Martha Quest Summary
by Doris Lessing

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Martha Quest Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 690 words.)