Study Guide

Children of Violence

by Doris Lessing

Children of Violence Summary

The Novels (Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Over seventeen years, from 1952 to 1969, Doris Lessing wrote a series of five novels under the title “Children of Violence.” In them, she chronicles the life of Martha Quest: an adolescent who scorns her parents’ Victorian principles, through a young woman’s two failed marriages and a flirtation with Communism, to an independent woman who tries to live actively rather than passively. Lessing, in her essay “A Small Personal Voice,” states that the overriding question addressed in each of the five novels is: “What is due to the collective and what to the individual conscience.” Thus, the novels them selves, as well as Martha, move constantly between these two poles.

In the first volume, Martha Quest, Lessing introduces her fifteen-year-old protagonist, Martha Quest, a child of the veld who is already starting to rebel against her narrow-minded and dominating mother and her sickly father, who lives under the emotional shadow of World War I. Though her childhood has been spent on a farm, Martha is widely read and eagerly, yet naively, absorbs any and all ideas that might put her at odds with her parents’ generation and their views on the “native problem” and sex. Her two means of escape, besides her books, are to wander over the veld and dream of what might be, and to visit the Cohen boys (Joss and Solly) in town.

Martha’s escape into dreams and visions helps lead her into each new phase of her life throughout all five novels, and one of the most important visions occurs early in Martha Quest. Sitting under her favorite tree hoping to escape Mrs. Quest’s nagging, Martha stares across the veld and “sees” a “noble city” with “splashing fountains, and the sound of flutes.” She notices “many-fathered children” of all colors moving through the splendor of the “foursquared and colonnaded” ancient city of the future. This is Martha’s vision of a world of unity and peace for which she longs. Her second means of escape is the Cohen brothers, Joss, a Socialist, and Solly, a Zionist, with whom she exchanges books and ideas regarding political, racial, and psychological ideas. Until she leaves the farm, however, she is unable to put these ideas to the test.

When she moves to Zambesia, Martha is immediately pulled in three directions—social, political, and sexual—yet she attempts to form a “collective” unity by partaking of all three. She finds herself transformed into “Matty,” a desirable female of the reigning white social set, and she drinks, dances, and flirts to excess. At the same time, Joss introduces her to Jasmine Cohen, his cousin, and her group of liberal-leftist intellectuals and politicals, from whom she hears talk of breaking down racial barriers and hints of a growing Communist Party in Africa. Hoping to bridge the gap between her opposing social and political groups, Martha has her first sexual encounter with Adolph King, a Jew, which raises criticism from both groups.

Moving between these three worlds, Martha manages to remain basically uncommitted, until one day, when her political conscience is jogged to life. She witnesses a line of barefoot and shabby African natives led handcuffed together to the magistrate’s office on some flimsy charge. She watches the natives’ bound hands, “the working hands, clasped together,” and emotionally takes up their cause. Her reading becomes more and more political, and she starts attending more meetings. Yet her attention is diverted by Douglas Knowell, who subscribes in theory only to politically radical ideas. Unaware of his shallowness, she has an affair with him and marries him. Presiding over her wedding is Mr. Maynard, Zambesia’s white magistrate, who has followed (and will continue to follow) Martha’s political awareness with some concern. He watches as she leaves for her honeymoon, and he predicts the upcoming war, racial unrest, and Martha’s divorce. On this pessimistic note, the novel ends.

A Proper Marriage, the second novel, concerns itself with Martha’s growing realization of a woman’s role as well as the dissolution of her marriage, all against the backdrop of World War II. She now finds herself, somewhat unwillingly, linked to a new group made up of pregnant wives whose husbands are soldiers. While waiting to deliver her baby, Martha examines the biological and emotional bonds of womanhood. In keeping with the title Children of Violence (for Martha, herself, was born during World War I), Caroline, her daughter, is born on the eve of World War II. Thus, the second generation has arrived. With Douglas off to war, Martha plays her role as mother but keeps up with the political movements by way of meetings and books. Her idealistic notions of fulfillment through motherhood and marriage contrast sharply with her idealistic notions of independence through political activism. As she tries to work out a compromise, Douglas, unfit for active duty because of ulcers, returns and thrusts Martha into the role of a young suburban housewife. With servants, tea parties, and sundowners at the local club, Martha slips passively into a life of complacency for several years.

When boredom finally sets in, Martha begins reading again, and she sees the same problems still surfacing: racial unrest, the growing Communist movement, and conflicting news about the war. She renews her political connections against Douglas’ wishes and attends political meetings while resuming a friendship with Jasmine, who knows who is who among the political groups. Thus, Martha is once again pulled in different directions. Before marriage and motherhood, and a social-political consciousness. She chooses the latter. Martha tells Douglas of her decision to leave him, claiming her right to do as she please. He immediately turns into a wronged and self-righteous husband, who receives sympathy from all, while Martha is seen as negligent and self-serving. They enact in the last few weeks of their marriage, a melodramatic series of hysterical outbursts. Once again, Mr. Maynard watches Martha drive away, but this time she leaves behind her husband and child. He quietly calls her a “deserter” yet just as quietly wishes her luck. Thus her not-so-proper marriage ends, along with the second novel.

At the opening of A Ripple from the Storm, Mrs. Quest has ceremoniously disowned Martha in a registered letter but cannot resist visiting her with news of Caroline and criticism of Martha’s newly acquired group of friends, the “local Reds.” Since she left Douglas, Martha has been busy...

(The entire section is 2688 words.)