Mimesis in Doris Lessing’s “The Good Neighbour”

In my previous post I compared some passages of mimesis—world building—in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark. I was arguing that literary realism is not a simple category; literary language is not a transparent window through which we just look at what’s out there, even in realistic styles. Both Willa Cather and Jane Austen are “realists”, but their versions of “realism” and of “reality” are quite different. Cather describes people and things at length, and her descriptions are presented objectively, as if anyone looking at what she describes would see what she sees and describes. Jane Austen, on the other hand, rarely describes physical objects; her descriptions of people are really descriptions of what people see, and what they see is influenced by how they feel about what they are looking at. In this post I want to look at another realistic narrative, Doris Lessing’s The Good Neighbour, which has still another manner of description. Descriptions of people and things in this novel are presented through the eyes of a first-person narrator, and the descriptions are full of her attitudes and emotional reactions.

The Good Neighbour, first published in 1983, is one of two novels Lessing published under the pseudonym Jane Somers, which is also the name of the narrator of the novels; the two novels are now published together in a volume titled The Dairies of Jane Somers. Before I get into the analysis of passages, here’s a brief summary of The Good Neighbour. There’s not much surprising in the plot, so I don’t think I will be spoiling anything even if you haven’t read the book. The narrator, Jane Somers, known as Janna, is a woman in early middle age. She lives in London, and she has a good job as an editor at a women’s magazine. At the beginning of this novel, she meets by accident an old woman, Maudie Fowler, and the book follows their relationship until Maudie dies at the very end.

Most novels begin (more or less) with some event which causes a disturbance in the world of the narrative. Typical beginning events include a meeting, an arrival, a departure, a birth, or a death. The beginning event of this novel occurs when Janna meets Maudie Fowler. But sometimes a storyteller will find it useful to give a sketch of the narrative world before this disturbing event, the antecedent action, and that’s what happens in The Good Neighbour. Here’s the first sentence of the book: “The first part is a summing-up of about four years” (13). This sentence is a structural signpost: Janna here explicitly notes that the first pages of the novel are preliminary material, before the story proper gets going. In this preliminary summary we learn that Janna’s husband Freddie has died of cancer and we learn that Janna is hard on herself for her selfishness while he was dying. She makes a big point of her ability to see Now (her italics) how badly she behaved then.

A while after Freddie’s death Janna’s widowed mother also dies. “While Mother was dying I was doing my best, not like Freddie where I simply didn’t want to know. But I couldn’t do it. That is the point. I used to feel sick and panicky all the time. She went to pieces so fast. Went to pieces—that was it. I hate physical awfulness. I can’t stand it.” (15) “Her face yellow, with a slick glisten on it. The bones showing. . . . When it got towards the end and she was being so brave and she was so awfully ill, I thought I should simply take her into my arms and hold her. I couldn’t touch her, not really. Not with kindness. The smell. . . .” (16; ellipsis in original). Janna tells her diary that by the time her Mother died, “I had learned by then not to hate the physical side so much” but her description in the next sentence fragment still retains a feeling of revulsion: “Mother almost a skeleton with yellow skin over it.” (17) Janna judges her failure to respond to the illness and death of her husband and her mother: “I had let Freddie down and had let my mother down and that was what I was like” (19: italics in the original). This preliminary material establishes the thematic context for the descriptive world building that follows and guides the reader’s response to the story of Janna and Maudie.

Now the plot begins:

“But then I was in the chemist’s and this happened.

“I saw an old witch. . . . [H]ere she was beside me, in the chemist’s. A tiny bent-over woman, with a nose nearly meeting her chin, in black heavy dusty clothes, and something not far off a bonnet. . . . Fierce blue eyes, under grey craggy brows, but there was something sweet in them.” (20). The description is detailed, but hardly objective.

This old woman (Mrs. Fowler) has a prescription for Valium, but she buys aspirin instead: the chemist “handed her the aspirin, and took her money, which she counted out slowly, coin by coin, from the depths of a great rusty bag.” Janna then makes her own purchases, which she details for the reader: “Then he took the money for my things—nail varnish, blusher, eye liner, eye shadow, lipstick, lip gloss, powder, mascara”. (21) This list constitutes a small congeries, the rhetorical figure which is made up of a heap of things.

Janna walks Mrs. Fowler home: “It was hard to walk so slowly. . . . She took one step, then paused, examined the pavement, then another step. . . . I looked up and down the streets and saw—old women. Old men too, but mostly old women. . . .  I was afraid of being like them. I was afraid, walking along there beside her. It was the smell of her, a sweet, sour, dusty sort of smell. I saw the grime on her thin old neck, and on her hands” (21; my ellipses). The descriptions are coloured by Janna’s fear and disgust. But she goes in and has a cup of tea with Maudie.

Descriptions in the initial section, before Janna meets Mrs. Fowler, are sparse. No objects are described. There is no description of Freddie or of Janna’s sister. Janna does note her attention to her appearance, and of course she describes her mother. Once the story begins, descriptions become more detailed. Janna mentions Mrs. Fowler’s aspirin and the coins she takes from her great rusty bag to pay for them. Janna lists the items she purchases. As they walk to Mrs. Fowler’s room Janna notices the other people, and particularly the old people. And most notably she notices Mrs. Fowler’s smell and the grime on her neck and hands. The reader remembers that Janna reacted to her mother’s smell as she was dying.

Janna’s first-person account tells us about the physical world of the story, but more significantly about Janna’s reaction to it and her way of being in the world. For instance, the list of items Janna purchases is not gratuitous: it reinforces our sense of her attention to her appearance. If we say that this list is an example of the rhetorical figure congeries, we are commenting on the synthetic aspect. If we note that this list contributes to the world-building of the novel, we are commenting on the mimetic aspect. And if we add that this list reinforces our sense of Janna’s attention to her appearance, which we have already seen in the initial summary and which will continue to be important throughout the novel, we are interpreting the thematic aspect.

In my next post I will continue to examine the mimetic aspect of The Good Neighbour.

One thought on “Mimesis in Doris Lessing’s “The Good Neighbour”

  1. So this is a complicated interrogation of novelistic probing themes and their consequences. I want to read the novels again but also wonder about mystical levels before I embark. Your snags is s of metaphors is soothing in the face of fiction’s anguish. Thank you so much.

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