“The two women were alone in the London flat,” and Anna tells Molly that “everything’s cracking up.” Molly reports that Richard is about to visit, probably to chat about “another crisis with Marion.” In the past, Anna left whenever Richard was coming, for they did not like each other—but Molly now insists that “he rather likes you,” or at least that “he’s committed to liking me, on principle.” Anna remarks that people see them as “practically interchangeable,” and Molly wonders how her friend hadn’t realized this earlier. But, in reality, they are quite different: Molly is the “worldly-wise” one, while Anna is the one with “a superiority of talent.”
Although the beginning of Lessing’s novel might seem innocuous enough at first, in fact its first two lines are central motifs in the book. Much later on, the introductory sentence becomes a central component of the novel’s plot; Anna’s declaration that things are “cracking up” points at once to her mental breakdown throughout the novel, the book’s “cracked up” structure in its division between Free Women and the notebooks, and the changing global order of the mid-1950s, especially in terms of the changing relationship between capitalist and communist countries.
Molly suggests that, despite their differences, people tend to see them as the same because they are both unmarried. Anna angrily remarks that they are “free women,” defined by the world in terms of their relationships with men. Molly suggests that they define others in the same way and decides that they are “a completely new type of woman.” “There’s nothing new under the sun,” Anna responds in the German accent of their psychoanalyst, Mrs Marks. They call Mrs Marks “Mother Sugar” because of her “traditional, rooted, conservative” mindset.
Anna and Molly struggle to define their womanhood for themselves, rather than letting it be defined by others’ stereotypes and assumptions. The “free” in “free women” immediately points in a number of contradictory directions: Anna and Molly’s freedom from men, their freedom to choose men for themselves, and also their appearing “free” to men, as sexual objects with no strings attached. The fact that Anna and Molly share a psychoanalyst attests to their close, sister-like friendship, suggesting that they partake of one another’s thoughts and minds.
Anna insists she cannot go back to Mrs Marks, with “all that damned art all over the place,” but Molly wonders if this might explain why Anna had not written anything at all during Molly’s yearlong absence. Anna is “throw[ing] that talent away,” Molly insists. They both want to get married, although Molly thinks it would be wrong for Anna, who asks for a beer—Marion had been coming over to Anna’s for beer, in fact, and Molly wants to know the whole story, and especially whether Richard had been coming over, too.
It becomes clear that Anna’s creative and romantic blocks are in some way related, and that Molly to some extent buffers against her need for love from men; they recognize that wanting to marry seems to undermine their “freedom,” but the beer they drink is also a clear sign of that freedom, which suggests that their struggle involves claiming their “freedom” without sacrificing the possibility of finding love.
Both the children of 1920s intellectuals, Richard and Molly had been married for a few months, years ago, and had one son, Tommy. Richard then remarried Marion and had three boys, and later they all became friends. During Molly’s absence, Richard came to visit Anna to ask about Tommy’s brooding—in fact, he came “about five or six times,” Anna reports, and Molly grows furious. But he and Marion came of their own accord, Anna insists, simply because “we seem to play the same role for people.” There is a much longer story, but she cannot tell it yet. She does mention that Marion has been drinking.
Richard and Marion’s visits to Anna reveal their inability to resolve their own family problems—they outsource the emotional labor of communication and decision-making to Anna—which suggests that Anna’s refusal to marry grants her a unique sort of wisdom and perspective. Marion’s drinking also attests to her dissatisfaction in her marriage with Richard and points to the broader issues with women’s treatment in traditional marriages that become crucial to the rest of the book.
Molly is “tallish” and “big-boned,” but looks “slight, and even boyish” because of her clever fashion sense—she loves playing different characters in different social contexts. But Anna is happy being her “small, thin, dark, brittle” self, although she is shy and tends to take a back seat to Molly in public. Increasingly, though, Anna has begun taking the lead in their private friendship. Yet Molly thrives on arguments, which devastates Anna. They know from Mother Sugar “that they were both ‘insecure’ and ‘unrooted,’” but Anna had started taking this as a point of pride—although now she worries she was deeply “scared of being alone in what I feel.”
Anna and Molly are frustrated with others’ sense that they are interchangeable because they see the immense differences between themselves as individuals, whereas others only see them in terms of their relationships with men. Surely, they are “insecure” and “unrooted”—in other words, “free”—in part because they lack meaningful relationships with men. Clearly marriage does not necessarily provide what Anna and Molly need, as reflected by Marion’s drinking and her and Richard’s dependence on Anna for emotional support.
Out of the first-floor window, Anna and Molly watch the milkman unload his bottles with his son, who has recently won a scholarship, securing a place in the middle class—the milkman is “one of those bloody working class tories,” Molly explains, and criticizes her own son for not “see[ing] his way forward.” Indeed, Tommy has spent the last three days sitting on his bed, thinking. Anna and Molly smile in envy at how the milkman and his son appear to work with a “perfect understanding,” but Anna says they should be comfortable with the consequences of raising their children alone. Molly runs outside to buy strawberries from a cart-man; after a brief argument about the price, she invites him inside, but he refuses; Anna tells Molly that she “hurt his feelings,” but Molly shrugs it off, and they have the strawberries with cream and red wine.
The milkman and his son’s seemingly automatic agreement about work and success reflects the underlying values of the dominant culture but also the class dimensions of Anna and Molly’s unhappiness; not only does the dominant culture define women in terms of their relationships to men, but it also defines men in terms of their work and economic status, which is also the reason for the strawberry seller’s shame. If Anna and Molly were poorer, it seems, material success would be the obvious goal for themselves and their children. It is clear from this passage that Anna, Molly, and their families enjoy a relatively comfortable, upper-middle class existence, but their material comforts have not brought them happiness.
Richard comes to the door; Molly tosses down the key and he comes in, overdressed in sports clothes as always (even though he never plays sports). He remarks on Anna’s presence and asks about Tommy, criticizing Molly’s lack of discipline with him. There is an awkward pause, and the narrator summarizes Molly and Richard’s history: while both were protesting the emerging Spanish dictatorship in 1935, Molly housed Richard after his family threw him out because of his political leanings and decision to become a writer. After a couple years, Richard disavowed leftist politics and met Marion, winning back the respect of his family, who then sent him to “a job in the city.” Molly had tried her hand at dance, journalism, cultural work in the communist party, and acting, before accepting that “she was essentially a dilettante” and taking pride in her refusal to accept “a safe marriage.”
Richard’s clothes immediately point to his obsession with wealth and status, which in turn proves that his interest in politics was just a passing phase, more about rebellion and experimentation than genuine conviction. Meanwhile, Molly seems to have lived more authentically, in line with her abilities and beliefs, but failed to excel in anything in particular. Richard’s willingness to throw away ethical commitments for the sake of material comforts also foreshadows the struggles that Tommy, Anna, Molly, and the British Communist Party will face.
Molly and Richard still argue about Tommy—especially after she left him at home for a year while she traveled around Europe. Anna says she supports Molly’s decision to give Tommy space to grow, and Richard backs off slightly, but still laments Tommy’s refusal to accept any of the help he offers. Molly has no objections, but notes that Tommy “knows all kinds” of people while Richard’s children are destined to remain in the “little fishpond of the upper class.” Anna tries to quell the argument, suggests that Tommy might hear them, and even threatens to leave as Molly accuses Richard of being anti-Semitic.
While Molly values Tommy’s freedom, Richard wants social status for his son, and Tommy is clearly caught between these two influences, although he is clearly aligning more with his mother and Richard evidently cannot stand to lose. Like the milkman, Richard voices a dominant, masculine ideology of the individual in modern society: a person is as good as his work (or her husband’s work).
Anna did get Molly and Richard to agree that he should give Tommy a job in “one of your things,” but Molly insists that Tommy would have to agree to it, and implies that he wouldn’t—Richard interjects, complaining that Tommy has “been surrounded half his life with communists,” many of whom have left or are leaving the party. The argument swiftly turns to politics, as Richard and Molly deride one another’s lifestyles (she is admittedly broke, but he is an “empty and stupid” businessman). Anna and Molly agree that Richard should find Tommy “something constructive” to do.
Molly and Richard’s clash of values explodes and begins to echo broader political tensions in this moment, the mid-1950s, as Western capitalist nations (including the UK) increasingly viewed communism as the greatest threat to their own existence. Tommy’s dilemma begins to look like a metaphor for global politics, and the author’s way of answering the as-yet unresolved question of whether it is better to have nothing or be nothing—to be broke or “empty and stupid.”
Richard calls Anna and Molly “extraordinarily naïve” and they joke about his business—Anna has learned he is much more of a bigshot than they had thought, but Molly scarcely cares. They are “a couple of savages,” he retorts, “ignorant as monkeys about economics,” which he thinks they are wrong to despise—but they do not despise economics, they imply, they despise him. Richard furiously tells Anna that, despite “the privilege of getting to know you better,” he still has little sense that she knows what she wanted; she replies that he perhaps dislikes how she knows exactly what she wanted, and “when to refuse.” This confirms Molly’s suspicions, but she appreciates Anna’s rudeness.
Richard has much thinner skin than Anna or Molly—while they seem to view him as an annoyance, he views them as a threat to his vision of the world and his ability to pass that vision down to his son. Richard’s hostility betrays his vulnerability and the women’s emotional strength; in fact, passages like this one earned Lessing the ire of male readers and critics, which suggests that, like Richard, they were unable to take criticism from women. While Molly notes the clear sexual tension between Anna and Richard, she has no hard feelings or sense of jealousy, an attitude quite different from that of the men who appear in this novel.
Molly asks about Marion—Anna reveals that Marion, too, had visited her, but Richard has nothing to say. Anna and Molly lament how Richard “makes [Marion] feel stupid,” and how he started cheating on her as soon as she had their first child, thirteen years before—he had originally come to Molly, who refused him, but still found “a succession of girls ever since, and Marion has known about them all.” However, when Marion found another man for herself, Richard “got all moral, rampaging like an Old Testament prophet” and then tried to seduce Marion until she gave up her other man for him. Once he won Marion over, Richard promptly lost interest in her again and went back to having flings with his secretaries.
In what becomes a consistent refrain for men, Richard sees his wife Marion more as property than as a human being—he wants to have her loyalty, but will not offer his loyalty or love, and cares neither about her well-being nor about the obvious double standard in his actions. Molly and Anna’s frustrations with conventional marriage are increasingly clear: it seems to be imprisoning Marion, who (unlike them) is presumably too afraid to become a “free woman.”
Anna reveals that Richard visited to ask whether he should “send Marion away to some home or something,” because her drinking was affecting the children. He implores Molly to talk to Marion, to do “anything” to “stop her drinking,” and Molly wonders why he does not do something himself. He took Marion to Italy, he remarked, and admittedly she didn’t drink, but only because of their “bargain—I won’t drink if you don’t look at girls.” With her “watching me like a jailor,” Richard “couldn’t get a hard on” during or after the trip, and now their efforts at politeness are undercut by suspicion. All the marriages he has seen have failed, he insists, and Anna and Molly have no right to judge from “the sidelines.” His difficulty getting an erection is an emotional problem, they insist, not a purely “physical” one. “You should have loved her,” Anna declares.
Marion’s drinking is the most obvious symptom of her dissatisfaction with marriage, but Richard only cares about it because of its impact on his children, not because of Marion’s own despair. Just as he sees life as a game of class and property while Anna and Molly value freedom, feeling, and the pursuit of a moral vision, Richard expects that he can fix his marriage with a contractual agreement. Richard seems completely incapable of understanding the notion that relationships should be about love, emotional connection, or a non-transactional commitment to another’s well being.
Returning to their original topic of conversation, Richard suggests that Tommy stay with him and Marion, and then Tommy walks in, takes some strawberries, and asks, “And how is Marion?” He has been listening, and in fact he had coffee with Marion the previous day, when “she seemed in a pretty bad way.” He looks like his father, but holds his anger and stubbornness inside instead of wearing it on his face. He sometimes tells his mother it was “bad luck” to have her personality and his father’s looks, rather than the other way around. Everyone falls silent and watches Tommy eat his berries—Anna feels that he is bullying them and is soon convinced that he listened to the whole conversation through the door.
Whereas Richard’s boorish insults do nothing to break Molly and Anna’s self-assurance, Tommy’s passive aggressive questions easily shake them; although Anna and his parents are trying to decide his life for him, he clearly holds power among them in this scenario—and knows how to use it, hinting that he was listening to their conversation by mentioning Marion and making it clear that he will refuse his father’s offer by suggesting that he shares his mother’s disposition.
Of course, Tommy has been listening, and he summarily turns down the offer of a job with his father. He cannot “live like them” and asks why his mother would suddenly think he should after bringing him up “to believe in certain things.” He “wouldn’t mind being like” Molly and Anna, even though they are often “in such a mess.” At least they are not defined by what they do; they are “several things,” and flexible people, whereas Richard could “never be different.” They are all unhappy, but Anna and Molly are “much happier than my father. Let alone Marion.” Anna mentions “how judged you make us feel,” but Tommy affirms that he would “rather be a failure, like you, than succeed and all that sort of thing. But I’m not saying I’m choosing failure.” He knows “what I don’t want, but not what I do want.”
Despite his cynicism, Tommy becomes the voice of conscience by directly confronting the question of what makes a good human life. He announces what Anna and Molly have been feeling all along: that Richard’s perspective on life means selling out not only on moral values, but also on one’s happiness and identity, which are predicated on said values. By pursuing the illusion that accumulation and social status are the proper goals of human life, Richard lets his job define his identity and gives up the chance to live meaningfully. Tommy’s willingness to openly judge Anna and his parents attests to his insistence on putting principles above convenience.
Tommy suggests that he might become a writer, but does not have Anna’s “complicated ideas” about it. He thinks her problem is either her loneliness—her fear of exposing her beliefs about the world—or else contempt. She complains about politicians who lie but writes whole books in secret. She is pained and ultimately admits that she does not want to spread her “awful feeling of disgust, of futility.” Even though she laments how socialists “wouldn’t take moral responsibility” anymore, Tommy insists that Anna would not, either. Anna jokes that spreading her negative emotions might be irresponsible, and Tommy gives up. He insists he would “like to go on doing nothing for a month or two,” and Richard leaves, promising to “drop in one of these days.” Tommy returns to his room, leaving Anna and Molly alone.
Tommy’s argument with his parents begins to center on Anna, who is his best model for how one might take a moral stand even if she has been failing to do so. In this sense, Tommy indicates that Anna is the central figure of The Golden Notebook and introduces the secret notebooks that become the core of the rest of the novel. While she worries that she will make the world worse by speaking her mind, Tommy apparently sees something valuable and courageous in the act of speaking up; authenticity appears to be his most important moral value.
“It seems a lot of things have been going on while I was away,” starts Molly. Anna explains that she is not having a mere “artistic problem,” but that her notebooks are full of “chaos.” Molly asks why Anna cannot write just another novel—she is angry that Anna can “fritter [herself] away” like so many others. Anna mentions a painter who declared he would “never paint again […] because the world is so chaotic art is irrelevant.” Molly asks what Anna might do when the money from her first novel runs out—pained at the difficulty of every conversation, Anna admits that she might need to get a job.
Anna’s chaotic notebooks are a metaphor for her chaotic mind, but she is not beginning to fall apart on her own—rather, she sees this as a symptom of a global disorder, pointing to the changing balance of power between capitalism and communism in the early days of the Cold War. While Anna’s reluctance to get a job reflects her class status, her willingness to work points to the conflicted status of women in the 1950s, when (usually unfulfilling) work became an alternative, or supplement, to marriage. She is liberated in the sense that she is not unwilling to work because she is a woman, but she does recognize the limits of so-called “women’s work.”
Molly asks about the last year, which Anna admits was full of “complicated living,” including a near-affair with Richard—he brought her to a tedious, terrifying dinner with other businesspeople and their “popsies.” Afterward, she thought, “he’s no worse than some of the morons I’ve slept with,” feeling “that awkward moral exhaustion, what the hell does it matter?” Richard noticed, got up, and declared that he had to go home—three times, for he expected her to beg him to stay. She simply bid him goodnight, and he insulted her looks—of course, he would have complemented them had she invited him to bed. He reminded her that he was “a very virile man,” but she called him “an awful bore” and sent him off. Laughing, Molly goes to the kitchen—Anna follows her, and they turn to gossip.
Richard’s vulnerability to rejection from woman reveals his emotional fragility—he expects Anna to revere and beg for him, but she finds him as unremarkable as most other men. His emphasis on her appearance reflects how he views women: as accessories, “popsies,” proof of his masculinity, but never equals capable of making their own informed decisions. Anna and Molly’s friendship is clearly much stronger than their feelings for men, since Anna’s near-tryst with Richard does not bother Molly in the least—but Anna’s sense of “moral exhaustion” suggests that she wants a serious relationship, on equal terms, with a man.
“Everything’s the same,” Anna insists in the white kitchen, “crammed with order” and covered in steam from the roast in the oven. Molly remarks that England is “worse than usual,” so utterly boring, that she wants to leave again at once. The men in England are stuck-up and self-conscious, unlike in Europe, where life is easier—Anna suggests that they just know England better, with all its faults, and wonders whether she should even stay for lunch, which would mean subjecting herself to a day-long “what’s-wrong-with-men session” that would still end in “a sudden resentment, a rancor—because after all, our real loyalties are always to men, and not to women…”
While Anna and Molly’s friendship is stronger than their current relationships with men, it is also something of a replacement for those relationships, a provisional marriage that allows them to pursue real love. Anna and Molly are caught up in a double-bind: they want love from men, but recognize that nearly all the men they meet (especially married men) are more inclined to treat them as sexual objects than to offer genuine love or commitment.
They decide to skip over “the comrades,” except for a choice few, who wrote three nearly identical, angry letters complaining about Anna’s criticism of the Soviets, on three separate occasions. Many Party members have quit—Molly scarcely cares about politics anymore, either. They chat briefly about the Americans in London, Tom Mathlong, and Molly’s old friend De Silva, who went home to Ceylon, left his wife there, and returned to London (although “Anna found herself unable to tell what had happened” when she met him).
Gossip, it seems, is the core of Anna and Molly’s relationship. While this passage might seem cryptic and vague at first, it introduces an important conflict (and two minor characters) that comes to play a significant role in Anna’s notebooks. This is set in 1956 or 1957, when news of the repression and persecution committed in the Soviet Union under Stalin was reaching the West, and Western communists split among those who defended the Soviet Union blindly, those who criticized its deviations from the true path to a communist society, and those who gave up communist beliefs altogether.
Molly also asks about Anna herself—she had a visit from Michael, with whom she had broken up three years prior after living together for five years. He made a joke about their friend Dick deciding whether to bring his mistress with him to Ghana, before awkwardly remembering that Anna had been his own mistress. Anna asks whether “we made a mistake” by letting their marriages, relationships, and political commitments fail, then just saying, “we made a mistake, too bad.” But she wonders whether “things can happen to us so bad that we don’t ever get over them?” Anna and Molly never admit failure, but “it might be better for us if we did.” Molly brushes her off, saying “this is simply because of Michael,” and Anna decides to head home.
The reader will soon discover how central a role Michael plays in Anna’s emotional life, but his clumsy joke shows how little Anna truly mattered to him—he seems to think abrupt breakups are harmless, even funny, but does not consider the asymmetry in the relationship between a married man and an unmarried mistress. Anna sees her and Molly’s refusal to admit failure as reflecting their refusal to seriously pursue or take a stand for anything in the first place—of course, Molly’s reaction shows that she would rather not take that possibility seriously, either.
Anna walks back to her five-room flat, where Michael persuaded her to live (instead of with Molly). She rents a room to two students (one has since moved out) and leaves one for her daughter Janet, who is in school. She and Michael occupied two more, until he left and she moved into the living room. She still makes irregular income from her best-selling novel Frontiers of War. “This was the framework of Anna’s life,” but she is only truly “herself” when she is alone in her room, which had books, papers, and typewriter piled around the bed, and her four notebooks in the drawer, which (after closing the curtains) she lays atop her trestle table and gazes upon from above.
Anna’s apartment reflects her choice to put Michael above Molly in the past, but the now empty room where she used to sleep with him clearly symbolizes the emotional void he left her with. Ironically, despite Tommy’s criticisms of Richard, Anna is also most authentically “herself” when accompanied by her work—her writing, the narrative implies, contains a truer version of Anna than her actions or relationship with Molly. “This was the framework of Anna’s life” in terms of the people she lives among and space she occupies, but also in terms of the novel’s narrative structure, for the linear story of Free Women offers a framework for the reader to make sense of her notebooks, to which the novel now turns.