The Good Terrorist

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The Good Terrorist
First edition cover (UK)
Author Doris Lessing
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre Political novel
Publisher Jonathan Cape (UK)
Knopf (US)
Publication date
Media type Print, ebook and audio[1]
ISBN 0-224-02323-3
OCLC 466286852

The Good Terrorist is a 1985 political novel by Nobel Prize in Literature-winner Doris Lessing. It was first published in the United Kingdom in January 1985 by Jonathan Cape, and in the United States in September 1985 by Alfred A. Knopf. The story examines events in the life of Alice, a naïve and well-intentioned squatter, who moves in with a group of radicals in London, and is drawn into their terrorist activities.

Lessing was a member of the British Communist Party in the early 1950s, but later grew disillusioned with communism. A critic described The Good Terrorist as a "satire of a group of revolutionaries",[2] while Lessing said she got her inspiration for the book from the 1983 Harrods bombing in London. Several critics have called the novel's title an oxymoron, stating that it highlights Alice's ambivalent nature, and that she is not a good person, nor a good revolutionary.

The Good Terrorist received a mixed reception from critics. Some reviewers were impressed by the book's insight and characterization, while others complained about the novel's style and the character's lack of depth. The Good Terrorist was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and won the Mondello Prize and the WH Smith Literary Award.

Plot summary[edit]

The Good Terrorist is written in the third person from the point of view of Alice, a mid-thirties, unemployed politics and economics graduate who drifts from commune to commune. She considers herself a "revolutionary", fighting against "fascist imperialism",[3] and, in the early-1980s, joins a squat of like-minded "comrades"[4] in a derelict house in London. Accompaning Alice is Jasper, a graduate she took in at a student commune she lived in fifteen years ago. Jasper became dependent on Alice and followed her from squat to squat, while Alice fell in love with him, only to become frustrated later by his aloofness and homosexual preferences.

The abandoned house is in a state of disrepair and is earmarked by the Council for demolition. To the indifference of the other comrades, Alice takes it upon herself to clean up and renovate the house, and convinces the Council that it is worth saving. She also persuades the authorities to restore the electricity and water. Alice becomes the house's "mother", cooking for everyone, and dealing with the local police, who are trying to evict them.

The members of the squat belong to The Communist Centre Union (CCU), and attend demonstrations and pickets. Alice involves herself in some of these activities, but spends most of her time working on the house. To be more useful to the struggle, Jasper and Bert travel to Ireland to persuade the IRA to let the CCU join them, but they are rejected. They also take a trip to the Soviet Union to offer their services, but are turned down. The IRA and KGB, however, have begun taking notice of them and start using the house as a conduit for propaganda material and other "matériel",[5] including guns. Packages start arriving in the middle of the night, and Alice, to avoid attracting the attention of the police, raises objections. This results in visits to the house by unidentified "professionals",[6] who question the squat's decision making. After this, the comrades decide to ignore orders from any foreign body and to act on their own as "Freeborn British Communists".[7]

Going it alone now, they start experimenting with explosives, and build a car bomb. Alice does not fully support this action, but accepts the majority decision. They target an upmarket hotel in Knightsbridge, but their inexperience results in the premature detonation of the bomb, which kills Faye, one of their members, and several passers-by. The remaining comrades, shaken by what they have done, decide to leave the squat and go their own way. Alice, disillused by Jasper, chooses not to follow him and remains behind because she can't bear to abandon the house she has put so much effort into. Despite her initial reservations about the bombing, Alice feels a need to justify their actions to others, but realises it would be fruitless because "[o]rdinary people simply didn't understand".[8] She acknowledges that she is a terrorist now, though she cannot remember when the change happened.[9]


Doris Lessing speaking at a Cologne literature festival in Germany, 2006

Doris Lessing's interest in politics began in the 1940s while she was living in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). She was attracted to a group of "quasi-Communist[s]" and joined their Left Book Club in Salisbury (now Harare).[10] Later, prompted by "the race issue" that was prominent in Rhodesia at the time, she also joined the Southern Rhodesian Labour Party.[11] Lessing moved to London in 1949 and began her writing career there. She became a member of the British Communist Party in the early 1950s, and an active campaigner against the use of nuclear weapons.[11]

By 1964 Lessing had published six novels, but grew disillusioned with Communism and, after reading The Sufis by Idries Shah, turned her attention to Sufism, an Islamic belief system.[12][13] This prompted her to write her "space fiction" series, Canopus in Argos: Archives, which drew on Sufi concepts. The series was not well received by some of her readers,[12] who felt she had abandoned her "rational worldview".[14]

Harrods, pictured in 2009

The Good Terrorist was Lessing's first book to be published after the Canopus in Argos series, which prompted several retorts from reviewers, including, "Lessing has returned to Earth",[15] and "Lessing returns to reality".[16] A commentator described The Good Terrorist as a "satire of a group of revolutionaries",[2] while Lessing called it "quite a funny book".[17] She said "it's not a book with a political statement. It's ... about a certain kind of political person, a kind of self-styled revolutionary that can only be produced by affluent societies. There's a great deal of playacting that I don't think you'd find in extreme left revolutionaries in societies where they have an immediate challenge."[15] She described Alice as "quietly comic[al]" because she is so full of contradictions.[15]

Lessing said she got her inspiration for the book from the 1983 Harrods bombing in London.[17] "[T]he media reported it to sound as if it was the work of amateurs. I started to think, what kind of amateurs could they be? ... I thought how easy it would be for a kid, not really knowing what he or she was doing, to drift into a terrorist group."[15] She already had Alice in mind as the central character: "I know several people like Alice—this mixture of ... maternal caring, ... and who can contemplate killing large numbers of people without a moment's bother."[17] Lessing said she also knew who Alice's "boyfriend", Jasper, would be, but was surprised how some of the other characters developed, like the pill-popping and fragile Faye,[18] who turned out to be a "destroyed person".[17]

Themes and analysis[edit]

Novelist Judith Freeman wrote that one of Lessing's common themes present in The Good Terrorist is that of keeping one's identity in a collective. This theme suggests that problems occur when we are "pressed into conformity".[19] Freeman said that Alice is a "quintessential good woman", but turns bad under peer pressure.[19] Another theme present is the symbolic nature of the house. Margaret Scanlan stated that as in books like Mansfield Park and Jane Eyre, The Good Terrorist "defines a woman in terms of her house".[20] Writing in the journal Studies in the Novel, Katherine Fishburn said that Lessing often uses a house to symbolise "psychological or ontological change", and that here, "the house ... symbolizes Alice's function in the story".[21] In her book From the Margins of Empire: Christina Stead, Doris Lessing, Nadine Gordimer, Louise Yelin described The Good Terrorist as "an urban, dystopian updating of the house-as-England genre, [where] ... England is represented by a house in London".[22]

Several critics have called the novel's title an oxymoron. Robert Boschman suggested it is indicative of Alice's "contradictory personality" – "torn between 'doing good' and terrorizing her family and society, between rebuilding [their] vandalized house ... and tearing down the social order".[23] In The Hudson Review George Kearns wrote that the title "hovers above the novel with ... irony".[24] The reader assumes that Alice is the "good terrorist", who "shines with middle-class values of decency, fair play, cleanliness and domestic order", but that while she may be a good person, she is "rotten at being a terrorist".[24] Writing in World Literature Today, Mona Knapp concluded that Lessing's "good terrorist" is not a good person, nor a good revolutionary. She knows how to renovate houses and manipulate people to her advantage, but she is unemployed and steals money from her parents.[25] When real revolutionaries start using the squat to ship arms to, she panics,[25] and unbeknownst to her comrades, she makes a telephone call to the authorities warning them of their bomb.[21] Knapp called Alice "a bad terrorist and a stunted human being".[25] Fishburn suggested that it is Lessing herself who is the "good terrorist", symbolised here by Alice, but that hers is "political terrorism of a literary kind", where she frequently disguises her ideas in "very domestic-looking fiction", and "direct[ly] challenge[s] ... our sense of reality".[21]

Academic Robert Kuehn described Alice as "well-intentioned, canny and sometimes lovable", but who "simply stopped developing, sexually and socially" and, at 36, is still dependent on her parents.[26] Yelin said Alice is "emotionally arrested in a state of perpetual adolescence",[22] and her need to "mother everyone" is "an extreme case of psychological regression or failure to thrive".[27] In her book Doris Lessing: The Poetics of Change, Gayle Green wrote that Alice's "humanitarianism is ludicrous in her world",[28] and described her as "a figure so furiously at odds with herself that ... her efforts are at best fertile and at worst, lethal: for [she] is incapable of understanding what is going on around her, let alone doing anyone any good."[29]

Boschman called Lessing's narrative "ironic" because it "not only consistently portrays the gap between what Alice is and what she purports to be, it also demonstrates how Alice tries to conceal this disparity from herself."[30] Alice refuses to acknowledge that her "maternal activities" stem from her desire to win her mother's approval, and believing that her mother has "betrayed and abandoned" her, Alice turns to Jasper as a way to "continue to sustain her beliefs about herself and the world".[31] Even though Jasper takes advantage of her adoration of him by mistreating her, Alice still clings to him because her self-image "vigorously qualifies her perception of [him], and thus proliferates the denial and self-deception".[32] The fact that Jasper has turned to homosexuality, which Alice dismisses as "his emotional life",[33] "suits her own repressed desires".[34] Kuehn called Alice's obsession with the "hapless" and "repellent" Jasper "just comprehensible", adding that she feels safe with his gayness, even though she has to endure his abuse.[26]

Knapp stated that while Lessing exposes "selfproclaimed revolutionaries" as "spoiled and immature products of the middle class", she also "scorns their incompetence" at affecting any meaningful change.[25] Lessing is critical of the state which "feeds the very hand that terrorizes it", yet she also condemns those institutions that exploits the working class and ignores the homeless.[25] Knapp remarks that Lessing does not resolve these ambiguities, but instead "reports" on the "rottenness of both the state's supporters and its enemies".[25] Scanlan said that Lessing's comrades in The Good Terrorist behave in exactly the same way Richard E. Rubenstein describes what happens when "ambitious idealists" are alienated from the upper and lower classes. Rubenstein wrote in Alchemists of Revolution: Terrorism in the Modern World that with no "creative ruling class to follow or a rebellious lower class to lead [they] have often taken upon themselves the burden of representative action", which he said "is a formula for disaster".[35][36] Scanlan also indicated that while many of the comrades in the book are women, they find that political activity does not elevate their position, and that they are "trapped in the patriarchy they despise".[20] Yelin suggested that while Lessing ridicules the male members of the CCU and their role playing, she is also critical of the female members "who collude in male-dominant political organizations and thus in their own oppression".[37] But with the book's allusions to Jasper's homosexuality, Yelin added that Lessing's "critique of women's infatuation with patriarchal misogyny and their emotional dependence on misogynist men" is muted by homophobia and the "misogyny pervasive in patriarchal constructions of (male) heterosexuality".[37]


The Good Terrorist received a mixed reception from critics. American novelist Judith Freeman called the book a "graceful and accomplished story", and a "brilliant account of the types of individuals who commit terrorist acts".[19] Writing in the Los Angeles Times Freeman said Lessing is "one of our most valuable writers" who "has an uncanny grasp of human relationships".[19] In a review in the Sun-Sentinel, Bonnie Gross described the novel as "rewarding reading" and Lessing's "most accessible" book to date.[38] She said it is the author's "strong descriptive prose and her precise and realistic characterizations" that makes this book "remarkable".[38] Gross felt that while some of the male characters are not that strong, the female characters are much better developed, particularly Alice, whom she found memorable.[38]

Amanda Sebestyen wrote in The Women's Review of Books that at first glance the ideas in The Good Terrorist appear deceptively simple, and the "plot-clinchers come almost insultingly pat".[39] But she added that Lessing's strength is her "stoic narrat[ion] of the daily effort of living", which excels in the way she describes day-to-day life in a squat.[39] Sebestyen also liked the book's depiction of Alice, who "speak[s] to me most disquietingly about myself and my generation".[39] In a review in off our backs, an American feminist publication, Vickie Leonard called The Good Terrorist a "fascinating book" that is "extremely well written".[40] She said the characters are "exciting" and "realistic", and that Lessing "accurately portrays the way political ideas both rule one's life and, at the same time, disappear in the minutiae of daily living".[40] Leonard added that even though Alice is not a feminist, the book illustrates the author's "strong admiration for women and their accomplishments while being uncomfortable with feminist ideology".[40]

Writing in The Guardian, British novelist Jane Rogers described The Good Terrorist as "a novel in unsparing close-up" that examines society through the eyes of individuals.[6] She said it is "witty and ... angry at human stupidity and destructiveness, both within the system and without".[6] She liked the book's "compulsive power of the story-telling", and said that in the context of recent terrorist attacks in London, it is an example of "fiction going where factual writing cannot".[6] A critic in Kirkus Reviews wrote that Alice's story is "an extraordinary tour de force—a psychological portrait that's realistic with a vengeance".[16] The reviewer added that while Alice is "self-deluding" and "not an easy character to spend time with", the novel "is strong as a diagnostic study of political motivation", and "stronger still as an uncannily authentic character-study".[16]

Irish literary critic Denis Donoghue wrote in The New York Times that he did not care much about what happened to Alice and her comrades. He felt that the characters "have only the life of borrowed routine and inherited whim", and that Lessing presents Alice as a "an unquestioned rigmarole of reactions and prejudices", which leaves no room for any further interest.[15] Donoghue complained that the style of the novel is "insistently drab", and that Lessing "hasn't worked her imagination or played it to the point of deciding whether Alice and her friends are the salt of the earth or its scum".[15]

In a review in the Chicago Tribune, Robert E. Kuehn felt that the work "creates almost no effect ... the climax fails to shock the reader and the book never reverberates in the mind".[26] He said Lessing's real interest here are her characters, but complained that they are too "trivial or two-dimensional or crippled by self-delusions" to be interesting.[26] He remarked that they could have been the subject of "satire of the blackest and most hilarious kind", but added that Lessing "has no sense of humor, and instead of lashing them with the satirist's whip, she treats them with unremitting and belittling irony".[26] Kuehn compared The Good Terrorist to other novels featuring young revolutionaries like Turgenev's Virgin Soil, Dostoyevsky's The Possessed, and Conrad's The Secret Agent, saying that they are all "inspired by a livelier and deeper curiosity about evil" than Lessing's "surprisingly bland pages".[26]

Awards and nominations[edit]

Award Year Result
Booker Prize 1985 Shortlisted[41]
WH Smith Literary Award 1986 Won[42]
Mondello Prize 1986 Won[43]


  1. ^ "The Good Terrorist". FantasticFiction. Retrieved 7 November 2014. 
  2. ^ a b Greene 1997, p. 208.
  3. ^ Lessing 2013, p. 58.
  4. ^ Lessing 2013, pp. 8–9.
  5. ^ Lessing 2013, p. 304.
  6. ^ a b c d Rogers, Jane (3 December 2005). "Dark times". The Guardian. Retrieved 7 November 2014. 
  7. ^ Lessing 2013, p. 376.
  8. ^ Lessing 2013, p. 392.
  9. ^ Lessing 2013, p. 393.
  10. ^ Lessing, Doris May; Pickering, Jean (2003). "Doris Lessing: A Brief Chronology". A Home for the Highland Cattle and The Antheap. Broadview Press. p. 27. ISBN 1-55111-363-5. 
  11. ^ a b "Doris Lessing: Biobibliographical Notes". Retrieved 7 November 2014. 
  12. ^ a b Hazelton, Lesley (25 July 1982). "Doris Lessing on Feminism, Communism and 'Space Fiction'". The New York Times. Retrieved 7 November 2014. 
  13. ^ Lessing, Doris (7 December 1996). "Idries Shah". The Daily Telegraph. Archived from the original on 15 September 1999. Retrieved 7 November 2014. 
  14. ^ Galin, Müge (1997). Between East and West: Sufism in the Novels of Doris Lessing. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press. p. 21. ISBN 0-7914-3383-8. 
  15. ^ a b c d e f Donoghue, Denis (22 September 1985). "Alice, The Radical Homemaker". The New York Times. Retrieved 7 November 2014. 
  16. ^ a b c "The Good Terrorist". Kirkus Reviews. 15 August 1985. Retrieved 7 November 2014. 
  17. ^ a b c d Frick, Thomas (1988). "Interview: Doris Lessing, The Art of Fiction No. 102". The Paris Review. Retrieved 7 November 2014. 
  18. ^ Scanlan 1990, p. 190.
  19. ^ a b c d Freeman, Judith (13 October 1985). "The Good Terrorist by Doris Lessing". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 7 November 2014. 
  20. ^ a b Scanlan 1990, p. 193.
  21. ^ a b c Fishburn 1988, p. 199.
  22. ^ a b Yelin 1998, p. 92.
  23. ^ Boschman 2003, p. 95.
  24. ^ a b Kearns 1986, p. 122.
  25. ^ a b c d e f Knapp, Mona (1986). "The Good Terrorist by Doris Lessing". World Literature Today (University of Oklahoma) 60 (3): 470–471. doi:10.2307/40142299. JSTOR 40142299.  (subscription required)
  26. ^ a b c d e f Kuehn, Robert E. (29 September 1985). "Doris Lessing 'Terrorist' Fails In The Execution". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 7 November 2014. 
  27. ^ Yelin 1998, p. 97.
  28. ^ Greene 1997, p. 211.
  29. ^ Greene 1997, p. 205.
  30. ^ Boschman 2003, p. 101.
  31. ^ Boschman 2003, pp. 102–103.
  32. ^ Boschman 2003, p. 103.
  33. ^ Lessing 2013, p. 34.
  34. ^ Boschman 2003, p. 104.
  35. ^ Scanlan 1990, p. 185.
  36. ^ Rubenstein, Richard E. (1987). Alchemists of Revolution: Terrorism in the Modern World. Basic Books. p. 79. ISBN 978-0-465-00095-1. 
  37. ^ a b Yelin 1998, p. 96.
  38. ^ a b c Gross, Bonnie (29 September 1985). "'Terrorist' Broadens Lessing`s Appeal". Sun-Sentinel. Retrieved 7 November 2014. 
  39. ^ a b c Sebestyen, Amanda (1986). "Mixed Lessing". The Women's Review of Books (Old City Publishing, Inc.) 3 (5): 14–15. doi:10.2307/4019871. JSTOR 4019871.  (subscription required)
  40. ^ a b c Leonard, Vickie (1987). "The Good Terrorist by Doris Lessing". off our backs (off our backs, inc.) 17 (3): 20. JSTOR 25795599.  (subscription required)
  41. ^ "The Booker Prize 1985". Man Booker Prize. Retrieved 7 November 2014. 
  42. ^ "Doris Lessing". Man Booker Prize. Retrieved 7 November 2014. 
  43. ^ Bloom, Harold (January 2003). Doris Lessing. Infobase Publishing. p. 258. ISBN 978-0-7910-7441-1. 

Works cited[edit]

External links[edit]