KINSHIP REIMAGINED: FAMILY IN DORIS LESSING’S FICTION
Kinship Reimagined: Family in Doris Lessing’s Fiction is a thoroughly researched, original and interesting contribution to both the study of Doris Lessing’s work and the study of the family, as it is represented in twentieth-century fiction. Senturk’s argument – that Lessing’s work develops from a critique of the family towards a resignification of it – is clearly argued, well structured, and engaging to read.
Susan Watkins, Professor in Cultural Studies and Humanities, Leeds Beckett University, UK
Selcuk Senturk’s monograph is a valuable contribution to the study of one of the twentieth century’s most important authors. Senturk analyzes with great insight the ways that Doris Lessing first resisted, then reconsidered, and finally reimagined family roles and kinship structures, as well as gender norms, during her prolific career. In Senturk’s work, the family emerges as not just a theme in Lessing’s writings but a key critical concept for understanding their import. Drawing expertly on such current critical discourses as feminism and eco-criticism, Senturk makes clear the enduring relevance of Lessing’s novels, showing how they continue to speak to the urgent problems of our time.
Dr Cornelius Collins, Co-editor in Chief in Doris Lessing Studies, Fordham University, USA.
Selcuk Senturk provides informed, systematic interpretation of the Western family across the corpus of Lessing’s novels. This insightful, sustained analysis reaches original and revealing conclusions, especially concerning lesser studied works, such as Mara and Dann and The Sweetest Dream.
Sandra Singer, Associate Professor in the Department of English and Theatre Studies, University of Guelph, CA
Table Of Contents
- About the author
- About the book
- This eBook can be cited
- Introduction: Lessing and the Family
- The Family in Lessing’s Fiction
- Critical and Theoretical Approach
- Communism and the Family
- Feminism and the Family
- Sufism and the Family
- Postcolonial Ecofeminism and the Family
- Intersectionality in Lessing’s Fiction
- Overview of Key Thinkers and Theories: ‘The Family’ and Families
- The Functionalists: The Stable Family
- The Family in Marxism/Communist Theory
- Feminism and the Patriarchal Family
- Liberal Feminism
- Marxist Feminism
- Radical Feminism
- Psychoanalytical Feminism
- Gay Men, Lesbians and the Family
- Political Lesbianism
- Queer Kinship and Families of Choice
- The New Right and After: The ‘Pretended’ or Alternative Families
- Overview of Existing Criticism: Lessing and the Family
- Chapter Summaries
- Chapter One Communism and the Family
- ‘Latent Slavery’: ‘Natural’ Division of Labour in the Family
- Dependant Men: The End of Male Supremacy
- The Limitations of Communism and Marxist Theory: Gender Blindness
- Domesticity and Women: Invisible Labour and the Alienated Proletariat
- ‘Pretended’ or Alternative Family: New Right and New Labour
- Lesbians and Homosexuals: Invisible Groups in the Revolution
- Women in the Revolution
- Delusions and Sweet Dreams
- Chapter Two Feminism and the Family
- The New Right and Feminism
- Women and the Family
- Work as a Hobby Rather than a Career
- Romantic Notions of Love and Marriage
- Sexual Relationship
- The Myth of the Perfect and Happy Mother
- Illusions of the Happy and Stable Family
- Public Patriarchy
- Kate and Maureen: Feminist Sisterhood of the 1970s
- Maternal Ambivalence: A Feminist Struggle
- Other Forms of Oppression
- Chapter Three Sufism and the Family
- Lessing and Jenny Diski
- The Sufi Family
- Sufi Parenthood
- Habit (Un)Learning
- Lessing’s Sufism and Feminism: Su-feminism
- The Sufi Liberation: The Walls
- Chapter Four Postcolonial Ecofeminism and the Family
- Gendered and Exploited Spaces: Family and the Environment
- The True Self and the Social Self
- The Environment: From ‘Singing’ to ‘Dying’
- Feminist Exploration (Eco-centric) vs Masculinist Exploitation (Ego-centric)
- Environment and Women
- Non-Normative Families in Mara and Dann
- Incest as a Trope
- The Farms
- The Family: From Dystopia to Utopia
Introduction: Lessing and the Family
Family has been a central concern in the work of Doris Lessing since she published her first novel, The Grass Is Singing (1950). This book explores the treatment of family in selected fiction by Lessing. It looks at how Lessing’s relationship to political and mystical philosophies shapes her representation of the family and considers the ways in which she problematises the family and celebrates alternative families. In her fiction, the family is represented as an ideological construct rather than a biological relationship, and through her work she reveals this ideology by illustrating that the family shapes and is shaped by the interests of the wider society in which it is found. Lessing’s fiction challenges the promotion of traditional family values, presenting them as concepts that ‘discipline’, in a Foucauldian sense, individuals into gendered roles and hierarchal relations.1 Performance of gender roles, specifically men as breadwinner and women as homemakers, heterosexual marriage, raising children as obedient individuals are some of the traditional family values. These values are equated with social stability, shaping the ways in which wider society is organised. However, Lessing’s fictional family challenges this stability, celebrating individual demands and choices.
Debrah Raschke, Phyllis Sternberg Perrakis, and Sandra Singer argue that ‘Lessing’s fiction and non-fiction demand a reformulation of some of our most taken-for-granted assumptions about the contemporary world and how we relate to that world’.2 In this work, family is shown to be one of the taken-for-granted institutions that Lessing seeks to reformulate in her fiction. Overall, this book suggests that Lessing celebrates varied forms of family. In this way, Lessing’s fiction challenges the limitations and a single meaning of ‘the family’.3 In a broader sense, she is preoccupied with family in her fiction not as an institution to be discarded, but rather as a social concept to be critiqued and reconfigured for the ←17 | 18→benefit of individuals and society. Thus, this study establishes the importance of the family in Lessing’s fiction, and proposes that Lessing introduces non-normative families without being anti-family. The term non-normative family is employed to refer to the ways in which Lessing’s family deviates from the established norms of the traditional family such as biological connectedness, gender and hierarchal relations.
The book also considers Lessing’s literary explorations of the family in the context of communism, feminism, Sufism, and postcolonial ecofeminism. It is divided into four main chapters that address these themes. The chapters are arranged in a thematic order that chronologically reflects Lessing’s relationship with political movements, mysticism and the environment. In this sense, the theme of the family is discussed in relation to issues of class (communism), gender (feminism), mysticism (Sufism), and the environment (postcolonial ecofeminism) by focusing on two novels per chapter. Chapter One on communism analyses The Good Terrorist (1985) and The Sweetest Dream (2001); Chapter Two on feminism examines The Summer Before the Dark (1973) and The Fifth Child (1988); Chapter Three on Sufism considers The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974) and Ben, in the World (2000); Chapter Four on postcolonial ecofeminism explores The Grass Is Singing (1950) and Mara and Dann: An Adventure (1999).
The novels examined in each chapter share common themes but were written in different decades. The rationale through this pairing is, firstly, to follow changes in Lessing’s representation of family over time; secondly, to explore if her standpoint in relation to communism, feminism, Sufism, and postcolonial ecofeminism also changes between the two texts; and, thirdly, to demonstrate how these changes affect her treatment of the family. The book focuses on a novel from the period in which she first engages with a set of ideas, or a philosophy or a political movement, alongside a later novel. This approach to studying Lessing’s work is in line with Roberta Rubenstein’s argument that ‘[e];ach of Doris Lessing’s novels is both a movement forward and a return to the concerns of her earlier fiction at deeper levels of meaning and complexity’.4 The book moves ‘forward and backward’ between the early and late novels to explore the evolution of Lessing’s treatment of family. The selected texts cover the period from the early 1950s, when Lessing published her first novel, The Grass Is Singing, up until the late 2000s when she produced one of her last novels, The Sweetest Dream. The eight novels analysed in the book reflect developments in Lessing’s representation of ←18 | 19→the family, covering a fifty-year period of interest in this concept. Together, they demonstrate how Lessing reflects and anticipates socio-historical and political developments in the history of the family, and suggest how her fiction extends theories and views of family rather than just mirroring them.
This work focuses on texts in which family emerges as a central theme. Thus, it focuses on Lessing’s literary fiction rather than her science fiction and short stories. It also focuses on novels that have received relatively little scholarly attention in relation to communism, feminism, Sufism, and postcolonial ecofeminism, especially compared to the Children of Violence Series (1952–1969) and the novel for which Lessing is most famous, The Golden Notebook (1962). I aim to illustrate that each of the chosen novels offers an equally strong engagement with these political and philosophical movements. In Chapter One, I offer a reading of The Good Terrorist and The Sweetest Dream within the context of communist/Marxist theories of family, as these novels feature communes as alternatives to the traditional family. In Chapter Two, I show how The Summer Before the Dark and The Fifth Child present a vigorous critique of women’s oppression in society and the family, yet they have not received attention from feminist critics to the same extent as The Golden Notebook. In particular, The Fifth Child shows that the oppressiveness of the family extends beyond women to children. In 1987—two years after the publication of The Fifth Child—Barrie Thorne observes that ‘children remain relatively invisible in most sociological and feminist literature’.5 She further argues that ‘our ways of thinking about children reflect adult interest and limit understanding of children’s experiences and actions.’6 The fact that the novel is not only about a mother but also about a child contributes to re-visioning feminist scholarship, acknowledging children’s agency and subordination in the family. While The Fifth Child foregrounds women’s ongoing oppression in relation to domestic and childrearing responsibilities, The Summer Before the Dark illustrates how domestic oppression is translated into wider society, making women invisible in the relative absence of their domestic responsibilities.
The Memoirs of a Survivor has been referred to as one of Lessing’s first Sufi-themed novels. However, in Chapter Three I introduce Ben, in the World as another essential Sufi novel to expand discussions on Lessing and Sufism. Even the title of this novel evokes the Sufi teaching ‘Be in the world but not of it’ that warns individuals against the falseness of social roles and materialism. In Sufism, ←19 | 20→the human being is considered to be limited by the particular dimension and conventions they live in. ‘Be in the world but not of it’ is a way of illuminating the mind of its potentials and of the existence of multi-layered dimensions that the human mind if not the physical body can travel to. In The Memoirs of a Survivor, the act of penetrating through the walls, as practiced by the unnamed narrator, can be an example of this. Reading Lessing’s early and late Sufi novels in relation to the family reveals what I call the ‘Sufi family’ and ‘Sufi parenthood’. These terms denote non-normative families, as the Sufi relationships deviate from mainstream definitions of the family and gendered parenthood. The ways in which these terms contribute to the emergence of Sufi theories of family illustrate how Sufism benefits from Lessing’s fiction.
Lastly, Chapter Four offers a postcolonial ecofeminist reading of Lessing’s early and late postcolonial novels, The Grass Is Singing and Mara and Dann, in terms of the family. Such an analysis asserts the significance of the environment in Lessing’s fiction, as these novels have benefited from postcolonial criticism in relation to issues of race, gender, and colonialism at the expense of an analysis of the effect of the environment on Lessing, who lived in close contact with the natural world.7 A postcolonial ecofeminist reading illustrates that the changes in Lessing’s attitudes towards the environment initiate changes in her representation of the family. This chapter shows that Lessing’s treatment of family moves from dystopia (in The Grass Is Singing) to utopia (in Mara and Dann). With this move, Lessing transforms the oppressive family ideology into an egalitarian and non-normative one.
Lessing and the Family: From the Personal to the Political
Lessing’s critique of the family was shaped by her childhood and adulthood long before it became one of the core themes in her novels. The familial problems Lessing experienced in her personal life influenced the ways in which she problematized the family in her fiction. Lessing experienced different forms of family at different stages of her life. The first one was the biological family into which she was born; the second was her conjugal family established via marriage, divorce, and the bearing of children; the third was her political family, created through her involvement in communism; and the fourth was the family created by her decision to become a single and adoptive parent. In each of these ←20 | 21→families, Lessing faced different problems in various roles, including daughter, wife, mother, and single parent. On a personal level, Lessing transgressed family conventions, and traditional family values by not being what was considered a proper daughter, nor later a good mother and wife, and even within her political family she was not a communist enough.
The family into which Lessing was born was an ideal example of a traditional 1950s family, one marked by a gendered division of labour: her father, Alfred Taylor, was the breadwinner, whilst her mother, Emily Taylor, was the homemaker. Lessing, was not happy in her own biological family, as she explained in an interview: ‘My position in the family was such that I was very critical, and fairly early on’.8 She contested traditional family as practiced by her parents: ‘I cannot remember a time when I did not fight my mother. Later, I fought my father too’.9 During her childhood, Lessing witnessed that gender dynamics introduced two different images of family, firstly as a haven for men from the outside world, and secondly as a domestic prison for women, resulting in two unequal experiences. Whereas Alfred and Lessing’s brother, Harry, benefited from the privilege of exploring the outside world, her mother was confined to the domestic sphere and denied the same privilege enjoyed by men. Lessing, too, was exposed to sexism early on, as she mentions in her autobiography: ‘[W];hat I remember is hard, bundling hands, impatient arms, and [my mother’s] voice telling me over and over again that she had not wanted a girl, she wanted a boy. I knew from the beginning she loved my little brother unconditionally, and she did not love me’.10 Therefore, Lessing not only experienced sexism as part of women’s assumed inferior status in the settler society of Southern Rhodesia, but she also encountered it from another woman, her mother.
In the patriarchal, colonial settler society of Southern Rhodesia, where Lessing lived both as a child and adult, women were discriminated against through gender dynamics in the family. As both family and colonialism are sustained through male hegemony, giving birth to a male won women social approval. While her brother was loved unconditionally, Lessing’s acceptance in the family and society was conditional upon her adoption of feminine traits such as passivity, care, nurture, tolerance and compassion. Emily tried hard to mould ←21 | 22→Lessing into the image of a ‘proper’ daughter, but she refused to be an extension of her mother. Lessing initially did this by exploring the African landscape during her childhood, a privilege denied to women. The African bush, a space forbidden for white women represents Lessing’s early contact with the natural world and rebellion against gender limitation. She writes: ‘I used to prop the door with a stone, so that what went on in the bush was always visible to me’.11 She then dropped out of her girls’ school at the age of fourteen in Salisbury, and finally left her biological family behind at the age of fifteen for an independent life. These departures indicate that Lessing was willing to contest the limits of gender in practice, which was later reinforced through her writing. Lessing could not change the biological condition of being a woman, but through her writing she could subvert the familial and social conditions that make women inferior in family and society.
Lessing deviated from the conventions of the traditional family in her marriages, too. At a time when divorce was understood as evidence of a woman failing to be a proper wife and mother, and therefore threatening social stability, Lessing nevertheless survived two family breakups, successively in 1943, leaving her children Jean and John with their father, Frank Wisdom, and in 1949 from her communist husband, Gottfried Lessing, becoming a single mother forever.12 These years also marked the golden age of the traditional family, which defined women in relation to their roles as wives and mothers, homemakers and responsible for raising obedient children. Her divorces can be read as indicative of her challenge to prevailing ideas about gender. Moreover, her radical decision to leave her two small children behind while moving to London in 1949, which she defined as ‘committing the unforgivable’, also revealed that what is promoted as a haven was indeed a prison for women. Lessing, as she mentions in her autobiography, had no choice other than to escape from this prison in order to achieve freedom as a writer:
For a long time I felt I had done a very brave thing. There is nothing more boring for an intelligent woman than to spend endless amounts of time with small children. I felt I wasn’t the best person to bring them up. I would have ended up an alcoholic or a frustrated intellectual like my mother.13←22 | 23→
Unlike her mother and the majority of women who accepted family as their fate and motherhood as their reward, Lessing resisted convention and chose instead to pursue a career. She escaped from the dominant ideologies of family and motherhood to ‘recreate herself as a writer’.14 As such, her concern was not to protect the family ideology and properly raise children in a family situation, but instead to create a family liberated from traditional ideologies and establish a more equal society for all in her fiction. She states:
It was the way of life I had to leave … I explained to the babies that they would understand later why I had left. I was going to change this ugly world, they would live in a beautiful and perfect world where there would be no race hatred, injustice and so forth … I carried, like a defective gene, a kind of doom or fatality, which would trap them as it had me, if I stayed. Leaving, I would break some ancient chain of repetition.15
This passage is key to following Lessing’s critique of family ideology and her celebration of non-normative families, which would later emerge in her fiction. Although Lessing literally left her children behind, the passage clearly indicates that her intention was to leave ‘the way of life’ in which power dynamics of race, class, and gender distorted individuals’ lives and created an unjust society. The irony of the ‘defective gene’ she mentions implies a social construction of motherhood, which functions as the key determinant of children’s lives, with daughters positioned as extensions of their mothers and sons of their fathers. Family ideology promotes mothers as a means of shaping the future in accordance with societal expectations, yet Lessing leaves this ideological responsibility behind to assume a new responsibility: changing the world and family for the better, not as a mother but as a writer.
Lessing’s interest in communist politics instilled in her a new sense of family, both on fictional and non-fictional levels. Her new family meant a unit of people who gathered for a common cause in a non-hierarchal manner. Contrary to the taken-for-granted definition of the family, which implies the legal union of a heterosexual couple who live in a common residence with their genetic offspring, this new family was not restricted by any residence, legal union, or biological ties. Lessing had experienced this new type of family when she assumed responsibility for Jenny Diski, the classmate of her son, Peter. This relationship was later represented in Lessing’s novel The Memoirs of a Survivor, which introduced ←23 | 24→the idea of non-gendered parenthood in place of gendered motherhood. In this novel, Emily Cartright is left as a teenager with an unnamed narrator, who assumes responsibility for her. The pair have a non-biological, non-hierarchical, and non-gendered relationship, reflective of the non-normative mother/daughter relationship between Lessing and Diski. This illustrates that it was the ideology of motherhood, not parenthood, which Lessing abandoned when she left her family, which is eventually reconfigured in her fiction.
Once free from the traditional family on a personal level, Lessing was able to critique its ideology and promotion of inequalities. Through her writing, Lessing explores the ways in which family ideology can be subverted and reconstructed to the benefit of individuals and society. Writing about the family signalled Lessing’s shift from being a subject of the family to making it a subject of her work. Therefore, Lessing’s fiction not only mirrors the troubles of her own personal family life but also shows how family relates to wider social problems engendered by patriarchy.
The Family in Lessing’s Fiction
By focusing on the family, this book illuminates Lessing’s wider themes, concerns, and broader social critique. It is through the family that Lessing comments on social inequalities and environmental degradation in her fiction. For example, the families in The Grass Is Singing, the Turners and the Richards, reveal how hierarchies of gender and race sustain the patriarchal systems of colonialism and the family. Single parent families in The Golden Notebook illustrate that women can find diverse means of personal fulfilment beyond the family, such as in a career. The family in The Summer Before the Dark suggests that the situation in the 1970s still has not improved for women who participate in wider society as they are still not released from the oppression of domesticity. Alternative family arrangements are employed in The Good Terrorist to counter the New Right’s call for a return to ‘family values’ during the 1980s. The Lovatt family in The Fifth Child reveals the ideological interconnectedness between family and educational and medical institutions in stigmatising and oppressing individuals through bodily norms and gender roles. The novel also explores societal expectations of what is considered normal and abnormal. Mara and Dann details how patriarchal systems not only distort the human mind but also cause environmental degradation. The Lennox family in The Sweetest Dream explores the inadequacy of left-wing politics to represent womanly concerns. A comparative reading of these novels illustrates that family not only relates to social problems, but also becomes a means of exploring solutions to these problems in Lessing’s fiction.←24 | 25→
The significance of the family needs to be appropriately established in order to follow Lessing’s shifts at various stages of her writing between the political and mystical movements of communism, feminism, Sufism, and postcolonial ecofeminism. It is through the family that Lessing tests the capacity of these movements in bringing real change. At the same time, Lessing explores the gaps in these movements and suggests the ways in which they can intersect to create equality and a more just society. For example, a focus on the family demonstrates that Lessing’s feminism and Sufism intersect in a way that challenges gender oppression, and creates what I term ‘Su-feminism’. The identification of intersections between these movements enables Lessing’s fiction to be read anew in relation to family, gender and her wider concerns.
The trends and changes in Lessing’s social vision can also be followed through the family. Cornelius Collins suggests that Lessing’s vision ‘grew more radical and her analysis of global conditions more severe’.16 This becomes particularly evident in the context of the family. For example, while Lessing critiques traditional family arrangements in her early writing between the 1950s and 1970s, her evaluation of the family becomes more radical as she explores non-normative kinship from the late 1970s onwards. A focus on family illustrates that Lessing’s vision expands from women to humanity (including men) and then to the environment; she achieves this by revisiting her earlier concerns. While women’s oppression in the family was among Lessing’s earlier preoccupations, this concern, thanks to her involvement with Sufism, expanded towards a consideration of the oppression of humanity in the family and society. The late 1990s, with the publication of Mara and Dann, witnessed Lessing’s increasing environmental concerns. In the novel, the irresponsible occupation of land and exploitation of natural resources threaten all living organisms with extinction. Lessing protests human exploitation of the environment and challenges patriarchal systems to introduce a new family in her utopian continent, called Ifrik.
Critical and Theoretical Approach
Lessing’s ongoing interests in issues of class, gender, mysticism, and the environment justify chapters on communism, feminism, Sufism, and postcolonial ecofeminism, respectively. In the early 1940s, Lessing was a member of the ←25 | 26→Communist party as part of her anti-racist activism in Southern Rhodesia. The 1960s and 1970s witnessed Lessing’s ambivalent relationship with feminism. Although her work, The Golden Notebook, anticipated and promoted the Women’s Liberation Movement before key feminist texts such as Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963), Lessing refused it to be labelled a feminist text: ‘But this novel was not a trumpet for Women’s Liberation’.17 The late 1960s witnessed Lessing’s dissatisfaction with political movements for their limitations, as she later explained: ‘I have long recognised that the salvation of this world cannot lie in any political ideology’.18 The blind spots in political ideologies led her to explore a non-political philosophy, Sufism, which demonstrated a wider concern for humans as a species rather than particular groups. For Lessing Sufism was a way of escaping from the prisons of conventions, dogmas, and prescribed behaviours to bring about real freedom and change in the family. The idea of the family as a prison parallels Sufi belief, as Lessing mentions: ‘Well, the Sufis say we live in such a prison, and it is their concern to give us equipment to free ourselves’.19 In her collection of essays Prisons We Choose to Live Inside (1986), Lessing recalls her interest in different ideas: ‘examining ideas, from whatever source they come, to see how they may usefully contribute to our lives and to the societies we live in’.20 Sufism was one of these ideas in which Lessing became interested, and she employed it in her fiction during the 1970s for the creation of non-normative families and society.
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- Publication date
- 2020 (June)
- Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 220 pp.