Doris Lessing

Start Free Trial

Doris Lessing World Literature Analysis

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

The years spanning Lessing’s adolescence and her young adulthood provide seed plots for her five related novels, the Children of Violence series, which were written over a twenty-year span. The first novel in the series, Martha Quest, was published in 1952. It was followed by A Proper Marriage in 1954, A Ripple from the Storm in 1958, Landlocked in 1965, and The Four-Gated City in 1969. Between the appearance of these serial books, Lessing wrote two other novels, as well as a considerable number of plays and short stories. Her most significant work, written during an interval between the Children of Violence novels, is The Golden Notebook (1962), which first brought her world acclaim. More than any other work, The Golden Notebook, still considered her masterpiece, affirmed her reputation as a major talent. The five books in the Children of Violence series and the single most definitive of Lessing’s novels, The Golden Notebook, are representative of the author’s prolific body of fiction, in that they contain all the themes and dominant imagery appearing throughout her work. Her reworking of basic material reveals the variety of her narrative techniques, that is, her ability to rework ideas through different story lines with novel and engaging effects.

Lessing’s fascination with opposition may be traced to her early experiences on the veld, where she was first impressed with the majesty and wonder of nature, deriving her first inkling of the human capacity for reaching a state of harmony with the universe. The integrity of the veld presented a sharp contrast to the divisions that she observed in her colonial community. Living in a divided society stratified by race and class caused her to develop an understanding of the opposition between the privileged and the oppressed. The cruelty of the collective that claimed her as one of its own not only sharpened her sense of morality but also sparked her intellect and instilled in her the drive to examine the system and its larger ramifications. Lessing, therefore, deliberately embarked upon a long process of self-education. At different times in her life, she became involved in most of the significant political and intellectual movements of her day: Jungian and Freudian psychology, Sufi mysticism, existentialism, sociobiology, futuristic scientific theories, Communism, and Marxism. Her narratives reflect the influence of all of these movements. In her stories, she uses insight gained from these various theories of the world to define and explore other opposites, such as the gap between the public self and the private self and the gap between the visionary and the pragmatic.

The reality of the ethical conflict that often exists between collectives and the commitment that one must make to his or her inner being is at the heart of Lessing’s fiction. On at least one occasion, she expressed surprise when critics, in their reviews of the first two books in the Children of Violence series, missed the point that she had written the series as a study of the relationship between individual conscience in opposition to the demands of the collective (A Small Personal Voice, 1974).

Lessing weaves her plots around a core of imagery that recurs in a number of key scenes throughout the novels. Visions of the veld, houses, and cities materialize at critical moments to represent conditions related to either the individual or the collective in different situations. The prevailing image of the veld comes straight from Lessing’s childhood experiences—the veld being the enduring reality that can be equated to unity and wholeness. The symbolic meaning of the veld as representative of the cosmic whole is...

(This entire section contains 4616 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

contrasted with the compartmentalizations people make in their civilizing activities of building houses and cities.

Houses as images can represent one’s inner world or the socially constructed outer world at various times. For example, when Martha, the protagonist of the series, envisions herself in Landlocked as a house with many rooms but without a center to hold the compartments together, she perceives the condition of her inner being and concludes that the space will have to be filled by some outside unifying agent, a man. When the image of the house appears in The Four-Gated City, however, Martha is herself the free agent wandering inside the divided, uncentered structure that represents the various duties imposed by collectives that she had neglected. At this point, Martha places herself inside the empty space to begin the healing process for her life. Also, in this final book, houses are used to represent the public world. The four houses that Martha enters during the course of the novel become, as Frederick Karl points out, a “microcosm” of British society, fragmented and out of harmony with nature.

The image of the city can also have both public and private applications depending on the situation in which the image appears. When the vision first comes to Martha Quest on the veld, it is not the city, but rather the City—a noble construction with “flower bordered terraces” and “splashing fountains.” It is a human-made place but still in harmony with nature. It is a place on the veld where all groups “smile with pleasure at the sight of children” and all races of children “walk hand in hand” (Martha Quest). Yet the city that Martha Quest encounters in England in The Four-Gated City and in The Golden Notebook is in opposition to nature. It represents nature compartmentalized by the collective mind.

Through her writings, Lessing expresses faith in the ability of humankind to transform both the individual and the world despite the proclivity of the collective mind to pervert nature and cause individuals to act often against their own best interests. Indeed, the abiding message of the author’s narrative, as she states in A Small Personal Voice, is: “though we may not be able to prevent evil, we are capable of reinforcing a vision of good and using it to defeat evil.” At the end of The Four-Gated City, Lessing’s optimism for humanity is summarized in her vision of evolution. She conceives of the future as belonging to a new kind of evolving individual—one who will transcend history and ultimately will be assessed by his or her ability to endure suffering and grow as a result of it.

Martha Quest

First published: 1952

Type of work: Novel

In a complex, racially stratified society caught between two world wars, a confused young girl renounces the conventional prejudices of her elders and seeks fulfillment through a man.

Martha Quest, the first book in the Children of Violence series, covers the years 1934 to 1938. The central character of the novel, Martha Quest, experiences an adolescence of disquiet, troubled by the turbulence of a world recently rocked by one world war and fast approaching a second. She is an intelligent observer of a world that seems to have gone awry. She feels at odds both with the awesome history of human beings acting in large collectives and with the reality of their petty pursuits in smaller social arenas.

From the time that Martha Quest notices discrepancies between the words people speak and their behaviors, she begins to feel displaced and unhappy. To allay despair, Martha turns to literature for ideas and spiritual support, usually borrowing books from two young Jewish intellectuals living in town. As she uses great books to structure her theory of the world, she is compelled to face the grim realities of her own life:She was adolescent, and therefore bound to be unhappy; British and therefore uneasy and defensive; in the fourth decade of the twentieth century, and therefore inescapably beset with problems of race and class; female, and obliged to repudiate the shackled women of the past.

Hoping to escape her current misery and dismal prospect for her future, fifteen-year-old Martha decides to leave her provincial rural community and live in the nearby fictional city, Zambesia, South Africa.

Although Martha is learning to fear biological and historical entrapment, she ironically decides that her salvation has to include sexual relations with a man. Martha’s search for self-expression and fulfillment through a romantic liaison leads her to make several unfortunate choices. Finally, she allows a Jewish musician, Adolph (Dolly, for short), to enter her life and become her first sexual partner. Martha chooses to have relations with Dolly not because she feels real passion for him but because the anti-Semitism directed toward him makes him seem more worthy than he actually is.

During the first two years of Martha’s independent life, she becomes a regular with a loosely knit gang of irresponsible white semiadults from a variety of national backgrounds. Her time is divided between work and sundowner parties at local restaurants.

As the winds of World War II gather, Martha enters into a relationship with Douglas, a civil servant who is several years her senior. War fever causes a wave of marriages and pregnancies among Martha’s contemporaries, and nineteen-year-old Martha is influenced by the tide, as well. She, like her friends, is carried along in a rush to the altar. Despite the fact that she does not love Douglas, Martha decides to legitimize her relationship; they marry. Martha is puzzled by her madness:It was as if half a dozen entirely different people inhabited her body, and they violently disliked each other, bound together by only one thing, a strong pulse of longing; anonymous, impersonal, formless, like water.

The novel ends with Martha trying to persuade herself that what she feels overall for Douglas could pass for love, not merely sexual desire. Yet a nagging, unvoiced conviction makes her understand that this marriage will not last.

A Proper Marriage

First published: 1954

Type of work: Novel

Biology and history are portrayed as determining factors for the limitations that women face in life.

A Proper Marriage covers the years 1939 to 1941 in Martha Quest’s life. After leaving home and symbolically taking her life into her own hands, Martha is confused by the events that have placed her in a situation that is no more free than the one that she left. Lessing’s ironic view of the gap between one’s personal desires and the compelling power of collectives is brilliantly focused through the protagonist’s inexplicable acts of self-sabotage.

The first few weeks of Martha’s marriage to Douglas Knowell are marked by strange physical sensations, the early signs of pregnancy. When Martha recognizes the symptoms, she realizes that she must have been pregnant before her wedding. Immediately, she feels trapped. Feeling that her choices thus far have eliminated her options, however, she decides to suppress her repulsion toward pregnancy and to surrender to her maternal instincts. While concentrating on her pregnancy, she is uneasily aware that she is reenacting a basic process in evolution. Additionally, she fears more than ever that her future will become a replication of her mother’s life. Although Martha recognizes the awful possibility, she still lets the fog of happiness envelop her as long as she can envision the eventual pleasure of regaining her own body.

Meanwhile, Martha is influenced by the patriotic hoopla surrounding the advent of World War II, and she enrolls in Sister Doll’s Red Cross course. One day after starting classes, Martha suddenly realizes that all her recent actions have been drawing her closer to the repetitive circle of history. She now sees herself in her mother’s position during World War I, when Mrs. Quest and her female contemporaries assisted in the campaign and lost their lovers to the machines of war. It now seems possible to Martha that Douglas could become her war sacrifice, and that she might carry his memory as her mother’s generation of women was carrying its memories.

To be near Martha during her pregnancy, Mr. and Mrs. Quest move to the city. Initially, Martha reacts negatively to their relocation. In her mind, their separation from the veld signifies severance of her childhood roots. Martha becomes reconciled to the change, however, after she impulsively joins another pregnant friend in a ritual-like mud bath on an open field one rainy night, symbolically merging herself and her unborn baby with the wholeness of the veld. Soon after this reconnecting event, Martha’s daughter, Caroline Knowell, is born.

Meanwhile, Douglas becomes a soldier and leaves Martha alone for nearly a year. Upon his return, he and Martha resume conjugal relations, but Martha becomes fearful of another pregnancy. She is further harassed by Mrs. Quest, who tells her that she looks pregnant and criticizes her for allowing her servants too many privileges. While Martha silently rejects her mother, she gains sudden insight. She sees Mrs. Quest as a woman so disappointed in her own life that she needs to live vicariously through her daughter. Martha reasons that, in the light of Mrs. Quest’s experiences, her behavior is “natural . . . even harmless and pathetic.” Making a cognitive leap, she sees what may lie in store for her. She realizes that, if she continues to act against her own desires, by age fifty she could be like Mrs. Quest: “narrow, conventional, intolerant, insensitive.”

Once Martha discovers that she is not again pregnant, she hastens to end her marriage. As the marriage dissolves messily, Martha finds direction for her life in the Communist Party. Communism seems to offer both the bases for the eradication of the family and an end to Martha’s fear of repetition. Ironically, as Martha seizes communism as a means of liberation, she once again uses a man to lead the way. By the end of the novel, Martha is romantically entangled with William, a comrade in communism and a member of the British Royal Air Force.

A Ripple from the Storm

First published: 1958

Type of work: Novel

After expending incredible amounts of energy working for the local Communist Party, Martha Quest is overtaken by a strange illness; after recovery, she sinks further into depression.

A Ripple from the Storm covers the years 1941 to 1943. The portrayal of Martha Quest’s emotional, personal life and her tenuous relationship to the mainstream society of white South Africa continues in this novel. Her deep involvement in the secret world of communism adds further complications to her life.

Following the example of her friend Jasmine, Martha—recently divorced and alienated from her mother and daughter—becomes the ideal hard-working communist. Believing that Russia has created the framework for an ideal society, Martha glorifies the country at every opportunity. Her worship of Russia, however, is assailed when Solly Cohen, Martha’s childhood friend, informs her that Joseph Stalin is responsible for executing Red Army officers. Although she does not at first accept this information, subsequent corruption from within her local party forces her to see that comrades do not have an automatic claim to virtue.

As Martha continues to present herself as a willing tool for the good of the Communist Party, she reaches a point of physical breakdown and has to take extended bed rest. During her illness, she is nursed by Anton Hesse, leader of the local Communist group. As Anton guards Martha’s well-being, her former lover, William, fades into the background. Martha allows Anton to take over her mind and body. Her lack of spunk also allows her to accept passively Mrs. Quest’s accusation that she has abandoned Caroline, her daughter.

Despite the fact that she does not love Anton and realizes that they are sexually incompatible, Martha moves in with Anton after she recovers. Later, she marries him to save him from an internment camp. For a period of time, she allows herself to think that they can live together harmoniously because she truly respects Anton’s mind and his position in the local party. Soon after the marriage, however, Martha sees that Anton wants to live with a “real” wife, not a fellow communist; she grows to despise him. Still, she stays in the marriage so that Anton can remain in the country.

When the communist group dissolves, mainly because of Anton’s overbearing manner and snobbery, Martha is overwhelmed by feelings of futility. Nevertheless, she believes that the end results were inevitable. At this point in her life, she loses her faith in communism and despairs of ever finding her true self: “I am not a person at all, I’m nothing yet—perhaps I never will be.” Her journey toward self-identification seems to have ended in a blind alley.


First published: 1965

Type of work: Novel

Suffering from a sense of self-division, Martha Quest seeks to unify her fragmented character by finding the right man and, in the process, learns something about the nature of self-destruction.

Landlocked covers the years 1944 to 1949 in Martha Quest’s life. In an irrational world of organizational corruptions and personal frustrations, Martha enters a love affair and finds a temporary solace. Paradoxically, this relationship becomes both a balm for her troubled soul and the most profound emotional experience of her entire life. The visionary heights that Martha achieves through her sexual expression with her new lover reflect Lessing’s view that, from the release of intense feeling and passion, one can achieve a sense of connection and balance in the universe.

At the outset, Martha is offered a promotion at her law firm. Instead of being happy for the opportunity, she refuses the offer, believing further commitment to a collective that she does not esteem will only detract from her search for self. After refusing the job, she dreams that she is a “large house . . . with half a dozen different rooms in it,” but that in the center the house is empty, ready to be filled. She accepts the dream as an “image of her position” and reasons that a man is needed to fill her inner space.

Martha’s choice becomes Thomas Stern, a Polish Jew who escaped from Poland but discovered later that the Nazis murdered all members of the family that he left behind. Thomas’s passionate outrage toward Nazis stirs Martha and alerts her to his potential for filling her empty center with emotions that could ignite her true self. Although Martha is still married to Anton Hesse, she has no reservations about becoming Thomas’s lover because the marriage is an acknowledged sham by both herself and Anton. She responds to Thomas in a way that she can compare only to pregnancy. With Thomas, her body becomes “a newly discovered country with laws of its own.”

Yet Thomas is a tormented man, having the “eye of an insane artist.” The lack of continuity in his life because of his loss of generations to the Holocaust proves too much for him to bear. Feelings of alienation lead him to “the long process of breaking down.” As Martha watches Thomas slip into madness, her imagination expands, and she starts to comprehend the incipient darkness that she knows will soon take him away.

By the end of Landlocked, Martha has ended her “in name only” marriage; she has abandoned her revolutionary dream; she is now suspicious that, in leaving Caroline, her daughter, she has not released her from being victimized by history; finally, she has lost the love of her life to a bizarre illness, which he has recorded in a final rambling manuscript. With these disappointments from the outside world heavy on her mind, Martha makes the decision to look inward and develop her inner self.

The Four-Gated City

First published: 1969

Type of work: Novel

In continuing her self-development, Martha Quest works through the roles that she had shunned in the past, traveling a road to spiritual growth that takes her to the edge of madness and then to self-integration.

The Four-Gated City covers the years 1950 through 1997, focusing centrally on Martha Quest’s middle-age years. The novel derives its title from the book of Revelation, but the title refers specifically to four types of houses that represent for Lessing the human-made world. Martha’s passing between the houses connects the gates of the houses in postwar London, which she depicts as violent and corrupt. It is little wonder that perfect sanity seems like insanity in such a world. The question of mental balance in an imbalanced world is one that Lessing undertakes in this novel.

Since Martha has severed all ties with the collectives that once had placed restrictions on her life, she now relinquishes her public self, Matty, and asserts her inner character, Martha. Soon after her arrival in London, she finds sexual communion with a man named Jack. During a critical sexual experience with him, she has a vision in which she sees the golden age of her youth on the veld and a picture of herself as a middle-aged woman living in a house filled with sad-faced children.

When financial necessity presses Martha to find a job, she accepts a position as secretary to an aristocratic English novelist, Mark Coldridge. Her duties expand as Mark’s eccentric family life becomes more complicated. Soon, Martha is running the entire household, which consists of Mark’s insane wife, Lynda, Mark’s troubled, orphaned nephew, Paul, and Mark’s own star-crossed son, Francis. Martha functions as a surrogate wife to Mark and as a surrogate mother for the two boys. When Mark’s nieces, Gwen and Jill, enter the picture, Martha also extends herself to them.

In a central scene in the book, Martha walks through the Coldridge house announcing dinner and daydreams that the house has no center. While suspended in this surrealistic state, she loses part of her memory and then realizes that, like the house, she does not have a center; there is nothing to hold the pieces of her life together. This experience is followed by news that Mrs. Quest is coming to London to see her. The impending visit causes Martha to panic and sends her back to the psychiatrist, who tells her that she has to work through her troubled bond with her mother.

In preparation for Mrs. Quest’s visit, Martha places herself mentally at the center of the Coldridge house. She becomes so attuned to members of the household that she can overhear what they are thinking. When Martha shares this information with Lynda, she learns that Lynda has the same sensitivity and that it was this ability that first caused society to label her insane. Martha wishes to learn more about Lynda’s insanity, which she now believes was induced by collectives in society. Through starvation and wakefulness, she descends with Lynda into the dark world of sound and begins to understand different psychic levels where people like Lynda can be trapped. Martha learns how to move through this frightening psychic world, developing resources that allow her to eradicate her guilty feelings about her mother.

At the end of the book, about the year 1965, Martha has put her life into focus, and she has reached a stage of self-integration. The futuristic appendix to the book takes the reader up to the year 1997 and charts events leading to some kind of nuclear holocaust. Survivors of the catastrophe are stranded in remote places, and the future of the world now seems to belong to the developing nations.

The Golden Notebook

First published: 1962

Type of work: Novel

A fragmented woman writer, seeking to avoid chaos, writes about different pieces of her life in four notebooks; during a breakdown, imagined reels of her experiences merge to make a coherent film, and she is healed.

The Golden Notebook encompasses the years 1950 through 1957. It is divided into five sections called Free Women 1-5. The first four sections contain a part of the main story (the conventional novel) and excerpts from four differently colored notebooks. The fourth section of the novel also contains the golden notebook. The last section is a straightforward ending to the main story, which presents an integrated character who no longer needs to compartmentalize experiences. When the story begins, the central character, Anna Wulf, has already published a single successful book, “Frontiers of War,” set in central Africa, detailing “colour-bar hatreds and cruelties.” This 1951 novel was so successful that Anna has been able to live off the royalties from it for the next six years while she suffers from writer’s block.

The main story line evolves around two women, Anna and Molly, who seem to be extensions of each other politically and responsively. Their common enemy is Molly’s former husband, Richard, a rich business executive who seems a perfect specimen of the British capitalist society. Richard continues to be very intrusive in Molly’s life because they share a son, Tommy. Consequently, Richard assumes a relationship with Anna that is much like his relationship with Molly. Even Richard’s second wife, Marion, becomes a part of the circle, vacillating, in an inebriated state, between Molly and Anna, trying to unburden herself of hurt feelings stemming from her bad marriage.

Once Tommy reaches the age when he should decide upon a career, he is torn between the idealistic world of his mother and Anna and the capitalistic world of tycoons. The “paralysis of the will” that Tommy suffers reaches its highest point when Tommy goes to Anna to have her confirm for him that her lifestyle, which seems to him morally superior, is truly viable. After reading Anna’s notebooks, Tommy understands the chaos awaiting a person who tries to operate outside collectives; yet he cannot formulate the proper balance necessary for advancement. In a fit of depression, Tommy shoots himself in the head. Against the odds, he survives, though he is left totally blind. Ironically, he eventually leads the life of a successful businessman and joins forces with Marion, who leaves Richard to be with him.

At the end of The Golden Notebook, Molly decides to remarry, and Anna sees the end of yet another affair. Nevertheless, Anna has gained a better understanding of herself as a result of working through dark areas of her personality with a sexual partner who was in crisis himself during their relationship. He, too, is able to heal his life.

A brief description of the contents of each of the notebooks follows:

In the black notebook, Anna gives the African background for her novel “Frontiers of War.” Although the first entry in this notebook is 1952, entries flash back to 1944. The story is a study of the cruelty of the colonial mind as seen through the eyes of the young idealist, Anna.

The red notebook is the contemporary notebook in which Anna records everyday events. It contains her present politics and gives an account of her disillusionment with the Communist Party. In it are a number of parodies of dedicated communists and newspaper clippings of such horrors as the testing of the hydrogen bomb, the bombing of Quemoy and Matsu, and the execution of the Rosenbergs in the United States.

The yellow notebook is a novel-within-the-novel. It contains Anna’s fictional, unpublished second novel, called “The Shadow of the Third.” The characters and actions in it are direct doubles for the main story.

The blue notebook is used by Anna as a diary. It contains commentary on her affiliation with the British Communist Party; details of the most intense love affair of her life, a five-year period when she truly loved a man named Michael; reports on her lengthy psychoanalysis with Mrs. Marks, whose therapy helps lead Anna into an emotional transformation when Anna has an affair with Saul Green, the man with whom she descends into chaos and learns how to self-unite.

The Golden Notebook symbolizes Anna’s ultimate recognition that experience is fluid and connected. It is the notebook that both she and Saul Green want to use. They both contribute to it, and, through it, they give each other new beginnings.


Doris Lessing Long Fiction Analysis


Lessing, Doris (Short Story Criticism)