Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook

Nona Willis Aronowitz

Nona Willis Aronowitz is a freelance writer originally from New York City. She is a political and cultural critic who writes about sex, women, youth culture, and music for numerous publications including The Nation, The New York Observer, The Village Voice, VenusZine, and She currently co-writes a blog called GIRLdrive, the content of which will be in an upcoming book of the same name. GIRLdrive is based on a road trip taken across the United States in order to find out what young women think and feel about feminism, and will be published by Seal Press in Fall 2009. She lives in Chicago.

Recent comments by Nona Willis Aronowitz:

On the blog  February 9th, 2009
"But I feel I can see in this book, and in some of the discussions we’ve had around it, the way that the word has come to mean something else, something more like “a person who thinks women are better than men, who thinks men are responsible for many of the evils of society, who suspects that heterosexual relationships will always be detrimental to women.” In that sense I’m not a feminist at all." Naomi, I have to disagree with you there. I don't think that feminism has "come to mean" this. I think quite the opposite--that although the denunciation of men used to be a prominent strain of the Women's Movement, modern feminism shies away from this boys-versus-girls mentality. Young feminist leaders acknowledge that heterosexual relationships are changing, while still admitting these deep-seated obstacles. Your personal gender manifesto is certainly resonant of a lot of feminist work done today. The reason I think this wasn't brought forth in the TGN conversations as much as it should is because the feminism present in the book is a dated one, and in my opinion a destructive one. As I posted earlier, I don't relate to it or find it useful. I also don't hear many feminists nowadays saying women are better than men, or that men are responsible for many of the evils of society. Actually, those stereotypes are most perpetuated by the conservative media, so I'm surprised that you feel that this is the dominant definition! One thing though--I don't think that my comments (or others' that addressed this issue, like Laura's) meant to say that heterosexual relationships will always be detrimental to women. More that this is an area in women's lives that remains fraught with enduring yet nebulous assumptions about gender roles, without common-sense statistics or data to cite, and an extra layer of psychology to cut through. It can be hard (maddening!) to grapple with, but this doesn't mean that modern feminists conclude the situation is hopeless! Or that it's all the guys' fault. At least, I don't!

Page 503  January 2nd, 2009
Maybe it's just me, but this ending seemed almost satirical. When Anna goes a bit crazy and then the pendulum seems to swing back to a boring, safe existence--I picture Anna/Doris with a smirk on her face. Either role is expected of women--madness or submission--and both times, it seems caricatured. Anna must, deep down, have a bitterly ironic moment of self-reflection about this last chunk of her life. And maybe, since the novel was written in less than a year (crazy!), these two parts reflect Doris's delirium, her own sense of exhaustion or apathy, in the last stages of TGN writing.

Page 410  December 26th, 2008
That said, I do *not* think masochism is inherent in women, but maybe more attractive for men given society's upbringing of them. When men feel a masochistic urge, many feel ashamed by it and sequester their experiences into paid sessions or roleplay in the bedroom with their wife, whereas some women such as Anna feed off of it. Although I have seen the opposite in both cases to be true. I guess it just depends on whether you think *anything* is "inherent" in either sex...kind of an obvious comment, but that's what we're talking about here, right?

Page 410  December 26th, 2008
"I wonder if masochism is less a complication now for women who can choose experiences without the mediation of men." In a word, no.

Page 486  December 26th, 2008
Definitely more of an exercise; Anna admits this wholeheartedly later in the last few pages with Milt. She refers to her daughter as a reason why the bout will be short-lived; really, though, I agree with Philippa that Anna is too introspective and analytical to let herself go like that. Hence the overcompensation in the last few pages, when she has submitted to relative normalcy.

Page 438  December 26th, 2008
The last part of this page really got to me...the fact that being called a "bad lay" is more insulting than if Saul had said he did not like her. I guess it's that sex is something you cannot know for sure if you are good at, whereas if you are a self-assured person, you can say "fuck you" to people who don't like you. Anna, in this way if not many others, is confident enough that Saul would like her. But I'm not sure...what does everyone think of this gut reaction Anna has to the diary entry?

Page 417  December 26th, 2008
"I have no time for people who haven’t experimented with themselves, deliberately tried the frontiers, yet when it’s a question of one’s own child, one can’t bear the thought of all that for them." This sentence got to me, because I couldn't agree less. This "do as I say, not as I do" thing seems definitely more a product of its time. I'm willing to bet that my generation (at least the liberal ones) will be more eager to divulge their experiences and encourage experimentation. Anna presents this as a universal feeling, but it's more of a reflection of her own inward tendencies.

Page 414  December 26th, 2008
Entry #14 is yet another example of some of my favorite parts of this book! It's so hard to write a diary for yourself and yourself only, as Anna well knows. Personally, I often picture other people's reactions when I write diaries--I can't help myself, when you produce something, particularly something that helps you organize your want it to be known!

Page 449  December 26th, 2008
Anna's relationship with Saul is a perfect example of what I mentioned in my last blog entry--a woman who is supposedly feminist but exposing and admitting weaknesses and masochism. "Feminist" of course wouldn't be the right word, since it wasn't as readily used at the time, but a woman comfortable with casual sex. This book isn't much different than more recent pieces of pop culture, conservative or not, that paint women as masochistic and vulnerable at their core. I don't think you sound conservative, Laura...this portrayal of emotional rollercoasters posing as heady passion doesn't make me want to be sexually's not quite conscious of itself, as cerebral as Anna is.

Page 433  December 19th, 2008
Naomi, your impulses are right--there's less of a sense of hatefulness or danger, so much as idealist or even "wimpiness." During the elections, people were calling Obama a Socialist all the time because of his comments about spreading the wealth. Not as specific, I guess, but still the same charge. The concept, it seems to me, represents less a threat to democracy than a threat to capitalist impulses, which would explain why it's seen as naive. And, we still live in a culture of fear, but of terrorism rather than Communism...I feel like to Americans at least Communism is a little more organized and predictable. People far to the right, though, surely did see this aspect of Obama as destructive.

Page 381  December 19th, 2008
This whole scene oddly reminds me of "Bonfire of the Vanities"--watching rich people face their demons in their isolating marriages. There's this underlying class point here--why don't we see any working-class failed marriages?

Page 383  December 19th, 2008
At the same time, Anna is admitting exactly what she yearns for--whether love or hate, she wants to be bound to someone beyond the confines of the mysterious, cerebral mistress who is so much more compelling (for a moment) than a wife. Anna acknowledges here that you can't hate someone so much (as Nelson and his life appear to) unless you love them too. Anna is facing her defiant isolation here...perhaps admitting that the reason she hasn't found a 'real man' is because she is incapable of letting someone get close, even if it is "bitterly" so. She feels jealous and morally superior to these characters at the same time. What is worse, she seems to ask...being alone or being "tied by the closest of all bonds, neurotic pain-giving"? (As Laura points out, these two seem to be the only options.)

Page 376  December 14th, 2008
I think she means Tarzan/James Bond, frankly. By now, Anna has made clear to me that she un-ironically values classic gender roles and feels most comfortable when they are acted out in a relationship. She loves mystery and chivalry, despite the fact that she often refuses to take certain kinds of bullshit. Other kinds, clearly, she takes quite often...and it's for the thrill of the separation, the chasm of distance between woman and man. A couple of years ago I was reviewing Laura Sessions Stepp's Unhooked for the New York Observer, a book that bemoaned girls' promiscuity in high school and college and touted traditional gender roles. It took me a while to figure out why it bothered me apart from the obvious reasons, like *really* why, since I wasn't trying to deny that the young hook up culture was often hurtful. And I eventually realized that I resented Stepp's assumption that women and men were complete aliens to each other, that they couldn't possibly understand one another and therefore had to keep some demure, proprietous distance. Now, equating a conservative journalist with a Communist novelist like Anna is a stretch, but it's the way I understand this 'real man' concept. A person looking for, as Laura described, "a man capable of honesty, sexual intimacy, self-knowledge et al"-- would they really use the wistful phrase 'real man' to explain it? It's the same thing that's wrong with Sex and the City: men placed at a distance will never fail to fall short of wild expectations.

Page 347  December 12th, 2008
Ha, yeah, I'm attuned to that theme, Lenelle. Most of Anna's writing seems self conscious and meta-reflective--that is, written for an audience, but contemptuous of that audience. The writing is deeply personal, but removed and hateful. We're meant to forget that we're reading a personal notebook in the first place. So yes, Lessing is snubbing the idea of an ideology, but also rejecting extremely emotionally indulgent writing. I see the sense in negative writing, but only if it's self aware. This is a moment where Lessing achieves that...but as Naomi says, it's "spiky."

Page 308  December 9th, 2008
She *is* a communist, which is precisely the element that propels her shame about prejudice. Admitting to herself that she felt superior would be easier if she were apolitical or conservative--at least she wouldn't be claiming to be a social revolutionary.

Page 306  December 9th, 2008
Tommy's smarter, and the smarter one's usually scarier. Funny how in the beginning we were a little relieved with the entrance of Tommy on the scene, because at least Anna and Molly were taking him seriously. Now we realize there's a lot more to grapple with.

Page 274  December 9th, 2008
Hmmm...just rethought this after I just posted on UK 301...where I think I'm confusing the two night-and-day spheres of the domestic and the outside world. They can't even be compared. A "face" is expected in professional settings, whereas this kind of repression in the home is just depressing.

Page 268  December 9th, 2008
I read Lenelle's comment after I posted on UK 307, and I realize there's a fine line between destructive and constructive compartmentalization. Sanitizing yourself before a professional meeting is one sort of control; separating your children from your lover for the sake of self-control is quite another. Yes, this is devastating...the self-limitation becomes to seem truly hopeless when you are shutting off one of your loves from another. It makes me feel like Anna doesn't know what love is at all, that she is unable to place the burden of emotion on anyone. The flood that she feels is pushed inward, even with her daughter. Here, it becomes crystal clear that she is attracted to Michael because of his emotional *over*indulgence--that is, nurturing her masochism by telling it to her straight. Ouch. Cmon girl--you must know this is not what he wants you to be!

Page 274  December 9th, 2008
This just resonates to me as Anna being a private and inward person, and it comes in the package of cleanliness. The reason that she didn't want her daughter to smell sex (even though she didn't know what it was) is not necessarily because she wanted to erased her female-ness, but because she wanted to keep her many personas separate from each other. Cleaning herself until Butte tells her she smells lovely is erasing not femininity but rather any context or complication. Putting on a face keeps it simple. And I gotta say, I feel her on that one--whether it be the smell of blood or sex, sometimes you want to keep the more carnal part of you private life from people who depend on your stability and stoicism. But I agree with Naomi and Lenelle, in that Anna is also absorbing norms of what a woman "should" be (a theme that comes up again and AGAIN). Naomi, that commercial is ridic!

Page 319  December 8th, 2008
Was it a cliche at the time of this writing? Something tells me no. The relationship most recently depicted in pop culture between straight women and gay men is a sort of mixed message--that they are great friends but can really mess up your love life (like Will & Grace, or that movie with Madonna and whats-his-name). Plus, heterosexual women (particularly feminists) still seem to resent gay men for having control over industries courting and manipulating women (fashion, media). The dynamic described in these pages is a little more blatant than what's played out today, but there still exists this undercurrent of competition and animosity between the two groups.

Page 211  December 6th, 2008
I also forgot to comment on this section when I read it, but something further along the line compelled me to come back when I was contemplating the fundamental way Lessing sees women: "That's how women see things. Everything in a sort of continuous creative stream--well, isn't it natural we should?" To me this is Anna's yearning to believe that people really do change, that *she* herself will get out of this...slump? depression? standstill is the word. She scoffs when her therapist encourages her art; she says that she will never write another novel and doesn't want to. But here she is channeling hidden optimism, convincing herself that this is only an ebb. Perhaps this is a moment that Anna is internalizing the blinky-eyed, nostalgic way women are "expected" to be without even realizing it, considering her conscious intention to be cynical and surprised by nothing. Or maybe this is really Anna expressing that women are more inward than men, that they build on memory rather than charge head-on. Either way, this reveals to me another level of frustration that Anna endures about feeling stuck, about wanting to move forward. These feelings, as she explains in this passage, are all tied up in motherhood and how she sees her daughter, how her child is able to move effortlessly through the "phases."

Page 162  December 4th, 2008
"But it was only later, she would use a phrase like 'our bodies understood each other'. At the time, she was thinking: *We* understand each other." I meant to comment on this earlier but forgot: this is yet another example of sexual pleasure being the barometer for a relationship. Here Ella is getting more cynical, or just perhaps more realistic...either way, her romanticism is dwindling. It made my stomach sink a little.

Page 308  December 4th, 2008
Yeah me too, but I think this characterization should be credited to the era; that is, there was far less public embarrassment or guilt about homophobic thoughts and judgements. But to some extent, as Philippa points out, Anna *is* ashamed of this thought...and this relates back to her initial thoughts about race some pages ago. Anna's radical politics often set off alarms in her head about prejudice; at the same time, she is very much a product of her time. It is unclear, though, whether or not Lessing meant to emphasize this. It could be that Lessing herself, alongside Anna, was playing to her unconscious prejudices, too. Much like the way she treats the desires of Ella, Lessing clearly finds invaluable elements to traditional masculinity.

Page 246  December 2nd, 2008
It just occurred to me while reading Naomi's comment that Lessing really could have meant the internal orgasm as a more autonomous, controlled, decisive act as compared to an external one. Even though it is caused by penetration (the ultimate way to "force" a woman/orgasm/whatever), it is directed exclusively by the woman's psyche. The clitoral orgasm here can be perceived as involuntary, the work of the man rather than the woman. Not that I agree with this, but I think Naomi might be onto something in interpreting Lessing's idea of an external orgasm as something harsh and unnerving. Orgasms, again! Never ceases to spark conversation.

Page 246  November 30th, 2008
Yes, she (Ella but really Anna, I believe) does seem to want to shield her vulnerability and emotions to an extreme you don't often see in female protagonists. It's striking (also depressing) that the woman's psyche we're trapped in has a terrifyingly high and rigid standard for what constitutes happiness, what happiness "should" be. As Laura said a few pages back, this kind of life endures this looming joylessness that's hard to avoid.

Page 196  November 28th, 2008
I would have to agree with Naomi's assessment, that the newspaper clippings are an acknowledgement of the misery around her. Anna's cynicism about psychotherapy centers around feeling guilty about her narcissism. She refuses to believe the simple analysis that she is a masochist--rather, she must be reacting to the rest of the world. Anna's is a common reaction of incredibly inward and educated people: they seek therapy and then feel frustrated and embarrassed at how self-centered it is. And this would probably go double if one was a communist!

Page 189  November 28th, 2008
Harriet-- I used to keep a diary, precisely the way Anna imagines it. I meticulously documented what had happened in a day or a week, and at times obsessively read over what I had written at a time when I was in a completely different phase of life. But this process has little to do with fiction writing. I am not a fiction writer and I am also not compelled to convert memoir writing into autobiographical fiction. Diary writing walks the tightrope between being on-the-spot reporting and premeditated material for future entertainment. It would be interesting to hear what the novelists in the group think about this... Also: Blogging is nothing like keeping a diary. Blogging is a self-conscious, instantly public form of writing, whereas diary-writing can only become public retroactively. Most "diary blogging" is incredibly deceptive.

Page 189  November 25th, 2008
"It struck me that my doing this--turning everything into fiction--must be an evasion. Why not write down, simply, what happened between Molly and her son today? Why do I never write down, simply, what happens? Why don't I keep a diary?" Here it is again! Anna frustrated with not keeping a diary, getting mad at herself for not reflecting instantly on her own life and documenting it true to form...Harriet was so right on the previous page when she said that Lessing makes it hard for you to hide from yourself. The passages that reveal Anna's psyche as a writer have become some of my favorite parts. Most books don't have this level of meta-reflection. I never believed this before, but I'm starting to be convinced that a writer reading a book has a very different experience than a non-writer. Having Anna's doubts and frustrations outlined here so explicitly makes the experience even more fascinating.

Page 179  November 24th, 2008
Exactly. I feel like the competition between a vaginal and clitoral orgasm, in this time period and in the seventies, has been proven by third wave feminism and general sexual liberation to be beside the point. The discovery/popularization of the clitoral orgasm was the gateway to establishing that women deserve sexual pleasure, but then there emerges this weird smugness about orgasms in general. Now that the public pressure is on to have an orgasm, it's more about whether a woman is sexual enough to be capable of that kind of pleasure. About this line: "The vaginal orgasm is a dissolving in a vague, dark generalized sensation like being swirled in a warm whirlpool." This is exactly the sort of thing that a die-hard clitoral orgasm fan would once sniff at. "This woman hasn't had an orgasm, she doesn't know what she's missing,"the fan would say. The fact is, Anna, or Ella, or whomever this speaks for (still unclear) prefers this sensation, even if it is rooted in some kind of deep emotion. The fact that she feels that her doubts about a relationship is directly correlated to a lack of an orgasm still rings true today (or at least it's repeated in magazines like Cosmo and Glamour). The real debate is now whether orgasms are important indicators of character, strength, and a good relationship, whether it's clitoral, G spot, or whatever. In this way, this passage, oddly, transcends its time.

Page 132  November 20th, 2008
'I read this over today, for the first time since I wrote it. It's full of nostalgia, every word loaded with it, although at the time I wrote it I thought I was being 'objective.' ' Comments like these make me wince--they are the classic observations made by a self-conscious diary-writer. 'Too narcissistic, too involved in my own world...why do I even keep a diary?' one thinks. Weirdly, these self-reflections about writing have so far been my favorite parts of this book, because they are so self-deprecating and grounded...they really make me respect process a little more, not only about my own writing but about Lessing's work itself.

On the blog  November 20th, 2008
Stories do have a future, but "painfully digressive" narrative, maybe not. People are still interested in story development, in the twists and turns of everyday drama, and it's evidenced by the growing industry of tabloids and the stabilized interest in (sometimes very detailed) blogging. What the blogosphere and the texting habit has forced us to do is to think of stories as episodic, as coming in dramatic bursts (blog posts, sound bites, weekly episodes) rather than unravelings of minutiae. My feeling is that if we keep the bursts articulate and multifaceted, we'll be okay. Unfortunately, the majority of them are not.

On the blog  November 20th, 2008
I have this feeling that this boredom, this "formlessness" as Laura calls it, is deliberate. What I think Lessing is doing to us is making us wait until the Golden Notebook, which according to the back cover "holds the key to her recovery." Hopefully we won't go 500 pages before it gets good, but at least we have a clue that it is going to unfold, that the "stream of consciousness" style may be confined to a particular notebook, or moment of Anna's life.

Page 113  November 20th, 2008
Yes, this is true of Anna's sexuality but also more strikingly of her attitudes about race. She "resented the fact that the woman was black" and then felt "ashamed and angry" because she had "imagined [her]self free of any such emotion." This to me speaks a truism not only of Anna but how racism works and is perpetuated. Taboo race thoughts produce shame and guilt in progressive people who would like to think they are above prejudice. It was true then and it's true now. So yes, Anna is surprised at her own hatred. But I think Lessing is making a comment generally about how personal bias and colonial tradition can permeate politically radical culture beyond anyone's comfort level. Willi says he is surprised Anna admits to being "shocked" (to use a euphemism). This shows us, if anything, Anna's self-awareness and lack of denial--her ability to be explicitly angry at her private feelings.

Page 95  November 18th, 2008
'her sweet smile that was like a yawn...' How depressing is it that models are still known to be this way?

Page 89  November 18th, 2008
Lessing's assessment of female friendship is starting to feel a little arbitrary. Does she think women are loyal to each other or not? It seems supercynical, and also confusing, to discount all of the important moments in female friendship as having to do with men, even as Lessing often confirms a singular bond between women. It's also insulting, especially to gay women. This may be an anachronistic criticism, but I still feel the need to say it since all these statements are presented as very definitive. Maybe this will be revised/expanded later in the novel; we've still only seen Molly and Anna interact once, which is too early to judge what seems to be a central female friendship. So far, I find myself rolling my eyes sometimes at this assessment, although I do see the truth in it.

Page 85  November 15th, 2008
The second part of this page shows me a bit of an ambivalence toward the ideals of socialism; albeit perhaps unintentional. On one hand, socialists are presented as having endless passion, on a mission to explain life as a "glorious adventure." Yet there is a kind of stifling earnestness within this compulsion to help people, shown by the advice: "When one is personally unhappy the correct course is to take a historical view of the matter." The woman with marital problems, clearly less educated, couldn't find solace in this rational advice, although picking up on the raw energy of Willi's desire to help her. This mental block suggests a kind of intellectual-class divide. As I write this, I now realize that the passage is less about socialist ideals and more about frustration with how to reconcile intellect with the "common touch." With the election still swimming through my head, it actually kind of reminds me of Obama's dilemma--how to touch people without "going over their heads." (keywords: socialism, intellectuals)

Page 39  November 12th, 2008
Laura's point is sort of what I was getting at when I commented on Richard's failed shining moment on the previous page. But I think it goes beyond moral superiority...I think there still existed a sort of unconscious expectation of men to be rational and responsible, to be the Prince Charmings and the "rock" in a woman's life--which is certainly pre-feminist although it's never gone away. Anna's answer to Richard's pleading: "You should have loved her." What kind of a message does that send? Poor little Marion, she didn't get loved...? Undoubtedly she let their marriage fall apart, too. It's not all the fault of the adulterous, insensitive man.

Page 60  November 12th, 2008
This page, and the one later with the list of Willi's traits, strikes a chord in me. As a writer, especially one who feels that her feelings and ideas are sometimes disorganized and fractured, lists are immensely comforting. Notebooks that supposedly exist to be filled with pure analysis and priceless epiphanies always seem to be interrupted by lists, as if to say, "wait a second, let me touch base with my reality...this is easier, this makes sense." In the case of the Willi adjectives on pg. 83 of the UK edition, it exists to remind Anna of the limitations of lists themselves, and she appears to find a kind of comfort in that. Is this a woman thing or a writer thing, though? Is it true that women feel compelled to keep things (and by extension their being) more contained, more organized? I have a feeling Laura might have an opinion on this.

Page 49  November 10th, 2008
Look at that--it's Anna's caustic side. Seems like a darker version of what Molly projects outwardly, and Molly is disturbed because there's always been a sort of comfort in Anna's reserve.

Page 38  November 9th, 2008
Regarding what you'd love to tell Richard about his sexual problems, none of that would work precisely because it's true, he doesn't know how to interact with his wife, almost uses his physical problems as an excuse for forgetting sexual contact altogether. it seems almost a relief that he can't get a hard-on in his marital bed. it's physical--not my fault the marriage is failing! furthermore, he doesn't seem to believe that there's any such thing as improving a depressing situation. that makes me sad, not contemptuous.

Page 15  November 9th, 2008
It seems less like a "women's language" and more like a freeperson's language versus some one who has already given up and submitted to the life they were "given" (that is, chose albeit listlessly). tommy is still able to rebel, mold his future, and craft his opinions. richard to me doesn't represent all men, but cowardly men.

Page 38  November 9th, 2008
This outburst of Richard's at the bottom of the page is heartbreaking, partly because he surely believes this is going to be his shining moment--yet gets mocked once again--and partly because it underlines the sheer resignation and helplessness people felt (and still do feel of course) about the institution of marriage. he completely separates himself from his choices, telling them he's "involved" with the institution of marriage, i.e. normalcy, and there's really nothing he can do about it. at least it's better, he seems to say, than you weirdos who avoid mainstream society and a veneer of normalcy. too bad, also, that he earnestly makes the claim that his marital problems are physical, inciting (as the reader might guess) molly's scornful vitriole about men's supposed separation of physical and emotional. classic "intuitive woman, rational man" squabble! you just feel so sorry for this guy.

Page 16  November 9th, 2008
The dynamic that Helen points out--"wordly older sister" and "defensive baby sister"--is spot-on, and the presence of this dynamic rings a little too true for comfort. how many best friends have you had that struggle with this (im)balance of power? jealousy and at least slight competitiveness seems to tinge the vast majority of womens' best friendships, regardless of how "feminist" and modern they are, and regardless of how they are perceived as "interchangeable" by the outside world. this scene shows a kind of continuity of how an intimate female friendship plays out, despite major societal changes since the publication of this book.