War Trauma in Doris Lessing’s Children of Violence Series

Sandra Singer

This the nightmare, this the nightmare of a class and

generation:  repetition…. a series of doomed

individuals, carrying their doom inside them, like the

seeds of fatal disease.  Nothing could alter the


But inside this stern web of fatality did flicker small

hopeful flames…

–Lessing, A Proper Marriage (emphasis in original)


Doris Lessing’s five-novel Children of Violence series (1952-69) makes the claim that we are all products of violence and were traumatized by World War II, particularly by the Holocaust and the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In her post-1970 fiction as well as journalism and book-length nonfictional accounts, Lessing has maintained her festering obsession with global violence—that is, its terror and horror—by scrutinizing subsequent wars, colonial and neo-colonial conflicts, and the outrages of terrorism. Children of Violence, the bildungsroman of Martha Quest, begins with Martha as a young British girl in Southern Rhodesia, where the novelist Doris Lessing (born in 1919 in Persia) was reared from 1925 (Lessing, “My Father” 90). [i] The series highlights the traumatic effects of violence seen in the European quest for empire during World Wars I and II, interpersonal violence as part of the domestic experience of marriage and divorce, the racism of the colour bar and the institutions of colonial Africa, and the desire amongst some for a communist challenge to the world order focused through opposition to imperialist enterprise in Africa.

Although traumatic events are usually seen as sharply discordant with the experiences of everyday life (Caruth 11), living under conditions of systemic colonial repression augments the effects of trauma and retraumatizes. Laurie Vickroy describes “a culture in trauma” (67) with regard to Marguerite Duras’s, Edwidge Danticat’s, and Toni Morrison’s fiction. Vickroy depicts “domination in colonial relations” contributing to trauma by “induc[ing] the feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness that incite traumatic reactions” (55, 38-39). She cites Stephen Clingman’s assessment of South African novels of the twentieth century in which he “attests to the connection between systems of domination and the psychopathological reactions … of all concerned; madness is the result of ‘unwarranted assertions of power … [and] unwarranted subservience to it’” (232 n4, latter ellipsis in original). Children of Violence can be read as a form of scriptotherapy whereby Lessing, newly immigrated and writing in London, revisits her colonial past in Africa in order to draw material that she then configures anew by writing herself through fiction into the present.  This process of working historical experience through narrative happens on a discursive level as the novelist over the years of the series’s production not only “outgrew” the forms of conventional realist representation of the past with which Children of Violence began (1952) but broke with the series twice, writing the novels Retreat to Innocence (1956) and The Golden Notebook (1962) in between authoring the five volumes.

The final volume of Children of Violence, The Four-Gated City (1969), is space fiction, which generically introduces hypothetical possibilities within estranged, while cognitively coherent, worlds. Protagonist Martha Quest’s trajectory through the series to The Four-Gated City ends in psychosis and, in a parallel process, the end of Western civilization. In this metarealism the attributed world is radically different from ours but its normative claims, narrative properties, and other significant aspects are similar to ours, to such an extent as to impel us to reassess our lives and history, lest we arrive at the future found in the novel. Lessing transfigures human life so it can be viewed differently: in the series, the radically alternate ending of familiar lived experience involves new beings and new worlds. The Four-Gated City ends in the future amongst child figures such as Joseph—like the multicolor-vested Old Testament namesake—who has extraordinary, flexible powers of perception needed for taking the rest of humanity from the destructive impasses signalled by Western progress that led to civilizational collapse. In the metarealist world of space fiction, Lessing projects an outcome of traumatizing personal and historical events. [ii] The future world of The Four-Gated City casts light on the impasses and promise for the “children of violence” who grew up from the 1930s to the 1960s. The novel warns that the world may have to be destroyed in order to recover the potential blocked by the years of trauma made everyday occurrence. [iii]

Lessing’s sense of past traumatic events festering across generations into the present and future is attributed to her Southern Rhodesian girlhood spent in their company, especially through her father’s worldview that was defined by “The Great Unmentionable,” his fighting in the First World War trenches in which his leg was cut off at mid-thigh (Lessing, “My Father” 88-89). In contrast to Roger Waters’s lament to his “unlucky” father who died in 1941 as a British soldier protecting the Angio bridgehead in Italy—immortalized in the Pink Floyd song “When the Tigers Broke Free”—“The luckiest thing that ever happened to [Lessing’s] father, he said, was getting his leg shattered by shrapnel ten days before Passchendaele. His whole company was killed” (Lessing, “My Father” 88). During Lessing’s impressionable youth, his dislocating, constant, unmediated stream of historical anecdotes existed alongside actual events she experienced in the present.

It is worth commenting here that the strong autobiographical current in Lessing’s fiction derives particularly from her early African experience. Lessing’s remarks concerning her father and the description of Martha’s father, Mr. Quest, throughout Children of Violence are almost identical.  Lessing’s father recalled good times before World War I as shown in her poignant account of him in “My Father”:

The Second World War, so long foreseen by him, was a bad time. His son was in the Navy and in danger, and his daughter a sorrow to him. He became very ill. More and more often it was necessary to drive him into Salisbury with him in a coma, or in danger of one, on the back seat. My mother moved him into a pretty little suburban house in town near the hospitals, where he took to his bed and a couple of years later died. For the most part he was unconscious under drugs. When awake he talked obsessively (a tongue licking a nagging sore place) about “the old war.” Or he remembered his youth…. [“]Lord, lord, lord, what a time that was, what good times we all had then, before the old war.” (“My Father” 93)

Likewise Mr. Quest, in A Proper Marriage, suffers incontrovertible physical and psychological effects of World War I that his wife interminably nurses.

Martha is, in her father’s view, a failure, while in some psychological respects he identifies with her. As a rural southern African family, both Martha Quest and Mr. Quest share an appreciation for solitude in the outback and in the daily demands and rhythms of farm work. Lessing opted out of formal schooling at age fourteen after which she worked as a secretary while writing drafts for fictions that she destroyed—except for The Grass is Singing, her first novel, which she brought with her when she immigrated to London in 1949 and published shortly thereafter. Rejecting formal education could be seen as turning her back on her mother’s aspirations that she distinguish herself professionally, but “Lessing had a deep psychic connection to her father. In real life a damaged man—increasingly hypochondriacal—he was equipped by nature to relish the star-saturated African skies, its mountains, hills and rocks, a spider’s exquisite web, a single kopji [sic]” (Tiger 23). [iv]

The fictional Quest family (and similarly Lessing and her parents) eventually move from the farm that Mr. Quest (and similarly Alfred Lessing) had purchased on a romantic settler’s whim to the country’s capital. There Mr. Quest’s ill health could be better monitored, if never remedied.  Martha arrives at her parents’ home in town to find “[h]er father was asleep under a tree in a deck-chair, a white handkerchief over his face” (PM 340). [v] Then he awakens and emerges from “that inner world of memory and vague philosophical speculations” (341) in which he resided “Nine parts [out of ten] of his time” (341) and offers her “warm, shrewd, paternal” advice (341). He dismisses the appropriateness of marriage as a social institution for Martha—“‘Marriage, I suppose, is a necessary institution,’ he went on after a pause, ‘but for you to get married at nineteen… ’” (342, emphasis and ellipsis in original). He recommends that Martha should “[‘]think it [marriage and likely divorce] all over….  sensibly’” (342), though she herself “never … said … in so many words that she would leave Douglas” (342).  Mr. Quest conveys to Martha a persistent connection for Lessing between warbrides, wartime and madness: “‘Did I ever tell you about that time when I came out of hospital and I was sure I was mad?’ … ‘Anyway,’ he concluded at a tangent, ‘as far as I can see everyone is mad.  Do you know Matty, that’s the only explanation for the world that I can see—everyone’s as mad as hatters’” (344).

Lessing has tellingly depicted the whole novel series as “a study of the individual conscience in its relations with the collective” (“The Small Personal Voice” 14). As implied in the surname Quest, Martha struggles to negotiate the violence in wartime and the racialized segregation of Rhodesian colonial life but her aspirations are inconclusive. The reduced role of personal struggle amidst global violence in A Ripple from the Storm (of World War II, the series’s third title) is carried to extremes in The Four-Gated City [vi], wherein a disaster to civilization makes irrelevant her individual goals as they are discussed in Martha Quest and A Proper Marriage.

Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson interpret the discrete relationship between autobiography in fiction and nonfiction. Reading for autobiographical aspects in the postcolonial context, Smith and Watson find texts that incorporate and resist the optimistic model of “individualist accumulative engagement with past experience framed through the modernist notion of progress…. [and] attest to the damage of that past” (363). Though these life-writing theorists do not mention the series, Children of Violence inscribes the violence of colonial history as intractable and reinforced in the everyday family context. Homi Bhabha attributes to the colonial text Derrida’s space of double inscription. [vii] His conclusion is applicable for the comparison between Lessing’s fictional figures and the experience of actual persons and events within her known family history that is accessible through her essays and interviews collected by Paul Schlueter and Earl Ingersoll and through the first volume of her autobiography, Under My Skin. Bhabha quotes Derrida:

whenever any writing both marks and goes back over its mark with an undecidable stroke … [this] double mark escapes the pertinence or authority of truth: it does not overturn it but rather inscribes it within its play as one of its functions or parts. This displacement does not take place, has not taken place once as an event.  It does not occupy a simple place. It does not take place in writing. This dis-location (is what) writes/is written. (Derrida Dissemination, qtd. in Bhabha 150, emphasis, brackets, and ellipsis in original)

Thus we can interpret Lessing writing fiction that uses and works her colonial past, both its storyline (especially in the early Children of Violence novels) and its discursive tropes of empire (in The Four-Gated City and her later metarealist Canopus in Argos series) as marking and going back over her mark. Virginia Tiger’s review of Lessing’s 2008 novel-memoir hybrid, Alfred and Emily, underscores its “dis-location,” the work “demonstrat[ing] … how porous is the frontier between fact and fiction” in Lessing’s corpus (Tiger 22).

Tiger identifies clear autobiographical elements in a range of fictional and nonfictional Lessing works: “We know about her early years in the autobiography Under My Skin, her adolescence in the novel Martha Quest, her childhood in the speculative fable Memoirs of a Survivor, her thirties in two fictions The Golden Notebook and The Four-Gated City as well the autobiography Walking in the Shade, and her forties in another novel, The Sweetest Dream” (22). [viii] In Lessing’s lifelong interrogation of systems of oppression through various generic reconstructions of her lived experience, dislocation can be viewed at multiple levels resembling an archaeological site.  Using a range of story forms, she repetitively reworks themes like childhood innocence and the construction of marriage. For example, baffling and obstructive social experience represented in A Proper Marriage mirrors the author’s perception that her own potential was truncated by being inextricably bound to the pervasive social madness of colonialism and world wars. Ultimately individual parapsychology permutates civilization itself in The Four-Gated City. In this final dislocating text in the series, Lessing also shifts the discursive elements of the realist model she used previously and dissolves the known world and its war-like premises by inventing a new post-disaster existence with individuals who possess extraordinary capacities of vision that were lacking in precatastrophe humans. By Lessing revisiting forms of colonial representation and individuation in The Four-Gated City and the more explicitly autobiographical Alfred and Emily, in Bhabha’s words, “other ‘denied’ knowledges enter upon the dominant discourse and estrange the basis of its authority—its rules of recognition” (156).

Lessing’s fictional characters act out cold, colonial ambivalence and manipulation in relationships among family, friends, and community. Against the wartime backdrop in A Proper Marriage, Martha tries to construe an alternative future beyond simply a new relationship or marriage as her justification for leaving her husband Douglas Knowell: “If she was to leave Douglas, for what way of living was she to leave?” (PM 350). Transcendent mystical vision situated back on the veld is absolutely crucial to sustaining her desire for a non-alienated future: “Martha … went back to that period when she was a girl on the farm. From this, several incidents had been selected by that need for a theory. There had been that young man who … and the other one … and that occasion when … After hours of determined concentration she would emerge with the phrase” (82, ellipses except the first one in original). Pleasure taken in her roots is soothing to Martha. The “theory” or “phrase,” like others Martha postulates, would be at this stage a truism. Theory, better called rationalization, emerges as Martha’s one-dimensional psychological block against her experience of frustration and pain. The frequent ellipses in Lessing’s writing in this quotation and others show that steering away from precise detail into abstraction also characterizes the omniscient narrator’s vision conveyed through free-indirect discourse.

Alienated from society where she perceived moments of transcendent illumination in nature, Martha achieves ecstasy beyond the borders of tradition-bound human relationships in apparent unity only with herself. While she is in the process of leaving her marriage to Douglas, she meets Judge Maynard, a powerful but remote community figure who had married Douglas and Martha and who is sympathetic to her. She describes to Judge Maynard—“as if describing the height of human bliss” (437)—addressing hundreds of envelopes for an emergent left-wing political group open to black membership with which she now identifies, rather than with her husband and child. This observant posture is evident elsewhere, when Judge Maynard attends a left group meeting as an observer with Martha or when the daughter of another prominent family, Elaine Talbot, shows up with her mother as Martha is literally leaving Douglas. To Martha’s mind, Elaine, whose lover was killed in the war, appears ready to efficiently take Martha’s place. Martha’s self-ascribed “bliss” may be understood as the narrator’s ironic, humorous view of Martha (Derrida’s “double mark”) and not just as Martha’s detached, schizoid perspective on her situation.

While perhaps not so extreme as Martha’s self-division, Douglas is also split between patriotic fervor and paternal responsibility. As envisioned through her father’s weary gaze, the Second World War is imaged on the specter of World War One: “it was only necessary for the orchestra to play Tipperary or Keep the Home Fires Burning—which they did on every conceivable occasion, for the entire gathering to become transformed into a congregation of self-dedicated worshippers of what their parents chose to remember of 1914,” just prior to the horror of WWI (PM 89).  Distorted World War I memory absorbs the young people’s fear and inner rumblings of terror. Embarking toward the World War II theater, the men grapple with their parents’ distant romanticized memories of the previous global conflict. Douglas Knowell, when recently married to Martha, shares her capacity for denial by transposing life into fiction. These fictional understandings and conclusions seem to contradict the substance of Douglas’s experience being conveyed.  For example, he revises his period of military training in the same way that Martha’s father distorts his World War I service.  On his way back home Douglas lauds his recent training for war as yet his most fulfilling experience.  He finds the mundane existence with Martha and their toddler tedious as compared to the allure of battle that he is medically unfit for:

That year of discomfort and boredom in the army was already arranging itself in a series of bright scenes, magical with distance…. It seemed that his whole life had led without his knowing it to the climax of being with those men, his fellows, his friends, parts of himself, in real fighting, real living, real experience at last… What he felt for Martha was nothing, nothing at all beside that year with soldiers. Rage filled him.  (PM 285)

Douglas’s fury attests to the force of his youthful emotions, if not to the clarity of his self-understanding.

All these split personalities make Lessing’s point that global madness festers within individuals. Martha and Douglas play their differences off each other: “if he was indulging in unreal emotions, what was she doing?  One thing answered another, always” (411). From his work away from home in the south, he sends a letter to Martha in response to hers, which she distractedly signed “Yours sincerely, Martha Quest” (383). The tone of his response, “peevish and rasping complaint” (383), causes Martha to guiltily comply with his wants—her helping the Maynards with a children’s charity concert for the “Coloured Community” (382-83).  Martha submits that hers and Douglas’s discourse is predetermined (425) within a culture that doesn’t permit the fury that Douglas feels when he returns from war but rather fosters a pattern of normalization as training for domesticity and the bureaucratic manner of a colonial civil servant: “they were involved in a pattern of behaviour,” stumbling towards marriage, then separation, “which they could not alter” (425). Human communication develops into a series of moves and countermoves similar to a game of chess, that is, a system of calculation that substitutes symptomatic behavior for strategic action.

Anton Hesse, an expatriate German Jew in the left-wing group whom Martha marries after divorcing Douglas in A Ripple from the Storm, is also divided in himself. He nourishes his inner space or essential self. Enjoying the Marxist classics and Russian language study while anticipating leaving the colony, he waits out the war: Anton “shut himself up, shielding that raw place in himself by a shell of patience…. He was a man in cold storage for the future” (RfS 377) who suffers from moral lethargy. [ix] Dislocated, he can neither move decisively forward following a thought-out plan, nor return to some idyllic beginning of pre-oedipal bonding with his mother(land). [x] Anton is disenfranchised from the main stage of international politics as a German (temporarily the enemy) Jew (symbolically the other and a victim in the specific war context). Anton is modelled after Lessing’s second husband Gottfried Lessing who was Jewish, sought refuge in Rhodesia during WWII, and worked for the East German government after war’s end. An East German ambassador, Gottfried Lessing was killed by an explosive cast into his car while trying to escape Uganda when Idi Amin fled in 1979. Part of Lessing’s interest in terrorism may be ascribed to her personal experience of its impact especially on her son Peter, who lost his father (though Doris Lessing had divorced Gottfried by this time). [xi]

When fictional Martha presents a paper to the Marxist discussion group, she is “upset … that there could be personal antagonisms inside the group itself” that is committed to theorizing means for radical collective social transformation (RfS 392). She is worried that the emotional and intellectual traits of political strongman Jackie Bolton are contradictory: “It was extraordinary, this contrast between the open sarcastic antagonism of his attitude towards [Anton] Hesse and [Andrew] McGrew [of the RAF stationed in wartime Rhodesia], and that intimate current of sympathy he established with the neophytes.” While Martha discovers “There was an intellectual pole and an emotional one” (392-93), she finds personality splits within the group disturbing. Chatting with Judge Maynard after attending the left discussion group, she evaluates her friends from a distance: “while they were a community, each of them seemed anxious to repudiate the others to an outsider at the first opportunity” (251). In his exploration of divided selves that perpetuate learned psychological introjection and projection of roles, R. D. Laing, a close friend of Lessing, critiques the ways in which groups based on oedipal family patterns unselfconsciously enforce normalized stratagems and thus reinforce their limitations. [xii] So Jackie Bolton treats his left-wing “brothers and sisters” as adult equals in one instance and as childhood “competitors to the throne” in the next. In terms of the political consequences, it is as if the right foot doesn’t know what the left foot is doing.

Martha recognizes a conformist aspect within personal relationships within the group structure of communist associations that could be attributed to their mimicking normative family roles. Outside of the political group amongst Martha’s wider social circle, her friend Stella concurs with social expectations in a conformist way when she advises that Martha’s hair (implicitly her life) be “properly cut; but the mere idea of [Martha] submitting herself to the intentions of anybody else must be repulsed” (PM 35, emphasis in original).  The “proper marriage” disintegrates whose style is equated to a system of submission and repression (a “double mark”). After her divorce from Douglas, Martha carries forth a reactive, confrontational personal style while becoming immersed in the sectarian political involvements recounted in A Ripple from the Storm. This next text in Children of Violence is overtly concerned with wartime social and political matters, though, in this novel, as in A Proper Marriage, politics is inseparable from personal motivations. Success in Martha’s journey requires her sociopolitical engagement that she substantiate within the lived experience what she gleans by the sensitivity her father recognizes in her. Because narrow individualism limits political inquiry and practice, she is not always successful in her interactive attempts. Yet the series shows her becoming wiser for having tested her perceptions against the social context.

Excessive socialization reached an extreme during the Christmas 1938 season described in Martha Quest (1952): “No one slept, it seemed. Night after night, they were up till the sun rose, went to work as usual, and met again by five in the evening. For into this timeless place, where everything continued dreamlike year after year, had come, like a frightening wind, a feeling of necessity, an outside pressure” (Martha Quest 221). Breaking the taboo against speaking “politics in the sacred circle” of “The Club,” a girl among them comments apocalyptically: “‘Well, this may be the last Christmas, I mean to say—’” (Martha Quest 221).  Later, throughout A Proper Marriage, Martha watches at night from the apartment she shares with Douglas the “great glittering wheel” of the travelling southern African Fun Fair set up across the street. The wheel “revolving slowly, a chain of lights that mingled with the lamps of Orion and the Cross” (PM 37), symbolizes the inevitability of rampant hunting-for-a-mate coupling amidst mounting wartime fervor. The wheel can be doubly understood as signifying World War I trauma—recurrent global terror—and WWII hysteria—precipitating Orion’s hunting expedition. Perceptive memory challenges the hypnotic spell: “Thus Martha[’s] eyes hypnotically followed the circling of the great wheel. But at the back of her mind was an uncomfortable memory” (38) of Andrew and Stella laughing over Stella’s having walked out on her marriage and temporarily returning to her mother the day after. When Martha escapes Douglas’s physical and psychological control to her parents’ home, she is shocked initially that her mother won’t let her inside even when violently “Her arms were almost being wrenched out of their sockets” by Douglas who pursued her “methodically” (435).

Recasting Lessing’s writing in relation to considerations of the cyclical patterns of traumatic memory is a relatively recent scholarly endeavor. [xiii] Henke and Warnock’s 2008 edited issue of Doris Lessing Studies on trauma “foreground[s] Lessing’s literary, autobiographical, and philosophical engagement with trauma and the consequences of both personal and cultural traumatic re-enactments” (Warnock and Henke 2). The Doris Lessing Studies issue accounts for the trauma of World War I presaging the young adult Lessing’s dark understanding of the events of World War II, albeit experiencing the European war vicariously from afar in Southern Rhodesia among RAF airmen. When the early novels are placed within the genre frame of problem or social-issues realism, Children of Violence foregrounds central figures whose interpersonal conflict is source and specific to politicized temporal and spatial situations.

With reference to the Martha Quest novels, Lessing explicitly states their therapeutic function for the author seeking to revisit her past by the process of writing her way through it. In her words at age eighty-eight:

So much has been written about mothers and daughters, and some of it by me. That nothing has ever much changed is illustrated by the old saying, “She married to get away from her mother.” Martha Quest was…. cruel…. But what I was doing was part of the trying to get free. I would say Martha Quest [1952] was my first novel, being autobiographical and direct. My first novel, The Grass is Singing [1950] was the first of my real novels. (Alfred and Emily 178, emphasis in original)

The last two sentences appear to contradict one another since both novels cannot be firsts. Perhaps Lessing is distinguishing between the novels as belonging to two distinct literary trajectories: the bildungsroman and social realism respectively. The strongly autobiographical bildungsroman current also derives from Lessing’s African experience, which early critics such as Bernard Bergonzi observe with reference to its fictionalization in Children of Violence and The Golden Notebook (Bergonzi 201-204). [xiv] Lessing most obviously works through the autobiographical tendency in her initial realist short stories and novels, though the fictional accounting for the wartime colonial past carries through to more recent work such as the metarealist novella “The Reason for It” from The Grandmothers (2003).

Nicole Ward Jouve views the character Martha as an uninvested ego representing a person who has left home and nation near the end of the series when she resides in 1960s London, but never subsequently reintegrated her past in the new setting. Hence Martha “obsessive[ly]” works the past, like Lessing’s involving “her mother, World War I, and Africa” (Tiger 22). Although the appendix to The Four-Gated City sets Children of Violence within the bildungsroman tradition, Jouve queries this attempt to direct critical attention toward action: “In fact, what the books are really giving us is a portrait of the artist [Lessing] as a young woman…. Martha’s refusal to relate to the Africa that is there, that could be there, … makes her into a spiritual globe-trotter” (128-29, emphasis in original). Jouve in effect compares the portrait of Lessing to Joyce’s 1916 text concerning colonial independence. Living in Dublin, Joyce was himself a distanced observer of British culture and empire. Transcendental homelessness is arguably the source of the subjective insights of both the heroine and the writer. [xv] Lessing’s nostalgia theme is interpretable in her context as a migrant Persian-British youngster who emigrated to Rhodesia and, in her adult life, to England. Her fictionalized character Martha initially disregards important elements of lived experience that are significant for Lessing’s developing into a politicized writer whose vision is global.

In the critical work Identity in Doris Lessing`s Space Fiction (2006), David Waterman appreciates Lessing’s “treat[ment of] the human subject as a political text” that reveals “the social effects of imperialism and war” (1). [xvi] Waterman was drawn to Lessing’s speculative and science fiction work for his “project on representations of institutional violence” (Identity xiii ). He approaches Lessing “as a social critic and engaged intellectual” whose work “calls for a transformational, humanitarian politics of inclusion” that recognizes “disillusion and frustration” as well as the “hope” inscribed in transformational politics (xiii.). According to Waterman, Lessing escapes the limitations of fractious ways of thinking by being “one of those Link people” (xiv). An “infidel” challenging imperialist tendencies like exemplary Johor in her speculative Canopus in Argos series, through her writing Lessing promotes synthetic, non-sectarian positions based on “a philosophy of ‘us’” (xix). Her richly nuanced fiction is thus a symptom of war trauma that reevaluates war’s outcomes and furthermore supports the reader’s experience of complexity beyond the predatory divisive logic that Lessing holds feeds war. Her exploratory rendering of indelible traumatic history doubly inscribes lived experience. Through a wide range of fictional experiments that often pursue similar themes of personal and shared trauma, Lessing’s corpus serves hers and the reader’s purpose of negotiating the future by way of arguing with the past.



[i] Kermanshah, Iran, “where I was born,” she says, “is now, I’m told, battered flat by war, a very ancient trading town, which is now in ruins” (Lessing, interview with Thomson 189).

[ii] The term science fiction embraces space fiction, historical fantasy, science fiction, and speculative fiction, which apply to Lessing’s writing including and after The Four-Gated City. Lessing calls her work “science fiction, [or] space fiction” in her remarks prefacing the first novel in her other five-volume series (1979-83), Re: Colonised Planet 5, Shikasta (x).

[iii] “The twentieth century may well be remembered as a century of historical trauma,” writes Suzette Henke (Shattered Subjects xi): “the war that inaugurated intergenerational trauma for … ‘children of violence,’ born after 1918, set up a century of aggression and explosive anger described … as an overwhelming intergenerational legacy of trauma” (Henke, “Reading Doris Lessing’s Golden Notebook” 14). Diana Austin’s article in Jeanie Warnock and Suzette Henke’s Special Issue of Doris Lessing Studies on Trauma goes so far as to define The Good Terrorist—about a female-led IRA terrorist cell—“as Trauma Text.” This unlikely 1985 Lessing novel set in London arguably signifies the communal suffering of returning World War I soldiers facing broken promises concerning their well-being. Austin reinterprets this novel about 1970s Western leftist terrorism as “an imaginative re-enactment of the First World War’s continuing traumatic cultural legacy, its cast of characters ‘the psychologically wounded’ [opposing then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher] still disappointed in and angry at the broken promises that followed World War I’s slaughter, still trying to reconstruct Britain into ‘a fit country for heroes to live in’” (24).

[iv] Kopje refers to a small isolated hill on the southern African flatland.

[v] A Proper Marriage cited as PM.

[vi] To clarify the series’s publication information: the first-edition novels include Martha Quest (1952); A Proper Marriage (1954); A Ripple from the Storm (1958); Landlocked (1965); and The Four-Gated City (1969).

[vii] Postcolonial writer/originator Bhabha works ideas from Derrida, Foucault, Fanon, Freud, Lacan, and others. Jacques Derrida’s text being referred to here is Dissemination.

[viii] For Lessing texts other than those already cited,

see The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974) and Walking in the Shade: Volume Two of My Autobiography, 1949-1962 (1997).

[ix] A Ripple from the Storm cited as RfS. This emotional stasis draws The Golden Notebook`s Anna Wulf, who represents mid-twentieth-century women in England, to her Jungian psychiatrist, Mother Sugar.

[x] See Julia Kristeva’s theory of pre-oedipal bonding in “The Novel as Polylogue,” in Desire in Language 159-209.

[xi] See her discussion of Gottfried Lessing’s death in Under My Skin 416-18.

[xii] See Laing’s The Politics of the Family. On the topic of fractious left-wing political formations, Loyalties by Lessing’s colleague in the 1950s, Raymond Williams, exposes the divergent interpersonal dynamics within politically committed British left organizations.

[xiii] Freud’s theories of mourning and melancholia underscore subsequent attempts by trauma theorists such as Caruth to grasp the urgency of traumatic memories mimicked in narrative through repetition. See Sigmund Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia.”

[xiv] See also Lessing’s This Was the Old Chief’s Country (1951) and African Stories (1964). Outside of the range of considerations for this piece, it is important to note that critics have looked at The Memoirs of a Survivor with reference to Lessing’s birthplace in Persia. See note 8.

[xv] In 1915 Lukács described transcendental homelessness as a feature of the novel form. See Georg Lukács, The Theory of the Novel.

[xvi] See my review of Waterman’s book: “Thinking Global Identities.”



Works Cited

Austin, Diana. “‘A fit country for heroes to live in’: Doris Lessing’s The Good Terrorist as Trauma Text.” Special Issue of Doris Lessing Studies. “Trauma in Doris Lessing’s Work,” ed. Warnock and Henke. 23-29.

Bergonzi, Bernard. The Situation of the Novel. London: Macmillan, 1970.

Bhabha, Homi K. “Signs Taken for Wonders: Questions of Ambivalence and Authority under a Tree outside Delhi, May 1817.” Critical Inquiry 12.1 (Autumn 1985): 144-65.

Caruth, Cathy. Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1996.

Derrida, Jacques. Dissemination, trans. Barbara Johnson. Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1981.

Freud, Sigmund. “Mourning and Melancholia.” Collected Papers, vol. 4, trans. Joan Riviere. NY: Basic Books, 1959. 152-70.

Henke, Suzette A. “Reading Doris Lessing’s Golden Notebook As Feminist Trauma Narrative.” Special Issue of Doris Lessing Studies. “Trauma in Doris Lessing’s Work,” ed. Warnock and Henke. 11-16.

—. Shattered Subjects: Trauma and Testimony in Women’s Life-Writing. NY: St. Martin’s, 1998.

Jouve, Nicole Ward. “Of Mud and Other Matter—The Children of Violence.” In Notebooks/Memoirs/Archives: Reading and Rereading Doris Lessing, ed. Jenny Taylor. Boston: Routledge, 1982. 75-134.

Kristeva, Julia. Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, ed. Leon S. Roudiez, trans. Thomas Gora, Alice Jardine, and Leon S. Roudiez. Oxford: Blackwell, 1980.

Laing, R. D. The Politics of the Family. 1969. Toronto: Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 1977.

Lessing, Doris. African Stories. London: Michael Joseph, 1964.

—. Alfred and Emily. NY: HarperCollins, 2008.

—. The Four-Gated City. London: MacGibbon, 1969.

—. The Golden Notebook. London: Michael Joseph, 1962.

—. The Good Terrorist. London: Cape, 1985.

—. The Grass is Singing. London: Michael Joseph, 1950.

—. Interview with Sedge Thomson. “Drawn to a Type of Landscape.” Doris Lessing: Conversations, ed. Earl G. Ingersoll. Princeton, NJ: Ontario Review Press, 1994. 178-  92.

—. Landlocked. London: MacGibbon, 1965.

—. Martha Quest. London: Michael Joseph, 1952.

—. The Memoirs of a Survivor. London:  Octagon, 1974.

—. “My Father.” A Small Personal Voice, ed. Schlueter. 83-93.

—. A Proper Marriage. London: Michael Joseph, 1954.

—. “The Reason for It.” The Grandmothers: Four Short Novels. 2003. NY: Harper Perennial, 2005. 131−89.

—. Re: Colonised Planet 5, Shikasta Personal, Psychological, Historical Documents Relating to Visit by Johor (George Sherban) Emissary (Grade 9) 87th of the Period of the Last Days. London: Cape, 1979.

—. Retreat to Innocence. London: Michael Joseph, 1956.

—. A Ripple from the Storm. London: Michael Joseph, 1958.

—. A Small Personal Voice. Doris Lessing Essays, Reviews, Interviews, ed. Paul Schlueter. 1974. NY: Vintage, 1975.

—. “The Small Personal Voice.” A Small Personal Voice, ed. Schlueter. 3-21.

—. The Sweetest Dream. 2001. NY: HarperCollins, 2002.

—. This Was the Old Chief’s Country. London: Michael Joseph, 1951.

—. Under My Skin: Volume One of My Autobiography, to 1949. London: HarperCollins, 1994.

—. Walking in the Shade: Volume Two of My Autobiography, 1949-1962. NY: HarperCollins, 1997.

Lukács, Georg. The Theory of the Novel: A Historico-Philosophical Essay on the Forms of Great Epic Literature, trans. Anna Bostock. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1977.

Singer, Sandra. “Thinking Global Identities.” Review of Identity in Doris Lessing’s Space Fiction, by David Waterman. Doris Lessing Studies 28.1 (Winter-Spring 2009): 25-27.

Smith, Sidonie, and Julia Watson. “The Trouble with Autobiography: Cautionary Notes for Narrative Theorists.” A Companion to Narrative Theory, ed. James Phelan and Peter J. Rabinowitz. Oxford: Blackwell, 2008. 356-71.

Tiger, Virginia. “Life Story: Doris, Alfred and Emily.” Rev. of Alfred and Emily, by Doris Lessing. Doris Lessing Studies 28.1 (Winter-Spring 2009): 22-24.

“Trauma in Doris Lessing’s Work.” Special Issue of Doris Lessing Studies, ed. Jeanie E. Warnock and Suzette A. Henke. 27.1-2 (Winter-Spring 2008).

Vickroy, Laurie. Trauma and Survival in Contemporary Fiction. Charlottesville, VA: U of Virginia Press, 2002.

Warnock, Jeanie E., and Suzette [A.] Henke. “Letter from the Co-editors.” Special Issue of Doris Lessing Studies. “Trauma in Doris Lessing’s Work,” ed. Warnock and Henke. 2-3.

Waterman, David. Identity in Doris Lessing’s Space Fiction. Youngstown, NY: Cambria, 2006.

Williams, Raymond. Loyalties. London: Chatto and Windus, 1985.