Doris Lessing’s The Four-Gated City

Doris Lessing
Doris Lessing

I don’t see any point in writing any more–what point has there ever been?  To whom?  What for?”–Mark Coldridge in the dystopian science fiction appendix to Doris Lessing’s The Four-Gated City

When I was 15, my best friend’s mother gave me a copy of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, an exhilarating novel that expressed, or at least imagined, my own point of view as a young feminist who had recently discovered through polemical works that marriage was not my only option.

As a tribute to Lessing, the Nobel Prize winner who died November 16, I reread The Four-Gated City, the best of her Children of Violence series (I have written at length about this series here), and the best of  her experimental novels.

In this dazzling, urgent, neglected masterpiece, Lessing maturely shapes the themes she explored in The Golden Notebook:  breakdown of personality, sex, politics, madness, raising children, and the almost random quality of thoughts in different times and political eras.

And there is a remarkable science fiction appendix, which brilliantly comments on the first 616 realistic pages of the novel.

In the first four realistic novels of the series, set in “Zambesia” (which Lessing describes as “a composite of various parts of white-dominated Africa”), Martha struggles with Communist politics and with her personality as a woman who is rebellious but nevertheless keeps marrying and making bad choices.

It is only in the fifth of these novels, The Four-Gated City, that Martha comes into her own after she comes to London.  This superb women’s odyssey follows Martha from age 30 to her death in the late 1990s.  It can be read as a stand-alone novel.

In London, Martha feels free to experiment with personality:  she  longs to become her real self, not just an actor who tries to please; she also wants to be “the watcher,” a part of her personality that she later knows would make psychiatrists think her schizophrenic.    During a very long opening sequence when she walks through London, Lessing writes in rhythmic long paragraphs, sometimes longer than a page, and we feel the rhythmic intensity of the streets as she tries to figure out what she wants to do.

She was walking along a long low street with dark trees along it, and low pools of yellowish light at intervals, consciously bracing herself against depression, when she understood that in fact that part of her mind whose intimations she courted had spread, was swallowing the rest:  she was on the verge of a sensation–no, wrong word, but what words were right?–a state then, that had been in fact the surprise of her being in London, its real gift to her.  She had learned that if she walked long enough, slept slightly enough to be conscious of her dreams, ate at random, was struck by new experience throughout the day, then her whole self cleared, lightened.  She became active and light and aware.

four-gated-city-doris-lessing-paperback-cover-artAs the book goes on, Martha needs her “self cleared”often.  She works for Mark, a writer and factory owner, as a secretary and housekeeper, and after personal tragedies, they imagine together a mythical city where human beings could live intelligently and happily. Mark writes a novel about it.

Mark, whose wife, Lynda, is in and out of mental hospitals and  lives in the basement, and whose brother, Colin, a scientist who shared information with other countries, has been labelled a traitor and fled to Russia, doesn’t “want to be split,” as he tells Martha.  He maps politics, wars, and disasters in his study, sometimes adding personal data from the writings of his wife’s roommate, Dorothy.

Lessing has a Laingian view of madness: In the basement, Lynda and Dorothy struggle with mental illness, but actually “know” things others don’t.  Martha gradually realizes that Lynda has special abilities, that if she were not held down by pills (given to her first as a girl when she admitted she heard voices), she might have been able to communicate very important things about the doomed, poisoned future of England.

When Martha first breaks down, when she realizes her mother plans to visit her in London, she visits Lynda and Dorothy.  Lynda advises her not to go to a psychiatrist, that you get “hooked in.”

You had better keep out of their hands,” said Lynda.  “That’s my advice.”

“But don’t they help–psychiatrists?”

Lynda smiled, watching Martha from large eyes surrounded by bruised flesh.  “Well,” she said.

Later in the novel, Martha deliberately breaks down when Lynda breaks down and tries not to take pills, and the two come to an understanding about the people whose “machinery has gone wrong,” due to psychiatric treatment.

So much of this novel is about illness:  I don’t share Lessing’s views on madness, but they fit in very well with the novel, and with the tragic science fiction appendix.

Lessing has so much to say about madness, wars, environmental poison, and disasters.

This is a tragic novel–I was moved to tears by the post-apocalyptic ending–and I was dismayed by Martha’s death, though she lives to old age.  I love Martha Quest.  I want to spend more time with her.  Of course I can reread.

I cannot possibly cover everything in this astonishing novel.   I may write more about it someday; on  the other hand, maybe this is enough.

6 thoughts on “Doris Lessing’s The Four-Gated City

  1. I’m currently reading Lessing’s first novel “The Grass is Singing” and finding many echoes of “The Golden Notebook” which I hadn’t expected. I really do want to read the Martha Quest books – they sound amazing!

  2. All her work is wonderful, but Martha Quest has a special place in her oeuvre. The last two in the series, Landlocked and The Four-Gated City, are great.

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