Symbols in Context - The Mystic Egg in Doris Lessing's The Memoirs of a Survivor

Seminar Paper, 2008

13 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

I. Introduction

II. The Mystic Egg
1. The Universal Symbol of Egg
2. Appearance of the Symbol in the Novel
2.1. Egg and Wall
2.2. The White Egg
2.3. The Black, Iron Egg

III. Conclusion

IV. Bibliography

“[A]n autobiography of dreams, in dream form […] In part I was writing an autobiography in terms of metaphor – behind the dissolving wall is the most ancient symbol you can probably find. I always use these old, hoary symbols, as they strike the unconscious.”

(Doris Lessing aboutThe Memoirs of a Survivor1)

I. Introduction

There are few contemporary writers, who are inspired by so many different ideologies and diverse disciplines in their lifelong career, as the Novel-Prize winner Doris Lessing. Her works are characterised principally by the philosophy of Sufism, communist ideas and the theories of S. Freud and of C.G. Jung. Her literary works are held in high esteem by young and old, mystics and realists, feminists and anti-feminists and by readers in socialist and capitalist countries alike. She has without doubt an extraordinary personality.

Lessing’s considerable reputation as an innovative and experimental novelist (vgl. Saint Andrews 1986: 110) is confirmed by one of her major works: the prophetic, dystopian and at the same time utopian novelThe Memoirs of a Survivor. In the mentioned novel, she experiments with techniques related to non-realistic approaches such as expressionism, fantasy, science fiction, and allegory. She is able to combine these elements with rational components in a unique way. Through the utilisation of private and conventional symbols, images and rhetorical figures like similes and metaphors, she presents an alternative frame to the realistic one (vgl. Draine 1983: 131): a mystic and mythic dimension in which the laws of time and space are suspended and the unconscious realm addressed.

As Lessing herself confirms, symbols become transmitters of abstractions and may develop into significant stylistic devices. For this reason, the present essay focuses on the appearance, significance and possible meaning of the chief and most complex symbol used in this novel: the mystic egg. As Wilson has also pointed out (vgl. Wilson n.d.:1), only a few scholars have been dealing with this issue before, without being able to define a precise explanation of the symbol. It remains, therefore, a great challenge to analyse it in further detail.

The present essay aims to encompass the challenging and broad field of symbols related to the eggs that emerge in the novel. First, universal signs associated to eggs are going to be presented, in order to provide a general overview of the development of the ancient image in the context of the novel. In the subsequent part, the three2 major scenes are going to be analysed in detail, where the egg is mentioned: first, related to the other key symbol of the novel, namely to the wall; second, appearing as a white, and finally as a giant black egg. For better understanding of the symbols, they are going to be explained in the context of the novel. The paper ends with a short summary and concluding remarks.

Particular attention is also devoted to the language applied, as the close examination of expressions reveals and becomes the prior transmitter of the meaning of any literature. The utilisation of language and dream helps Lessing’s protagonists (vgl. Saint Andrews 1986: 113) to discover the truth beyond the visible materialisation of sole words and the rational mind.

II. The Mystic Egg

1. The Universal Symbol of Egg

The function of symbols is to represent ideas, concepts or other abstractions that lie beyond the sole level and dimension of expressions and words. The image of an egg has been used since ancient times to visualise an idea. Therefore, it represents a conventional symbol. In Lessing’s present novel, however, the egg becomes a private symbol, as it receives a broader and unique significance.

The egg isMemoirs’s chief ancient symbol, which is cited frequently in creation mythologies. As Wilson points out, creation myths signify truths beyond words; Lessing herself concludes that symbols can be best used for explaining the unconscious. In mythology, eggs stand for the earth, the life, or the seat of the soul (vgl. Wilson n.d.:4-7). They indicate the presence of the Goddess, “whose World Egg contains the universe in embryo” (Hoppál, et al. 1988: 221). In India, Egypt, Greece and Phoenicia, for instance, the creator and mankind emerge from the Cosmic Egg; and in African folklore, an egg can transform into a house3. The egg is commonly considered as a symbol of fertility (vgl. Saint Andrews 1986: 205), the rebirth of nature and wholeness. Related to this, according to Sufi theory (vgl. Pickering 1990: 205), the central goal is the rediscovery of the root of one’s being through the reintegration with the entirety. Lessing was highly influenced by Sufi thoughts and incorporates the teaching in her works. She draws attention, however, to the difficulty of remaining whole (Lessing, quoted in Ezergailis 1982: 66), and advocates that one should not hold on to this wholeness at the expense of a false life. “When unity becomes mere semblance, one must relinquish it, risk insanity and hope to find the beginnings of a new unity”(Ezergailis 1982:17) somewhere else under different circumstances. This urge is expressed inMemoirs.

To fully understand the complex symbol of the egg, we have to analyse the appearance of the egg in the novel. It is first mentioned in accordance with a metaphor of a wall.

2. Appearance of the Symbol in the Novel

“It was like standing inside a cleaned-out eggshell;” (58)4

2.1 Egg and Wall

The first reference to the egg appears directly prior to the first experience and detailed description of passing through the wall into the “other world” (182). The egg is used as a symbol and as a metaphor for a wall; sensing and feeling the wall is compared to “holding an egg to one’s ear that is due to hatch” (14). Let us first have a critical approach on the description and the significance of the wall before analysing the symbol of the egg as it appears in these paragraphs.


1 Tomalin, Claire (n.d.),Watching the Angry and Destructive Hoards Go By, Ingersoll, 174.

2 Four appear, however, only three are significant, as once it is only mentioned as a part of a simile.

3 Lessing compares the egg once to a house in her present novel.

4 The wall is later also described as an egg-shell, behind which life and hope lies.

Excerpt out of 13 pages


Symbols in Context - The Mystic Egg in Doris Lessing's The Memoirs of a Survivor
University of Passau  (Philosophische Fakultät, Lehrstuhl für Englische Literatur und Kultur)
Modern Dystopias
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Bemerkung des Dozenten: ,,Eine klasse Arbeit mit viel Tiefgang und interpretatorischem Fingerspitzengefühl! Respekt! Wären da nicht die vielen kleinen grammatikalischen Fehler, hätte ohne weiteres die Bestnote vergeben werden können." &gt,&gt, Die grammatikalischen Fehler sind korrigiert worden.
Symbols, Context, Doris, Lessing, Memoirs, Survivor, Modern, Dystopias, Mystic, Egg, Eggshell
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B.A. Kata Udvarhelyi (Author), 2008, Symbols in Context - The Mystic Egg in Doris Lessing's The Memoirs of a Survivor, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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