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The Golden Notebook

The Golden Notebook




Doris Lessing's novel The Golden Notebook, with its themes and setting reflecting the attitudes of the 1950s, was published in 1962. It is considered the author's most significant work. The form of the novel, and its topics, were praised by some and scorned by others when the book was first released. Over time, however, scholars have recognized that The Golden Notebook was published ahead of its time. Indeed, the novel experiments with chronological sequence and narrative voice, and it deconstructs language as an endeavor to search for meaning and truth. All of these experimental aspects became the principle elements of the postmodernist movement that followed the book's publication. The Golden Notebook also touches on feminist issues that were only just beginning to be debated at the time it was published. Additionally, the book openly discusses the protagonist, Anna, as being attracted to communism (a social theory that stresses that the economic goods of a society should be managed by the laborers who produce those goods and that a society's wealth should be distributed equally among its citizens). At the same time, however, Anna is dissatisfied with communism as a practice.

Lessing's novel is experimental and sometimes difficult to read. What holds it together is the author's skillful treatment of language and her sensitivity to her characters. The GoldenNotebook, some fifty years after it was first written, still strikes powerful chords. It probes women's identities, the value of male and female relationships, the ability of language to accurately communicate experience, the definition of sanity, the power that one person has to affect his or her world, and the value and purpose of literature. These are universal themes that may never be fully exhausted.

A recent edition of The Golden Notebook was printed by HarperCollins in 1999.


Lessing was born on October 22, 1919, in Kermanshah, Persia (now Iran) to British parents, Emily Maude McVeagh and Alfred Cook Taylor. According to Lessing's biographer, Carole Klein, Lessing's mother had been expecting a boy and was so disappointed her baby was a girl, she could not think of a name for the child. The physician attending the birth suggested the name Doris.

In 1925, when Lessing was six years old, her family moved to a farm in Rhodesia (now called Zimbabwe). Lessing attended a convent school until she was thirteen, when her formal education ended. When Lessing was nineteen, she married Frank Wisdom and gave birth to two children in quick succession (a son and a daughter). She divorced Wisdom in 1943, leaving him to care for their children. Two years later, she married Gottfried Lessing, a central figure in the local Communist Party and a refugee from Nazi Germany. They had a son, Peter.

In 1947, Lessing completed her first novel but had trouble finding a publisher. She also wrote many short stories about her experiences in Africa. In 1949, after divorcing her second husband, Lessing moved to London with Peter. A year later, her first novel, The Grass is Singing, was finally published. From then on, Lessing was able to live on the money she made as a writer. Upon the success of The Golden Notebook (1962), Lessing's role as a major British author was confirmed.

Regular topics in Lessing's writing include cultural conflicts, political conflicts, and psychological conflicts; in particular, her work often focuses on the conflicts between men and women. Lessing

also reflects on the social pressures of conformity and mental breakdown in her novels Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971) and The Summer before the Dark (1973). After reading about the spiritual principles set forth by Sufism, and those set forth in the Bible and the Koran, she began writing science fiction to reflect upon what she had learned, such as in her novel The Marriages between Zones Three, Four, and Five (1980).

During her career as a writer, Lessing has won many awards, including the Somerset Maugham Award in 1954 for her book Five: Short Novels; and the James Tait Black Prize in 1995 for Under My Skin, the first volume of her autobiography (the second volume is Walking in the Shade (1997)). In 2001, Lessing was awarded the David Cohen Memorial Prize for British Literature. The following year, she received the S. T. Dupont Golden PEN Award for a Lifetime's Distinguished Service to Literature. In 2007, Lessing was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.


Free Women: 1


The Golden Notebook is divided into six sections. Five sections are further subdivided into a storyline and into entries from the notebooks of the protagonist, Anna Wulf.

Anna is visiting with Molly Jacobs as the story opens. The two friends live in London. Anna and Molly refer to themselves as free women because they are not tied down by social conventions. Molly is an actress and Anna is a writer.

Richard Portmain, Molly's ex-husband, arrives to talk about Tommy, Molly and Richard's son. Molly and Richard were divorced after a year of marriage, and Tommy has been living with his mother. There is mention of Richard's second wife, Marion, who is very unhappy with Richard's blatant extramarital affairs.

Molly, Richard, and Anna are concerned about Tommy. He is almost twenty years old, and sits on his bed all day thinking. Richard, a very successful businessman, has offered Tommy a job in one of his international corporations.

Molly, Anna, and Richard point out the differences between Richard and the women but also the subtle differences between Molly, who is outgoing and a dilettante (or poser) in the arts, and Anna, who is subdued, introspective, and a true artist.

Tommy appears and turns down his father's job offer, explaining that he is trying to determine who he is. Tommy has been influenced by his mother and Anna but he is not like them, and he does not want to be like his father because Richard is completely defined by his job.

Richard and Tommy leave without anything being resolved. Molly and Anna discuss Anna's writer's block. Anna has published one bestselling novel, Frontiers of War. Now Anna writes only in notebooks that she does not want anyone to see. She has become frustrated by the form of the traditional novel and wants to experiment with writing that is somehow more truthful. She hopes her journal writing will show her how to do this.

Anna returns home and begins to describe her notebooks.


Anna has four different notebooks: black, red, yellow, and blue. The black notebook contains Anna's reflections about her novel and her experiences living in southern Rhodesia—the experiences that inspired her novel. In this notebook, she has recorded her thoughts about communism and the different relationships she had while in Africa, where she lived during World War II. Anna's friends Paul Blackenhurst and Jimmy McGrath are both in the military. Anna is also friends with Maryrose, a young, white African woman, and Willi Rodde, a refugee from Germany. Although Anna and Willi begin living together, Anna states neither she nor Willi really like one another.

Most of the action in these first passages occurs at the Mashopi Hotel, a place in the Rhodesian countryside. On weekends, the group of friends drives out to the Mashopi, where they get very drunk and discuss sex and politics. Parts of their discussions involve the racial situation in colonized Africa.

One particular weekend at the Mashopi Hotel, Paul tells Jackson, the black cook at the hotel, indicates that the racial oppression is not as bad in other countries as it is in Africa. Mrs. Boothby, the wife of the hotel owner, is threatened by this and bans Paul from the kitchen. When she catches Jackson and Paul together again, Mrs. Boothby fires Jackson, who had worked for her for fifteen years. The group of friends leaves and never returns to the hotel.


  • A video of Lessing reading excerpts from The Golden Notebook is called Doris Lessing Reads: The Golden Notebook. It was recorded in 1986 and was released by Caedmon (a division of HarperCollins).

The red notebook begins with Anna's involvement with the Communist Party in England. Most of the entries in this notebook are about Anna's reflections on Communist philosophy or her frustrations with the way that philosophy is put to work.

The yellow notebook begins as if it were a novel, the main characters of which are Julia (who represents Molly) and Ella (who represents Anna). Ella works at a women's magazine. Ella's boss is Patricia Brent, who is editor of the magazine. At a party, Ella meets Paul Tanner, a psychiatrist. Paul is married, and he and Ella begin an affair that will last five years. Ella feels that Paul is the first man she has ever loved. As the story in the yellow notebook continues, Ella's affair with Paul disintegrates. Paul goes to Nigeria, and Ella expects Paul to ask her to join him. He does not.

While pondering her story in the yellow notebook, Anna mentions Michael, a man with whom she is having an affair. It seems that Paul represents Michael.

The blue notebook's entries recount Anna's relationship with Max (called Willi in the black notebook) who is Anna's ex-husband and the father of Anna's daughter, Janet. Anna also writes about Mrs. Marks, the therapist who Anna began to see when she could no longer write. The blue notebook then switches back and forth between Mrs. Marks and Michael, and then to news accounts of the day—war, peace talks, and the Cold War between the United States and Russia.

The first section of Lessing's novel ends with the suggestion that Anna's therapy sessions with Mrs. Marks are over and that Anna will be able to write again.

Free Women: 2


Molly telephones Anna because she is concerned about Tommy. When Anna hangs up the phone, she hears footsteps and sees Tommy, who wants to talk. While she listens, Anna feels that Tommy is accusing her and Molly for the way they have influenced his life. Tommy reads parts of Anna's notebooks without asking permission, then leaves without achieving any resolution. Later, Molly calls Anna and tells her that Tommy has shot himself in the head. He is in the hospital and is not expected to live.


In the black notebook, Anna records attempts by movie and television producers to buy the film rights to her novel. However, the directors want to make changes to the story, and suggest that it could become a romance. Another producer wants to set the story in England rather than in Africa and change the racial components to differences in class and wealth. Someone else wants to turn the novel into a musical. Anna turns down all of these offers. Although she could use the money, she believes she must stay true to her story.

The red notebook entries begin as Anna meets with a group of writers who are members of the Communist Party. She is disturbed by what is happening in the Party. Many members disregard reports that Stalin is a murderer because they do not want to face the failures of the Communist system. As a result, no one is willing to criticize Stalin, though many members realize that what they are writing and publishing is not based on the truth. Their inability to openly admit this makes Anna angry with them and with herself.

The yellow notebook returns to Ella, who is depressed because Paul has left her. Ella's boss, Patricia, suggests that Ella go to Paris to interview the editor of a French magazine. In Paris, Ella realizes how much Paul has hindered her life. She had, without being aware of it, become dependent on Paul. While she considers herself a free woman, Ella realizes she is not much better off than any of the sad married women whom she meets, women who have lost themselves in meaningless and unfulfilling marriages, women who are not free.

On her flight home, Ella meets an American doctor, Cy Maitland, and the next evening she meets him for dinner. Cy is married with five children. After dinner, they end up in bed. Ella is surprised by her objective stance with Cy. She is not emotionally involved and therefore is able to sexually satisfy him without the need to love him or even be sexually satisfied by him. Her satisfaction only stems from his. She feels more in control this way.

In the blue notebook, Anna records that she feels tension between her role as a mother to her daughter and her role as Michael's lover. Michael is jealous of Anna's attention to her daughter, so Anna tries to schedule his visits at times when her daughter will not need her. Also, Anna senses that Michael is about to end their affair. Nevertheless, on an evening when Michael is supposed to come see her, she dresses herself in an outfit that he likes and prepares dinner for him. Michael does not show up and shortly afterward ends the relationship.

Anna attempts to record all the details of her life in this journal as simply and as honestly as she can. She focuses on writing about one day to see if she is capable of capturing the reality of her actions through words. By the end of the day, when she rereads her entry, she draws lines through it, canceling it out. The experiment, for Anna, was a failure. After scoring through her words, Anna writes one paragraph, a synopsis of the day, listing only the barest details without any reflection. Neither version satisfies her.

Free Women: 3


Tommy does not die, but his gunshot wound leaves him blind. Although he seems to be adjusting well, Molly and Anna sense that this is not truly the case. It seems as if Tommy is happy with his new situation and is using it to punish Molly and Anna. He has also developed a strong intuitive sense that allows him to read Molly's and Anna's minds. The women become uncomfortable around him, unable to speak confidentially with one another. Molly feels trapped by him. Anna feels guilty. She worries that Tommy shot himself because of something he read in her notebooks.

Meanwhile, Richard's second wife, Marion, stops drinking and spends every day with Tommy. Tommy, in turn, encourages Marion to become stronger and to make decisions for herself. Richard does not like the effect Tommy has on Marion and calls Anna for help, telling her that Marion has all but abandoned her children and him. Richard feels hurt, but he is also somewhat relieved. Since Marion has left him, Richard decides to divorce Marion and marry his secretary, Jean.


In the black notebook Anna recounts a memory. While at the Mashopi Hotel, Paul has gone hunting, at Mrs. Boothby's request, for pigeons so she can make a meat pie. The group of friends goes with him but are later sickened by the smell of blood and death.

In another section, Anna has pasted published reviews of her novel up in her house. All the reviews are from Communist publications. They all find fault with her work but encourage her to continue writing so she can improve.

The red notebook tells of new hope in the Communist Party following the Stalin's death. Members are energized with thoughts of refurbishing the Party. Anna becomes enlivened at first and then becomes disillusioned as nothing really changes.

The story of Ella continues in the yellow notebook. Ella promises herself that she will not go to bed with a man unless she can potentially have romantic feelings for him. Nevertheless, she continues to sleep with men she does not care for. Ella and Julia discuss the cost of being free women. Men are aroused by them because they are not their wives, but neither Julia nor Ella get any deep sexual satisfaction from their affairs because they are loveless encounters.

There is a change in the style of writing in the blue notebook. Anna records only very dry details, such as the date of her birth, her maiden name (which is Anna Freeman), and other details of her life. In another entry, Anna states that she is a new type of woman, one that has never before existed. She feels cracks developing inside of her. This means her new personality is ready to emerge, she tells Mrs. Marks.

It is at this point that Anna defines how she has divided her writing in the notebooks. The black one is meant to focus on Anna Wulf, the writer. The red one is devoted to politics. The yellow is an exercise in making up stories that reflect real experiences. The black one is like a diary.

Anna writes that she is losing her hold on who she is. Words are no longer making sense to her. If words have lost their meaning, than she, as a writer, is also losing meaning. She starts to feel that she is nothing, and this frightens her.

Free Women: 4


Marion moves into Molly's house. Marion takes Tommy to a political rally, during which they are arrested. Richard and Molly want Anna to talk to Marion and Tommy because Richard is embarrassed by the news coverage of the story and Molly is concerned for Tommy's safety during the protests. Anna agrees, though she has no idea what to say. When she gets to the house, she first meets with Marion before meeting with Tommy. Anna says things and reacts as if she were watching herself from a distance. Anna does not know why, but Tommy miraculously drops his hostile stance against both herself and Molly. Richard and Molly visit Anna later, asking how she persuaded Tommy to change his attitude.


The black notebook contains a recurring theme, Anna's novel being turned into a disastrous movie. The entry ends with the statement that Anna is closing this notebook, and will not write in it any longer.

The red notebook contains information about Jimmy, one of Anna's friends from her earlier years in Africa. Jimmy tells Anna a story about Harry Mathews, a British teacher and Communist who becomes obsessed with Russia. Mathews learns to speak Russian and compiles a detailed history of Russian Communism. He believes the post-Stalin Communist Party officials will ask him to help guide them in their search for a new identity for the Party, though this never comes to pass.

Then Anna records several ideas for future short stories and novels that she hopes to write, all dealing with relationships between various types of men and women. This is a departure from other entries in the red notebook, which formerly focused exclusively on politics.

The blue notebook records a very long entry about a new man in Anna's life, Saul Green. Saul is a disturbed man, and he uses women and then hurts them when they become emotionally affected by him. Saul and Anna enter into an affair, which drags Anna further into a mental breakdown. With Saul, Anna loses her connection with reality. She moves in and out of different personalities, much like Saul does. Her emotions swing from depression to euphoria. She suffers from recurrent nightmares. At the end of the blue notebook, Anna states that she has bought a new golden notebook and will lock away her other four notebooks. When Saul sees the new golden notebook, he asks for it. Anna refuses to give it to him.

The Golden Notebook

Anna becomes further detached from herself and her surroundings and states that sanity is based on enjoying the simple pleasures of the senses, which she is no longer able to do. She tells Saul that they are not good for one another and that she is not strong enough to make him leave. Saul says she must write and forces her to try. He provides the first sentence of a new novel that she will write. This sentence is the first sentence in Lessing's The Golden Notebook. Anna decides to give the golden notebook to Saul and recites the first sentence that he will need to use to begin his own novel.

Free Women: 5


Anna, in an attempt to reconnect with the world around her, develops a voracious appetite for newspapers. She cuts out articles and pins them to the walls. Soon, the main room of her flat is covered in newspaper clippings. She is surrounded by words, but language cannot capture the world, and it can no longer express her feelings. She continues to sense that she is going mad but knows that when her daughter comes home, Anna's role as a mother will bring her back to sanity. In the meantime, she allows herself the freedom to flounder. Molly calls one day and sends an American named Milt over to rent one of Anna's rooms. Milt is stronger and more confident than Saul, but in many ways he is a reflection of Saul (or maybe he is Saul and Anna is using a different name to refer to him). Milt stays with Anna for a short time. At first, he tears down all the newspaper clippings so Anna will not go mad, then he tells her that he cannot make love to her. He leaves shortly afterward, when Anna suggests that he should go.

The novel ends with Molly and Anna discussing Molly's upcoming wedding to a businessman who has a lot of money. Molly's fiancé is only mentioned in passing, and he is never named. Molly states that Tommy, her son, has taken over his father's business. Anna will no longer write, she says, and she has accepted a job counseling married women. The two women part with a kiss.


Paul Blackenhurst

Paul is one of the airmen who is stationed in Africa. He flies missions to Germany during World War II. When he is not flying, he spends his time with Anna and her group of friends. Paul is very outspoken and taunts Mrs. Boothby, who manages the Mashopi Hotel. Paul also befriends Jackson, the African cook at the hotel. Paul tries to tell Jackson that he could declare his rights as a human being if he did not live in colonial Africa. Paul dies before the end of the war. He gets drunk one day and walks into the propellers of a plane.

June Boothby

June is the Boothby's teenaged daughter. When a young man appears one day, June becomes very enthralled by him. She disappears during the night and when she returns she announces that she is engaged. Anna and Maryrose remember their own adolescence and announce that they are glad they never have to revisit that period of their lives again.

Mr. Boothby

Mr. Boothby is the owner of the Mashopi Hotel and, despite his gruffness, he welcomes Anna and her group, fixing them late night dinners even after the kitchen has been closed. He is hard on his wife, which, Paul points out, is the way some women like to be treated.

Mrs. Boothby

Mrs. Boothby, along with her husband, runs the Mashopi Hotel in Africa. She is a bigoted woman who believes white people are more evolved than black people. Mrs. Boothby accommodates Anna and her friends, cooking them the British food that they miss, but she does not appreciate it when they try to liberate black Africans, particularly her own employee. Mrs. Boothby represents England, not only with the food she prepares, but with the attitudes that many British colonizers held towards black Africans.

Patricia Brent

Patricia is a fictional character from Anna's yellow notebook. She is an editor at the magazine where Ella works. Patricia is not married and has affairs with married men, like Ella (and Anna).


A character in Anna's yellow notebook, Ella is Anna's alter ego. Although she changes the names of the characters in Ella's life, it is clear that Ella, a single mother who has an affair with a doctor, as well as several other men, is meant to represent Anna. Indeed, Anna uses Ella to reflect on and interpret her own life experiences.

Maryrose Fowler

Maryrose is mostly described in terms relating to her feminine charms. She is beautiful, demure, and sexually attractive. She is the only other female in Anna's group of friends in Africa. Maryrose often does not make comments when the others discuss Communism, but when she does, she helps to sort out the confused communications between the rest of the group. Most of the men want to go to bed with her. However, Maryrose is still consumed by a love affair she had with her brother, who later died.

Saul Green

By the time Saul Green enters the story, Anna has lost most of her connection to the real world, so it is not clear if Saul is real or if he is an imaginary reflection of Anna's thoughts. Saul meets Anna when he comes to her home to rent a room. He is a very confused and sick young man. Despite this, Anna goes to bed with him. They have a very troubling relationship, and they always communicate through anger. Saul only likes women who do not like or need him. Saul is the worst example of every man that Anna has ever had an affair with, and he encourages Anna's slide into madness. Anna finally tells Saul she is not strong enough to tell him to leave, but that he must do so. Anna feels it is the only way that each can begin to recover any semblance of mental health. Ironically, it is Saul who helps Anna start writing another novel.

George Hounslow

George meets with Anna and her friends at the Mashopi Hotel in Africa. One night he confesses he has been having an affair with Marie, Jackson's wife. He suspects that Marie has given birth to his son. He worries about the boy and what his own responsibilities are to his illegitimate son. The relationship between George and Marie (George is white and Marie is black) inspires Anna's bestselling novel.


Jackson, who is married to Marie, is the African cook at the Mashopi Hotel. He has worked at the hotel for over fifteen years. Jackson listens to Paul's stories about life in England (where blacks are not as oppressed as they are in Africa). When Mrs. Boothby fires Jackson for his association with Paul, Jackson asks for his job back. Later he is seen walking away from the hotel with his family.

Molly Jacobs

Molly Jacobs is Anna's best friend. She is similar to Anna in that she is a single mother who considers herself a free woman. Molly believes that Anna is a true artist and scolds Anna for wasting her talents. Molly is an actress, but not a very successful or talented one.

Molly has a son, Tommy, from her marriage to Richard. At one time, Molly and Richard had common interests; now, Molly abhors most of what Richard stands for. He has a conservative political outlook, and he is only concerned with maintaining his high social status and extreme wealth. Molly has many love affairs, though the novel does not provide details. Although she shares many characteristics with Anna, the two women are also quite different. Molly is described as a woman who appears "boyish." She is a woman who "took pleasure in the various guises she could use." Anna, on the other hand, is soft and more feminine and prides herself on always looking the same.

Molly is more committed to the cause of socialism (a social theory proposing that land and businesses should not be privately owned but instead managed by a central public government) and women's rights than Anna, and she sticks with the Communist Party longer than Anna does. By the end of the novel, however, Molly announces she is going to marry a successful businessman. Anna shows surprise at this, but the story ends with Molly and Anna still friends.


Jean is Richard's secretary, with whom Richard has a long affair while married to Marion, his second wife. At the end of the novel, Richard marries Jean.


Julia is a fictional character in Anna's yellow notebook. Although the similarity is never noted explicitly, Julia is very much like Molly. Julia is Jewish, an actress, and is Ella's roommate. Molly is also an actress.

Cy Maitland

Cy is a character from Anna's yellow notebook. He is an American doctor whom Ella meets on her trip back to London from Paris. Ella has dinner with Cy and then sleeps with him. Cy is a married man whose wife no longer wants to have sex with him. He loves the way Ella makes love to him. With Cy, Ella feels in control because she has no romantic feelings for him. The affair is a one-time encounter.


Marie, Jackson's wife, has a long affair with George Hounslow and gives birth to a son, whom George believes is his. Marie appears only briefly in The Golden Notebook, but it is her story, that of a black African woman having an affair with a white English man, that inspires Anna's novel.

Mrs. Marks

Mrs. Marks, occasionally referred to by Anna as Mother Sugar, is a psychologist who treats Anna. Mrs. Marks has also been Molly's psychologist at times. Mrs. Marks helps Anna work through her inability to write. Even after her therapy sessions with Mrs. Marks end, Anna often thinks about what Mrs. Marks might say to her, depending on the circumstances that Anna finds herself in. Mrs. Marks helps Anna by pointing out the various types of mythological archetypes, such as those examined by the famed psychiatrist Carl Jung, particularly Jung's archetype of motherhood, which might make Anna feel like she has to mother not only her child but also the men in her life.

Tom Mathlong

Tom is an African rebel fighting for his country's freedom from Colonial powers. Tom's country is unnamed in the book, but much of Africa was colonized and ruled by Britain at the time. Once, when he visits Anna, he is amazed at how progressive and settled London is, and he realizes that it will take his country a long time to achieve this status.


See Willi Rodde

Jimmy McGrath

Jimmy is a member of Anna's group of friends in Africa. He is in the British air corps and flies bomber missions to Germany during the war. He is terribly afraid of many things, but his colleagues say that as soon as Jimmy gets into the airplane, he is a great pilot. Jimmy shows up later in the novel to tell Anna a story about a British teacher, Harry Mathews, a man obsessed with the Russian Communist Party.


Michael is Anna's long-time lover. Michael is a psychiatrist, and is referred to in the novel as a doctor who works in mental health. Their affair lasts five years, and Anna claims that Michael is the only man she has ever loved. Michael is jealous of Anna's daughter, her writing, and other men (basically anything outside of himself that commands Anna's attention). Michael subsequently ends the affair. Michael becomes a sort of archetypal male for Anna, as she compares her feelings toward all men to the feelings she once had for Michael.


Milt is the last man in the novel to begin a relationship with Anna. He appears much as Saul had, and it is hard to figure out if Milt and Saul are actually the same person. Both men come to Anna to rent a room after Molly has referred them to her. Milt even says things that Saul has said to Anna. However, where Saul was weak, dragging Anna deeper into her madness, Milt is strong. Milt helps Anna get back to being normal. He tears down all of the newspaper clippings on Anna's walls and gets her to write again.

Mother Sugar

See Mrs. Marks


Nelson is an American who moves to England because he is a Communist who has been blacklisted and cannot find work in the States. Nelson has a brief affair with Anna, and he tells her that he is afraid of being sexually or emotionally intimate with women. Nelson invites Anna to a party that he and his wife are giving, where he announces in the heat of an argument with his wife that he wants to go to bed with Anna. For a while afterward, Anna states that she does not want any men in her life because she no longer wants to be hurt by them.

Marion Portmain

Marion is Richard's second wife. She is bored, unfulfilled, unloved, and an alcoholic. She lives virtually without her husband, who works all day and carries on extra-marital affairs most nights.

Marion stops drinking after Tommy has blinded himself. Marion starts to better comprehend her husband's lack of love for her or for any woman. This makes Marion stronger. In the end, Marion becomes more independent, opening up a small dress shop.

Richard Portmain

Richard is Molly's ex-husband, and he is from a well-to-do family. Richard and Molly married young, at a time when Richard was rebelling against his background and leaning toward supporting the socialist movement. However, when Richard's family threatens to cut him off from any further funds, Richard renounces his political beliefs and goes on to develop a multinational corporation, becoming one of the most powerful men in England.

Richard is married to Marion, an alcoholic. He is a womanizer, seeking sexual satisfaction from women, but unable (or unwilling) to express affection. He represents most of the men with whom Anna and Molly have affairs. Richard also represents British society, particularly the British upper class. He mocks Molly and Anna for their artistic and bohemian lives, that of women who neither care about wealth nor status. Because of his entrenched views of Anna and Molly, Richard often does not hear what either tells him; or, he simply does not believe what they say. He also has trouble talking to his son, Tommy. By the end of the story, Richard has barely changed. His wife has divorced him, and Richard has remarried, but it is suggested that he is now cheating on his new wife.

Tommy Portmain

Tommy is the son of Molly and Richard. He is about twenty years old. He seems unable to reconcile himself with the adult role models with which he has been provided. His mother and father are drastically different, and Tommy does not fully identify with either of them.

Tommy shoots himself, and though he does not die, the wound causes him to go blind. In his blinded state, Tommy finally sees who he is. He takes a greater interest in the people around him, especially in his father's second wife, Marion. Molly and Anna believe Tommy is using his blindness to manipulate the people around him. Finally, Anna is able to reason with Tommy, and he becomes more sensitive to the needs of the people in his life. By the end of the story, Tommy accepts a position in his father's corporation, hoping that he can use his new power to help create a better world. Tommy, despite his attempted suicide, is one of the few characters who actually progresses emotionally in this story.

Willi Rodde

Willi (also referred to as Max) is the intellectual and leader of Anna's group of friends in Africa. He and Anna end up sharing a room together, though their friendship is almost completely platonic. He and Anna live together for three years. They get married only so their daughter will be considered legitimate. After Janet is born, Willi and Anna separate. Anna states that she and Willi never really liked one another.

Paul Tanner

Paul is a fictitious character in Anna's yellow notebook. He is a psychiatrist and one of Ella's main lovers. Paul represents Anna's real-life lover, Michael. Ella's love affair with Paul is a long and warm one, lasting five years. However, in the end, Paul, a married man, leaves for Nigeria and does not ask Ella to come along.

Anna Wulf

Anna is the protagonist of Lessing's novel. She is a writer and her close friend is Molly. Anna is a single mother, who was married to Willi. Now she lives with her daughter, Janet. Throughout the novel, Anna explores what it means to be a free woman—to think for herself, and to be sexually liberated from social norms. As the story develops, however, Anna begins to question her freedom. Just how free is she if she is almost constantly saddened by the many roles that she plays as a mother and as a mistress.

Anna questions many things in her life, including her belief in the Communist Party. She also questions her ability as a writer. The last portion of the novel follows Anna as these questions become so powerful that she can no longer define her world or reality. She loses contact with the people around her as well as with language, the tool she has used all her life to frame her reality. Toward the end of the novel, Anna believes she is going mad. She places herself in situations that hurt her, unable to avoid them because she does not have the mental strength to turn away from them. She is tormented by men who do not love her, by guilt that she is not a good role model for her daughter or for Molly's son, and by menacing and terrifying nightmares. At the depth of her madness, Anna becomes alienated from everything around her, including her own body and all its physical senses. By the end, however, it is her writing and her role as a mother that bring her back to sanity.

Throughout the story, Anna stays true to her definition of the Free Woman; she does not need to be married or supported by a man. Anna is a woman who has come to understand who she is, and she is willing to face the challenges that confront her as a single mother and as a free thinker. Most importantly, Anna does not derive her identity from social conventions.

Janet Wulf

Janet is Anna's daughter. She lives with Anna but later asks to go to boarding school. Anna describes her daughter as intelligent but ordinary. Anna concludes that Janet does not want anything to do with her mother or her mother's lifestyle. On the other hand, Janet, and Anna's perception of herself as a mother, help to keep Anna sane.


Cracks, or Mental and Emotional Breakdown

Lessing indicates in her 1971 introduction to her novel that the major theme of The Golden Notebook is that of cracks or mental breakdown. To emphasize the significance of this theme, in the opening page of the novel, one of the first statements made by Anna is: "everything's cracking up."

In the first section of the novel, the most obvious examples of breakdown begin with Tommy, Molly's son, a young adult who is struggling to define himself. He has been heavily influenced by his mother's and Anna's socialist beliefs, but he does not want to be like them. Neither does he want to be like his father, Richard, a business tycoon whose philosophies of capitalism are directly opposed to Molly's. Tommy becomes more and more disturbed as he attempts to pull away from his mother's and his father's influences. Later, Tommy shoots himself in the head.

Anna, the protagonist, has a more fully explored mental breakdown in this story. She specifically mentions to her psychiatrist, Mrs. Marks, the cracks she feels developing inside of her. When Anna tells Mrs. Marks about these cracks, she speaks of them in a positive light. Indeed, she tells the doctor that she feels she is about to become a new type of woman, one who is emerging through the cracks. However, in her notebooks, Anna does not view the process of cracking, or breaking down, with such a positive attitude. Anna says she is afraid that she is slipping deeper and deeper into madness. The process of breaking down is filled with terror and disgust as Anna loses not only a sense of self (as Tommy did) but also her connection with reality. Although Anna goes mad, Lessing indicates that this is part of Anna's attempts to bring her writing closer to the truth. The novel's emphasis is on Anna's writer's block and on the ‘cracks’ that she must undergo in order to recover her creativity.

Cracks are also exposed though politics. For instance, members of the Communist Party become disillusioned by the movement's failings and its use of violence. In the United States, people who are accused of being Communists lose their jobs and their reputations are irrevocably damaged. The Cold War between the United States and Russia also represents a breakdown, though one of trust and communication.

The breakdown of marriage and of the general relationship between men and women is also discussed in this story. Men, Lessing implies, need mothering and physical satisfaction, whereas women need emotional fulfillment. When a woman becomes too dependent on a man to fulfill her emotional needs, the man loses interest. There are many male characters in this novel who are incapable of being intimate with women, and there are many more who are incapable of being faithful. In these cases, the cracks in the relationships between men and women become more like chasms.


  • One of the major driving forces in Anna's life is her creativity. She lives for it and is challenged by it. But what, exactly, is creativity? How do leading psychologists and philosophers define creativity? How are these theories the same? How are they different? How have they changed over time? Write an essay on your findings.
  • How do men and women differ in their definitions of a good relationship? Interview at least twenty-five male students and twenty-five female students. Have a list of questions ready and record their answers. Examples of questions might include how important is monogamy in an intimate relationship? How important is sex? How significant are good looks? Create more questions that require value rated answers (rating the importance from a scale of one to ten), then create a chart of the results and share your findings with your class.
  • Create a display that attempts to portray a typical woman during the 1950s. What did women wear then? How educated were they? How many children did they have on average, and how old were they when they had their first child? Find at least twenty different characteristics or statistics and accompany them with illustrations, if possible.
  • Define socialism, and then compare a country currently governed by the socialist system to the capitalist democracy of the United States. What are the benefits of each system? What, if any, are the negative effects of each? Write an essay discussing which system you prefer and why.

Anna also mentions the cracks that she feels developing among the various roles that women must play, such as the gaps between the role of mother and the role of lover, or the role of wife and the role of mistress. There are also cracks between free women and wives. Free women are supposedly not tied down by the norms with which society attempts to define women. Free women can have sex and as many relationships with men as they please. However, Anna realizes that she is often jealous of married women, who have more security than she does. At one point, Anna also confesses that she, in many ways, is no different than a married woman, as she is just as emotionally dependent on her lovers as wives are on their husbands. Thus, there are also cracks in what Anna and Molly believe to be their definition of freedom.

Writer's Block

Anna suffers from writer's block throughout the novel—she is unable to either begin or to continue writing a story. Anna's struggle to overcome her writer's block is, in many ways, the theme that ties The Golden Notebook together. One of the causes of Anna's inability to write is her desire to write only what is objectively true. She tries several different ways to capture the truth, stripped of sentimentality, as she states. But the closer she gets to the truth, the more she realizes that words can never fully express what someone feels or what someone has experienced. This realization is what pushes her deeper and deeper into madness.

Emotional Intimacy

The need to achieve emotional intimacy is another theme that is incorporated in this story. Anna struggles with her need to be loved by a man even as she continues to consider herself a free woman. She can have sex with a man, she discovers, but is not fulfilled in any way if there is no emotional intimacy between herself and her partner (the same is true for Molly). Anna also discovers that most men in her life, many of whom are married, leave her when she begins to depend on them to fulfill her emotional needs. Married women, according to this story, fare no better, as their husbands have affairs and leave them at home to take care of the household and the children. Furthermore, several of the men in this story state that they have a fear of being emotionally intimate. Very few characters in the novel are able to fulfill their emotional needs. Tommy might come closest, as he finds a way to work for the betterment of mankind. Molly, who decides to marry at the end of the story, sounds as if she may have found a path to security, but not necessarily a means towards achieving love. At the end of the book, Anna continues along the same path that she has followed throughout the story. She remains a free woman, detached from the men who do little more than use her.


Journal Writing

Most of Lessing's novel is written as Anna Wulf's journals. This technique helps to draw readers into the story because Anna's character is much more exposed than it would be if the novel were written in the third person. Readers might also feel like they have come across something very private and secretive and that they are being privileged with Anna's innermost thoughts. By presenting the novel as a series of journals, Lessing is able to forego the traditional form of the novel in terms of plot development and chronology, concentrating instead on the internal changes in Anna's character. Although the fictitious journals provide more depth of character, they do cause some problems or challenges. There are portions of the writing that are repetitive or out of synch with previous entries. However, Lessing uses the journals as an opportunity to categorize Anna's thoughts, as the four differently-colored notebooks focus on specific topics or areas of Anna's life. The notebooks remain neatly separated, and readers become familiar with the repeated pattern in which they appear. Lessing also uses the different notebooks to emphasize the divisions in Anna's life. Then, as Anna's personality begins to break down, the boundaries between the notebooks begin to fade. In this way, the journals are used to further symbolize and reinforce Anna's descent into madness.

Unreliable Narrator

An unreliable narrator is just that—a narrator that cannot be trusted. In Lessing's novel, it is not clear if the narrator is telling the truth. First of all, Anna warns her readers that she is in search of the truth through her writing. Then she begins to explain the problems of finding that truth. When she attempts to record memories, she admits that her memories may have faded and she is making up details that are not necessarily correct or true. She also confesses that her memories are colored by her emotions, both the emotions she had during the actual experience as well as the emotions that have developed over time as she looks back at the experience.

In addition to this, Anna develops fictitious characters within her journals. This is a bit confusing because journals normally record what has actually happened or thoughts about what has actually happened. The characters Anna creates are supposed to represent Anna and her relationships with other people, so why doesn't Anna simply record these things as they are? Essentially, Anna has more liberty to recreate the truth by presenting it as fiction, and this adds to the feeling that Anna is not a reliable narrator.

Once Anna begins to lose her sanity, her reliability can be questioned even further. If she is not experiencing reality as most people would, how can she record incidents that can be accepted as truthful? Adding to this confusion are the hazy outlines of the different people Anna writes about. Anna uses different names for Willi, her ex-husband. It is also unclear how closely the fictional Paul Tanner resembles Michael, Anna's lover. Details in the story also appear out of focus at times. Did Tommy run away with Marion, or did he marry a different woman that he had been dating (a girl that Tommy's mother has briefly mentioned in a conversation with Anna)? Milt and Saul, Anna's lovers, are interchangeable. Sometimes, Anna even records events in her journal before they actually happen.

It is possible that the journals are meant to create a sense of truthfulness or reliability, but the novel's vague details offset this effect. Perhaps this too is purposeful: Lessing proves the point that, though an author might attempt to reach the truth, the feat itself is impossible.


  • 1950s: The media in both the United States and Europe encourage women to stay home and have children. Television shows such as Father Knows Best and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet portray happy homes with a wife/mother figure who stays home to cook, clean, and care for the children.

    Today: Many women juggle a full-time career while simultaneously acting as the primary caregiver for their children. Being a full-time homemaker has become a luxury because families can no longer support a middle-class lifestyle on one income. In some families, the father may take on the role of homemaker while the mother supports the family with her career and income. This is still relatively rare, however.

  • 1950s: The communist Soviet Union under Stalin's brutal regime becomes an emerging world power.

    Today: After the Soviet Union breaks apart (becoming Russia and fourteen other countries), Communist rule deteriorates as a free market economy and democratic government are attempted. Russia's world influence has also lessened considerably.

  • 1950s: The United Kingdom ruled the world's largest empire at one time, but suffered heavy economic losses stemming from World War II. As a result, many colonized countries are successful in their bids toward independence during the period just after the War.

    Today: The United States (a former British colony) acquires Britain's political and military support for the war in Iraq. People in Britain criticize their government for acting as a puppet government to the U.S. administration, further emphasizing the loss of political power that Britain has sustained over time.


Communism in Russia

According to Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895), creators of the Communist Manifesto of 1848, capitalism would, with time, give way to communism. These two German intellectuals proclaimed that through their study of history they could predict a new social order in which the proletarians (labor force) would overtake the bourgeois (the moneyed classes). The organization of the proletarians would give them the power to do this and would lead to socialism—a system of social organization in which producing and distributing goods would be controlled collectively or by a centralized government. Communism, then, would be a more evolved form of socialism in which a single party holds power and distributes goods to be shared equally by all citizens.

Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924), the first leader of the Communist government in Russia, was greatly influenced by the writings of Karl Marx and spent most of his early adult years working toward the unionization of Russia's working class. Lenin then worked to overthrow the Russian Tsar. In 1903, Lenin formed the political group known as the Bolsheviks and spent many years in exile, writing powerful pamphlets, urging the workers of Russia to revolt and urging peasants to claim the land. Lenin proclaimed that Russia should be ruled by soviets, a government controlled by small groups of workers. In 1917, after a successful revolt, Lenin was elected chairman of the Council of People's Commissars. According to the Communist theories, only one party could be in power at a time. To achieve and maintain this, a special group of secret police was formed. Their job was to find any political dissenters, who were then imprisoned and/or tortured. Many dissenters were also killed. This was necessary, according to Lenin, to ensure that Communism would be successful.

The fight to control Russia was a bloody one, both before and after Lenin came to power. There were wars as well as economic failures. There was also a famine in which millions of people died. Nevertheless, Lenin created the first communist government, and in 1922, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was formed. Two years later, Lenin suffered several strokes and died. It is likely that the strokes that killed him stemmed from an attempted assassination in 1918 that left a bullet lodged in Lenin's neck.

Although Lenin had been very critical of him, Joseph Stalin maneuvered his way into power, succeeding Lenin as the authoritarian leader of the Soviet Union. Stalin successfully industrialized the country and made it a world power, but he did so at the cost of millions of lives. He ordered the deaths of any person suspected of disagreeing with him. Under Stalin, the basic tenets of Marxism were ignored. Instead, Stalin used terror to control the citizenry. Stalin died in 1953. Three years later, Nikita Krushchev, who succeeded Stalin, denounced his predecessor for having reigned through terror, lies, and self-glorification.

Throughout most of Lessing's novel, the main characters, Anna and Molly, struggle with their belief in communism. At its center, communism was a good idea. Unfortunately, much violence was enacted in the name of communism. This is the conundrum that Anna and Molly struggle with.

British Colonialism in Africa

At one time, the British government was one of the strongest nations in the world, controlling an empire that covered almost one fourth of the earth's land area and population. British Colonialism in Africa reached its peak in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. During this time, Britain controlled the Suez Canal, Nigeria, and what was called British East Africa (now Kenya, Uganda, Tanganyika, and Zanzibar). Britain also controlled South Africa, parts of Togo, and what was called German Southwest Africa (now Namibia).

As the twentieth century dawned, the fight for independence in Africa began with South Africa, which achieved self-rule in 1910. Other African nations in the east, central, and southern parts of the country were slower to gain their independence, but by the 1950s and 1960s, Britain's control over Africa was greatly diminished. Kenya gained independence in 1963. Somalia, Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Botswana, Lesotho, and Swaziland had all gained independence by 1968. In West Africa, Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Gambia all gained independence in the late 1950s and into the 1960s.

Carl Jung (1875-1961)

Carl Jung, famed Swiss psychiatrist, based much of his psychological analysis on his concept of archetypes, idealized models that people hold in their psyche and that are often experienced in dreams. Jung believed that people's situations in life were mirrored in their dreams. He studied world mythologies and noted similar symbols in every culture, and this led him to believe that while people have a personal unconscious, all of humanity also shares what Jung called a collective unconscious. One of his better known books is Man and His Symbols, published posthumously in 1964. Jung's teachings influence Lessing's characters, as both Anna and Molly attend sessions with Mrs. Marks, a doctor who applies Jung's theory of archetypes to help the women better understand themselves.

Feminism in the 1950s

Feminism in the 1950s was stimulated in part by the end of World War II and the return of soldiers to the labor market. As veterans returned from the war, women were forced out of the jobs they had held while the soldiers were at war. Many women had grown used to the independence that their jobs had provided, and they began to demand equality in the workforce.

Even as the economy improved in Britain and in the United States after the war, women were largely unable to find jobs due to a lack of childcare programs and widespread discrimination. When women did hold jobs, they were paid far less than their male counterparts. The media (i.e., newspapers, women's magazines, and television) promoted the virtues of women as housewives. One popular book, published in 1947, titled Modern Women: The Lost Sex, written by Marynia Farnham and Ferdinand Lundberg, claimed that in order to stay in good health, women must raise children and take care of the household.

However, as divorce and better birth control became more accessible, women began claiming their rights to end poor marriages and to have fewer children, or even to not marry at all. Adding inspiration to the feminist movement was another book, this one encouraging women to claim their rights as equals to men. Indeed, Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex (1949) emphasized just how much women were oppressed. Lessing's The Golden Notebook was also very influential at this time, and it is often studied as a Feminist text because the main characters are women who rebel against social norms. Women in the 1950s were supposed to stay home and raise their children. Working women, single mothers, or sexually free women were often ostracized because they did not fit into socially accepted roles.


The Golden Notebook has often been cited as the Lessing's best work. It has been praised for its fascinating and experimental form and for its subject matter. Indeed, Lessing wrote on topics that were very controversial for her time, and her style of writing was well ahead of that of most of her peers.

Lessing's novel was initially praised by reviewers, and positive critical opinions of the book have actually grown over the years. In a 1962 review for the New York Times, Ernest Buckler writes, "one can only salute and marvel at the staggering fecundity of ideas and insight that turns almost every remaining paragraph into a hive of constellated meaning." Although Buckler comments that some of Lessing's discussions about politics are not fully developed, and that her exposition of her characters' emotions are, at times, overdrawn, he concludes that in comparison with other highly praised novels of the time, The Golden Notebook stands out significantly because of Lessing's powerful writing.

In another New York Times article, written ten years later, Richard Locke states "that of all the postwar English novelists Doris Lessing is the foremost creative descendant of the ‘great tradition’ which includes George Eliot, Conrad, and D. H. Lawrence." Although he praises Lessing, Locke admits that The Golden Notebook has some faults. Lessing can "write too casually," at times; can produce writing that sounds like it is inspired by a "preacher's fervor"; and she is sometimes repetitive. However, Locke also finds the novel to be intelligent but unpretentious, and Lessing shows great "courage to stick to her perceptions and tell home truths." Locke notes that Lessing's writing is "dense with intelligence," and that her stories provide "new information about our inner lives and social evasions."

Sandra Brown, writing in Approaches to Teaching Lessing's The Golden Notebook, states that "the novel can vex readers" who are looking for a traditional story, but that the form of the novel "is far from a ‘jumble.’" This is due to Lessing's "individualizing each of Anna's voices," through which the author "defines the whole: the woman and the modern world." In Doris Lessing: Critical Studies, John L. Carey also addresses the form of Lessing's novel. Carey writes: "Without its structural plan The Golden Notebook could not make the comment on life Lessing desires; without the content the structure would be grandiose and bare, complicated rather than complex."


Joyce Hart

Hart has degrees in English and creative writing and is a freelance writer and published author. In the following essay, she examines the male characters in The Golden Notebook.

In The Golden Notebook Lessing examines the role of the 1950s woman and, in doing so, stimulates feminist thoughts and ideas. Lessing does this partially by presenting her characters, her so-called Free Women—Anna and Molly—in an endless series of unfulfilling relationships with men. Lessing defines these women and their needs by demonstrating their interactions with men. But what of the men portrayed in the novel?


  • In Lessing's The Golden Notebook there are long sections devoted to a fictional novel that the protagonist wrote, and the plot described there is actually the plot in Lessing's first novel, The Grass is Singing (1950). The novel takes place in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and particularly focuses on the racial tensions between white colonizers and local Africans.
  • Lessing has written a two-volume autobiography. The first volume, called Under My Skin, was published in 1994 and chronicles the author's life up until the 1950s. The second volume, Walking in the Shade, was published in 1997 and deals with a period of time stretching from the 1950s until 1962, the year The Golden Notebook was first published.
  • Just as Lessing's novel explores women's relationships with men, Lynn Freed does the same in her 2004 collection of stories Curse of the Appropriate Man. From widows to young teens experimenting with sex, Freed's stories explore women's emotions and experiences as they search for love.
  • Paul Theroux provides another take on the inner life of a writer in his 2005 novel Blinding Light. Theroux's protagonist, Slade Steadman, is a blocked writer who travels to the Ecuadorian jungles in search of a drug that reportedly frees the mind. Steadman finds the drug, which proves to be quite effective in unlocking his creativity, but it also causes him to go blind.

Richard, Molly's ex-husband, is the first significant male character to appear in the story. Richard is a flat character in that little can be said about him aside from his being a multimillionaire and the head of an international corporation. Indeed, Richard is one of the more financially powerful men in England. Richard represents everything that Molly and Anna disagree with. He is a stock character, the stereotype of a capitalist patriarch and womanizer. Richard may be rich and powerful in the world of economics, but he does not know how to communicate with people, especially his second wife, Marion, and his son Tommy. In the novel, Marion does a good job of summing up Richard's personal faults. She realizes that Richard sees people as types, not as individual human beings, and that he defines those around him based on their sex, financial status, and other similarly shallow categories. Marion recognizes this when she first sees Jean, Richard's most recent lover. Jean, Marion notices, looks just like her, only twenty years younger. In effect, Richard has traded in Marion for a newer version, just as one might do with a car. Richard's relationship with Tommy fares a little better, but not without the help of Anna and Molly. It is not clear if Richard offers his son a job to help Tommy, or, more likely, to help himself. Furthermore, Richard views Tommy's arrest for political protest as a deliberate attempt on Tommy's part to embarrass his father. Thus, readers might wonder if Richard has offered Tommy a job in order to avert further embarrassment brought on by Tommy's depression and lack of ambition. Tommy's judgment of his father fairly sums up Richard when he declares that his father is completely defined by his job. In these ways Richard represents a conventional class- and money-conscious man who uses women as little more than stylish accessories.

Michael, whom Anna fictionalizes as Paul in her yellow notebook, is somewhat more evolved than Richard. He makes love to Anna rather than just having sex with her. He is tender and listens to what she has to say. However, Michael is married. As a result, his relationship with Anna will never develop into more than it already is: an illicit affair. Still, the affair is, according to Anna, the most loving affair she has ever had. On the other hand, Michael is also a jealous man (and perhaps this jealousy stems from his aforementioned affection). He is particularly jealous of Anna's writing career and of her child. These two areas encompass two of Anna's main roles (writer and mother). Basically, Michael is uncomfortable with the fact that Anna's sense of self is not wholly derived from her role as his lover. Michael needs to dominate Anna; her independence makes him feel insecure. Indeed, Michael has placed a price tag on the affection he shows her, demanding that she focus mainly on him. Meanwhile, Michael actively pursues his profession, has a wife and children, and he comes into and goes from Anna's life whenever he wants, all regardless of what Anna or his wife may need. Michael also takes this fundamental imbalance in his relationships as a given. Therefore, although Michael is not quite as conventional as Richard, his views of women are still dominated by the widely held societal belief that women are second-class citizens. Michael unquestioningly believes that men and women have different rights, as readers can surmise through his actions.

Cy Maitland, the American doctor with whom Anna has a one-night stand, chose his wife only for her good looks. Anna, in turn, only sees Cy as a sexual object. If she were a man, she comments, she probably would be a lot like Cy. There is a physical attraction between Cy and Anna, but they do not share any emotional intimacy. Cy tells Anna that she is easy, which, believe it or not, is his way of complementing her. In other words, Cy indicates that Anna does not have any emotional baggage. This is not really an accurate perception of Anna. However, Cy reacts this way because Anna can remain detached from him and thus remains in control of her emotions when she is with him. Notably, Cy is gentle and appears understanding when he is with Anna or with his wife. His wife does not want sex, and Cy seems to accept this without pressuring her. Still, Cy is not an emotionally developed character. His real passion, if he has any at all, is his profession. He is not a misogynist (a person who hates women) or a womanizer. But his relationships with women are exceedingly shallow.

Anna's relationships with men begin to take a downward turn towards the end of the novel. Nelson, one of Anna's many lovers, shows real interest in Anna's writing and in her life. He even demonstrates real tenderness for Anna's daughter. Anna describes Nelson as a mature man until she goes to bed with him. Nelson is afraid of sexual intimacy. He rushes through the sex act and quickly dresses. Later, at a party, Nelson lashes out at his wife and purposefully hurts her by telling everyone that he wants to go to bed with Anna. Nelson is a torn man. He is attracted to women but is afraid that they will hurt him. So he hurts them first. Initially, he is gentle and even humorous, a great companion, but this changes as soon as he has had sex with his lovers. Nelson is clearly psychologically ill, and he is not the only man whom Anna encounters with these neuroses.

Saul is also afraid of intimacy with a woman. But he is even worse than Nelson. Saul's anger at the world is all encompassing and eventually affects Anna. The only way Saul and Anna can communicate with one another is through anger. Anna's unstable state of mind at the time further compounds the negative effects of her unhealthy relationship with Saul. When Anna can no longer define herself, she takes on Saul's identity. Saul has only two redeemable traits. He listens to Anna when she tells him that he must leave (and he leaves), and he has enough insight to understand that the only thing that will save Anna is her writing, which he encourages her to do. Regardless, Saul is everything that Anna does not want in a man.

Tommy is yet another important male figure in the novel. Tommy is almost always a background character. He appears throughout the story, yet he is rarely an active participant in the storyline. Much that he does or says is often related through other characters. Tommy's actions, however, affect several people. Richard, Marion, Anna, and Molly are all deeply affected by Tommy, who is the only male character that truly evolves over the course of the novel. At first, Tommy is depressed because he has no role models he can relate to. Given the candidates he has to choose from, this is not surprising. His father is not an ideal role model, and neither are the other male characters in the novel. Even Anna and Molly are found to be lacking. Tommy's depression leads him to attempt suicide, and though he survives, he goes blind in the aftermath. On both a symbolic and practical level, Tommy's botched suicide is also a sort of rebirth. With the loss of his sight, Tommy develops a keen intuition. His intuition helps him to understand his mother and Anna, something he had struggled with previously. He also sees his father in a more positive light. In this new mode of seeing, Tommy learns from his parents what he wants to become, and he decides to use the power that he has inherited from his father (in the form of Richard's business) to change the world for the better. Significantly, the improvements that Tommy wishes to achieve are informed by the moral principles he has inherited from his mother. Tommy takes the only two good things that his parents have passed on to him and combines them in way that will cause growth and positive change. Thus, by the end of the novel, Tommy evolves more than his father, who remarries yet again and continues to chase after other women. Tommy also evolves more than his mother, who abandons her principles and marries a businessman. Of all the men in The Golden Notebook, Tommy is the only one who is able to emerge as a new man.

Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on The Golden Notebook, in Novels for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2008.

Lorelei Cederstrom

In the following excerpt, Cederstrom examines the material in the notebooks through which Anna enacts the psychological breakdown and subsequent recreation of a new self. This process is also viewed through the teachings of psychologist Carl Jung.

… Anna rigidly rejects all hints that she is not unique. Mrs. Marks is aware of what she is doing and tells her, "My dear Anna, you are using our experience together to re-enforce your own rationalizations for not writing."

Immediately after this abortive encounter, the old Anna begins to disintegrate. She attempts to re-solidify the divisions of the notebooks, but is forced to recognize the tenuous hold of her ego: "I remain Anna because of a certain kind of intelligence. This intelligence is dissolving and I am very frightened." Anna moves now into an encounter with the collective unconscious. All the chaotic elements kept firmly repressed by her compartmentalizing intelligence break loose, and she undergoes the flooding of unconscious contents into her conscious mind. Her ego, the controlling persona, is destroyed, and she is forced to create a new Anna, related to those women within about whom Mrs. Marks told her, an Anna who has achieved wholeness through individuation.

As the collective unconscious breaks loose, Anna encounters several archetypal figures which represent aspects of her personality that she must reconsider and reintegrate on her road to wholeness. The first of these appears in a recurring dream Anna has. The dream is of a threatening figure whom she sees as "pure spite, malice, joy in malice, joy in a destructive impulse." The image goes through several transformations in the course of the novel. It begins as an inhuman figure, a vase, then becomes a dwarf, then turns into Saul Green, and finally Anna sees her own face on this creature that mocks, jibes, hurts, wishes murder and death. Anna describes to Mrs. Marks the common denominators of this dream figure: "The element took a variety of shapes, usually that of a very old man or woman (yet there was a suggestion of double sex, or even sexlessness) and the figure was always very lively, in spite of having a wooden leg, or a crutch, or a hump, or being deformed in some way." Anna is terrified by this figure, but Mrs. Marks warns Anna that she must learn to dream this figure positively, for as a Jungian she would see him as a spirit goblin, a kabeiros, "an archetypal figure [like Rumpelstiltskin] whose alluring ‘help’ brings ruin to woman, and threatens what is most precious to her but, precisely because she has recognized and named it, releases her from its power and leads her toward salvation" (Jacobi, 101). Jung frequently encountered spirit goblins like Anna's in the dreams of patients during individuation. He terms the positive aspect of this figure the Wise Old Man or Wise Old Woman, for it directs the dreamer, ultimately, toward the path he/she must follow. He notes, also, that the negative side of this figure is associated with malice and evil. Thus, before Anna can be saved from this monster of her unconscious, she has to recognize it as an element of her own personality and counter its negative aspects with a positive figure from within.

The internal archetype which Anna can summon to her aid in this cause is that of the Wise Old Woman, the Witch, an image of the strength of Mrs. Marks that she finds in herself. Anna's unconscious provides this knowledge in a dream in which both figures appear:

I had the dream again—I was menaced by the anarchic principle, this time in the shape of an inhuman sort of dwarf. In the dream was Mrs. Marks, very large and powerful; like a kind of amiable witch. She heard the dream out, and said: "When you are on your own, and you are threatened, you must summon the good witch to your aid.’ ‘You,’ I said, ‘No, you, embodied in what you have made of me.’ So the thing is over, then. It was as if she had said: Now you are on your own. For she spoke casually, indifferently almost, like someone turning away. I admired the skill of this; it was as if, on leave-taking, she were handing me something—a flowering branch, perhaps, or a talisman against evil."

A part of Anna's problem with the dwarf is that she has projected this frightening breakthrough of energies from the self onto the world at large. The clippings about war and violence that Anna has affixed to her Blue Notebook are another indication that she has externalized her own destructive qualities. "Projections," Jung has said, "change the world into the replica of one's own unknown face." It is only when Anna dreams of the dwarf wearing her own face that she begins to dream positively. She is released from its power when she sees that that which she has feared is within and can be controlled by the strong "amiable witch" she also has within.

The second problem Anna confronts in her process of individuation, as outlined in this notebook, is the conflict between her need for freedom and the restrictions of motherhood. The situation between Anna and her daughter, Janet, is essentially a Uroboric—primordial, instinctual—one in which there is a strong identity of mother and daughter, ego and self. There is a great tendency for every woman to fall back into the archetypal instinctual role in which the demands of consciousness are secondary to the unconscious demands of the Great Mother.

… The conflict between motherhood and her own needs is vividly embodied in a few scenes in Anna's diary where she forces herself out of bed with her lover in order to get her daughter off to school. She resents having to leave her lover, yet she resents him for making her feel guilty about leaving his bed. This is so much a part of Anna that even when her daughter leaves her home for boarding school, Anna plays the Great Mother to several men in her life, most notably Saul Green. The combination of Saul's need for a mother and Janet's leaving home forces Anna to realize that she has put off her own development for too long: "I haven't moved, at ease, in time, since Janet was born. Having a child means being conscious of the clock, never being free of something that has to be done at a certain moment ahead. An Anna is coming to life that died when Janet was born."

In the individuation of the feminine psyche, the stage beyond the assimilation of the primordial Great Mother is the one already touched upon in the Red Notebook sections. The dominance of the Great Mother gives way to the Great Father, as the developing consciousness moves from the instinctual roles of motherhood to the roles of the dominant collective consciousness, in this case typified by the patriarchal attitudes Anna encounters working for the Communist Party. It is symbolic that Anna's last day at work for the Party is characterized by frequent trips to the bathroom to be sure that her co-workers remain unaware of her menstrual flow. Anna's instinctual feminine unconscious has no place here; however, the way to move beyond the instinctual feminine is not by moving into a purely masculine sphere where it is afforded no existence, but rather by establishing contact with the feminine self of which the instinct is only a part.

There is still one important element of the psyche with which Anna must come to terms. While she has rejected the masculine biases of the collective consciousness, she must come to terms with the man within, her animus, through Saul Green. Neumann notes that beyond the sphere of the Great Mother and Great Father, the individuating woman enters a stage of encounter in which the masculine and feminine confront each other individually. In Anna this phase has already moved beyond the individual encounter and entered the arena where the masculine spirit within her, her animus, battles for existence with her ego. Anna's animus, Saul Green, is so strong that he breaks down the hold of her ego completely: "I longed to be free of my own ordering, commenting memory," Anna writes. "I felt my sense of identity fade." Previously, Anna had rejected any implication that her sense of uniqueness was unhealthy. She refuted Mrs. Marks' statement that there were long lines of women stretching out behind her who shared her experiences. Where she once clung to her unique, ordering, frozen ego, she now pays the price for the repressions demanded by that ego. The flooding of her conscious mind with unconscious contents through the animus occasions an excursion into madness.

Anna learns, eventually, that breakdown can be positive, and she begins the painful process of reconstruction. Anna admits to Saul Green, for the first time, that she is suffering from a writer's block. While Saul, as animus, has aided in the destruction of Anna's ego, he has provided, at the same time, a constructive link with her creativity. Through Saul, Anna achieves an awareness of the integrated self. By forcing her to face her own destructive maternal qualities, he sets her free. In an act which symbolizes the creativity of the positive animus, Saul gives Anna the first line for her novel, a novel she writes as the "Free Women" sections of The Golden Notebook. As a symbol of her integration, Anna replaces the four notebooks with the single Golden Notebook which contains all the elements of her personality. The Anna of the Golden Notebook is feeling intensely and is no longer rigid. Her self is not yet stabilized, for she moves back and forth between disintegration and assimilation several times. Eventually, though, the self emergies in the form of a "new, disinterested person" who is capable of controlling her dreams and ordering her unconscious into form. Her new self is based on the awareness of a small endurance, an inner strength equal to the greatest tasks. Anna begins to see her fictional Ella again and sees how valuable the creative imagination can be in the face of death, fear, and a sense of dissolution: "I was thinking that quite possibly these marvellous, generous things we walk side by side with in our imaginations could come in existence, simply because we need them, because we imagine them."

The novel ends with Anna's completed individuation. With the help of Mrs. Marks and rigorous exploration of her inner being, Anna has achieved integration. She has learned the lessons of her unconscious, has found strengths in the depths of her personality, and, most importantly, has learned to utilize her demons creatively. Lessing, like Jung, believes that cures for worldwide disintegration will come only from integrated individuals. With this novel, Lessing has shown the way the writer can do more than reflect the chaotic consciousness of his age. Disintegration can be turned against itself; it can be used to probe the depths of the unconscious to the point where a truer sense of wholeness can be discovered. "Individual consciousness," Jung wrote, "is only the flower and the fruit of a season, sprung from the perennial rhizome beneath the earth." With this novel, Lessing has begun to explore these roots in earnest.

Source: Lorelei Cederstrom, "The Process of Individuation: Disintegration and Reintegration in The Golden Notebook," in Fine-Tuning the Feminine Psyche: Jungian Patterns in the Novels of Doris Lessing, Peter Lang Publishing, 1990, pp. 117-34.

Betsy Draine

In the following excerpt, Draine defines postmodernist fiction and classifies The Golden Notebook as a postmodern novel. Draine next explains this classification by reviewing the patterns and themes that appear in each section of the story.

… In postmodern fiction, form is forced to acknowledge and accommodate the force of chaos, the source and destroyer of all form. Thus it is a kind of fiction ideally suited to express the simultaneous destruction and reconstruction that occurs within the psyche in times of personal and social metamorphosis. The postmodern writer realizes that in all realms of life chaos and order are constantly impinging on one another in a process of continual transformation. It becomes the novelist's task to provide a fictional form that can give ample scope to this dynamic interplay of order and chaos.

In The Golden Notebook, Lessing succeeds in creating such a form. In her new identity as a postmodern writer, she refuses to put a lid on chaos; neither does she let chaos freely reign. Instead she shapes the novel so that its structure and story express the powerful tension between chaos and order—a tension that characterizes the postmodern consciousness.

The reader's first impression is one of dissonance. The complicated, highly ordered superstructure of the novel is clearly at odds with the apparent disorder of the content within that structure. This form-content split in the novel in turn mirrors the heroine's awareness of the split between the forms (social, artistic, emotional, intellectual) of her own consciousness and the experiential chaos that these forms attempt to control. It is important to realize, however, that this pair of parallel contrasts, so immediately apparent to the reader, is actually an over-simplification. There is more to the content of Anna's notebooks than mere chaos, if what we mean by chaos is utter formlessness. Rather, the various notebooks contain material that has been liberated from outworn forms and that holds its state of formlessness only as potentiality, beginning quickly to move toward new and provisional form, toward the constitution of a new cosmos. Thus there is no final opposition in the novel between chaos and form. Rather, chaos itself is seen to be continually destroying forms while moving itself to create new ones. Chaos and form are inextricably bound to one another in a dialectical process. Toward the end of the novel, Anna herself imagines two people in the process of falling out of form into chaos: "Both cracking up because of a deliberate attempt to transcend their own limits. And out of the chaos, a new kind of strength." Outmoded form is broken by the force of chaos, primordial being, but the matter of chaos regroups itself into a new form, based on new values or strengths.

In Anna's first line of dialogue, she declares, "As far as I can see, everything's cracking up." The structure of the novel is designed to emphasize this fragmentation. The four colored notebooks reflect the four aspects of life that Anna can no longer reconcile with one another; her success as a published novelist (Black), her failure in political work (Red), her efforts of imagination (Yellow), her struggle to revise her own self-concept (Blue). In addition to these notebooks, written in the first person by Anna, there is a framing novel, called "Free Women," about the Anna who writes the notebooks. The four notebooks and the novel are additionally split each into sections and arranged in a neat pattern: "Free Women" 1, Black 1, Red 1, Yellow 1, Blue 1; "Free Women" 2, Black 2, Red 2, Yellow 2, Blue 2, etc. Lessing accomplishes several purposes by this dizzying arrangement of the novel's parts. First, she reflects the fact that, for Anna, existence has fragmented and threatens to return to an undifferentiated state of chaos. However, the mathematically neat arrangement of the splintered parts of Anna's experience suggests that in the face of threatened chaos, she is overreacting by imposing an order in her novel that does not properly belong to the material. Finally, Lessing suggests to the reader that while the many parts of the book treat separate subjects, they are actually unified by an underlying pattern, which their odd juxtaposition is designed to highlight.

The first striking element of that pattern is that each notebook (as well as "Free Women") starts just as "the stage sets collapse" in one theater of Anna's life, leaving her without a context within which to play her part. That is, each notebook begins as one form of her life begins to yield to chaos. The drama of each notebook is her battle not to be seduced by "a lying nostalgia"—a yearning for the recovery of the sense of form, the stage illusion of moral certainty, innocence, unity, and peace. In effect, this yearning is a desire for unreality and nonexistence. Since the yearning can never be fulfilled, it always leads to painful frustration and often to nihilism and despair.

Although Anna's nostalgia for moral sleep is acute, it is countered by an aspiration toward full, waking consciousness. In the battleground of each notebook, moreover, consciousness conquers, and Anna takes a victory, in existentialist terms. For her, as for Camus, "everything begins with consciousness and nothing is worth anything except through it." In Anna's case, full consciousness means facing up to the power of chaos and accepting its effect on her life. Yet Lessing does not let the case rest there. More acutely than her precursors Camus and Sartre, Lessing senses that every bit of ground gained for consciousness is saturated with irony—and that an excess of irony easily leads to bitterness, cynicism, and despair.

If the plot of each notebook concerns Anna's struggle to subdue her nostalgia for form and attain consciousness of chaos, the hidden and opposing plot of the novel as a whole concerns her struggle against the poisoning cynicism that accompanies her new knowledge. In the first three notebooks—Black, Red, and Yellow—Anna as a lone character moves from naïveté, through awareness, to cynicism, withdrawal, and loss of faith. Moreover, in the process of writing each of these three notebooks she loses confidence, becomes disoriented, doubts her own veracity, and finally despairs of communicating at all. In the Blue Notebook, on the other hand, there is a slow movement away from detachment, ennui, and self-consciousness toward commitment, passion, and unself-consciousness. This positive movement flows into the Golden Notebook, where Anna, by opening herself to chaos and emotion, achieves a mature vision that is simultaneously ironic and committed, detached and involved. In the overall dynamic of the novel, the detachment and irony that accompany awareness of chaos finally come to balance with the attachment and warmth that accompany commitment to the forms we impose on chaos.

Within each notebook, then, there is a pattern of opposition between nostalgia and awareness, as between their concomitants, pain and irony. In an analogous but larger pattern, the first three notebooks, where awareness is bought at the cost of irony, are opposed by the Blue Notebook, where moral and emotional passions reawaken. The Golden Notebook is the vehicle through which these antitheses are channeled into dialectic. Failure to take account of this dialectical structure is bound to result in a distorted reading of the major themes of the novel. "Living inside the subjective highly-coloured mist" of any one notebook, the reader is apt to be so intensely struck by a theme or attitude that he will fail to appreciate the countertheme or countertone developed elsewhere in this long and sometimes perplexing novel.

I propose an unorthodox method of examining the workings of this dynamic in the novel—that is, to unshuffle Lessing's deck and take a look separately at each colored notebook and the novel "Free Women." This is to play Anna's game—to "name" the pattern of each notebook, rescuing it from chaos, as she would say. So long as we take care to return the pieces to their splintered condition, we should do justice to both impulses in the novel—the one toward form and the one toward chaos …

Source: Betsy Draine, "The Golden Notebook: The Construction of a Postmodern Order," in Substance under Pressure: Artistic Coherence and Evolving Form in the Novels of Doris Lessing, University of Wisconsin Press, 1983, pp. 69-88.

Ellen Morgan

In the following essay, Morgan explores Ella's relationships and Anna's relationships to show how their interactions are or are not authentic. Morgan notes that the characters are themselves aware of this dichotomy, and she concludes her critique by observing that Lessing's writing style further reflects the conflict between embracing feminism and turning away from it.

In her interview at Stony Brook (1969), Doris Lessing said, "I'm impatient with people who emphasize sexual revolution. I say we should all go to bed, shut up about sexual liberation, and go on with the important matters." But looking at the text of The Golden Notebook, which is, after all, about the female-male relationship in the middle of the twentieth century and about the meaning of femaleness in contemporary Western culture, one cannot help being […] aware of the tension that exists between Lessing's sensitive observations of the malaise between the sexes and such denials of the importance of discomfort with the sexual status quo.

In the course of The Golden Notebook, Lessing writes in the persona of Anna: "the quality a novel should have to make it a novel [is] the quality of philosophy … Yet I am incapable of writing the only kind of novel which interests me: a book powered with an intellectual or moral passion strong enough to create order, to create a new way of looking at life." This statement is a good entrance into The Golden Notebook, for the novel contains all the perceptions necessary to create a radical transforming and ordering vision of the relationship between women and men. These perceptions, however, are not gathered into the philosophical form proper to and inherent in them. Reading The Golden Notebook carefully forces one to realize how women writers can be, and have been, alienated from their own authentic, sensitive, and accurate perceptions of sexual politics because nowhere in their culture, in eras in which feminism is kept quiescent and latent, do they see such perceptions corroborated rather than made targets of antifeminist criticism, ridicule, and disparagement.

The world of The Golden Notebook consists, in addition to its artistic, racial, and other political dimensions, of Anna Wulf's closely rendered experiences with a number of acquaintances and lovers, sometimes told through Ella, her alter-ego and literary creation. But more significantly, the book consists of Anna-Ella's interpretations of these experiences, her judgments and evaluations of them and of herself. Repeatedly, as I shall attempt to show, her judgments belittle, deny, or distort her experiences and censor her spontaneous responses to them. The difference between Ella's actual attitudes and responses and those she does not permit herself is the measure of her alienation from her own perceptions and, I believe, the extent of Lessing's failure to come to terms with female authenticity.

Ella and her friend Julia quite obviously feel, on the one hand, an instinctive human need to respect themselves as people, and, on the other, a conditioned contempt for themselves as women. Spontaneously they trust one another and are very close, but they judge this trust to be less valuable than they feel it to be, less valuable than their far less trusting relationships with men. As Anna says of herself and Molly, no matter how close they are on the basis of shared understanding, experience, and life style, their "real loyalties are always to men, and not to women." Anna-Ella feels strongly inclined to discuss with Molly-Julia her problems with men, but she judges that all the "complaints and the reproaches and the betrayals" ought not to be voiced. These judgments, which undermine the solidarity between the two women, are the result of their conviction that men are superior to women and that their own self-interest lies not in relationships with women but in those with men, however damaging individual female-male relationships may be. The two women share a minority-group psychological orientation which compels them to depreciate their femaleness and their friendship and seek approval from and identification with men. This fact becomes clear when Ella describes the contempt she feels for the magazine for which she works and even for the stories she writes because they are "feminine." The two women also reveal this self-deprecatory orientation by blaming only themselves for troubles to which men have contributed, as Julia wryly recognizes.

Ella judges that the future without a man is unimaginable. But she hates the parties she has to go to in order to meet men because the parties make her aware of the fact that she is "on the market again." Neither Ella nor Julia, however, thinks that there is any use indulging in complaint over this fact. Julia says, "It's no good taking that attitude—that's how everything is run, isn't it?" The two women thus dismiss their feelings, convinced that they have no legitimate grounds for complaint and that complaining would only be self-pity.

The pattern of opposition between feelings and judgment is shown in particularly high relief when Dr. West, Ella's employer, tries to start an affair with her while his wife is away. When she refuses, he turns to the other women in his office and finally to the eldest, who is grateful and flattered. Ella's spontaneous reaction is to become "angry on behalf of her sex," but she quickly turns away this feeling, telling herself that the emotion really is "rooted in a resentment that has nothing to do with Dr. West," a resentment which she sees as shameful. Ella retreats from sympathizing with the older woman for fear of "cutting off some possibility for herself." She feels a natural bond with other women but judges solidarity with them dangerous because it is to men that women, she believes, must turn for any advantages which they may gain.

"Sometimes," says Julia, "I think we're all in a sort of sexual mad house." But Ella tries to quash this rebellious reaction in her friend and in herself: "My dear Julia, we've chosen to be free women, and this is the price we pay, that's all." Neither woman considers actually fighting back; there is no visible solidarity among women which would sanction and support such rebellion. Moreover, their analysis of the situation is fundamentally apolitical. For example, Ella says that unlike men, women cannot obtain sexual satisfaction without love, and that therefore the inequality in sexual relations is inherent. Neither woman sees that the vulnerability she feels may be caused not by some kind of fixed biological or psychological difference between the sexes, but by the fact that in a culture in which sex is still apt to be viewed as a kind of conquest for the man, the psychologically healthy woman cannot afford to experience sexual relations without asking love in return to even the bargain. Ella and Julia know that the kind of sex offered them is a threat to their dignity and self-respect. They cannot act directly while holding the apolitical view they do of female-male relations, but neither is willing simply to capitulate—hence their bickering and criticism of men and Ella's inability to function sexually unless she is in love.

Most of Ella's keenest observations are followed by turnings away, efforts to escape the essentially political consequences of their logic. She is very much afraid that her perceptions, because feminist, are illegitimate and inconsistent with the broader humanism to which she is committed. But the woman who has permitted herself to consider the real extent of her oppression as a woman, and has stopped being ashamed of her anger and bitterness before asking of herself the humanism to view men as co-victims of the cultural web of power patterns, is one phenomenon. Quite another is the Lessing woman, who consistently tells herself that her oppression is her own fault or an unchangeable condition to which one must gracefully resign oneself. She refuses to face and deal with the anger always just under the surface and forces herself not only to regard men as co-victims, but to sympathize with them against the healthy interests of her own sex.

It is only in the vignettes Ella writes that she shows the willingness to describe, albeit indirectly, the reality of female-male relations as she has experienced them. The vignettes are about Ella's openness to men as persons, her desire to communicate with them as people both sexually and emotionally, and their refusal to relate on this personal basis to her and to love. Ella grasps the fact that this refusal in the men to connect sex and love (and thus integrate the emotional and sexual components of personality) is a sickness. But she fails to make the connection between the fact that society teaches men not to allow themselves to be fully trusting, open, and involved emotionally with women and her observation that men ask women for refuge, strength, commitment, and loyal support while withholding these things from them. Neither of the women in The Golden Notebook connects this male fear of reciprocity to prevailing concepts of masculinity. Neither does either woman see that healthy men may retreat from women rather than try to fill the emptiness and assuage the self-contempt women often feel because, having internalized the prevailing social estimate of femaleness, they feel incomplete and inferior as persons.

Ella's relationship with Paul gives the reader even more convincing proof that the pattern of her psychic life is withdrawal from and censorship of her perceptions, of failure to live an authentic existence. Believing that female-male relationships are inherently unequal and therefore not susceptible to transformation, she seeks to justify the inequalities so that she may convince herself to accept them without the resentment and rebellion she constantly feels.

She senses and resents, for instance, Paul's will to dominate her. But Ella, like the other women in this book who are confronted with the choice of taking a man on terms which are less than egalitarian or of turning away from him to uphold her own terms, chooses the man on his own terms. When a sexual relationship is offered, she is unable to refuse because the terms available are the only ones imaginable to her. She does not make any attempt to change the basis of relating from exploitation to genuine egalitarian friendship and love. The idea that she could refuse to deal with men in the style suggested by their behavior does not occur to her. Rebellion and self-assertion are present in her propensities for condemning men with Julia and for feeling mistreated and hurt, but she tries to hide from herself the kinds of thoughts which encourage these propensities. Thus Ella perceives that part of Paul's personality is rakish, corrupting, and detrimental to her dignity, but she refuses to connect this part of him with the rest, which she calls his true self. His rakishness, she tells herself, "was on a level that not only had nothing to do with the simplicity and ease of their being together; but betrayed it so completely that she had no alternative but to ignore it. Otherwise she would have had to break with him." She is happy only when she does not think about the ugly aspects of their relationship. Anna writes of her, "she drifted along on a soft tide of not-thinking." At one point Paul's behavior makes her envision his paying her money as if she were a prostitute: "It was somewhere implicit in his attitude." But Ella pushes the thought away: "What's that got to do with all these hours we've been together, when every look and move he's made told me he loved me?"

After five years as Paul's mistress, Ella begins to be disturbed by thoughts about his wife and not only stops feeling triumph over her for having captured her husband, but envies her. Ella builds up a picture of the other woman as a "serene, calm, unjealous, unenvious, undemanding woman, full of resources of happiness inside herself, self-sufficient, yet always ready to give happiness when it is asked for." She realizes that this picture is not derived from what Paul says about his wife, but that this is the kind of woman she herself would like to be, especially since she has grown aware and afraid of the extent of her dependence upon Paul. It is interesting to note that Ella's idea of a defense against her own dependency is selflessness, the old ideal of the woman as giver who does not require gifts for herself. She is incapable of thinking of less self-damaging ways than self-abnegation to reduce her vulnerability. Significantly it is not because Ella wishes to respect herself more for being a complete, self-sufficient, self-motivated person that she admires and envies this figure; it is because she envisions such a woman as relatively invulnerable to being hurt by people like Paul. The attraction to the figure has a negative motive, as all of Ella's emotional life is negative, because she does not allow her spontaneous reactions to her experience to govern her behavior and shape her values.

When Paul finally leaves Ella, she is devastated. She feels "as if a skin had been peeled off her" and realizes that the relationship was not free for her, as she had thought, simply because she had remained unmarried; nor was it really a love relationship, since it pulled her out of herself, unbalanced and diminished her, and proved altogether a destructive experience with regard to her self-respect and firmness of identity. Openly she admits, "I am unhappy because I have lost some kind of independence, some freedom," and she acknowledges that her attitude toward Paul has been "dishonest." But then Ella turns away from this realization. She concludes that it is not Paul, or society's sexual mores and views, but she herself who is to blame for the failure she feels.

Ella's life is a long series of encounters with the unhappy dislocation between the sexes, the implications of which neither Ella nor her creator Anna can face. The extraordinary amount of energy Ella expends in interpreting her relationships with men and compartmentalizing, disapproving of, and suppressing her feelings is a good indication of the seriousness of the discrepancy between what Ella is capable of perceiving and what she can afford to admit to herself, and therefore of her alienation from her perceptions and distance from personal authenticity.

The pattern of alienation, of withdrawal from authenticity, is also apparent in the Anna-Molly spectrum of The Golden Notebook. The two women allow Molly's ex-husband and son to bully them despite the fact that they are aware that the two men are hurting them. They extend friendship to other men who also mistreat them, such as Nelson, de Silva, Willi, George, and Paul, who are sadists and misogynists. In connection with one of these relationships Anna comments, "Sometimes I dislike women, I dislike us all, because of our capacity for not-thinking when it suits us; we choose not to think when we are reaching out for happiness." Again one sees Anna turning the anger she feels at being ill-used against herself and other women and refusing to curtail relationships with men which damage her. One could interpret her responses to these men as humanistic in the profoundest sense—as evidence of a mature ability to see that no human being is all good or bad, that most have something to offer which redeems at least in part that which is ugly in them. But such a view misses the crucial point here, which is that Anna and Molly have legitimate cause for anger, and that they feel the anger but believe it to be an illegitimate reaction to their experiences. Their behavior is inconsistent with their real self-interest and shows them once again to be alienated from themselves.

With her two rabidly antiwoman homosexual tenants, Anna permits some of her anger to surface and links their attitudes toward women with those of men in general. "The mockery," she says, "the defence of the homosexual, was nothing more than the polite over-gallantry of a ‘real’ man, the ‘normal’ man who intends to set bounds to his relationship with a woman, consciously or not." She continues, "It was the same cold, evasive emotion, taken a step further; there was a difference in degree but not in kind." But Anna, true to form, then criticizes herself for her anger and feels unfree to oust the tenants simply because they are so disagreeable to her. Finally she also rejects her perception of the connection between the tenants' attitudes toward women and those of men in general. Deciding to throw one tenant out so her daughter will not be damaged by his misogyny, she declares that her daughter is someday to have a "real" man, implying that the attitudes toward women of "real" men are not, after all, classifiable as damaging as she had spontaneously remarked.

The discrepancy between Anna's spontaneous perceptions and superimposed judgments is even clearer with regard to two men at a further remove from her: one who follows her out of the subway and another who exposes himself to her. Her immediate reaction to both is, naturally, fright. On second thought she tells herself that something is abnormal about her. "This happens every day, this is living in the city," she says, refusing to indict a society in which such treatment of women is to be expected.

The discrepancy is most obvious, however, in Anna's major relationships with men. With Michael, she is periodically happy and resentful. She resents his inability to accept her as a writer and a responsible mother and his refusal to give her the kind of unmeasured love and support he asks of her. She also resents the fact that because he is a man, the petty details of his life are taken care of for him by women, whereas because she is a woman, her life is composed largely of seeing to the details of others' needs. Anna calls this resentment the "housewife's disease." But instead of facing squarely the fact that she resents Michael because he is a holder of the privileges which accrue to males in a patriarchal society and is taking advantage of this fact and of her, she turns her anger away, depersonalizing and depoliticizing it. She tells herself the anger has nothing to do with Michael. It is "impersonal," the disease "of women in our time" which is evident in their faces and voices, a protest against injustice, but nevertheless a protest which should be fought down and not on any account turned against men. The idea is that one must adjust rather than act in one's own self-interest to change the system.

With Saul the relationship is more complex because he alternates communicating with Anna on a very high level with misogynistic, hostile withdrawal from her. But the pattern still holds. For example, at one point she gets angry enough to explode at him for referring to women and sex in demeaning terms. But predictably there follows the retraction, the denial of legitimacy of her own spontaneous emotion. She feels "ridiculous" and softens toward Saul. As with Michael, Anna is ambivalent, but she only accepts her positive feelings for him.

Anna sees that any relationship structured along the lines of the heterosexual model of our culture, as are the female-male relationships in The Golden Notebook, pits the interests of women and men against each other, women being driven to need and grasp for security and protection and men resisting being drawn into the restrictive role of provider: "I am the position of women in our time." But although she is aware of this separation of interests, and also of the rhythm of alternating love and hate in her relationships with men, she never connects these two phenomena. And because she does not make this connection, the sexual pain which she experiences never is recognized as a problem susceptible of solution, a problem calling for remedial action. Thus when Saul vents hatred upon her, Anna does not act to alter the situation. Instead she follows her preestablished pattern, turning her anger and frustration in upon herself. Instead of defending herself from his attacks, she disparages herself for the very strength with which she meets them. "I longed," she writes, "to be free of my own ordering, commenting memory." Her stomach clenches and her back hurts, but she does not connect these details with the fact that her refusal to act in her own self-interest hurts her and is making her lose her sense of personal worth and identity. She relates the physical ills rather to Saul's hostility. The solution to the pain is thus made to lie with him and not with herself; she adopts the posture of a helpless victim instead of acting to bring herself relief.

Anna is aware that what is wrong between her and Saul is a problem common to women. She wonders to herself what it is that women need and are not getting from men and senses that perhaps this unfulfilled need is the cause of the note of betrayal that women strike in this era. But predictably, instead of permitting herself to conclude that this "note" is legitimate, she disparages women by describing it as self-pity, a "hateful emotion" which is "solemn" and "wet." She never really stands up for herself as a woman and never opts out of the self-damaging collusion of tolerating and playing a role in the submission-dominance syndrome which is the leitmotiv of female-male relations in patriarchal societies. The only approach to the problem which she feels legitimate is described in her dream about Saul as a tiger. The tiger claws her and she sympathizes with it instead of with herself; she then concretizes this approach in the image of flying above the tiger's cage: it is legitimate to try to "rise above" the situation, but not to change it.

As she views the imaginary movie composed of scenes from her past life, Anna realizes that the meaning with which she has endowed each scene has been "all false." She finds that the judgments she has been making have ordered the material "to fit what I knew" rather than emerging in a direct response to her experience. But she never escapes her pattern of self-punishment and alienation. The novel ends with Molly getting married although she knows "the exact dimensions of the bed" and with Anna entering marriage counseling work and the teaching of delinquent children. There is a "small silence" as the two women together contemplate their capitulation, their integration "with British life at its roots."

The Golden Notebook, therefore, reveals the peculiar problem of the woman writer working in a climate of assumptions and sympathies about women and sex roles which do not support female authenticity. The woman writer in this situation is unlikely to conceive of the relative status of women and men in political terms; prevailing opinion convinces her that the condition of women in society is rooted in biological and psychological immutables. She may, nevertheless, be acutely sensitive to and resentful of the power dynamics which characterize female-male relations, aware to a large extent of what we have come to call sexual politics. If so, she finds herself on the horns of a dilemma: she cannot completely deny her awareness, but, unencouraged by any cultural sanction for those of her perceptions which are, at the deepest level, feminist and potentially political, she doubts these perceptions and feels they are indicative of some aberration or defect in herself. It is not necessary to assume that this book is autobiographical to arrive at the idea that Lessing, and not simply her characters Anna and Ella, is confronting this dilemma. Lessing has so conceived the book that nowhere within it are Anna's and Ella's judgments of their experiences implied to be anything but unavoidable.

The overriding weakness of The Golden Notebook is alienation from the authentic female perspective, a perspective which repeatedly is clearly sketched in and then smeared by the censor in Lessing. The discrepancy between the perceptions and the alien standards which are imposed upon them seriously flaws the novel. But at the same time, the tension produced by this discrepancy makes the book a superb rendering of that state of alienation from themselves, from authentic selfhood, to which women, like blacks and members of other minority groups, are subjected until they find solidarity and begin to confirm and legitimize their experience. In addition, Lessing's study of the malaise and dislocation between the sexes in Western society does set a very important precedent in literature because it examines the relationship between women and men so humanistically and analytically, in such great detail and variety, and with a good faith which never permits a descent into vituperation or abuse.

Source: Ellen Morgan, "Alienation of the Woman Writer in The Golden Notebook," in Doris Lessing: Critical Studies, edited by Annis Pratt and L. S. Dembo, University of Wisconsin Press, 1974, pp. 54-63.


Brown, Sandra, "‘Where Words, Patterns, Order, Dissolve’: The Golden Notebook as Fugue," in Approaches to Teaching Lessing's The Golden Notebook, edited by Carey Kaplan and Ellen Cronan Rose, Modern Language Association of America, 1989, pp. 121-26.

Buckler, Ernest, "Against the Terror, the Spirit of Sisyphus," in the New York Times, July 1, 1962, p. 158.

Carey, John L., "Art and Reality in The Golden Notebook," in Doris Lessing: Critical Studies, University of Wisconsin Press, 1974, pp. 20-39.

Klein, Carole, Doris Lessing: A Biography, Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2000.

Leonard, John, "More on Lessing," in the New York Times, May 13, 1973, p. 385.

Lessing, Doris, The Golden Notebook, Perennial Classics, HarperCollins, 1999.

Locke, Richard, "In Praise of Doris Lessing," in the New York Times, October 21, 1972, p. 31.


Fishburn, Katherine, The Unexpected Universe of Doris Lessing: A Study in Narrative Technique, Greenwood Press, 1985.

Fishburn examines Lessing's science fiction in order to identify the author's underlying philosophies. Significant influences on Lessing, Fishburn finds, are Marxism and Sufism. Fishburn then demonstrates how these philosophies shaped the various narrators and imaginary worlds in Lessing's work.

Galin, Muge, Between East and West: Sufism in the Novels of Doris Lessing, State University of New York Press, 1997.

The spiritual beliefs of Sufism greatly inspired much of Lessing's writing. In this study by Galin, readers come to understand the basic principles of Sufism and are then shown how these beliefs influenced Lessing's novels.

Hague, Angela, Fiction, Intuition, and Creativity: Studies in Brontë, James, Woolf, and Lessing, Catholic University of America Press, 2003.

Hague examines the writing of four major authors in her exploration of literary creativity. Included are notes on Hague's research into philosophy and psychology, in particular the studies of Jung and psychologist William James.

Newman, Michael, Socialism: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2005.

Newman presents a very enlightening view of socialism, how it has been manifested in the past, and what it might hold for the future. This is a very readable text that provides insightful information as well as Newman's thoughts on what socialism would look like in the United States.

Smith, Sharon, Women and Socialism: Essays on Women's Liberation, Haymarket Books, 2005.

Smith is the author of many studies on women and socialism. In this book she looks at what she defines as a lack of progress in the women's movement since the 1960s. Smith also explores how socialism can aid the feminist movement.

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