Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook: Feminism

Are you getting tired of hearing about Doris Lessing? So am I, but I can’t stop until I consider the standing of The Golden Notebook as a feminist tract. Lessing herself says,

But nobody so much as noticed this central theme [madness and breakdown], because the book was instantly belittled, by friendly reviewers as well as by hostile ones, as being about the sex war, or was claimed by women as a useful weapon in the sex war.

I don’t see this. If there was a sex war in London in the late 1950s, Anna Wulf and her friends were mostly losing it. Perhaps if I had read The Golden Notebook when it was first published I would have experienced it differently. After all, my own consciousness was different then. Now, I see the very title of the novella, Free Women, as ironic. They are not free, but constantly seeking sex or love — I’m not sure which and neither are they — and seeing themselves through the eyes of men.

I think what struck the reviewers in 1962 was that Lessing recognized the conflict (war?) inherent in the social relations between men and women. She picks up very acutely on tensions and how they are negotiated:

She spoke with confidence; but now that the men did not reply–and she felt their tolerance of her, she grew uneasy and appealed: ‘I’m not saying it right, but you see what I mean…’ Because she had appealed, the men were restored, and Willi said benevolently: ‘Of course you say it right. Anyone as beautiful as you can’t say it wrong.

There, there, little girl. You did your best! Anna continues to be perplexed how to handle her relationship with men:

What is terrible is that when every one of the phases of my life is finished, I am left with no more than some banal commonplace that everyone knows: in this case, that women’s emotions are all still fitted for a kind of society that no longer exists. My deep emotions, my real ones, are to do with my relationship with a man. One man…. I am always coming to the conclusion that my real emotions are foolish, I am always having, as it were, to cancel myself out.

The theme of the reality of emotions is certainly as important in The Golden Notebook as that of madness and breakdown. Again and again, Anna tries to define herself as a “real woman” and to appraise each lover as a “real man.” It gets tiresome.

In the final sections of the book, as Anna and her American lover descend together into madness, Lessing seems to be seeking a unity that lies outside of the gender conflicts. Anna feels she can be one with Saul and think his thoughts. At the same time, she debases herself, seeking his approval and trying to earn his occasional warmth. It is not entirely believable.

So is a “free woman” necessarily so conflicted, condemning her own emotions and edging toward madness? Not in my experience, thank God, but it is Anna Wulf’s experience as she struggles to become free.

12 Responses to Doris Lessing, The Golden Notebook: Feminism

  1. silverseason says:

    You say: Do you mean that involvement with another is not nearly so desirable as so many women and men believe?

    Not quite. I see a feminist issue and a involvement issue. The feminist issue has to do with quality of more than rights, but something like equality of perception. In too much analysis today we talk about some question — let’s say taxation or health care — and then we get the feminine point of view. Men (the male gender) should not be the standard with women the alternative. If the two genders don’t see or respond to things the same way, both are equally valid.

    The “human involvement” issue is broader even than the feminist issue. You cannot exist without human involvement and you would not be alive today without having had human involvement from birth. The Greeks disposed of unwanted babies by simply not involving themselves with them. They didn’t have to kill them, but just let them die.

    I once read a macho rant (Norman Mailer, I think) about how we have no obligation to protect the weak. Let them go to the wall and we will all be better off. So who took care of you when you were weak, Norman? We exist because of social connections, not in spite of them. Since we can’t escape them, we have to deal with them and shape them in ways we feel are fair and just. Being a hermit would be easy — getting along with others is hard.

  2. Gail says:

    “The reader reconstructs a body of feeling from Lessing’s feminist bones.”

    How poetic! I agree that there are many meanings to Anna’s madness. Is it too much to ask you to say more about your interpretation? Anna’s involvement with Saul, particularly Saul but any of her romantic involvements really, did open up the darker, more wounded and wounding parts of her psyche. Do you mean that involvement with another is not nearly so desirable as so many women and men believe? Does freedom mean embracing a life as a confirmed single, even celibate? What say you, Silverseason? I don’t ask these questions out of despair. I feel a genuine curiosity.

    And thank you for this lovely blog.

  3. Gail says:

    I’m just adding my addendum, having finished the book. I want to say that one of the things I find so refreshing about this book is its honesty. I know that the darkness and madness are hard to take. And yet what is the alternative? Lessing offers up the “pastiche” of easy romance. And her characters, and I, can’t stomach it. I am 47 years old. My mother encouraged me to pursue my own path in life. And I have done that. I am not married. I have no children. I have an advanced degree and a career that allows me an incredible amount of freedom and creativity and I am supported (not hugely, but sufficiently) in that domain of my life. And yet I have internalized the subservience to the patriarchy that Lessing illuminates. We can choose freedom and still not be “free.” And given my choices, and the mentality that supported me in making them when I did, I can say honestly that I would not have appreciated the honesty of Lessing’s novel in my 20s or even in my 30s. It would have scared me. Thanks for letting me share these reactions. If only Anna had found an on-line community she might not have suffered so dearly.

    • silverseason says:

      Thank you for your comments. The Golden Notebook is just the book for a personal response. The reader reconstructs a body of feeling from Lessing’s feminist bones. I came to it with a history of an early and disastrous marriage, two children, a divorce, a second marriage. All perfectly conventional, right? We are the lives we live, but we also live in a world of expectation which dictates our own critique of our lives. So when I am unhappy with what I have done or are disappointed by what others have failed to do, is it sincere? Or is it an echo of what others think and feel.

      We cannot escape these connections. Anna’s descent into madness is some sort of metaphor for both the power and danger of involvement with another.

      The book lingers.

  4. Gail says:


    I am reading the final pages of “The Golden Notebook” this weekend. I’ve indulged myself in just experiencing the book from a personal perspective, setting any sort of feminist critique aside for later consideration. And so today I thought, how DO people read this book now? I confess that I really do love this book, mostly because it is so honest about the human experience of having conscious and unconscious desires, motives and intentions. What if Lessing’s assertion as the author, in heading her sections of the book “Free Women” is being completely earnest? Not ironic? What if it’s an assertion to remind the reader that for all of their torments, failings, struggles, that her women ARE free? Anna, a woman who finds herself on her own once her daughter goes to boarding school, is fully confronted with the “prisons” in her mind. As she struggles to create a structure for her “child-free” life, and in turning away from her freedom she seeks out the familiar: a relationship with a man, a political “truth” pulled from newspapers and journals. Her full expression of freedom would be to write her novel, but that is so hard to embrace, she still seeks out the old prisons. I don’t know know if this makes sense. I love that Anna has done this. It’s what I have done, in the face of my own freedom. It’s what I see so many other women do. Maybe not the full blown descent into madness. However, it IS profoundly dis-orienting to lead a life that is not in service to patriarchy (and in spite of the bad relationships with her many lovers, Anna does not lead a life in service to patriarchy. It’s part of what makes her relationships with men not work). Thanks for the wonderful opportunity to share my thoughts/experiences with this book!

  5. Isabelle says:

    Yes, of course I agree with you. However, defining whether it is a feminist novel and the issue of “free women” is highly complex and very difficult to tell either way. Believe me, I’ve been struggling with it for the last 6 months ;-)

    I do also see the ironical usage of the term ‘free woman’ as you argue, and I like your point, we cannot be entirely free within existing social structures in society, it was the same for Anna Wulf, Virginia Woolf before her, and even Jane Eyre. However, without them, how would it be for us (women) today, in the 21st century?

    I love the fact that you read Friedan in the 70s. How exciting was not that? To read something, naming what so many felt, but could not exactly put word to. I read it not very long ago, and it, in a way “sparked my feminsm too”. Isn’t that interesting, how a book can do that, both at the time in which it was published yet also 30 years later.

    Thanks for your reply, I see your point now that maybe we do not disagree at all. (It is so hard to say everything you want or argue exatcly what you want to say in so limited space as a message board)

  6. silverseason says:

    I don’t think we disagree very much. Before we could argue effectively, we would have to define “feminist novel” and “free woman.” Perhaps Lessing’s use of the term free woman is somewhat ironic. No matter how free we think we are or aspire to be, we can never be completely free. And would we want to be — out there alone with no connection to anyone else?

    I did read Betty Friedan back in the 1970s and her work did much to spark my own feminism. The problem is older than that, going back to the concept of women as property.

  7. Isabelle says:

    Firstly, I enjoyed reading your review of the novel. However, I must say that I disagree with the way in which you argue that it is not a feminist novel. Think of Anna’s contemporaries for instance, how many women did not think of the idea that they wanted to do something with their lives. So many were bored out of their minds, staying at home, taking care of their house and children. The question, is this all? was probably a very common one. Have you read the feminine mystique by Betty Friedan? She explained the exact same situation at almost the same time (1963). What is more, the title “free women” is ironic you claim, indeed I agree with the fact that Anna is dependent on men, but have you ever thought of her being free through the writing of her notebooks? Free to write whatever she wanted to say, even though she does it with great difficulties. It is here, I would claim, Anna’s personal becomes political.

    Thank you again for your review, I think you raise many interesting thoughts about the novel!

  8. Sarah says:

    Thank you, Nancy. For a first attempt ‘shorter’ has a lot to recommend it. You made The Golden Notebook sound very impressive, so The Summer before the Dark must be special. Thank you again for the recommendation.

  9. Sarah says:

    I have enjoyed your three posts about The Golden Notebook; a very effective method of writing a review. Having never read any Doris Lessing this looks like an oversight. I wonder if you could recommend one? The Golden Notebook sounds too complex to make a good starting point.

    • silverseason says:

      Some years ago I read The Summer before the Dark. It was shorter and more approachable and, in my better opinion, a better novel. What puzzles me is why The Golden Notebook has such a big reputation — something about the timing of its publication, I suspect.

  10. Lorraine says:

    Lessing was having one of her popular moments during my training in psychiatry and personal psychoanalysis. It may be some tribute to the “healthy mind,” or perhaps my analyst, that I was not driven crazy by my attempts to understand her and her writings. I can reflect now that it was a hoot.
    You have economically done a beautiful work of describing this novel and author.

    Many of us seem to have a fascination with mental illness, often equating it with creativity and other beautiful attributes, even love has been called a “psychosis.” Fulfillment comes from our capacity to contain the infantile and the irrational to their proper places.

    I emphatically agree that being free and being in love does not require a woman to become mad.

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