After she and Anna spend a week with Tommy in the hospital, Molly remarks that it is “odd” that they now accept it as inevitable that he will live, although they could have easily accepted the opposite. They search for the singular way that they “definitively failed him.” Tommy is now blind, but his brain will be fine, and “time established itself again,” with Molly crying endlessly and Anna busy caring for her and for Janet, who is terrified.
Since the novel declares that Tommy will die, then reveals that he survives only after lengthy excerpts from Anna’s notebooks, Molly is calling out the reader as much as herself and Anna, as well as pointing to the mystery of what is fact and fiction in this book more broadly—which Tommy’s blindness here also represents.
They all seem to forget “the accusing dogged obstinacy” that led to Tommy’s suicide attempt. When he awakens, he realizes he is blind and goes silent after Molly confirms it—afterward, Richard scolds her for telling Tommy the truth. She suggests that Tommy had been awake the whole time, but was just waiting until his whole family arrived, and somehow took pleasure in hearing about his blindness from her, in front of everyone. Richard, disgusted, leaves with Marion.
The people around Tommy have difficulty connecting his past self to his present one and do not worry that he will eventually carry out his earlier suicide plans, even as they continue to see him as malicious and misanthropic; while Richard wants to give Tommy false hope, Molly considers it better to confront than potentially delay the realization of ungainly truths.
Tommy never has a breakdown, but is judicious and calm, “a model patient” in the nurses’ eyes. He goes home and quickly learns to care for himself without his eyesight, which he scarcely seems to mind having lost; he moves into the first-floor living room but insists that nothing else should change in their lives. He starts learning Braille and relearning to write with the “large, square and clear” handwriting of a child.
As in the previous sections of Free Women, Tommy confronts and accepts the truth like the “latter-day stoic[s]” Anna suggested they may be, even though he is also now cut off from the world by his blindness—like Anna’s, his life now largely consists of reading and writing alone in his room. As character foils for one another, they both seek to communicate the world’s truths despite restricting themselves to a confined space and perspective.
Molly returns to work, and Anna stops visiting Tommy, who prefers being alone and to whom she had nothing to say. Molly calls her from phone booths or work to complain that Tommy never leaves his room or asks for her help with anything. Visitors blame Molly, with more or less tact, and Anna defends her.
Tommy completely withdraws from the social world, too, in a way even more extreme than he had before his suicide attempt. As he pushes Molly away, her sense of motherhood begins to erode and his future is no longer the central question in their relationship.
However, both Anna and Molly feel, and are afraid to mention, “something else” beneath their panic: Anna and Molly’s “years’ long, slow growth of intimacy was checked and broken.” Tommy dominates the house and hears everything that happens in it. Molly bursts unexpectedly into tears and spends all her time working or sitting alone at home; she tries bringing a man home but realizes that Tommy would hear every moment. She starts to “get physically irritated” when she sees her son, who seems to enjoy frightening her, but is also somehow “happy for the first time in his life.” Molly’s hair has begun greying, her eyes falling sullen.
Tommy’s mere presence in the household—others’ fear that he is listening in, rather than his interactions with anyone—begins to also erode Molly’s connections to the rest of the world: he draws her into the same isolation that defines his existence. While isolation brings Tommy a sense of tranquility and wholeness by absolving him of any obligations to his mother or the rest of the world, Molly experiences this isolation as breakdown, since her sense of value in life hinged on her relationships to others.
Molly calls Anna to report that Marion has started visiting Tommy every day, for hours. She has also stopped drinking, and Richard is incredibly angry. Anna goes to visit him one day at the office—she is glad he did not come to her, for she is still devastated to remember Tommy going through her notebooks before he shot himself and feels that she is losing possession of her room. She is surprised to find Richard’s desk and office building so impressive; Richard’s secretary reminds her of Marion and is clearly having an affair with him.
Anna worries that, when Tommy read her notebooks, the despair and negativity she hoped to keep private spread out into the world, exactly as she’d feared—although Tommy wanted her precisely to unify and publicize her turmoil. Perhaps Tommy’s suicide has something to do, at least symbolically, with giving Anna “another chance,” as he promised.
Richard complains that Marion is spending too much time with Tommy, talking about politics, and not enough with her own children. Anna suggests he “employ someone” to take care of the children, and Richard worries about the cost, and having “a strange woman around the house.” Anna mentions that Marion is certainly doing better; Richard is “genuinely wounded” by “Marion’s escape.”
Marion and Tommy’s relationship, a kind of surrogate marriage, threatens Richard because it relieves them of their previous dependence on him; despite (or perhaps because of) his obvious, immense power in the workplace, Richard seems unable to grapple with the possibility of losing control over his wife and son.
Richard is considering divorcing Marion and sending her “off on some holiday” with Tommy, while he introduces his children to his latest mistress, Jean. Molly would not mind, Anna insisted, but Tommy might—he is keeping Molly “as his prisoner.” Enraged, Richard calls Anna and Molly a “filthy-minded, loathsome, cold-brained pair of…” and Anna decides to leave, marveling that her relationship with Richard is based on their mutual need for her to abuse him. She realizes that his door only opens if he pushes a button on his desk.
Relationships between men and women seem to be about a mutual, unhealthy need for unequal power. Anna implies that Tommy somehow needs his mother’s continued misery for his own sustenance, which seems strange given Tommy’s newfound happiness and relationship with Marion. Perhaps she is pointing to the fact that Richard cannot stand Marion’s happiness, and—like his son, apparently—wants to keep his wife “as his prisoner” rather than letting her pursue her own happiness. Of course, Richard momentary keeps Anna as a literal prisoner in his office, making her substitute for his failing marriage just as he tried to make her substitute sexually for his wife through an affair—yet Anna seems to desire, even “need,” this imprisonment just as Molly lets Tommy control her life rather than pursuing it independently of him.
Richard complains about Marion “outwitt[ing]” him and “cheat[ing him] out of a normal life.” Anna assures him that “the supply of secretaries is unlimited,” but he worries that Jean wants to marry soon, whether to him or someone else. Anna finally convinces Richard to open the door and suggests that he offer Tommy a job, which might work “if you handle things right,” despite Tommy’s politics. Richard insists that he hates his job and wants to retire; Anna goes for the door, but Richard jumps in front of it and closes it, then stares at her with a sinister smile that recalls the night he tried to sleep with her. Finally, he opens the door again, and Anna leaves for the underground.
The prospect of giving Tommy a job is no longer about Tommy’s future, but about ensuring Richard’s continued control over his son; Richard ironically complains about losing the normal nuclear family he had long since abandoned, and then about his job, even though he insists on the nobility of his profession and wants Tommy to follow him into the business world. This confirms Tommy’s suspicion at the beginning of the book: capitalism erodes people’s spirit through alienating work, even among the bourgeoisie (the class that owns property and capital, like Richard).
The rush-hour crowd overwhelms Anna, and she leaves the ticket line to hide by the wall, where she wonders about “all these people, caught by the terrible pressure of the city—all except Richard and people like him.” She forces herself through the ticket line and onto the train, where she wonders what it means for someone to “crack up” and repeats to herself, “Anna, I am Anna,” reminding herself that Janet (and only Janet) needs her. Anna imagines herself writing in her room, then Tommy reading her notebooks.
Anna interprets these rush-hour commuters through her Marxist perspective on capitalism: even though Richard is unhappy as a corporate executive, she sees the deeper misery among those forced to work their lives away in unfulfilling jobs in order to stay afloat. Richard creates the city’s “terrible pressure,” everyone else gets subjected to it, and nobody ends up happy. Anna feels the same sense of alienation and salvages her identity only by thinking about how her labor as a mother is necessary. This recalls Tommy’s comparison of Anna and Molly (who are “several things”) with mindless office workers like Richard (who could “never be different”)—but Anna seems to be losing track of her multiplicity as she starts to define herself through labor.
Anna opens her eyes to see a hideous man staring at her, smiling, “looking into my face and imagining it under him.” She tries to inch away from him, but he follows her when she gets off the train, asking if she would “like a walk?” She is frightened and realizes that “this happens every day, this is living in the city, it doesn’t affect me—but it was affecting her.” Seeing that she needs to “see something or touch something that wasn’t ugly,” she buys fruit and feels better, “immune” to the man who is still behind her.
As Anna confronts capitalism’s assault on her identity and humanity, she must also confront this man’s: she can see him reducing her to her body, imagining her as a tool for his sexual pleasure. While, on the one hand, Anna is losing her usual resilience to the world, she is also finally opening herself to the full horror of the fact that “this happens every day.” Her search to find “immunity” through beauty clearly represents her search to insulate herself from the violence of markets and men through art.
Anna is not worried about returning late, since she has Ivor, the upstairs boarder, who has recently become Janet’s friend and has started looking after her. Anna thinks he is not “a real man” and wonders what that could mean—perhaps it means the “whole area of tension” with men like Michael and Richard. Ivor’s friend Ronnie has “moved into Ivor’s room and to his bed,” and Anna does not much care, considering it “the price she was expected to pay for Ivor’s new friendship with Janet.” However, she dislikes Ronnie—“the type rather than the person,” his cultivated hair and teeth in particular. Anna wonders how Janet might react if Anna married a “real man.” Janet would probably be resentful, but maybe “children need the tension.”
While Anna takes no issue with Ivor and Ronnie’s homosexuality in itself, she does think of them as deficient men (whereas, despite their homosexuality, Paul and Jimmy were still “real men”). Under her valorization of “real men,” Anna clearly recognizes that her feelings are vague and problematic, and that there is a profound difference between being a good lover and a good father—she struggles to square her internalized desire to be controlled with the equality and respect she knows should define a healthy relationship.
Anna hears Ivor reading Janet a story about a girls’ school and feels that he is mocking “the feminine world.” She thinks this might be a stronger version of the “cold evasive emotion” straight men feel for women. Ronnie is singing, seemingly “mocking ‘normal’ love,” and Anna worries about “all this” affecting Janet. He smiles at her; she finds it malicious and notes that he and Ivor seem to always dominate her space. He then walks out of the room and tells Anna that Janet is “such a delightful child.” Ronnie seems like “a well-brought-up young girl,” and Anna smiles back as a warning, which he seems to understand—but she knows she is too afraid to kick him out.
Anna at once sees Ivor and Ronnie as overly feminine (and therefore not “real men”) and as more extreme versions of “real men,” with a deeper misogyny that, unlike straight men’s, is not tempered by a desire to be with women. Their effeminacy, to Anna, at once betrays their failure as men and parodies women. Ivor and Ronnie take over Anna’s household just as Tommy takes over Molly’s—but they do so by threatening her own role as Janet’s mother and sole caregiver. Even though Ronnie is “mocking ‘normal’ love,” he and Ivor seem to have a much more equal and stable relationship than anyone else in the book.
Anna fills a glass of water to calm herself, feeling both that the flat was poisoned and that she is saving herself from something. She opens her room door and sees a menacing figure, which turns out to be Marion. Anna thinks that her intelligence is the only thing keeping her from “cracking up.” Anna and Marion have a drink—Tommy has told Marion that drinking normally is braver than giving up alcohol altogether—and Anna mentions that she has just seen Richard as Ivor finishes his story for Janet upstairs. Marion looks like “an abundant, happy, lively matron.”
Marion seems to have taken on Tommy’s sinister air, but so has the whole world: Anna is seeing unreal threats everywhere, in everyone, and Marion is harmless as ever—her only threat to Anna is her apparent happiness, which reminds Anna of what she is missing (much like Ivor and Ronnie’s relationship).
Marion explains that, ever since she has started reading with Tommy and infuriating her family with her interest in politics, she feels like “a new person.” Marion asks whether Richard is serious about the divorce—he is, Anna explains—and they agree that his secretary looks just like Marion in her youth. Marion realizes that she has been “wrapped up in” Richard for so long, incredibly miserable in her marriage, and “what for?” He is neither good-looking nor intelligent, and she thinks, “My God, for that creature I’ve ruined my life.” Richard keeps falling in love with his “type,” which has “nothing to do with” Marion, who laughs and fights the impulse to ask Anna to fill her glass.
Marion now clearly sees that Richard’s indifference was the cause of her unhappiness but also that she has the power to escape it by leaving him; she seems delightfully “free,” just as she has always thought Anna to be. Yet, in reality, Marion has still put herself under a man’s control (Tommy’s) and Anna resents the lack of human connection that defines her “freedom.” Anna doesn’t feel free because she is free; Marion feels free because she is not; Lessing questions whether there is a real distinction between freedom and unfreedom, or whether (like so many words for Anna) these ideas have lost their meanings.
Anna, resenting the “awful dripping coy little girl” that Marion has became, asks what Tommy thinks; he has told Marion to “make [Richard] face up to his responsibilities,” she reports, by simply ignoring him and focusing on “bigger things,” living “for others and not myself.” She asks where “that black leader” (Tom Mathlong) is, and which prison he is in—she wants to help him—but Anna says he probably cannot even receive letters and is likely imprisoned in the middle of nowhere. Marion rattles off a speech about Africa skimmed directly from newspaper headlines. Anna suggests joining an organization and wonders if Tommy really could be so naïve as to think up this plan.
Anna hates Marion’s naivety—something she remarked in the yellow notebook that Ella has lost as a result of her breakup. Yet Marion reflects not the juvenile naivety of a blind faith in love but independence—both a faith in her ability to survive without Richard and a faith in the same liberation struggles that Anna quickly lost hope in during her time in Africa. Yet nothing about Marion’s faith is original, much like that of the optimistic workers and writers whom Anna encounters in the Communist Party.
Marion hopes to unite the three of them, working “for the common cause,” which makes Anna realize that Tommy has “decided to save her soul.” Marion apologizes; Anna gives her the address she has asked for, although Tom Mathlong, the man she seeks, “won’t get [the letter] of course.” Marion leaves and Anna calls Tommy to ask about his motives—he thinks that “it would be good for Marion” and agrees that this is “a sort of therapy.” Anna insists that she does not need therapy herself; Tommy thanks her and hangs up. She laughs in anger and thinks about how Tommy has become “a sort of zombie,” not quite mad but “something new…”
Tommy seems to be offering Anna the second chance he promised her; oddly, he tries to kill himself before trying to save the world when his initial plan fails—both are ways of dissolving his own self, and his inhuman sense of confidence and invulnerability points to the sense in which such blind activism also emerges from bad faith. Locked away in a prison, Tom Mathlong represents the impossible, intangible revolution in which Western Communists have so much naïve faith—and the futility of writing to him parallels Anna’s sense of futility in her own writing, which has never seemed to catch a likeminded audience.
Anna has to bring Janet dinner. When she does, Janet asks whether Anna likes Ivor and Ronnie—Anna says she does like them, but Janet knows she actually despises Ronnie, “because he makes Ivor behave in a silly way.” Janet eats in silence and goes to bed.
Anna always tries to put on a façade of happiness and certainty for Janet, who now begins to see through it. Anna’s anger at Ronnie seems to be a much greater threat to Janet than Ivor and Ronnie’s apparently feminine influence.
Anna decides that Ronnie is the problem and figures she will tell Ivor to get rid of him. She feels as she did about Jemmie, a previous boarder whom she disliked but did not want to evict because he was colored—but he ended up returning to Ceylon. Ivor and Ronnie, too, will have trouble getting anywhere else to live, but Anna wonders if this is her problem. Unable to convince herself that it isn’t, she rages internally against the notion of property—“my home, my possessions, my rights”—and worries about finding Janet one of the “few real men left” in England.
Anna now recognizes that Ronnie is her “problem” but also feels torn between her desire for control of her household and her sense of obligation to help the queer couple avoid the discrimination they would face elsewhere—just like her contradictory desire for “real men,” her instinctual sense of property contradicts her more basic values.
Anna finds Ronnie using her lotion in the bathroom, wearing expensive clothes that suggest “he should be in some harem, and not in this flat.” He knows what is coming and complains about needing to look “distinguished”; she proposes he find “a permanent rich protector” (he has tried) and despairs to think that she herself “might have been born a Ronnie.” They have a tense exchange over the lotion, and Ronnie leaves for the bedroom. On her way upstairs, Anna hears Ivor and Ronnie announce, “Fat buttocky cows…” and “Sagging sweaty breasts…” from their room, then make some obscene noises that infuriate and frighten her. They slam their door and laugh behind it; Anna is “appalled. At herself.” She sees through Ronnie and Ivor’s antics, yet still feels hurt.
Anna’s animosity toward Ronnie clearly represents her disdain for women who marry for money and status rather than love—in a sense, this means betraying their humanity for the sake of material ends, but in another sense their values are exclusively material, an extreme symptom of the erosion of love that Anna continues to feel. Now, Ivor and Ronnie clearly do mock Anna with descriptions of grotesque femininity—but she directs her anger at herself for letting herself be affected by something she knows does not matter.
Anna smokes in bed and wonders how “this new frightened vulnerable Anna” has come into being, realizing that it is because of Michael leaving her. Yet she is glad to think she can be strong “just so long as she was loved by a man.” She worries about Tommy, too, and thanks her “increasingly cold, critical, balancing little brain” for saving her from the chaos.
While Anna is clearly troubled by her realization that she cannot feel strong on her own—that she needs to derive her strength from a man’s love—her ability to admit this suggests that she is finally and sincerely confronting the anxiety she preferred to disregard at the beginning of Free Women.
Imagining a dried-out well, Anna determines to dream about water. Instead, she dreams about needing to trek across the desert, toward beautiful, colorful mountains, with no water in sight. When she awakens, she knows the dream is a sign of self-knowledge, which means that “she must shed burdens.” She tells Ivor to leave; he offers money, which she refuses, and says they will talk about it that evening. Surprisingly, Janet is not fazed when Anna mentions the coming evictions, but she does ask to go to boarding school. Ronnie mentions that perhaps he could help with shopping.
The water in Anna’s dream represents the wholeness, strength, and happiness she hopes to achieve through love—but her dream about a failed quest for water instead points to the obstacles she must overcome for love. While this dream fails to remedy Anna’s pain, it does spur her to action—perhaps her first decisive action in all of Free Women.
That night, Ivor asks that only Ronnie leave, and Anna agrees. Ronnie makes a scene that leads Anna to feel like “a bitch for turning him out” and shows Ivor “that he had lost his mistress.” Ivor returns to his old, reclusive self, and later reunites with Ronnie, who moves in down the block.
Anna’s precise motivation for evicting Ronnie (whether genuine concern for Janet, jealousy and displaced anger about her own relationships, or homophobia) remains unclear, but she nevertheless overturns the household’s new order, reclaiming her previous control—it is, in this sense, born of a conservative impulse.