A Woman On The Roof by Doris Lessing, 1963
The magic trick:
Exposing a man’s condescending, sexist imagination
Doris Lessing is so good at inhabiting the male perspective and showing us an ugly worldview from the inside. Here, we have what appears to be a good guy, someone who the reader wants to root for. Well, he thinks he’s a good guy anyway. He thinks the reader should root for him.
Three workmen are smitten with a woman sunbathing on the roof nearby. Soon though, one of the workers is almost deranged with anger. He seems to resent everything about this woman. Conversely, our hero, the “good guy,” thinks more kindly of her. He dreams about her. We get access to his sweet, innocent inner life, where he goes to sleep each night imagining her holding him close, stroking his hair.
OK, when I said we “root for” this guy, maybe that was overstepping. His imaginary world is pathetic and allows only for this woman to be a motherly figure who asks nothing in return. Maybe we don’t root for him at all. But at the very least, the story sets him up as the hero of the piece in his own mind.
At least he is not the deranged, spiteful woman hater that his co-worker is.
… Until the story shows us that in fact that’s exactly who he is.
And that’s quite a trick on Lessing’s part.
Young Tom stopped whistling. He stood beside Stanley, excited, grinning; but he felt as if he were saying to the woman: Don’t associate me with him, for his grin was apologetic. Last night he had thought of the unknown woman before he slept, and she had been tender with him. The tenderness he was remembering as he shifted his feet by the jeering, whistling Stanley, and watched the indifferent, healthy brown woman a few feet off, with the gap that plunged to the street between them. Tom thought it was romantic, it was like being on two hilltops.
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