Gender Roles and ‘The Cleft’ by Doris Lessing

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(Click here or the picture above to buy).

Synopsis (from Amazon):

In the last years of his life, a Roman senator embarks on one final epic endeavor, a retelling of the history of human creation. The story he relates is the little-known saga of the Clefts, an ancient community of women with no knowledge of nor need for men. Childbirth was controlled through the cycles of the moon, and only female offspring were born—until the unanticipated event that jeopardized the harmony of their close-knit society: the strange, unheralded birth of a boy.

About Doris Lessing (from the back cover of The Cleft):

Doris Lessing, winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize for Literature, is one of the most celebrated and distinguished writers of our time.  She has been awarded the David Cohen Memorial Prize for British Literature, Spain’s Prince of Austurias Prize and Prix Catalunya, and the S. T. Dupont Golden PEN Award for a Lifetime’s Distinguished Service to Literature, as well as a host of other international awards.

She died November 17, 2013 in London.

My thoughts:

As with Joyce Carol Oates’ Bellefleur, I am not comfortable assigning a star-ranking to The Cleft by Doris Lessing, although I’ll be honest, I didn’t enjoy it anywhere near as much.

The premise of the book is based on scientific research found by Lessing that as a species, women existed before men.  Whatever my personal views on the matter, I thought it would be an interesting premise for a work of fiction, and so I picked it up.

The story is told from the perspective of a Roman senator during Nero’s time, and it reads like a history lecture, with the professor stopping intermittently to relate history to today’s events. (There is nothing new under the sun).  I didn’t find the narrative or the characters particularly compelling, but I was very interested in Lessing’s portrayal of gender roles.

A quote from Robert Graves at the beginning of the book really sums it up: “Man does, woman is.”

First of all, although she is often labeled as such because of works like The Golden Notebook (which does address second-wave feminism), I am not aware of Doris Lessing ever claiming to be a feminist.  Anyone coming into The Cleft with expectations of feminist conclusions are sure to be sorely disappointed.

While Lessing did turn the concept of woman being other on its head in The Cleft, she resorted to gender stereotypes and even relational stereotypes throughout, which took away from what could have been a powerful comment on gender.

When the first male is born, the women (Clefts) are terrified of this thing that came from them, but is different from them.  They label him a Monster, mutilate him (I’ll leave the details of that to your imagination), and leave him out on a rock to die.  As more boys are born and left on what comes to be known as the Killing Rock, eagles from the mountains carry them away to a valley, where they are nurtured by wild animals instead of mothers.

Eventually, a younger generation of women follow the eagles over the mountain and see that the boys (now men) have created a society of their own, and this is where the trouble begins.  As they begin mating with the men, the women lose their ability to conceive independently.

Now, they need the men.  And the men, they don’t like to be needed.  There is nagging from the women, and resistance from the men, either because they are not thinking things through or because they’re just being stubborn and not admitting the women are right.  (I swear, there is even this part where the men are lost on an expedition, and the few women who came with them are always the ones getting them back on track).

Eventually, the women and men come to terms with each other, but not before the men accidentally destroy the women’s longtime home, the Cleft.

First of all, I don’t think this book is fair to women.  Whether you are a creationist or evolutionist or somewhere in between, to think that there was ever a point in history where all women did was sit around and have babies is decidedly misogynistic.  Not that there’s anything wrong with having babies, but that’s not the point of a woman’s existence, and this book seems to propagate that to a degree.  Besides all of this, women are portrayed as users, depending on men only for babies.

Which brings me to my second point: this book isn’t fair to men, either.  That men are thoughtless by nature is an idea hammered into this story from the start.  After all, they do, not think.  If their obligations to women didn’t hold them back, they would play and adventure and definitely not think all of the time.  Men are considered utilitarian, a means to an end: babies.  If they couldn’t “fill wombs” as the Clefts put it, they would have no use.

By nature, it seems Lessing is saying, women will always hold men back, and men will always hold women back.  And nothing can be done about it, because we’re all codependent (since we need babies, which is another subject for another day).  Perhaps if we had continued to exist independently (darn those curious girls), things would be differently.

Personally, I think Lessing’s take on gender roles is cynical.  I like to think of women and men as interdependent – that on an individual level we all bring something to the table that others can benefit from, and that extends far beyond procreation.

Then again, I’m an optimist.

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