‘Martha Quest’

(Critics, Jung, ‘The Golden Notebook’, ‘Under My Skin’)

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‘The novel conforms to the classical Bilgungsroman … which leads an impressionable protagonist through quintessential confrontations with societal and cultural institutions. … [Lessing’s] unmodified use of this genre…accounts for [its] sluggish effect on many readers.’   (Doris Lessing by Mona Knapp)

‘She is haunted by a sense of “terrible urgency” (332) and powerlessness against the magnetism of collective behaviour.’  (Doris Lessing by Mona Knapp)

Marvin Mudrick called Martha ‘a mutinous, ill-tempered, unresourceful young Englishwoman from the provinces who moves through her world, with the author’s scarcely qualified approval, in a trance of annihilating egocentricsm.’

‘The reader is continually invited to view Martha and her interminable bouts of introspection in an ironic light’  (Substance Under Pressure by Betsy Draine)

Lessing identifies Three Groups of critics:

 The first group of critics sees the [Children of Violence] series as a “study of the individual conscience in its relations with the collective.”  (The Small Personal Voice by Doris Lessing)

 For the second group of critics, the self development of the individual – the heroine – is the central theme.  Lessing states in her notes to ‘The Four-Gated City’: “This book is what the Germans call a Bildungsroman.”   Dilthey, who coined the term, identifies the private nature of the Bildungsroman hero’s quest, saying: “The Bildungsroman examines a regular course of development in the life of the individual.”  Interactions with society are therefore a means to an end on the personal journey.

The third group of critics: ‘these interactions with society are the end itself.”  She [Lessing] “communicates her sense of the age in which she has lived (Granville Hicks)” (Substance Under Pressure by Betsy Draine).  Doris Lessing said in an interview with Roy Newquist: ‘I want to explain what it is like to be a human being in a century when you open your eyes on war and on human beings disliking other human beings.’: this puts an individual’s interactions with society into a very particular and important perspective.

 ‘[Martha’s] quest is spiritual as well as social’ The Myth of the Heroine: The female bildungsroman in the twentieth century by Esther Kleinbord Labovitz.

Doris Lessing writes in ‘Under My Skin’: “I was rejecting the human condition, which is to be trapped by circumstances.”

The area of female sexuality brings to the female bildungsroman and to the traditional genre a new dimension. The Myth of the Heroine: The female bildungsroman in the twentieth century by Esther Kleinbord Labovitz.

The female heroine all too often suffers from a paucity of models to follow. … The examination of the absence, rather than the presence, and how the lack of role models, hinging on mother-daughter relationships as well, will be a touchstone to describing the genre devoted to the female heroine. The Myth of the Heroine: The female bildungsroman in the twentieth century by Esther Kleinbord Labovitz.

Exile, passivity, resentment, choice – Lessing will play with these motifs while showing how nature and nurture keep Martha “mazed and unfed” in her thinking. The Myth of the Heroine: The female bildungsroman in the twentieth century by Esther Kleinbord Labovitz.

Lessing places upon the heroine the burden of extricating herself from age-old roles and myths. The Myth of the Heroine: The female bildungsroman in the twentieth century by Esther Kleinbord Labovitz.

In an interview with Jonah Raskin, Lessing said, ‘I am intensely aware of, and want to write about, politics, but I often find that I am unable to embody my political vision in a novel.’

Harry Blamire: ‘Martha lacks the generosity and capacity for self-criticism which would bind the reader in continuing sympathy with her.’

In my mind I lived in utopias, part from literature and part the obverse of what I actually lived in.  …  Daydreams …

In Lessing’s novel ‘The Golden Notebook’, Anna Wulf writes: ‘But what I really discovered … was that in describing any personality all these words are meaningless.  …  So what I am saying is, in fact, that the human personality, that unique flame, is so sacred to me, that everything else becomes unimportant. Is that what I am saying? And if so, what does it mean?’  (84)

The history of religion suggests that there are ultimately only two alternatives in the midst of a crisis of faith of this magnitude: the antinomian who goes to the depths of the self and seeks a deeper, more genuine truth and the Arminian who goes outward to reform morals, attitudes, and collective behaviour.  In the 1960s the charismatic forces linked to analysis took an antinomian, transgressive form: drugs; music; sexuality; alternative lifestyles; the valorization of madness, as in R. D. Laing or Doris Lessing; and the creation of sanctified communities or communes.  But the antinomian rejection of the ego, the everyday, and the mundane, like the charismatic moment to which it appeals, is impossible to sustain. By 1968, the strong surrealist or counter-cultural elements of the New Left had externalized what had previously been private and repressed, especially sexuality. The issues that ego psychology had described as intrapsychic and familial were being acted out on a social scale and on a political stage. Energies turned outward to reform society and create the beloved community in the so-called real world, leaving behind–temporarily–the so-called world of the psyche.

‘Under my Skin’   Here are some references, from Lessing’s autobiography,which cast a biographical light on ‘Martha Quest’

5  ‘My father was  a dreaming unambitious man who drove his poor wife mad with frustration’

7  ‘My father was not the only soldier never, ever, to forgive his country for what he saw as promises made but betrayed’

8  ‘I do know that to be born in the year 1919 when half of Europe was a graveyard, and people were dying in millions all over the world – that was important.  How could it not be?  Unless you believe that every little human being’s mind is quite separate from every other, separate from the common human mind.’

9  ‘There were also the wounded from the war, of whom my farther was one, and the people whose potential was never used because their lives were wrenched out of their proper course by the war – my mother was one.’

9  ‘During that trip … were revived in me the raging emotions of my childhood …. how could it have happened?’

10  ‘I wonder how many of the children brought up in families crippled by war had the same poison running in their veins from before they could even speak.’

10  ‘I used to feel there was something like a dark grey cloud, like poison gas, over my early childhood.’

15  ‘I was in nervous flight from her [my mother] ever since I can remember anything, from the age of fourteen I set myself obdurately against her in a kind of inner emigration from everything she represented.’

25 ‘ I knew from the beginning she loved my little brother unconditionally, and she did not love me.’

26  ‘My father was affectionate but he was not tender.  neither parent liked displays of emotion.’

28  ‘For thousands upon thousands of years, we – humankind – have told ourselves tales and stories, and these were always analogies and metaphors, parables and allegories; they were elusive and eqivocal; they hinted and alluded, they shadowed forth in a glass darkly.  But after three centuries of the realistic Novel, in many people this part of the brain has atrophied’

29  ‘When you make up a story, and you need a symbol or analogy, it is always best to choose the oldest and the most familiar.  This is because it is already there, in the human mind, is an archetype , leads easily form the daytime world to the other one.’

36 ‘Until he died he would see England … as a country that had betrayed its promises to its people, as cynical, as corrupt.’

50 ‘Civilization was being brought to the savages, was how they [her parents] saw it, because the British Empire was a boon and a benefit to the whole world’

54  ‘A house put together from the plants and earth of the bush is rather like a coat or dress, soon to be discarded, for probably it will have returned to the bush, from fire, insects, or heavy rains, long before you die.’

55  ‘What impresses me now is not how much effect our occupancy had on the landscape of the farm, but how little.’

59  ‘She had clothes for making calls and for ‘entertaining’, visiting cards, gloves, scarves, hats and feather fans. Her evening dresses were much more elegant than anything likely to be worn even to Government House then.  She probably thought that was where she would be invited.  She might have defied her father to become that common thing, a nurse, but she never had any intention of giving up the family’s status as middle class.  Her children would fulfil her ambitions and do even better.’

64  ‘All around her were the signs and symbols of the respectable life she ahd believed was her right. her future, silver tea trays, English water colours, Persian rugs …But she was living in what amounted to a mud hut.’

65  ‘There was a stratum of people, white, in old Southern Rhodesia, who lived just above hunger level.’

66  ‘The white clichés: .. They only understand the stick.  They are nothing but savages.  They are just down from the trees.’

67  ‘My father liked women.  Women liked him.  He had a courtly considerate way with him, and the undertones of regret and wistfulness’

83  ‘The pleasure, the sheer pleasure of books which has never ever failed me.’

85  ‘Where did the violence of that sense of injustice come from? … What I was feeling was social injustice’

97  ‘I cannot remember a time when I did not fight my mother’

99  ‘Meanwhile, all the time, it seemed day and night, talk of the war went on.  Sometimes it seemed as if the house on the hill was full of men in uniforms, but they were dead, just as in all the houses of the District were photographs of dead soldiers.’

104  ‘I had begun to fight my mother over my clothes.  She made them all.  She made them too young for me.’

106  ‘Insects, insects – it was insects in the end that brought the old house to its knees.’

113  ‘Just as I rebelled by instict he [my brother] conformed.’

120  ‘I stand there, a fierce unforgiving adamant child, saying to myself: I won’t  I will not.  I will not be like that.  I am never going to be anything like them. … Meaning never let yourself be trapped.  In other words, I was rejecting the human condition, which is to be trapped by circumstances.’

130  ‘In the 1930s all the talk on the farm verandas was of the Slump, falling prices, bad times, bankruptcies.’

149  ‘We make little places for ourselves in a group, a family, a gang, where the cold air does not blow so cruelly on tender skins.’

156  ‘In my mind I lived in utopias, part from literature and part the obverse of what I actually lived in.  …  Daydreams …’

161  ‘The novel would not have been nearly as informative if I had not objectified my mental battles, embodying ideas in people.  (my italics)

Contrast this with Anna Wulf in ‘The Golden Notebook’:

‘I am incapable of writing the only kind of novel which interests me: a book powered with an intellectual or moral passion strong enough to create order, to create a new way of looking at life. …  Competent and informative novels will continue to pour from the publishing houses.  … [Anna Wulf’s novel] is an immoral novel because that terrible lying nostalgia lights every sentence … and it would be that emotion which would make … novels not reportage.’ (my italics).

Also consider Martha’s engagement with nostalgia:

‘it was with nostalgia that she longed to try again. // There had been a challenge that she had refused.  But the wave of nostalgia made her angry.’  Martha ‘tries to reach out after the ‘moment’ so that she might retain its message from the wasting and creating chaos of darkness.’ (Martha Quest’ 75).

This might usefully be considered in the light of the story from the Koran of the ‘questing Moses’ and his servant Joshua ben Nun in which the fish, which they had intended to eat, leaps out of the basket to find its way back to the sea.   In the ‘process of Transformation’, Jung says that the failure to recognise a moment of crucial importance represents something very typical.  ‘Moses realises that [in the fish which itself symbolises the unconscious] he has unconsciously found the source of life and then lost it again … in the water of life’ [the sea]. (‘Four Archetypes’ C. G. Jung Routledge & Kegan Paul published 1972 pp69-75)

162  ‘Martha Quest’ has a simple plot.

199 The Left Book Club crowd … were a lot of spineless social democrats.

200 The Sports Club crowd and ‘the manners and the mores of the time’

202 In 1938, 1939, my idea of myself, my possibilities, had little connection with reality

203 The other intoxication was my body

204 The strongest intoxication of them all, dance music.

205 No point in saying, I will not – when the Fates are playing war music, dance music

262 This feeling of doom, of fatality, is a theme – perhaps the main one – in ‘Martha Quest’

268 I think a good deal of the first three volumes of ‘The Children of Violence’ is funny.

268 It is impossible to distance oneself from the strong currents of one’s time.

300 I made of these worldly, world-weary, lonely men a composite: Mr Maynard in the ‘Children of Violence’

Some notes and quotes relevant to ‘Martha Quest’ from Four Archetypes’  by C.G. JUNG translated by FC Hull (published 1972 Routledge & Kegan Paul)

15  ‘Other symbols of the mother in a figurative sense appear in things representing the goal of our longing for redemption, such as paradise, The Kingdom of God.  … Many things arousing devotion or feelings of awe, as for instance … city or country, heaven, earth, the woods … can be mother-symbols.

18  archetypes are among the inalienable assets of every psyche.  They form the “treasure in the realm of shadowy thoughts” of which Kant spoke.

24  The negative mother-complex.  The motto of this type is: Anything so long as it is not like my mother!  This kind of daughter knows what she does not want, but is usually completely at sea as to what she would choose as her own fate.  ….  (25)  All instinctive processes meet with unexpected differences; either sexuality does not function properly, or the children are unwanted, or maternal duties seem unbearable.   …   (25) Spontaneous development of intellect … [has the real purpose of breaking] the mother’s power by intellectual criticism and superior knowledge.  …   (33) Because of her merely unconscious, reactive attitude toward reality, her life actually becomes dominated by what she fought hardest against – the exclusively maternal feminine aspect.

29  [To answer the question why should a man seek to achieve a higher level of consciousness] I can only make a confession of faith: I believe that after thousands and millions of years, someone had to realise that this wonderful world of mountains and oceans, suns and moons, galaxies and nebulae, plants and animals, exists.

 59-60  Identification with a group:  when many people gather together to share one common emotion, the total psyche emerging from the group is below the level of the individual psyche …  In the crowd one feels no responsibility, but also no fear.  (Consider in the light of Doris Lessing’s references to ‘the collective’.)

62  Magical procedures include: undergoes an ablution or baptismal bath and miraculously changes into a semi-divine being with a new character and an altered metaphysical destiny.

An further psychoanalytic approach can be found in “Writing the Self: Selected Works of Doris Lessing“, written by Lynda Scott, Department of English, University of Otago, New Zealand


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