The Irony of “Free Women” in Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook

Boyish haircuts and flat chests were trademarks of the 1920s flapper; as this style spread throughout America’s cities, it marked a dynamic change in women from their traditional appearance and lifestyle of the late 19th century and into the era of World War I. Raised skirts, flat chests, and boyish bobs became the trend for the female of the 1920s in an effort to demonstrate a step away from reliance on men towards independence. The flapper surrendered feminine qualities in exchange for a more masculine physique and look in order to demonstrate equality to men; however, their imitation of men only became another reliance and dependence on men. Lessing similarly explores this female response towards gender inequality in another time period: the sexual and women’s liberation movements of 1950s England. In The Golden Notebook, the “Free Women” of England similarly behave: instead of conservative skirts and dresses, women are seen wearing “slacks, loose shirts…a yellow scarf around her head” (13). Anna Wulf and her close friend Molly Jacobs are introduced preferring Scotch to a “nice cup of tea” (15) and making assertive and straight-forward, often brash, comments towards Molly’s ex-husband, Richard. In the same manner of the 1920s flapper, Lessing’s “Free Women” inadvertently imitate men in their appearance and behavior; while, in the midst of the women’s liberation movement of the 1950s, the female characters are able to articulate their opinions on gender equality and recognize the dominant patriarchal hand in their daily lives, this imitation represents a belief that to be accepted and taken seriously by men, one must be a man. As the female characters in The Golden Notebook forcefully deny and suppress their feminine qualities, they ultimately cause a fragmentation of identity within themselves and come face to face with immense mental struggles.

Throughout the novel, the suppression of feminine desires and qualities consistently proves its capabilities to not only dismantle relationships, but to also damage one’s mental-well being. Anna Wulf is defined by her profession as a writer; the entire novel is a collection of Anna Wulf’s various writings throughout her life, in which she tries to accurately capture authentic female experiences. Wulf’s inability to comprehend her own personal experiences as a woman show up on paper as she experiences a seemingly endless writer’s block following the success of her first novel, Frontiers of War. Her writer’s block seems to slowly open the door to mental fragmentation, as Wulf makes various attempts to accurately write about her female experience through different alter-egos. Ironically, the only genuine female experiences that Wulf is able to document are her fruitless attempts to do so; while she tries to fragment herself into different personalities and characters, even those separate personas continue to be female writers who doubt the authenticity of their writing. In the yellow notebook, Ella (who represents Anna), who is a writer for a women’s magazine, finds herself resentful of the “sensitive and feminine” nature of the magazine and her writing, for it is unappealing and irrelevant to the men whom she seeks approval from. As a writer, Anna possesses “a minority-group psychological orientation that compels [her] to depreciate [her] femaleness…and seek approval from men (Morgan 472),” and the truth that her writer’s block is rooted in her discomfort with the feminine qualities inherently found in her writing supports this. While The Golden Notebook was hailed as a feminist text upon its publication, Lessing has since countered those praises in a new preface to the novel, indicating that Anna’s inability to embrace and accept her feminine qualities and choice to deny them is only in support of a subconscious dependence on men and is a failed attempt at feminism.

Despite their stance for gender equality and female independence, the “Free Women” develop unhealthy dependencies on men, ironically making them poor examples of feminists during England’s women’s liberation movement. Dating that was not necessarily geared towards marriage newly emerged in America in the 1920s, causing an increase in birth control use and casual sex. It became common for dating couples to separate without marriage in the picture, and 1950s England does not prove to be any different. Both Anna and Molly have ex-husbands and several ex-lovers by the start of the novel, and the structure of the novel allows the reader to get an extremely intimate glimpse into Anna’s relationships throughout her life: past and present. In each relationship, Anna has an inherent need for authentic affection and companionship; however, her feminist attitudes give off the impression that she has no need for that kind of relationship. This paradox results in her relationships consistently falling apart due to a lack of genuine communication between the pair.

Anna’s failed relationship with Saul Green shines a spotlight on both the physical and emotional consequences of her inability to maintain male-female relationships. Prior to Saul moving in, Anna naturally desires to occupy her large flat with men (542), but tries to suppress this by refusing to rent out the empty room. With the addition of her eventual caving in, this behavior marks the beginning of a harmful cycle of suppression and submission that defines her affair with Saul Green. As Anna witnesses many of Saul’s odd behaviors, she remains silent and unsuccessfully tries to parse through them with logic, believing that it would be too feminine to be accusatory and emotionally invested. However, she consistently gives into these impulses and accuses him anyway, only to later regret and beat herself up about it. This cycle continues alongside Saul’s obvious practices of infidelity and the relationship, solely grounded on sexual attraction, and causes the relationship to fall apart. As their relationship slowly breaks apart, both characters begin to compartmentalize themselves and self-fragment: Anna identifies parts of herself as “two other Annas…Anna, the snubbed woman in love…and a curious, detached, sardonic Anna (562),” separating the parts she refuses to embrace from the “real” Anna. In the same way, she separates Saul into separate personas, the “real” Saul whom she fell in love with and the cold, emotionless Saul. For months, Anna and Saul try to salvage a doomed relationship; neither character, both writers, fully understand themselves and were already deeply fragmented, even before meeting one another. While their break is a monumental moment in Anna’s life, the writing she produces following the separation only further proves that her character’s perception of herself and her feminine qualities has remained unchanged.

The Golden Notebook provides an intimate look into the life of women during the sexual and women’s liberation movements of the 1950s in England and uses the male-female relationship dynamic to pinpoint the problem with Lessing’s “Free Women” in their denial of their natural feminine qualities. The chaotic structure of the novel in addition to the experiences and ultimate outcomes of many of the characters do not allow for The Golden Notebook to be a true feminist novel, for the experiences and writings of Anna Wulf encourage the suppression of femininity and ultimate submission to male dominance. Even if Anna spends the bulk of her life as an adult spewing opinions about feminism and gender equality, her behaviors as a “Free Woman” demonstrate otherwise, for she subconsciously follows orders from men and constantly seeks approval in their reactions and responses to her own actions. As Anna Wulf concludes her novel, Free Women, she provides an alternate ending through a separate persona (named after herself) in which, differing from her separation with Saul, Milt (who represents Saul) fits Anna’s expectations for a male partner, one that is dominant yet caring. This satisfies her deepest longings for genuine affection and companionship yet, in the slightest of ways, promotes the submissive nature that she, as a “Free Woman”, has worked against. This conclusion, while satisfying for Anna herself, only acts as proof that Anna Wulf has failed as a feminist writer and character.

Works Cited

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Franks, Jill. “The 1960s: Hegemonies and the Abject in Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook and Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls Trilogy.” British and Irish Women Writers and the Women’s Movement: Six Literary Voices of Their Times, edited by Jill Franks, McFarland & Company, Inc., 2014, 123-158.

Lessing, Doris. The Golden Notebook. Bantam Books, 1981. Libby, Marion Vlastos. “Sex and the New Woman in The Golden Notebook.” The Iowa Review, vol. 5, no. 4, Fall 1974, pp. 106-120, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20158308. Accessed 09-19-2017.

Morgan, Ellen. “Alienation of the Woman Writer in The Golden Notebook.” Contemporary Literature, vol. 14, no. 4, Autumn 1973, pp. 471-480, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1207467. Accessed 09-19-2017.

Mulkeen, Anne M. “Twentieth-Century Realism: The “Grid” Structure of The Golden Notebook.” Studies in the Novel, vol. 4, no. 2, Summer 1972, pp. 262-274, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/29531519. Accessed 09-19-2017.