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The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five

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The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five
Lessing MarriagesZones.jpg
US first edition cover (Alfred A. Knopf)
Author Doris Lessing
  • United States
  • United Kingdom
Language English
Series Canopus in Argos
Genre Science fiction novel
Media type Print and ebook[1]
Pages 299
ISBN 0-394-50914-5 (US)
0-224-01790-X (UK)
OCLC 5171635
LC Class PZ3.L56684 Map 1980 PR6023.E833
Preceded by Shikasta
Followed by The Sirian Experiments

The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five is a 1980 science fiction novel by Doris Lessing. It is the second book in her five-book Canopus in Argos series, the first being Shikasta (1979). It was first published in the United States in January 1980 by Alfred A. Knopf, and in the United Kingdom in May 1980 by Jonathan Cape.

The novel takes place in three of six metaphysical Zones that encircle the planet Shikasta (an allegorical Earth), and concerns two ordained marriages that link the patriarchal and militaristic Zone Four with the matriarchal and egalitarian Zone Three, and the tribal and barbaric Zone Five. The story is told from the point of view of the matriarchal utopian Zone Three, and is about gender conflict and the breaking down of barriers between the sexes. Lessing called the Canopus in Argos series "space fiction", but The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five is generally referred to as feminist science fiction.

In the mid-1960s Lessing had become interested in Sufism, an Islamic belief system, and she used many Sufi concepts in the Canopus in Argos series. In The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five, the zones are said to correspond to Sufism's different levels of consciousness, and symbolise the "Sufi ladder to enlightenment". Lessing was criticised for abandoning her traditional fiction and switching to science fiction with spiritual and mystical themes. Notwithstanding this criticism, The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five was generally well received by critics, with some reviewers calling it one Lessing's best works on the topic of gender conflict.

The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five was also adapted as an opera by composer Philip Glass with story-libretto by Lessing, and premiered in Heidelberg, Germany in May 1997. The US premiere was performed in Chicago in June 2001.


First described in the opening book of the series, Shikasta, six metaphysical Zones (akin to cosmological planes) encircle the planet Shikasta (an allegorical Earth[2][3][4]). These "concentric shells" (numbered One to Six) each represent different "levels of spiritual being."[5] Shikasta only deals with Zone Six, the innermost and least pure of the Zones, which is "a kind of purgatory in which humans wait out the time between incarnations on earth".[6]

In The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five, Lessing describes some of the higher Zones in this "spiritual landscape" as self-contained "countries", each with their own "societies" that have evolved independently of the others over time.[6] Adjacent Zones in the sequence border each other, from Zone Six (the lowest) up to Zone One (the highest and purest), each with "increasingly mountainous topography."[6]

Crossing the frontiers from one Zone to another is possible, but generally avoided as straying too close to the border leaves one feeling ill-at-ease and sometimes even physically sick. For those who need to move into another Zone, special shields are provided for protection against the debilitating effects of the foreign atmosphere (both physical and ideological).[7]


The story opens when the Providers, the invisible and unidentified rulers of all the Zones, order Al•Ith, queen of the peaceful paradise of Zone Three, to marry Ben Ata, king of the militarised and repressive Zone Four. Al•Ith is repulsed by the idea of consorting with a barbarian, and Ben Ata does not want a righteous queen disturbing his military campaigns. Nevertheless, Al•Ith descends to Zone Four and they reluctantly marry. Ben Ata is not used to the company of women he cannot control, and Al•Ith has difficulty relating to this ill-bred man, but in time they grow accustomed to each other and gain new insights into each other's Zones. Al•Ith is appalled that all of Zone Four's wealth goes into its huge armies, leaving the rest of its population poor and underdeveloped; Ben Ata is astounded that Zone Three has no army at all.

The marriage bears a son, Arusi, future heir to the two Zones. Some of the women of Zone Four, led by Dabeeb, step in to help Al•Ith. Suppressed and downtrodden, these women relish being in the presence of the queen of Zone Three. But soon after the birth of Arusi, the Providers order Al•Ith to return to Zone Three without her son, and Ben Ata to marry Vahshi, queen of the primitive Zone Five. Al•Ith and Ben Ata have grown fond of each other, and are devastated by this news.

In Zone Three, Al•Ith finds that her people have forgotten her, and her sister, Murti• has taken over as queen. Disturbed by the changes she sees in Al•Ith, Murti• exiles her to the frontier of Zone Two. Al•Ith, drawn by its allure, tries to enter Zone Two, but finds an unworldly and inhospitable place and is told by invisible people that it is not her time yet. At the frontier of Zone Five, Ben Ata reluctantly marries Vahshi, a tribal leader of a band of nomads who terrorise the inhabitants of her zone. But Ben Ata's marriage to Al•Ith has changed him, and he disbands most of his armies in Zone Four, sending the soldiers home to rebuild their towns and villages and uplift their communities. He also slowly wins over Vahshi's confidence and persuades her to stop plundering Zone Five.

When Arusi is old enough to travel, Dabeeb and her band of women decide to take him to Zone Three to see Al•Ith. This cross-border excursion is not ordered by the Providers, and Ben Ata has grave misgivings about their decision. In Zone Three the women are shocked to find the deposed Al•Ith working in a stable near Zone Two. While Al•Ith is pleased to see her son, she too has misgivings about Dabeeb's action. The bumptious women's travels through Zone Three evoke feelings of xenophobia in the locals.

After five years of silence, the Providers instruct Ben Ata to go and see Al•Ith in Zone Three. At the border, he is surprised to find a band of youths armed with crude makeshift weapons blocking his way. Clearly they want no more incursions from Zone Four. Ben Ata returns with a large army and enters Zone Three unchallenged. He is not well received, but finds Al•Ith with a small band of followers who have moved to the frontier of Zone Two to be close to her. Ben Ata and Al•Ith reunite; he tells her of the reforms he has introduced in Zone Four and his taming of the "wild one" from Zone Five.

One day Al•Ith enters Zone Two and does not return. But the changes set in motion by the two marriages are now evident everywhere. The frontiers between Zones Three, Four and Five are open, and people and knowledge are flowing between them. Previously stagnant, the three Zones are now filled with enquiry, inspiration and renewal.


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

When Lessing published Shikasta in 1979, the first book in her Canopus in Argos series, it represented a major shift of focus for the author. In her earlier books, Lessing had established a name for herself as a writer of realistic fiction;[8] in Shikasta she introduced her readers to the spiritual and mystical themes in Sufism.[9] In the mid-1960s Lessing had become interested in Sufism, an Islamic belief system, after reading The Sufis by Idries Shah. She described The Sufis as "the most surprising book [she] had read", and said it "changed [her] life".[10] Lessing later met Shah, who became "a good friend [and] teacher".[10] In the early 1970s Lessing began writing "inner space" fiction, which included the novels Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971) and Memoirs of a Survivor (1974),[11] and in the late 1970s she turned to science fiction when she wrote Shikasta, in which she used many Sufi concepts.[11] Shikasta was intended to be a "single self-contained book", but as Lessing's fictional universe developed, she found she had ideas for more than just one book, and ended up writing a series of five.[12]

Lessing's switch to science fiction was not well received by all.[3] By the late 1970s Lessing was considered "one of the most honest, intelligent and engaged writers of the day",[3] and Western readers unfamiliar with Sufism were dismayed that Lessing had abandoned her "rational worldview".[13] George Stade of The New York Times complained that "our Grand Mistress of lumpen realism has gone religious on us".[8] The reaction of reviewers and readers to the first two books in the series, Shikasta and The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five, prompted Lessing to write in the Preface to the third book in the series, The Sirian Experiments (1980):

Idries Shah, who introduced Lessing to Sufism[10]

I would so like it if reviewers and readers could see this series, Canopus in Argos: Archive, as a framework that enables me to tell (I hope) a beguiling tale or two; to put questions, both to myself and to others; to explore ideas and sociological possibilities.[14]

Further criticism of the Canopus series followed, which included this comment by New York Times critic John Leonard: "One of the many sins for which the 20th century will be held accountable is that it has discouraged Mrs. Lessing. [...] She now propagandizes on behalf of our insignificance in the cosmic razzmatazz."[15] Lessing replied by saying: "What they didn't realize was that in science fiction is some of the best social fiction of our time. I also admire the classic sort of science fiction, like Blood Music, by Greg Bear. He's a great writer."[16] Lessing said in 1983 that she would like to write stories about red and white dwarves, space rockets powered by anti-gravity, and charmed and coloured quarks, "[b]ut we can't all be physicists".[4]

In an interview published in 1996, Lessing spoke passionately of The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five: "Something happened when I wrote the book. I hit some other level. And is it a legend or a myth or a fairy tale or a fantasy? That isn't the word for what I’ve written, I think. You see, only I could have written The Golden Notebook, but I think Anon wrote this other book."[17] Lessing considered Marriages one of her better books, and said, "this book goes down into me pretty deep... it will never happen again".[18]

Genre and themes[edit]

The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five is told largely from the point of view of the matriarchal utopian Zone Three, which places the novel in the category of feminist utopias[19] or feminist science fiction.[20] The Canopus in Argos series in general falls under the banner of soft science fiction, or "space fiction" as Lessing called it,[12] due to its focus on characterisation and social and cultural issues, and the de-emphasis of science and technology. Comparative literature professor Robert Alter suggested that this kind of writing belongs to a genre that literary critic Northrop Frye called the "anatomy", which is "a combination of fantasy and morality".[21] Author Gore Vidal placed Lessing's "science fiction" "somewhere between John Milton and L. Ron Hubbard".[22]

The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five differs from the other books in the Canopus in Argos series in that it reads like a fable and is set in a metaphysical, or "psychic" space, outside the rest of the series' "normal" space/time universe.[23][24] The story concerns two ordained marriages that link the patriarchal and militaristic Zone Four with the matriarchal and egalitarian Zone Three, and the tribal and barbaric Zone Five.[25] It focuses on, what Time magazine reviewer Paul Gray calls, the "struggles between men and women and the dimensions of sex and love".[26] Literary critic Diana Sheets says that the book is about overcoming gender differences and opening up new possibilities. She argues that the premise of the story is that "cosmic order is ideally realized when men and women cross the gender divide and attempt genuine communication—sexually, emotionally, [...] thereby setting the preconditions for the attainment of enlightened consciousness."[25]

The marriages were ordained by the Providers because the zones had stagnated and the birth rate of both humans and animals had fallen.[26] Lessing does not identify the Providers, but some reviewers and critics have assumed that they are the Canopeans from the benevolent galactic empire Canopus, introduced in the first book of the series, Shikasta.[19][25][27][28] Author Thelma J. Shinn says that, as in Shikasta, Lessing's "pessimistic view of human capabilities still keeps control in a benevolent power rather than in the hands of the individual".[29] But after a push in the right direction, the individual triumphs: Al•Ith and Ben Ata initiate changes in both their own and their neighbouring zones.[30]

Literature academic Jayne Ashleigh Glover says that while Zone Three on the surface appears to be a feminist utopia, Lessing shows that it is far from idyllic. The story narrators, the Chroniclers of Zone Three, question their zone's behaviour and attitudes, and warn of the dangers of stagnation.[31] Al•Ith, upon returning to Zone Three, is shunned by its inhabitants for failing to attend to their zone's needs,[32] and Zone Three's stasis manifests itself in xenophobia when Al•Ith brings back new perspectives, followed by visitors from Zone Four.[33]

Glover sees Al•Ith, Ben Ata and Vahshi as allegories for their respective zones, and the marriages between them as marriages between the zones, as stated by the title of the book.[6] Author Müge Galin says that Al•Ith functions according to the nature of Zone Three rather than as an individual.[34] Galin also argues that the six zones correspond to Sufism's different levels of consciousness. Both Al•Ith and Ben Ata are able to experience other levels of consciousness when they travel to each other's zones, but Al•Ith can perceive and experience the neighbouring zone far deeper than Ben Ata because she is from a higher zone/level of consciousness.[35] Galin says that on the "Sufi ladder to enlightenment", those on higher rungs must pull up those on lower rungs. Thus Al•Ith can only move to Zone Two after she has pulled Ben Ata up to Zone Three.[36]


In a review of The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five in Time magazine, Paul Gray described the novel as "part fertility myth, part comedy of manners".[26] Gray said that Lessing often wrote about gender conflict, but "never with more sweetness, compassion and wisdom" as she has in this novel.[26] Writing in HuffPost Culture, University of Bristol academic Tom Sperlinger called the book "a legend" and listed it amongst his "Five Doris Lessing Books to Read".[18] Critic John Leonard in a review in The New York Times called The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five "an act of magic", and "a remarkable recovery" from Shikasta, which Leonard called a "disaster".[37]

British writer Graham Sleight in a review of the Canopus in Argos series in Locus magazine said The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five comes closest to Ursula K. Le Guin's works in the way that both Lessing and Le Guin scrutinise societies. Sleight compared The Marriages to Le Guin's The Dispossessed, saying that each revolves around conflicts between differing worldviews, namely the Zones in The Marriages, and Anarres and Urras in The Dispossessed.[38]

Kirkus Reviews said that Lessing often tackled the subject of sexual politics, but The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five is her "most humane and loving variation on the theme".[27] While the review was critical of Lessing's prose style, saying its "gracelessness [...] has never been more conspicuous", and called her descriptions of the Zone Four war economy "a silly cartoon sketch", it said that "there is a sweetness and generosity about this work not quite like anything she has done".[27]


The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five was adapted for the opera in 1997 by composer Philip Glass with story-libretto by Doris Lessing.[39][40] The two-act opera for orchestra, chorus and soloists first premiered in Heidelberg, Germany in May 1997 under the direction of Thomas Kalb (music) and Birgitta Trommler (stage). Lessing said that for the opera she expanded her allegory about gender relations: "There was room for two festivals: a woman's festival and a marriage festival. There are a lot of lyrics not in the novel."[41] The libretto was translated by Saskia M. Wesnigk into German. The first US premiere was in June 2001 at the Merle Reskin Theatre in Chicago, Illinois, and was directed by Harry Silverstein.[40]

The German premiere was not well received by the press, and Chicago Tribune music critic John von Rhein found faults in the US production. He said that the novel "falls flat as music theater", there is "no compelling dramatic narrative", and the music "drifts along innocuously". Von Rhein also complained that "score breaks no new stylistic ground, nor does it define the characters dramatically".[42]

In 1986, Glass adapted another book from the Canopus in Argos series, The Making of the Representative for Planet 8, into a three-act opera with story-libretto by Lessing. It premiered in Houston, Texas in July 1988.[43][44]


  1. ^ "The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five". FantasticFiction. Retrieved 22 August 2014. 
  2. ^ Gray, Paul (22 October 1979). "Visit to a Small Planet". Time. Archived from the original on 21 January 2011. Retrieved 21 December 2012. 
  3. ^ a b c Hazelton, Lesley (25 July 1982). "Doris Lessing on Feminism, Communism and 'Space Fiction'". The New York Times. Retrieved 21 December 2012. 
  4. ^ a b Lord, M. G. (15 October 2007). "She's taken literature to new worlds". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 21 December 2012. 
  5. ^ Lessing 1994a, p. 16.
  6. ^ a b c d Glover 2007, p. 129.
  7. ^ Waterman, David. "The Space of Belonging: Alienation in Doris Lessing's The Marriages between Zones Three, Four and Five". Durham University Postgraduate English. Retrieved 28 December 2012. 
  8. ^ a b Stade, George (4 November 1979). "Fantastic Lessing". The New York Times. Retrieved 21 December 2012. 
  9. ^ Perrakis, Phyllis Sternberg (2004). "The Four Levels of Detachment in Doris Lessing's Shikasta". The Journal of Bahá’í Studies. 14: 73. Archived from the original (PDF) on 14 April 2013. Retrieved 15 January 2013. 
  10. ^ a b c Lessing, Doris (23 November 1996). "On the Death of Idries Shah (excerpt from Shah's obituary in the London The Daily Telegraph)". Retrieved 15 January 2013. 
  11. ^ a b "Doris Lessing: Biobibliographical Notes". Retrieved 15 January 2013. 
  12. ^ a b Lessing 1994a, "Some Remarks", p. 8.
  13. ^ Galin 1997, p. 21.
  14. ^ Lessing 1994c, "Preface", p. 11.
  15. ^ Leonard, John (7 February 1982). "The Spacing Out of Doris Lessing". The New York Times. Retrieved 21 December 2012. 
  16. ^ Blume, Harvey. "Doris Lessing: Hot Dawns". Boston Book Review. Retrieved 21 December 2012. 
  17. ^ Doris May Lessing (1996). Putting Questions Differently: Interviews with Doris Lessing, 1964–1994. Flamingo. p. 92. ISBN 978-0-00-654850-8. 
  18. ^ a b Sperlinger, Tom (17 April 2012). "Five Doris Lessing Books to Read (Even If You Didn't Like The Golden Notebook)". HuffPost Culture. The Huffington Post. Retrieved 2 January 2013. 
  19. ^ a b Glover 2007, p. 128.
  20. ^ "Research & Literary Criticism". Feminist Science Fiction, Fantasy & Utopia. Archived from the original on 7 August 2010. Retrieved 20 December 2012. 
  21. ^ Alter, Robert (11 January 1981). "Doris Lessing in the Visionary Mode". The New York Times. Retrieved 2 January 2013. 
  22. ^ Vidal, Gore (20 October 1979). "Paradise Regained". The New York Review of Books. Retrieved 2 January 2013. 
  23. ^ Glover, Jayne (1 January 2006). "The Metaphor of the Horse in Doris Lessing's The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five: an Ecofeminist Question?". Current Writing: Text and Reception in Southern Africa. Retrieved 2 January 2013.  (subscription required)
  24. ^ Shinn 1986, p. 111.
  25. ^ a b c Sheets, Diana. "Doris Lessing, Nobel Laureate, and the XX/YY Axis". Literary Gulag. IDEALS (University of Illinois). Retrieved 20 December 2012. 
  26. ^ a b c d Gray, Paul (21 April 1980). "Soul Mates". Time. Archived from the original on 20 January 2011. Retrieved 21 December 2012. 
  27. ^ a b c "Marriages Between Zones 3 4 & 5". Kirkus Reviews. 1 April 1980. Retrieved 27 December 2012. 
  28. ^ Bloom, Harold (2003). Doris Lessing. Facts on File. p. 177. ISBN 978-0-7910-7441-1.  Questia access (subscription required).
  29. ^ Shinn 1986, p. 112.
  30. ^ Shinn 1986, p. 113.
  31. ^ Glover 2007, p. 134.
  32. ^ Glover 2007, p. 135.
  33. ^ Glover 2007, p. 136.
  34. ^ Galin 1997, p. 132.
  35. ^ Galin 1997, p. 131.
  36. ^ Galin 1997, p. 140.
  37. ^ Leonard, John (27 February 1980). "Books of The Times; Gentle Book". The New York Times. Retrieved 27 December 2012. 
  38. ^ Sleight, Graham (February 2011). "Graham Sleight's Yesterday's Tomorrows: Doris Lessing". Locus. Retrieved 27 December 2012. 
  39. ^ "Philip Glass". Chester Music and Novello & Company. Retrieved 21 December 2012. 
  40. ^ a b "Libretto: The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four and Five". Retrieved 21 December 2012. 
  41. ^ Smith, Dinitia. "Writers Enchanted by the Freedom of Opera". The New York Times. Retrieved 21 December 2012. 
  42. ^ von Rhein, John. "DePaul can't make Glass' sci-fi `Marriages' work". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 21 December 2012. 
  43. ^ "Houston Grand Opera: The Making of the Representative for Planet 8". Retrieved 14 November 2012. 
  44. ^ "Libretto: The Making of the Representative for Planet 8, An Opera in Three Acts by Philip Glass and Doris Lessing". Retrieved 14 November 2012. 

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