The Golden Notebook

The Golden Notebook

The Golden Notebook Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Doris Lessing

Born in what is now Iran to a British imperial clerk and the nurse who cared for him after he lost a leg in World War I, Doris Lessing grew up on a farm in the colony of Southern Rhodesia, which is now Zimbabwe. She went to a girls’ school in the capital of Salisbury (now Harare) until dropping out at age 13—she never returned to school, but she pursued her education independently, reading extensively during her teen years. Lessing escaped her miserable home to become a nursemaid and telephone operator. During this time, she published a few stories in colonial magazines, and wrote and destroyed two novel manuscripts. After pursuing unfruitful relationships out of her self-described “fever of erotic longing,” Lessing married at 19 and had two children. Dissatisfied, she soon left her new family to spend her free time in discussion with the Left Book Club, where she met her next husband, the German communist exile Gottfried Lessing. (In The Golden Notebook, protagonist Anna Wulf fictionalizes this portion of Lessing’s life in her black notebook.) In 1949, Doris Lessing divorced Gottfried Lessing and brought their young son to London; soon thereafter, she published her first novel, The Grass is Singing. In the next decade, she continued to write fiction based on her upbringing in Africa and participate in left-wing politics; although she gave up communism in 1954, South Africa and her homeland of Southern Rhodesia both banned her from returning in 1956. Lessing’s work took a psychological turn in the 1960s; in 1962, she published The Golden Notebook, which remains her most celebrated work. In the 1970s and 1980s Lessing began exploring science fiction and Sufi mystical themes, and in the following decades she expanded into other genres, writing opera libretti for composer Philip Glass and a two-volume autobiography. In 2007, Lessing won the Nobel Prize in Literature for her “skepticism, fire and visionary power” at the age of 88, although she was reportedly first considered for the Prize in the 1980s and responded to the news of her award by insisting that she “couldn’t care less.”
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Historical Context of The Golden Notebook

Set primarily in the 1950s (but with some flashbacks to the 1940s), The Golden Notebook echoes shifts in the global order as World War II gave way to the Cold War, and the colonized world began to pursue independence from Europe. Anna’s relationships with the German exile Willi Rodde and the young British airmen Paul Blackenhurst, Jimmy McGrath, and Ted Brown during the 1940s are suffused with the sense of fear and displacement, both social and geographical, that characterized a generation of Europeans forced not only to fight in World War II but also to confront the similarities between their nations’ treatment of colonized peoples and the Nazis’ campaign of genocide and territorial expansion. Africans’ growing movements for independence from European colonial powers also figure in the background in the novel: Anna both supports these movements (by, for instance, befriending the activist Tom Mathlong) and benefits from colonial racism, which gives her a relatively prominent position in the society of British-occupied Central Africa. Anna and her friends also frequently reference the National Liberation Front’s successful war of independence against the French government, which was ongoing for the second half of the 1950s and ended the same year as The Golden Notebook’s publication in 1962. It served as an important vanguard for subsequent national liberation movements across the African continent, which won African nations independence from European colonizers in the 1960s and 1970s. The history of the Soviet Union is also crucial in The Golden Notebook, since the novel’s protagonist spends a substantial portion of the book grappling with her conflicted feelings toward communism as both theory and practice. After authoritarian leader Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953, the Soviet Union was in turmoil with the growing global awareness about Stalin’s violent repression of dissent. 1956, during which much of The Golden Notebook is set was a crucial turning point as the next Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, openly repudiated his predecessor, forcing Soviet citizens and communist organizations around the globe to reconsider their faith in Stalinism. Western parties like the British Communist Party lost vast numbers of supporters (including Doris Lessing herself). Finally, The Golden Notebook also foreshadowed and played a significant role in the second-wave feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s (often called the “Women’s Liberation” movement). These movements were largely a response to the restrictive gender roles of the 1950s—after women’s partial entry into the workforce during World War II, many were forced to return to the home, and work in the formal economy was often limited to supportive and administrative roles (like nurses and secretaries). Anna and Molly’s decision to live as unmarried, working (though not working-class) mothers was accordingly as uncommon as it was bold, and Lessing’s emphasis on writing about the subjective experiences of “free women” in this era—such as writing about sex from women’s perspective—was groundbreaking. While she received significant backlash for her apparently “man-hating” protagonist, one of the most remarkable achievements of The Golden Notebook was that Lessing managed to dispel the notion that unmarried, independent, working women were jaded or unemotional: Anna and Molly break gender roles without giving up on the prospect of healthy, equitable love.

Other Books Related to The Golden Notebook

Although she did not publish her first novel until her early thirties, Doris Lessing ultimately published more than 50 books during her lifetime, most of them novels. While The Golden Notebook remains her best-known work, she is also well remembered for her first novel, The Grass is Singing (1950), which chronicled a white Rhodesian colonist’s racism toward, eventual friendship with, and ultimate murder by her black servant. The Grass is Singing also served as the model for the first novel written by The Golden Notebook’s protagonist, Anna Wulf. Lessing is also known for two five-novel series: Children of Violence, written in the 1950s and 1960s and set largely in colonial Rhodesia, and the science-fiction series Canopus in Argus: Archives (1979-1984), which tell unconnected stories set on different planets in the same fictional future and is particularly influenced by Lessing’s study of Sufism. Other noteworthy novels of Lessing’s include The Good Terrorist (1985), about a young woman in London who gets drawn into violent activism, and Alfred and Emily (2008), her last book, a fictionalized version of her parents’ lives, which suggests how they might have lived had they never married. Although she is often celebrated for her striking originality, in The Golden Notebook Lessing does allude to the work of earlier authors, especially D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Wolf, and James Joyce. Her treatment of sex and criticism of labor under industrialized capitalism both recall and challenge Lawrence’s treatment of these subjects in novels like Sons and Lovers (1913), Women in Love (1920), and Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928). Lessing borrows Virginia Woolf’s surname for her protagonist Anna Wulf and builds on Woolf’s landmark depictions of mental illness, experiments in nonlinear form, representations of women’s subjective experience in Western European society with novels like To the Lighthouse (1927) and The Waves (1931). Lessing explicitly references James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) and Finnegans Wake (1939), from which she also borrows her protagonists’ names (Molly and Anna, respectively). Like Lessing, Nadine Gordimer was also a respected, Nobel prize-winning white woman writer from British Africa famous for her activism; she is best remembered for anti-apartheid novels like The Conservationist (1974) and Burger’s Daughter (1979). Finally, Betty Friedan’s landmark The Feminine Mystique was published in 1963, the year after The Golden Notebook—much like Lessing’s novel, it considered women’s dissatisfaction and sense of confinement in married life and played a prominent role in the second-wave feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s.
Key Facts about The Golden Notebook
  • Full Title: The Golden Notebook
  • When Written: 1950s-1960s
  • Where Written: London, UK
  • When Published: 1962
  • Literary Period: Postmodernism
  • Genre: Novel, Metafiction, Postmodernism
  • Setting: London and Colonial Central Africa
  • Climax: During her relationship with Saul Green, Anna slips into madness.
  • Antagonist: The compartmentalization of life and fragmentation of society, unfulfilling relationships and rigid gender roles, communist and anti-communist orthodoxy
  • Point of View: First-person (Anna’s notebooks), third-person (Free Women)

Extra Credit for The Golden Notebook

Reception and Response. Doris Lessing was famously unsatisfied with the early critical response to The Golden Notebook, which focused intensely on Anna and Molly’s attitude toward men but neglected the novel’s structural innovations and central theme of mental breakdown, as well as the book’s eventual acclaim, which the author thought unfairly overshadowed the rest of her work.

 Semi-Autobiographical. Not only does The Golden Notebook leave any serious reader uncertain as to what, precisely, is fact and fiction in the protagonist Anna Wulf’s life, it also blurs the boundaries between the author and her subject. Anna is a loosely fictionalized version of Doris Lessing herself, just as Anna fictionalizes herself into the character Ella and the version of herself who appears in Free Women.