The Golden Notebook

by Doris Lessing

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 946

A woman writer struggling toward living an authentic life in the modern world is the focus of action for this complex novel. As the novel opens, Anna Freeman Wulf has written a commercially successful novel based on her experiences as a young woman during World War II in South Central Africa, in a country called Southern Rhodesia. Now living in London on the royalties from this novel, Anna cares for her thirteen-year-old daughter, Janet. In her role as mother, Anna finds emotional stability and meaning; some of the best scenes in the book involve Anna and her daughter. Meanwhile, Anna writes continually in her notebooks to explore the larger meaning of her life and of her writing.

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Anna keeps four separate notebooks; the entries in these notebooks occupy more than three-quarters of the total novel, and they are responsible for the complex structure of the book. The blue notebook is a diary of the daily events of her life; the red notebook is concerned with politics; the black notebook is concerned with her previous life in Africa and with her professional life as a writer; and the yellow notebook is for initial drafts and ideas for stories. Entries from all four notebooks are interspersed among the sections of ongoing action of the fictional present, the summer of 1957. Those sections by themselves constitute a short novel in which the dramatic interest revolves around Anna’s life and her relationship with her friend, Molly Jacobs. A few years earlier, Anna and her daughter Janet had shared a house with Molly and her son, Tommy; Anna now lives a half mile away, but the two women maintain their close friendship.

The nature of this friendship is one of the central subjects of the novel: Both women are divorced, and both are committed to rearing a child while living a life which is outside the traditional boundaries of society. They are both members of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and both believe in the nonmaterialistic values of a life-style which leaves them open to experiences in the world. Both women sense that their friendship is one of the key factors which enables them to survive in this life-style.

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One central event in the “Free Women” sections is the attempted suicide of Tommy, which leaves him blind. In part, Anna and Molly blame themselves for the incident, and Tommy plays upon this guilt, controlling their lives in a manner which they deeply resent but feel powerless to change. The notebook entries enable Anna to explore this suicide attempt from a number of perspectives. In her blue notebooks, her diary, she re-creates her relationship with Tommy and analyzes it directly. In her yellow notebook, she is in the process of writing a novel called “The Shadow of the Third.” Although Anna is never able to finish this novel, progress on it is important to her own development as a person. In this novel, the protagonist, a writer named Ella, is writing a novel about a young man who commits suicide. Anna is able to explore her thoughts on the actual suicide attempt by Tommy through the fictional suicide in her character Ella’s novel.

This situation is only one of the many parallels between Anna’s life and the fictional life of her protagonist Ella. Like Anna in her relationship with Molly, Ella lives with another woman, Julia. The mutual support which the women find in this friendship is a parallel development of the sisterhood theme explored in the relationship between Anna and Molly in the “Free Women” sections. Another parallel is also crucial to Anna’s development toward living an authentic life; like Anna, the fictional Ella falls deeply in love with a man who finally leaves her after their intense relationship. After her lover leaves her, Ella feels herself changing in ways which she cannot control. She becomes less self-confident, less mentally independent. In writing Ella’s story, Anna discovers that she herself has been more profoundly affected by her lover’s leaving her than she previously realized. Like Ella, after the loss of her lover, Anna becomes depressed and loses her feeling of self-confident independence.

Long passages of the blue notebook, Anna’s diary, involve a rigorous selfanalysis, which leads to the self-knowledge Anna must have to live a meaningful life. One of the most important areas of that self-knowledge evolves from Anna’s recognition that she is not experiencing the events in her life with sufficient emotion—she is closed off from her own feelings. She therefore places herself under the care of a psychoanalyst, Mrs. Marks, or Mother Sugar, as Anna calls her. Mrs. Marks tells Anna that she is suffering from a writer’s block, which keeps Anna from doing her best work. Although Anna denies this conclusion at the time, she does sense that her life is fragmented, and that she is not emotionally free to feel as she should.

The action moves toward a climax when Anna rents a room in her flat to an American writer, Saul Green. The two writers engage in an intense love affair which emotionally transforms Anna. She moves through a painful psychological barrier as her old fragmented life dies—with symptoms that indicate she is undergoing a nervous breakdown—until a new self emerges that is capable of writing. In that breakdown, Anna experiences powerful visions of the world, and of her place in the world, which are Iyrically compelling. Symbolically, her transformation is completed when she moves from writing in the four separate notebooks—an indication of her fragmented life—to writing in one notebook, the golden notebook, which contains the essence of her now-integrated self.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 718

The Golden Notebook encompasses the years 1950 through 1957. It is divided into five sections called Free Women 1-5. The first four sections contain a part of the main story (the conventional novel) and excerpts from four differently colored notebooks. The fourth section of the novel also contains the golden notebook. The last section is a straightforward ending to the main story, which presents an integrated character who no longer needs to compartmentalize experiences. When the story begins, the central character, Anna Wulf, has already published a single successful book, “Frontiers of War,” set in central Africa, detailing “colour-bar hatreds and cruelties.” This 1951 novel was so successful that Anna has been able to live off the royalties from it for the next six years while she suffers from writer’s block.

The main story line evolves around two women, Anna and Molly, who seem to be extensions of each other politically and responsively. Their common enemy is Molly’s former husband, Richard, a rich business executive who seems a perfect specimen of the British capitalist society. Richard continues to be very intrusive in Molly’s life because they share a son, Tommy. Consequently, Richard assumes a relationship with Anna that is much like his relationship with Molly. Even Richard’s second wife, Marion, becomes a part of the circle, vacillating, in an inebriated state, between Molly and Anna, trying to unburden herself of hurt feelings stemming from her bad marriage.

Once Tommy reaches the age when he should decide upon a career, he is torn between the idealistic world of his mother and Anna and the capitalistic world of tycoons. The “paralysis of the will” that Tommy suffers reaches its highest point when Tommy goes to Anna to have her confirm for him that her lifestyle, which seems to him morally superior, is truly viable. After reading Anna’s notebooks, Tommy understands the chaos awaiting a person who tries to operate outside collectives; yet he cannot formulate the proper balance necessary for advancement. In a fit of depression, Tommy shoots himself in the head. Against the odds, he survives, though he is left totally blind. Ironically, he eventually leads the life of a successful businessman and joins forces with Marion, who leaves Richard to be with him.

At the end of The Golden Notebook, Molly decides to remarry, and Anna sees the end of yet another affair. Nevertheless, Anna has gained a better understanding of herself as a result of working through dark areas of her personality with a sexual partner who was in crisis himself during their relationship. He, too, is able to heal his life.

A brief description of the contents of each of the notebooks follows:

In the black notebook, Anna gives the African background for her novel “Frontiers of War.” Although the first entry in this notebook is 1952, entries flash back to 1944. The story is a study of the cruelty of the colonial mind as seen through the eyes of the young idealist, Anna.

The red notebook is the contemporary notebook in which Anna records everyday events. It contains her present politics and gives an account of her disillusionment with the Communist Party. In it are a number of parodies of dedicated communists and newspaper clippings of such horrors as the testing of the hydrogen bomb, the bombing of Quemoy and Matsu, and the execution of the Rosenbergs in the United States.

The yellow notebook is a novel-within-the-novel. It contains Anna’s fictional, unpublished second novel, called “The Shadow of the Third.” The characters and actions in it are direct doubles for the main story.

The blue notebook is used by Anna as a diary. It contains commentary on her affiliation with the British Communist Party; details of the most intense love affair of her life, a five-year period when she truly loved a man named Michael; reports on her lengthy psychoanalysis with Mrs. Marks, whose therapy helps lead Anna into an emotional transformation when Anna has an affair with Saul Green, the man with whom she descends into chaos and learns how to self-unite.

The Golden Notebook symbolizes Anna’s ultimate recognition that experience is fluid and connected. It is the notebook that both she and Saul Green want to use. They both contribute to it, and, through it, they give each other new beginnings.

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