Course Content
Environmental Studies
English Language and Linguistics
Private: BA English
About Lesson


A Mild Attack of Locusts

Doris Lessing

Learning Outcomes

Upon the completion of this unit, the learner will be able to:

  1. acquire a general insight into Doris Lessing as a fiction writer.
  2. detail some of the stylistic elements in the selected text.
  3. describe some of the narrative strategies used in the selected text.
  4. identify some of the key themes in the selected text.


Doris Lessing (1919-2013) is a writer whose works cannot be classified under one genre or literary movement. In her prolific career of sixty years, she has written novels, short stories, poetry, drama, comics, opera librettos, and essays. Although her interests extend from social issues to global politics, her fiction has displayed the ability to showcase the voice of the individual.

She has experimented with narrative, form, and theme, producing literature that focuses on a wide range of issues such as racism, colonialism, psychology, mysticism, and fantasy. Despite being renowned as a master of realism, she has produced science fiction and mythical tales. And so, to fully categorize Lessing under any singular framework is to miss the complexity of her works.

Yet, a common theme that ties Lessing’s diverse works together is her candid exploration of women and their lives. She has presented women who are complex, intelligent, and questioning. Her female characters are often not content with the established way of things and rebel against the oppressive world around them.

Combining realistic narration with vivid imagery and symbolism, Lessing is able to break out of stereotypical depictions of women. In “A Mild Attack of Locusts”, we are introduced to Margaret, a woman from the city who is striving to adapt to a rural life post marriage. The story traces her thoughts and emotions at a point of great crisis in the farmlands, giving us the raw portrait of a complicated individual.

Key terms

Devastation, Resilience, The nature of hope, Warfare, Gender

6.5.1 Summary

Paragraphs 1-2

That year, the rains were good. They were coming just as the crops needed them. This is what Margaret understood from what the men were discussing. She did not have any opinions on matters relating to the running of the farm. The men were Richard, her husband, and his father, old Stephen who was a farmer from way back.

Margaret has been on the farm for three years. She does not understand why they don’t go bankrupt altogether since the men are always complaining about the weather, or the soil, or the Government. But she was getting to learn the language – Farmers’ language. She noticed that despite the men’s complaints, they never became poor. Nor did they get very rich. They only went along comfortably.

Their crop was maize. Their farm was three thousand acres on the edges of the Zambesi escarpment – a long steep slope at the edge of a plateau. It was high, dry, and wind-swept land. Cold and dusty in winter. In the rainy months, it was hot and steamy with miles of green foliage or flora. It was a beautiful landscape with blue skies, bright-green country beneath, bordered by mountains and rivers.

Margaret was not used to seeing the sky as much since she came from the city. So, that evening when Richard said that the Government is sending out warnings about a possible locust attack, her instinct was to look up at the trees. The thought of swarms of insects seemed horrible to her. But Richard and Stephen were looking over at the nearest mountaintop. They said that they haven’t had locusts in seven years, and that they go in cycles. They said: “There goes our crop for this season!”

Paragraphs 3-8

But they went on with the routine work of the farm. But one day, when they were going for a midday break, Stephen pointed at the sky. “Look, look!” he shouted. “There they are!” Margaret heard him and ran out to look over the hills. She stood watching with everyone else. Over the mountains, locusts came down in a streak of rust-coloured air.

At once, Richard shouted at the cookboy. Old Stephen yelled at the houseboy. The cookboy ran to beat the rusty ploughshare, banging from a tree branch, that was used to summon the laborers at moments of crisis. The houseboy ran off to the store to collect tin cans—any old bits of metal. The farm was ringing with the clamour of the gong, and the laborers came pouring out of the compound, pointing at the hills and shouting excitedly. Soon they had all come up to the house, and Richard and old Stephen were giving them orders: “Hurry, hurry, hurry.”

They ran off again, the two white men went with them. In a few minutes, Margaret could see the rising smoke of fires from around the farmlands. They had already prepared piles of wood and grass in every cultivated field in anticipation of the locusts. Earlier, there were seven patches of cultivated soil which showed up as a bright green film over the dark red soil. Now everything was covered in clouds of smoke. The men threw wet leaves over the fires to make the smoke black and acrid.

Margaret was watching the hills. She could see the rust-coloured cloud of locusts still advancing towards them. The neighbours kept calling them to say, “Quick, quick, here come the locusts! Old Smith had already had his crop eaten to the ground. Quick, get your fires started!” Of course, every farmer hoped that the locusts would overlook his farm and move onto the others’. But they still warned the others to play fair. Margaret answered the telephone calls.

Everywhere, fifty miles over the countryside, the smoke from various fires kept rising. A strange darkness came over the air, despite the blazing sun. It was like being in a veldt fire where the atmosphere becomes a thick, hot orange. It was oppressive like being in a storm. The locusts kept coming fast. Now, half the sky darkened. Behind the reddish clouds in front, which were the advance guard of the swarm, the main swarm came in dense black clouds.

Margaret wondered what she could do to help. She did not know. Then, Old Stephen came from the farmlands. He said: “We’re finished, Margaret, finished! Those beggars can eat every leaf and blade off the farm in half an hour!..And it is only early afternoon – if we can make enough smoke, make enough noise till the sun goes down, they’ll settle somewhere else perhaps…Get the kettle going. It’s thirsty work, this.”

Margaret headed into the kitchen and started to boil the water. She could hear the thuds and bangs of falling locusts on the tin roof of the kitchen. The first of them were here. Stephen waited impatiently as two petrol tins were filled with tea and water, respectively. As he waited, he told Margaret about how an army of locusts destroyed his farm and left him bankrupt twenty years ago. Then he took the cans down to the thirsty labourers.

Paragraphs 9-14

By now, the locusts were falling like hail. All around, it sounded like a heavy storm. Margaret looked out and saw a criss-cross of insects darkening the air. She set her teeth and ran out into it. She felt that she could do whatever the men could do. The locusts, heavy-red brown creatures, covered her and stared at her with their old-men’s eyes. They clung to her with their serrated legs. She held her breath and ran through the locusts into the house.

Inside the house, it was even more like being in a heavy storm. The iron roof made a din. The clamour of iron from the farmlands was like thunder. Outside, locusts covered the trees, earth, and the mountains. The trees were clotted with insects. The earth looked like it was moving. Towards the mountains, the locusts resembled the rainfall. It was a half-night.

She could hear the sharp crack of branches and trees falling over. A man came running through the hail of insects. He asked for more tea and more water. She supplied them. She kept the fires burning, and filled tins with liquids. The locusts had been there for a couple of hours.

Soon, old Stephen returned, crushing locusts under his foot, with locusts hanging all over him. He threw off the clinging insects at the doorway and entered the locust-free living room. He said: “All the crops are finished. Nothing left.” But the gongs were still going on and the men were still shouting. So Margaret asked: “Why do you go on with it, then?”

Stephen said: “The main swarm isn’t settling. They are heavy with eggs. They are looking for a place to settle and lay. If we can stop the main body settling on our farm, that’s everything. If they get a chance to lay their eggs, we are going to have everything eaten flat with hoppers later on.”

He picked up a locust off his shirt and split it open with his thumb nail. It was clotted with eggs. He continued: “Imagine that multiplied by millions. You ever seen a hopper swarm on the march? Well, you’re lucky.” An adult swarm was bad enough as far as Margaret was concerned. Outside, the clouds of insects thickened and lightened. Old Stephen said: “They’ve got the wind behind them, that’s something.”

Margaret asked fearfully: “Is it very bad?” Once again, the old man replied: “We’re finished. This swarm may pass over, but once they’ve started, they’ll be coming down from the North now one after another. And then, there are the hoppers – it might go on for two or three years.”

Paragraphs 9-12

Margaret sat down helplessly. She felt that all three of them would have to return back to town after this. But she knew that nothing would make old Stephen, who had farmed 40 years in this country, to go become a clerk in the city. She felt great pity for him. Stephen lifted a locust out of his pocket and said jokingly: “You’ve got the strength of a steel-spring in those legs of yours.” Although he had been fighting locusts for the last three hours, he gently threw this one out the door.

This comforted Margaret, and she felt irrationally happy all at once. She remembered that this was not the first time in the last three years that the men had announced their final and irremediable ruin. Stephen asked for a bottle of whiskey and she got it for him.

In the meantime, Margaret remembered that her husband was outside in the storm of insects. She shuddered. “How can you bear to let them touch you?” she asked Stephen. He looked at her with disapproval.

This reminded her of the time that she came to the farm for the first time after marriage. Stephen had looked disapprovingly at her city self – hair waved and golden, her nails painted red. Now she had become a proper farmer’s wife, dressed in sensible shoes and a solid skirt. She might even begin allowing locusts to settle on her. Stephen left after drinking a couple of whiskeys.

Paragraphs 13 – 20

It was five o’ clock and the sun would set in an hour. The swarm would settle in the dark. They were thick overhead. All the trees were covered with the brown insects.

Margaret began to cry. It was all hopeless – if it wasn’t a bad season, it was locusts, if it wasn’t locusts, it was army-worm, or veldt fires. There was always something wrong. The locust armies sounded like a big forest in the storm. She feared that the locusts might cover everything like a loathsome brown flood.

Outside, the clouds of locusts were becoming thinner. She could see patches of blue sky in between them. The sun seemed to be setting. In the fog of insects, she could see two men coming. It was old Stephen and Richard. Behind them came the servants. The sound of the gongs had stopped. All she could hear were the wings of the insect. The men slapped off the insects and came into the house.

Richard kissed Margaret on the cheek and declared that the main swarm has gone over. But Margaret replied angrily, half-crying: “What’s here is bad enough, isn’t it?” Although the air was no longer black and thick, everything else, including trees, buildings, bushes, and earth, was under the brown insects.

The men seemed confident that if it doesn’t rain overnight, the locusts would fly off in the morning. Margaret consoled herself, and fetched the men some supper. She sat listening as they spoke. There is not one maize plant left. They would have to get the planting machines out and start all over again.

Paragraphs 21-25

Margaret did not understand how that would help if the whole farm was going to be crawling with locusts for a while. But she listened while they discussed the new government pamphlet on how to destroy the insects. They would have to post men out in the farm to watch for movement in the grass. Once they found these insects, they would have to dig trenches around them or spray them with poison supplied by the government.

The Government wanted them to co-operate in a world plan for eliminating such plagues forever. They would attack the locusts at the source – wingless hoppers left behind on the farm after the swarm. Margaret listened, amazed. The men were talking as if they were planning a war.

It was quiet at night except for the snap of a branch or the crash of a tree. Margaret slept badly but Richard was sleeping like the dead. In the morning, she woke to yellow sunshine with an occasional shadow moving over it. Old Stephen was already outside.

At the window, Margaret too gazed with amazement, almost against her will. It looked as if every tree, every bush, and all the earth were lit with pale flames. The locusts were fanning their wings to dry off the night dews. A shimmer of red-tinged gold light was visible everywhere.

She went out and stood with old Stephen. He said, with satisfaction: “Pretty.” They may have been ruined and left bankrupt, but not everyone gets to see an army of locusts fanning their wings at dawn.

Paragraph 26-30

In the distance, a faint red smear could be seen in the sky. Stephen said it was the main swarm, heading off to the south. Now, from everywhere around them, the locusts rose up like small aircrafts. A reddish brown steam was rising off the bush, the lands, the earth. Once again, the sky darkened.

As the insects lifted off from the branches, there was nothing remaining but the blackened spines of branches. No green left at all. All morning, they watched as the insects swarmed together in the Southern sky. The farmlands were empty – a devasted landscape. Not a bit of green, anywhere.

By midday, the cloud had gone. Only an occasional locust, or wounded ones flopped around. The African labourers swept them up in tins. Old Stephen asked Margaret whether she had ever eaten dried locusts. He said that, twenty years ago, when he went broke, he survived on dried locusts.

Everything was to be replanted. With luck, another swarm would not come by. They hoped it would rain very soon and new grass would come up for the cattle. Otherwise, they would die. Margaret, on the other hand, was trying to get used to the idea of locusts for the next three or four years. She felt like a survivor after war – if this devasted farmland was not like the ruins of war, what was?

But the men ate their supper with good appetites. They said: “It could have been worse.”

6.5.2 Critical Review

The short story “A Mild Attack of Locusts” was published in The New Yorker in February of 1955. Set in Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe), the narrative documents the effects of a locust attack on a farm. It is recounted through the eyes of Margaret, who can only watch in despair as the insects devour the crops on her father-in-law’s farm.

We are introduced to the story’s other two significant characters – Richard, her husband, and old Stephen, her father-in-law, through Margaret’s third-person narration. The narrative voice is all-knowing or omniscient in terms of the outer aspects and actions of these characters.

However, it is only the main character, Margaret’s inner thoughts and feelings that are made known. Such narrators are referred to as limited omniscient narrators.

The limited omniscient narrator in the story reveals the conversations of the male characters even when Margaret is not with them. However, their feelings and thoughts cannot be rendered. On the other hand, we are made aware of what Margaret feels as she listens to their conversations about farming, bankruptcy, and locust-attacks.

The benefit of such a narrator is that readers receive insights from the interior life of the character. Yet, the emphasis remains on the main character whose perspectives guide the story. We come to see Richard, old Stephen, and even the locusts only through Margaret’s point of view.

Another significant aspect of the story is its short length, complemented by fast-paced narration. The reader becomes aware of the severity of the locust attack and the desperation of the farmers because of the narrative tone. Due to this technique, Margaret’s changing emotional state and panicked reactions leave a great impression on the reader despite the short span of the plot.

The setting of the story also assumes great significance. Lessing employs detailed, vivid descriptions of the landscape, a farmland in rural Africa. This allows the readers to fully appreciate the damage that the locust infestation brings upon the farm. The earlier portrayals of the natural beauty of the land give way to the crisis-addled atmosphere of the locust attack.

Interestingly, the narrative traces the way in which each character prepares for and reacts to the change in setting. The men strive hard to drive the insects away long after they have eaten all the crops. This is largely because they know the danger of these locusts laying their eggs there. They say that it could have been worse because they are aware that a greater danger has been averted.

Margaret, on the other hand, is still struggling to understand the destruction brought on by the locusts. She sees the farms and the countryside as the ruins of a war. Despite being able to find a momentary respite in the beauty of the locusts at dawn, she is beginning to see that rural life is a constant battle against nature.

Indeed, Margaret is characterised as a person who is constantly evolving. She comes to the farm after her marriage to Richard. Often, she reflects on her transformation from city girl to farmer’s wife over the years. She wore impractical clothes at first, before changing to sensible clothes for farm life.

Overall, Margaret takes on the role of a passive observer. She has no firm opinion about farm life and is consistently confused by the men’s conclusions. Her ideas about the fundamentals of rural existence such as weather, soil, and the possibilities of a good crop are shaped by the men’s conversations. Indeed, her own perspectives and emotional state transform on the basis of her understanding of the men’s discussions and her encounters with them.

It is to be noted that Margaret’s role in fighting the locust swarm also appears to be passive. She stays inside the house, witnessing the attack as well as the efforts of the farmers. Her support to the men is expressed by her willingness to provide water and refreshments tirelessly. In fact, she only sees the insects when old Stephen brings one into the house accidentally.

Margaret’s resilience, however, is highlighted in her ability to adjust to rural life. She is able to appreciate both the destructive nature and the natural beauty of the locust swarm. Each time the men announce their doom, she consoles herself with the possibility that the devastation might not be final. Instead, she readies herself for whatever new task has to be undertaken in the unpredictable course of events.

 Of the two men, old Stephen, Margaret’s father-in-law, is more present throughout the story. Richard, Margaret’s husband, is out in the field for most part. He is depicted as more optimistic in outlook, providing suggestions to improve the situation. Their roles in driving away the locust swarm are more apparent. They organise the labourers in their farmlands and direct them on how best to keep the insects away.

 Old Stephen offers a contrast of characterisation with Margaret. Since he has been a farmer for most of his life, his experience is invaluable in fighting the locust attack. He is deeply aware of the unpredictable and harsh nature of farm life. Having been a victim of such a swarm once, he knows the level of devastation that will follow. This is reflected in his pessimistic attitude which frequently alarms Margaret.

However, Stephen is revealed to have an emotional side as well. His gentle treatment of the locust and his appreciation of their beauty provide us glimpses of the same. His will to keep fighting, in spite of the fact that his crops are gone, is testament to his determination. There is a sense that he does not view nature as a hostile force, but as a fact of life that he must necessarily encounter in his farming.

The relationship between Margaret and the men shed light on how women are expected to conduct themselves in a traditional setting. From their earliest meeting, old Stephen shows his disapproval of her city ways. This initiates her personal transformation into a farmer’s wife, swapping out her neat hair style and painted nails for sensible clothes and shoes.

 Margaret has, however, internalised this expectation. She relies on the men’s knowledge about the rural landscape to guide her. Throughout the narrative, we find that Margaret’s emotional reactions to the locust attack are based on the men’s comments. If the comments are negative, she devolves into panic-stricken thoughts. When they are optimistic, she begins to consider that there is a way forward for them.

Interestingly, Lessing only shows us the men through Margaret’s voice and observations. She leads the readers into the story much in the same way as she is led in her rural life. This form of narration provides a point of contrast with her framing as a passive observer in the plot.

            “A Mild Attack of Locusts” offers a deep exploration of the following themes:

  • Devastation: Images of devastation are predominant in the narrative. The locust swarm devours everything on the farm, leaving it barren and empty. While this devastation has a physical aspect, it makes a great impact on Margaret’s mind. Encountering the damage left by the insects, she is desperate and awed at once. It becomes a litmus test of her strength and adaptability.
  • Resilience: Resilience, the human capacity to resist defeat and move on, is emphasised in the story. On one hand, despite her frequent sense of calamity, Margaret appears to have a better understanding of what to expect in the future. Knowing that the locusts might return seasonally for several more years, she accepts the nature of farm life. Old Stephen, on the other hand, has already understood this. His ability to endure and to move on is also highlighted.
  • The nature of hope: The story presents the idea of finding hope amidst dire situations. Even after being trapped in the chaos and destruction of the locust attack, Richard and old Stephen have hope for the future. They intend to start farming at the earliest , and plan strategies for controlling the locusts in the coming year. Even though their efforts of several months have been laid to waste, they do not appear to be defeated in spirit. This is hinted at by the characters’ being awed at the beauty of the locusts fanning their wings, despite the sight of their farmlands in ruins.
  • Warfare: Written in the years after the Second World War, the story alludes to those who survive wars. The locust attack is depicted with the ferocity of an enemy invasion. Towards the end of the story, Margaret listens to the men planning future strategies. She feels as though they are preparing for a war. She equates the farmlands with the ruins of a battlefield, and considers herself a survivor of war.

In conclusion, “A Mild Attack of Locusts” provides unique insights into rural life, its dual nature of unpredictability and beauty. The title reflects the way in which the characters relate to their surroundings. They see only how much worse the extent of the devastation and destruction could have been, not the present scope of harm that the locusts have done. So, even as the protagonist wonders how they would survive going forward, the men are strategizing in their own way. To them, the attack is a mild one, since it has not stripped them of their will to survive and go forward.


  • The protagonist, Margaret, is new to farm life – depends on men’s knowledge to understand her new way of living
  • Lives with her husband, Richard, and father-in-law, old Stephen
  • The farm is attacked by a locust swarm
  • The men go out and fight the swarm in the fields
  • Margaret helps by providing refreshments to them and labourers
  • They succeed in chasing swarm away but crops destroyed
  • Margaret does not understand how they will move forward
  • Men are optimistic since they prevented main swarm from laying eggs there
  • Short story set in Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe)
  • Limited Omniscient narrative
  • Fast paced tone of narration
  • Margaret as passive observer
  • Traditional feminine role in rural settings
  • Differences between characterisation of Margaret, old Stephen, and Richard
  • Key themes of Devastation, Resilience, The nature of hope, Warfare
  • Significance of title

Objective questions

  1. Who is the protagonist of the story?
  2. What is the name of Margaret’s husband?
  3. What is old Stephen’s profession?
  4. Where did Margaret come from?
  5. What insects attack the farm?
  6. What does old Stephen refer to as “thirsty work”?
  7. Who supplied them with poison to kill the locusts?
  8. What comment do the men make about the locust attack at the very end?
  9. Where was the story first published?
  10. Where is the story set?


  1. Margaret
  2. Richard
  3. Farmer
  4. A city
  5. Locusts
  6. Fighting the locusts
  7. The Government
  8. “It could have been much worse.”
  9. The New Yorker
  10. Rhodesia


  1. Where did Doris Lessing first publish “A Mild Attack of Locusts”?
  2. What narrative technique is used in the story?
  3. How does Margaret deal with the locust attack?
  4. What does Old Stephen do when he sees the first signs of the locust attack?
  5. How is nature represented in the story?
  6. How does Margaret help the farmers during the locust attack?
  7. Why do Richard and Old Stephen say that it could have been worse?
  8. How do the different characters in the story react to the locust attack?
  9. Write a short note on the various themes covered in the story?
  10. Briefly examine the relationship between Margaret and Old Stephen.

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