Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook is a multilayered novel that centrally concerns the life, memories, and writings of Anna Wulf in the 1950s, during her late twenties and early thirties in London and colonial Africa. The novel alternates between a linear narrative entitled Free Women, which follows the lives of Anna and her friend Molly, and Anna’s four private notebooks: in the black notebook she recalls the time she spent in Africa, the novel she fashioned out of her experience, and her difficulties coping with the novel’s reception; in the red notebook she recounts her ambivalent membership in and disavowal of the British Communist Party; in the yellow notebook, she starts a novel that closely mirrors her own pattern of unfulfilling relationships in London; and the blue notebook serves as her inconsistent personal diary, full of self-doubt and contradiction.
Free Women begins, “The two women were alone in the London flat.” Anna, a talented but sheepish writer, tells Molly, the boisterous and “worldly-wise” actress that “everything’s cracking up” in the world. Molly’s ex-husband Richard, a wealthy businessman who now violently disdains the leftist politics that brought them together, visits to talk about finding a job for their son Tommy, who has spent the last few months brooding in his room. He also wants advice about his current wife, Marion, who has become an alcoholic due to his numerous affairs. Overhearing all of this, Tommy comes downstairs to refuse his father’s offer. Anna tells Molly about her waning interest in writing another novel, Richard’s attempts to have an affair with her, the state of their communist friends, and her inability to get over her married ex-lover, Michael.
The narrative cuts to Anna’s four notebooks, into which she has “divided herself.” The black notebook begins with a synopsis of her successful first novel, Frontiers of War, which she still considers inadequate and naïve, before delving into the experiences that provided the novel’s raw material. Deciding to stay in colonized Central Africa during World War II, Anna falls into an eclectic group of white socialists, passing her weekends drinking with them at the Mashopi Hotel and ending up in a long, sexless relationship with the German exile Willi Rodde. The illicit relationship between a white roadsman, George Hounslow, and the African hotel cook’s wife, Marie, formed the basis for her novel, but she replaced George with a version of the charming, arrogant, Oxford-educated pilot Paul Blackenhurst, with whom she eventually elopes on their last day at the hotel, the day before he dies in an accident on the airstrip.
The red notebook begins with Anna’s invitation to the British Communist Party, of which Molly was already an active, if critical, member. Anna recalls her discomfort with the party’s ideology and the mounting evidence of the Soviet Union’s horrific crimes against political dissidents, the contradictions she encountered visiting East Berlin with Michael, and meeting miserable housewives while canvassing in North London.
The yellow notebook, entitled The Shadow of the Third, begins as the manuscript for a novel based on Anna’s life. Its protagonist, Ella, works at a women’s magazine responding to reader letters that her boss, Dr West, deems insufficient for his advice column. She is also secretly writing a novel about a man who makes all the requisite arrangements for death before committing suicide, as he realizes that “that’s what I’ve been meaning to do.” Ella begins an intense affair with the psychiatrist Paul Tanner, who starts spending every night at her house but pursuing affairs with other women, all the while neglecting his wife. He gradually loses interest in Ella’s work and makes it clear that she is just a fling. When Paul abruptly moves to Nigeria, Ella is devastated.
The blue notebook follows Anna’s sessions with her psychoanalyst Mrs Marks. When Mrs Marks asks whether Anna writes about their sessions in her diary, Anna’s entries about them stop for four years—instead, she compiles newspaper clippings. When she resumes writing about analysis, she feels unable to write because of the violence in the world and believes Michael is about to leave her; when Mrs Marks again mentions Anna’s diary, she decides to stop going.
In the next section of Free Women, a malicious and sullen Tommy visits Anna, contemplates the differences between her creative work and his father’s career, and then starts reading her notebooks, bringing her to “an extraordinary tumult of sensations.” He wonders why she compartmentalizes and brackets her thoughts, accusing her of irresponsibility and dishonesty for hiding herself from the world. After he returns home to Molly’s house, he shoots himself in the head and is “expected to die before morning.”
The black notebook covers meetings with film and television executives who want to buy the rights to Frontiers of War, but erase racism from the story and move it from Africa to England. In the red notebook, Anna contemplates the myths that sustain communists’ faith in the Soviet Union. In the yellow notebook, Ella’s story continues: hopelessly fixated on Paul more than a year after they split, Ella meets an attractive but unrefined American leucotomy doctor. Their mechanical, brief sex makes him realizes his degree of dissatisfaction with his marriage, but Ella feels no better about Paul. In the blue notebook, Michael ends his affair with Anna, and she decides to “write down, as truthfully as I can, every stage of a day. Tomorrow.” Her day is full of tension: she must cater to Michael and her daughter Janet’s every need and spends all day working at the Party headquarters for no pay, reporting on bad novels she knows her boss John will publish anyway and responding to letters from mediocre writers. Realizing that she is powerless and her work is meaningless, she quits. She puts Janet to sleep and takes great pleasure in cooking dinner for Michael—who never comes, proving that their affair is over. This whole entry is crossed out; she rewrites it in brief, calling it “a normal day.”
In the third section of Free Women, Tommy miraculously survives his suicide attempt, but is left blind. He moves back into Molly’s house, which his presence begins to dominate as he spends all his time reading, writing, and visiting with Marion. Anna visits Richard, who goes on one of his usual misogynistic rants, and feels she is beginning to “crack up” on her train ride home, where she has to deal with the new friendship between her boarder Ivor, her daughter Janet, and Ivor’s lover Ronnie, who pays no rent and Anna soon kicks out of the house.
In the black notebook, Anna remembers a pigeon-hunting trip in Africa and describes her relationship with James Schafter, an American who egregiously parodied his way to the top of the literary world. In the red notebook, Anna recounts a year of “frenzied political activity” after Stalin’s death, at the end of which her fellow communists concluded that the party was irreparably corrupt. In the yellow notebook’s The Shadow of the Third, Ella begins receiving endless, unwanted attention from arrogant men who assume she will happily become their mistress. She decides not to let men “contain” her desire, and begins planning out short stories to make sense of her frustrations. The blue notebook returns to a lengthy reflection on psychoanalysis. Anna thinks the blue book’s “record of facts” feels like a false representation of her experience and feels herself losing the ability to convey meaning through words—she recounts a recurring nightmare in which a figure takes “joy in spite.”
In the fourth section of Free Women, Anna tells Marion, who has been arrested at a protest, about the old revolutionaries she befriended in Africa. The black notebook ends with a single entry: Anna has a dream about a film being made at the Mashopi Hotel, which makes her realize that all her memories of Africa were “probably untrue.” The red notebook ends with a story about a teacher dedicated to communism who visits the Soviet Union and realizes his recommendations will not be taken seriously. The yellow notebook breaks with Ella’s narrative to list nineteen ideas for short stories or novels, mostly about women taken advantage of by men.
The blue notebook picks up with Janet going off to boarding school and Anna finding herself with nothing to do. She takes on a boarder, Saul Green, an American writer who proves as sensitive and intelligent as he can be narcissistic and brutish—Anna develops extreme anxiety, which is connected to Saul. Their relationship swings unpredictably between serenity and hatred, political conversations over coffee and explosive arguments in the bedroom, compounded by Anna’s jealousy about the other women Saul visits and decision to start reading his diaries. They both accuse the other, and themselves, of insanity. Not only does Anna realize there are multiple Sauls and multiple Annas, but she starts to see versions of him in her and her in him. Anna begins to see the floor and walls moving, and she cycles through various dreams and personas. One day, Saul suggests she resume writing and she admits her writer’s block. She buys a beautiful, golden notebook, although Saul does his best to claim it for himself.
Anna switches to the golden notebook alone. She has a dream about Saul as a tiger and starts moving through her past, but realizes that an “invisible projectionist” is playing it all back for her—of course, this is also Saul, and they realize that they have each “become a sort of inner conscience or critic” for the other. In the morning, she plans a new story about “free women” and Saul insists that she start writing. In their last days together, they offer one another opening lines: Anna gives Saul the image of an Algerian soldier on a hill that becomes the first sentence of his successful novel, and he gives her the altogether dull sentence “The two women were alone in the London flat,” the opening line of Free Women, which turns out to be not an objective account the life Anna recounted subjectively in her notebooks but rather her second novel, her fictionalization of the notebooks’ reality: the multiple, conflicting voices Lessing offers in The Golden Notebook all turn out to be Anna’s.
The last section of Free Women offers a markedly different version of the last two sections: Janet goes off to boarding school, and Anna goes insane pasting newspaper clippings around her room. An American named Milt moves in, makes her feel “protected and cared for,” but also insists that he is “a feeder on women.” After five days together, he leaves. Ultimately, some time later after Janet returns from school, Anna decides to work at a marriage counseling center, Molly marries a “progressive businessman,” and Tommy ends up “all set to follow in Richard’s footsteps.”