The Critical Gaze of Martha Quest: A Book Review

This summer I came to realize that my favorite books are fiction written by women from the turn of the century to the 1960s. These are the works I read with such intent and relish that I regret not studying literature in college. There is this watery quality about their prose that I seek out in all fiction, something that I cannot quite describe, but has something to do with the inward reflection of characters and the disconnect they experience with their worlds. These early century feminists write with such clarity about the hypocrisy of patriarchy and imposed cultural norms that they feel shockingly contemporary. I can relate to the women characters’ relationships with men, with their families, with their closest friends so thoroughly that it’s difficult for me not to imagine them as my own comrades, fantasizing about how they respond to the events in my own life. The novel Martha Quest by Doris Lessing especially affected me this summer, and though it comes from a far away time and place I wanted to share it with the feminists of my generation.

Doris Lessing is no doubt a controversial figure in the history of feminist writing and in my own heart. Born of British parents in Iran who later moved to a British colony in South Africa, her life is deeply rooted in western imperialism and her writing gives a unique perspective of what it is like to grow up in a society of oppressors. Martha Quest, the first novel in her Children of Violence series, was first published in 1952. The protagonist, who the book is named after, wades through poisonous social norms of British colonial South Africa with skepticism while carrying her own burden of internalized racism and sexism. Like much writing of the time, there is a constantly turbulent sea of unspoken emotion behind Martha’s gaze. She first looks critically upon the tiny, failed farm of her parents, and then upon the small city that she moves to after failing to finish her secondary school exams. Lessing openly explores the hypocrisy within Martha’s disparaging gaze. She loathes her parents’ old-fashioned attitudes, and combats them with modern books that she barely reads. Her inability to commit to reading and thinking critically about the intellectual texts lent to her by the Cohen brothers leaves her with a vague belief system, and unable to coherently argue against the stagnant social norms of the British colony. However, Lessing’s exploration of Martha’s faults does not make her less likeable. I think that most readers can relate to Martha’s malaise, her frustrations with her family and British colonial society, as well as her own self-loathing.
Lessing’s descriptions of the parties held at two gathering places, the Sports Club and McGrath’s, epitomize the oppressive attitudes of Martha’s contemporaries. Martha calls the young men and women that populate these parties the wolves and the virgins. The men lose themselves in drinking, acting recklessly while the women are expected to be coy, soft, and most importantly, mothering. The wolves assume full access to the virgins, to be able to dance, kiss, or “mess around” with them without protest. Martha becomes intensely critical of the wolves when it comes to the question of sex. While they try to enforce an environment without steady dating, full of sexual innuendo and tension, they are terrified of sexual intimacy and many refuse to engage in it until marriage. Martha first encounters this fear in her beau Donovan, who recoils from physical affection. One serious drawback of Lessing’s writing is her internalized homophobia, which in these early novels she is incapable of shedding, and appears in her characterization of Donovan. I do not think that prejudices like this are to be taken lightly, and it is important to be critical of this aspect of the book. However, I do think that Martha’s criticism of the fear of sexuality displayed by the wolves is interesting and while youth today may not shy away from sex in the same way, the messy experience she has with her first lover is easily relatable.
The current of emotions that flow through the book is so compelling that even when I felt disgusted by the characters I did not want to stop reading. Martha’s inner world of intense perception and powerful emotions are as interesting as the external world that she experiences with much more ambiguity. Often she feels led about, without making firm decisions on her own. This sentiment has been echoed between my close friends and I over the years, as we struggle to make meaningful connections between our personal beliefs and our work, relationships, or our studies. In this way, Martha Quest was sometimes an uncomfortable read as I was confronted by the reminder of my own oscillation between passion and ambivalence. However, books that force me to examine my own behavior are always memorable and useful to me, and I would love to see this story rediscovered, relished, and criticized by feminists today.

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