Children of Violence Summary
by Doris Lessing

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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...

(The entire section is 2,688 words.)