The Golden Notebook is a novel which records several years in the life of a woman exploring her past, digging down deep into her soul to discover who she truly is, what her life has been, and how she will cope with the future. Anna Wulf, Lessing’s protagonist, has written a famous book called The Frontiers of War, based loosely upon the time she spent in Africa during her twenties. Due to its successes, she has been able to live without working, composing a collection of personal journals divided into categories she distinguishes in different ways by time, color, place, politics and relationships. She labels them black, red, yellow, and blue.
Anna begins her telling her story in the present, where she lives in London as a writer. She and her best friend Molly consider themselves “free women.” What exactly this term means to Anna, along with other parts of her own identity will be what she searches to interpret throughout the text. As Anna displays and eventually analyzes her notebooks, the reader is able to experience the past and present toils of the protagonist. In this manner, an exceedingly interwoven and complex work of fiction draws its readers into the world and mind of a woman only an extraordinary writer could envision and then record.
Each notebook tells its own story. In fact, they each tell a variety of stories within a larger context of specific “memories,” which may be attributed to certain time period, place, event, or person. In addition, since each book is written by Anna as a record of her own life, there are overlapping themes which may be detected within each. The black notebook, for example, scenically paints the picture of Anna’s time spent in Africa during her twenties as World War II rages elsewhere. She lives with a group of hopeful young Communist Party members like herself. Her memories of the time they wasted, thinking they were going to change the problems of the color line in Africa, among other things which would never come to be, are reflected upon later with regret for the stupidity of youth. The Anna that is most identifiable from the black notebook who may also be seen in other notebooks is the lover of Willi who is lusting after Paul. She despises Willi, yet continues to sleep with him each night, because she views this as her role in the group. This is the Anna who has sexual relationships with so many men, questioning her emotions, while acting out of some kind sense of social necessity who comes back again and again in future diary entries. The sex and politics which take place in the black notebook occur again in the red.
The red notebook is fittingly a history of Anna’s time spent as a member of the British Communist Party. There is much private discussion between Anna and Molly about the fear and uncertainty that goes along with membership. Still, Anna helps the cause, including allowing Communist American men who have moved to Europe to take residence in her flat. The fear, disagreement, and distrust which Anna develops for party members seems to manifest itself in fear of all men. Despite the fact that Anna knows many of the men she begins relationships with are young, unavailable, or married to women in another country (United States), she blames her failed relationships on male inadequacies. Anna has inadequacies of her own which she is aware of, but she cannot admit that these issues may be causing her to feel angry. Instead, she chooses to blame the intrinsic nature of men and the unfairness of life.
The third notebook makes it obvious that despite her willingness to record events in her life, Anna still feels the need to distance herself from information the facts these events reveal about her. In the most painful relationship of her life, Anna will record the facts in her notebook, but not admit the results by denying her own participation in the events. Instead of herself, she chooses Ella to portray her as the protagonist of the yellow notebook. She is the woman who knowingly enters into a 4 year affair with Paul. A married man, Paul is betraying his wife and Ella with his affair. But, one of Ella’s major flaws is that she never plays a part in any affair in her mind, so she is never at fault for anything that goes wrong. It is always the man’s “nature” which ruins relationships in her eyes. This is not the first of or last time Ella will take part in an affair where another woman is the victim.
Ella can only consider Paul’s wife when thinking about the other woman in terms of competing against her for Paul’s time, commitment, and affection. Ella thinks Paul is betraying her by not spending enough time with her, or showing any affection for her daughter when in reality Paul and Ella are both hurting Paul’s wife and children. Time and again Ella mentions how concerned she is with people’s emotional capacities, so why can’t she recognize her ability to wound? More importantly, why has Anna chosen to change her name to Ella in this notebook and Michael’s name to Paul? Perhaps Anna needs to distance herself from her pain and reality in order to gain better insight into this aspect of her past. Or is she guilty or afraid of what she’ll see if she peers too closely at her own actions in what she considers to have been the most significant relationship of her life. Building upon the reflections Anna knows she must make after a difficult break up with the love of her life, the blue notebook becomes an outlet for Anna’s personal exploration which she must construct in order to recreate an identity she is comfortable with.
Black, red, yellow, all lead to blue in the sense that Anna has only grazed the surface of her own personal issues with herself in the first three notebooks. Anna is able to discuss the end of her relationship with Michael in her blue notebook using their real names, signifying a change in the way she confronts her underlying concerns with the two of them in her mind. At this point of Dorris Lessing’s construction of The Golden Notebook, the reader is aware of a variety of encounters and relationships Anna has had with men she feels have progressively weakened her emotionally. Since Anna has clearly declared herself a free woman in relationships and politics from the start, her constant confusion and lack of consistency in such matters indicate that if Anna were truly the “free woman” she thought she was, she would not have to continue meaningless flings, which destroy her from the inside out.
The novel is full of themes and motifs to be focused on and discussed. Anna’s struggles to understand herself and her place in the world are at the heart of it all. In her attempts to examine her life and psyche, she has divided her notebooks and visited her psychoanalyst, Mother Sugar. Anna must stop dividing her life into separate versions of herself by piecing it all together in a single golden notebook. But, is it really possible to write a journal subjectively and from that create an analysis of oneself? The concept of trying to define who we are is compelling, challenging, and terrifying. The fact that Anna cannot seem to connect the ways her own past and present may fit together despite her rereading of the notebooks make her all the more human. There is both hope and sadness in this story. The lack of synchronicity at this time in Anna’s life suggests that sometimes people don’t have the ability to repair what has been broken. If you want real life from every angle, tearing at someone, eating them away despite their best efforts, this is it.
Final Rating: 4 out 5 Stars
For more information:
Lessing’s website http://www.dorislessing.org/
Lessing wins Nobel Prize in literature http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/2007/bio-bibl.html
New York Times author house site http://topics.nytimes.com/topics/reference/timestopics/people/l/doris_lessing/index.html