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Martha Martha | Summary and Analysis

Summary of Martha, Martha by Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith’s 2003 short story “Martha, Martha” was first featured in the magazine Granta 81. The postcolonial waves of self-exploration and dreams hit the shore of global culture and community. The author employs her flamboyant penmanship to create a narrative that opts to reveal less but compels the readers to interpret more. The encounter between the two protagonists- Martha Penk and Pam Roberts is not merely a client-realtor meeting. It digs deeper into their seemingly different attitudes towards their surroundings while also tracing some similarities between them. Smith’s preoccupation with displacement, immigration, cultural hybridity, self-growth and overcoming the past lies in weaving a plot that focuses on a house hunt by an indecisive and economically restrained Martha with the services of Pam in the snow-bound Massachusetts. 


Martha, Martha | Summary

The story commences with Pam Roberts- an estate agent in Massachusetts who is waiting for her client Martha Penks who is originally from England and of Nigerian descent. Pam encounters other men who apparently belong to Mideast looking for the temping agency. They mistake her office due to architectural arrangement. She meets Martha and she attempts to kick start a conversation like every agent to learn about a prospective client. But Martha’s behaviour is rather cold and distant. They do not share similar opinions on classical music or the expensive hotel The Charles where Martha is residing temporarily. The budget constraints concerning the house also trouble Martha but Pam assures a space for negotiation with the owners of the house she wishes to show her. They travel to an Asian professor’s house which is huge but old and smelly. Pam tries her best to convince herself about the beauty and size of the house with Professor Henrin’s impressive educational qualifications. However, Martha dismisses the house owing to her limitations on rent as well as the size. She desires to have a two-bedroom house with a garden. 

Pam further drives Martha to another neighbourhood where she witnesses two men who are the same people accidentally arriving at her office earlier that day. They are playing with snow and Pam presumes their excitement as their first encounter with the white beauty of nature. The house Martha is up for looking next belongs to an interracial couple- a Moroccan man Yousef married to an American woman Amelia and they have a girl named Lily. They are a welcoming couple who hope for Martha’s positive decision. Though Amelia’s approaches towards her are warm and friendly, Martha tends to not let her guard down. Instead, she moves to suspect the house and in a twist of emotions, she locks herself in the bathroom and cries profusely looking at a picture of a black man with a small boy she takes out of her pocket. 

Pam and the couple wait for her to move forward with the formalities assuming Martha’s satisfaction regarding the house. On the contrary, Martha leaves the premises in denial and an affirmation to seek out a single-bedroom house. The story concludes with Martha moving out and the Middle-East men playing with snow laughing and communicating in their tongues. 


Martha, Martha | Analysis

The story is narrated by a third-person narrator who holds a bias toward Pam’s point of view in the initial sections of the story. Some instances to support the claim include the narrator’s comment on the “demotic mystery language” of the Middle-Eastern men, Pam’s overwhelming response to Martha’s clothes and her subtle criticism of the English accents as she is unaware “which were high class, which not. Or whether high class meant money at all.” Adding to it, the italicisation of certain words represents Pam’s view of the world which is individualistic and momentary. Words and phrases like “Requiem,” “there you go,’ “It’s not you, dear, it’s them—people always come here by mistake,” “breakfast,” “God,” “moment,” “plenty,” “I am just the biggest fan of music” and many more do not reveal the real intent behind their italicisation. Further, the chatty style of writing through words like “sort of,” “such,” “very very,” “really” and “kinds of” stress out important things during the conversation between the characters. The presence of incomplete sentences and pauses also contribute to the conversational style of writing. 

Looking at the construction of the narrative as a whole, vagueness and ambiguity shadow it all over. There are subtle hints indicating the story’s setting as sometime after the 9/11 attacks when Pam claims-

“Well, I suppose at my age, Martha, and especially in the light of the events of last September, I just think you have to make things work for you, work for you personally, because life is really too short, and if they don’t work, you just have to go ahead…”

Whether Pam is personally affected by the terror and trauma of the attacks is a subject to conjecture, but Martha’s indifference to it is clear.  Additionally, the love poem in the concluding sections of the story accelerates the uncertainty through images from Martha’s past by delivering a partial aspect. It begins with an address to Martha similar to the title of the story, calling her attention and following a consistent “aa” rhyme pattern. Martha’s abrupt exit after reading the poem makes her a difficult character to interpret. She guards herself underneath various layers which the readers do not get a chance to dig deep into. The only inference one can draw from her assertion to occupy a single bedroom instead of a two is the hopelessness of her past in entering her future. Earlier, she demands a two-bedroom house with a garden because she expects people to visit if they wished it. But after witnessing the happy couple with their daughter, she agonises at the loss of her own happy family which might never return. The man and the boy in the photograph are not specified either as dead or alive. One can also assume Martha to have abandoned them to pursue her dreams of achieving big. There is no concrete proof and thus there are multiple readings of the story. But what is definite is a constant sense of ‘othering’ by Pam in her patronising tone. For instance, when she encounters the two Middle-East men playing with the snow, she comments- “You know, Martha, they’ve probably never seen snow. Isn’t that amazing—what a thing to see!” Her romantic notion about the moment blurs her vision she fails to see the reality behind the idleness of the two men. Landing a job in a new country is not a child’s play, especially if one is not a refined speaker of the dominant language. She also addresses the immigrants in a maternal fashion such as “dear” and “cute.” 

Despite all the judgments and differences the story presents between Pam and other characters, one similarity connects her with Martha- they both are not with their respective partners. While the reason for the latter is known, the former chooses to keep it hidden behind the curtains. Smith’s narrative is a powerful vocation of ideas rooted in a postcolonial understanding of identity and culture which sometimes gets marred by the politics of the day. 

Martha, Martha | Themes


Multiculturalism – The story introduces various characters belonging to different cultures and interacting with each other in the world’s most powerful economic nation. Pam is an American who meets Martha, an English-born Nigerian woman seeking accommodation. She also encounters Middle-East men looking for temporary jobs. As a realtor, she suggests the houses of an Asian professor named Henrin and an interracial couple Yousef, a Moroccan man and Amelia who is American to Martha. With diverse ethnicities intermingling together, Smith presents a society where the possibility for various cultures to co-exist is no more a dream. 

However, as a privileged white woman, Pam often comes across as a patronising character unenlightened by the politics of the day. Her casual remarks lack substance when Martha interrogates Pam on the presence of black students in the university and nearby residential areas. She replies :

 “Well, of course there are students of colour, dear! I see them all the time—I mean, even before the affirmative action and all of that—I mean, there’s always been the basketball scholarships and the rest—though it’s much, much better now of course. They’re completely here on their own steam now. Lots of Chinese young people too, and Indian, many. Many! Oh, there’s plenty, plenty of people of colour here, you’ll see.” 

Pam attempts to sound politically correct to Martha but miserably fails in her endeavour. Blacks are still looked down upon as a community operating on low-income resources which becomes a subject of concern for Pam as she demands transparency on Martha’s credible source of income to finance her rent.   Also, Pam not only interacts with people from multiple ethnicities but also accommodates different cultures in her office as well. She wears Chinese slippers, listen to Mozart and there is a lithograph of Venice. A multicultural hub resides within her place of work but she still somehow fails to approach cultural issues in a sensitive fashion. Apart from Pam, the Moroccan-American couple also contributes to the multi-culture setting in the story through their Arabic styling of the house and spicy food in the kitchen which seems foreign to Martha.

Further, Smith provides authenticity to her characters by lending space to practice their dialects. The narrator describes the architectural design of Pam’s building as “higgledy-piggledy arrangement” and her agency as a “dinky realty business” in the true spirit of a presumable American narrator at the beginning of the story. Middle Eastern men ask Pam “This temping agency?” that deviates from standard American English in a heavy accent, quickly identifiable as Middle-Easterny. Even Martha’s speech pattern when she expresses the high costs of living in a hotel- “It costs too much, man, I just arksed the taxi.” This casual and British tonality gives her personality distinctness that also evidences her mixed race. 

The issue of the race again becomes a centre of attention after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre. Professor Herrin who according to Pam is an “expert on relations between the races” is living in New York to advise on countering the situation. A thoughtful and tactful approach is the need of the hour which Pam fails to adopt into her own personality.  

Postcolonial Identity – As a woman born in England but whose parents migrated from Nigeria, Martha’s character is subject to a postcolonial interpretation of who migrates to the States to dream and achieve big, leaving her homeland. The entire story focuses on her venture to find a new home away from her home. She is a newcomer in a big country that, at the moment, is coping with the aftermath of a deadly terror attack. 

There are instances in the story where the narrator stresses the confusion clouding Martha concerning her actual desires and wishes. At one point in time, she fails to comprehend what she wants. This displacement is not restricted to the physical space she occupies but spreads out further to her identity. Is she a Nigerian or a British? Will she become American in a few years? There are no answers to such questions. The readers only learn that Martha plans to achieve something in her life. But it seems only plausible if she successfully overcomes her past in order to design a better future. 

 Past – Memories never abandon one. They are always present as a constant reminder of the bitter and sweet moments spent with loved ones. While Martha still lingers on to her past through a photograph that does not reveal much about her contemporary relationship with the man and the boy in it, her closeness to them is undeniable. She longs to move on from her past whereas Pam, who is a divorcee, becomes an emblem of living in the present. Even she has a past which meets her present in the form of a driver passing through her old house which now has her husband living with a new woman. She is not the guilty party in the relationship that ended years ago and so lives her life seemingly devoid of deeper emotions that are required to understand other humans. On the other hand, Martha’s cries suggest a possibility of her guilty position in her relationship but nothing could be said concretely. Her exit from the house towards the end of the story gives room for speculation about her past. 


Martha, Martha | Characters


Martha – She is a twenty-two-year-old English woman with African ancestry who appears mysterious, distant and cold to anyone attempting to communicate with her. The narrator views her as someone not highly rich as she wears a “cheap-looking grey trouser suit and some fake pearls [which] were conspiring to make her older than she was.” There is an aspirational and dreamy side to her personality too which reveals itself in small chats with Pam who believes the “girl had a manner that was all itinerary, charmless and determined.” She prefers classical music in contrast to Pam who equalises all kinds of music. 

Often she is living in a world of distraction and Pam pulls her out into reality. An air of mystery surrounds her that leads the readers to crave for learning about her past and her aim for coming to the States. However, a snippet of her past conveying the presence of a man and a child in her life alters the story’s course of direction and her decision to not look for a two-bedroom house with a garden anymore concludes the story on an ambiguous note, refusing to spill on the after events. 


Pam Roberts – She is a real estate agent working in Massachusetts who is presumably middle-aged as she wears glasses. Born in Midwest and now working on the East Coast, she encounters people with varying attitudes. As a realtor, she practices the art of rhetoric and always presents herself in an appealing fashion often without realising her outright and judgemental remarks. She doesn’t really know anything about classical music, unlike Martha. 

Her failure to understand Martha baffles her and to some extent, even frustrates her. She is a divorcee and unknown to her, Martha too shares a similar past in its resonance with the presence of a partner in their lives. She is a woman who perceives reality available on the surface without even inspecting what’s beneath it. Her opinions are prejudicial which reflects her ignorance about the immigrant situations and their feelings. 


Yousef and Amelia – He is a charming curly-haired Moroccan man with light brown eyes who cherishes cooking. He is married to a very skinny and freckled Amelia and they together have a girl Lily. Their interracial house is a blend of cultures which they have put up for rent to facilitate their journey to Morocco. Amelia is sensitive to the issues pertaining to immigrants which Pam clearly fails to perceive. She is accommodating and friendly towards Martha. The happy couple unintentionally opens certain pages of history for Martha who revisits them in private and turns emotional. Their prospective tenant refuses to rent their apartment and leaves their premises without spilling any details about her decision.


Martha, Martha | Literary Devices


In the winter of Massachusetts, the “first snows were due” which is compared to an “opening performance of a show.” 


There are multiple instances of Simile in the narrative to make it a more pleasurable read. 

  1. On her way to meet Pam, Martha’s boots allow her to put “her weight on their edges like an ice skater [as] she seemed to waver between two doorways.” The buttons on her red coat look “like rusty spare change.” Also, the snowflakes outside Professor Henrin’s house fall on the ebony sheen of Martha’s hair “like dusting on a chocolate cake.” Her straight and cold posture renders her comparison to a snow globe where she is “a figure in a plastic snowstorm.” The picture she secretly cries her heart out to has “a grinning, long-lashed boy, about eighteen months old, with a head like a polished ackee nut.”The Middle-East man who accidentally arrives at Pam’s office mistaking it to be a temping agency stands “bent at the knees like a shortstop” in exhaustion after climbing an uncountable flight of stairs.
  2. Pam’s all-black and loose repetitive set of clothing are “like a fat Zen monk.” Her attempt to reach over to her stereo in her office is “like a woman with one foot each in two drifting boats.” Furthermore, an interrogation concerning the black students by Martha leaves her still like a scarecrow who doesn’t know how to approach a politically sensitive question. 



  1. Martha’s “head was out there in the open air” after she opens the windows in Pam’s office. This reflects her efforts to escape from the hidden claustrophobic emotions she surrounds herself with. 
  2. The winters lay everything out for the house hunters “like a promise, delayed for summer; bleached porches, dead gardens, naked trees, a sky-blue clapboard house, its rose-pink neighbour” which the realtors explain how they’ll look once the sun shines down on them. 



The musical rendition playing in Pam’s office by Mozart is “swelling behind her” suggesting its high volume. 



As the two protagonists head out of the estate office, “a plane roared low like some prehistoric bird, Pam shuddered; Martha did not move.” Pam’s reaction is an outcome of the events of 9/11 whereas Martha is indifferent to it as she is a recent immigrant to the States who luckily does not harbour a direct impact of that horrific day. 



A Biblical reference to the magical substance that becomes a supplement to all the Israelites, Smith refers to the heavy snowfall as “massive, consistent and quick, as if the snow was not merely falling but being delivered, like manna, because people needed it.”



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