The Cleft

by Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing has been writing for more than 50 years and has
long been considered "the matriarch" of contemporary British
literature. Now in her 87th year, she has written THE CLEFT, a very
studied and controversial book.

Of it she told an interviewer, "I saw a science magazine which said
that the basic human type is feminine and that men came afterward.
So I've written a story based on this… I noticed that my
typist at the publishing house was shocked by some of the words I
used. I can't wait to see what people make of it." She opined upon
this notion in another interview, when she said that the work was
controversial and "not politically correct. Some people will hate
every word."

These comments resound with the confidence and sense of impishness
she displayed when the diary of a good neighbor and IF THE OLD
COULD, each by Jane Somers, was published. This event came about as
the result of a bet wherein she wanted to prove that an unknown
writer does not get the same attention as one who is established.
When those books barely sold, they were combined into a paperback
titled THE DIARIES OF JANE SOMERS by Doris Lessing and it
flew off the shelves.

Lessing drastically changed direction when she wrote a science
fiction series that resulted in her removal from the list of
possible Nobel Prize winners. If she had not been so punished for
her courage to explore new fiction forms, then THE
CLEFT would have been the one that struck her off the list.
Clearly, Lessing has never been afraid to follow her muse wherever
it takes her and to write in her own inimitable way about the
issues she finds important. As a writer, she has never been

And her oeuvre can be seen in evolutionary stages: in her very
early works she wrote about Communism, which reflected her strong
attitudes towards "society" and the mechanisms that make it work
--- or not. In novels like The Children of Violence
quartet and the golden notebook, her socialist views were entwined
with her never-changing take on female-male relationships. Then she
published the soft science fiction series, which wove together
strong themes about human psychology and Sufism (which is the
belief system by which she lives her life) in a new form but not
one that changed her core message.

Now, in THE CLEFT, Lessing retells the story of how humankind
evolved. This is a satiric portrait of the woman-man conundrums,
mistakes, values, etc. that still shape the issues (rightly or
wrongly) expressed in men are from mars, women are from venus.
Feminist readers and free women hopefully will read between the
lines in order to see what Lessing is really trying to

The narrator of this highly speculative and provoking tale is an
aged senator who lives in ancient Rome. He discovers some ancient
manuscripts, gleaned from oral histories, that tell tales that
become the stuff of myth and legend. As he works his way through
the fragments of the old writings, he finds a compelling but
disturbing story: in a prehistoric time, in a "place near the sea,"
is an isolated community populated only by women known as the
Clefts. These "sea creatures" evidently lived very peaceably ---
laying in the sun, swimming, residing in caves and having no
"intelligence" beyond their primitive survival skills. Any concept
of learning, thinking, philosophy, insight or interference by other
two-legged creatures --- namely men, a species they have never seen
--- is nowhere. Their home is situated under a rock formation
called The Cleft, which resembles female genitalia. Their existence
seems safe in that they simply procreate at the whim of the moon
tides and give birth only to girls.

Then, inevitably, a baby who looks like nothing the "Shes" have
ever seen is born. At first this "thing" is thought to be a
"deformed mistake," but as they continue to be born, they are
labeled "Monsters" or "Squirts" (readers need no gloss to
understand this comical reference) and left on the Cleft for the
eagles to eat. Others are castrated in a gruesome attempt to
transform them into girls. Eventually, they stop torturing those
babies, stick to the original plan and leave them to become food
for the eagles, a constant presence in this small world. But,
unbeknownst to the Shes, the eagles take the infants to a safe
place, nurture them (which saves their lives) and allows them to
grow up. They mature, learn to build a community of their own, go
on to invent fire, and build rafts so they can navigate the river
beside their space. For the most part, they are content but feel
"some kind" of drive within themselves that needs relief, though
they don't know how to find it.

As time passes, one of the young women ventures over the mountains
to see what happened to the Monsters. She lands in a place of
horror. "Then she was standing in the middle of a large group of
Monsters. They were of all sizes, some children, some already past
middle age…all of them naked, and when seeing them, the
monsters, with their squirts pointed at her…she screamed, as
if she had been doing it all her life. [Then] instincts that had
ranged free an untrammeled and often unrecognized spoke all at
once…the mass rape went on, it went on, they were feeling
hungers it seemed they could never sate." Of course, the Cleft

As the story moves on, an inevitable coming together of Clefts and
Monsters arrives. The Clefts begin to get pregnant and give birth
to both Clefts and Monsters. The moon is no longer the means to
procreation, and "civilization" now has a footprint. Ironically, a
short time passes before the division between the sexes begins. The
men see themselves much as men have seen themselves forever; they
use their size and physical strength to control who does what. The
women are expected to care for the children and feed the men. This
makes for dissention between the two groups, but Squirts and Clefts
using their bodies seem to quiet things down. Since time is not a
concept remotely available to those who tell the history, readers
have no way to place any of the so-called "events" in context. The
old Roman scribe explains this over and over as he too finds it
frustrating not to know when "this" or "that" happened.

THE CLEFT is a frame story that works on several levels. The
narrator, who lives in the time of Nero, tells of his life and
alludes to the society he inhabits. Between these bits of
information, readers are lured into the interpretation of the
ancient writings he brings forth --- an alien notion of how the
human race began and flourished. Then, we meet a Cleft named Maire
who is interrogating a Monster, someplace, sometime. The senator
and readers who "get it" will understand that the author is still
playing with the "intercourse" between women and men. Lessing comes
full circle in her observation that women are stable and men lack
the facility to rise beyond the level of being the second and
weaker creation. She follows her muse further into soft sci-fi rife
with phantasmagoria and heretical notions that have always provoked
her readers while clearly enchanting her.


Reviewed by Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum on December 27, 2010

The Cleft
by Doris Lessing

  • Publication Date: August 1, 2007
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins
  • ISBN-10: 0060834862
  • ISBN-13: 9780060834869