Doris Lessing | Critical Essay by Virginia Tiger

This literature criticism consists of approximately 16 pages of analysis & critique of Doris Lessing.
This section contains 4,645 words
(approx. 16 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Virginia Tiger

SOURCE: "'Taking Hands and Dancing in (Dis)Unity': Story to Storied in Doris Lessing's 'To Room Nineteen' and 'A Room,'" in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 36, No. 3, Autumn, 1990, pp. 421-33.

Tiger is a Canadian critic and educator. In the following essay, she focuses on Lessing's short stories "To Room Nineteen" and "A Room" in her discussion of the author's use of narrative voice and realistic literary techniques. Tiger also examines the ways in which these two stories relate to the novels Lessing constructed from them, The Summer Before the Dark and The Memoirs of a Survivor, respectively.

"To see" is the dominant verb in the realist text "à la gastronomie de l'oeil" as Balzac expressed it—and realist fiction is preeminently concerned with seeing, with a seeing in detail.

  —Mark Seltzer ["The Princess Casamassima: Realism and the Fantasy of Surveillance," Nineteenth-Century Fiction 35 (1981)]

To view Doris Lessing's short fiction in relation to "the coercive network of seeing, power and surveillance" (Seltzer) that characterizes the literature of the realist enterprise invites triply the hazardous. Of first concern is the author's well-known opposition to theoretics. On principle, Lessing dismisses critical terms like realism (and its contemporary companion, feminism) as prescriptive about rather than descriptive of her project. Her position (itself prescriptive, especially as polemicized in the 1971 Introduction to The Golden Notebook, the 1979 Remarks upon Shikasta, and the 1984 Preface to The Diaries of Jane Somers) would seem to suggest hostility as much to the realist readings as to those of the feminist. Of second concern—although this has yet to be critiqued—Lessing aligns herself with those critics and readers who take as axiomatic that the authoring of texts represents an unassailable authoritative act. Hers becomes the claim that intertextual contexts can be ignored. Third—and finally in this article's critical speculations—there are the problematics of the shorter fiction. To speak of short and long fiction is to make the assumption that distinguishing between one kind of text and the other is defensible, a distinction encouraged by the practice of such writers as James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, and the later Nabokov. Like them, Lessing has extrapolated from and transformed several of her short stories, reembedding them in longer narratives. Forming an enriching—although not so very rigorously examined—part of her work, the sixty or more short stories raise intertextual matters about the shorter fiction's relation to the longer works as well as intriguing questions about the overall production of text.

The stories seem to have been written during periods especially crucial to the author's development, as has been observed in a discussion of Lessing's first decade in England [see Claire Sprague and Virginia Tiger, "Introduction," Critical Essays on Doris Lessing, 1986]. These turbulent, prolific years—the 1950s—saw a political novel, two reportorial works, plays, poems, essays, and reviews as well as a regiment of short stories. Appearing first in such magazines as the New Statesman and Nation, Encounter, the Partisan Review, and the Kenyon Review, the stories "contain[ed] most of the themes of her major novels, including concerns that did not clearly emerge till later" [Jean Pickering, "The English Short Story in the Sixties," The English Short Story: 1945–1980, edited by Dennis Vannatta, 1985]. More than several of the stories from this period anticipated what in the 1970s appeared to be new dimensions in Lessing's fiction. Their marking of shifts in ideology and narrative strategies amounted to the laying of foundations for what Betsy Draine has since identified as the competing attitudes and warring styles upon which the later work was constructed [Substance Under Pressure: Artistic Coherence and Evolving Form in the Novels of Doris Lessing, 1983]. As Lessing's longer fiction has moved away from the realism and materialism of the first series, Children of Violence 1952–1969, toward the speculative fantasy and mysticism of the second series, Canopus in Argos 1979–1983, the English stories (in Britain collected in 1978 under the titles To Room Nineteen, Volume One and The Temptation of Jack Orkney, Volume Two) observed—sometimes, with a piercing malice—prevailing social arrangements. At the same time flickering across these canvases and diffusing overt meaning in the manner Jacques Derrida terms dissemination were incursions of the unreal, dream intimations, the unlocking of buried visions.

That there is an insistent continuity between the short fiction and the longer works seems incontrovertible. Several of the stories republished in the 1978 collection are related directly to later novels: Shikasta's (1979) intergalacticism earlier appeared as fictional landscape in "Report on the Threatened City" and the first Jane Somers novel, The Diary of a Good Neighbour (1983), derives inspiration and theme from "An Old Woman and Her Cat," a short story about an eccentric and ancient woman who outwits the agents of Social Welfare by hiding, like a crafty wild cat, in the crevices of London. These reweavings are tempered reimaginings, their strategy like Joyce's first play with Ulysses in a Dubliners' story to have been called "Mr. Hunter's Day." In contrast to such modified reimaginings, three stories by Lessing, "The Temptation of Jack Orkney," "A Room," and "To Room Nineteen" are substantially recast, finding their encodings in Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971), The Summer Before the Dark (1973), and The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974). And importantly, these three novels (ones so solidly linked to and developing amply from the shorter fictions' initial explorations) mark an interlude between Lessing's two major narrative series. Briefing for a Descent into Hell, The Summer Before the Dark, and The Memoirs of a Survivor appear in the years between the realism of Children of Violence and the speculation of Canopus in Argos. To argue from story to storied, one could make a sound case for Lessing's success in and need to test fictive limits in her interrogation of fiction's capacity to represent what she takes to be reality.

It is less the continuity between the story and its storied encoding and more the problematics of the short story that will here be attended. More precisely, I want to explore two questions. First, does the foreshortened discourse in the short story result in texts of singularity: that is, texts not evidencing plurality. Second, do Lessing's short fiction rehearsals reveal an early impatience with the realist project and its impulse to document, control, and supervise "things as they are." To engage these questions, I will examine in some detail "To Room Nineteen" and "A Room," both of which appeared in A Man and Two Women (1958). In these two stories, Lessing offers exemplary models of writing in the neutral discourse of the realist mode. Nevertheless, by means of their ruptured narrative surfaces, the two stories make eruptive what usually remains under control in a realist text: the operations of the libidinal, the anarchic. And the thematics of opposition between the intelligible and the irrational, the everyday and the aberrant becomes apparent by the calculated strategy of disfiguring the world of the realist project so as to refigure its significance.

More than many others "To Room Nineteen," Lessing's much anthologized short fiction, demonstrates how problematic is the conventional notion that short stories thrive on unitary schema. For in this single text competes a diversity of narrative codes; indeed, the text seems at first to embarrass its own ruling system, showing contradictions that its novel counterpart, The Summer Before the Dark, does not embrace in its limpidly straightforward structure. Assessed significant enough in the production of the Lessing canon to lend its title to Volume One of the 1978 edition of her collected non-African stories—thus privileging by inference that period and narrative modality in subsequent discussions of Lessing's work—"To Room Nineteen" first appeared as the nineteenth as well as final story in the most self-reflexive of Lessing's collections, the anthology, A Man and Two Women. Rather more variegated, indeed uncertain, than the African collection This Was the Old Chief's Country (1951) in terms of thematic consistency, these British texts heralded what was then still the colonial marginality of their author by their persistent tone of deflected detachment. Observing with clinical condescension the troubled attachments of the sophisticated, liberal bourgeoisie, the stories judged and found wanting conventional social creatures—publicists, journalists, set designers, professional layabouts working on the edges of the arts in the London of the late fifties.

In these texts, the author demands authority. So insistently does omniscient point of view control that ironical distance seems more authorial performance than narratorial stance. The "panoptic" eye/I of the narration conveys impatience with social codes and roles, its tone sometimes even that of the spiritual sneer. As "To Room Nineteen"'s first sentence commands: "This is a story, I suppose, about a failure in intelligence: the Rawlings' marriage was grounded in intelligence."

Readers and critics alike have been seized by "To Room Nineteen," celebrated by one Lessing scholar as "one of Lessing's most moving … texts" [see Mona Knapp, Doris Lessing, 1984]. Introduced by way of summary and sketch is a middle-class English woman, a commercial artist sensibly married and sensibly attentive to her "handsome, blond, attractive" husband, a sub-editor on a large London newspaper. "And this is what happened," pronounces the narrative, its parodic discourse flat, dry:

Susan became pregnant, she gave up her job, and they bought a house in Richmond. It was typical of this couple that they had a son first, then a daughter, then twins, son and daughter. Everything right, appropriate, and what everyone would wish for if they could choose. But people did feel these two had chosen; this balanced and sensible family was no more than what was due to them because of their infallible sense for choosing right.

The effect of the discourse (what in another context has been described as Lessing's "exaggerated use of a particular linguistic register") is to undercut "the characters [so as] to make us feel that they are no more than puppets, creatures of convention" [Clare Hanson "Free Stories: The Shorter Fiction of Doris Lessing," Doris Lessing Newsletter 9, No. 1 (1985)]. The assertive commentary delivered by the narrator—who interrupts, interrogates, and then retires—intensifies the intended readerly perception that character is culturally scripted and behavior socially constricted:

And so they lived with their four children in their gardened house in Richmond and were happy. They had everything they had wanted and had planned for. And yet

Well, even this was expected, that there must be a certain flatness …

Yes, yes, of course it was natural they sometimes felt like this. Like what?

Their life seemed to be like a snake biting its tail. Matthew's job for the sake of Susan, children, house, and garden—which caravanserai needed a well-paid job to maintain it. And Susan's practical intelligence for the sake of Matthew, the children, the house and the garden—which unit would have collapsed in a week without her.

What happens? Were this a text conforming to prescriptive definitions of the short story genre, Susan Rawlings would undergo change as a result of conflict, a change to which all elements in the narrative had contributed harmoniously and economically. However, so flattened is the portrayal of character that "To Room Nineteen" subverts conventional expectations, endorsing—it would first appear—the very typicality it has exposed through parody.

So what did it matter if they felt dry, flat? People like themselves, fed on a hundred books (psychological, anthropological, sociological), could scarcely be unprepared for the dry, controlled wistfulness which is the distinguishing mark of the intelligent marriage. Two people, endowed with education, with discrimination, with judgement, linked together voluntarily from their will to be happy together … one sees them everywhere, one knows them, one even is that thing oneself. (italics mine)

By means of the pronominal shift from first-person to third, an intertextual conspiracy is set up between the narrator's construction and that of the reader. The "I"/eye of the first line ("This is a story, I suppose, about a failure in intelligence" shortly becomes the "one"/[unitary] one where effected is the merging of reader and narrator into one unit. As the text quoted above insists "one sees them everywhere, one knows them, one even is that thing oneself" (italics mine).

And what happens? Having negotiated a sensible, intelligent marital détente at the age of forty or so, sensible, intelligent Susan Rawlings—her husband (although dallying in thin affairs) still very much a good husband, a good father, her four children off at school, her Richmond house managed by an agreeable housekeeper—goes mad. And the text too goes berserk, its surface coherence being, as Lessing remarked of The Golden Notebook, "shot to hell."

Like her counterpart, Kate Brown in The Summer Before the Dark, Susan Rawlings is that "well-documented and much-studied phenomenon, the woman with grown-children and not enough to do." Unlike Kate Brown, Susan Rawlings is not permitted a summer of solitude—the text's foreshortening strategies forbidding the integrative psychic voyage the longer fiction (with its obligatory longer-leashed development) allows. Invaded, like Kate, by restlessness, irritation, resentment, "emotions that were utterly ridiculous, that she despised," Susan tries to confront them calmly, intelligently: "She spoke to herself severely, thus: All this is quite natural. First, I spent twelve years of my adult life working, living my own life. Then I married … I signed myself over, so to speak, to other people. To the children. Not for one moment … have I been alone, had time to myself. So now I have to learn to be myself again. That's all."

By this point in the narrative's progression, the gesturing narrator has withdrawn from commentary, judgment being conveyed largely through the protagonist's stream of thought. To a degree, the strategy permits the individuation of what was first presented as a merely typical character. More important, it extends the identification of narrator/reader (earlier valorized in the pronominal "one") to include a now valorized protagonist. The reader observes from a centered vantage point of empathetic identification (the text's authorial sneer having vanished along with its posturing narrator) as Susan Rawlings—craving "a room or a place, anywhere, where she could go and sit, by herself"—takes steps away from her big, beautiful Richmond house in order to begin to reinhabit herself. The room nineteen of the story's title is the seedy Paddington hotel cell Susan hires and visits daily.

That this room of her own should be expropriated by a concerned, proprietary husband sending detectives contributes in overt ways to the text's dénouement as well as the context of its reception by readers. The "easing hours of solitude" are invaded, as the text implores: "Several times she returned to the room, to look for herself there, but instead she found the unnamed spirit of restlessness, a pricking fevered hunger for movement, an irritable self-consciousness that made her brain feel as if it had coloured lights going on and off" inside it. Like her nineteenth-century counterpart, The Awakening's Edna Pontellier, Susan returns a final time to the place of her awakening and—turning on the gas—swims into that ultimate anonymity: death.

As with Edna's self-immolation, Susan's suicide is unassimilable: a negation. "Why did she kill herself?" undergraduate and graduate students alike have exploded, "she should have gone back to work." "Or told her husband she was hurt by his infidelities," they expostulate, using the same pragmatic "intelligence" the story is intent on subverting. Graduate students have tempered their sense of the text's displacement by arguing from the context of received feminism. Both responses amount to a production of text resembling one given in, for example, a 1984 reductive reading—twenty odd years after the story's publication and two decades after the construction of the contemporary Anglo-American feminist critique: "The story clearly implies that without the colossal middle-class apparatus to tie her down, and without a patriarchal system to require that she cheerfully welcome her bondage, her personality would never have been eroded to the point of breakdown and suicide" (Knapp). As pedantic [as] this interpretation seems, it indicates how strenuously the voice of the nominally detached narrator commands and controls, how effectively the pronominal shift from "I" to "one" implicates the reader.

An alternate narrative code, submerged yet vital, calls into question any reading of the text as solely a realistic representation of contemporary women's estate. "To Room Nineteen"'s surface design conceals a less accessible narrative code in which the author, Doris Lessing, is exploring spiritual possibilities, mysteries on the other side of the given, the typical, the representatively real. Here the text insists that crises of the spirit are resolvable through meditative modalities, that fluid motility should be associated with libidinal desire. As in Kate Chopin's The Awakening, the ending of "To Room Nineteen" undercuts its primary text: in both, death is vital, fructifying, caressing. Forces bathe each heroine in solipsistic pleasure, giving truth to Freud's insight in Beyond the Pleasure Principle that death is the ultimate object of desire.

Susan Rawlings and her husband plan everything "intelligently," a word which appears in the text fifteen times, although its sense is carried, by my count, some fourteen additional times. Numerically the word allies itself with the cognate term "sensible" while warring with the libidinally evocative "garden," a word appearing sixteen times and whose metaphoric sense is carried through seven scenes in which the protagonist visits the oceanic, heterogeneous, and haunting realm beyond her big, mortgaged, and beautiful white Richmond house. "She went to the very end of the garden, by herself, and looked at the slow-moving brown river; she looked at the river and closed her eyes and breathed slow and deep, taking it into her being, into her veins." In this undergrowth with its "wild sullied river" she begins to prowl, a wild cat, "howling with rage." She is terrorized by an image of her spirit: a demon she imagines invading her, the devil of "reddish complexion and ginger hair" wearing "a reddish hairy jacket, unpleasant to the touch." Shortly, she will give this haunting hallucination form. "Well, one day she saw him. She was standing at the bottom of the garden, watching the river ebb past, when she … saw this person…. He was looking at her, and grinning … out of an absent-minded or freakish impulse of spite…." The wild cat who prowls through the thickened garden appears in another libidinal image: the "intelligent" Susan Rawlings standing before a mirror, brushing back near-electric hair, its Medusa energy crackling. Glancing at her own image, she "thought: Yet that's the reflection of a madwoman…. Much more to the point if what looked back at me was the gingery green-eyed demon with his dry meagre smile."

Eruptive narrative codes like these recall doubling strategies deployed by nineteenth-century female gothic modes. As the example of Jane Eyre in the red room instructs, women and mirrors are intimately linked. In Lessing the motif of the mirrored mad double registers (and dislodges) competing modes of consciousness as well as competing codes of narration. To shatter the glass is to set free the mirror's enclosed prisoner and the realist text's supervised captive: the mystery below fact's surface. Put another way, Susan Rawlings' voyage through the looking glass will take the wayfarer-soul to room nineteen, there to remake interiority by unmaking intelligence. The "dark creative trance" in which the protagonist is submerged by her author is an unsilencing of the irrational, libidinal pulse "intelligence" contrived to mute. Thus as disquieting as is the submerged/emergent text, its last sentence affirms the human spirit in all its heterogeneity: "She was quite content lying there, listening to the faint soft hiss of the gas that poured into the room, into her lungs, into her brain, as she drifted off into the dark river."

In this tale of narratorial making, unmaking, and remaking there are unearthed the powerful workings of desire, the story having traced those stages of release that allow its protagonist to be free at last. Yet it is at the greatest of expenses, this freedom. For authorial homicide has occurred; Susan Rawlings is dead, however gently the text swims round her. The second short story under examination—one sharing with "To Room Nineteen" as privileged symbol the room—offers a redeeming rather than promissory note. It represents as well a very different modality of short fiction, hardly a story at all but rather a mediation, a sketch, a sojourn in (rather than voyage to) consciousness—titled, tellingly, "A Room."

The title—invoking in feminist terms a now irreversible metaphor for physical, psychological, social, and gendered entrapment—recalls what the story will come to revoke. At the text's inauspicious beginning, an unnamed narrator observes: "When I first came into this flat of four small boxlike rooms, the bedroom was painted pale pink, except for the fireplace wall, which had a fanciful pink-and-blue paper." The opening sentence announces the realist project, its uninflected tone being buttressed by other familiar strategies of realism. Factual detail abounds: for example, information as incidental as the commercial name for a dark purple paint that covers a fireplace's obtrusive bulk, its presence thereby appealing to the readerly wish for stable, predictable fictional worlds.

There is as well the presumed unproblematic matter of narratorial veracity. The narrator's stance as a visual observer and authorial recorder—an eye and an "I"—augments the reader's sense of the room as particular, substantial, real. Made memorable by the recording scrutiny of the narrator are the room's ugly iron fire grate, the grainy lumpy wall beside a bed, blue curtains, plumcolored woodwork, the square solid bronze gas fire that strikes discordant notes. "So the whole wall doesn't work, it fails to come off," the disinterested narrator informs. Discursive commentary continues as the observing "I" annotates the flat's previous inhabitants and describes other occupants of the apartment building. For example, there is the Swedish woman in an identical flat one floor above. "Sometimes, when I sleep in the afternoons, which I do because afternoon sleep is more interesting than night sleep, she takes a nap too. I think of her and of myself lying horizontally above each other, as if we were on two shelves." Recorded are the blended sounds of footsteps, quarrelsome voices and rattling cups that drift from the apartment house through the flat's walls; interrogating the room's stillness, they soon become (like Susan Rawlings' green-eyed double) its spectral tenants.

Here, the realist's scrutiny—its fascination with seeing, reporting, supervising, and controlling significant detail—represents not compliance with convention but a witty narrative ploy. Essentially, the subversive strategy furthers the text's intent to have its readers collude in constructing the credible in order to reinforce a jettisoning of realist/materialistic assumptions. Thus the non-naming of the unnamed narrator in the context of a story characterized by reliance on detail dislodges another realist mainstay. Un-named the narrator is not named. Divesting the narrator of all but the first person pronominal identification implies she has neither proprietary nor proprietory name—from the perspective of property as a species of the material order.

Yet the text also proposes that the "I"/eye narrator is an autobiographical projection of the author, the not unnamed Doris Lessing: author in/of "A Room" by way of her performance before readers in the character of a writer. "I always drift off to sleep in the afternoons with the interest due to a long journey into the unknown," records the dream-intent author:

with the interest due to a long journey into the unknown, and the sleep is thin and extraordinary and takes me into regions hard to describe in a waking state. But one afternoon there was no strange journey, nor was there useful information about my work. The sleep was so different from usual that for some time I thought I was awake.

In the text's voyage through thresholds—another journey through the looking glass—is a crossing over into unfamiliar regions whose "facts" are to be placed beside the constraining certitude of the physical world.

As so often in Lessing's longer fiction, the dream state here in "A Room" announces the locus for transpersonal metamorphosis. Brooding on the hideous black iron grate, the writer/narrator experiences herself as a child sitting before a smoking fire; the walls are now unpainted, the room mean with poverty. It is a time of war, and she is desolate with loneliness, the smoke tearing the back of her throat. Just as evanescently as it has appeared, the dream ("or memory—whose?" wonders the writer) recedes. Left is the conviction that the other room exists, "under this room, or beside it, or in it." Frontiers distant from the apparent certitudes of representational scrutiny with which it began, the text settles back into stasis, closing with two questions: "what? And why?"

"To hear," not "to see," is the dominant prepositional verb in "A Room," despite the text's seductive use of the realist project. The frequency with which hearing is used on a level of description and act (by my count seventeen times as compared to seven references to sight) suggests the significance of the attentive listener, not the documenting scrutinizer. Privileged is the passive soft receiver, the "soft dark intelligence" so favored as heroic material in Lessing's novel, The Memoirs of a Survivor. And if "A Room" marks an early critique of the idea of personality as fixed, Memoirs' recasting of the shorter fiction represents a conclusive rebuttal of the realist assumptions in favor of impersonal psychic economies. In the longer fiction another unnamed narrator journeys through dissolving walls to rooms; as these merge and separate, the anonymous voyager overlaps with other selves, merging and separating. Like the land visited by "A Room"'s narrator, the one entered by Memoirs' protagonist hides behind the face of the factual world. Some visited spaces, the benevolent ones, remain empty "impersonal" images of desire while a recurrent "personal" nightmare grows to compelling shape in one overheated, overstuffed Edwardian setting. Entering one room to reshape the past by soothing a miserable child, the narrator instead finds herself experiencing the mother's emotions. The child she finally reaches is not the sad daughter but the oppressive mother, shifted back in time to her own frustrated infancy.

What emerges from the longer fiction is a text that threatens to dismantle itself, so "warring [are its] codes" (Draine). Nevertheless, Memoirs (like its germinal story, "A Room") provokes without pomposity. This cannot be said of Briefing for a Descent into Hell, the many layered novel whose "collage technique of … diary, letter, news report, science fiction speculation, medical dialogue, poetry, stream of consciousness, popular song, interpolated short story and afterward" (Sprague and Tiger) orchestrates bombastically a simple theme, one developed economically in what was the novel's donné, "The Temptation of Jack Orkney." The shorter fiction is a singular example of a capacious plot being foreshortened and a steadfast theme—the temptation to get religion—being relentlessly foregrounded. A conventional chronological narrative marks the slow process undergone by the eponymous protagonist following his father's death, a death which disturbs the middle-aged liberal into questioning all his beliefs. The action culminates in Orkney's awareness of the possibility of an invisible world; the landscape he inhabits at the story's end is analogous to the one visited by the unnamed narrator of "A Room." Nightly, Orkney enters behind "the face of the sceptical world"; his world of dreams is "another country, lying just behind his daytime one." Nightly, Orkney voyages through walls and past partitions, and navigates dream-realms as promissory in their libidinal energy as the dark river Susan Rawlings was designated to drift down.

In bringing these three stories to their conclusions, Lessing expands the range of her subversive discourse. Disorderings are not confined to the narrative conventions of the short story. For Lessing also appropriates and reformulates the more massive conventions that have structured Western mythologies for three centuries: the tropes and typologies of realism. Michel Foucault, we recall, suggests that the realistic fiction "forms part of that great system of constraint by which the West compelled the everyday to bring itself into discourse" ["The Life of In Famous Man," Michel Foucault: Power, Truth, Strategy, edited by Meagham Morris and Paul Pallon, 1979]. His is a claim that Doris Lessing—with her loathing of labels, her distrust of orthodox Western thinking, her increased impatience with the realist enterprise—might well applaud.

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