Doris Lessing | Critical Essay by Lisa Tyler

This literature criticism consists of approximately 12 pages of analysis & critique of Doris Lessing.
This section contains 3,379 words
(approx. 12 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Lisa Tyler

Critical Essay by Lisa Tyler

SOURCE: "Our Mothers' Gardens: Doris Lessing's 'Among the Roses,'" in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 31, No. 2, Spring, 1994, pp. 163-73.

In the following essay, Tyler examines Lessing's short story "Among the Roses" from a feminist perspective, elucidating its mother-daughter theme in relation to the ancient Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone.

Doris Lessing has long demonstrated in her work a love-hate relationship with women's magazines, which she seems to regard as contemporary equivalents of conduct books: repressive, didactic works that stress conformity to tired gender roles and celebrate frivolity at the expense of thought. Ella, the fictional figure that Anna creates in The Golden Notebook, works for Home and Hearth; its parodically conventional name perhaps suggests a certain disdain on Anna's part, and quite possibly Lessing's. Lessing is more openly scornful in Play with a Tiger. When Harry taunts Tom with the prospect that his new job will entail "administering to the spiritual needs of the women of the nation through the 'Ladies Own' [sic]," Tom responds, "I'm only going to be on the business side. I won't be responsible for the rubbish they—" and "stops, annoyed with himself. Harry and Mary laugh at him." Clearly, women's magazines epitomize the establishment, and writing for them amounts to selling out.

Lessing modifies her stance slightly in The Diaries of Jane Somers, in which Janna edits a women's magazine named Lilith; here, Lessing recognizes the work that goes into such publications, although not exactly endorsing their contents. Nonetheless, the publication of a Lessing short story ["Among the Roses"] in the April 1989 issue of Ladies' Home Journal came as something of a surprise. Given the story's content, however, its publication there is not altogether inappropriate. [In a footnote, Tyler adds: "'Among the Roses' has since been published in The Real Thing, a collection of Lessing's sketches and short stories."]

As the magazine puts it, in "Among the Roses," "The renowned British writer examines the most complicated relationship of all: the one between a mother and her daughter." [In a footnote, Tyler adds: "In taking my title from Alice Walker's essay, 'In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens,' I am perhaps taking a dubious liberty. The myth of Demeter and Persephone may be decidedly more problematic for black women writers, for whom mother-daughter repetition may be a decidedly less desirable goal. African-American mothers are more likely to face poverty, exploitation, discrimination, and oppression, experiences that they would prefer that their daughters not have to face. In Toni Morrison's novel Beloved, for example, the mother kills her daughter precisely to save her from repeating her mother's life—in this case, a life of slavery. For a less extreme example, see Walker's essay, in which she laments that her mother's artistry was 'muzzled'—a fate Walker herself has resisted, not repeated."] In the story, Myra, the mother, visits a rose garden in Regent's Park and unexpectedly encounters her daughter, Shirley, whom she has not seen since they quarreled in Myra's garden three years earlier. Shirley had earlier made clear her disdain for her mother's hobby: "Shirley not only hated plants and gardens, but the country as well…. [S]he thought people who gardened were stupid and boring. Yet here she was." Spotting her daughter, Myra thinks to herself, "What was she doing here? The last place! Flower gardens were not her style at all, let alone being by herself. Shirley was never alone, she hated it." Myra watches her daughter take a cutting from one of the roses on display and marvels, "Shirley into gardening! Was it likely?" Myra only gradually realizes why Shirley is there at all: "Suddenly it occurred to [Myra]: Perhaps she came here hoping to run into me? She knows I come here a lot." Myra's suspicions are confirmed when she moves away, only to hear Shirley's "noisy feet running after her."

Every event in the story takes place in the context of one garden or another. The imagery of roses, birds, and fountains suggests traditional Marian imagery, and Myra's name is an anagram of Mary; the garden is at one point identified as "Queen Mary's Rose Garden," in reference, of course, to the former Queen of England, but perhaps suggesting the Queen of Heaven as well. The ubiquity of gardens in the work further suggests the idyllic meadow of flowers from which the young Kore was abducted in the ancient Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone, and the rebirth of vegetation when mythological mother and daughter were reunited in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, the oldest known version of the myth. In the myth, Persephone or Kore is abducted by Hades and taken to the underworld. Her mother, Demeter, seeks her in vain; grieved by her loss of her daughter, Demeter, goddess of vegetation, refuses to let seeds sprout or plants grow and thus causes a famine on earth. Zeus orders that Persephone be returned to her mother, but because she had eaten a pomegranate seed in the underworld, she must return to the underworld for a part of each year. When mother and daughter are reunited, Demeter restores fruitfulness to the planet (Athanassakis 1-15).

Like Persephone, Shirley, too, suffers during her exile to the underworld—in this case, marriage to a physically abusive man who roughly parallels Hades. Myra notes that Shirley looks "discontent," "sad," "alone and lonely." Shirley later, uncharacteristically, tells her mother, "I'd just like to see you, I've been missing you, believe it or not." The separation has hurt Myra as well. When she first spots her daughter, "Myra at once felt a much too familiar anguish, which she chose to ascribe to the tactlessness that permitted that dress on that body" (emphasis added). She is later more honest with herself:"Soon Shirley came in, and Myra's heart hurt at the sight of that face…." Clearly their separation has grieved them both.

If they need each other so desperately, why, then, have they spent three years avoiding each other? Shirley ostensibly broke off the relationship over her mother's nosiness. Myra had gone over to Shirley's house on a visit: "No answer from the front door, so she went to the back and there, through the window of the kitchen, saw Shirley having it off with some man certainly not her husband." Not surprisingly, a quarrel follows this inverted primal scene. As Shirley then indicates, it's not her mother's "spying" that bothers her, but the prospect of her mother's life: "If she, Shirley, thought she was going to end up like her mother, then … It went on and on …" (first ellipses Lessing's). Shirley doesn't want to "end up like her mother," to be like her mother, to become her mother.

Timid and conventional, Myra abhors conflict and much prefers the peace of rose gardens to the sturm und drang of human relationship. In her passage through the gardens, she considers that what she most enjoys is her sense of control and choice: "There was no greater pleasure than this, wandering through roses and deciding, I'll have you … no, you … no, perhaps…." In her role as a mother, she lacks such control and choice, and clearly this lack disturbs her. Two years earlier, she had chosen a rose called "Just Joey"; "joey" is a slang term used to refer to a young animal or child (OED). "This charmer had done well," Myra recalls, not unlike her elder daughter, Lynda. As this year's choice, she prefers a rose called "L'Oreal Trophy" to the one Shirley chooses, "Troika": "Myra was not going to buy that, it lacked subtlety, did not have that unearthly shimmer to it." Unfortunately, Myra cannot so easily reject her daughter, who is also, in her opinion, "bold, highly colored" and lacking in subtlety.

What seems to disturb Myra most about her problem child is Shirley's physicality: "The dress was too tight and emphasized a body that managed to be thin and lumpy at the same time, because of big buttocks and prominent shoulders." During the confrontation that results in their three-year separation, "… Myra stood listening to Shirley standing there with her hands on her round hips, her big knees showing under a short ugly dress, her face scarlet with rage—and thought how common she looked." The version of the story published in The Real Thing offers an even harsher statement from Myra: "[She] thought she looked like the common little bitch she was." Myra later observes Shirley, "her big shoulders hunched forward, her shining black hair making licks down her red cheeks, her short gaudy skirt showing big knees" and paradoxically notes immediately following this extraordinarily uncharitable description, "This ugly woman was attractive to men, always had been, even as a small girl. Men were looking at her now." Myra's description of Shirley is obviously distorted by Myra's own biases. She is, perhaps, a little jealous of (and even threatened by) her daughter's strength and physical attractiveness, qualities she herself lacks. She is especially uncomfortable with Shirley's sexuality, perhaps because she has so thoroughly repressed her own. Ironically, this daughter is more "earthy" than Demeter.

Like Shirley, Myra is dismayed by the differences between herself and her daughter. Greatly disturbed by their quarrel, "Myra had not bothered to get in touch after that. The truth was, she was glad of the excuse not to see her." She prefers the more congenial Lynda, whom she thinks of as "her other (her real!) daughter" to the troublesome Shirley:

Lynda, the elder daughter … now lived the same kind of life her mother did, with two children, a boy and a girl. When the two women were together, Myra and Lynda—ample, slow, calm-eyed—people knew at once they were mother and daughter, but no one had ever at once thought Shirley was Myra's daughter or Lynda's sister. Where had Shirley come from?

Myra apparently sees Shirley as a kind of changeling, a daughter so foreign to herself that any relationship is certain to be complex at best. Yet ironically, the two are more alike than they are different.

For example, Shirley pauses before "a rose Myra herself rather fancied," and Myra thinks to herself, "By this time next year the plant would be in Myra's garden. And in Shirley's?" Similarly, Myra is described as "adjusting her pace to her daughter's."

Later, in a less peaceful moment, Shirley shrieks that her mother "always put up with everything" and angrily demands to know why her mother has never stood up to "Dad"—yet paradoxically, she herself admits of her former husband, "He beat me, Mum!," and Myra detects a tone of admiration in Shirley's voice. As Adrienne Rich writes:

Many daughters live in rage at their mothers for having accepted, too readily and passively, "whatever comes." A mother's victimization does not merely humiliate her, it mutilates the daughter who watches her for clues as to what it means to be a woman. (Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, 1986)

Rich later goes on to point out that "a daughter can feel rage at her mother's powerlessness or lack of struggle—because of her intense identification and because in order to fight for herself she needs first to have been both loved and fought for." Thus even Shirley's anger grows from her sense of unity with her mother.

Moreover, throughout the story, both Myra and Shirley consciously make reciprocal gestures of identification with each other: Shirley begins by taking up her mother's hobby of gardening; Myra responds by inviting Shirley to see her roses. Myra mentions that Dad is "off fishing this weekend," and Shirley in turn confides that the man she lives with "goes on nature rambles … every bloody weekend." Myra notes the similarity of their situations: "'Then I'll be a fishing widow and you'll be a natureramble widow,' dared Myra, smiling—as she knew—with nervousness."

It is this final gesture of identification that very nearly sets Shirley off once again. These tentative gestures of identification further echo the Demeter-Kore myth, in which the mother and daughter are doubles for each other [see C. Kerenyi, Eleusis: Archetypal Image of Mother and Daughter, translated by Ralph Manheim, 1977]. The myth centers on "the achievement of a successful identification with the mother," which works in the myth as a "form of female solidarity … whose basis is the special and particular comfort, affection, and general gratification which women are able to offer one another." She emphasizes that this mother-daughter bond, which is central to the myth, is "a female solidarity which is discovered in the context of a patriarchal world."

The Homeric Hymn and Lessing's short story resemble each other structurally, as well as thematically. Male family members are conspicuous by their absence; the reader knows next to nothing of Myra's husband, and Shirley's husband and lovers are only slightly more present. Christine Downing's remark about the hymn pertains equally well to Lessing's story: "Clearly this representation of a primal dyad between mother and daughter, not intruded upon by a father or siblings, could fairly be called 'a family romance.'" Moreover, in both the Homeric Hymn to Demeter and Lessing's short story, "the attempt to reestablish the mother child unity is related … from the mother's point of view" [Marilyn Arthur, "Politics and Pomegranates: An Interpretation of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter," Arethusa 10 (1977)].

At least in part the breach between mother and daughter suggests a division between two not-quite-reconcilable worlds—one of female community and another of heterosexuality. When Shirley initially rejects her mother's gardening as a hobby, "She claimed she loathed Nature except (wink, wink) for a little of what you fancy"—thus making explicit this choice between two alternatives. It is, after all, her mother's (literal) glimpse of her active sexuality that causes the breach between them in the first place. Others have noted such divided allegiances in Lessing's oeuvre, most notably, perhaps, in The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five, the second volume in her space fiction series. [In a footnote, Tyler adds: "See for example Kaplan:

The avatar of this triangle may be Doris Lessing herself, the Outsider, Everywoman on the veld, with the wise, omnipotent, unattainable, remote British Empire on one side, and the warm, human, emotional, impoverished, culturally inferior (in the eyes of white settlers), ignorant, black population on the other. Or perhaps the paradigm is even more personal: Doris Lessing torn between the remote, aloof father and the emotional, irrational, less admirable mother of the Children of Violence novels." [Carey Kaplan, "Britain's Imperialist Past in Doris Lessing's Futurist Fiction," Doris Lessing: The Alchemy of Survival, edited by Carey Kaplan and Ellen Cronan Rose, 1988]

This pattern, which Marianne Hirsch describes as one of "oscillation" [The Mother/Daughter Plot: Narrative, Psychoanalysis, Feminism, 1989], can be life-affirming: "… the life cycle itself arises from alternation between the world of women and that of men" [Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development, 1982]. Lessing affirms this pattern in Marriages, in which only the marriage of a man and a woman who come from alien worlds can restore fruitfulness to both their planets.

Certainly, as a number of her critics have noted, Lessing favors dialectic both as a mode of thought and as a narrative strategy. She implies in "Among the Roses" that this relationship may be a dialectical one, that mother and daughter will once again quarrel—and once again return to each other, that they will endlessly repeat the cycle. As in the myth, "Even in their reunion there is still a portion of bitterness … The mother never quite succeeds in getting her daughter back again" [C. Kerenyi, "Kore," Essays on a Science of Mythology, C. G. Jung and Kerenyi, translated by R. E. C. Hull, 1969]. Before Shirley approaches her, "Myra decided for the hundredth time she didn't want any more of Shirley." Later, Shirley, perhaps a little frightened when her mother uses the word "widow" to refer to them both, very nearly explodes in a fit of temper: "She stopped, evidently remembering that she had just made up with her mother and did not want to quarrel again. At least, not yet." Even the story's final sentence suggests repetition; Myra sighs: "But she changed the sigh into a cough, for fear it would set Shirley off again." As Marianne Hirsch writes of the myth, "Loss is presented as inevitable, part of the natural sequence of growth, but, since time is cyclical, mother-daughter reunion forms a natural part of the cycle."

Lessing's story, then, emphasizes cycle as well as dialectic. Myra apparently returns to the rose garden annually, and her route is a "circuit" that brings her back "to where she had started." She and her daughter repeatedly meet in rose gardens, and a rose garden will be the site of their next meeting.

Adrienne Rich has publicly criticized Lessing for what she calls "a real failure to envisage … any kind of really powerful central bonding of women, even though individual women get together in her novels and go through intense things together" ["An Interview with Adrienne Rich," by Elly Bulkin, Conditions, 60 (April 1977)]. But Lessing seems, in this story at least, to be showing women attempting to create such a bond, although admittedly with great difficulty and some reluctance. Shirley's anger at her mother is extreme, out of proportion. Her response perhaps suggests that there is something fishy about her father's fishing trip; marriages in Lessing's fiction are rarely portrayed positively, and she generally implies that extramarital affairs are almost inevitable. But Shirley's "furious black resentment that positively scorched her mother" may also be displaced anger, anger at the men and the society that place both her mother and herself in such a weak, dependent position that they must "put up with everything" and never stand up to their husbands. As in the Demeter-Persephone myth, then, "The grievous separation of mother and maiden implies that in a patriarchal society women are divided from each other and from themselves" [Susan Gubar, "Mother, Maiden and the Marriage of Death: Women Writers and an Ancient Myth," Women's Studies 6 (1979)].

Contrary to Rich's argument, Lessing's women do not see each other as inadequate substitutes for heterosexual relationships; on the contrary, men are merely inadequate, unsatisfactory substitutes for that unattained and unattainable first love of Lessing's female protagonists:

Increasingly in her later fiction, Lessing indicates that women's future is with each other. In several of her novels in the 1970s and 1980s, women thrive better with one another than with men so that her women's needs to fuse and suffer in heterosexual relationships look like neurotic distortions of their unhealed needs for mother love. [Judith Kegan Gardiner, Rhys, Stead, Lessing and the Politics of Empathy, 1989]

Lessing's own jealousy of her sibling and her use of the word "Troika" in this story suggest a possible family love triangle in which the father (so crucial to Freud's Oedipal stage) is never involved.

In "Among the Roses," Lessing posits a complex relationship between a mother and her daughter, a relationship that avoids both the symbiotic unity of infancy (which, as Nancy Friday rather graphically points out, becomes grotesque in adulthood) and the matrophobia that characterizes so many women's works, and particularly the works of feminist daughters with conventional, traditionalist mothers. Their relationship is not assured; on the contrary, Lessing stresses how stormy and difficult fashioning such a relationship is likely to be. But both women are clearly trying, and the story ends rather comically (especially for the sometimes dour Lessing, whose sense of humor rarely appears in her work) on a note of mutual tolerance and agreement:

"Oh, God," said Shirley. "I can't believe. I simply cannot believe …" She stopped, evidently remembering that she had just made up with her mother and did not want to quarrel again. At least, not yet. "Oh, well, it takes all sorts," she conceded, as agreeably as was possible to her.

"Yes, it certainly does," said Myra with a sigh. But she changed the sigh into a cough, for fear it would set Shirley off again.

This story perhaps constitutes Lessing's most optimistic examination of the mother-daughter relationship; certainly it is one of her most tightly focused. Her novels, whose mother-daughter relationships have received more attention, sometimes seem by comparison overstuffed with an embarrassment of plots, subplots, and complex themes. In her stories, the disciplined spareness of design compels the reader to confront directly the dramas and difficulties of mother-daughter relationships.

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