Search for Identity in Doris Lessing's Martha Quest
Compiled by Mohamed Zayed
NB: this article took much effort and in-depth reading; kindly cite me as your reference.
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. Martha motives and actions may be interpreted and seen as a search for identity. In order to explore properly this search for identity, we need to investigate the following: (1) Martha in relation to her peers, (2) Martha and her mother,(3) Her relationship with men, (4) Religion and atheism, (5) Work and (6) Her interest in world politics.
First of all, Martha is shown as a distinct character, one who stands out from her peers. Her search for identity is proved when she tries to have a different mentality from that of her peers. For example, all her peers think about is school or getting married, e.g. Marnie. She, on the other hand, is constantly looking forward to escaping her own home and family. She sees her escape from home as an outlet to the outer world which she has yet to see. She perceives her escape as a quest for reaching and forming her own unique identity. She feels that so long as she lives in the farm that she will always be overshadowed and affected by her parent’s principles. Hence, she can never have a true identity of her own.
Second, part of Martha’s search for identity is her constant struggle with her mother. Her mother represents the old-perishing world which she is so eagerly trying to escape. Hence, in her struggle with her mother, she is in a way or the other trying to prove her identity and to stand out away from her mother. She believes that if she is truly to have a unique character that she can never be in harmony with her mother since her mother represents the authority and barrier against her long-sought “freedom”. Third, part of Martha’s quest for identity is her many relationships with men. According to Martha, a person cannot live alone; it is a nightmare. She can never have a true identity without getting to “mingle” with other people and to see other identities first-hand so that she may have her own. Martha objected marriage as a young woman and she thought marriage boring and not well-built to last and that people only marry because they feel sorry and “sympathetic” for each other. This refusal of marriage has also been a part of her quest towards identity.
Another feature of the search for identity is Martha’s atheism. Since Martha is a socialist character, it is believed—back then—that atheism is part and parcel of true identity as a socialist. Hence, we find Martha expressing her pride in being an atheist who does not care about people’s race or religion. This atheism is part of her search for identity. Religion represented to her a boundary, a chain that for long has restricted and imprisoned her parents. Since she wants to stand out, then she has to be an atheist. If religion, supposedly, favored whites over blacks, then becoming an atheist is the only way to see people as equal in her thinking.
Another feature of search for identity theme in Martha Quest is Martha’s work as a typist in
the town. Martha escaped the life of the farm and the parental authority and “nagging” of her mother. She believes that she can never have a true identity if she remains in the custody of her parents. If she is to have a true identity, then she must turn into an independent, work alcoholic person living in town away from her remorse of consciousness represented in her mother.
One last feature of search for identity in Martha Quest is Martha’s interest in world politics. Part of Martha’s identity is based on her surroundings and how she perceives the world. She feels sympathy for Jews because of politics and because they are being oppressed by Hitler at that time. Part of her hatred for her mother lies in the “Britishness” of her mother and her “Edwardian” manners and the ethics of the “English country girl” that he mother possesses. Martha read books on the decline of the British Empire only to upset her mother and to from what can be called an independent identity. Martha’s reading socialist works is also an assertion of her socialist identity and her disgust with race and color-bar restrictions.
Yet, we can never ignore the main driving force behind Martha’s search for identity. This force which has been a long-established habit since her childhood is reading. It is through reading that Martha came to see the outer world and know such things as “socialism,” “atheism,” “sex,” “politics” and “people’s mentality”. Hence, theme of search identity is driven and supported by Martha’s many readings in history, socialism, politics and “the other’s opinion”.