The Four-Gated City Summary
by Doris Lessing

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The Four-Gated City Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 751 words.)