Summary of Doris Lessing's Martha Quest
by Mohamed Zayed, a Linguist
Martha Quest is a novel written by Doris Lessing. It belongs to her series of novels known as The Children of Violence. Martha Quest traces the life of Martha from her adolescence to middle life. Hence, it is called a Bildungsroman or a “novel of development”. The novel tells the story of Martha Quest who enters the novel as a fifteen-year-old girl living in the Zambesia Province in Africa. Martha is represented as a rebellious character who is in constant struggle and disagreement with her parents, especially here mother. She always lends her mother a deaf ear. She never takes her mother’s advice on traditions and customs.
Yet, Martha is in love with reading. She perceives reading as an outlet for her exiled life in Africa. Martha is the daughter of Mr and Mrs Quest, two English citizens who left their country hoping that they will make a fortune in Wild Africa. Yet, the father seems to have failed since they are living a life of poverty wherein they cannot afford to rebuild the house or even repair the ceiling or even buy a new car. The novel is rich in themes such as racism, socialism, parent-daughter relationship, adolescence and feminism. As a British adolescent female living in the twentieth century, Martha must deal not only with coming of age but also with issues of race, class, and women’s rights.
Fed up with her confining parents, as well as the rest of her contemporaries who ask about school and marriage, Martha feels the need to break free of her situation so that she has space to figure out who she is. She wants to get away from her mother’s insistence on Martha’s cold, Edwardian upbringing and her father, who is imprisoned in his own memories of World War I. Hoping to flee her current despair and the murky prospects of her future life, Martha soon decides to leave her rural community and move to a fictional city located nearby.
Although she has learned to fear personal entrapment, Martha, ironically, comes to the decision that her rescue must include sexual intimacy with a male. However, her personal exploration and pursuit of self-actualization through romantic encounters causes Martha to make a series of poor choices. Eventually, she allows Jewish musician Adolph, or Dolly, to come into her life as her first sexual partner. Martha confesses that she does not feel real attraction and passion toward him, but he seems acutely worthy due to the anti-Semitism he is subjected to. The first two years of her independent life find Martha falling in with a group of reckless, white, quasi-adults, all of who are from a variety of backgrounds. She spends her time working and partying with her friends at local restaurants. Despite having left them behind, Martha’s parents and their social influence still permeate her existence.
As the world stage gears up for World War II, Martha begins dating a civil servant, Douglas, who is many years older than she. The end of the story sees Martha attempting to convince herself that her general feelings for Douglas could be considered love and not purely sexual desire. A small, yet clear, voice inside her head tells her, however, that this marriage is doomed to fail before too long.