(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

True to the name of its protagonist, the Children of Violence series is a quest narrative. Martha Quest is trying to discover the true nature of her existence. In her essay “The Small Personal Voice,” Lessing names the theme of this series as “a study of the individual conscience in its relations with the collective.” Most of this series looks at how the various institutions of society come to bear on Martha’s life, producing pressures to conform that she cannot resist. Even revolutionary collectives, such as the Communist Party, replicate these structures because they have gone unexamined in the participants’ psyches.

One of those institutions is the family, and this series illustrates the deep wounds of growing up in a typical middle-class family in which the father is emotionally damaged by his war experiences and the mother has sacrificed her most profound needs to her role. Western culture produces intensely divided individuals. Martha believes that there are many “people” or “personalities” within her, some who are not interested in her welfare and have very different goals than her conscious mind. Part of the reason for these splits lies in the family.

Another reason lies in Western civilization itself. Lessing sees the Anglo-European culture that now dominates the globe as in the last stages of its life, and she believes that when this civilization falls, it will be replaced by deeply different worldviews and ideas that will lead to the production of extremely different types of people. These ideas are already present as seeds, as contradictions, as vague feelings that have not yet found their form in language. Martha is an individual who is involved in this process. Her life reflects the major moving forces of Western civilization. She explores major philosophical systems, examines social structure, and experiments with male-female relationships. She examines in intricate detail how Western ideologies affect human thought and action, how they divide people from themselves and others. Martha Quest is the individual undergoing the collective process of death and rebirth.

In Landlocked and The Four-Gated City, Martha consciously examines the psychological mechanisms by which individuals become involuntary participants in social collectives which demand that they conform, such as the family or a political party. Then she begins her liberation from these...

(The entire section is 993 words.)