The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Martha Quest, as her name suggests, is a character in search of something, from the time she is fifteen, at the opening of Martha Quest, to the last pages of The Four-Gated City. What that something is remains just outside her reach, no matter which direction she takes: sexual, political, racial, intellectual, communal, individual, internal, or external. She tries each direction, some more than once, and in some way each is a dead end. She is trying to make sense out of a world gone mad with violence and tyranny. She is also a person trying to see how the individual fits into the “collective” side of humanity. Her first attempts to fit in are largely external and come in the shape of groups and causes. Yet she eventually sees something in the fabric of each group she joins that does not hold together. It is not until she comes to terms with herself, in the most basic and psychological way (she literally and voluntarily enters her own madness) that she realizes that her search inward gives her the link she needs to join humanity. In the political groups, no matter how actively involved she seems, Martha remains passive, pulled one way and then another, and resisting only when futility takes hold of her. Conversely, her journey inward, into her own psyche, becomes her most active moment, in which she controls her own destiny by choosing to return from madness and live.

Yet the groups are important to Martha’s growth, her search, and with each group come characters who help to influence her or show her a direction. In her mother, Martha sees everything she does not want to become: puritanical, hypocritical, selfish, and domineering. Martha comes to terms with many people in her life, but never with her mother. At best, she comes to accept her mother’s ways, but she cannot understand them. As for her father, the chance for a connection with him is interrupted by his continuing illnesses and his willingness to live through past war experiences. Thus, her mother and father come to represent the “family tyranny” she tries desperately to escape.

One of the few contacts she has outside her family in her teenage years is with Joss and Solly Cohen, two Jewish intellectual brothers. They teach and challenge Martha by giving her books and discussing political and racial matters with her, becoming her introduction into the world of intellectual activism. Through them, she is able to question much of what she has learned from her parents. Like most of the characters in the first four volumes, they help to further Martha’s development and progression from one...

(The entire section is 1061 words.)