Anna is initially reluctant to let Janet go to boarding school, but the girl is adamant and refuses a “progressive” school; she decides that “the world of disorder, experiment” is not for her. She has no qualms about coming out like a “processed pea,” and Anna is worried to lose the discipline Janet’s presence creates in her life.
Since it is now clear that Free Women is not a factual narrative that happens after all of Anna’s notebook entries, but rather a work of fiction, the novel-within-a-novel’s plot begins to closely parallel the blue notebook’s, but with important differences that illustrate Anna’s creative decisions and priorities.
Alone in her flat, not wanting to let rooms or work, Anna shrinks from the world of people, and “everything seemed to have changed.” Marion and Tommy are in Sicily, Molly is alone in her house, too, and has started taking care of Richard’s sons, while Richard does business in Canada with his secretary.
Anna’s final descent into madness happens all at once in Free Women—whereas Anna withdrew from Molly and Janet did not leave for boarding school until after Anna met Saul Green in the blue notebook, everyone leaves Anna here. Her reluctance to write anything also suggests that this period of her life may have been perfectly consistent with the blue notebook, but merely not recorded there.
Anna is busy doing nothing and resolves “that the remedy for her condition was a man.” She has little interest in Nelson, although she is still devastated to leave him and cannot bring herself to seek another man.
Although Anna’s affair with Nelson played a significant part in the blue notebook, he has not appeared in Free Women at all until Anna mentions him in this aside.
Instead, Anna spends her days carefully reading the news, trying to balance the facts of the world, to make sense of snippets of language, waiting for meaning to defeat the words that try to express it. She starts pinning clippings to the walls and realizes she is “cracking up.”
This passage gives the reader a context for interpreting what is left out of the notebooks—Anna’s endless newspaper clippings, which seemed like unremarkable record-keeping in the notebooks, are now the core proof of her madness.
Anna knows, but does not feel, that she is mad; she knows that she will return to normal when Janet returns, but since this is only a month away, she turns back to her notebooks. Reading them for the first time since Tommy’s suicide attempt, for which she worries they might be responsible, she sees the notebooks as alien. One night, she dreams that both the healthy Janet and the starved Tommy are her children; Tommy disappears and Anna awakens, wondering why she feels responsible for him. She returns to her newspaper work.
Anna continues to feel that her sanity depends on the people around her and the sense of order they create in her life. Here, she suddenly positions herself as reader, perusing her own notebooks as the work of an unfamiliar writer; this inversion of writer and reader points to the sense in which The Golden Notebook’s readers are in fact writing their own versions of the novel, struggling with the impossible task of determining who Anna Wulf “really” is. (Of course, a version of this episode already happened long ago in the blue notebook).
Listening to jazz, working through the newspapers, Anna “[feels] a new sensation, like a hallucination, a new and hitherto not understood picture of the world.” It is a terrible picture, from some foreign place, in which words lose their meaning. She then begins having experiences that words cannot describe. She looks over the notebooks, unable to write. Music cannot make sense of her experiences, either; she wonders why she keeps notebooks if she so lacks faith in words. She realizes that she is undertaking “a descent into banality,” that she has lost all faith in her actions, which have become mere provisional guesses, but no less consequential. She awakens, begins to pin clippings in the kitchen, and wonders if she should let them overtake another room of her house. Compulsively, she continues to put them up.
Anna also begins listening to jazz and losing her sanity long before she meets Saul Green (who gets a different name in Free Women, too); the newspapers offer her a seemingly total, unified view of the world in all its horrors, and again she cites her inability to write and the failure of language, which could never appear in her notebooks. Her compulsive search for meaning and wholeness through the news is based on a blind faith that she cannot articulate or understand—with the world coming into clearer focus, her individuality slips out of view, and she can no longer connect her identity to the picture of the world she cobbles together on her walls.
A friend of Molly’s, Milt, calls to see Anna’s spare room but reschedules for the next day, giving an elaborate excuse that a quick conversation with Molly easily dispels. When he arrives, he is “shrewd, competent, intelligent,” but his false excuse troubles Anna, who wonders (as any single woman might) whether he could be “the man.” He wants to stay there tonight, and she takes him into the room.
It is unclear why Saul Green gets a different name in Free Women, but Milt approaches Anna in the same way as Saul in the blue notebook; strangely, too, all the affairs and failed romances that fill the notebooks are completely absent throughout Free Women (besides Anna’s passing reference to Nelson), perhaps because Saul/Milt encompasses all of these experiences.
They talk about politics; Milt looks at Anna’s walls and tells her about a “red” friend in New York who has spent the last three years leafing through huge stacks of newspapers. She says she will return to normal when Janet comes home, and she starts changing the sheets for him—he starts talking about sex and joking about divorcing his wife. He said he “can’t sleep alone,” and Anna is thrown off and angry. Milt tells her about sleeping with a friend of her friend’s and tries to coax her into bed; she cries on the bed and he follows her, complaining about women and reassuring her that she will not fall for him.
Milt sees Anna’s “cracking up” as emblematic of ex-communists’ search for meaning and order after they lose faith in the Soviet Union; Anna and Milt’s friend are not only trying to make sense of politics, but also to figure out what versions of the stories they read are the “true” ones, what events truly lie behind the words they read. Milt’s divided personality is evident from the start—he can relate to Anna but also insists on using her for his own sexual satisfaction.
Anna goes to put on a dressing-gown and Milt starts pulling the newspaper off her walls, making her feel “protected and cared for.” He talks about her “meretricious” novel and she asks him not to read her notebooks—the only person who did so tried to kill himself. He promises he is “more of a feeder on women, a sucker of other people’s vitality,” than a suicide risk. He closes her notebooks, asking if she is trying to “cage the truth” and singing about her “vulture guilt.”
Milt tears down the symbols of Anna’s madness and negation of self even as he declares that he will likely “feed” on her energy. The full irony of the title Free Women becomes apparent: Anna only achieves freedom from her madness when a man enables her to be, and he does this by first latching onto her and depriving her of her freedom. While he recognizes that Anna’s notebooks are a symbol of her madness, they are never integrated in Free Women (although they are integrated as Free Women).
Milt puts on jazz and admits that he “can’t sleep with women I like.” Anna finds it sad; he proposes they sleep together; she refuses. He talks about loving his wife, but never sleeping with her, and Anna has heard it all before. Milt promises he will overcome it and complains that he gets “nuts sleeping alone,” but Anna is lucky to have a child (his own wife does not want one). Anna remarks that “there’s something extraordinary about” a man telling a woman, “I’ve got to share your bed because I fall into space if I sleep alone, but I can’t make love to you because if I do I’ll hate you.” They go to sleep and, in the morning, Saul is cold, deathlike, and she is tense.
While Saul Green never mentions a wife in the blue and golden notebooks, Milt is married and clearly views Anna as a substitute for his wife. He creates order in Anna’s life not through mutual neurosis but rather in the same way as Janet does: by calling her into a particular role, even if it is a contradictory and unsatisfactory one. It also remains unclear whether Anna and Milt even have sex, and it seems doubtful that Milt manages to overcome his commitment issues (as Saul does, to a limited extent, in the notebooks).
Anna and Milt quickly grow fond of one another and, after five days, Anna tells him to stay; he says he knows it is “time to move on” but also that he does not have to—he knows he will eventually overcome his impulses but cannot yet. On his way out, he wonders if Anna might give in, and she says she would not, that she will get a job, that she is angry, that she is thankful to him “for pulling me out—of what I was in.” They kiss and he leaves, claiming she should have promised to write him—they wouldn’t write, she declares—but he says that “let’s preserve the forms, the forms at least of…” and departs.
Anna and Milt’s affair progresses far more rapidly and linearly than her relationship with Saul—there is no golden notebook, breakdown of interpersonal barriers, or exchange of opening lines. Indeed, whereas Anna takes charge of her and Saul’s relationship at the end of the blue and golden notebooks, Milt maintains control here, saving and then promptly leaving Anna—he never comes around to loving her or treating her well, and her ultimate achievement is her return to everyday life rather than a newfound artistic drive—indeed, this Anna decides to work (as Molly had feared) rather than return to writing. In this sense, her achievement in Free Women is far less radical than in the notebooks. Milt’s closing sentence breaks down structurally while he ironically declares his intention to maintain order. It also refers to the order he has created in Anna’s life and the order she creates out of her life (the novel Free Women), even though both are inevitably provisional, parts of the cycle of ordering and dissolution.
Janet returns to find Anna looking for a smaller flat and a job. Molly is getting married to “what we used to refer to as a progressive businessman,” a wealthy philanthropist with a house in the country. Tommy is “all set to follow in Richard’s footsteps,” although he seems to believe business can change the world, and Richard seems happy with his new wife, Jean, but has already moved on to another mistress. Marion is running a dress shop and spends her days “surrounded by a gaggle of little queers who exploit her.”
Free Women’s characters—but not necessarily the notebooks’—have found various provisional solutions to their sense of failure and paralysis, but also appear poised to repeat those failures: Molly marries what Richard used to be and Tommy again pursues a sort of change that may or may not be successful; Molly seems to recognize the irony of her husband and son as “progressive businessmen.” Richard’s cycle of infidelity and Marion’s cycle of naïve reliance on worldlier people continue, and all appear to be simply pushing boulders up mountains, as it were, rather than finding true remedies to their problems.
Anna admits her affair with Milt, the American, to Molly and explains that she is planning to start counseling at a “marriage welfare center—half-official, half-private.” Anna is also joining the Labour Party to teach delinquent kids on the evenings. She is “very good at other people’s marriages,” she insists, and Molly starts to wonder how her own marriage will turn out—she “was perfectly resigned to it all until [Anna] came in.” She finds it “all very odd.” Anna has to go home for Janet, so she and Molly “kissed and separated.”
The end of The Golden Notebook is not a true resolution; it returns to where it began, with Anna and Molly alone in the flat, unsure about their “very odd” relationships. While the Free Women version of Anna ends up switching to Labour and taking on new “welfare work,” this says nothing about the fate of the Anna who wrote the notebooks—the reader’s last trace of her is her merger with Saul in the golden notebook, and of course the trace of herself that she has left in writing Free Women.