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Character Analysis of Judith in Doris Lessing’s ‘Our Friend Judith’

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Through the revelations of an unnamed narrator, we are given a glimpse of Judith’s contradictory attitudes and behaviors without any insight into previous experiences that would explain them. Judith’s persona is more than an enigma; many people are not what they seem if we don’t know them well. No, her character and actions are so out of alignment as to exist almost as multiple personalities.

Judith is a complex woman who, on one hand, values her privacy and lives a somewhat isolated life (no other female friends are mentioned beyond the narrator and Betty), and, on the other hand, has no qualms about discussing extremely personal matters, such as her sex life, with her two lady friends. She is not well socialized, which results in her self-imposed isolation. There is a hint that something cut her off from her family long ago, as she is now “on cool good terms” with them. Judith’s family is upper middle class and described as quite brilliant. Judith is well educated in diverse subjects (poetry and biology at Oxford) and well read. Yet she does not work and is never described as doing anything constructive with her life. She lives on very little money in a low-class flat that is “shabby and badly heated” and furnished with old, worn items. Her behavior indicates that she is distancing herself from her family by living in a way that is in direct opposition to their lifestyle, and suggests some form of childhood abuse.

Judith’s friends think that she’s extremely pretty with a perfect body and a face that they envy. The narrator notes that when Judith tried on an exquisite Dior dress, “neither Betty nor I was surprised at the renewed discovery that Judith was beautiful.” Judith knows that she’s beautiful but chooses to downplay her attractiveness with plain, frumpy clothing and no makeup, implying a low self-esteem typical of women who have survived childhood sexual abuse. She claims to like intimacy and sex; however, her dress and demeanor are not conducive to attracting the opposite sex. In fact, dating married men who cannot possibly become completely intimate with her makes the reader wonder how she defines “intimacy.” A married man who is having an affair with Judith is unlikely to ever become intimate on any level and is just using her for sexual release. She is fooling herself to think that there is anything else to it.

Judith loves cats. Cats are known to be aloof and independent, which is how Judith sees herself as well. She shows respect for her male cat’s reproductive freedom when she refuses to have him neutered. However, she demonstrates a complete indifference and disrespect for the cat by putting him to sleep rather than neuter him. One does not kill that which one loves and respects. Judith is aloof and independent like the cats she cares for. Her life is free and unencumbered by responsibility; she is totally free to come and go as she pleases. Nevertheless, Judith clothes herself in drab colorless outfits because she believes it’s what people expect of her: “One surely ought to stay in character, wouldn’t you say?”. She is a slave to others’ opinions – not free and independent – about the matter of her appearance.

After all this contradiction in Judith’s behavior in her home territory, she exhibits an extreme display of multiple personality behavior when she travels to Italy and lives as the person she has always claimed to be. She literally lets her hair down, allowing Luigi to cut and lighten it, and becomes a totally different person, dressing in a more sensual way (“The widow Rineiri has made her a white dress and a green dress. They fit, for a change.”), dating Luigi, a man who has no other attachments, and acting demure and feminine. The change of Judith’s nature in Italy is so dramatic that it reminds one of an actor in a play who has done a complete costume change to perform as a new character. She sees herself as free-spirited and behaves that way. She sees herself as pretty and sexually attractive, dresses accordingly, and attracts the attention of the Italian men who “take one look at the golden girl and melt in their own oil like ice cream.” She sees herself as a cat lover and attracts a neurotic cat to nurture through the birth of its litter. This cat is far less aloof and independent than the London cat, matching the change in Judith’s persona. Judith’s true self arrives.

After her Italian holiday, Judith returns to England and reverts to the spinster appearance, behaviors, and persona that she says are expected of her in this arena, rationalizing that she doesn’t “understand” the Rineiris and they do not comprehend her: “When something happens that shows one there is really a complete gulf in understanding, what is there to say?” This supposition allows Judith to return to the relative safety of her London personality rather than continue to enjoy an intimacy with herself and others that clearly makes her very uncomfortable in the long run.

Professor’s comments:

Paragraph 1 – “A substantive thesis.”

Paragraph 2 – “A well-crafted paragraph, which effectively portrays the contradictions and complexities of Judith’s personality” and “An intriguing suggestion (relative to the implication of childhood sexual abuse).”

Paragraph 3 – “But the lover Betty meets wants to leave his wife to marry Judith. And isn’t it Judith who prefers non-commitment?”

Paragraph 4 – “A convincing interpretation of this incident.”

Paragraph 5 – “Insightful.”

Paragraph 6 – “An effective conclusion.”

Overall paper – “A profound, convincing, consistent analysis, especially strong because it makes sense of the puzzling details of the story.”

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