This usher should assist you to analyze “Flight”. It should be useful to pupils from all parts of the universe, though I have written it specifically to support pupils in England and Wales preparing for GCSE tests in English and English literature. It may also be helpful to the general reader who is interested in the stories of Doris Lessing.
“Flight” was published in 1957, in a collection of short narratives entitled “The Habit of Loving”. The author, Doris Lessing, was born in 1919 in Khermanhah, Persia (now Iran). Her parents were British. At six years old, she moved to Zimbabwe (then Southern Rhodesia), where she attended a girls’ school. In 1949, she moved to London, where her first novel, “The Grass is Singing”, was published in 1950.
What happens in “Flight”? An old man (nameless) who keeps pigeons is concerned about his granddaughter, Alice. He has seen his other granddaughters leave home, marry and grow up, and he is both possessive of Alice and jealous of Steven, her boyfriend. (He disapproves of Steven’s appearance and his father’s job.)
The old man argues with Alice about her behavior and complains to his daughter, Alice’s mother (Lucy). At the start of the narrative, the old man shuts up his favorite pigeon instead of letting it fly. But when Steven, the boyfriend, gives him a gift of a new pigeon, he is more able to accept what is going to happen, and he lets his favorite bird fly.
The ending of the narrative is ambiguous (it has more than one possible meaning): Alice has tears on her face as she stares at her grandfather. But we do not know if they are for him, for Steven, for herself, or for some other reason. And we do not know if they are tears of joy, sadness, or some other emotion.
The themes of this narrative: Is this a story about an old man who receives a present from his granddaughter’s boyfriend? In one way, of course, it is. But is this all? Or does this outward or surface narrative lead into another? Leaving home and becoming independent are things that most people face sooner or later.
They can be daunting, but they are natural and almost inevitable. Sometimes this kind of narrative is described in the phrase “rites of passage” – which fits narrations about growing up, moving on, and life changes. This should make it a very suitable story for young people preparing for tests: Alice’s situation will be one that you face now or will face soon. How do you feel about this opportunity? Is it scary, or exciting, or both?
The characters in the narrative: This is a very short narrative, so it does not have fully developed characters as we might encounter in a novel or one of Shakespeare’s plays. Doris Lessing tells us only what we need to know (and perhaps lots of things we might wish to know).
So who are these characters?
The old man
The central character in the narrative has no name. Why might this be? Does it make him look less of an individual, or perhaps make him look more universal, like someone we might know? Or can you think of any other reason for his not being named?
We know that he is Alice’s grandfather, and that he feels possessive towards her. We also know that he keeps pigeons. The narrative is told mostly from his point of view and, whatever it means, it is surely in some way about his learning or accepting things about Alice.
Alice is the old man’s granddaughter. She is a young woman, but he still sees her as a child – or would like to do so. She looks young and sometimes acts in an carefree manner, but mostly she has a serious and grown-up wish to marry her boyfriend and settle into a domestic routine.
Lucy is the old man’s daughter and Alice’s mother. She is depicted as a grown-up in her appearance (“square-fronted”), her actions (she looks after her father), and the way in which her father thinks of her (“that woman”).
Her husband is absent (perhaps she is a widow or separated, but there is no evidence to tell the reader more, except that it is Lucy who gives Alice permission to marry). But we know that Lucy married at 17 “and never regretted it”. She tries to reassure the old man about Alice. She has already agreed to her marrying Steven and tells her father this in the narrative.
Steven is Alice’s boyfriend. In the narrative, we see him through the old man’s eyes. The old man finds things wrong with him (his red skin color, his physical appearance, and his father’s job). The reader is not likely to share this disapproval. Lucy expects him to be as good a husband as her other three daughters have been. And he is thoughtful enough to give the old man a present of a pigeon.
The setting – time and place
Doris Lessing grew up in Zimbabwe, in Southern Africa. Yet the setting of this narrative could almost be anywhere, except for a few hints. One is the wooden veranda at the front of the whitewashed house. Another, which is repeatedly mentioned, is the frangipani tree.
(This species of tree takes its name from an Italian perfumier; the aroma of the flower purportedly resembles one of his perfumes.) But many details make the narrative seem almost English in its setting.
Some of these are listed below. Can you think of others?
- the valley, the earth, the trees;
- the columbarium;
- Lucy’s stitching;
- plates and cups of tea;
- Steven’s father’s occupation – he is a “postmaster.”
Possibly more important is the time in which this narrative is set. Although the narrative seems quite modern in showing a young woman about to leave home, the attitudes of the grandfather are more traditional. He wants to keep his grandchild at home and spoil her as his favorite. Although Alice will not give in to the old man’s wants, she still shows respect for him.
Doris Lessing’s technique refers to the way an author writes – not what he or she says but how it is said. Body language – actions and gestures – are prominent in this narrative. For example, when her grandfather cries, “Hey!” Alice jumps.
She is alarmed but then becomes evasive, as we see when her “eyes veiled themselves.” She adopts a neutral voice and tosses her head, as if to shrug off his confrontational stance. When he thinks of Steven, the old man’s hands curl like claws into his palm.
When Steven gives the old man the present of a new pigeon, both Alice and her boyfriend try to reassure the old man: “They hung about him, affectionate, concerned… They took his arms and guided him… enclosing him, petting him…”
Here we find another reference to eyes – they are “lying happy eyes,” telling the old man that nothing will change when he and they know this is false. At the end of the narrative, Alice is “wide-eyed” while tears run down her face. Earlier it was the old man who was crying at the thought of losing her.
What do her tears mean at the end of the narrative? Possibly she knows that she truly is to be married, and she, too, is now sad at the end of childhood. When Lucy shades her eyes with her hand, she is truly interested in the flight of the pigeons, but she has not let go of her domestic routine – her hand still holds her stitching.
She waits on her father – “brought him a cup, put him a plate” – but lets him know that she will not give in to his demands when she takes up her stitching.
This narrative is dramatic. A lot of it is in the form of conversation. While Lucy is calm and reasonable, the old man and Alice quarrel like children. Note how the old man asks questions with the word “Hey” – “Waiting for Steven, hey?” and “Think you’re old enough to go courting, hey?”
His menaces are infantile: “I’ll tell your mother” and “I see you!”
Doris Lessing uses repetition in the narrative to reinforce details of the scene (sunlight, the frangipani tree, the gallery, Lucy’s sewing) or to identify people (“the postmaster’s son” and “his daughter” or the “woman”). There are also many references to people’s bodies – to eyes, legs, and hair.
Is there a reason for this? Do they show us people as they truly are (as we might see them if we were present)? Or do they show us people as the old man sees them? Is his noticing Alice’s “long bare legs” a bit upsetting – we may think he should not see her in such a manner? Comparisons are very important here. Many of them are to natural things.
Alice’s long legs are likened to the frangipani stems – “shining-brown” and fragrant. The old man’s fingers curl like claws (an image which suggests his own pigeons). Later Alice and Steven tumble like puppies – they are not yet enjoying adult pleasure but their play is a preparation for what comes later.
Sometimes a single word tells us a great deal: when the old man talks of “courting” he reveals the gulf between himself and Alice. She is struck by the “old-fashioned phrase.”
This narrative is clearly one where symbolism is important to our understanding. Alice is clearly likened to the favorite pigeon. The old man can keep the bird in, where he cannot control Alice. But when he receives the new pigeon, he is able to let go of the favorite: he accepts that closing it in is not right.
The gift also suggests that there may be some compensation for the old man in the new situation. But truly he knows that nothing can make up for the loss of his last grandchild.
Analyzing Flight for English Literature
This section of advice will help you if you are preparing coursework for assessment in GCSE English literature. For most students, there will be little or no difference between what you do for English and what you do for literature. In the UK, these are seen as different subjects, with somewhat different emphases.
For English, you are expected to understand the meaning and implications of a text. For English literature, you will be expected to look more thoroughly at attitudes, techniques, implications, and effects of language. This section of advice should show you some things for which examiners may be looking. For advice on analyzing Flight for English tests, please consult the relevant study materials.
Attitudes in the text: In this narrative, the attitudes we learn about most clearly are those of the old man – we see most things through his eyes. Doris Lessing gives us his viewpoint as the starting point or reference point. We can see Alice’s and Lucy’s attitudes not through narrative or description, only in what they say to him. Steven’s viewpoint is almost invisible. The only hint is his gift – but Alice may have encouraged him to give the present.
Attitudes behind the text: How far does the narrative show (or suggest) assumptions about the world that the writer makes? Are we encouraged to see any character’s viewpoint as being the “right” one to accept? This is a world where men and women seem to have clearly defined roles – can you see evidence of this?
Attitudes in the reader: Can you find any evidence of what Doris Lessing assumes about her readers? This may appear in things she explains and things she doesn’t explain. For a South African reader, a frangipani tree is probably a common sight, but it may appear unfamiliar to a European reader.
One way to investigate this is to make a list of things you did not initially understand, or which you had to ask about. If Doris Lessing wrote the narrative today or for a specific audience, what might she want to change?
The writer: If you write (or speak) about this narrative, try to be aware that it has an author. Suppose that the events in it had really happened. Why would Doris Lessing choose to include the things she does, while leaving out others? For example, why is Steven almost written out of the narrative?
In the real world, all these people would be equally important as human beings. So why are they not equal as fictional characters? Does the narrative reflect a woman’s viewpoint of the world, in your opinion? If you did not know, could you guess the author’s gender? How? Why does the writer write so much about details of the natural world?
Is this a narrative about nature for its own sake, or more about nature as a way of seeing human nature? Or is it something else? How much does the writer tell the reader how to interpret the narrative? How much does she leave us alone to judge for ourselves?
It is easy to make comparisons in the narrative. We are led to make comparisons between these things, among others:
- the attitudes of the old adult male and Alice
- the statements of the old adult male and Lucy about Alice’s marriage
- the old man’s thoughts of his granddaughters before and after marriage
- Alice and the favorite pigeon
- sunshine and heat at the start and twilight and cold at the end of the narrative
- the old man’s initial rebelliousness and eventual acceptance of Steven’s courtship of Alice
Can you think of any others? You can also, of course, compare this narrative with others that have a similar subject – stories about growing up, gaining independence, and leaving home.
Are there any things in the narrative that are not what they initially seem? Are there situations that are gradually revealed to be other than what first appears? For example, does the reader at first accept the old man’s opinion of Steven, then learn what is wrong with it?
Do we expect that the old man will accept the loss of Alice? How do you react to the ending of the narrative, where the old man is smiling proudly at his new pigeon’s flight while tears run down Alice’s face?
Readers and reading
Reading the text: State what you think the narrative means in a literal sense and in terms of theme, character, and setting. Look at details of imagery, language, and symbolism.
Reading the writer: Try to explain what, in your opinion, the writer wants us to believe at various points. In doing this, you should refer to her narrative methods.
Reading your own reading: Be prepared briefly to explain your own understanding of the narrative and how this changes while you are reading it for the first time, and also on subsequent readings, where you notice more details.
Analyzing “Flight” for reading coursework in English
This section of advice will help you if you are preparing coursework for assessment in GCSE English. For most students, there will be little or no difference between what you do for English and what you do for English literature. In the UK, these are seen as different subjects, with slightly different focuses.
For English, you are expected to understand the meaning and implications of a text. For English literature, you will be expected to look more thoroughly at attitudes, techniques, implications, and effects of language. This section of advice should show you some things for which examiners may be looking. For advice on analyzing “Flight” for English literature exams, click here.
Try to select texts with an appropriate subject or topic. Subject, implications, and moral and philosophical context
- In your own words, explain Alice’s relationship with her grandfather.
- How does the old man feel about Alice’s marriage?
- How does he feel about Steven at the beginning and end of the story?
- Try to explain how the old man comes to accept the inevitability of Alice’s marriage.
- As you read the story, do you identify with the old man, with Alice, or with some other character?
Style, structure, narrative technique
- This story, though written in the third person, is told almost entirely from the old man’s point of view. How does this affect our reading of it?
- How does Doris Lessing suggest other points of view?
- Look at the descriptions the author gives of Steven, Alice, and her sisters, not as they are, but as the old man sees them. How do these impact the reader’s response? (See, for instance, the paragraphs beginning at lines 12 [“His eyes travelled”], line 96 [“He thought of the other three girls…”], and line 37 [“Her smile made him see her…”].)
- Comment on the structure of the narrative – how Doris Lessing makes the story about Alice parallel the secondary story about the pigeon.
Effects of language for emotional, ironic, figurative effect; forms and details of language
- Comment on the symbolism of the story’s title. Why is “Flight” a perfect title for this story?
- Explain how the old man’s speech is important in the story. Consider the words he speaks to Lucy, to Alice, and to the pigeon.
- Both Alice and the old man cry in the story, but Doris Lessing does not tell us directly. How do we know they cry, and why is it important?
- How does the word “courting” (l. 33) show the generation gap in the story?