Doris Lessing’s novel Martha Quest
(1952) follows the life of Martha Quest to middle age. The first in a five-volume, semi-autobiographical series entitled The Children of Violence
, the book spans from 1934 to 1938 and takes place in Southern Rhodesia—now Zimbabwe—a former British colony in southern Africa. Lessing lived there from 1925 to 1949. Having experienced a troubled adolescence—upturned by a world war and heading toward another—Martha feels disjointed from the grand history of humans who, she observes, act in large numbers and change the narrative of history, while also getting caught up in the trivial social events of their lives.
At the opening of the novel, Martha is fifteen years old; she and her parents live on a destitute African farm. Martha is a keen observer. Early in life, she begins to notice an incongruity in the way people talk and the way they act, which makes her severely unhappy. In response, Martha seeks out literature to assuage her despair, often borrowing books from two erudite Jews who live nearby. She uses the books to build her philosophy of the way the world works, while also facing the disquieting events occurring in her own life. As a British adolescent female living in the twentieth century, Martha must deal not only with coming of age but also with issues of race, class, and women’s rights.
In the opening scene, Martha, who is trying to read, is with her mother, who is speaking with a Dutch woman from the Afrikaans colonies. The entire encounter is phony. The two women are not friends. Martha’s mother sees the Dutch woman as inferior because the woman prides herself on having her two daughters who are married. Meanwhile, Martha’s mother believes that Martha should have a career. Annoyed due to the interruption in her reading, Martha notices their hypocrisy and resents the fact that they talk about her as though she weren’t there. Martha ends the encounter by proclaiming how much she despises the two of them.
Fed up with her confining parents, as well as the rest of her contemporaries who ask about school and marriage, Martha feels the need to break free of her situation so that she has space to figure out who she is. She wants to get away from her mother’s insistence on Martha’s cold, Edwardian upbringing and her father, who is imprisoned in his own memories of World War I. Hoping to flee her current despair and the murky prospects of her future life, Martha soon decides to leave her rural community and move to a fictional city located nearby—Zambesia, South Africa. The narrator begins working as an assistant at a lawyer’s office.
Although she has learned to fear personal or historical entrapment, Martha, ironically, comes to the decision that her rescue must include sexual intimacy with a male. However, her personal exploration and pursuit of self-actualization through romantic encounters causes Martha to make a series of poor choices. Eventually, she allows Jewish musician Adolph, or Dolly, to come into her life as her first sexual partner. Through her own introspection, Martha confesses that she does not feel real attraction and passion toward him, but he seems acutely worthy due to the anti-Semitism he is subjected to.
The first two years of her independent life find Martha falling in with a group of reckless, white, quasi-adults, all of who are from a variety of backgrounds. She spends her time working and partying with her friends at local restaurants. Despite having left them behind, Martha’s parents and their social influence still permeate her existence, even if it manifests in opposition to the person Martha is trying to become, for she is not only striving to be better and more in control but also to be different than her mother.
As the world stage gears up for World War II, Martha begins dating a civil servant, Douglas, who is many years older than she. With war comes an onset of waves of marriages and pregnancies among Martha’s friends. Nineteen years old at this point, Martha finds herself swept up in this sentiment as well. As with her friends, she is rushed to the altar, despite not truly loving Douglas, in an attempt to legitimize their relations. After they marry, Martha is astounded by her own inconsistency. She describes feeling as though half-a-dozen completely distinct people live within her, each fiercely disliking the other. These individuals within her are bound, however, by an undercurrent of yearning that is anonymous and shapeless, like water.
The end of the story sees Martha attempting to convince herself that her general feelings for Douglas could be considered love and not purely sexual desire. A small, yet clear, voice inside her head tells her, however, that this marriage is doomed to fail before too long.