The Golden Notebook


Write a note on how Anna, Molly and Marion individually reflect various kinds of women’s struggles. What vision of freedom for women does The Golden Notebook offer?


The novel The Golden Notebook has been written by Zimbabwean-British writer and novelist Doris Lessing and was published in 1962. It is about a British Communist, writer and “free woman” namely Anna Wulf and is set in the time frame between 1920s and 1950s. The novel, in its multifaceted narratorial nuances and depths, presents the familial, social and political aspects of a single mother, Anna and brings into the light the fragmented subjectivities of individuals with respect to Communism, Art and Gender roles; one of these aspects focuses on the position of women in England during the first half of twentieth century where the patriarchal structures were being challenged and subverted by women.


In The Golden Notebook, the three major women characters are Anna, her friend Molly and the latter’s ex-husband Richard’s wife Marion; through the portrayal of their individual struggles against “sexual apartheid” the novel becomes “an anatomy of woman’s independence and the impediments to it.” 1. The two friends Anna and Molly are single mothers, intelligent communists, sexually liberated and economically independent but their transgressive ways are critiqued by their own children, Janet and Tommy. On the other hand, Marion is the typical Bourgeois wife who is bound by the normative ethics of her class and gender and is supposed to be a submissive wife and the “nursemaid” to Richard’s children. From the onset of the novel with the first “Free Women” section, the two archetypes of contemporary women in Anna-Molly duo and Marion are foregrounded; the “kind of women” who don’t have much “historical precedents and present company” 1. and the other kind who is a victim of the bourgeois patriarchal husband’s infidelity and repression. The novel explores Marion’s realisation of her oppressive marriage with Richard and Anna’s breakdown in an attempt to unify her identity as a free woman in pursuit of love.


The individual struggles of the women characters in the face of conventional marriage as the ‘normal’ in The Golden Notebook presents the “modern crisis in marriage, its evident failure as a social institution, and the evident failure of men too as possible mates.” 2. Richard failed to be loyal to Marion and continuously cheated on her by falling in love “with a type, something that fits his box.” Marion’s marriage to Richard in that sense had limited her individuality to the caretaker of his children who can’t step out of the marriage for the sake of the children. She has to act within the domestic realm of bourgeois ethics to repel criticism from her class, as represented by her own mother and sisters. This drives her to melancholic and malign alcoholism; a state from which she is in a way redeemed by her relationship with her step-son Tommy. Even though, Tommy is the authoritarian figure in the relationship and Marion in a way parrots his politically liberal social-democratic propaganda against the violence in Africa, she gets a chance to subvert the domesticity she was earlier “wrapped up in”.


In contrast to Marion’s situation, Anna and Molly’s lives of independence and self-reliance without male assistance become a voluntary action of rebellion against the societal norm. Both of them are “uprooted intellectuals” who “question the male sufficiency”2. in a woman’s life. However, they are confronted by the dual problems of loss of individuality and motherhood in the process.


Anna is an emancipated woman who in her youth feared “the trappings of domesticity” that came with marriage. By the time, she becomes older and has already had a daughter from a failed marriage with the man she loved, Michael, she begins to tussle between the need to have love in her life from a “real man” and the possible “loss of self and a relinquishing of identity and will to a usurping male.”1. In her relationship with Michael there is a deep impact upon her identity. Time and again, she is torn between a mother who has to tend to her daughter Janet, a mistress who has to return Michael’s sexual advances, a wife who has to cook food and clean the house and the working woman who has to work at the party office even if she’s menstruating. While describing this domesticity, Anna writes in the Blue Notebook-


“It must be about six o’ clock. My knees are tense…as the ‘housewife’s disease’ has taken hold of me…I must-dress-Janet-get-her-breakfast-send-her-off-to-school-get-Michael’s breakfast-don’t-forget-I’m-out-of-tea etc etc.”


Anna’s anxiety and vulnerability in this relationship is reflected in her fictional foil, Ella- a character that she created in her fragmented piece, Shadow of the Third in the Yellow Notebook. Ella, like her creator, is a single mother who has been rejected and cheated in love by her supposed “real man” Paul.


Anna and Molly’s idea of single parenthood is critiqued by their children. At one hand Anna’s daughter, Janet expresses the wish to step out of her mother’s image by going to boarding school like her other friends, wear “uniform” and have a ‘normal’ life. On the other hand, Molly’s son, Tommy ends up being a cynical Liberal who wants to fight for the cause of suffering Africans before an attempted suicide blinds him forever. His self becomes a battleground of struggle between his divorced parents, the right-winger Richard and the communist Molly.


As Tonya Krouse argues, the women in the novel are exposed to two primary forms of freedom- freedom in the sense of a “unified, integrated subject’s refusal to live according to the societal conventions” and freedom in the sense of “‘cracking up’ that accompanies the breakdown of social conventions an the disintegration of individual subjectivities.”3. While Anna and Molly assert the former kind of freedom from the beginning of the novel, Marion starts to assert her independence from the bourgeois norms much later. But it is Anna who undergoes a “breakdown” of the self because of the political, social and familial chaos she’s surrounded by. Her more than frequent assertions of her belief that everything around her was “cracking up” undercuts the former definition of freedom and opens up the realm of insanity and madness which Doris Lessing claims to be the intended theme of the novel.


The Golden Notebook illustrates the struggles in the lives of early twentieth century Western women- of women who demanded their rights and asserted their individuality divorced from the normative gender roles and of women who were unable to realise the state of semi-slavery they were subjected to in the patriarchal Western society.






Bibliography and References:

  1. Sukenick, Lynn: “Feeling and Reason in Doris Lessing’s Fiction” (1973)
  2. Spilka, Mark: “Lawrence and Lessing: The Battle of the Sexes” (1975)
  3. Krouse, Tonya: “Freedom as Effacement in The Golden Notebook: Theorizing Pleasure, Subjectivity, and Authority.” (2006)
  4. Kaplan, Sydney Janet: “The Limits of Consciousness in the Novels of Doris Lessing” (1973)

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