Martha Quest, 1952

(Great Characters in Literature)

Martha Quest

Martha Quest, the protagonist. Her name is symbolic: “Martha” echoes the biblical character of that name, known for service, and “Quest” represents her search for meaning. the book begins when she is fifteen years old, imagining a “four-gated city” that will be the utopia where all can live happily. She wishes to avoid standard female roles but winds up in a traditional marriage.

May Quest

May Quest, Martha’s mother, who represents what Martha does not want to become: a nagging old woman who tries to live through her children because the sex roles of society have not given her any opportunity to make anything of herself.

Douglas Knowell

Douglas Knowell, Martha’s first husband, who represents Martha’s areas of ambivalence. She feels some affection for him but sees him more as an avenue of escape from her parents than as an agent of entrapment in the roles of wife and mother. He seems interesting and imaginative but turns out to be shallow and traditional in his views.

Adolph King

Adolph King, a Jewish radical with whom Martha has her first affair.

A Proper Marriage, 1954

(Great Characters in Literature)

Martha Quest

Martha Quest, who gives birth to a daughter but hates her stereotyped role. She decides to leave her husband and child.

Douglas Knowell

Douglas Knowell, Martha’s husband, even more a force of oppression and boredom than before, not letting Martha have a life of her own.

Jasmine Cohen

Jasmine Cohen, who knew Martha as a teenager. She offers Martha friendship and the opportunity for political activism.

Ripple from the Storm, 1958

(Great Characters in Literature)

Martha Quest

Martha Quest, who seeks meaning in relationships and radical politics.

May Quest

May Quest, Martha’s mother, who disowns Martha for abandoning her supposed responsibilities as wife and mother.

Anton Hesse

Anton Hesse, a Communist. He attracts Martha by caring for her when she is sick. His nurturing and idealism are counterbalanced by his sexual inabilities and his need to keep Martha in a traditional submissive housewife role. Martha marries him to save him from deportation and regrets having done so. In the end, she falls asleep as he is explaining his heartfelt political views.

Mrs. Van

Mrs. Van, in some ways a powerful and competent woman who is also involved in politics. She turns out, in her own way, to be as much a prisoner of the maternal role as Martha’s mother.

Landlocked, 1965

(Great Characters in Literature)

Martha Quest

Martha Quest, who still seeks the good city and a role for herself after having had two unsuccessful marriages. She decides that Africa is not the place for her and prepares to leave for England. She begins to look for spiritual, as well as political, approaches to fulfillment.

Thomas Stern

Thomas Stern, a Polish Jew who escaped from the Nazis, the most exciting man Martha has yet encountered. He breaks off his affair with Martha, first to fight for Israel, then to work in a small African village, where he suffers an attack of blackwater fever and dies. Martha reads a manuscript he wrote and decides he was in part driven mad by his memories.

The Four-Gated City, 1969

(Great Characters in Literature)

Martha Quest

Martha Quest, who finds a vision of her four-gated city. In the wake of a disaster that has all but destroyed Great Britain, children are being born with strange new mental powers. She finds happiness in flight from the city and acceptance of the world as one great organism.

Mark Coldridge

Mark Coldridge, a novelist whose books mirror the chaos of his times. His writings become popular as science-fictional predictions. He hires Martha as his secretary and housekeeper.

Margaret Patten

Margaret Patten, Mark’s mother, a living barometer of social and cultural trends. She has married a homosexual because it is fashionable.

Lynda Coldridge

Lynda Coldridge, Mark’s wife, who appears to be insane. She is compared explicitly to the madwoman inJane Eyre. She has been institutionalized and lurks in the basement, but she may in fact have found a way of avoiding the traditional female roles. It is suggested that her “insanity” may include telepathic and other psychic powers.

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Martha Quest is the first novel in Doris Lessing’s Children of Violence series, and it portrays Martha’s adolescence on the African veld. Two of Martha’s experiences stand out as touchstones to which the whole series, and indeed much of Lessing’s subsequent work, continually returns. The first is an experience of a mystical unity with nature which Martha experiences on the veld. Her personal consciousness painfully unites with all life around her, and she feels that her own ideas of who she is are “futile” and that “it was as if something new was demanding conception, with her flesh as host.” The nature of what this new something could be is further revealed by Martha’s dream of a magnificent city with four gates, “falling, flower-bordered terraces,” and “splashing fountains.” Perhaps most important, within this city “its citizens moved, grave and beautiful, black and white and brown together.” Aside from Martha’s brief mystical experiences and daydreams of a mythical future, she is an ordinary adolescent caught up in the necessities of her time. She resists her mother’s efforts to make her accept a woman’s traditional role, experiments with sex at the Sports Club and with ideas at the Left Book Club, and gains some independence working at a law firm. Despite her efforts to resist a conventional life, however, she finds herself married to Douglas Knowell, although her deepest self tells her that it will not last.

A Proper Marriage is the chronicle of that marriage. Martha becomes pregnant, invaded not only by new life but also by new emotions and sensations of which she had not imagined herself capable. The patriotic fever of the war raises in Martha fears that she will be swept away by yet another event against her will, that the collective will force its will on her. The couple moves to the suburbs, where Martha feels cut off from real nature. Her fear is of...

(The entire section is 787 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

This series is stunning in its intimate and meticulous portrayal of the details of women’s lives in the early to mid-twentieth century. Lessing captures the emotions of an adolescent girl resisting the implacable pressures to become a woman: to marry, have children, and sacrifice her individuality to her family and society. The feeling of internal division that so many women experience—of wanting one thing, yet doing the opposite—is closely examined. Lessing investigates the psyche of Martha Quest in order to understand this phenomenon, and the reasons that she uncovers have revolutionary implications for society.

Lessing captures for the first time the emotions and feelings of female sexuality, from a boring, incompetent lover to tantric, mystical sex. She goes inside the labor room when birth and child care were rigidly regulated by male standards of order and scientific management, showing how women’s bodies were colonized and thwarted by Western medicine. Martha gives birth easily only after being urged to relax by an African maid. Lessing is the first to chronicle these experiences. She not only is stunningly accurate in her detail but also takes for granted the seriousness and importance of these issues, which have been trivialized in male literature and criticism. Placing a woman’s consciousness as central to a series which records a culture is revolutionary in itself.


(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Brewster, Dorothy. Doris Lessing, 1965.

Draine, Betsy. Substance Under Pressure: Artistic Coherence and Evolving Form in the Novels of Doris Lessing, 1983.

Greene, Gayle. Changing the Story: Feminist Fiction and the Tradition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991. Offers feminist criticism of Lessing, among other writers. Although Greene focuses mostly on The Golden Notebook, the essays offer insight into Lessing’s other works.

Kaplan, Carey, and Ellen Cronan Rose, eds. Approaches to Teaching Lessing’s “The Golden Notebook.” New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1989. An excellent close look at The Golden Notebook, with helpful applications of contemporary feminist theory.

Pickering, Jean. Understanding Doris Lessing. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990. Contains good summaries of the novels, with insightful commentary.

Pratt, Annis, and L. S. Dembo, eds. Doris Lessing: Critical Studies. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1974. A collection of essays on Lessing’s work, containing an excellent interview with Lessing conducted by Florence Howe and some early feminist criticism.

Robinson, Sally. Engendering the Subject: Gender and Self-Representation in Contemporary Women’s Fiction. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991. An excellent examination of the Children of Violence series as it pertains to the social construction of gender and identity.

Rose, Ellen Cronan. The Tree Outside the Window: Doris Lessing’s Children of Violence, 1976.

Rubenstein, Roberta. The Novelistic Vision of Doris Lessing: Breaking the Forms of Consciousness. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979. This book gives special attention to Lessing’s focus on human consciousness—what the theme means in her work and how she challenges the limits of consciousness in her prose.

Schlueter, Paul. The Novels of Doris Lessing, 1973.

Sprague, Claire, and Virginia Tiger, eds. Critical Essays on Doris Lessing. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986. A collection of insightful essays on Lessing’s work.