A Proper Marriage Summary
by Doris Lessing

Start Your Free Trial

Download A Proper Marriage Study Guide

Subscribe Now

A Proper Marriage Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 816 words.)