The Golden Notebook

The Golden Notebook

by

Doris Lessing

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on The Golden Notebook can help.

The Golden Notebook: Free Women: 2 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Molly calls just after Anna puts Janet to sleep. She asks whether Anna has seen Tommy, who has spent the previous month virtually catatonic in his bedroom. She then moves on to her dinner date “with some old flame from America,” a man she always finds utterly boring but still considers “the best of the bunch,” which leads her to wonder why she feels entitled to have someone good enough for her. She has to leave for the theater, but asks that Anna call Tommy in an hour and hopefully learn what happened during his visit to Richard’s office that afternoon. A few minutes later, Molly calls again—Marion, drunk, has called and said that Tommy briefly visited her. Marion was also furious at Anna and a girl from Richard’s office, both of whom Richard claimed to be sleeping with. Molly says she is terrified—“something awful” is surely happening.
The linear narrative of Free Women picks up a few weeks after it left off more than 200 pages earlier. Molly seems to have lost all faith in romance and begins to blame herself, although partially in jest; Marion’s drunkenness and misery is proof enough of an incompatible marriage’s dangerous consequences. And Molly’s sinister prediction foreshadows the remainder of this section, but also shows how Free Women’s more ordinary narrative structure differs from that of Anna’s notebooks, which are still written in the past tense but also track the uncertainty of her experience more closely.
Themes
Gender, Labor, and Power Theme Icon
Love and Sex Theme Icon
Fact, Fiction, and Authorship Theme Icon
Tommy shows up at Anna’s flat. He is sure his mother would be “upset because of all those madness [psychology] books” he has been reading. Molly does not pick up Anna’s phone call; Tommy compares Anna’s bed to a coffin and lets out a “harsh, uncontrolled, and malicious” giggle when she asks about his visit to Richard. He turned down his father’s offer to oversee workers during construction projects in Ghana or Canada, and obviously his father blamed the influence of communism. However, he did not mean Molly and Anna’s influence; he meant communists’ refusal to pursue anything but the wholesale restructuring of entire societies. Tommy assures that Anna and his mother would take those jobs—he did not, not because he was a communist, but because he was suffering “paralysis of the will.”
Tommy’s attitude, too, suggests that something sinister is about to happen. Surprisingly, Richard’s critique of communism is not grounded in his personal resentment for Molly and Anna but rather in the same recognition that led George to frustration with Willi in Africa: seeing communism as merely theoretical leads to the same “paralysis of the will” that Tommy claims has overcome him. This “paralysis” reflects the enduring conflict between motives, principles, desires, and goals (on the one hand) and the necessity to make decisions and act, on the other.
Themes
Communism and Disillusionment Theme Icon
Tommy is surprised to see Richard as more than “ordinary and second-rate” at work—Tommy can be a successful tycoon himself, too, but would never do it because of his “divided mind.” He knows that “people like you and my mother are a hundred times better than he [Richard] is.” Anna feels worried and lost for a moment, then reminds Tommy of his father’s own communist and bohemian phase in the 1930s. Tommy supposes that Richard justified his affairs because they prove “he’s not just an ordinary respectable cog in the middle-class wheel.” Tommy went to visit Marion after his father; he fully blames Richard for “ruining” her and their children. Anna does not know what to say; both she and Tommy seem to understand that “she was failing him.”
Tommy recognizes that Richard’s success at work relies on his undivided personality: he can conveniently block out the critical and dissenting parts of himself, whereas Tommy, Anna, and Molly cannot. Yet Tommy insists that honesty and self-awareness are more important than the ability to act with certainty. Richard refuses to confront his contradictions and ends up deceiving himself—for instance, his affairs are precisely what make him an ordinary middle-class businessman.
Themes
Fragmentation, Breakdown, and Unity Theme Icon
Gender, Labor, and Power Theme Icon
Love and Sex Theme Icon
Suddenly, Tommy walks over to Anna’s notebooks and asks why there are four. “I don’t know,” she says, “it just happened.” It would be “such a mess” if she had just one notebook, but Tommy thinks this mess would be fine. Janet calls from upstairs; Tommy brings her water and says goodnight. Meanwhile, Anna feels “an extraordinary tumult of sensations,” angry and terrified at Tommy, who walks down the stairs and asks what Anna imagines Janet will become. She is only eleven, Anna insists.
Tommy’s same worries about division apply to Anna’s notebooks: she fears the apparent chaos of unifying her thoughts in a single place, so holds the separate parts of herself in different places. She is furious not only because Tommy violates the privacy of her writing but also because he threatens her efforts to divide herself.
Themes
Fragmentation, Breakdown, and Unity Theme Icon
Fact, Fiction, and Authorship Theme Icon
Get the entire The Golden Notebook LitChart as a printable PDF.
The Golden Notebook PDF
Tommy apologizes for his attitude, but Anna seems “aggrieved.” Tommy asks about Janet’s father. Anna says she seldom thinks of him—Tommy’s parents are much more involved with one another than she ever was with Janet’s father, Max Wulf. She did not love him—she loved nobody until Michael. She thinks this is not so terrible, but that the only terrible thing is “to pretend that the second-rate is first-rate,” deceiving oneself into feeling satisfied with the unsatisfactory.
Anna’s refusal to accept the “second-rate” is the core belief that shapes her relationships with men and art: she settles for neither unhappy marriages nor inadequate art. Although this arguably leaves her with no marriage and no art, it also gives her a clarity of moral insight that, among the book’s characters, only Tommy shares.
Themes
Love and Sex Theme Icon
Action, Freedom, and Moral Courage Theme Icon
Fact, Fiction, and Authorship Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Tommy nods and opens the blue notebook, reading an entry in which Anna wrote that Janet was having “a difficult phase.” Tommy remembers once being frightened and anxious in bed, then walking downstairs to see Molly and Anna, only to hear Molly say he was “in a difficult phase.” This made him feel that all his “victories” were lost, that all the sense of self he had developed was “just a phase” and would pass. Anna is busy thinking about Janet—who, on the whole, is perfectly fine. Knowing that Anna and Molly think he is currently “in a difficult phase,” Tommy asks whether his feelings are valid at all, since “one can’t go through one’s whole life in phases. There must be a goal somewhere.” Anna suggests that women simply see things (especially their own children) “in a sort of continuous creative stream.” She continues to feel a sense of foreboding.
Tommy cannot reconcile the possibility of simply living out “phases” with his faith in human progress. He sees that the notion of a “difficult phase” is really an excuse to avoid confronting life’s obstacles: such “phases” do not merely pass on their own, but rather must be actively overcome through a struggle for personal development. People do not abandon their previous phases, he argues, but rather carry their past selves with them as they gradually improve themselves. Without growth, he insists, life has no point. Of course, he is also speaking to Anna’s difficulty overcoming her creative block.
Themes
Fragmentation, Breakdown, and Unity Theme Icon
Action, Freedom, and Moral Courage Theme Icon
Fact, Fiction, and Authorship Theme Icon
Finally, Anna says she knows Tommy has come to hear “what we are alive for.” She says that “our kind of people” are “a sort of latter-day stoic.” Perhaps Tommy has too many options in life. Tommy says he envies the milkman’s son, who can either pass his exams or remain a milkman forever—he mentions another friend, Tony, who became a conscientious objector and joined a new socialist movement (“a sort of substitute” for the stale communists) even though he does not quite believe in them. Anna asks if he also envies Tony, and Tommy “positively shriek[s]” that she is being dishonest. He returns to her notebooks. She feels “terribly exposed” but figures it might help to let him read what she has written.
Stoicism was a school of ancient philosophy that emphasized learning to accept what one cannot change and take responsibility for what one can: Anna’s description of her and Tommy as “latter-day stoic[s]” implies that they are forced to cope with the limits of their will despite realizing that the world is following the wrong moral path. Tommy accuses Anna of dishonesty because he does not envy Tony, who followed the most convenient political path rather than the one he truly believed—Tony seemed to act out of moral exhaustion rather than moral conviction. 
Themes
Communism and Disillusionment Theme Icon
Action, Freedom, and Moral Courage Theme Icon
Fact, Fiction, and Authorship Theme Icon
After perhaps an hour, Tommy asks why Anna writes different entries differently, and how she decides what is important. She said she does not know—he points out one day’s entries: she wrote first that she imagined jumping out of her window, then licking up her own blood and brains from the pavement, but set this section off in brackets. Then, she wrote about going to the store. Anna says that the first entry consists of unimportant “mad flashes,” worth bracketing away only because it looks wrong to write this down next to the day’s “ordinary things.” She feels this is not the truth for which the blue notebook exists.
While Anna insists that each notebook expresses a particular truth, Tommy undermines the notion that she can set out with such truths in mind rather than discovering them during the process of writing; in the blue notebook, her “mad flash” is as true as the events of her day. Of course, the first section of the blue notebook is largely about Anna’s encroaching madness—to Tommy, her insistence on bracketing out the “mad flashes” looks like an attempt to deny rather than confront her sickness.
Themes
Fragmentation, Breakdown, and Unity Theme Icon
Fact, Fiction, and Authorship Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Tommy asks why Anna cannot just have one large notebook—“chaos,” Anna explains, which she fears. Tommy finds her fear irresponsible. Anna feels this accusation is the culmination of his visit; he reveals that he has been coming in to read her notebooks in the past, and that he has determined she is dishonest: she does not reveal her inner turmoil to the world, but divides it up in her books instead. This is her only way to avoid admitting that she is in “a bad phase.” Tommy also insists that people are “cannibals” who “don’t really care about each other.” However, he claims he will give Anna “another chance.” He reminds her that she used to believe in communism, that “every so often, perhaps once in a century, there’s a sort of—act of faith” that pushes the world forward because people can dream of a better world.
By keeping the four books, Anna avoids “a phase” by refusing to see herself and her pain as a unified whole: instead of confronting the contradictions among the different parts of herself, she houses those different parts in different notebooks, trying to create separate, stable selves that will not change (but will also not overcome their problems, hence are stuck in a rut and not in a “bad phase” that she can surpass). This is why she is dishonest. If she cared about people, Tommy thinks, Anna would write her turmoil together in one place and publish it for the world to see, publicly confronting the chaos within herself as a demonstration of the moral courage that people need in order to build a better world, one in which people care about each other rather than merely focusing on themselves. Tommy sees redemption through innocence: he thinks that this publication would be a transformative “act of faith,” which is a clear reference to the communist faith in revolution but also recalls Anna’s declaration in the yellow notebook that love creates naivety, or “spontaneous creative faith.”
Themes
Fragmentation, Breakdown, and Unity Theme Icon
Love and Sex Theme Icon
Communism and Disillusionment Theme Icon
Action, Freedom, and Moral Courage Theme Icon
Fact, Fiction, and Authorship Theme Icon
Anna takes gets a call and says she is expecting a visitor—Tommy leaves, thanking her for the conversation. Anna calls Molly and explains that Tommy “frightens” her. Marion is coming to see her, and they need “to do something for Tommy, quickly.” Now in a much better mood than before, Molly figures they are “worrying about nothing.”
Molly’s worry has passed on to Anna, who feels the same sense of imminent danger Molly had at the beginning of this chapter. Molly, on the other hand, seems like an entirely new person, which recalls Tommy’s feelings about “phases” and divided selves.
Themes
Fragmentation, Breakdown, and Unity Theme Icon
Marion comes upstairs and replaces Tommy in the chair across from Anna. Marion drunkenly slurs something about Anna being fortunate to be so free and asks for a drink. Marion asks about Richard; Anna realizes Marion is jealous of her and insists that Richard had been lying about their supposed affair. In fact, Marion says she envies Anna’s freedom—but Anna replies that she would prefer to be married. Marion decides she will have to stay the night, because Richard is so stingy, despite their extraordinary wealth, that he will not pay for her to take a car home. She also jokes about Anna’s male lodger, until Anna clarifies that he is quite merely a lodger. Marion continues pontificating about Richard’s indifference to her—she knows that he will never love her again, that no man will ever love her again—and demands another drink.
Marion continues to represent the prototypical distraught housewife, who yearns for freedom from her imprisonment in marriage and shows what Anna might have become had she remained with Willi/Max, or perhaps even Michael. Marion thinks that Anna has not only freedom, but also gets to have Richard—in reality, Anna feels she has neither, and both she and Marion yearn to play one another’s roles. Marion also speaks to Anna’s fears about romance and history of meaningless affairs by insisting that nobody will ever love her.
Themes
Gender, Labor, and Power Theme Icon
Love and Sex Theme Icon
The phone rings: it is Molly. Tommy has shot himself in his room, and he is about to die. A policeman takes the phone from Molly and tells Anna to come to St Mary’s Hospital. Marion has fallen asleep in her chair; Anna pulls her into bed, then runs outside. It is after midnight; there are no taxis, but a policeman calls her one. At the hospital, Tommy is not yet dead, but is “expected to die before morning.”
Just a few pages before, Tommy declared that the world needs an “act of faith” and told Anna she deserves a second chance; yet he seems to have abandoned both of these ideas here, with a decision seemingly based in despair. Still, it is no coincidence that Anna appeared to be the last person Tommy talked with before shooting himself—and his decision points to her description of them both as “latter day stoics,” since the Stoics advocated suicide as a viable solution to a desperate situation. Tommy’s suicide also recalls the suicide in the yellow notebook—that of the protagonist in Ella’s novel. The relationship between these two suicides is, as of yet, completely unclear: it may be a coincidence that Anna had been thinking about suicide and then Tommy committed suicide; most troublingly, he may have gotten the idea from reading Anna’s yellow notebook; or perhaps the relationship between Free Women and the notebooks is not as straightforward as it initially appears.
Themes
Action, Freedom, and Moral Courage Theme Icon
Fact, Fiction, and Authorship Theme Icon