Exhausted and irritated that Ronnie has seemingly moved back into the flat without permission, Anna waits for Molly and Richard to come over. They are coming to discuss Marion, who has already begun renting Molly’s spare room. Marion had left Richard and their children, seemingly without realizing it, by simply never returning home, where Richard’s “secretary Jean was practically installed already.”
Like Anna in various situations throughout the novel, Marion takes decisive action—ending her marriage—as though by accident; her divorce is the byproduct of her new happiness more than a means to it. While everyone else seems to be reaching a new familial equilibrium, Ronnie returns to overthrow the order Anna had tried to establish.
Then, Tommy and Marion went to a meeting and protest for African independence, and Tommy was arrested when he did not follow police orders due to his blindness. Marion attacked the policeman, “shrieking hysterically,” and ended up in the papers. Richard called Anna to accuse everyone of orchestrating the scandal to take him down—she hung up on him and soon picked up a call from Molly, who complained about Marion and Tommy dominating the house and the next generation’s apparent inability to confront chaos.
While Tommy and Marion’s farcical arrests at the protest were both due to their own shortcomings rather than the danger their politics posed to the order of British colonialism, they at least act (even if foolishly), quite unlike Anna and Molly. Richard, as usual, can tolerate neither the others’ politics nor their happiness, and Molly feels her sense of control dwindling as Marion has completely replaced her relationship with Tommy.
Going to talk with Marion and Tommy, Anna giggles the same dark giggle that Tommy did before shooting himself—she wonders what happened to the part of Tommy that giggled, and then what Tom Mathlong would advise her to do. She remembers watching the demonstration, which was “fluid, experimental,” unlike the Party’s old, well-organized protests. The protestors and police did not know what to expect; young men were proud to be arrested. She opens Tommy’s door, and he tells her that Marion is upstairs but not to go—which she does anyway, despite having nothing to say to either of them.
Anna had described Tommy’s old giggle as “harsh, uncontrolled, and malicious”; she seems to have switched places with him, as he became the wide-eyed revolutionary and she the detached cynic. She observes the demonstration from above, as though a passive but omnipotent observer, which reflects the sense in which she seems to understand the cycles of communist protest and disillusionment much better than those caught up in it.
Marion is delighted to have been arrested and drawn her family’s ire; Anna wonders what, if anything, was wrong with this, and looks around the flat, where she used to live and which is still full of painful memories. These memories start to go dead, with “words like love, friendship, duty, responsibility” suddenly seeming “to be all lies.” Marion brings tea, and Anna tells her about Tom Mathlong, who felt no discouragement or doubt about his independence struggle until he gazed out upon London and thought, “do you realize how many generations it takes to make a society where buses run on time? Where business letters get answered efficiently? Where you can trust your ministers not to take bribes?”
Marion’s newfound political zeal and naivety about organized resistance have also led her to replace Anna in Molly’s flat; Anna recognizes that she cannot conjure up the emotions from her past, much as she does during her present-tense commentary on the recollections in her black notebook: at best, memory and literature (which Anna insists is a retrospective art form) can only imperfectly and fleetingly express experience. Of course, Anna’s resignation about the past parallels Tom Mathlong’s reservations about politics: both confront the limits of their own will to call the world into order.
Anna calls Tom Mathlong “a sort of saint,” and her voice cracks as she thinks she is going hysterical—“saint” is not her kind of word, but she repeats it. She starts crying, remembering that Mathlong expected to spend much of his life in prison and thought little of himself as a political leader. Anna also thinks that she would “feel quite sick at all this sentimentality” if she were observing their conversation. She insists that “we shouldn’t make what he stands for look cheap,” realizing she is doing precisely that.
Anna’s cracking voice clearly demonstrates that she is starting to “crack up,” as she fakes a reverence for Mathlong in order to sustain Marion’s fantasy of him. She sees that Mathlong—who never actually appears in the book—is much more powerful as an idea than an individual, but that politics requires such myths to function.
Marion asks about the other revolutionaries, and Anna mentions Charlie Themba, who “cracked up” lately: he had a breakdown that nobody recognized until it was too late, when he had started writing letters accusing his co-conspirators and friends of plotting against him. He sent one of these letters to Anna, who reads it to Marion.
Charlie Themba is clearly a foil for Anna, who has long ago started distrusting her own comrades—Anna seems to be wondering which is truly madness: the Communist Party or her suspicion of it. While Mathlong had no expectation of achieving his political goals, Themba’s failure to do so drove him to insanity.
Marion declares that she hates and could not return to Richard, and then fills a glass of whiskey and said she hopes to stay with Tommy, who has started methodically working his way up the stairs. He joins them and suggests Marion start supper, so they can eat before the big meeting they are planning to attend. Marion tells Tommy that “Anna thinks we are going about things the wrong way,” and for the first time his mouth quivers—he looks uncertain and vulnerable, and he asks why. Anna suggests he and Marion “study everything and become experts” rather than running around to protests.
This seems like Tommy’s only moment of vulnerability in the entire text—he does not flinch when his suicide attempt fails and leaves him blind, but he is visibly distraught at Anna’s criticism. While Anna seeks to shield Tommy and Marion from the pitfalls of political naivety—disappointment, punishment, or insanity—her insistence that they think rather than act is also ironic, since Tommy has spent virtually all his time reading in his room since his accident.
Anna proposes Tommy and Marion go on a vacation and affirms that he is good for her, but reminds him that her divorce from Richard will be difficult, and also not “to be so hard on us.” Tommy jokes that he knows what Anna is thinking: “I’m nothing but a bloody welfare worker, what a waste of time!” She laughs, and he says that “people need other people to be kind to them,” and that all anyone truly wants is “just one other person I could really talk to, who could really understand me, who’d be kind to me.” Anna asks how he was treating Molly and sees “the blood come up in his face.” Tommy clearly wants Anna to leave, and she does, feeling that they have surpassed “some barrier,” “that now everything would be changed.”
Anna implores Tommy and Marion to scale down their ambitions, and Tommy’s call for “just one other person […] who could really understand me” is the novel’s clearest statement about the purpose and potential of love—which, clearly, need not always be romantic in nature. In fact, the novel’s communists seem to be ignoring their personal relationships in order to fight for change in more distant places—just as Anna manages to resolve Molly, Tommy, Marion, and Richard’s conflicts but never her own.
When Molly and Richard finally come to Anna’s flat, they are not arguing but “almost like friends.” Anna tells them Marion is definitely leaving, and that they should send her on vacation with Tommy, perhaps to go “investigate conditions” at one of his projects. She tells Richard to talk with Marion, and Molly with Tommy. Richard thanks Anna, and Molly is happy to see “all this politeness” among them.
Astonishingly, Molly and Richard get along for the only time in the entire book, and everyone seems satisfied with the family’s agreement. Free Women appears to be reaching the resolution Anna’s notebooks have—and never do—achieve.
Anna sits next to her sleeping daughter, feeling her “usual surge of protective love” but wondering why she seems to think Janet will not end up “incomplete and tormented and fighting” like everyone else. Anna tells Ivor to vacate the next day, but she knows he will bring her flowers and an apology instead, which he does. She hits him in the face with the flowers, for “she had never in her life been angry like this.” After a few minutes, he walks out with two suitcases and pays her the five weeks’ back rent he owed—with interest.
Anna’s own personal turmoil remains unresolved, and while it is still unclear precisely why she insists on evicting Ivor and Ronnie, by brutally rejecting Ivor’s overtures of kindness she both reclaims control of her household and suggests that a deeper turmoil belies the story’s apparent resolution. She faces the contradiction between her love for Janet and her knowledge of everyone’s misery, and then rejects Ivor’s overtures of kindness as though to protect Janet from the illusion of happiness.