Doris Lessing and A Woman on a Roof

Doris Lessing’s short story “A Woman on a Roof” transports us to a less complex time, to the early 1960s, when the roles of men and women were clearer, before the Sexual Revolution and feminism, to a time when “bourgeois” morality and patriarchy ruled.

Doris Lessing

Yet this deceptively simple story doesn’t seem dated, even nearly some 45 years later, in an age of “Sex and the City” reruns and “Girls Gone Wild” videos, because in it Lessing surfaces some elemental questions about male aggression and female sexuality, and about class and power.

“A Woman on a Roof” relies on a minimalist plot. “It was during the week of hot sun, that June,” Lessing begins, and tells a story of three London workmen—Harry, Stanley and Tom—who are replacing gutters on a roof, one with “a fine view across several acres of roof.” When they spot an attractive woman sun-bathing who “wore a red scarf tied around her breasts and brief red bikini pants,” they are annoyed and yet excited. Stanley, recently married, and Tom, seventeen, keep walking over to stare at her, to the dismay of Harry, who is older and responsible for the crew completing the gutter job.

The next morning when they return she is “already there, face down, arms spread out, naked except for the little red pants” and when Stanley whistles, she picks up her head, looks straight at him, and drops her head. This is enough to spark their hostility:

At this gesture of indifference, they all three, Stanley, Tom and old Harry, let out whistles and yells. Harry was doing it in parody of the younger men, making fun of them, but he was also angry. They were all angry because of her utter indifference to the three men watching her.

“Bitch,” said Stanley.

“She should ask us over,” said Tom, snickering.

Lessing has set her scene carefully: the men are both attracted and repelled by the woman (that peculiar English mixture of randiness and Puritanism) and, in turn, they are angered by the woman’s indifference. But how can we blame her? She wants to sun bathe in peace, to be left alone, and she has done nothing provocative…except for who she is and what she looks like. The men are stung at being dismissed by a desirable young woman—her indifference hits at their male pride, leaving them feeling powerless. As this is England, there is also the class question: is she ignoring them because they are working men? Does her indifference suggest that they are so far below her on the social ladder that they no longer count as male in her eyes?

(What is it about the 1960s and swimsuits and class envy? Lessing’s unnamed female protagonist wears the equivalent of a bikini; John Updike’s upper-class summer girls invade the local grocery store wearing scanty swimsuits in his classic “A&P.” It seems the bikini represents a challenge to working-class propriety, and the unattainable long-legged females who wear them can do so because their money and privilege allows them to ignore the rules.)

The roofers in “A Woman on a Roof” won’t leave the situation alone: they have been diminished and they resent it. Later, Stanley and Tom scramble across several rooftops so they can move closer to the woman. They find her reading a book and smoking and, once again, feel compelled to bother her.

They whistled. She looked up at them, cool and remote, then went on reading. Again, they were furious. Or rather, Stanley was. His sun-heated face was screwed into a rage as he whistled again and again, trying to make her look up. 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.

The harassment continues over the next few days (even when she has moved her sunning spot to avoid them) until Harry “to save some sort of scandal or real trouble over the woman” pulls the crew off the roof. Tom, who has been fantasizing about the woman, convinced that he has acted to protect her from Stanley, sneaks over to see her, and is rebuffed. She tells him to go away and “in a low reasonable voice, where anger was kept in check, though with difficulty” she adds “if you get a kick out of seeing women in bikinis, why don’t you take a ride a sixpenny ride to the Lido? You’d see dozens of them, without all this mountaineering.”

It is a few minutes before Tom accepts that his fantasy-lover is just that—a fantasy. Lessing tells us:

Resentment of her at last moved him off and away down the ladder, through the building, into the street. He got drunk then, in hatred of her.

Next day when he woke the sky was gray. He looked at the wet gray and thought, vicious: Well, that’s fixed you, hasn’t it now? That’s fixed you good and proper.

The story concludes with the workmen returning to finish their work on “damp drizzling roofs where no one came to sun themselves.” There is something raw and disturbing about the whole thing. This innocent woman, trying only to enjoy the summer weather, has become the target of abuse and hostility. The men see her as a “bitch,” and Tom, who has dreamed about her, now hates her.

At least Lessing allows her nameless character to have a voice, to say “go away,” to express some of her anger at being hassled, but this is England in 1963 (the same year Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique is published) and that is probably as much as we can expect.

The story, seen from a feminist perspective, illuminates how easily men can be threatened by female independence (especially in sexual matters) and how they can respond violently when their sense of control and mastery is challenged. We are not far from the territory of degradation and rape, here, where the motivation is power, not sex.

What makes the story hold up well, even today, is that while much has changed, much has not. Even with the greater sexual openness of the past 45 years, and the advent of “sexual liberation,” even with more gender equality and autonomy for women, male sexual aggression—often expressed in ugly terms—has not disappeared from the scene.

Some of the work done in evolutionary psychology over the past few decades has helped explain the tension between male and female conceptions of sexuality, and why the hard-coded behavior of men has proven hard to change. (Sexual harassment remains a continuing problem, even in the most seemingly “progressive” institutions—universities, hospitals, the United Nations—despite years of consciousness-raising and training.)

Yet things are different. “You’ve come a long way, baby” is more than an advertising slogan; there has been a social revolution in the status of women since 1963. In most Western societies a woman is expected to control her own sexual destiny; barriers to employment and schooling have been dropped; domestic violence is now prosecuted; sexual harassment is frowned upon; male supremacy is considered an outmoded concept.

Certainly a woman sunning herself on a London roof today could encounter male hostility, but I’d like to think that the underlying dynamics have changed somewhat from Lessing’s time. The woman could, and would, respond more assertively, perhaps matching any verbal aggression with some choice words of her own. The men might very well back off, letting her enjoy the sunny weather in peace. Small beer, the English might say, as far as progress goes, but progress nonetheless.

Jefferson Flanders is author of the Cold War thriller Herald Square.

The link for the reviewed story: Doris Lessing: “Stories”

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders

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