Lessing, Doris: Title Commentary

views updated


The Golden Notebook

The Golden Notebook


SOURCE: Brooks, Ellen W. "The Image of Woman in Lessing's The Golden Notebook." Critique 15, no. 1 (1973): 101-09.

In the following essay, Brooks studies Anna, the protagonist of The Golden Notebook, as she struggles to transcend her divided self and archetypal female roles in order to emerge as a more aware, liberated woman.

Doris Lessing is one of the most wide-ranging and comprehensive of contemporary novelists. Her strong, straightforward prose has embraced a number of modern social, political, and psychological questions. However, the immense appeal of Lessing's fiction rests largely on her treatment of woman in modern life, the most thorough and accurate of any in literature. Her achievement is all the more significant in that so few writers have presented women with whom one can identify—complex, intelligent, questioning women who are not content with the status quo, who rebel against the established order.

The female protagonists in Lessing's major work are complex human beings, their personalities the embodiment of that fragmentation and chaos which the novelist sees as a fundamental feature of modern life. Profound biological and emotional needs, as well as established conventions and attitudes, mold the woman into patterns of behavior which her intellect and desire for self-determination reject. A sense of an implacable destiny as a woman runs counter to a longing for bold self-assertion as an individual. Her women frequently appear as helpless onlookers, sensitive to conditions around them, longing to act, to take control, yet compelled by their dependent natures and narrowly defined social roles to remain passive observers. Their dilemma may fill them with rage and resentment, stoic resignation, or coldness and apathy. Compromises and adjustments are frequently made, always with a sense of loss. The drive to overcome inner divisions may lead them to madness, to withdrawal, or toward greater involvement with life through intense personal relations, artistic or political activity, or deep self-analysis. The strongest of Lessing's women move toward integration through fully experiencing their psychic divisions, achieving "breakthrough" through "breakdown."1 The supreme example of the divided woman—fragmented between her emotional needs and her intellect—is Anna Wulf, the protagonist of Lessing's most psychologically complex novel, The Golden Notebook. Highly intelligent and sensitive, she is deeply involved with the modern world and very responsive to its atmosphere of violence and personal betrayals. She is in her thirties, divorced, living in the London of the early 1950's with her young daughter, Janet. A former Communist and a writer with one successful novel to her credit, she is attempting to overcome a "writer's block," stemming from her ethical objections to spreading her disgust with the world. Having been discarded by a man with whom she was deeply in love, she conceals her pain beneath a jaunty, tightly controlled, slightly sardonic social mask.

The intricately structured novel moves into the past to explore the events which lead to Anna's psychic impasse, through the medium of four notebooks, a paradigm of her divided self, in which she records her experiences and outlines the plots of stories based on those problems too harrowing for her to confront directly. The action also moves forward in the present, to chart the working out of her psychological deadlock through the breakdown of her tight mental defenses, symbolized by her fusing all of her experience in one notebook, a golden one. Through being discarded by one man, Michael, she recognizes the extent of her vulnerability and weakness as a woman; her relationship with another man, Saul Green, enables her to overcome her inner divisions and regain a degree of strength and independence.

Although Anna calls herself a "free" woman, her freedom is more of an aspiration than a reality. She allows herself considerable sexual independence, yet she is bound by a deep emotional need for "being with one man, love, all that,"2 which she attributes to her generalized condition as woman. During the course of her sessions with a Jungian therapist, nicknamed "Mother Sugar," Anna has learned to distinguish that part of herself which she shares with other women, her collective aspects. Identifying her "woman's emotions" as impersonal, as separate from her unique, individual self, she thus robs them of the power to overwhelm her.

Anna realizes that "women's emotions are still fitted for a kind of society that no longer exists," for a woman's deep need for love cannot be satisfied in the "careful, non-committal affairs" of modern life (314). Her frustration generates feelings of betrayal, of resentment against men:

For there is no doubt of the new note women strike, the note of being betrayed. It's in the books they write, in how they speak, everywhere, all the time. It is a solemn, self-pitying organ note. It is in me, Anna betrayed, Anna unloved, Anna whose happiness is denied, and who says, not: Why do you deny me, but why do you deny life?


She recognizes such emotion as "the disease of women in our time … resentment against injustice, an impersonal one" (333).

Anna is deeply divided by the split between two distinct aspects of her personality: these collective, non-personal elements, and her intelligence, her will to independence and freedom. She knows that many of these "woman's emotions" are both anachronistic and irrational, and she fights to avoid self-pity or resentment, knowing how easily she could fall into the trap of the "man-hating spinster." Her struggles to overcome these emotions, to break out of her embittered role as "Anna betrayed," form the dynamics of the novel. The conflict between the various aspects of her fragmented personality drives her deeper into the chaotic underworld of her inner self. Her restless, probing, analyzing spirit gradually brings her to an awareness of the inner equivalent of outer violence. Not until she gives vent to these dormant, repressed parts of her self, the various manifestations of the woman's emotion, in her relationship with Saul Green is she able to gain a sense of control, of ability to direct her life.

However, Anna recognizes that her generalized nature as a woman, generating a cold hostility, a fierce anger that cuts her off from life and robs her of her potential, has also a positive aspect, enabling her to empathize with others, particularly women, whose problems affect her immediately and deeply, for they are her own. The "woman's emotion" is linked with the creative imagination, giving Anna a faith in growth and change that enables her to see life in terms of phases, certain stages lived through and then transcended.

Anna's receptivity, her openness to the prevailing moods of society, is part of the vulnerability of her generalized condition as woman. Observing that she is cold and detached with men who are also cold and detached, she realizes: "Of course it's him, not me. For men create these things. They create us," although her characteristic desire to transcend her limitations makes her wonder "Why should this be true?" (501). The fact that "the man's desire creates a woman's desire" (456) implies emotional dependency, a curtailing of personal freedom, lack of initiative. In general, the "woman's emotion" warps the relationship between the sexes, putting women into placating, mothering, essentially submissive roles to "build up a man as a man" (484), an expression of compassion but also of masochism, inviting rejection from men and robbing women of their will:

No, what terrifies me is my willingness. It is what Mother Sugar would call the "negative side" of the woman's need to placate, to submit. Now I am not Anna. I have no will, I can't move out of a situation once it has started, I just go along with it.


Although Anna is gifted with a keen analytic mind and independent judgment, her non-rational self is directed by her relations with men, rather than by her intellect. She recognizes that her happiness is centered in a man: "The truth is I don't care a damn about politics or philosophy or anything else, all I care about is that Michael should turn in the dark and put his face against my breasts" (229).



The Golden Notebook has, of course, been seen as a book about Women's Liberation, and with good cause. The title of the novel-within-a-novel, "Free Women," indicates that this is at least one of her subjects. How could it not be? It goes without saying that Doris Lessing is in favor of the liberation of women, and thinks that it has not yet come about. She has worked hard for her own liberty, and says that women who allow themselves to be bullied by men who call them "unfeminine" and "castrating" deserve all they get.

Drabble, Margaret. "Doris Lessing: Cassandra in a World under Siege." Ramparts 10, no. 8 (February 1972).

The breakup with Michael drastically alters her life. She realizes that "being rejected by Michael … had changed … my whole personality" (476). Deprived of his support, her assurance and immunity to outside pressure collapse—her fears threaten to engulf her. A hostile, critical defensiveness develops in her manner. However, Anna expresses the softer aspects of her collective self as woman in her writing, in their embodiment in Ella, the heroine of a sketch for a novel. She is a gentler, less devastating version of the "woman in love" that Anna becomes in her relationship with Saul Green. Thus, Anna transmutes her suffering in the act of creation. In her writing she expresses "an intuition of some kind; a kind of intelligence … that is much too painful to use in ordinary life" (572). In fact, Anna admits that "my changing everything into fiction is simply a means of concealing something from myself" (229).

Ella lives out Anna's feelings, suffering the extremes of emotion while Anna remains her "thin, spiky self," the facade rarely cracking to show the turbulence beneath. While Ella experiences the elation of falling in love and the despair of being discarded, Anna is seeking treatment for the inability to feel: "I've had experiences which should have touched me and they haven't" (232). Through Ella's experience with Paul Tanner, Anna anticipates the end of her love affair with Michael, preparing herself for it unconsciously.

In the sketch for a novel, Ella is instantly attracted to Paul, "her real self open to him" (182). Trusting him, she makes love to him. Yet, after their lovemaking, he treats her with malice and suspicion, becoming for a time a hostile stranger. She calls this side of his nature his "negative personality" and chooses to ignore it. In order to respond fully to him, she must submit totally, suppressing the "knowing, doubting, sophisticated" self that would have shielded her against his "negative personality."

After writing this sketch, Anna recognizes her own naivete with Michael, an aspect of herself she does not acknowledge until she sees it in the full scope of her novel about Ella. Both Anna and Ella, her creation, exhibit a fragmented consciousness in their ignoring those traits of their respective lovers that do not fit into their vision of perfection, and thus each woman submits to an almost inevitable pattern of victimization.

By sacrificing her independent judgment and will in her love for a man, the woman becomes radically transformed, losing her sense of identity as a single individual and depending on him as a sole source of happiness and security. The irony is that what is most important to her, her love, becomes ultimately destructive, involving her in a web of self-deception and robbing her of emotional strength. However, a life without love is untenable. Not only does Anna feel worthless without love, but her idea of love is tied up with a sense of meaning and value in life, a bulwark against the underlying threat of nothingness, the dead end of not caring whether one is mad or sane.

In Lessing's view, men and women do not really confront each other, for they define each other according to vastly different needs, shaping reality to fit the pattern of their desires. Women, depending on men for happiness, deny their men's deficiencies. Men, in contrast, do not spare their women, using them as sexual scapegoats and viewing them as threatening, dominating mother figures, separating them into categories of conventional wife or sexual playmate, playing one off against the other. The "free" woman is an escape from the "dull tied wife," limited by her confinement to domestic routine. The high level of intelligence demonstrated by the men in The Golden Notebook is sharply at odds with their emotional insecurity, their need to enforce submission, their aggressive cruelty in the face of frustration. Frequently, they perceive women not as particular individuals, but as types of generalized woman. Some are capable of great sensitivity toward women, but at times their rationality vanishes under the force of a need to abuse and destroy, a kind of unmotivated spite, the "joy in malice" that Anna senses at the root of life. In short, both men and women share in the violence of the modern world by playing their opposing roles of oppressor and oppressed.

The ultimate expression of these archetypal roles is the relationship between Anna and Saul Green, the ex-Communist who moves in with her for several weeks, whose personality is even more dislocated and divided than her own. The relationship is the culmination of all the previous patterns of Anna's life—the desperate reaching out for love met by the cold evasiveness of the man, the pleasure of giving and receiving pain, the rapid shifting in and out of roles. She, attracted to the magnetic field of conflict, is galvanized by Saul, almost helplessly thrust into opposing roles. Their complementary needs bind them tightly in a parasitic relationship, a revolving cycle of aggression and cruelty arousing jealousy and guilt, giving way to tenderness and passion. As Anna begins to understand the process, the inevitable sequence of behavior, she senses that "something has to be played out, some pattern has to be worked through" (583).

Initially, both are trapped in the mechanisms of roles which serve as an outlet for their rage at an unsatisfactory world, she as the "woman betrayed," he as the "sardonic rake," a callous womanizer. Her deep need for happiness with a man renders her vulnerable and helpless; upon being rejected, she converts her pain into bitterness and resentment. He has fastened on women as "the jailors, the consciences, the voice of society" (630), authority figures whom he must outwit. Yet, he is caught in the process—he must first charm them and win them over, so that he can lash back at them for attempting to claim him.

By releasing her pent-up emotions, her long repressed destructive urges, Anna lets go of her tight mental control. No longer questioning and criticizing her hostile feelings, she releases her suppressed anger as the "woman betrayed," feeling jealousy drive "through every vein of my body like poison" (586). Through participating in Saul's many shifts of identity and mood, she recognizes the full potential of her being, her capacity to experience a whole spectrum of emotions and selves. She does not block off parts of her awareness, expressing her intuitions through a fictional surrogate, as she had in her previous affair. Although she again becomes helplessly submerged in another's personality—the rhythm of her moods dependent on his, she is able to simultaneously stand aloof from her experience and analyze it. She plays a dual role as observer and observed, watching herself as though she were a character in a novel.

The interaction of both aspects of her self, a synthesis of opposites, provides the forward thrust, the movement into deeper levels of self-knowledge. Gradually, Anna becomes less personally pained and disturbed by Saul and more deeply involved with him, using his madness as a catalyst for her own inward journey. Thus, she comes to acknowledge her part in shaping her life and is able to transcend the role of victim, freeing herself from the sense of "doom, fate, inevitability" that has oppressed her. Viewing her experience with a degree of objectivity and holding on to her belief in growth and change, she is released from the tight grip of the present and views herself from the perspective of the future. Her awareness that she is in the middle of a "period," she realizes, will move her on to a new stage of development.

In resisting the "betrayal" of pity for Saul and ultimately refusing to play the "mother role," in breaking out of the clinging dependency of the "woman's emotion," Anna "twists" the pattern of her life. She is able to let him go, because she realizes their ultimate fusion. Together they have stretched themselves to the limit, testing the belief that "anything is possible" (566). Playing "every man-woman role imaginable," they overcome the isolation of the fragmented consciousness. They transcend the man-woman dichotomy, realizing their human bi-sexuality. Hurling themselves into the experience, they feel the extremes of terror and happiness, living out Anna's belief: "Better anything than the shrewd, the calculated, the non-committal, the refusal of giving for fear of the consequence" (546).

Ultimately, the "woman's emotion"—empathy and concern for another, firmly guided by a strong intelligence—enables Anna to extend the limits of her being. Thus, the man-woman relationship in Doris Lessing's fiction, although destructive in its conventional forms, can serve as a vehicle for self-knowledge, for overcoming one's divisions, and enabling one to live as fully as possible. Paradoxically, Anna, through becoming tightly bound to another, becomes liberated. Her expanded consciousness, however, is achieved only by moving beyond the established values, roles, and institutions, for these are the means by which humanity is fragmented and separated. Considerable courage is required, involving great risk—the chance of total disintegration through experiencing the full extent of one's inner chaos and that of another.


  1. R.D. Laing, The Politics of Experience (New York: Ballantine Books, 1968), p. 133.
  2. Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook (New York: Ballantine Books, 1968), p. 625. Subsequent references are to this edition.

About this article

Lessing, Doris: Title Commentary

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article