The Good Terrorist

Critical opinion

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".[35] In The Hudson Review George Kearns wrote that the title "hovers above the novel with ... irony".[36] 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".[36] Writing in World Literature Today, Mona Knapp concluded that Lessing's heroine, the "good terrorist", is not a good person, nor a good revolutionary.[37] She knows how to renovate houses and manipulate people to her advantage, but she is unemployed and steals money from her parents.[37] When real revolutionaries start using the squat to ship arms to, she panics,[37] and going behind her comrades's backs, she makes a telephone call to the authorities to warn them of their bomb.[29] Knapp called Alice "a bad terrorist and a stunted human being".[37] 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".[29]

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.[24] 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".[38] Greene wrote that Alice's "humanitarianism is ludicrous in her world",[39] 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."[40]

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."[41] 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".[42] 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".[43] The fact that Jasper has turned to homosexuality, which Alice dismisses as "his emotional life",[44] "suits her own repressed desires".[45] 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.[24]

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.[37] 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.[37] Knapp remarks that Lessing does not resolve these ambiguities, but instead "reports" on the "rottenness of both the state's supporters and its enemies".[37] Scanlan compared Lessing's comrades to Richard E. Rubenstein's terrorists in his book Alchemists of Revolution: Terrorism in the Modern World. Rubenstein wrote that when "ambitious idealists" have 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".[46][47]


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