GENERAL SPOILER ALERT: If you’ve never read The Summer Before the Dark, and would like to discover it with no previous knowledge of the plot, I suggest you stop here. Since it was published in 1973, and because Lessing is a NOBEL PRIZE WINNING AUTHOR, I’m writing with the assumption that I’m the one late to the party (which is usually the case) and many of you lovers of literary fiction have probably either read it already or are super familiar with the plot. So, if not, stop. Now. You’ve been warned.
“All those years were now seeming like a betrayal of what she really was. While her body, her needs, her emotions–all of herself–had been turning like a sunflower after one man, all that time she had been holding in her hands something else, the something precious, offering it in vain to her husband, to her children, to everyone she knew–but it had never been taken, had not been noticed. But this thing she had offered, without knowing she was doing it, which had been ignored by herself and by everyone else, was what was real in her.” (page 140)
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
I couldn’t help but call to mind Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899) (which I’m coincidentally currently rereading) as I read Doris Lessing’s The Summer Before the Dark. Though Lessing’s piece takes place in the 1960s, she’s covering familiar territory: Lessing’s heroine Kate Brown has reached a point in her life where she has the chance to figure out who she is, outside of her roles of dutiful wife and nurturing mother. What’s powerful about Lessing’s work is how Kate’s feelings of superfluousness drive the narrative. Kate has done what she’s supposed to: she supported her husband by raising their children, running their home and entertaining their guests. Now her children are grown and her husband is abroad; no one needs her anymore. There is nothing she is supposed to be doing. At a time where she has the unique opportunity to reassert herself and explore her own passions and interests beyond the expectations of others, it becomes clear she doesn’t remember how. As a result, even as she steps away from the confines of the home, she continues to let her life be dictated by the decisions of others. (e.g. a friend of her husband suggests she takes a job as a translator and she does; a handsome stranger she meets in a hotel lobby suggests she accompany him to Spain and she does). Kate may *think* she’s making decisions for herself, but she’s still largely being guided by the whims and needs of those she meets (i.e.men). Then, midway through the novel, finding herself in the middle of the European equivalent of Hicksville in Spain, she gets sick. Like, debilitatingly, life-threateningly sick. She flees back to London, and spends weeks upon weeks in bed in a crazy-expensive hotel, completely neglecting her appearance and overall cleanliness and health…Kate seems to have completely LOST HER SHIT. (n.b. What I found equally as disturbing as Kate’s transformation was the lack of contact from her family and their general lack of concern for her well-being. They’re all off, doing their own thing, not at all curious as to how she is or what’s she’s been up to. It just struck me as really sad.) By the time she gets out of bed, Kate is emaciated and unkempt, and decides to greet the world as such. Her clothes are falling off of her. Her gray hair has grown in and her red-dye job has faded, and the gray has reclaimed the majority of her hairline. She no longer projects “Mrs. Michael Brown.” She is someone else entirely. She finds herself ignored. Invisible. And she’s fascinated by this experience, by being able to face society as someone other than “herself.” This sensation is the thing that seems to trigger a bit of clarity and productive self-reflection…but then she relapses (growth-wise). Kate, on a whim, decides to rent a room in a flat belonging (??) to 20-something Maureen, who in time comes to stand in for Kate’s daughter Eileen. Kate quickly resumes the maternal role of nurturer during Maureen’s existential crisis of sorts (i.e. SO MANY MEN LOVE ME! WHICH ONE DO I MARRY??? And I’m kind of like, meh, about most of them). And in the interim, Kate comes to the following conclusion:
“The mood she was in when she walked in at her front door again would be irrelevant: now that was the point, it was the truth. We spend our lives assessing, balancing, weighing what we think, we feel…it’s all nonsense. Long after an experience which has been experienced as this or that kind of thought, emotion, and judged at the time accordingly–well, it is seen quite differently. That’s what was happening, you think; and what you thought or felt about it at the time seems laughable, jejune.
How was her summer out of the family going to seem to her in a year or so’s time? She could be quite certain that it would not seem anything like it did now. So, why bother to assess and weigh, saying, This is what I am thinking, and therefore I should do this or that, this or that is happening…at which point in Kate’s deliberations (for she was, of course, doing what she was deciding was pointless) Maureen came in, and said, “Kate, you know what it is? It doesn’t matter, that’s what it is. I can’t feel that it matters. Whatever I decide to do.” She went quickly out again.” (page 256)
Moral of the story: it’s healthy to be a bit selfish. It’s dangerous to completely surrender our entire selves to one thing, whether it be to our job, to our children or to our relationships…because if that outer thing, that image that we’ve allowed to define us, is suddenly removed, what remains?
Rubric rating: 8.5 Depressing, but thought-provoking. (Plus .5 was awarded for the recurring seal dreams. Because SEALS.)
- Read 75 books (6/75)
- Read titles from 6 continents ( 2/6 continents read: Europe, North America)
- Read titles from 20 countries ( 3/20 countries read: Italy (Sardinia), America, England)
- Read 10 authors that I’ve never read before (5/10) Grazia Deledda, Siri Hustvedt, Colum McCann, Caroline Blackwood. Doris Lessing