Martha's Odyssey: the Motif of the Journey
in Doris Lessing's The Children of Violence


Lamia Tayeb

University of Human and Social Sciences, Tunis, Tunisia

Copyright © 2003 by Lamia Tayeb, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

  1. The position of Doris Lessing as a twentieth-century female novelist is quite singular with respect to her mixed African and English affiliations. Spending the formative period of her life in a farm in Southern Rhodesia, she later emerges as a hybrid writer, whose early works make of the African land and colonial experience their main substance and subject matter. The Children of Violence is a quintet composed over a long stretch of time following Lessing's emigration back to England. Studied in their entirety, the five novels structurally borrow from autobiography[1] and the bildungsroman [2] as well as from journey narratives. Recounting the story of an erratic life course, they outstrip the effort of literary categorisation by the gradual and recurrent metamorphoses of their narrative frameworks. In one of its aspects, the narrative of the journey tracks a movement out of the colonial setting and configuration of time and space nurtured all along by anti-colonial sentiment. The formation of the post-colonial awareness of character and historical situation remains unattainable.

  2. Martha Quest[3] (1952) chronologically starts with Martha's adolescence and ends with her abrupt and unpredictable marriage. Lessing descants upon the various social and psychic conflicts of this turbulent period of female life, unveiling throughout the sickening atmosphere of the imperial facade of Africa. After a fruitless adjustment to social norms in A Proper Marriage[4] (1954), Martha pulls free and proclaims her release through the ensuing political adventure in the Communist party. With Martha entering a new stage of political militarism, Lessing subjects the Left group in Southern Rhodesia to meticulous scrutiny; in the third volume, A Ripple from the Storm[5] (1958), she contrasts the pompous aspirations with the ridiculous pettiness of this political organization. Going from one stage to the other, the heroine's single-minded drive remains to return to her homeland. In Landlocked[6] (1965), the reader witnesses a dramatic stage of painful tarrying and procrastination, while Martha's solipsistic consciousness gradually loses ground. When she finally lands in England, she verges on the marginalizing stage of middle age. In The Four-Gated City (1969), Martha becomes a reflective consciousness engrossed by other characters. No longer individualistic and self-centred, she merely stands as a witness of and reflector upon the surrounding selves and their life conflicts.

  3. The theme of the journey is, however, exhaled by every narrative fragment of the story, while the narrative stretch of the five novels depicts a female odyssey undertaken in search of roots and identity. This narrative thread is also patterned after the traditional colonial adventure in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century imperial novels. The journey backbone -- a conventional motif in the colonial novel -- is here structurally maintained while thematically subverted and revolutionized. In The Children of Violence, Lessing narrates the crises and vicissitudes of Martha's journey back to the metropolis. Moving through the seesaw fluctuations of a fatal and impersonal collectivity, the protagonist gropes her way back to retrieve her identity and proclaim her uneasy Englishness, propelled all along by a galvanized personal will.

  4. In what follows, I shall focus on this particular complementarity of the sequence as a narrative whole. The three aspects of the journey -- the spatial, the temporal and the intellectual -- are divided for the sake of convenience. They are otherwise textually interconnected: the temporal journey meshes with the experience of space to shape the protagonist's intellectual development. What Martha's odyssey signals, however, is its own inconclusivity and fruitlessness. Her wanderings bring her nowhere nearer her 'home.' Its 'physical Otherness' ends by virtue of her migration, but its 'emotional Otherness' does not completely dissolve as a divisive African belonging contaminates and saps her English anchorage.

  5. Our modern age has witnessed the most active and global 'marring' of the map. The imperial era brought into the western configuration vast and extensive tracts, and has been the framework of the most arrogant onslaught on spatiality, setting itself up for a 'primal,' 'first-time' mapping. This violent, torrential current that submerged whole continents is ravaging: some scratches that have been scribbled in the last centuries have dug the foundations of huge, bulky boundaries. It is this entrenched mythical boundary that gives rise to multiple tales of voyaging and the disturbing encounters that ensue. At the beginning, there was the self-centered and complacent pattern of the conquering or the exploratory, buccaneerish journey. This journey unpredictably proliferated into various other patterns engrossed, on the whole, by one objective: a counter-conquest. If we are to study Lessing's record of the colonial's return journey in The Children of Violence, we have to relate it to the original and fundamental pioneering journey: the white man's desertion of a snug home in search of a vague idea of settlement and self-improvement in a dark, unenlightened land. The imperial journey is pivotal in narratives of conquest as well as the ensuing and consequent narratives that dramatize counter-conquest: the "voyage in" (Said 288) and the voyage out on the part of the colonized, or the voyage back and identity adjustment and restructuring on the part of the exiled colonizer.

  6. The primary theme of The Children of Violence is the young colonial's voyage back on a long way of forced exile and maddening incongruity. The original, imperial journey is mediated through the experience of Martha's parents -- the Quests. The Quests' emigration to Africa in the post-First World War period has a slightly different pattern from that of the nineteenth-century travel adventures based on the proselytizing ideal and the civilizing mission. After the 1924 Empire Exhibition that brought a new wave of emigrants to the colonies, the tone was set for the next phase of the imperial era. Raymond F. Betts explains the importance of the interwar British and French Empire Exhibitions, and their function as 'narratives of power': "Grafted to the older idea of 'civilizing mission' was the newer one of needed colonial economic development for the benefit of all humankind" (Betts 9). This upsurge of colonial gumption beguiled a new generation out of their homelands, condemning them to exile and displacement as well as to the lethargy of failure. As Lessing ironically comments, "like wars and famines and earthquakes, Exhibitions shape futures" (UMS 46). The post-war imperial wave of future-seeking immigrants was overtly motivated by economic interests, as the sham morality and humanitarianism of the imperial project had been exposed in earlier narratives, notably Conrad's Heart of Darkness.[7] The Quests' emigration to Africa is represented in the narrative as a well-planned enterprise for growing maize in the vast uncultivated lands of Zambesia. But the colony turns out to be a trap that ties them to a disempowered and degenerate existence. Hence, the horizon of expectations is immediately reversed.

  7. In her autobiography, In Pursuit of the English, Lessing describes her parents as "grail-chasers" and blames them for her own "grail-seeking propensities."[8] For the white girl brought up in Africa, the grail is certainly not the Africa that hybridized her identity and made up her home, but the England that is visualized as a lost Eden.
    England was for me a grail. And in a very narrowly defined way. Not long ago people set foot for the colonies . . . in a spirit of risking everything and damning the cost. These days, a reverse immigration is in progress. The horizon conquerors now set sail or take wing for England, which in this sense means London, determined to conquer it, but on their own terms. (IPE 15)
    For Martha Quest, the different stages of her African stay are only temporary and transient hurdles on the way to a paradisiacal England. In this respect, she resembles her creator, who has claimed: "I can't remember a time when I didn't want to come to England" (IPE 13). What is the origin of this obsession? Is it only the feeling of exile that comes out of the disproportion of identity and space, or is it the assertiveness of the female subject and her dashing individualism that condemn her to an insatiable spirit of activity prodded by her constant need for flight.

  8. The colonial emigrant's feeling of exile and displacement in an alien land has been the motif of imperial literature from Defoe to the last generation of expatriate writers, like Greene and Orwell. But what if the novelist's image of his/her homeland is not a clear reminiscence, but rather a pastiche of tales and imaginary visions? Exile, therefore, becomes a problematic psychic phenomenon, because "first one has to understand what one is an exile from"(IPE 8). For the young novelist and woman of letters, Doris Lessing, [9] England and 'Englishness' are not easily graspable notions. Whereas Africa is an endeared land and horizon, England is a hazy vision. English people in the colonies appear to the outsider's eye as absurd and queer. They lack the requirement of typicality and are, thus, not the right specimens one can subject to scrutiny. 'Englishness,' in exile, has other criteria, and other, sometimes disparate, syndromes.
    In the colonies and dominions, people are English, when they are sorry they ever emigrated in the first place; when they are glad they emigrated but they consider their roots are in England; when they are thoroughly assimilated into the local scene and would hate ever to set foot in England again; and even when they are born colonial but have an English grandparent. (IPE 14)
    The probing of 'Englishness' turns out to be a puzzling and brain-racking exercise in the colonial situation.

  9. Thus Martha Quest's interchanges with her parents usually boil down to a recurrent exasperation with this disturbing incongruity of person, principle and environment. On the whole, the Quests represent the failing, degenerated English couple, feeding on dreams and memories.
    The house has been built as temporary and was still temporary. Next year they would go back to England, or go into town; the crops might be good; they would have a stroke of luck and win the sweepstake; they would find a gold mine. For years Mr and Mrs Quest had been discussing these things; and to such conversation Martha no longer listened. . . . She had seen clearly . . . that her parents were deluding themselves. (MQ 27)
    The colonial journey for the Quests is a trap that condemns them to torpidity and stasis for the rest of their lives. They remain trammelled by invisible forces and incomprehensible circumstances; and it is against this spirit of inaction and listlessness that Martha is going to fight. From the outset, she thinks of flight to England as a strategy of prevention from, or a prophylactic against her parents' contaminating torpor.

  10. Against the backdrop of her parents' self-delusion and passive resignation, the protagonist's main action consists of a relentless resolution to retrieve a banished England. Martha's journey is not only the core and central thread of her life story; it is also the recurrent and most enduring principle of her life. Nowhere, throughout the narrative, do we encounter a complacently ensconced Martha: a migratory and volatile spirit springs out of the most established and rooted positions. In the midst of the outstretched evenness of the farm and its lethargic atmosphere, the adolescent Martha is heavily weighted by her own self-pitying stasis.
    The matric was a simple passport to the outside world, while without it escape seemed difficult [. . .] she was having terrible nightmares of being tied hand and foot under the wheels of a locomotive, or struggling waist-deep in quicksands, or eternally climbing a staircase that moved backwards under her. She felt that some kind of spell had been put on her. (MQ 37)
    To escape this spell, Martha moves from country to town where she gets trapped in the repetitive course of the Sports Club life. Here, the excess of movement that contrasts with the status quo of the farmhouse life, turns out to be a dizzying concentric rotation; another fixity that paralyses both body and mind, and suppresses the very consciousness of temporality.
    Night after night they were up till the sun rose, they went to work as usual, and they met again by five in the evening. For into this timeless place, where everything continued dreamlike year after year, had come, like a frightening wind, a feeling of necessity, an outside pressure. (MQ 230)

  11. Martha's next attempt to change course is equally disappointing. Her decision to marry Douglas Knowell comes both as a flight from, and a dire consequence of, this vicious circularity. Marriage as a social event divests the couple of their individuality and ties them to a forced and prolonged conviviality. It later moulds Martha's body and lifestyle into the required shape of conventional matrimony. Her individual actions ironically turn out to be mere reproductions of a fatal life cycle:
    She could take no step, perform no action, no matter how apparently new and unforeseen, without the secret fear that in fact this new and arbitrary thing would turn out to be part of the inevitable process she was doomed to. She was, in short, in the grip of the great bourgeois monster, the nightmare repetition. (PM 104)
    As a young matron, Martha feels exquisitely the servitude of femininity to the process of procreation, a central issue in A Proper Marriage. The woman in this process loses control over her own lived experience: "It was becoming an effort to recognize the existence of anything outside this great central drama." (PM 150) [10] Martha rebels against this appalling condition and refuses to lie prone to the obscure rhythms of her corporeality. She vainly attempts to transcend the consciousness of the foetus in her womb. While it gradually takes hold of her, she sags in the timelessness of an inward life movement.

  12. Martha, however, refuses to succumb completely and manages to keep a detached watchful eye that observes and assesses the gestation process.
    She was essentially divided. One part of herself was sunk in the development of the creature, appallingly slow, frighteningly inevitable, a process which she could not alter or hasten, and which dragged her back into the impersonal blind urges of creation; with the other parts she watched it; her mind was like a lighthouse, anxious and watchful that she, the free spirit, should not be implicated; and engaged in daydreams of the exciting activities that could begin when she was liberated. (PM 167-8)
    Martha loses control over her life, her body and her individuality during the short interim of her bourgeois marriage. The rhetoric of self-liberation suggests Martha's position as a white colonial subject; tasting the four flavour of internal female colonization, she yearns more for self-emancipation than for larger postcolonial change. Her decision to regain her intellectual freedom in the pursuit of Communism is therefore destined to fail. She immerses herself in the tumultuous atmosphere of the Left club's meetings and activities, but she encounters other manifestations of immutability she abhors. This source of disillusionment not only dampens her own perambulatory spirit but also implies that the Left Club is as ineffectively self-interested as she is.

  13. That the Left Club operates in a Southern African colony Lessing has named Zambesia suggests its shipwrecked position between colonial/regressive and postcolonial/progressive domains: "Zambesia" hybridizes the colonial name 'Rhodesia' with 'Zambesi," the name of the river separating the Northern and Southern colonies; "Zambesia" predicts 'Zambia,' the name-to-be-given to Northern Rhodesia, and through syllabic insertion shows that the postcolonial state will always retain the trace of the colonial regime. Similarly, the Left Club and its Communist ideology, on which Lessing focuses in A Ripple from the Storm (1958), exhibit internal contamination and confusion. Overall, Lessing presents the colonial left as dabbling in fashionable political ideas rather than engaging substantively in political change. Depicted from the perspective of an ironic, critical, downplaying narrator, Communist ideology provides very limited prospects of equality and liberty for the liberal female -- Martha. Her shrewd, alert and insatiable eye cannot be lured permanently by the shallow and pontifical professionalism of the Left Club group activism.
    Suddenly, and without any warning, that feeling of staleness came over her, a sort of derisive boredom. She could not account for it, but the picture of a small group of people, middle class every one of them, having meetings, running offices, even going among the people, struck her as absurd, pathetic -- above all old-fashioned. Here it was again, the enemy that made any kind of enthusiasm or idealism ridiculous. (PM 363)
    Nonetheless, the sham wind of change invigorates Martha, while the vortex of political activism jerkily sucks her in its maddening circularity. The Left Club ambiance counteracts Martha's biggest enemy - boredom; only when it becomes boring itself can Martha see its faults with any amount of clarity.

  14. Even when she drifts with the Left Club, Martha never loses sight of a beloved shore.
    She had been dreaming of 'that country'; a phrase she used to describe a particular region of sleep which she often visited, or which visited her -- and always when she was overtired or sick. 'That country' was pale, misted, flat; gulls cried like little children around violet-coloured shores. She stood on coloured chalky rocks with a bitter sea washing around her feet and the smell of salt was strong in her nostrils. (RS 113)
    All the possibilities of action in the colony do not satisfy Martha's alienated soul. The beacon of England recurrently looms throughout the journey as a reminder of the grand objective, and the polar site of 'real' action -- action envisioned at a personal rather than a political level. At this stage, Martha's life is kept at bay, "waiting for [it] to begin, when she could go to England" (L 54). During this painful waiting period, the fountain of action seems to have dried up, and the only weapon left to combat ennui is the "ability to cancel out the present time" (L 54). The question that remains is whether this migratory soul's thirst for 'home' and self will be quenched by reaching the salty shores of England. Or will it be drowned by a tumultuous anonymity?

  15. As a narrative of imperial experience in the latter days of the British Empire, The Children of Violence recounts a kernel voyage. It is, thus, structurally modelled on nineteenth- and early twentieth-century novels of colonial experience. Traditional imperial travel narratives meticulously depict the tough paths of conquest or exploration through a narrative eye that is obsessively spatial. The temporal dimension, as well as the seeing and the seen personae, shrink and disappear in the shadows of a weighty spatial block. Mary Louise Pratt, in her study of John Barrows and Livingstone's travelogues, exposes this magnification of the spatial dimension through strategies of assimilation and effacement. The depersonalization of the narrative voice and human presence, the emphasis on spatial presence, as well as a timeless narrativity, serve this end: "This discursive configuration, which centers landscape, separates people from place, and effaces the speaking self, is characteristic of a great deal of travel writing in the last century, especially the literature of exploration and especially that which aspired to scientific status" (Pratt 143).

  16. This characteristic centrality of space features also in the travel accounts of the modernist colonial novel. Heart of Darkness, Kim and A Passage to India, for instance, revolve around the hub of a colonial voyage. They characteristically foreground spatiality rather than human personality. Conrad's meandering, labyrinthine river, plumbing the depths of the jungle; Kipling's expansive, heat-exhaling India; and Forster's majestic Marabar Caves somehow become protagonists that swallow up the dimension of temporality and the weight of character. The modernist narrative vision, however, does not totally diffuse its temporality. It keeps itself within the grids of history and ideology. The voyage speaks both its temporality and ideological vision through the pivotal experience of space mediated by an alien, displaced, white selfhood.

  17. Doris Lessing's handling of the voyage ingredient has some of the features of the modernist narrative of the colonial journey and experience. The line of deviance is dimensional and thematic rather than structural. The voyage that is the kernel of The Children of Violence is a three-pronged process that equally spans a spatial progress, a temporal advance with a maturing process, and an intellectual fluctuation. Doris Lessing is a novelist of ideas especially in her 1950's and 1960's works. Idea, in all its facets -- doctrinal, ideological and political -- recurrently bobs up throughout the narrative of The Children of Violence. The persistence of dogma in the turbulent historical framework of decolonization leaves less, but not inconsiderable, place for spatiality. The spatial voyage thus is realized by interplay with temporal, atmospheric change, and the intellectual realm of ideas.

  18. The kernel of Martha's story -- her journey back to England -- goes through three pivotal stages. The farmhouse on the South African veldt is a symbol of Martha's childhood. The colonial town is the setting of her political and sexual adventures, while the metropolis comes as the final stage in which Martha moves into a staid middle age. The farm and the metropolis are the two polarities that indelibly mark Martha's experience. Her vision always cancels reality through a temporary access to the haven of their images. The healing effacement of reality -- whose spatiality is the middle stage of the colonial town -- is manifest in either a longing endearment of an English homeland or a nostalgic retrospection into images of the shabby house on the African kopje. Martha's longing for England is first expressed in terms of a strong abhorrence to the farm. "But why was she condemning herself to live on this farm, which more than anything in the world she wanted to leave?" (MQ 37). This rhetorical question shows the kind of ambivalence that characterizes Martha's emotional relationship to the farm. Having left those safe moorings, however, she will be condemned to a rootless and contingent existence shot through with bitter nostalgia:
    And when she awoke in the morning and saw the sunlight warm and yellow over the coconut matting, she wondered sleepily if the water-cart brakes had given, for it was making such a noise; and when she sat up, while the new room rearranged itself about her; and now her ears had been informed by her brain that this was not the water-cart but a delivery van, they began to ache in protest. (MQ 127)

  19. During her earlier life in the farmhouse, Martha feels blindly and inevitably dragged away from it. Is it her flighty and rebellious adolescence that eggs her on, or rather a rancorous self-consciousness? Relating Martha's feminine experience to that of the heroines of twentieth-century women's novels, Patricia Meyer Spacks argues that such women suffer new psychic burdens, "the weight of a new kind of self-consciousness, and that of the infinite possibilities of doing" (Spacks 151). It is this burdensome self-consciousness that condemns Martha to an unstable and migratory existence, while the dilemmas of "the infinite possibilities of doing" confuse and mislead.
    Martha sees no clearly desirable forms, no viable models, no real hope. Suffering the miseries of a transitional state without knowing what she is in transition to, . . . Martha feels the obligation and the impossibility of understanding: a twentieth century heroine, she must invent the problem as well as solve it, discover the ends of life before pursuing them. (Spacks 151)

  20. Apprehending the farm as a "transitional" stage cuts off the profuse fountain of freedom and easiness its spatiality provides. A galling self-consciousness turns that soul-healing setting into an odious place "that one has never, not for a moment, considered as home" (MQ 27). This space of boundless freedom is, in fact, partly associated with the constraints of socialization in colonial Zambesia. The farmhouse is strongly linked with parental authority, especially the mother's controlling figure. In short, what Martha repudiates in the farmhouse is not the place in its pure spatiality, but rather in its temporal and overall atmospheric dimension. Martha seems to flee her own adolescence and its colonial eyesores, its bitter racial conflicts. She also flees a model of femininity dictated by this society, namely the self-satisfied female ensconced in a patriarchal family fortress.
    Martha had gained a clear picture of herself from the outside. 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. She was tormented with guilt and responsibility and self-consciousness." (MQ 18)

  21. One of the voyage's facets is, then, a movement away from a repulsive mother image, that is an amalgam of the different moulds of imperial, capitalist and patriarchal ideologies. Martha is a remarkably matrophobic female character. All her actions of defiance are, in the first place, reactions to her mother and the social ideals she represents. But this self-sacrificing mother is rather a pitiful victim of the imperial system that landed her in Africa. She is not a thoroughly monstrous and authoritarian figure, but is rather caught in the same chain of being that jeopardizes her daughter's individualism. That is why Martha's wrath does not blind her to the invisible and ineluctable powers that drag the individual along. The same inscrutable forces that brought one generation to Africa will drive the next away from it. The lifelong split from the farm comes as an unavoidable self-inflicted decree. "There was nothing to do. The farm lay about her like a beloved country that refused her citizenship" (MQ 37). Martha's course turns out to be a tortuous and slippery way, since it leads her into the bypaths of the colonial town.

  22. Salisbury -- a miniature colonial town in Southern Africa -- is a melting pot of races, currents of thought, and political attitudes. In this setting, the Sports Club represents youth culture's antipathy to boundaries through a relentless celebration of life and its sensual pleasures. Betsy Draine associates Martha's move to town with the loss of "oneness" with nature and a fusion in the collectivity of the Sports Club. The bush and the veldt had provided Martha a safe haven from the exasperating absurdity of a loathsome social system, but according to Draine, the collectivity of the Sports Club, rather than prodding Martha's social consciousness, "merely accentuates [the] tendency toward moral lethargy" (Draine 39). Moving to town is meant to promote autonomy and to escape the inertia engulfing the farm, but this town is an inimical and unfavorable environment for such grand goals: it ironically blunts the edge of Martha's resolutions and erects barriers to self-fulfillment.

  23. Martha finds that inexperience hampers her job performance and that her festive acceptance at the Sports Club is short-lived: "It was a rush of delicious activity, which, however, was just beginning to flag" (MQ 151). The gradual drooping of the Sports Club's fatuous bustle wakes Martha to the new kind of inadequacy that constrains her. As the narrator remarks, "there was no doubt that the root of all this dissatisfaction was that she deserved something life had not offered her. The daydream locked not only her mind, but her limbs" (MQ 225). The casual daydreaming self-analysis, which temporarily distances Martha's consciousness from the dizzying circularity of the Sports Club life movement, divulges the baneful fetters of time and space. At this particular stage of her life, time dictates an inescapable condition of adolescence that exacerbates the feeling of resentment and restlessness.

  24. For the individualistic female, the courses of action are limited. They are, in fact, pre-devised by a patriarchal, colonial socialism. The end of the appalling condition of adolescence comes as the fatal herald of womanhood. In the whirlwind of the repetitive festivities of the Sports Club, Martha fumbles at the homogenous masculine group of the "wolves," and blindly singles out a Douglas Knowell as a husband. The incidental marriage leads to the indomitable social rapids that ruthlessly drown Martha in a wider and more loathsome collectivity, that of conventional wifehood and matrimony. During this transition, she is obliged to renounce her autonomy as masculine hegemony usurps her self-centredness. She is abruptly situated within the asymmetrical pattern of a relation that impartially places her in the shadow of a mediocre husband.

  25. Matrimony de-glorifies Martha's femininity and relegates her to the peripheral fringes of masculinity; it turns out to be the bane of her revolutionary and presumptuous character. In her study of adolescent psychosexual evolution, Simone de Beauvoir describes the transition from girlhood to womanhood as an othering process, during which feminine solipsism is pulverized, while a chronic marginality is demarcated.[11] Martha will, henceforth, be the site of the relentless conflict between her autonomous selfhood and the othering, marginalizing drift accentuated by the trap of marriage and its alien image of femininity.
    She thought confusedly that there was always a point when men seemed to press a button, as it were, and one was expected to turn into something else for their amusement. This 'turning into something else' had landed her where she was now: married, signed and sealed away from what she was convinced she was. (PM 17)
    Martha's dilemma is therefore this superimposed self-image glimpsed through the lenses of the patriarch. But once trapped in this "gigantic social deception" (PM 53), Martha has to confine her actions within the narrow alleys of convention, and has to put up with the self-confident imperiousness of a gallant masculinity; "The gleam of proprietary satisfaction never failed to arouse in Martha a flush of strong resentment" (PM 83). The marital stage thus seals the woman into the marginality of Otherness, and further cuts off all sources of eminence by confining her to the predictable and commonplace course of feminine experience.

  26. Betsy Draine argues that Martha's marriage, like that of her parents, is the product of the frenzy of a World War. The tolling bells of the Second World War in this African colonial town brought about a flurried atmosphere that kept urging young couples into hasty, unpremeditated marriages. Martha's so-called deliberate marriage falls into this general pattern, and is hemmed within this social setting: "It is not the individual will of an autonomous heroine that controls this movement in the plot, but rather the will of the collective and of that inevitability which works through the personal history of each individual" (Draine 44). The "will of the collective" does not only dictate Martha's marriage to Douglas Knowell, but it also imposes the laws of a more hideous socialism -- the family unit built according to middle-class ethics.

  27. During the temporary conformity to the colonial and patriarchal socialism of Zambesia's white community, Martha's femininity is shaped after the model of middle-class housewifery. Apart from the assessing watchful eye that she manages to keep detached and alert, Martha is wholly engulfed in this social fabric. "Martha had been sucked into the pattern; and with part of herself she connived at it" (PM 329). Through her participation in afternoon chats, she shares or interiorizes the hopes and worries of matronly, shackled women. The golden objective of financial security in a comfortable middle age, dictated by middle-class ethics, temporarily engrosses Martha. She perceives the gross and ridiculous delusion of those women who wear away their youth for the distant comforts of a marginal middle age. Yet from the beginning of the evolution of her feminine consciousness, she resolutely resists this hateful goal. "She would not be like Mrs. VanRensberg, a fat and earthy housekeeping woman; she would not be bitter and nagging and dissatisfied like her mother" (MQ 20). Though she interprets moving to town as an act of defiance, it ironically leads her to what she has most vehemently decided to shun. In the process, however, she continues to search for a lost ideal of feminine selfhood.
    From these dreary self-searchings there emerged a definite idea: that there must be, if not in literature, which evaded these problems, then in life, that woman who combined a warm accepting femininity and motherhood with being what Martha described vaguely but to her own satisfaction as 'a person'. She must look for her. (PM 269)

  28. At this stage, Martha has not still awakened to the painful realization that the only way to full female individualism is renouncing wifehood and motherhood as dictated by the institution of the traditional family. When she finally sets herself free, the years of compliance with convention appear to have been "a lie against her real nature and therefore they had not existed" (PM 399). At this decisive crossroads, Martha carelessly annuls this sham period of her life and moves along to resume her quest for the Grail of England.

  29. During the last stage of Martha's sojourn in Zambesia, in the dejected postwar years, she alleviates the pain of procrastination and despair through a metonymic vision of England as a turbulent seashore. This image is recurrent in Landlocked, "a melancholy book pervaded with post-war disillusion" (UMS 298); her dream takes the form of a sensual wallowing in the salty atmosphere of the seashore.
    Far away, a long way below, was water. She dreamed, night after night, of water, of the sea. She dreamed of swift waves like horses racing. She woke again and again, with the smell of the sea in her nostrils, and a tang of salt on her tongue. Then she sank back to sleep to hear waves crashing on rocks, to hear the slap and the suck of waves on distant shores. (L 247)
    This obsession with the sea re-launches the theme of the voyage in the narrative and plainly foreshadows Martha's sea-voyage back to England.

  30. The anticipation of the voyage fills Martha with longing for the indefinite space of a seashore.
    She no longer thought: I'm going to England soon; she thought: I'm going to the sea, I'm going to get off this high, dry place where my skin burns and where I can never lose the feeling of tension and I shall sit by a long grey sea and listen to the waves break, I shall hear the waves break and sink in a small hiss of foam. (L 147)
    At this stage, the protagonist's spatial advance towards England halts and tarries in the peripheries of its shores. The dry and dusty African land is still the only concrete spatiality the narrative can provide.

  31. The last token of spatial attachment to and rootedness in Africa is, indeed, the substantiality of the farmhouse. The tumbling of this ramshackle ghost of a house foreshadows Martha's next move into an utter rootlessness.
    Nearly a hundred miles away, in the red earth district, the old house had sunk to its knees under the blows of the first wet season after the Quests had left it, as if the shambling structure had been held upright only by the spirit of the family in it. Already it had been absorbed into a welter of damp growth and it was hard to tell . . . where the old house had stood. (L 236)
    On the one hand, the onus of tangible roots and substantial spaces that would accusingly point out any sense of belonging and attachment is off Martha's hands. On the other hand, the movement to England seems to shut out all possibilities of re-attachment by bringing her to a rootless, dead land.

  32. The radical change of setting to England in the last volume of the sequence, The Four-Gated City, provokes a concomitant change of spatial imagery. The overall logic of evolution, throughout the sequence, follows spatial clues, which are dictated by the protagonist's deep sense of dislodgment in England, as well as her previous fixation on land in Africa. Leaving behind a bushy African land basking in a full, glaring sun, she ends up in the midst of a damp, deadened, sunless region. The halcyon shores that have claimed Martha's soul and sensations for the last, "waiting" years, ironically land her on an ugly and filthy soil, devoid of sun, sand and vegetation. And though Martha has been partly uprooted since she first left the farmhouse, this last move in the narrative violently wrenches her from any spatial fixity and transports her to the void; and it is an irreparable move since "she was here . . . and to stay" (FGC 25).

  33. Reflecting on a blackened war-damaged urbanism, Martha perceives the horrific lifelessness of the soil.
    It was a yellowish soil. In it was embedded a system of clay pipes, iron pipes, knotted cables. No roots. No trees in this street, not one tree: therefore, no roots. Martha had never before seen soil that was dead, that had no roots. How long had this street been built? . . . For two hundred years this soil had held no life at all. How long did roots live under a crust of air-excluding tarmac? (FGC 16)
    The rootlessness is the desolate condition of a soil overwhelmed by asphalt and construction. Nicole Ward Jouve explains this radical move in the sequence from a lively and swarming nature to a hollow and dead construction: "Martha's voyage has its own sullen, uncompromising logic. She goes from the complex mineral-vegetable-animal-and-human 'life' of the mud house on the kopje to the anonymous shell of London flats" (Jouve 128).

  34. The overall spatial disparity between Africa and London spans the line of development and the logic of evolution in the sequence. [12] The metaphoricity of this pivotal displacement poses a series of binaries in the narrative: firmness/rootlessness; nature/construction; luminosity/colorlessness; dustiness/dampness. This dislodging movement affects the personality of the protagonist as well as the narrative technique in general. This is a parallel metamorphosis effected by the dislocating physical motion. As Lorna Sage has explained, "Not only has Martha the person disintegrated, but so has the author as person" (Sage 17). The protagonist, in the first four volumes, is that self-centered person whose bustle, hopes, frustrations, irascible attitudes and perseverant strifes make up the text and theme of the narrative. Throughout the last volume, The Four-Gated City, this firm framework of the person undergoes a gradual, shrinking senescence and a withering process both in body and soul. Martha's shadowy figure is a mere "transparency, a porous medium" (Jouve 131) through which the narrator permeates mid-century upheavals. She becomes, in this sense, a documenting consciousness that takes no active part in what happens around her. She preserves from the tumbling person of her self, an a-sexual, amoral recording eye -- the wise, staid vision of middle age.

  35. The fusion of the personal into the general and impersonal is the most notable narrative shift in The Four-Gated City. It is, in the first place, an effect of the movement to the inscrutable, muddled life of the metropolis, or as Jouve puts it, "Martha is meant to grow into a being who achieves a universal, absolute wisdom through access to the universal, not through development of the particular" (Jouve 136). The implications of this move in the theme of home and identity quest are far-reaching. The whole shift seems to be an evasion of a painful inconclusivity, and an amazing incomprehensibility of the long-sought land and people. The theme of the life struggle of a single individual is relegated in the apocalyptic yet agnostic atmosphere of the 1960's.

  36. The heroine's intellectual 'journey' is strongly impressed by the spatial experience, especially the indelible influence of the African bush. The first glimpse of Martha in the narrative is a reclining, reading girl, in the shadow of a golden shower creeper. This recurrent image of the bookish girl poring over pages against the backdrop of a dulcet African nature denotes the interactive effects of literature and landscape on Martha's intellect.
    She read the same pages over and over again . . . in always the same place, under the big tree that was her refuge, through which the heat pumped like a narcotic. She read poetry, not for the sense of words, but for the melodies which confirmed the rhythms of the moving grasses and the swaying of the leaves over her head. (MQ 42)
    Martha imbibes knowledge from books and seeks its confirmation in the self-sufficient life of nature. Her intellectual pursuit of the harmony of truth, however, will be entangled in the webs of dogma -- particularly Communist doctrines as they are played out in the colonies.

  37. Martha's intellectual mentors -- Joss and Solly Cohen -- play a primordial part in shaping her political beliefs and directing her political activism. While Joss is a Stalinist and Solly a Trotskyite, they both stimulate Martha to participate in Communist struggles. They ease her move to town, stir her dormant political consciousness, and introduce her to the Left Club group. But this is only one of several pressures that seek to take hold of Martha:
    Everybody seems to want to mold Martha. Eager for experience, she keeps falling under influences, discovering too late her loss of autonomy. Her mother wants to make her into a sweet English girl, the Cohen boys want to educate her as a socialist, her beau Donovan thinks he can transform her into a fashionplate, and the crowd at the Sports Club expect her to adopt the group style. (Draine 37)
    The Socialism of the Cohen boys is, however, the only durable spell Martha falls under. Socialist ideals offer a ready-made intellectual framework that authorizes her own tendency to surrender to group expectations.

  38. Doris Lessing critiques Socialist political and economic theory in A Ripple from the Storm, but from the point of view of an ironic narrator. Socialism is portrayed as petty, bumptious, and wordy; it is inadequate in the colonial setting, unable to extirpate the deeply entrenched racism that considers the native population to be a sub-human workforce instead of a 'real' working class.[13] This critique evolves into a detached record of Cold War anti-Communist terrorism in The Four-Gated City, which rounds off Martha's political adventure in the Communist Party and signals the narrative move into the global and universal. Martha gives up a tedious reflection of the viable political means to create social justice in both colonial and metropolitan contexts. There is a tendency to merge into the overwhelming universalizing of a human condition divorced from its political and historical contexts. The narrative, in this sense, transcends localised contexts and tries to capture an all-encompassing vision of a universal dynamics of human experience.

    * * *

  39. The journey leads to no tangible position, whether in space or intellectual conviction. The quest for roots, home and identity lands the protagonist in a rootless spatiality and a mosaic reality, where no creed has productive effect. Rather than providing Martha with the favorable atmosphere that would revamp her true self, England gives her access to an overwhelming universality that swallows up the particularity of her experience. The Otherness of home does not end through a simple transition in space or a simple spatial integration. The alienness of land and people will continue to sap Martha's British identity. Meditating on the filthy banks of the river Thames, she bitterly perceives the puzzling and absurd ugliness. "And it was so ugly, so ugly: what race is this that filled their river with garbage and excrement and let it run smelling so evilly between the buildings that crystallized their pride, their history. Except -- she could not say that now, she was here, one of them; and to stay" (FGC 25)

  40. Martha still cannot mask the outsider's eye in herself. Though the previously formed image of England does not bear any resemblance to the grey spatiality of London, Martha's self-image as a British citizen is paradoxically reinforced in the new setting. This identity is the embryo of the universal consciousness that she later develops. The deviance into the general seals Martha's fruitless personal quest, and signals thus its futility as well as its insignificance in the muddle of universality. Martha's quest for identity, in The Children of Violence, ends in the formation of a 'post-British' identity. This line of development suggests that she was always engrossed by a dimension of experience that should transcend the immediate context of her local setting. As a colonial subject, she was interpellated into the colonial margin, already defined as a 'posting-from' the imperial center. Her involvement with Communism (ostensibly an international movement) was among other things an attempt to move beyond identification with a nation-state, and to become, therefore, 'post-British' as well as 'post-Zambesian.' Her move to England brought her imagined Britishness to an unhinging contact with a pre-existing British reality, which, again, eases her transformation into a 'post-British' subject. In addition, the narrative handling of African and English topography suggests that space, place, and rootedness will always outweigh temporal change -- that any 'post-ness,' in the future, is illusory. Finally, Martha's move into the universal is the ultimate gesture towards a 'post-Britishness' -- a gesture that signals its own defeat.


  1. See Lessing, Under My Skin (1994), and In Pursuit of the English (1968). In Under My Skin, Lessing refers to the factual counterparts of the personae that people her novels and short stories and comments upon the autobiographical substance of The Children of Violence: "Readers like to think that a story is 'true'. 'Is it autobiographical?' is the demand. Partly it is, and partly it is not, comes the author's reply . . . what she has tried to do is to take the story out of the personal into the general" (162). All further references to this book will henceforth be abbreviated UMS and included in the text. Back

  2. In the author's notes of The Four-Gated City, Lessing says, "This book is what the Germans call bildungsroman" (667). All further references to this book will henceforth be included in the text and abbreviated as FGC. Back

  3. Lessing, Martha Quest. References to this book will henceforth be included in the text and abbreviated as MQ. Back

  4. Lessing, A Proper Marriage. References to this book will henceforth be included in the text and abbreviated as PM. Back

  5. Lessing, A Ripple from the Storm. References to this book will henceforth be included in the text and abbreviated as RS. Back

  6. Lessing, Landlocked . References to this book will henceforth be included in the text and abbreviated as L. Back

  7. Speaking about the Eldorado Expedition in Congo, the narrator says: "To tear treasures out of the bowels of the land was their desire, with no more moral purpose at the back of it than there is in burglars breaking into a safe" (Conrad 44). Back

  8. Lessing, In Pursuit of the English, pp. 14-5. All further references to this book will henceforth be included in the text and abbreviated as IPE. Back

  9. Doris Lessing left Southern Rhodesia and settled in England for the first time in 1949. She had already begun her writing career by some poems and her first novel, The Grass is Singing, which she brought to be published in England. See Under My Skin, pp. 404-5. Back

  10. Simone de Beauvoir, in Le Deuxième Sexe, cogently explains the oppression of biology, and the servility of the woman to the natural processes of her body. The pregnant woman is condemned to inaction and utter consumption by the invisible forces that drive procreation in the engine of her body: "La femme qui engendre ne connaît donc pas l'orgueil de la création; elle se sent le jouet passif de forces obscures, et le douloureux accouchement est un accident inutile ou même importun. ... Engendrer, allaiter ne sont pas des activités, se sont des fonction naturelles; aucun projet n'y est engagé; c'est pourquoi la femme n'y trouve pas le motif d'une affirmation hautaine de son existence; elle subit passivement son destin biologique" (De Beauvoir I:112). Back

  11. De Beauvoir analyses this Othering process : "Jusqu'alors elle était un individu autonome : il lui faut renoncer sa souveraineté -- un conflit éclate entre sa revendication originelle qui est d'être sujet, activité, liberté, et d'autre part ses tendances érotiques et les sollicitations sociales qui l'invitent s'assumer comme objet passif. Elle se saisit spontanément comme l'essentiel: comment se résoudra-t-elle à devenir l'inessentiel ? Mais si je ne peux m'accomplir qu'en tant qu'Autre, comment renoncerai-je à mon Moi? Tel est l'angoissant dilemme devant lequel la femme en herbe se débat" (De Beauvoir II:99-100). Back

  12. Jouve argues that the logic of the sequence is a movement from mud to the void. See her reading of The Children of Violence in White Woman Speaks with Forked Tongue, pp. 119-142. Back

  13. See Lessing's attempt to define the working class in In Pursuit of the English, pp.12-3. Back

Works Cited

Betts, Raymond F. Decolonisation. London & New York: Routledge, 1998.

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. London: Penguin, 1994.

De Beauvoir, Simone. Le Deuxième Sexe. 2 Volumes. Paris: Gallimard.

Draine, Betsy. Substance under Pressure: Artistic Coherence and Evolving Form in the Novels of Doris Lessing. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983.

Jouve, Nicole Ward. "Doris Lessing: of Mud and Other Matter -- The Children of Violence." In White Woman Speaks With Forked Tongue. [NEED EDITOR] London & New York: Routledge, 1991. 119-142.

Lessing, Doris. The Four-Gated City. London: Flamingo, 1993.

---. In Pursuit of the English. London: Sphere Books, 1968.
---. Landlocked. London: Flamingo, 1993.

---. Martha Quest. London: Flamingo, 1993.

---. A Proper Marriage. London: Flamingo, 1993.

---. A Ripple from the Storm. London: Flamingo, 1993.

---. Under My Skin. London: HarperCollins, 1994.

Pratt, Mary Louise. "Scratches on the Face of the Country; or What Mr. Barrow Saw in the Land of the Bushmen." In Race, Writing and Differenc. Ed. by Henry Louis Gates. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1986.

Sage, Lorna. Women in the House of Fiction: Post-War Women Novelists. London: Macmillan, 1992.

Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. London: Vintage, 1994.

Spacks, Patricia Meyer. The Female Imagination: a literary and psychological investigation of women's writing. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1976.

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