Lessing's Early and Transitional Novels: The Beginnings of a Sense of Selfhood

Deepsouth v.4 n.1 (Autumn 1998) 
Copyright (c) 1998 by 
Lynda Scott - University of Otago, Department of English 
  All rights reserved. 
"Lessing uses symbolic images of rooms to illustrate the limitations that individuals, particularly women, experience because of the patriarchal collective, in both "To Room Nineteen" and The Grass is Singing." 

Here I examine Lessing's first novel The Grass is Singing (1950), her short story "To Room Nineteen" (1978), The Summer Before the Dark (1973), and Martha Quest and A Proper Marriage, the first two novels of Children of Violence. The reason that I group them together is because each text deals with Lessing's constant preoccupation between an individual's conscience and that of the wider collective, although in neither of her texts do her protagonists seek deliberately to break down into madness as they will in later texts and in The Golden Notebook. Since Lessing's interest in Sufic thought almost coincides with the publication of The Golden Notebook (1962), understandably it is only after this date that her protagonists most fully confront archetypal images and aspects of a Jungian self. 

Lessing's The Grass is Singing and "To Room Nineteen" are most remarkable for their accurate depiction of her characters' self-annihilation. Such a death, whether literal or psychological, occurs because the characters cannot act independently of the ideologies which impinge upon them. Kate Brown is more fortunate in developing a sense of a more complete self than Martha in these early Children of Violence texts. In a similar way to Anna Wulf in The Golden Notebook, who decides to become a social worker, Kate Brown returns to her family responsibilities with a heightened sense of self-knowledge and identity. Unlike Anna though, Kate Brown never seeks "madness" nor does she allow her self to merge with the collective unconscious in the same way. Her psychic transformation falls short of the Sufic ideal of individual evolution through an exploration of subjectivity and a corresponding realisation of one's inherent potential.  

In both Martha Quest and A Proper Marriage, Martha is resentfully cognisant of collective pressures which include, as was the case for Mary Turner, a societal expectation for her to marry conventionally. In contrast to Mary Turner, and Susan Rawlings in "To Room Nineteen," however, Martha fights, even if unsuccessfully, against these collective forces. Like Kate Brown, she makes conscious efforts to develop her own definition and statement of selfhood. She differs from Kate though, in that she decides to leave her marriage, rather than to return to it.  

In this chapter I shall be chiefly concerned with the commonalities between these texts, all of which, bar The Summer Before the Dark and "To Room Nineteen," precede Lessing's The Golden Notebook. I also discuss here the importance of each text in relation to Lessing's self-representational presentation of either her unified self at any given moment or selves, and to Lessing's changing treatment of madness, a frequent motif in her works. 

* * * * * * * * * *

In her first novel The Grass is Singing (1950), Lessing sets up the model of the collective experience, then illustrates how Mary attempts to adapt herself to androcentric expectations about women even though she is unsuited to them. Then she undercuts these expectations and these artificial constructions of selfhood with Mary's personal experience of negating self through death. It is significant that Mary "could have become a person on her own account. But this was against her instinct."1 It is this unwillingness and inability to act on her own account which distinguishes her from other women protagonists of Lessing's transitional or intermediate novels. In later works such as Children of Violence, The Golden Notebook, and The Memoirs of a Survivor, Lessing's heroines undertake successful journeys towards individuation. These protagonists are active and dynamic whereas Susan Rawlings and Mary Turner choose only to die. Lessing states of Mary's life that "it was a passive one, in some respects, for it depended on other people entirely" (35). Her life becomes the object of other people's commentaries since "she was not playing her part, for she did not get married" (36). When she inadvertently overhears friends discussing how "[s]he just isn't like that," she is spurred into looking for a marriage partner in order to fulfil patriarchal expectations (39). 

In The Grass is Singing, then, Lessing reveals the consequences of a protagonist's failure to reconcile personal experience and aspects of her personal identity with the dictates of a wider collective. For example, Mary does not consciously seek to explore her past and her unhappy childhood, even though she makes every effort to live an existence different to that of her mother. By her obdurate and unexamined attempts to reject the way her parents lived, Mary, like the Martha of the early novels of Children of Violence, repeats their mistakes. She resists marriage because 

[w]hen Mary thought of "home" she remembered a wooden box shaken by passing trains; when she thought of marriage she remembered her father coming home red-eyed and fuddled; when she thought of children she saw her mother's face at her children's funerals — anguished, but as dry and as hard as rock. Mary liked other people's children but shuddered at the thought of having any of her own. She felt sentimental at weddings, but she felt a profound distaste for sex; there had been little privacy in her home and there were things she did not care to remember; she had taken good care to forget them years ago. (37-38) 

It is partly Mary's refusal to come to terms with the sexual side of marriage that causes the later sterility of her own marriage. 

Her initial fear of sexuality bars her from entering into a relationship, and when her acceptance of a proposal is rewarded with a kiss, a "violent revulsion overcame her and she ran away" (42). Understandably, when she experiences love-making for the first time with her new husband Dick Turner, she is unable to meet him sexually. Instead, "she was able maternally to bestow the gift of herself on this humble stranger and remain untouched" (57). With relief she thinks, "[i]t was not so bad ... not as bad as that. It meant nothing to her, nothing at all" (57). Having experienced sex, however, she does not want children. Maternity would mean a deeper, more personal confrontation with her sexuality which she refuses to acknowledge. Once, when she passes a group of African women, she knows that  

she hated the way they suckled their babies, with their breasts hanging down for everyone to see; there was something in their calm satisfied maternity that made her blood boil. "Their babies hanging on to them like leeches," she said to herself shuddering, for she thought with horror of suckling a child. The idea of a child's lips on her breasts made her feel quite sick; at the thought of it she would involuntarily clasp her hands over her breasts, as if protecting them from a violation. (105) 

Her revulsion towards her own body becomes significant later in the novel when she allows Moses to view her as she dresses.  

Mary's horror of sexuality is inextricably linked with an inescapable past. Although she banishes thoughts of her childhood from her consciousness, her fear of her father becomes manifest in her dream life. Dreams reveal her need to become reconciled with her past in order to live a whole and balanced life in the present. In one unpleasant dream,  

[t]here was her father, the little man with the plump juicy stomach, beer-smelling and jocular, whom she hated, holding her mother in his arms. ... Her mother was struggling in mock protest, playfully expostulating. Her father bent over her mother, and at the sight, Mary ran away. (189)  

In another dream in which she plays hide-and-seek, 

[h]er father caught her head and held it in his lap ... to cover up her eyes. ... She smelled the sickly odour of beer, and through it she smelled too — her head held down in the thick stuff of his trousers — the unwashed masculine smell she always associated with him. She struggled to get her head free, for she was half-suffocating, and her father held it down, laughing at her panic. (190) 

This last dream must have autobiographical significance, for Lessing repeats it in The Memoirs of a Survivor, which she calls her "attempt at an autobiography," and again in her actual autobiography Under My Skin. It exemplifies Lessing's use of self-representational writing to confront, examine, and exorcise frightening aspects of her past, something which Mary Turner never does. Mary does not learn from her past, and it comes to haunt her marriage to Dick Turner. The union is a mistake, since she marries in order to prove she is like her conventional friends, who settle, happily, it seems, into marriage and family life. Mary cannot become like them because she is neither willing to remember her childhood nor to learn from it. Because of this failure she does not mature emotionally or psychically.  

Not only does she not reconcile herself with her past, but she also does not attempt to adapt herself to her hated present. For example, she dislikes accompanying Dick out on to the lands and shrinks from having to observe the unprofitable farm which traps her. Because she holds fast to the racist assumptions about Africans taught to her by her parents, she becomes fearfully insistent that their workers are pilfering her household belongings. Alone day after day in the house, with the sun beating down relentlessly on to the roof directly above, her entrapment forces her into a close contact with Moses, who makes her confront her abhorrence and fear of African people and her lack of knowledge about them. Paradoxically, when he becomes her house servant, Moses gains power over her. This is because she cannot forget the occasion when she once hit him, and she fears that he will retaliate. For Mary then, sex, fear and violence are intimately connected. Moses mesmerises and obsesses her as he carries out his household duties in clothes that are too small for him, in a house which seems too large, filled up with his bulk.2 

Mary's unexamined fear of her own sexuality, a fear shared by Maudie Fowler in The Diaries of Jane Somers, and Mrs Quest and Emily's mother in Memoirs, causes her to retreat into grotesque parodies of the conventional flirtatious behaviour expected of young matrons and the unmarried women of the town. She behaves inappropriately towards both Charlie Slatter and Moses, and disgusts Charlie when she violates the unwritten social code between white people and their black servants by allowing Moses to be overly familiar with her. 

Because of Mary's inability to act satisfactorily within patriarchal and social boundaries the marriage is doomed to failure. Lessing comments of Dick (the statement applies equally to Mary) that "[i]t is terrible to destroy a person's picture of himself [sic] in the interests of truth or some other abstraction. How can one know he will be able to create another to enable him to go on living" (43). Mary's marriage to Dick forces her to enter into an adult life for which she is not ready, and to abandon her life as a popular companion in the town for a life of solitude and isolation. Lessing points out the differences between Dick, who although he has no success as a farmer, feels at one with the veld and nature, and Mary, who cannot adjust to the harshness of her new life. For Mary, "it was impossible to fit together what she wanted for herself, and what she was offered" (44). Through Mary's slow descent into lethargy, Lessing reveals to the reader just such an inability to forge a personal sense of self independently of Dick or the expectations of others. 

Partly because neither Mary nor Dick develops their own sense of selfhood, both immediately regret their decision to marry. But it is too late. Mary's new life of respectable poverty and struggling decency binds her to her past, and upon arriving at Dick's after her wedding she comes to know that "this tiny stuffy room, the bare brick floor, the greasy lamp, were not what she had imagined" (55). A gap opens up between the myths of the collective and the real experiences of her parents, which she inevitably repeats. Lessing provides no escape for Mary, who can neither return to her single life before marriage nor adapt herself to marriage. Unlike Martha in The Four-Gated City, Mary cannot escape the pressures of the collective through mysticism and a transcendence of the earthly self. As Lessing comments, 

[t]he women who marry men like Dick learn sooner or later that there are two things they can do: they can drive themselves mad, tear themselves to pieces in storms of futile anger and rebellion; or they can hold themselves tight and go bitter. Mary, with the memory of her own mother recurring more and more frequently, like an older, sardonic double of herself walking beside her, followed the course her upbringing made inevitable. (99) 

Mary chooses the passive course and seems to die from within as she observes Dick's many unprofitable attempts to save the farm from bankruptcy. 

When Dick, having failed at his schemes to turn his farm to profit with bees, pigs, turkeys and rabbits, opens a "kaffir" store on their property, the similarities between Mary's past and present appear complete: "[i]t seemed to Mary a terrible thing, an omen and a warning, that the store, the ugly menacing store of her childhood, should follow her here, even to her home" (103). Like Susan Rawlings in "To Room Nineteen," Mary cannot talk to Dick honestly about her feelings, "for the good reason that he was now associated in her mind with the grayness and misery of her childhood, and it would have been like arguing with destiny itself" (105). For Mary then, an individual cannot change her or his self through an act of will. Her inability to develop positively her own sense of self proves fatal.  

Because she does not perceive her childhood or her earlier life in the town as steps in the inevitable creation and re-creation of her identity, Mary becomes trapped when she refuses to take positive steps towards creating her own sense of self. She thinks instead that her past is segmented into distinct life-stages which one can forget or return to at will. This belief means that she leaves Dick to take up employment in her old firm as soon as a position is advertised (109). Once there though, she realises the differences between her present existence and past, and becomes aware that she is too old for the position. She has cracked brown hands of which she is ashamed, and wears an old dress. When Dick comes to town to collect her, she returns to him without argument, painfully aware that she is not the woman she once was or believed herself to be. It becomes "an effort for her to do anything at all. ... This was the beginning of an inner disintegration in her. It began with this numbness, as if she could no longer feel or fight" (115). Her death of her conscious self in this way contrasts with her frenetic "house-keeping" at the start of her marriage. Then Mary had made her new home more comfortable, sewing and white-washing all the walls: "[t]here she sat all day, sewing and stitching, hour after hour, as if fine embroidery would save her life" (65). Later, however, "even her restlessness passed. She would sit for hours at a time ... as if she were in a stupor. It seemed that something had finally snapped inside of her, and she would gradually fade and sink into darkness" (153). Her experience is similar to Lessing's own frantic efforts at adapting to her first marriage as she recounts in Under My Skin. 3 

Mary degenerates into madness because she fails either to reconcile herself with her past and her past selves, or to integrate successfully into her self such facets as her sexuality. But she also breaks down because she does not seek an equilibrium between her personal conscience and the dictates of the collective. One might conclude therefore, that her inability to think beyond the experiences of the collective, to free herself from the ideologies of the androcentric society in which she has grown up, lead inextricably to her self-willed death. "What had happened," says Lessing,  

was that the formal pattern of black-and-white, mistress-and-servant, had been broken by the personal relation; and when a white man [sic] ... looks into the eyes of a native and sees the human being (which it is his chief preoccupation to avoid), his sense of guilt, which he denies, fumes up in resentment and he brings down the whip (166-67). 

Such authorial intrusion might allow a critic to interpret The Grass is Singing as a text chiefly concerned with racial issues. 

The ideology of race traps Mary just as the ideology of womanhood limits and suffocates Susan Rawlings in "To Room Nineteen." Unable to view Moses except as a danger and a threat to her existence, Mary feels that "she had lost her balance; she had no control over her actions" (167). Moses' polished black skin symbolises the threat he poses to Mary, the power which he exerts over her when "he forced her, now to treat him as a human being [so] ... she never ceased to be aware of him" (181). He also symbolises her own sexuality, which she fears, loathes and views as evil. When Mary becomes hysterical after Moses asks to leave, he guides her to her bed: "[i]t was like a nightmare where one is powerless against horror: the touch of this black man's hand on her shoulder filled her with nausea; she had never, not once in her whole life, touched the flesh of a native" (175). Her world disintegrates partly because of her inability to live the life of a white "missus." Without her adherence to the strict cultural and racial protocols of her society, she has nothing stable upon which to base her existence. She cannot think outside of the ideologies taught to her as a child. 

Mary drifts into a state of confusion because of her feelings about Moses and Dick, both of whom she associates with her father. Her mental turmoil arises as a result of her hated childhood, her fear of her father and her disgust at her sexuality, none of which she deals with. For example, when Moses tends Dick who is sick with malaria, Mary dreams that her husband is dead and that Moses 

approached slowly, obscene and powerful, and it was not only he, but her father who was threatening her. They advanced together, one person, and she could smell, not the native smell, but the unwashed smell of her father. ... He was comforting her because of Dick's death, consoling her protectively; but at the same time it was her father menacing and horrible, who touched her in desire. (192) 

Mary's dreams, her fear about her sexuality, the problems she has with accepting her past and so learning to live in the future, all occur in her house. It therefore comes to symbolise the disintegration of Mary's conscious self which leads to her death, and to represent Mary's literal, emotional and psychological entrapment. Tony, the fresh young Englishman whom Slatter employs as manager for the Turner farm, comes to understand Mary's plight. Analysing her degeneration into a thin, sick, mad woman, he thinks "[f]or her, there was only the farm; not even that — there was only this house, and what was in it. And he began to understand with a horrified pity, her utter indifference to Dick; she had shut out everything that conflicted with her actions, that would revive the code she had been brought up to follow" (221). Unfortunately, Mary's attempts to forget her past serve only to alienate her from her neighbours as well as her husband. Intent on leading a decent life, she offends her good-willed neighbours by her aloofness and refusal to participate in the expected round of social visiting. 

Mary's collapse into madness occurs because she does not have the strong psychic motivation to integrate her various aspects of a integrated self. Lacking the courage to confront her past and to thrust herself into a new environment, she continues to measure herself against the old standards of the town. The harmless comment made by her friends about her lack of relationships and sexual awareness obsesses her to the extent that she allows Moses to help her into her dresses, while she remains still, doll-like and childish. Such an action reveals her alienation from her essential self as well as from the standards of both town and country. The episode also violates the formal pattern of black-white relations. Dick her kind-hearted husband becomes to her "a torturing reminder of what she had to forget in order to remain herself" (225). She refuses to allow herself to become close to him since that would mean she would become vulnerable. Instead she forces herself to endure the nights with him. In everything she remains passive, and she makes no attempt to carve out her own existence. 

When she waits for her death at the hands of Moses (who murders her with the same weapon she once used against him), she wonders "[w]hat had she done? Nothing, of her own volition. Step by step, she had come to this, a woman without will, sitting on an old ruined sofa that smelled of dirt, waiting for the night to come that would finish her" (230). Tangled in the ideology of patriarchy, Mary is at first sure that Tony will rescue her because he is aware of the menace Moses appears to her to represent (234), but although Mary dies an inevitable death, she does achieve some form of limited knowledge, for when she had visited Tony it became clear to her that he could not help her. She had thought then that she 

would walk out her road alone. ... That was the lesson she had to learn. If she had learned it, long ago, she would not be standing here now, having been betrayed for the second time by her weak reliance on a human being who should not be expected to take the responsibility for her. (238) 

Mary Turner's realisation of her need for self-reliance and for self-absorption comes too late. But it is a lesson learned by both Kate Brown in The Summer Before the Dark and Martha in Children of Violence. Kate never comes to know the fragmentation of her acknowledged self such that Anna Wulf experiences, nor the crossing of trans-personal ego boundaries that Martha achieves with Lynda. Neither does she endure the dissolving of the individual into the collective as completely as the Survivor or Martha. But she does come to a fuller understanding of her self and the various collective pressures upon it, despite her more limited psychological growth. 

In Lessing's much later short story "To Room Nineteen" (1978), the main protagonist also dies. Her death, unlike Mary's, does not derive from a complete lack of volition or limited self-awareness. Rather, it occurs when the tensions she experiences and acknowledges between her needs and the demands of the collective become too great for her. Lessing depicts the Rawlings as bound and limited by the ideologies of marriage, family life, and childhood, as well as by the conventional standards of "success." Susan, for example, leaves her job in an advertising firm upon marriage and is pregnant after two years4. Shaped by collective pressures, the Rawlings attempt to adhere to middle-class standards, while learning from what they perceive to be the mistakes and failures of others who they believed "had married young" and who "probably regretted lost opportunities" (253). They establish their marriage through rational discussion which takes precedence over emotional contact and honesty. Although Susan Rawlings refuses to "make the mistake of taking a job for the sake of her independence" (255), she is trapped in the ideology of the patriarchal collective which demands from her "motherhood" and life as an uncomplaining, charming and devoted wife.5 

Through an ironic use of the collective's language, which is Susan's only way of thinking, Lessing reveals Susan's tensions between her personal sense of "self" and the ideology of the collective. Lessing comments, 

[f]or it was inevitable that the handsome, blond, attractive, manly man, Matthew Rawlings, should be at times tempted ... by the attractive girls at parties she could not attend because of the four children; and that sometimes he would succumb ... and that she, a good-looking woman in the big well-tended garden at Richmond, would sometimes be pierced as by an arrow from the sky with bitterness. (257) 

The couple believe that they have acted by choice and will in all their decisions, but both Susan and Matthew experience a certain disappointment with their well-planned life. Each though, reassures the other that "everything was all right. Everything was in order. Yes, things were under control" (255). Susan, increasingly isolated from her life as a free woman, becomes aware that she did not choose her limited life. More and more she relies on archetypal images and the phrases of the collective, and prepares for "her own slow emancipation away from the role of hub-of-the-family into woman-with-her-own-life" (311). Unlike Kate Brown in The Summer Before the Dark, however, Susan fails to make the transition, and never gains a life apart. She comes to realise that "[a] high price has to be paid for the happy marriage with the four healthy children in the large white gardened house" (310). That price is the loss of her freedom and sense of her social self. 

Water imagery in "To Room Nineteen" conveys to the reader the course of the Rawlings' marriage, the emotional turmoil, and the gradual disintegration of Susan's ego which causes her lack of energy. To begin with, Susan is comfortable with her marriage, husband, and family, and happy in the confines of the "big married bedroom (which had an attractive view of the river)" (255). Later, as husband and wife fall into habit and out of love, drifting apart into such different lives, they "lay side by side, or breast to breast in the big civilised bedroom overlooking the wild sullied river, [and] they laughed, often, for no particular reason; but they knew it was really because of these two small people ... supporting such an edifice on their intelligent love" (258). The river comes to symbolise Susan's reluctance to change, her inability to define herself against and in relation to the collective, rather than letting herself float along with the demoralising collective experience. Once, to be alone, she "went to the very end of the garden, by herself, and looked at the slow-moving brown river ... and closed her eyes and breathed slow and deep, taking it into her being, into her veins" (263). Her actions here are ironic, because she identifies with the social collective, although it is the very force which prevents her from having time to herself and to be her self. 

Gradually, however, the collective experience metaphorically submerges and subsumes Susan and she allows herself to drown. The last time she visits the hotel she spends her time "delightfully, darkly, sweetly, letting herself slide gently, gently, to the edge of the river" (286). As she dies, "[s]he was quite content lying there, listening to the dark soft hiss of the gas that poured into the room, into her lungs, into her brain, as she drifted off into the dark river" (286). That final image, suggestive perhaps of the mythological river of forgetfulness, is significant. It illustrates Susan's complete loss of self-identity to the patriarchal collective in spite of her disillusionment with its ideals. The passivity of the image reveals Susan's submission to the collective. Like Mary Turner in The Grass is Singing, she can perceive escape only through death. 

Her literal death mirrors her death of any sense of an independent self which occurs slowly once cultural expectations overwhelm her. Like Anna Wulf in The Golden Notebook, for instance, Susan forgets herself while her children are at home. She devotes her complete being to family life, to the fulfilment of the patriarchal dream of "normality." But after her twins start school, she loses her function within the family and her place within society. Although she now has only herself to think about, she does not know who she really is, and cannot seem to find her self. Alone, 

she sat defeating the enemy, restlessness. Emptiness. She ought to be thinking about her life, about herself. But she did not. Or perhaps she could not. As soon as she forced her mind to think about Susan (for what else did she want to be alone for?) it skipped off to thoughts of butter or school clothes. (262) 

She resents that never "was she free from the pressure of time, from having to remember this or that. She could never forget herself; never really let herself go into forgetfulness" (264). It is as though her family is a "painful pressure on the surface of her skin, a hand pressing on her brain" (264). She is unable to have a life apart from her family. Even when she goes on a walking holiday to Wales she finds that she cannot help thinking of her family responsibilities. She feels tormented by her family and "the telephone wire [which was] holding her to her duty like a leash" (271). Her acute awareness of her role as a wife and mother means that "[t]he mountains themselves seemed trammelled by her freedom." Unfortunately, therefore, Susan cannot separate herself from her role as a wife and mother in order to create an existence for herself. 

In a vain effort to have time to develop her own sense of selfhood she rents a room in a hotel in which to be alone. When she is unable to explain to Matthew her reasons for doing this she resorts to patriarchal expectations and invents an affair. Matthew, like Susan, is trapped within patriarchy and more specifically, within a role as a successful husband. He plays a role which implicitly allows for, and condones the occasional affair. In response to her pleas for time apart, he merely says that it seems unnecessary now that the children are at school, noting that he has no time of freedom either (265). Thus Matthew embodies patriarchy while also being its victim. He refuses either to appreciate that he is acting out a socially-conditioned role as a man or to understand the limited roles patriarchy forces upon women.  

Lessing uses symbolic images of rooms to illustrate the limitations that individuals, particularly women, experience because of the patriarchal collective, in both "To Room Nineteen" and The Grass is Singing. In each case rooms represent female entrapment and limitation rather than psychic growth, freedom, and the merging of the personal and collective experiences as they do in later texts such as The Four-Gated City. In "To Room Nineteen," "Mother's Room" becomes another family room, which makes Susan feel "even more caged than in her bedroom" (266). When Matthew later traces her through a detective agency to her hotel room, it too fails to provide her with sanctuary:  

[s]he tried to shrink herself back into the shelter of the room, a snail pecked out of its shell and trying to squirm back. But the peace of the room had gone. She was trying consciously to revive it, trying to let go into the dark creative trance (or whatever it was) that she had found there. ... Several times she returned to the room, to look for herself there, but instead she found ... a prickling 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. (280) 

Unable to escape from her role, Susan decides to die. It is obvious that, like Mary Turner in The Grass is Singing, she does not have the ability to think outside the ideologies of the androcentric collective. As Susan prepares to commit suicide by gassing herself she thinks, "what hypocrisy to sit here worrying about the children, when she was going to leave them because she had not got the energy to stay" (286). Throughout her life, she had lacked the energy to form a life for herself, and her passivity unfortunately has fatal consequences. 

It is such an absence of personal will and vitality which Kate Brown in The Summer Before the Dark learns to avoid. Like Mary Turner and Susan Rawlings, she finds that in middle-age she must evaluate her past, since the conflicting stories and myths of her personal and collective experiences confuse and de-centre her, and she puzzles over who she really is. In a similar fashion to Martha who attempts to appropriate first the definitions of literature for herself, and then the roles that the patriarchal collective prescribes for her, Kate feels as if "for some time now she had been 'trying on' ideas like so many dresses off a rack. She was letting words and phrases as worn as nursery rhymes slide around her tongue: for towards the crucial experiences custom allots certain attitudes, and they are pretty stereotyped."6 The lives of her grown-up children need no longer dictate the shape of her existence, and the impending disintegration of the family over the summer leads Kate to think about a role in a life which is increasingly becoming more unreal to her. She thinks that "[t]he truth was, she was becoming more and more uncomfortably conscious not only that the things she said, and a good many of the things she thought, had been taken off a rack and put on, but that what she really felt was something else again" (2). She gradually realises that she needs to have a personal definition of self instead of always adapting herself to meet her family’s needs and neglecting her own, which is what Susan Rawlings in "To Room Nineteen" could no longer bear to do. Kate muses that "[l]ooking back it seemed as if she had been at everybody's beck and call, always available, always criticised, always being bled to feed these — monsters" (89). These sentiments resemble those of Martha in A Proper Marriage, but whereas Lessing allows Martha to explore such feelings over the course of Children of Violence, her five-volume Bildgunsroman, Kate Brown comes to terms with her resentment over the course of the summer holiday.  

As the long summer approaches, and Kate at last has the chance to do as she pleases with her time and life, she forces herself to understand the constant pressures of the collective upon her. She wonders "[w]as there something wrong with her memory perhaps? It was seeming more and more as if she had several sets of memory, each contradicting the others" (52). She contrasts her upbringing with the reality she painfully experiences:  

[l]ooking back now at the beautiful girl, indulged by her mother, indulged and flattered by her grandfather, treated always with that slightly mocking deference which is offered to girls, and contrasting her with the same young woman of only five years later, she was tempted to cry out that it had all been a gigantic con trick, the most monstrous cynicism. Looking back she could see herself only as a fatted white goose. Nothing in the homage her grandfather paid womanhood, or in the way her mother had treated her, had prepared her for what she was going to have to learn, and soon. (91-92) 

Both Kate's realisation and Lessing's language with which to describe it are significant. Kate initially experiences the patriarchal collective as one which nurtures and idealises women, while at the same time de-valuing them. She comes to understand that from birth society imbues women with false expectations of respect from, and equality with men. Society, however, feeds off women once they reach maturity. During her summer alone it becomes apparent to Kate that women, including herself, have been done a great dis-service. Rather than being treated as "goddesses," society denies them an existence of their own. They become slaves to the expectations of others — namely men. Alone at last, Kate slowly begins to realise that her roles as wife and mother are inimical to her own process of self-nurture. It is significant that such an observation can occur only when at last she is free to think, just as Anna Wulf's journey into madness and towards individuation happens when her daughter Janet is away at boarding school. 

Like Anna, Kate must seek and find a balance between the claims, demands, and conflicting needs of her personal conscience and those of the collective. When she achieves this equilibrium she comes closer to her archetypal image of the self. Kate recalls the early years of her marriage and her life with three young children, and how she had "to fight for qualities that had not been even in her vocabulary. Patience. Self-discipline. Self-control. Self-abnegation. Chastity. Adaptability to others — this above all. This always" (92). Her marriage and motherhood meant the adoption of a new persona, the creation of a new self. During the time away from her family she must discover her own personal self if she is going to return happily to her family responsibilities when the summer is over.  

In The Summer Before the Dark, then, Kate Brown acknowledges and confronts the distance between the way various collectives have structured her life, and her experience as she perceives it. During her time away from her family she undertakes a journey of self-discovery. Rather than subsuming her acknowledged self to collective pressures, she begins to understand the necessity of nurturing and protecting it. She realises that 

[w]hile her body, her needs, her emotions — all of herself — had been turning like a sunflower after one man, all that time she had been holding in her hands something else, the something precious offering it in vain to her husband, her children, to everyone she knew — but it had never been taken, had not been noticed. But this thing she had offered, without knowing she was doing it, which had been ignored by herself and by everyone else, was what was most real in her. (126) 

Conscious of her impulse to nurture, she holds herself back from acting like an over-protective mother towards her younger lover when he falls dangerously ill. 

Her dream of rescuing an injured seal and of travelling over hard terrain to return it to the ocean represents her growing concentration on her own developing sense of an integrated self. She deliberately immerses herself in the dream of the seal, and acts out many different roles such as being the manager of Global Foods conferences, the lover of the irresponsible young man, and the confidante of Maureen who is both a mother and daughter figure for her. By taking this approach Kate is able to return to her marriage, safe in the knowledge of who she really is, and less likely to become trapped again.  

Martha Quest also feels entrapped in her conventional middle-class roles as wife and mother like Susan Rawlings, Mary Turner and Kate Brown. But instead of choosing death or confinement within her roles, she increasingly seeks escape. In Martha Quest, Lessing again wrestles with the tensions which emerge from the paradigms of "personal" versus "public." Much of the language of the novel becomes a refrain echoing throughout the later works, particularly A Proper Marriage and Under My Skin. For instance, an adolescent Martha starts "having terrible nightmares of being tied hand and foot under the wheels of a locomotive, or struggling waist-deep in quicksands, or eternally climbing a staircase that moved backwards under her."7 All of her efforts to escape her social fate only trap her more effectively. Later as she moves towards marriage she "was feeling the last three months as a bewildering chaos of emotion, through which she had been pulled, will-less, like a fish at the end of a string, with a sense of being used by something impersonal and irresistible" (79-80).8 Such images reveal her preoccupation with the way in which collective pressures shape the lives and emotions of many women when they follow the dictates of society rather than their own instincts. 

In A Proper Marriage, Lessing deals with a woman's misery when she gives in to societal expectations, marries and has a child. The novel anticipates her later works because of its constant attention to women's biology. Although The Golden Notebook and Under My Skin also discuss women's private experiences in detail, it is only A Proper Marriage which so painfully records the tension a woman feels between her wants and the dictates of a body which seems to rebel against her intellect and better judgement. For instance, when Martha realises that her friend Alice is pregnant, she 

felt towards the pregnant woman, the abstraction, a strong repulsion which caused various images all unpleasant to rise into her mind one after another. ... She felt caged, for Alice. She could feel the bonds around herself. She consciously shook them off and exulted in the thought that she was free. ... But at the same time a deeper emotion was turning towards Alice, with an unconscious curiosity, warm, tender, protective. It was an emotion not far from envy.9  

Thus Lessing realistically depicts the dreadful tensions many women experience between their biological urges for another child and their need to cherish and protect their freedom. 

Lessing was not immune to these conflicting emotions, and A Proper Marriage reveals many of her own personal and often painful experiences of and responses to motherhood, as perhaps do also The Summer Before the Dark and The Diaries of Jane Somers (1984). It poignantly illustrates the tensions which exist between the miseries and sheer hard work of raising a child mostly alone, and the intense joys that can nevertheless occur. For example, Lessing juxtaposes Martha's anguish when she tries to coax Caroline to eat a congealed mess of food with her delight when she watches her daughter's waking moments in a sun-dappled cot. But these happy moments often contrast with Martha's sense of unhappiness and of inadequacy. In a conversation with her mother, for example, she is "silenced by the knowledge that she was certainly a failure, she could no more manage Caroline than Mrs Quest had managed her" (231). The ideology of motherhood traps Martha, who tries desperately to escape from her biological yearnings for another child. She feels "herself to be a hopeless failure; she was good for nothing, not even the simple natural function that every female should achieve like breathing: being a mother" (232). Aware of the possible fate which awaits her daughter, she cautions her against an early marriage (268). 

Torn between developing her own definition of self, and yet fitting into the roles patriarchy prescribes for her, Martha daydreams: "[o]ne of those warm, large, delightful, maternal, humorous females she would be; undemanding, unpossessive. One never met them, but if she put her mind to it, no doubt she could become one. She would lapse into it as into a sea and let everything go" (358).10 Because she knows that in truth she can never fit this ideal image, Martha must constantly fight "the pangs of pure panic that kept rising in her every moment at the idea of abandoning the person she felt herself to be" (358). The novel concludes with Martha leaving Douglas and Caroline, still on a quest to find her essential self. 

In this early work, Lessing's depiction of Martha's final decision is still positive, since Martha is no longer content to remain bound to a role and expectations she cannot fulfil. Martha has obviously matured into self-awareness when she muses about her husband, "I don't see how he can complain that I am what I always said I was" (399). Lessing explores her insight thus: "[f]or at this moment, she forgot the years of feminine compliance, of charm, of conformity to what he wanted. They had all been a lie against her real nature and therefore they had not existed" (399). Martha's reasons for deserting Douglas and Caroline cause Mrs Knowell, Douglas's mother, to realise suddenly how "her own life was made to look null and meaningless because Martha would not submit to what women always had submitted to" (435-36). The old woman envies Martha's new-found personal strength, and weeps silently because of her own sterile existence. Unlike Mrs Knowell who perseveres in unhappy circumstances, Martha continues to seek her own definition of selfhood and thus to control her own image in A Proper Marriage. Consequently, she moves further towards attaining a realisation of "Self" which Lessing documents in The Four-Gated City. Martha achieves this sense of selfhood not just through her exploration of the collective unconscious and her experiences of madness, but because she also accepts all the various aspects of her essential self.  

Martha Quest, A Proper Marriage, and "To Room Nineteen" are all transitional works in which Lessing deals with her recurring themes of the collective pressures upon an individual, "madness" and the exploration of "Self." Although all of the same themes are present in her first novel The Grass is Singing, it is different since her protagonist does not even begin to fight collective pressures. Although Lessing wrote both The Summer Before the Dark and "To Room Nineteen" after embracing Sufic philosophy, only The Summer Before the Dark reflects her exploration of the dream lives of her protagonists, and their meeting of aspects of selves and archetypal images as they progress towards the attainment of a sense of an integrated and palimpsestic self. 


Lessing, Doris, A Man and Two Women Hammersmith, London: Paladin-Harper Collins, 1992  

---, A Proper Marriage [1954] Hammersmith, London: Flamingo- Harper Collins, 1993  

---, The Grass is Singing [1950] New York, London: Plume, 1978  

---, The Summer Before the Dark [1973] New York: Bantam, 1974  

---, Martha Quest [1952] Hammersmith, London: Flamingo-Harper Collins, 1993  

---, Walking in the Shade: Volume Two of my Autobiography, 1949-1962 New York, Harper Collins, 1997 

1Doris Lessing, The Grass is Singing [1950] (New York, London: Plume, 1978) 35. 

2Interestingly, Lessing comments in Walking in the Shade (New York, Harper Collins, 1997), that she has not always been sure whether or not Mary Turner and Moses had sex. 8. 

3Doris Lessing, Under My Skin: Volume One of my Autobiography, to 1949 (Hammersmith, London: Harper Collins, 1994). Typically, Lessing analyses her experiences: "Now I ask myself what I thought I was doing, piping inner seams and whipping raw edges no one would ever see, when my usual way of going about things was a slapdash but successful improvisation," 230. 

4 Doris Lessing, "To Room Nineteen," A Man and Two Women (Hammersmith, London: Paladin-Harper Collins, 1992) 233. 

5Lessing, in Walking in the Shade, mistakenly refers to Susan as "Kate," 268. 

6Doris Lessing, The Summer Before the Dark [1973] (New York: Bantam, 1974) 7. 

7Doris Lessing, Martha Quest [1952] (Hammersmith, London: Flamingo, 1993) 37. 


9Doris Lessing, A Proper Marriage [1954] (Hammersmith, London: Flamingo, 1993) 121-22. 

10I suggest that Molly in The Golden Notebook perhaps represents such a figure. Lessing modelled Molly, to an extent, on her good friend Joan Rodker, as she explains in Walking in the Shade, 47.