More on Lessing

In this post I will continue my discussion of mimesis—world building—in Doris Lessing’s novel The Good Neighbour. There is an overabundance of great mimetic material in this novel; I will hit some of the high points.

In my previous post I discussed the beginning of The Good Neighbour—first, the initial summary of antecedent action (in which we learn about Janna’s inability to respond to the deaths of her husband and mother and about her own attention to her clothing and general appearance) and second, her first meeting with Mrs. Fowler in the chemist’s shop and her first reactions to this shabby old woman. Janna walks Mrs. Fowler home and stays for a cup of tea.

Janna enters Mrs. Fowler’s flat: “I went in with her, my heart quite sick, and my stomach sick too because of the smell. Which was, that day, of over-boiled fish. [. . .] We walked along to the ‘kitchen’. [. . .] It was an extension of the passage, with an old gas cooker, greasy and black, an old white china sink, cracked and yellow with grease, a cold-water tap wrapped around with old rags and dripping steadily. A rather nice old wood table that had crockery standing on it, all ‘washed’ but grimy. The walls stained and damp. The whole place smelled, it smelled awful” (21–22).

Janna’s reaction here reminds us that she hates “physical awfulness” (15) and that she reacted particularly to her mother’s smell (16). Among all this physical awfulness Janna notices that the old table is “rather nice”. Despite her disgust she can recognize the quality of the table. This detail suggests that her description is not overwhelmed by her feelings. Touches of this sort continue throughout her descriptions.

Janna goes into the main room of the flat:

“The room I went into had in it an old black iron stove that was showing a gleam of flames. Two unbelievably ancient ragged armchairs. Another nice old wood table, with newspaper spread over it. A divan heaped with clothes and bundles. And a yellow cat on the floor. It was all so dirty and dingy and grimy and awful.” (21-22)

“Mrs. Fowler brought in an old brown teapot, and two rather pretty old china cups and saucers. It was the hardest thing I ever did, to drink out of the dirty cup” (22). We learn as much here about Janna as we do about Mrs. Fowler. Janna’s disgust must be very deep if drinking from a dirty cup is the hardest thing she has ever done. I don’t mean that we shouldn’t understand and perhaps even sympathize with her feelings. I am sure that many of us have lines, drawn by disgust or fear, we would find hard to cross; those lines are an index to a person’s character. In a way, this small moment is the whole story in miniature, as by the end Janna learns to do for Mrs. Fowler what she could not do for her husband and mother.

Janna promises to come visit Mrs. Fowler in a few days. When she goes home, she is full of revulsion. “The sour, dirty smell was in my clothes and hair. I bathed and washed my hair and did myself up” (22) She goes out to dinner with a friend. “I said nothing about Mrs. Fowler, of course, yet I was thinking of her all the time.” Why does she say “of course”? To whom does she say it? This story is supposed to be a diary, written by Janna to herself, so she says it to herself. But the diary is also a novel, written by Doris Lessing. To whom is Lessing speaking? What does she want the reader to make of it? The phrase could mean something like “it goes without saying”; but if it really goes without saying, it wouldn’t need to be said. Is Janna trying to convince herself that her reticence needs no justification? “I sat looking around at the people in the restaurant, everyone well dressed and clean, and I thought, if she came into this restaurant . . . well, she couldn’t. Not even as a cleaner or a washer up” (23; ellipses in original).

On Janna’s next visit she brings roses and carnations, and a cake with real cream. “I was pleased with myself [. . .] but I had overdone it. There was no vase for the flowers. I put them in a white enamel jug. She put the cake on a big old cracked plate” (23). Janna describes Mrs. Fowler’s clothing in detail. “She was wearing a silk blouse, black dots on white. Real silk. Everything is like that with her. A beautiful flowered Worcester teapot, but it is cracked. Her skirt is of good heavy wool, but it is stained and frayed. She did not want me to see in her ‘bedroom’, but I took a peep when she was the ‘kitchen’. The furniture was part very good: bookcases, a chest of drawers, then a shoddy dressing table and a wardrobe like a varnished packing case. [. . .] Everywhere in the room were piles of rubbish, what looked like rags, bundles of newspapers, everything you can think of: this was what she did not want me to see” (23). This description is a congeries, which is one of the characteristic figures of this novel. It is not enough for Janna to say that the room was full of odds and ends—everything must be enumerated.

Janna makes a telling comment about her third visit: “I sat down in the chair opposite hers and saw that the room, with the curtains drawn and the electric light, seemed quite cosy, not so dreadfully dirty and grim. But why do I go on about dirt like this? Why do we judge people like this? She was no worse off for the grime and the dust, and even the smells. I decided not to notice, if I could help it, not to keep judging her, which I was doing, by the sordidness” (26). But it will not be easy for Janna to stop judging.

After this third visit Janna goes home and takes a bath: “I was in a frenzy or irritation, a need to shake something off—Mrs. Fowler. I filled the bath. I put every stitch of clothing I had worn that day ready for the laundrette. I could feel the smelly air of Mrs. Fowler’s place on my skin and hair” (30). She now gives us a detailed description of her bathroom: “My bathroom, I realized that evening, is where I live. Probably even my home. [. . .] I had the paint mixed especially, ivory with a tone of pink. Spanish tiles, very delicate and light, coral, turquoise, and ochre, and the blinds were painted to match the tiles. The bath is a grey-blue. [. . .] I came out of the bath and stood in the doorway wrapped in my bath sheet and looked at the bathroom and thought about Mrs. Fowler. She has never had hot water. Has lived in that filthy hole, with cold water, since before the First World War” (31). Clearly Janna had not learned her lesson yet. “I wished I had not responded to her, and I was wondering all evening how to escape” (31). But she doesn’t escape, and the rest of the novel is needed to complete her education.

During her third visit, Janna notices that the wiring in Mrs. Fowler’s flat is badly frayed, so Janna arranges to have an electrician come fix things up. When he shows up the next day at Mrs. Fowler’s flat, she refuses to let him in, so Janna has to accompany him. “He was there at six, and I saw his face as she opened the door and the smell and the squalor hit him” (31–32). The electrician fixes things up the best he can. The following day he comes to Janna’s apartment to be paid. “He took the money, and stood waiting, and then ‘Why isn’t she in a Home? She shouldn’t be living like that. [. . .] I didn’t know there were people still living like that. [. . .] What’s the good of people that old?’ he said. And then, quickly, to cancel out what he was thinking, ‘Well, we’ll all be old one of these days, I suppose. Cheers, then!’”

Why does Lessing invent this episode? At the level of mimesis, Mrs. Fowler’s faulty wiring adds to our sense of the conditions of her life. But it also shows that Janna’s reaction is not an idiosyncrasy of her over-meticulous personality. A third person has the same reaction, or a reaction even stronger. Janna, for all her disgust, shows a kind of empathy lacking in the electrician.

Janna’s visits continue throughout the novel, and I won’t bother to catalogue all of them. All the descriptions are important for the experience of reading the novel. Even from these few passages, we can see that the things in this novel, because of Janna’s reactions to them, are more than things; they are bits of meaning, and the meaning of all of them taken together is linked to the theme of the novel. The mimetic aspect contributes to the thematic aspect.

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