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Reviewed by:
Margaret Moan Rowe. Doris Lessing. New York: St. Martin’s P, 1994. xii + 137 pp.
Gayle Greene. Doris Lessing: The Poetics of Change. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1994. 277 pp.

In approach and in effect, these two studies of Doris Lessing’s fiction could hardly differ more sharply. Yet they share a common understanding of Lessing’s vision and of her literary achievement. At the beginning of her compact book, Margaret Moan Rowe clearly outlines a psychological division in Lessing’s work between the world of the father and the world of the mother; between the visionary and the ordinary; between dreams and practicality; between imagination and common sense. In the course of offering incisive readings of all Lessing’s novels, Rowe traces how Lessing resolves—or refuses to [End Page 194] resolve—tensions between the paternal and maternal perspectives. Gayle Greene, in a more detailed set of readings, also notes the continual struggle in Lessing’s narratives between the force of visionary imagination and the drag of quotidian reality. Throughout her career, Greene argues, Lessing has constructed texts that tutor the imagination—turning it away from vain strivings for abstract knowledge or other-worldly visions and toward “empathy, connectedness, that ‘sober mutual trust’ that might save us.” Both Greene and Rowe set Lessing in the context of the most honored writing in the British literary tradition. Rowe finds intriguing parallels between Lessing’s career and that of George Eliot, while Greene identifies Lessing’s literary links to Shakespeare, Milton, and T. S. Eliot. Both Rowe and Greene follow the evolution of Lessing’s fiction through stages of philosophy and form, demonstrating how Lessing has produced an impressive array of compelling novels.

But there the similarity ends. Where Rowe is succinct, Greene is expansive. While Rowe is comprehensive in her treatment of the oeuvre, Greene is selective in her scope. Rowe’s tone is careful, even cautious, and her judgments about Lessing’s achievement in each novel are acute, if not sharp at times. In contrast, Greene’s stance is laudatory, and her avowed aim is to counter negative criticisms of Lessing’s work, showing how they result from misreadings. These two studies balance each other marvelously, and each in its own way is one of the strongest and most interesting of the dozen or so monographs now out on Lessing’s work.

Margaret Moan Rowe has composed a highly readable book of modest size, organized into chapters that treat several novels at a time, developing comparisons between them which mutually illuminate and instruct. As a result, one of the greatest strengths of Rowe’s study is the clarity of her overview of Lessing’s work. Using the mother/father dyad as the organizing principle of analysis, Rowe traces a movement from dismayed depictions of stunted femininity (The Grass Is Singing, Martha Quest, A Proper Marriage, and A Ripple from the Storm) toward an intense struggle to strengthen and enrich the female-associated values of love, family, and material life through intercourse with the visionary, questing principle associated with the father and the male lover (Landlocked, The Golden Notebook, The Four-Gated City). In the “Parables of Inner Space”—Briefing for a Descent into Hell, The Summer Before the [End Page 195] Dark and The Memoirs of a Survivor—Lessing evokes the struggle of men and women to attain transcendent wisdom. In Briefing, Charles Watkins (the male principle) fails; in Summer, Kate Brown (the female principle) learns much, but how much we can’t quite tell; in Memoirs, the unnamed narrator who honors both the responsibilities of the personal (formerly, the maternal) and the demands of the transcendent (formerly, the paternal) carries her “children” and her readers over the barrier of mere words and into a satisfying mystical silence. In Canopus in Argos, Rowe sees “the father’s long view dominating” in Johor’s masculine presence and in the inexorable force of his visionary philosophy. In contrast, “in the three novels that follow the galactic series, The Diaries of Jane Somers, The Good Terrorist, and The Fifth Child, maternal concerns are ascendent” in the stress on relationships in families and surrogate families—relationships that...

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pp. 194-198
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