The Cleft

Submitted by Matthew on 24 November, 2011 - 5:49

Nicola Stott reviews Doris Lessing’s The Cleft. Let us know if you have a book you would like to review.

I like Doris Lessing and was looking forward to reading The Cleft. It’s certainly not a new book, but many of the themes still feel relevant to me.

Unusually, the story is told by a male Roman historian working his way through ancient manuscripts which detail the beginning of humanity as an entirely female event.

The story is therefore told by a man who at points in the story relates events to his own life. It’s an unusual way to tell a story, especially a story which is so vague with timescale and characters.

Lessing asks us to imagine a society free from men, where women existed in sisterly bliss. The early part of the book did not disappoint. Lessing portrays the women (the Clefts) as semi-aquatic creatures, happy, fulfilled and living in a highly communal way.

With no knowledge of differences, individuality was not an issue and there was no desire for change. Women’s biology was accepted, celebrated, and governed by nature.

Until along comes the unexpected and unexplained birth of the first monsters (men) throwing chaos into the life of Clefts.

The monsters, believed to be deformed Clefts, were treated with cruelty and horror and disposed of by being fed to the eagles. When it transpires the monsters are actually surviving and setting up a society of their own, it forces the Clefts to ask questions and brings disharmony to the community for the first time.

This is where the story begins to trouble me. The contrast of these two communities seems to support stereotypes that women have long tried to rid themselves of.

Initially men are given a caring role, managing to raise young with no input from the Clefts. It is the Clefts who are callous with life. However, before long it becomes the stereotypes we are all familiar with.

It’s the men who are dynamic, seeking change and adventure. The women begin to be portrayed as lazy and passive.

Suddenly the positive traits of the women’s lives, their contentedness and communality, are seen in a negative light. Women fall into the role of raising and nurturing the children, cleaning the dwellings and nagging the men.

I’m confused as to what Lessing is saying about women and men and gender. I like many of the stereotypically female traits and early in the book, pre-men, these are celebrated. Post-men these traits begin to look dull and as though they are inferior. Without men the world would not have moved forwards.

Maybe this is what Lessing is saying — that women defining their own lives saw it as fulfilling and were happy. With men came difference and comparison.

Women began to see the world through male eyes and felt their ideals were inferior. When the women chose to stick to their ideals of home, community and family in comparison to the men they appeared to be holding back advancement.

As would be expected of Lessing, the book does not shy away from the horrors of humanity. It challenges our perceptions of gender roles in some places, but in many others it confirms what we have always been told about the biological differences of men and women.

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