Finally, I have read my first Doris Lessing novel. I admit, it may not have been the best one to wet my feet.
The Four-Gated City is the final book of a five-book series called the “Children of Violence.” I didn’t read the first four but only the last. I felt as if I was doing what I told myself I would never do anymore when I was fifteen: like I was reading the last pages of the novel before beginning it.
Lessing is touted as a major British writer for a reason. I see that clearly. Her exploration of Martha Quest’s psychology is intricately bound to a complex critique of the political climate in post-World War II Britain. Not having read the earlier novels of the series, I was pleased to find that I could jump onto the caravan and understand the story.
Firstly, The Four-Gated City is a novel about ways of being — and of knowing oneself. Quest is a receptor (“recording instrument”) for other characters’ personas as she struggles to locate exactly who (what) she is. She used to be a “communist” but isn’t anymore. So what is she now? Now she is a middle-aged woman in the 1950s coming to terms with her ravaged past: a shady childhood, a failed marriage, a dead second husband (apparently), a lost daughter. This past coincides with the past of her nations of South Africa and Britain (this “country where people could not communicate across the dark that separated them”). Like these nations she is without a clear identity or direction. As she meets people she drifts into new (or old) ways of being. At one moment she may assume the pesona of “Matty” (who she created “as an act of survival”), at another she is Phyllis Jones, at another she is the “Watcher,” an anonymous body used for sex, or a corporeal “machine.”
She maintains a sense of dislocation until a house finds her.
Martha Quest is a woman who has been on the run and has finally settled down in a house that seems to hold her hostage. Mark’s house is, like Quest, an empty space filled with ways of being. Like the unfathomable house in The House of Leaves, Mark’s space eats memory and consumes identity. Yet, it also reveals the darkest secrets, locates the hidden fears, and pushes the boundaries of human capacity. For Quest this means that she, by plugging into the space and into the many people who inhabit it, is closer to understanding who “Martha Quest” is. She is no one. Like her nations, like every nation, she is devoid of meaning.
So secondly The Four-Gated City is a story about madness because when any character gets close to a Nietzchian perspective about self-identity then insanity is on the table. Lynda, Mark’s estranged wife who lives alternately in asylums and in the basement of the house, is the alter-ego of Martha (but then, so is every character). Like Martha’s mother and Marth herself, Lynda is the “madwoman in the basement,” which is altogether different than the “madwoman in the attic” that Gilbert and Gubar applied to Victorian prototypes.
Not that Lessing has wandered very far from the “Victorian,” mind you.
The “madwoman in the basement” is at the bottom — not the top — of the household hierarchy. She is the foundation, the stability, in a weird way. For example, I thought at first that Lynda was a wrecker. She hates to be touched by her husband (and he pines pathetically for her), she is incapable of being a proper mother to her son Frances, she even seems to desire her bouts of “insanity” to a certain extent. These characteristics seem, on the surface, to wreak havoc on the home. Then I came to understand that she is, in fact, the glue that holds the family — the “self,” if you’re Martha Quest — together. Maybe she’s doing a shabby job. After all, the “family” is not what anyone would call functional. Yet, its disfunction is precisely the thing that dymystifies the “haunted” house. Lynda’s madness is, really, the only functional thing. It is so functional that Quest adopts it — uses it — in order to find her way out of psychological imprisonment. The story ends and she leaves the house. True, she may be the only one (Paul and Frances may have moved to new homes but they are the same as Mark’s), but Quest has finally found a way out.
When Quest’s quest ends, one thing seems clear. There are no children.
Thirdly, The Four-Gated City is about the absence of children. This is strange, because children populate the plot. There’s Frances, the son of Mark and Lynda who eventually marries Phoebe’s daugther and has children with her — and raises her two children from other relations — before she leaves him for a new lover. There’s Paul whose mother has killed herself and whose father has fled the country and remarried to have children in Russia. Lessing takes time to tell the stories of these children and all of their friends. Children plague the pages of the novel. Yet, she is quick to acknowledge that “England was no longer a place to bring children up.” The earliest scene of the novel finds Quest noting the proliferation of signs that read “Danger: No Children.” Children are restricted from the nation, yet they overun the pages of the novel.
Lessing’s series is called the “Children of Violence” but The Four-Gated City frames children whose violence dwindles to a barely audible meow by the end. The lack of violence screams almost as loudly as the lack of children. At the end, the children are gone. At the end, the nation is sick. At the end, there is an Appendix in which Lessing has included letters from grown children to grown children.
The novel is a hodge-podge that sometimes is brilliant. Are children the nation? Is the nation violent? Lessing suggests that the answer to both questions is yes. Martha Quest has no identity. She ends by maintaining that. She also has no children.