because the richness of Anna's inner life was balanced by nothing in the public life she finally accepted or the public work she finally accomplished, it was an ultimately frustrating and even misleading work. Personal relationships, Lessing seemed to be saying, are indeed false and mutually destructive, yet one must get on with the painful job of raising children; meaningful work is indeed nonexistent, yet one must plod on hypocritically at some pointless or even harmful job; novels are indeed lies, yet one must trudge on with the impossible job of saying what cannot be said in a form which simplifies to a point of absurdity. Why must one? Why not go the more interesting routes of violence or madness, destroying the world or escaping from it into private fantasy?

The problem, thus posed, is a false one, for it assumes what Lessing has never assumed: the primacy of the individual life, of personal fulfillment and happiness. It is this implicit focus on personal problems and solutions which Lessing regrets, for she has no patience with modern writers who project themselves into the center of the universe, making of the artist, with his heightened self-awareness and sensibility, a contemporary hero. "Ever since I started writing I've wondered why the artist himself has become a mirror of society … (why) now almost every novelist writes about himself," she said in a recent interview. And of her own career: "Since writing The Golden Notebook I've become less personal. I've floated away from the personal."6

This process of "floating away from the personal" could describe the development of the entire Children of Violence series. But where, in the early volumes, the effect was negative, leaving a vacuum where the noble heroes and powerful deeds should have been, in the volumes written after The Golden Notebook, and particularly The Four-Gated City, the opposite is true. For in plunging so far into the personal mode Lessing discovered a way to get beyond it to the kind of collective social novel written by her nineteenth-century idols, without giving up the twentieth-century truths, revealed in The Golden Notebook, which rendered their particular forms obsolete.

And even more interesting, although less apparent, she has managed, in giving up the personal focus of The Golden Notebook, to preserve and even heighten the feminist consciousness which so enriched and illuminated it. For although Martha Quest, by this fifth volume, is bereft of all personal ambition and autonomy and reduced to a mere appendage of the household of Mark Cold-ridge, in relation to whom she functions in the most traditionally feminine and subservient roles; if we take our cue from Lessing and "float away from the personal" to a more general, historical perspective, we find in Martha a startlingly original image of feminine heroism, which goes beyond the exceptional woman usually found in books dealing with history, whether fiction or non-fiction, to include all the women who have anonymously contributed to the progress and civilization of the race. For if women have not often been among the powerful and famous of history, the reason, as a recent study of feminine history points out, is that:

the prevailing notion of what makes things historically noteworthy excludes women by definition. To put it another way, the things that have usually been considered to constitute feminity, and which women have pressed so hard to conform to, are precisely those things that remove women from the political arena. Although the image of feminity has changed significantly in some ways, in one dimension it has remained the same: what is feminine is almost antithetical to what is powerful. Yet history is made, after all, by the powerful. Since women have had neither political nor economic nor military power, obviously they did not make history and obviously they are not in history books.7

And yet, collectively, women have had an enormous, if indirect influence on history and have at the very least contributed their labors and services to making male enterprises possible. For this reason women have a right to ask, as they are beginning to, "Where were the women when this was going on?" This is precisely the question Lessing asks in The Four-Gated City, and the answers she gives are more than informative.

At the beginning of the novel, when Martha, newly arrived in London, drifts from street to street preserving her anonymity and rejecting the various limiting and defining roles offered her, she has the following thought:

Iris, Joe's mother, had lived in this street since she was born. Put her brain together with the other million brains, women's brains, that recorded in such tiny loving detail the histories of window-sills, skins of paint, replaced curtains and salvaged baulks of timber, there would be a recording instrument, a sort of six-dimensional map which included the histories and lives and loves of people, London—a section map in depth. This is where London exists, in the minds of people who have lived in such and such a street since they were born, and passing a baulk of timber remember, smiling, how it came rolling up out of the Thames on that Thursday afternoon it was raining, to lie on a pavement until it became the spine of a stairway—and then the bomb fell.8

And the rest of the book, from the point when Martha drifts as if inevitably into the Coldridge household and takes a position which eventually includes the entire spectrum of feminine roles and responsibilities, is the working out of this idea. For Lessing takes the stuff of male history, the public world of deeds and events, and over a period of more than half a century filters them through the veil of feminine sensibility, producing a multi-dimensional vision, or perhaps revision, of history in which women emerge as collective heroines, molding, preserving and interpreting the forms of life which make history possible.

Lessing's technique in accomplishing this is particularly interesting and daring, for from the moment Martha enters the house she is almost entirely imprisoned within it. Years and decades go by as she fulfills her household duties, thickening and graying with age and inertia as the world goes by her heavily draped windows, venturing outside to see the sky, the water, the rapidly and ominously changing landscape of advanced technological society only on the rarest and most routinely feminine occasions: to shop, attend a party, consult a doctor. And yet all of the social and technological changes taking place outside are reflected in the life of the house, and experienced and interpreted by Martha as she copes with their concrete, often dramatic effects on the personal lives of those she cares for. In this way the major events and eras of the late twentieth-century are filtered through and reconstructed by a feminine awareness of the details, the trivia of day-to-day life. What did the fifties feel like to people? What was the quality of life as lived then? Martha tells us first with sensory details: the look and smell of rooms; the shabby ornateness of "good" restaurants; the timid tastefulness of "the black dress worn with pearls"; the sweet gummy "nursery puddings" called by French names; all of this is recorded. And as the fifties drift into the sixties and toward the seventies, the sweep of history is made concrete and vivid in the changing shapes, colors, and textures of clothing, food, hairstyles. Rosy cheeks disappear under masks of ghostlike pallor; plump, dowdy women become fashionably angular and wraithlike; thick sauces give way to delicate wines; pale cashmeres and dark tweeds, to startling silks and satins draped and gathered into desperate, half-mad mimicries of a romantically imagined past.

And it is not only the trivia of fashion and atmosphere which Martha captures and records. The Coldridge house also absorbs and reflects the political upheavals of the times. The fear and hysteria of the cold war are objectified in the grim pathos of an abandoned child's birthday party rather than the headline event of which it is a minor by-product: the defection of a famous, wellborn scientist, Colin Coldridge, to Soviet Russia. Throughout this traumatic period Martha remains inside the besieged house, playing the role of housekeeper and surrogate mother, guarding the kitchen door against voracious newsmen grabbing after any bits of privacy which may be deemed worthy of elevation to the public domain.

There is some truth in one reviewer's claim that the style of this novel:

is like that of an unskilled letter writer who feels he has to report everything: this happened and then that; Lynda came home from the hospital but had to go back and we had a big party and that night Colin defected to Russia so Sally killed herself and then we spent hours and hours arguing about Communism.

But although "the only ordering principle," is, as she says, "chronological, and even chronology gets swamped in the helter-skelter rush of large and small events," this is not the result of Less-ing's "failure to select and focus."9 On the contrary, she has selected very carefully, for each small event and each minor detail foreshadow and forewarn of more general, often devastating ramifications. The small boy abandoned by his parents in the fifties becomes one of an army of young men and women whose attitudes and actions define and mold the sixties and seventies. One could, as Martha suggests, "do" the great peace marches of the sixties by "talking to people under twenty-one," and finding out "that there was no person there whose conception, babyhood, childhood or youth had not been 'disturbed',"10 by the last war. Thus the seeds of massive change are discovered in seemingly insignificant events apparent only to those, like Martha, who attend to details, preparing meals, making up guest rooms, tending to those nondescript souls whose presence no one else seems to notice. In this way women emerge as the guardians and interpreters of the common life, the maintainers of its order, pattern and meaning; for it is women who provide the glue of compassion and continuity without which men could not function and children could not replace them.

In Landlocked, the previous volume of Children of Violence, Martha had a recurrent dream of a house:

with half a dozen different rooms in it, and she, Martha, (the person who held things together, who watched, who must preserve wholeness through a time of dryness and disintegration) moved from one room to the next, on guard … her role in life, for this period, was to walk like a housekeeper in and out of rooms, but the people in the rooms could not meet each other or understand each other and Martha must not expect them to.11

And this image becomes the controlling metaphor for The Four-Gated City as the symbolic house of Martha's dreams is transformed into the reality of the Coldridge house with its many storeys, each the setting for a unique area of experience and activity; its many rooms, each enclosing the private life of a unique and separate person. Martha plays the multi-faceted archetypal female role women always play in the privacy of such houses: she holds things together when they threaten to disintegrate; keeps things apart when they threaten to destroy each other; adds to things which are inadequate or incomplete; absorbs or disposes of things which have become excessive. When the house becomes shabby she orders repairs; when Mark's work bogs down she contributes her knowledge and experience to his projects; when children are incompatible she arranges a vacation or change of school; when someone approaches violence or madness she holds on to them, sharing and absorbing some of their destructive energy.

The house thus becomes a microcosm of the larger society in which the polarization of sexes, generations, classes creates a perpetual state of tension and warfare within and between people. But the tension and warfare of family life produce different effects on different characters, and because these differences are determined to a great extent by sex, Martha, a woman as well as the custodian of the common life, relates to and participates in the world of female experience and activity somewhat differently from the male. This is not apparent or even true in the early sections of the novel, for although Martha fulfills a classically feminine role as Mark's secretary, she is occupied for the most part with his literary and political projects, and since she is clearly more experienced and sophisticated than he in both areas, he seems, to the reader if not himself, to be totally dependent upon her. But as time passes and the characters grow older, Martha shifts her interests and activities first to the world of the children, and then, as they grow up and leave home, to the woman's world of Mark's wife, Lynda, and her friends. And in the course of this process the profound differences between the conditions and experiences of adults and children, and more importantly, men and women, are gradually revealed. All are trapped; all are children of violence brought up and molded in an atmosphere of physical and psychic brutality and conflict; all have made more or less crippling adjustments, devised more or less successful strategies for survival; and all entertain fantasies of escape; but only the men have been able to transform their fantasies into concrete public projects for which they are rewarded. Mark's political concerns are translated first into novels, and later into an international network of rescue projects modeled after his lifelong fantasy of an early, idyllic England. Martha's friend Jack, who retreats into a private world of sexual preoccupation, transforms his self-indulgence into a thriving business, recruiting and training young women to act out his fantasies in dreamlike settings designed and built by him; and even the strangely one-dimensional scientist, Jimmy Wood, who seems to have no grasp on human reality, finds outlets for his madly dehumanized fantasies, first in the machines he invents, and later in the science fiction novels he creates. Politics, art, business, all are available to men, and as society loses its bearings and plunges toward self-annihilation, the general madness is reflected more and more in the madness, perversion and violence expressed and perpetrated by men of power and genius.

But for women, with rare exceptions, there is only the home, the finite set of walls, doors and windows in which they are caged. They too long for escape but for them the only free space is inner space, mental space, and for this reason many, like Lynda, who will not or cannot function as wives, mothers and housekeepers, retreat into a private world of dreams and fantasies and are labelled clinically insane. Most of the women in the book go through periods of insanity, suffer "breakdowns," are treated by psychiatrists; most of the men do not. And the reasons are connected with the very different roles and settings into which men and women are placed.12 For women are not only locked into rooms and houses, deprived of publicly valued work and denied space in which to create and produce for their own satisfaction; they are also the receptacles of all the psychic and emotional tension which the male world creates but will not acknowledge or deal with. Thus the very concept of madness with all its embarrassing paraphernalia: voices, visions, hysteria, delusion, is connected with and grows logically out of the feminine condition. Lynda, threatened by and therefore highly attuned to the unspoken tensions between her parents, and later between her father, his fiancée and herself, begins to hear their voices, to pick up their thoughts. And Martha herself, caring for the troubled, often fearful Coldridge children, similarly begins to pick up thoughts, receiving emotional vibrations from those around her. Going "up the stairs, through a house separated with the people who inhabited it, into areas or climates, each with its own feel, or sense of individuality," Martha thinks:

what an extraordinary business it is, being a middle-aged person in a family; like being a kind of special instrument sensitised to mood and need and state. For, approaching Paul, one needed this degree of attention; approaching Francis, that one; and for Lynda and for Mark quite different switches or gauges set themselves going, but automatically.

And simultaneously, as she thinks this, she notes the fraying carpet, the poorly varnished banister, and reflecting on her many roles and responsibilities, she sees a connection between the physical condition of the house, its emotional climate, and, by extension, the climate of the entire society. She sees herself "a mass of fragments, or facets, or bits of mirror reflecting qualities embodied in other people," and standing in the central stairway, surrounded by the many closed rooms, she feels "no centre in the house, nothing to hold it together." It too is "a mass of small separate things, surfaces, shapes, all needing different attention.… This was the real truth of what went on not only here but everywhere: everything declined, and frayed and came to pieces in one's hand.…"And she, a woman, is the "deputy in the centre of the house, the person who runs things, keeps things going, conducts a holding operation, in a perpetual battle with details."13

One could say that Martha and Lynda, sharing a house, supporting and learning from each other, are both aspects of Anna Wulf, at once drawn to madness and driven by responsibility, forced to choose or alternate between internal and external reality, a private or a shared life. But in The Four-Gated City Lessing gets beyond the either/or aspect of the problem by placing the themes and images of the earlier work in a broader fictional framework, expanding the boundaries of space, time and even human perception so all become aspects and units of a continuous collective experience. Images of isolation and fragmentation—notebooks, diaries, newspaper clippings tacked on walls, lists, maps, bare rooms enclosing and isolating individual souls—all are as abundant and important in The Four-Gated City as The Golden Notebook, but they are less frightening, less confining because they are not metaphors for individual situations requiring individual, immediate solutions. Anna, for example, could only escape her self-imposed exile into an inner world of notebooks and clippings through a personal, sexual relationship which drew her outside herself and catalyzed her into writing the fifth, liberating "golden notebook" which synthesized and transcended the other four. But the key to Mark Coldridge's escape from his four private clipping-covered walls is less personal and more cosmic; instead of a fifth notebook he creates, with the help of the others in the house, a "fifth wall" covered with clippings and reports of apparently mysterious technological and administrative accidents which "represented Factor X; that absolutely obvious, out-in-the-open, there-for-everybody-to-see fact which nobody was seeing yet,"14 and a symbol of a growing collective awareness of and effort to interpret and control the destructive patterns and forces of contemporary history before they reach their inevitable apocalyptic conclusion. And Mark's room, unlike Anna's, is only one of many such rooms kept by similarly minded people throughout the world and over the years, slowly evolving and changing to fit the changes in world affairs and the development of human insight.

There is, then, an ultimate sense of things fitting together here, given time and collective effort, both of which were noticeably lacking in The Golden Notebook, and this movement toward connection and integration is most fully symbolized in the images of houses which absorb and replace the isolated rooms of the earlier work. For although the Coldridge house and Martha's role within it replace Anna's single room as the metaphorical center of The Four-Gated City, neither it nor she are as essential to its structure. The house represents open rather than closed space, and when it crumbles and Martha herself dies, the process of holding together, of connection and expansion of relationships and experiences continues. For both Martha and the house embody impersonal, timeless qualities in people and the structures they build to contain their lives.

Martha, and indeed all the women in the novel, are thus part of a collective feminine identity which transcends individual personalities and time periods, as it progresses from room to room, from house to house, from generation to generation; and it is one of Martha's functions, as observer and interpreter of life, to notice and comment upon this fact. The hostility she feels toward Patty, for example, a Communist Party official with whom Mark has an affair during his "political phase," is resolved when Martha realizes in a dream that Patty represents one of her own former selves; and even her long-despised mother is acknowledged and integrated into Martha's self-image as she finds herself helplessly drawn into the maternal role of antagonist and enemy by Phoebe Coldridge's adolescent daughters. This sense of a common identity among increasingly numerous and diverse characters permeates the book so that at last there are no unique personalities, only personality traits common to many people in a particular historical and biological situation; and no personally generated thoughts, acts or creations, only collectively engendered and expressed ideas and projects. ("Now, when I start writing," says Lessing, "I ask, who is thinking the same thought? Where are the other people who are like me? I don't believe anymore that I have a thought. There is a thought around.")15

Roles and relationships shift and change as the characters move through their various phases and levels of experience and insight, and these shifting human relationships are analogous to the physical process of change, growth and evolution described by Rachel Carson in the passage which heads the first section of the book. Carson speaks of:

a continuing change now actually in progress … brought about by the life processes of living things.… Under the bridge a green mangrove seedling floats, long and slender, one end already beginning to show the development of roots.… Over the years the mangroves bridge the water gaps between the islands; they extend the mainland; they create new islands. And the currents that stream under the bridge, carrying mangrove seedlings, are one with the currents that carry plankton to the coral animals building the offshore reef, creating a wall of rocklike solidity, a wall that one day may be added to the mainland.16

And in the same way Lessing's characters represent a process of evolving change taking place in human history which cannot be discovered through an individualistic perspective, but can only emerge from a perspective of detachment and distance from personal, immediate facts. Nor can the nature of this evolutionary process be understood in the context of traditional western thought (which is de facto male thought). For the revolutionary development Lessing prophesies (and she has called The Four-Gated City a "prophetic novel"), is more than merely physical, historical, technological; it is most profoundly a revolution in consciousness, in sensibility, and it is fitting that she should choose the metaphors and images to express it, first, from the scientific works of a woman whose poetically expressed theories have never been fully accepted by the orthodox scientific establishment; and second, from the literature of mysticism, a tradition even less respected and respectable, even more associated in the western mind with things feminine: that is to say, irrational, insignificant, romantic, poetic, queer. For the world of religious cults, of mysticism and astrology, is a feminine world peopled by the most outcast, lonely, alienated of women; by those whose mental desperation Anna Wulf recognized but didn't quite share; by women like Lynda who, left out of the serious traditions and projects of western society, form a subculture coming together in mental hospitals, at seances, at horoscope readings, to share the secret knowledge and intuition for which they are branded mad. This is the subculture into which Martha finally moves, learning from Lynda and her friends the deep symbolic truths and connecting links available to those who give up the privileges of sanity to believe in and follow their inner voices and visions.

Lessing sums up this startling philosophical turnabout, whereby the mad become sane and the sane suicidally mad, in the passage from the mystical tales of the Sufis which heads the final apocalyptic section of the novel:

Sufis believe that, expressed in one way, humanity is evolving towards a certain destiny. We are all taking part in that evolution. Organs come into being as a result of a need for specific organs. The human being's organism is producing a new complex of organs in response to such a need. In this age of the transcending of time and space, the complex of organs is concerned with the transcending of time and space. What ordinary people regard as sporadic and occasional bursts of telepathic and prophetic power are seen by the Sufi as nothing less than the first stirrings of these same organs. The difference between all evolution up to date and the present need for evolution is that for the past ten thousand years or so we have been given the possibility of a conscious evolution. So essential is this more ratified evolution that our future depends on it.17

What is implied in this passage, and there is no mistake about it, is that western civilization as we have known it has been a half-crazed nightmare dreamed up by blind and one-eyed leaders and wise men who, having "rationally" and scientifically done away with most human values, are about to blow us all to smithereens unless we wake up and recognize our salvation in the rantings and ravings of the mad; of those despised, wretched, irrational souls who, having no investment in things as they are, can reject the conventions of "reality" and open themselves to a radically new consciousness. It is Lynda of course who symbolizes this new kind of savior, this prophet without honor, as she quite literally makes possible the survival of the human race by foreseeing, in one of her mad visions, the bleak and frozen English landscape in the aftermath of the technological holocaust destined to erupt in the civilized world; and convincing first Martha and then her son Francis in time to insure the escape and survival of colonies of human exiles.

At this point, as may be (perhaps alarmingly) apparent, the novel drifts off into what can only be described as science fiction. Lessing's interest in and incorporation of the themes and techniques of science fiction as a way of renewing the possibility of narrative fiction, of the creation of novels in which the human past, present and imagined future fit coherently and plausibly together, is a subject for another and probably longer essay. For now it is sufficient to say that Lessing has done this, that she has integrated the visions of Jimmy Wood, clinically sane and by worldly standards successful as a scientist and science fiction writer, but in a deeper sense quite deranged; and Lynda Coldridge, clinically mad and by worldly standards wholly incompetent, but in the deepest sense rational, insightful, endowed with visionary wisdom and knowledge; and merged them, producing a work as vast and sweeping as any of Tolstoy's or Stendhal's, in which the heroes are women, common women, madwomen, women doing what women have always done, and at last being named and credited for it.


  1. "A small personal voice," Declaration, Tom Maschler (Ed.), (New York, 1958), 188.
  2. Florence Howe, "Talk with Doris Lessing," Nation, 204 (March 6, 1967), 311.
  3. "A small personal voice," 196.
  4. The Golden Notebook (New York, 1962), 59.
  5. Jonah Raskin, "Doris Lessing at Stony Brook: An interview," New American Review, 8 (January, 1970), 174.
  6. Ibid., 173.
  7. Linda Gordon, "Sexism in American Historiography" (Unpublished paper presented to the American Historical Association, December, 1971. Mimeographed), 31.
  8. The Four-Gated City (New York, 1969), 10.
  9. Elizabeth Dalton, Review of The Four-Gated City, Commentary, 44 (January, 1970), 86.
  10. The Four-Gated City, 395.
  11. Landlocked (New York, 1965), 15.
  12. Lessing's most recent novel, Briefing for a Descent into Hell (New York, 1970), does in fact portray a male protagonist in the role of visionary madman, but this simply emphasizes Lessing's primary commitment to a "humanist" rather than "feminist" point of view, her determination to give universal meaning to her insights (many of which, as The Four-Gated City makes clear, grew out of her experiences as a woman) into the nature of contemporary madness. She succeeds at the expense of all sexual and cultural implication, however, creating, I think, a far weaker, less compelling work than any of her earlier ones.
  13. The Four-Gated City, 335-337.
  14. Ibid., 414.
  15. Raskin, 173.
  16. The Four-Gated City, 2.
  17. Ibid., 426.


SOURCE: Krouse, Agate Nesaule. "Doris Lessing's Feminist Plays." World Literature Written in English 15, no. 2 (November 1976): 305-22.

In the following essay, Krouse asserts that Lessing's plays Each His Own Wilderness and Play with a Tiger are "essential to understanding precisely the feminism of Doris Lessing."


Critics of Doris Lessing's work have concentrated primarily on her fiction. Her novels, especially The Golden Notebook and the Children of Violence series, have received careful attention. Her numerous short stories have been discussed less frequently.1 Even in the absence of a vast body of critical material explicating every aspect of her fiction, however, it is nevertheless widely read, taught, and discussed. With a few minor exceptions, all of Lessing's fiction is easily available in the United States.2

Her plays, however, remain unknown to many admirers of her work, largely because of realities of publication. Two have been discussed only briefly by specialists in contemporary theater, but have never been published and probably will not be since Lessing considers them "dead ducks" and "dated."3Each His Own Wilderness and Play with a Tiger, however, were published in England about the time of their first performances.4 While first editions may be difficult to obtain, both plays are currently available in paperback anthologies.5

Each His Own Wilderness and Play with a Tiger have important parallels to Lessing's fiction, even as they underline her versatility. Both are essential to understanding precisely the feminism of Doris Lessing, who has expressed disappointment that her work has been considered in the context of Women's Liberation.6 Both raise significant feminist issues, but differ markedly in their ways of doing so. While Play with a Tiger is occasionally strident and narrow, it can enlarge our appreciation of Lessing's other work, particularly The Golden Notebook. Each His Own Wilderness, on the other hand, presents a radical and convincing view of the oppression and liberation of women. It is, in fact, Lessing's A Doll's House. Both plays are interesting examples of literary feminism, and they also speak powerfully to Lessing's common reader, "… the Marthas of this world [who] read and search with the craving thought, What does this say about my life?"7


Play with a Tiger, first produced in 1962, shows one evening in the life of Anna Freeman, an Australian-born widowed writer living in London. In the course of the play, she breaks off her engagement to Tom Lattimer, who is on the point of conforming to middle class values; she talks to Harry, a friend strikingly similar to other philanderers created by Lessing such as Graham Spence in "One Off the Short List" and Richard Portmain in The Golden Notebook; she receives a visit from Janet Stevens, a naive young American woman, pregnant by Dave Miller; she talks intensely and intimately with Dave himself, a rootless American, and she recognizes that although she loves him and although they both understand each other and contemporary society, Dave is nevertheless walking out of her life and into marriage with Janet Stevens.

Play with a Tiger has a direct relationship to the Anna/Saul sections of The Golden Notebook. Anna Freeman, the name of the protagonist in the play, is also the "maiden" name of Anna Wulf, the protagonist in the novel. Dave and Saul, political and disillusioned Americans, have similarities too numerous to list, including a driving indiscriminate sexuality they discuss in slightly off-key American slang. In both works, Anna describes a dream about a tiger in almost identical terms.8 Lessing herself has explicitly indicated the closeness of the play and the novel. After Anna in The Golden Notebook has the dream about the tiger, she thinks to herself, "I must write a play about Anna and Saul and the tiger."9 And so we have a play by Doris Lessing about Anna and Dave and the tiger. Although Lessing has been justifiably annoyed by commentators who have regarded The Golden Notebook as primarily autobiographical, the very existence of Play with a Tiger suggests an especially close relationship between the sensibilities of author and character in the novel.

Play with a Tiger develops some of the same themes and situations as The Golden Notebook, though more simply and briefly because of dramatic requirements. One of the major themes in The Golden Notebook is that modern experience is chaotic, fragmentary and painful, yet acceptance of this truth can lead to new strength and creativity. The dialogue and staging of Play with a Tiger stress the value and necessity of openness to all kinds of experience. Dave insists that Anna leave the window open, that she not shut herself up against anything, no matter how painful or squalid.10 Although deeply disappointed in himself, Dave isolates the value of living the way he and Anna have: they have always been ready for "anything new in the world anywhere, any new thought, or new way of living,… ready to hear the first whisper of it" (II.60-61). The unrealistic staging also emphasizes their openness; it underlines that they are very much part of the world that surrounds them rather than protected by slogans or self-created isolation. "The lights are out. The walls seem to have vanished, so that the room seems part of the street" (II.37).

The central symbol in the play, the tiger, stresses the power of imagination and the value of openness to experience as well. Both Dave and Anna despair because of their inability to imagine something better than themselves "to grow into" (II.61). Only once has Anna had a vision of something other than herself, an "enormous, glossy padding tiger" who "purred so loud that the sound drowned the noise of the traffic" (II.61-62). The tiger lashed out at Anna, so that she was covered with blood," … he stared and he glared, and then he was off.… Then I heard the keepers shouting after him and wheeling along a great cage.… That was the best I could do. I tried hard, but that was the best—a tiger. And I'm covered with scars" (II.62).

The tiger of Anna's imagination has some obvious literary parallels: as a representative of awesome power he is reminiscent of the tiger in Blake's poem; as a portent of a terrifying future, he is similar to the "vast image out of Spiritus Mundi," the "shape with lion body and the head of a man" of "The Second Coming." He represents both the power and the limitations of the human imagination. On the one hand, he is beautiful and powerful and he purrs loud enough to drown out the traffic; he represents an escape from the ugliness and loneliness of everyday existence, not by excluding all experience but by admitting it on a different level of one's mind. On the other hand, he is vicious without provocation: in The Golden Notebook, the scars he gives in the dream are impermanent since Anna sees her arm is either not hurt at all or has already healed; in Play with a Tiger, however, Anna is "covered with scars" from her encounter with him. The tiger is also only momentarily free and wild before the keepers shut him in a cage. He is really no improvement over the human race: he is neither morally better nor existentially freer. He differs from "the golden spotted beast" who appears "as if … in a country where hostility or dislike had not yet been born" in Lessing's Briefing for a Descent into Hell. 11 The tiger is, finally, a symbol of the male, who maims and hurts, but whose beauty and momentary freedom are desirable nevertheless. Even more specifically, he is Dave Miller.

Considered as a companion piece to The Golden Notebook, Play with a Tiger underlines the richness of the novel. The Golden Notebook is an important treatment of the experience of modern women largely because it fully and specifically deals not only with their personal, but also their political, intellectual, and artistic commitments and problems. Necessarily narrower in scope, Play with a Tiger concentrates on the personal instead. Furthermore, Play with a Tiger indirectly underscores how crucial is Anna's and Saul's mutual descent into madness in The Golden Notebook, how the crackup restores sanity and creativity. Lessing has written that, "… nobody so much as noticed this central theme, because the book was instantly belittled … as being about the sex war, or was claimed by women as a useful weapon in the sex war."12Play with a Tiger, however, is about the sex war, and it dramatizes fully the blows struck in it.

But the sex war as presented by Lessing in Play with a Tiger is not entirely convincing, partly because dramatic form demands simplicity and partly because she relies excessively on stereotypes she uses with greater tact elsewhere. The monogamous female, the victim of male faithlessness or unfairness, appears in much that Lessing has written. So does the philandering male. He knows he causes women pain, but he refuses to change. He is usually dishonest, unfaithful, hypocritical, sentimental, unjust, or even all of these things. Contrasted to the women in the same work, he is arat.13 While the view that women are morally better than men has been held by some feminists, it does violence to individuals, it is the basis of the double standard, and it can also limit the power of literature.

In Play with a Tiger, as in much of Lessing's work, marriage and other arrangements with men hold disadvantages for women. A repeatedly made, bitter criticism of female-male relationships here is that men successfully use clichés about women to evade their human responsibilities. Although his wife is "cracking up" as a result of his current affair, Harry has the "much used formula" that she likes weak men, that he can't help himself, and that she doesn't really mind his affair (I.19-20). Dave Miller, in spite of his contempt for slogans, holds the trite but comfortable belief that women are tougher than men (III.69-70) and that they don't need to take men seriously if they have children (III.70).

There are no exceptions to the rule that men are unfair to women in their behavior and assumptions. In this way Play with a Tiger differs from Each His Own Wilderness where at least one male character, Mike, is a good human being. Anna accuses both Tom and Dave of an unfairness similar to Harry's, and there is no evidence she is wrong. Tom has made callous use of women [sexually] (I.23). Anna predicts that Dave when married will behave exactly like Harry: when his wife turns into a boring housewife with no choice but to stay married, he will have a succession of affairs, confess them to his wife, and even use her forgiveness as an added attraction to other women (I.20-21). Dave dishonestly uses one woman to keep free of others. Like the other men he expects his infidelity to be accepted as a matter of course. He aggressively asserts his independence: he is not going to be "any woman's pet" and he is not going to live "according to the rules laid down by the incorporated mothers of the universe" (I.32-33). He also cheerfully accepts the fact women have to suffer: he tells Anna mockingly, "Women always have to pay—and may it long remain that way" (I.35).

Faced with dishonesty and philandering—two characteristics all males in the play possess—a woman just can't win. Marriage, by its very nature, makes women dull, which in turn causes male unfaithfulness and the end of meaningful choice for women. It does not matter what kind of individual a woman is—she is likely to suffer at the hands of men. The philandering males cause pain to their housewifely wives, but they are even more destructive to women who have independence, intelligence, and integrity. Bored by stupid and dull women, they nevertheless are also unfaithful to women who could understand them and with whom they could have real intimacy. Janet Stevens, the pregnant young American woman who is so severely limited in insight she can only talk in awkward slogans, rather than Anna, gets Dave. Janet's values are much inferior to Anna's, who passionately wants an honest relationship with a man, and if she cannot have that, would rather be alone than compromise and accept the kind of self-deception and bitterness her parents had. Janet's values are also different from and inferior to the values of openness and sensitivity held by Dave and explicitly endorsed by the play as a whole.

The bitterest irony is that although men may verbally subscribe to advanced ideas about women, they nevertheless choose the limited and stupid ones. Dave recognizes Janet's limitations perfectly, and he has also repeatedly lectured to Anna that women should be independent; yet he concedes that "some of the time" he can't take women who live without "dishonest female ruses" (III.78-79). Anna is bitterly aware that although she and Dave share the same ethical concerns, he will choose Janet. Women, on the other hand, have more integrity in making their choices. As Anna remarks early in the play, "Perhaps she [Mary] prefers to be sex-starved than to [sic] marry an idiot. Which is more than can be said about most men" (I.23). Anna herself does not get what she wants: "Any man I have stays with me, voluntarily, because he wants to, without ties" (II.48). She suffers, but she does retain her integrity.

Dave, however, in spite of his bitter and convincing understanding of the shortcomings of conventional life generally and Janet specifically, does the most conventional of things: he does right by the girl he has gotten pregnant. While one could expect predictable reactions from Tom and Harry (i.e., every Tom, Dick, and Harry) Dave is clearly meant to be exceptional. All the values of this play and all of Dave's angry insights are violated by his decision to marry Janet. Furthermore, this decision makes Play with a Tiger extremely one-sided. In it, males use clichés or accept stereotypes about women when it is to their advantage to do so, even though their preconceptions are clearly wrong. On the other hand, although women, too, believe a number of trite things about men, these beliefs do not wound men, in spite of the fact that the structure of the play establishes that the female views are an accurate way of seeing reality.

Lessing's excessive reliance on the stereotype of men as dishonest and faithless makes the play disunified and limited. The first and simplest problem is the discrepancy in Dave's characterization, which is related to the question of how one is to regard the thematic values endorsed in the play. Dave's decision to marry Janet is unbelievable on a realistic level. He has slept with women and left them before. He has not reflected, as Anna insists that he should, what happens to those women and what his responsibility is. He has been unquestionably courageous politically. He is aware of the meaninglessness of conventional life and of marriage to a stupid woman. Such a man, realistically, would not suddenly marry a silly young pregnant woman from Philadelphia just because she happens to cry on the phone—especially since he has not had other powerful forces of society marshalled against him. No rich daddy has appeared with threats or bribes, no dispassionate advocate has convinced him that responsibility to an individual woman is part of responsibility to the whole human race or that his failure to do his duty would make his statements about society hypocritical. His abrupt decision is totally unmotivated.

That in itself would not matter so much, if it did not raise a more serious problem. Are we to regard Dave as a hypocrite, a label that fits perfectly the other two men who behave like him? That implied answer provides an easy way out of the discrepancy in characterization, yet it does not work. Dave so obviously means it when he says society stinks and that he doesn't want to be part of it. He has not been spouting advanced social ideas while secretly longing for the safety of marriage. But how seriously can one take his ideas, or his tormented longing for personal goodness, if the only real decision he has to make shows that he behaves according to the fact that he is male—in Lessing's definition here—rather than human? In other words, she has developed a character who is interesting from an aesthetic, philosophical, and sociological point of view, but the resolution of the play either oversimplifies him or undercuts the concepts he represents. It also trivializes the symbol of the tiger. Dave, like the tiger, is caught, and like him he is responsible for Anna's being covered with scars. But one would hope to see the keepers of the cage. The resolution of the play suggests that they are nothing more than a young woman from Philadelphia.

Lessing herself has sensed the one-sidedness of the play, but has blamed it on mistaken casting and unfair cutting of lines. In a postscript written in 1972, she has noted that "some Women's Liberation groups" have cast Dave "as a fool, a stud, or a nothing man, making it 'a woman's play'…a self-righteous aria for the female voice."14 She goes on to observe that unless Dave is "cast and acted so that he has every bit as much weight as Anna, then the play goes to pieces."15 But even without indiscriminate cutting, the resolution of the play makes its vision of female-male relationships one-sided.

Other problems in the play can also be seen by reference to the stereotype of the dishonest philandering male. A recurring theme is that the conventional beliefs of society are ridiculous and narrow. Both Anna and Dave are satiric toward them. And yet, Anna holds a highly traditional view of male sexuality and is shown to be right in holding it. The belief that men need more sexual outlets than one woman is not so different from the belief that society needs stable marriages. Both of these views are the basis of the double standard. But the men in the play, somewhat boringly, enact a cliché. Anna's and Lessing's irony does not extend to an examination of all assumptions of society. Instead, the irony is directed only against male beliefs and behavior. It is not all-encompassing.

The play is also narrow in its human sympathies. It is Anna's play: what hurts her is treated seriously, while parallel situations are dismissed, forgotten, or handled satirically. For example, Anna's suffering is real and terrible when she loses Dave. On the other hand, Tom Lattimer, who loves her and whom she rejects, is shown to be pompous, hypocritical, and cruel. That he could suffer equally as a victim of the sex war is not a consideration. In the same way, Harry's actions are shown to cause his wife pain, but his own anguish about the marriage of his mistress is not treated seriously. He dramatizes his problems, and he selfishly demands sympathy and sexual satisfaction. Unlike Anna, he is not covered with scars and never will be.

The most interesting case of a character whose suffering is not taken seriously and whose situation is not related to a thematic motif is Janet Stevens. Pregnant, young, desperate, and uninteresting, she is about to marry Dave. She is clearly getting no prize. While she is not likely to suffer as intensely as Anna, she will suffer long, consistently, and fully according to her capacity. Harry's wife, mentioned early in the play, probably foreshadows Janet's future. Dave will not be responsible for turning Janet into "just another boring housewife"—she already is that—but he is likely to be a terrible husband. Yet this connection is never made. Anna is sorry that it's not her baby and she sarcastically says that she wasn't as intelligent as Janet. But Janet is so stupid as to be almost a comic figure. The sympathy for all women as victims, which would follow logically from the assumption of male unfairness, is forgotten. Anna only, not Janet, is to be regarded as an object of sympathy. The kind of elementary sister-hood, so well treated by Lessing elsewhere, is not developed. Men are harder on intelligent women, but at least the housewifely women get the men. And, the play implies, that is a victory of sorts rather than the victimization that other motifs would lead one to expect. Anna keeps her integrity and suffers. She is superior to other women and all the men, but it is hard to accept her as an ideal in feelings or insights. She just happens to be right about female-male relationships because of abrupt elements in the plot and in spite of the fact that her view does not include all the complex situations touched on in the play.

And yet, Play with a Tiger cannot and should not be dismissed because of its flaws. Its value lies not only in its relationship to The Golden Notebook, but also in its anger. Lessing dramatizes the problems, not the victories of an intelligent and independent woman, and it is as unfair to expect calm impartiality from a play produced in 1962 as it is today. Certainly, a generation that elevated the idiosyncratic Jimmy Porter of Look Back in Anger into a profound critic of society, needs to consider Anna Freeman as seriously.16 Probably more so.


Each His Own Wilderness has been warmly though not widely praised. T. C. Worsley called it "the most exciting new play to turn up in London since Look Back in Anger," and discussed its relationship to the Angry Young Men.17 "Tony is yet another specimen of the furiously articulate young men of today. And a very brilliant specimen Miss Lessing has made him. For the first time, too, since the specimen was exhibited to us, we get some understanding of what has caused the fury" (p. 405). According to Worsley, the cause of the young man's fury and the major theme of the play is "do-gooding." Myra, his mother, has sold the house he loves. "All she meant, poor woman, was to do him good; all she did was to destroy his world."18 However, Worsley himself is a bit uneasy with his analysis of the theme of Each His Own Wilderness, although he attributes the fault to Lessing. "I think Miss Lessing's play would have been clearer if she had got on to this theme earlier, 'prepared' it a little more thoroughly and brought it more into the centre. As it is, the play suffers slightly from a plethora of events and people, which there is not time or space to develop."19

George Wellwarth also discusses Each His Own Wilderness in the context of the Angry Young Men. He finds Lessing "more objective and realistic than Osborne," and praises her for creating a hero far more typical than Osborne's.20 Like Worsley, he sees Tony as the protagonist and the most interesting character: Tony is "the real representative of the younger generation … the anti-angry young man—the angry young cocoon.…His only anger is directed against those who would draw him out of his cocoon of safe conventionality" (pp. 289-90).

Because both critics were concerned with the concept of the Angry Young Men and with showing that Doris Lessing is a better man than many, they assumed that Tony was the main character and missed a way of seeing the play that is equally or even more valid. Instead of Tony, Myra Bolton is the protagonist. Her appearances are certainly more flamboyant and more "dramatic" than Tony's. Lessing has also listed her first in the "Characters of the Play," even though Tony is the first to appear on the stage. More importantly, all other characters have a direct relationship to Myra, but only indirectly to Tony. Worsley's difficulty with the "plethora of events and people" obscuring the theme disappears if one accepts Myra as the protagonist rather than only a cause for Tony's fury. In addition, Myra has roughly the same number of lines and scenes as Tony. The final, forceful long speech is Myra's, and the values espoused in it are not undercut by irony or humor.

Each His Own Wilderness presents about twenty-four hours in the life of Myra Bolton. During this time, her son Tony returns from the army to find Myra busy with anti-war activities. Sandy, the son of Myra's close friend Milly, is living with Myra and helping with her political activities. Philip, the man whom Myra has loved, brings his young fiancée Rosemary to stay with Myra so he can get out of marrying her. Milly, Myra's friend, returns from a women's delegation to China. Myra finds it difficult to get along with Tony, but she is sure she has been right in selling the house they live in so that Tony can have money to be free. Various complications develop. Myra breaks off her affair with Milly's son, Sandy; she promises to marry her old friend Mike, but changes her mind; she breaks off her long friendship with Philip. Meanwhile, Milly has slept with Myra's son Tony, and the relationship between Philip and his fiancée Rosemary has broken up. At the end of the play, Myra finally tells Tony she has sold the house, only to discover the house is the only thing Tony has wanted and that he finds her disgusting. She leaves Tony and Rosemary to comfort each other and sets off for a new life.

If we consider Myra Bolton as the protagonist, Each His Own Wilderness becomes a contemporary A Doll's House: a play about the oppression and liberation of women. As such, it is much more interesting and radical than Clare Booth Luce's conscious attempt to update Ibsen in A Doll's House, 1970. Lessing's play, too, has some obvious parallels to Ibsen's, which does not mean, however, that Lessing necessarily had Ibsen in mind. Both plays are written in a realistic style, both employ a central metaphor of a house which represents the heroine's illusions about her relationship to others, both show the loss of those illusions, and both end by the heroine leaving her house and her previous life in order to find a new, more honest existence. In order to be a valuable human being capable of bringing up children, Nora in A Doll's House left her husband and the confining hypocrisies of marriage. Each His Own Wilderness exposes some similar hypocrisies in affairs rather than marriage. However, it goes a great deal further than Ibsen's play: it examines and rejects the final tyranny over modern women—the tyranny of the children they have brought up by themselves in the modern, post-stable-marriage era. Instead of leaving her husband as Nora did, Myra leaves her son Tony.

In this play, as in several other works by Lessing, there are paired complementary characters who function to suggest that the experiences presented have a wide rather than only unique significance and who make the thesis of the work convincing. Myra's son Tony and her ex-lover's fiancée Rosemary are paired: they are similar in appearance and opinions; they are the grown children whose values are rejected in the play. Myra, too, has a complementary character: her friend Milly. The two women have been friends for years, have lived without the protection and comfort of husbands, and have sons whom they have brought up by themselves but who have not turned out the way they have wished. The two women understand each other perfectly. The presence of Milly shows that Myra's experiences are not unique; at the same time, it helps to establish the validity of Myra's rebellion.

Both Myra and Milly are free in a sense Nora never envisioned. They have chosen to live without the respectability and hypocrisy of marriage, and they are prepared to accept the consequences. Freedom here as elsewhere in Lessing's work is not treated sentimentally. It involves plenty of suffering and injustice. Most strikingly, Myra and Milly are free sexually to a point that would shock Nora and her contemporaries. Not only do they discuss affairs with men of their own generation, but each of them also has a sexual involvement with the other's son. Since the two women are almost like sisters, these sexual encounters with each other's children may seem vaguely incestuous. However, probably the prejudice that there is something predatory and unnatural about a woman sleeping with a considerably younger man (but not about a man sleeping with a younger woman) is partially responsible for seeing both Myra and Milly as liberated sexually.

As an implicitly feminist work, Each His Own Wilderness develops two major ideas. In dealing with the relationships of women and men, the play demonstrates that men are often shockingly dishonest to women, while women understand and regard these dishonesties with irony. In this respect, as well as some others, women are better than men. The second idea, which is both more original and more modern, is that children interfere with women's freedom and integrity. Since both Myra and Milly are mothers of sons, the two types of relationships examined—that is, between women and men, and women and children—are closely related.

The dishonesty of men towards women is so obvious and prevalent in the play that only a few examples will suffice. Philip has been and still is dishonest to Myra. In the past, he has put her into such a position that she has had to break off with him while he ironically has maintained the sentimental fiction he was the rejected one. He proposes and pretends to be rejected in the course of the play as well. He has also used his wife and uses Myra to protect himself from marriage. Philip's behavior is ironically mirrored by Milly's son, Sandy. When Myra tells him she is finished with him, he says he is sure he has done the right thing in breaking off the affair.

Even when not trying to get rid of women, men are dishonest. Milly details the hypocritical and obtuse concern for appearances which has caused her to walk out on the man she was about to marry (II.i.133-34). Myra recognizes Milly's experience as something that might have happened to herself, as a pattern that is perfectly normal in male behavior. In this scene, as elsewhere in the play, the agreement and understanding of the paired complementary characters help to establish an individual experience as common or universal. Dishonesty is almost a condition of being male in the world of the play.

Women are far more honest than men. Both Milly and Myra choose integrity rather than love. Women are also better than men in other ways. While Myra is often careless and tactless, she is also generous, warm, kind, and sympathetic. She is never vindictive, jealous, or petty. Without Myra's impulsiveness, Milly is perhaps an even better person. Both women also differ from almost all the male characters by their unselfish concern for humankind. They unquestioningly sacrifice time and personal safety for political causes, and they expect no personal recognition. They are clearly not radicals with ego problems, nor are they naively unaware of past horrors and present injustices, yet they continue political action.

The dishonesty and selfishness of men as contrasted to women is closely related to a second and more important theme, the exposure and rejection of the tyranny of children. Both mothers are disappointed in their sons, in part because they are from a generation which refuses unselfish political involvement. In this lack of social conscience, Rosemary (the young fiancée of Myra's ex-lover Philip) shares as well, which helps to establish the thesis that such selfishness is typical of the younger generation.

It is interesting, however, that the children of Myra and Milly are sons rather than daughters. That fact unifies the two themes. The sons are as dishonest and unfair as other men to their mothers. This common male dishonesty is all the more striking since the two sons are completely different from each other. Ambitious, aggressive, and opportunistic, Sandy holds his mother accountable for his less admirable traits and uses her to impress his posh friends. Apathetic, insecure, and self-pitying, Tony does not analyze his dislike of his mother's messiness, political activism, and sociability.

In several of Tony's objections to Myra a strong undercurrent of sexual jealousy can be discerned: he is bitterly ironic about Philip and the other "uncles" he has had; he is angry Sandy is staying in his room; he is sickened by sexual activity which includes his mother. That some of Tony's objections are based on a female-male conflict is underlined in two ways. There is a strong ironic parallel between Tony's and Philip's objections to Myra's openness to people. Even similar language is used by both to state their objections. Second, Tony does not like women anyway. Like drinking and smoking, they bore him (I.i.101). He tells Milly, "I simply don't like women" (II.ii.149). Furthermore, Tony frequently lumps Myra and Milly together as a particular type of woman he can't stand: the "dilettante daughters of the revolution" (I.i.101) and "women who haven't succeeded in getting or staying married" (I.i.105). He feels overpowered by them: "It's their utterly appalling vitality. They exhaust me" (I.i.107).

Myra is also occasionally antagonistic to Tony because he is male and once includes him in a blanket condemnation of all men (I.ii.115). But she has a score of more emphatic objections to Tony. She is disappointed the young are leaving political action to her generation. She is irritated by his snobbishness, neatness, and lack of humor. She is hurt by his unkindness. She cannot accept his values of quiet and security. She is puzzled by his failure to live as she considers normal: she feels a young man should want to be free and rebel against parents rather than docilely stay with them.

The play raises the most basic question about the relationship of mothers and children. Myra asks this question explicitly: "Aren't our children our fault?" (II.ii.135). Several answers are suggested. Milly tells Myra she should consider the basic integrity of their whole lives before making harsh judgements, that the way their children have turned out cannot be viewed in isolation: "… we've neither of us given in to anything.… What's the use of living the way we have, what's the use of us never settling for any of the little cosy corners or the little cages or the second-rate men if we simply get tired now?" (II.ii.135). In other words, their lives have included far more than motherhood.

Another answer is also implied by Milly: "We've committed the basic and unforgivable crime of giving you birth—but we had no choice, after all …" (II.ii.150). A third answer is also implied when Milly sarcastically accepts responsibility for Sandy's tactless actions: "Of course, it's my fault. I'm your mother—that's what I'm for" (II.ii.157). Indirectly the whole question of responsibility is briefly reduced to absurdity. If children so clearly refuse responsibility for their actions, the facile assigning of blame to mothers is fallacious as well.

But the most emphatic answer to the question of responsibility is provided by the structure of the play: the complementary characters of the mothers and the obvious contrasts but basic similarities between the two sons. Taken together, these clearly establish that there is no causal relationship between the characters of mothers and children and that the whole question of responsibility is irrelevant. Unselfish Milly and Myra have almost identical values which have not carried over to their sons. Sandy and Tony are selfish opposites of their mothers. Myra sums up the differences perfectly: "My God, the irony of it—that we should have given birth to a generation of little office boys and clerks and … little people who count their pensions before they're out of school … little petty bourgeois" (II.ii.166).

The resolution of the conflict between Myra and Tony also answers the question of responsibility. Myra's attitudes are diametrically opposed to Tony's, but they are also the attitudes endorsed by the play. Myra's final speech, neither answered nor balanced by Tony's, reaffirms her values as the values of the play. It proposes a woman's individual freedom is the highest good and that this freedom surpasses the responsibility toward children which is a problematical value anyway. After Myra tells Tony she has sold the house and he has said he can't stand her, she announces she is leaving. In a powerful and vivid scene too long to quote here, Myra announces she is free for the first time in twenty-two years: previously her life has been governed by Tony's needs. She tentatively accepts the possibility a mother may be defined by her success in bringing up a child, but she asserts such a failure does not need to encompass her life and it need not control her forever. She may have failed with Tony since neither in her own nor society's terms is he a tangible justification for the way she has lived. However, she is still alive and ready for varied and meaningful experience. Her speech is basically an affirmation of life in opposition to the rigid, limiting, and sterile notions of responsibility, respectability, and dignity. It is also a rejection of the sentimental and cruel notion that a woman's whole life has to be or can be defined through her children.

Myra's values are clearly the values of the play. In fairness to her characters, Lessing has included earlier a long speech by Tony in which he explains the horror he felt when his father was killed and he and his mother were buried under rubble during a bombing attack. In this speech, the reasons for Tony's wish for quiet and security are made clear. Significantly, he has been molded more by large impersonal forces such as war than by his mother's influence. However, while we may understand Tony, judged by an absolute standard, his values are childish. Compared to Myra, who has also experienced the horrors of war, Tony seems petulant, self-pitying, and childish. While Lessing has made him quite understandable, she has not made him admirable.

Finally, Myra's values are shown to be valid by the structure of the play itself. Myra's speech is neither answered nor negated by Tony, yet that speech condemns everything he is or wants. After Myra has left, the triviality, uncertainty, and pathos of Tony and Rosemary contrast with Myra's strength and courage:

tony: Rosemary, do you know that not one word of what she said made any sense to me at all … slogans, slogans, slogans.…

rosemary: What's the matter with being safe—and ordinary? What's wrong with being ordinary—and safe?

tony: Rosemary, listen—never in the whole history of the world have people made a battle-cry out of being ordinary. Never. Supposing we all said to the politicians—we refuse to be heroic. We refuse to be brave. We are bored with all the noble gestures—what then, Rosemary?

rosemary: Yes, Ordinary and safe.

tony: Leave us alone, we'll say. Leave us alone to live. Just leave us alone …


Tony's insistence that Myra has been speaking in senseless slogans is undercut. Her speech makes sense to the reader, so that Tony's assertion constitutes dramatic irony. Her similes are homely and far removed from the style of political slogans, but they judge Tony and Rosemary nevertheless (e.g., "I don't propose to keep my life clutched in my hand like small change," and "I don't have to shelter under a heap of old bricks—like a frightened mouse," II.ii.166). Furthermore, while Myra's speech is positive, Tony and Rosemary can only question and repeat. And the answers to their questions have been developed previously. Throughout the play it is made abundantly clear that it is impossible for human beings to be "ordinary and safe": wars come, love affairs end, people hurt each other. A play which opens with the sounds of an H-bomb explosion and machine-gun fire on a tape recorder and in which the second act starts with Tony "making machine-gun noises like a small boy" (p. 127) does not allow the reader or viewer to see Tony's wish to be left "alone to live" as a viable alternative. Likewise, the references to political horrors show Tony's wistful supposition about telling the politicians how they feel to be painfully naive.

Thus, Each His Own Wilderness as a whole endorses Myra's values and her wish for freedom. It exposes the unjustifiable demands of children. It suggests, though does not absolutely insist on, the superiority of women by showing men—with the exception of Mike—as basically dishonest and unfair. It questions several clichés about women: in this play women are not selfishly concerned with their families while the minds of men are on more significant issues; they are not defined as creatures whose primary duty is to their children; they are not useless, troublesome, possessive, and pathetic once their child-raising years are over. Each His Own Wilderness insists on the right of women to live as they wish. Their freedom is an individual necessity, but also a hope for human-kind. Like Play with a Tiger it raises feminist issues but does so in a totally convincing and powerful way. Lessing's complementary characters, Myra and Milly, are interesting in their own right, parallel the common female pairs in her fiction, and tell us what middle-aged women are and should be. Each His Own Wilderness, like much that Lessing has written, can give us insight and inspiration in the crises of our own life.


  1. While no critical study or article has been entirely devoted to Lessing's short stories, interesting references to them may be found in other contexts. For example, see Dorothy Brewster, Doris Lessing (N. Y.: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1965) or Selma R. Burkom, "'Only Connect': Form and Content in the Works of Doris Lessing," Critique, 11, No. 1 (1969), 51-68.
  2. With the exception of "The Other Woman," contained in Lessing's Five: Short Novels (London: Michael Joseph, 1953), all of her fiction has been available either in hardback or in paperback reprints. For a listing of her fiction, see Agate Nesaule Krouse, "A Doris Lessing Checklist," Contemporary Literature, 14, No. 4 (Fall 1973), 592-93.
  3. For a brief discussion of "Mr. Dolinger," see John Russell Taylor, The Angry Theater: New British Drama, rev. ed. (N. Y.: Hill & Wang, 1969), p. 145. See also Myron Matlaw, Modern World Drama: An Encyclopedia (N. Y.: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1972), p. 456. For "The Truth About Billy Newton," see review by A. Alvarez, New Statesman, 59 (23 January 1960), 100-01. Also see Allardyce Nicoll, "Somewhat in a New Dimension," in Stratford-Upon-Avon-Studies 4, Contemporary Theater (London: Edward Arnold Publishers Ltd., 1968), pp. 82-83, 92. Ms. Lessing's entire comment is, "As regards 'Mr. Dolinger' and 'The Truth About Billy Newton,' are both, as far as I am concerned, dead ducks. They are dated, and when plays are that, in my view they should simply be forgotten" (letter to Agate N. Krouse, 27 July 1974).
  4. Each His Own Wilderness was first performed at the Royal Court Theatre, London, on 23 March 1958. It was published in New English Dramatists: Three Plays, ed. Elliot M. Browne (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1959), pp. 11-95. Play with a Tiger was first performed at the Comedy Theater, London, on 22 March 1962. It was published as Play with a Tiger: A Play in Three Acts (London: Michael Joseph, 1962). Subsequent page references to the play are to this edition.
  5. Each His Own Wilderness is included in Willis Hall, The Long and the Short and The Tall, et. al. (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1962). The cover title is Three Plays. All subsequent page references are to this edition. Play with a Tiger is included in Plays of the Sixties, Vol. I, ed. J. M. Charlton (London: Pan Books Ltd., 1966). This edition includes a postscript by Lessing, added in 1972, p. [296]. Play with a Tiger is also included in Plays By and About Women, eds. Victoria Sullivan and James Hatch (Vintage Books of Random House, c. 1973), pp. 201-73.
  6. See, for example, "A Talk with Doris Lessing," interview by Florence Howe, The Nation, 204 (6 March 1967), p. 312. Also, Doris Lessing, "Introduction" The Golden Notebook (1962; rpt. N. Y.: Bantam Books, Inc., 1973), pp. viii-ix. Subsequent page references are to this edition.
  7. Doris Lessing, A Proper Marriage, Children of Violence, II (N. Y.: Simon and Schuster, 1964), 322.
  8. The Golden Notebook, pp. 614-16; Play with a Tiger, pp. 61-62.
  9. The Golden Notebook, p. 616.
  10. Play with a Tiger, I, p. 35.
  11. (N. Y.: Alfred A. Knopf, 1971), pp. 42-43.
  12. "Introduction," The Golden Notebook, p. viii.
  13. For a full discussion of Lessing's use of stereotypes, see my dissertation, "The Feminism of Doris Lessing," Univ. of Wisc., 1972.
  14. Plays of the Sixties, I, [296].
  15. Ibid.
  16. For a convincing argument Jimmy Porter is an unusual and unrepresentative young man, see George Well-warth, "John Osborne: 'Angry Young Man?,'" The Theater of Protest and Paradox: Development in the Avant Garde Drama, rev. ed. (N. Y. U. Press, 1971), pp. 254-69.
  17. "The Do-Gooders," New Statesman, 55 (29 March 1958), 405.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid.
  20. The Theater of Protest and Paradox, p. 289.

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