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Free Women: One
Anna meets her friend Molly in the summer of 1957 after a separation
The two women were alone in the London flat.
'The point is,' said Anna, as her friend came back from the telephone on the landing, 'the point is, that as far as I can see, everything's cracking up.'
Molly was a woman much on the telephone. When it rang she had just inquired: 'Well, what's the gossip?' Now she said, 'That's Richard, and he's coming over. It seems today's his only free moment for the next month. Or so he insists.'
'Well I'm not leaving,' said Anna.
'No, you stay just where you are.'
Molly considered her own appearance--she was wearing trousers and a sweater, both the worse for wear. 'He'll have to take me as I come,' she concluded, and sat down by the window. 'He wouldn't say what it's about--another crisis with Marion, I suppose.'
'Didn't he write to you?' asked Anna, cautious.
'Both he and Marion wrote--ever such bonhomous letters. Odd, isn't it?'
This odd, isn't it? was the characteristic note of the intimate conversations they designated gossip. But having struck the note, Molly swerved off with: 'It's no use talking now, because he's coming right over, he says.'
'He'll probably go when he sees me here,' said Anna, cheerfully, but slightly aggressive. Molly glanced at her, keenly, and said: 'Oh, but why?'
It had always been understood that Anna and Richard disliked each other; and before Anna had always left when Richard was expected. Now Molly said: 'Actually I think he rather likes you, in his heart of hearts. The point is,he's committed to liking me, on principle--he's such a fool he's always got to either like or dislike someone, so all the dislike he won't admit he has for me gets pushed off on to you.'
'It's a pleasure,' said Anna. 'But do you know something? I discovered while you were away that for a lot of people you and I are practically interchangeable.'
'You've only just understood that?' said Molly, triumphant as always when Anna came up with--as far as she was concerned--facts that were self-evident.
In this relationship a balance had been struck early on: Molly was altogether more worldly-wise than Anna who, for her part, had a superiority of talent.
Anna held her own private views. Now she smiled, admitting that she had been very slow.
'When we're so different in every way,' said Molly, 'it's odd. I suppose because we both live the same kind of life--not getting married and so on. That's all they see.'
'Free women,' said Anna, wryly. She added, with an anger new to Molly, so that she earned another quick scrutinising glance from her friend: 'They still define us in terms of relationships with men, even the best of them.'
'Well, we do, don't we?' said Molly, rather tart. 'Well, it's awfully hard not to,' she amended, hastily, because of the look of surprise Anna now gave her. There was a short pause, during which the women did not look at each other but reflected that a year apart was a long time, even for an old friendship.
Molly said at last, sighing: 'Free. Do you know, when I was away, I was thinking about us, and I've decided that we're a completely new type of woman. We must be, surely?'
'There's nothing new under the sun,' said Anna, in an attempt at a German accent. Molly, irritated--she spoke half a dozen languages well--said: 'There's nothing new under the sun,' in a perfect reproduction of a shrewd old woman's voice, German accented.
Anna grimaced, acknowledging failure. She could not learn languages, and was too self-conscious ever to become somebody else: for a moment Molly had even looked like Mother Sugar, otherwise Mrs. Marks, to whom both had gone for psycho-analysis. The reservations both had felt about the solemn and painful ritual were expressed by the pet name, 'Mother Sugar'; which, as time passed, became a name for much more than a person, and indicated a whole way of looking at life--traditional, rooted, conservative, in spite of its scandalous familiarity with everything amoral. In spite of--that was how Anna and Molly, discussing the ritual, had felt it; recently Anna had been feeling more and more it was because of; and this was one of the things she was looking forward to discussing with her friend.
But now Molly, reacting as she had often done in the past, to the slightest suggestion of a criticism from Anna of Mother Sugar, said quickly: 'All the same, she was wonderful, and I was in much too bad a shape to criticise.'
'Mother Sugar used to say, "You're Electra," or "You're Antigone," and that was the end, as far as she was concerned,' said Anna.
'Well, not quite the end,' said Molly, wryly insisting on the painful probing hours both had spent.
'Yes,' said Anna, unexpectedly insisting, so that Molly, for the third time, looked at her curiously. 'Yes. Oh I'm not saying she didn't do me all the good in the world. I'm sure I'd never have coped with what I've had to cope with without her. But all the same . . . I remember quite clearly one afternoon, sitting there--the big room, and the discreet wall lights, and the Buddha and the pictures and the statues.'
'Well?' said Molly, now very critical.
Anna, in the face of this unspoken but clear determination not to discuss it, said: 'I've been thinking about it all during the last few months . . . now I'd like to talk about it with you. After all, we both went through it, and with the same person . . . '
Anna persisted: 'I remember that afternoon, knowing I'd never go back. It was all that damned art all over the place.'
Molly drew in her breath, sharp. She said, quickly: 'I don't know what you mean.' As Anna did not reply, she said, accusing: 'And have you written anything since I've been away?'
'I keep telling you,' said Molly, her voice shrill, 'I'll never forgive you if you throw that talent away. I mean it. I've done it, and I can't stand watching you--I've messed with painting and dancing and acting and scribbling, and now . . . you're so talented, Anna. Why? I simply don't understand.'
'How can I ever say why, when you're always so bitter and accusing?'
Molly even had tears in her eyes, which were fastened in the most painful reproach on her friend. She brought out with difficulty: 'At the back of my mind I always thought, well, I'll get married, so it doesn't matter my wasting all the talents I was born with. Until recently I was even dreaming about having more children--yes I know it's idiotic but it's true. And now I'm forty and Tommy's grown up. But the point is, if you're not writing simply because you're thinking about getting married . . . '
'But we both want to get married,' said Anna, making it humorous; the tone restored reserve to the conversation; she had understood, with pain, that she was not, after all, going to be able to discuss certain subjects with Molly.
Molly smiled, dryly, gave her friend an acute, bitter look, and said: 'All right, but you'll be sorry later.'
'Sorry,' said Anna, laughing, out of surprise. 'Molly, why is it you'll never believe other people have the disabilities you have?'
'You were lucky enough to be given one talent, and not four.'
'Perhaps my one talent has had as much pressure on it as your four?'
'I can't talk to you in this mood. Shall I make you some tea while we're waiting for Richard?'
'I'd rather have beer or something.' She added, provocative: 'I've been thinking I might very well take to drink later on.'
Molly said, in the older sister's tone Anna had invited: 'You shouldn't make jokes, Anna. Not when you see what it does to people--look at Marion. I wonder if she's been drinking while I was away?'
'I can tell you. She has--yes, she came to see me several times.'
'She came to see you?'
'That's what I was leading up to, when I said you and I seem to be interchangeable.'
Molly tended to be possessive--she showed resentment, as Anna had known she would, as she said: 'I suppose you're going to say Richard came to see you too?' Anna nodded; and Molly said, briskly, 'I'll get us some beer.' She returned from the kitchen with two long cold-beaded glasses, and said: 'Well you'd better tell me all about it before Richard comes, hadn't you?' The Golden Notebook
A Novel. Copyright © by Doris Lessing. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
"Knowing was an 'illumination.' During the last weeks of craziness and timelessness I've had these moments of 'knowing' one after the other, yet there is no way of putting this sort of knowledge into words. Yet, these moments have been so powerful, like the rapid illuminations of a dream that remain with one waking, that what I have learned will be part of how I experience life until I die."--Anna Wulf in The Golden Notebook
"The two women were alone in the London flat."
So begins Doris Lessing's most famous novel, published in 1962, and now considered one of the major works of twentieth-century literature. It is the story of Anna Wulf, a writer and single woman, who lives with her young daughter in a flat, occasionally renting out a room, less for the income than out of a reflex of social obligation. Laboring against a writing block, following the immense success of her autobiographical debut novel about a group of Communists in colonial Africa, Anna struggles to find a way to integrate the multiple selves that fragment her personality and make her life unbearably painful. Out of "fear of chaos, formlessness-- of breakdown," she decides to keep four notebooks, one for each component of her life--black for her experiences in Africa, red for current politics, yellow for a fictionalized version of herself, and blue for a diary. Although framed by a conventional novel called Free Women, the point of the novel, according to Lessing, is the "relation of its parts to each other." By viewing her life from these different angles, going over her experiences, gaugingher responses, and carefully probing her intertwined layers of consciousness, Anna eventually manages to unify her identify in one notebook. As she does so, she comes to terms with her growing disillusionment with communism, the trauma of emotional rejection and sexual betrayal, professional anxieties, and the tensions of friendship and family.
Topics For Discussion
1. Lessing has written that the central theme of The Golden Notebook is of "'breakdown', that sometimes when people 'crack up' it is a way of self-healing." In what ways does this theme find expression in the novel? How does Anna Wulf try to deal with her inner self-divisions? What part is played by each of Anna's four notebooks in her struggle to integrate her fragmented inner world and personality? What enables the notebooks to come together in the golden notebook at the end of the novel? How do her relationships to others, especially to Saul Green, contribute to her "crack-up" and "self-healing"?
2. By embedding Anna Wulf's psyche in the social and political movements of her time, Lessing suggests that the individual is inevitably shaped by history. In what ways is Anna Wulf a creation of the culture in which she lives-- personally, politically? Why does she become disillusioned with communism and revolutionary psychoanalysis? How is her life entangled with culturally endorsed ideas about romantic love? sex? family? friendship? normalcy?
3. Many women consider The Golden Notebook to be the founding novel of the women's movement. Yet the ironically titled novel-within-the novel, Free Women , seems to raise questions of "freedom." What do you feel the novel is saying about women's lives and desires? How do individual characters-- Anna, Molly, Marion--reflect various kinds of women's struggles? Does the novel offer any vision of freedom for women, and if so, what is it?
4. Why is Anna blocked as a writer? What are the inner and outer pressures that seem to inhibit her as an artist? How do her discussions with Mother Sugar and Saul Green illuminate her problem? How do her shifting feelings about the power of "naming" to alleviate psychic pain relate to her writing?
5. Do you think that the novel takes an unrelentingly bleak view of relations between the sexes? Or is there the suggestion of an alternative to the cruelty, betrayal, and emotional numbness that seem to characterize sexual relations in the novel? Do Anna's relationships with men change over the course of the novel (consider Willi, Michael, Saul, Milt)? Why does Molly decide to marry at the end? What do you think is suggested by the novel about Anna's future?
6. Anna, like her friend Molly, is a divorced mother, rasing a child on her own while struggling with other aspects of her life-- professional, political, sexual. How would you describe Anna's relationship with her daughter, Janet? How does she feel about herself as a mother? What is your reaction to Richard, and his criticism that Anna and Molly are "bad" mothers-- responsible, for one thing, for Tommy's attempted suicide? What does the character of Marion contribute to the novel's commentary on motherhood?
7. How does the form of the novel--the frame, the conventional short novel, Free Women , broken up by stages of Anna's four notebooks of different colors (black, red, yellow, and blue), and eventually unified in the golden notebook-- relate to some of the larger themes of the novel? What does the form suggest about an individual layers of consciousness? What is the significance and effect of filtering the world through a woman's point of view?
8. Do you agree with Victoria Brittain (quoted above) that The Golden Notebook is as illuminating today as it was when it appeared thirty years ago? Or do you find the the novel dated in any way?
About the Author
Doris Lessing was born in Persia (now Iran) in 1919. Lessing has described her childhood as an uneven mix of some pleasure and much pain. Her mother, obsessed with raising a proper daughter, enforced a rigid system of rules, then installed Doris in a convent school and, later, an all-girls high school in Salisbury, from which she soon dropped out at the age of thirteen. Lessing, however, made herself into a self-educated intellectual, reading Dickens, Kipling, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky. Doris's early years were spent absorbing her father's bitter memories of World War I, taken in as a kind of "poison." "We are all of us made by war," Lessing has written, "twisted and warped by war, but we seem to forget it." Lessing left home when she was fifteen and took a job as a nursemaid. Her employer gave her books on politics and sociology; she was also writing stories, and sold two to magazines in South Africa.
In 1937, she moved to Salisbury (Southern Rhodesia), where she worked as a telephone operator and, at nineteen, married Frank Wisdom and had two children. A few years later, feeling trapped in a persona she feared would destroy her, she left her family, remaining in Salisbury. She was drawn to the members of the Left Book Club, a group of Communists. Gottfried Lessing was a central member of the group; shortly after she joined, they married and had a son. During the postwar years, Lessing became increasingly disillusioned with the Communist movement, which she left altogether in 1954. By 1949, Lessing had moved to London with her young son and published The Grass is Singing, beginning her career as a professional writer. After writing the Children of Violence series, about the growth in consciousness of her heroine, Martha Quest, Lessing broke new ground with The Golden Notebook (1962), a daring narrative experiment. Her most recent works include two volumes of autobiography, Under My Skin (1994) and Walking in the Shade (1997), and a novel, Love, Again (1995).
Posted October 25, 2007
Reading THE GOLDEN NOTEBOOK was a life-changing experience for me. The book resonated with me so strongly. It's the complex and beautiful story of Anna Wulf, a writer living in London. Anna writes about her love affairs, her job, her writing, her friends, her youthful days in Africa. Several notebooks comprise her diary. In the diary section, she writes of her life. In the novel section is the novel inspired by Anna's life. In a sense, it's a 'mix-and-match' book, like a four-piece suit. I've read the complete work. I've read the 'novel' part only. I've also read the diary section only. TGN is a brilliant novel--an intellectual primer on the 'crystallising process' (as she says) of novel-writing. For years, I'd heard/read rumours that Doris Lessing was this-close to winning the Nobel. So congratulations, Ms. Lessing. Finally!--Yolanda A. Reid
9 out of 9 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 3, 2011
This is my favorite book by Doris Lessing, which is saying a lot because I regard her writing so highly. I must fall back on President Abraham Lincoln's famous book review, in case your tastes differ from mine: "If this is the kind of book you like, you will like this book."
6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 15, 2007
The golden Note book is a very good book but is it so great as to win the greatest literarary award is open to question.It atracted me more as a feminist book than as a work of great literarary merit
4 out of 5 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 28, 2008
I had heard many great things about this book. It took me awhile to get into and once I did it was pretty good. I feel it would be best enjoyed by an older woman that can relate more to Anna than I as a 25 year old can. But I did understand it to an extent and would definitely say it is worth the effort and time to read it.
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Posted May 20, 2008
This is a really great book for anyone but i guess its for girls you could say anyway i loved this book it was so good and such a great page turner.
2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 31, 2007
This book is very well written. I love the fact she had different notebooks to create one.This book is indeed a joy to read.
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Posted October 10, 2014
Per other reviews and it's prize for literature, I thought this would be a great read, but after 85 pages I just couldn't get into it. It seemed more of a lecture than a novel. I'm sorry I bought it.
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Posted November 18, 2008
I was really disappointed. The story is too wordy and doesn't grab the readers attention. Definately not worth the effort of reading 600 pages.
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Posted January 1, 2015
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Posted October 30, 2014
Definitely more to be gotten from this book if you're a woman I suspect, but I liked it too simply because of how well written it is. Vivid, heartfelt descriptions and musings about life.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 24, 2014
Thru grand children's children this book is just silly the more things change the more they stay the same i remember when the whole town met and took by mouth the polio vaccine also remember when sl many went back to school the community college average studebt age became 35 years
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Posted September 27, 2014
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Posted February 21, 2014
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Posted July 6, 2009
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