After Saul’s “schoolboy’s curse,” the golden notebook starts with Anna turning on lights on a dreary day, to have Saul join her in bed for the night. She feels that the flat’s “devils” have disappeared, as though her terror is some external force in the world—but Saul starts walking upstairs and Anna “watche[s her] happiness leak away.” Her body suddenly seems ugly, and she realizes she is having homosexual feelings. Saul stops walking and she expects him to come downstairs and affirm her misery, which he does—while he berates her for being naked, she asks how they manage to “influence each other’s moods even when we are in different rooms” and be so many different selves (they agree they do not have to try).
The golden notebook seems to straightforwardly continue the blue notebook—it is still the story of Saul and Anna going insane. However, material from the black, red, and yellow notebooks also appears, dissolving the artificial divisions Anna has created among her four notebooks (and, by extension, in herself). In this sense, the golden notebook is similar to The Golden Notebook, the novel as a whole—even though neither text offers a complete or consistent picture of Anna.
Saul goes out, and suddenly everything is pleasant again, but only momentarily, and then Anna begins moving further from sanity than ever before. She crawls to bed and remembers when she could control her dreams, time, and motions. The ceiling becomes a tiger, the curtains the “shreds of stinking sour flesh” it left behind. She sleeps the light, lucid sleep of illness. One Anna watches another Anna sleeping, waiting to be invaded by different personalities, and tells her that she is betraying herself, sacrificing her courage, giving up; as it tells her to fight, she feels she is falling through the waters of sleep, which turn out to be shallow.
Anna ponders her sense of control just before losing it—again, she hallucinates to an extent that there is no true difference between her sleep and waking life. She is torn away from her body, then torn between fighting to be only one thing and letting her multiple selves invade her body—yet, as the integration of her disparate selves, the golden notebook itself suggests that she can have both at the same time.
The voice implores Anna to fight, to fly, and she manages to escape her cage and join the tiger on the building’s roof, which soon vanishes—and now the tiger is in its own cage, beautiful and gentle. Men come running for it, and she warns it to run; afraid, it cuts her arm and jumps down among the houses. Crying, Anna realizes that Saul is the tiger, nearly wakes up, and thinks that she should write a play about them and the tiger, as a way to evade thinking.
The tiger is alternatingly free and imprisoned, representing Anna and Saul’s unstable but always polarized power dynamic. As in life, Saul injures Anna in his quest for freedom. Again, she recognizes the impulse to evade rather than address her problems through fiction—but she soon overcomes it and learns to make writing part of her healing process instead.
Now in control of her sleep, Anna decides to look back at her own life, check in on it, like when she would lay awake as a child and think through everything fearful in her day. This is no longer to stave off nightmares, but rather to make sure the past is still there: George Hounslow waiting for them near the Mashopi Hotel, covered by a swarm of white butterflies, which were a hydrogen bomb exploding, “unbelievably beautiful, the shape of death.”
Images from rest of text converge, crossing the divisions between Anna’s notebooks to create a unity that is simultaneously violent (the hydrogen bomb and death) and beautiful (butterflies). She discovers yet another version of the “game,” this time aimed at reconciling her past and present selves.
“The invisible projectionist” behind Anna’s memories switches to another scene: a fight between Paul Tanner from the yellow notebook and Michael from reality; these two men merge into a new, heroically strong person, who says they were not failures, that “we spend our lives fighting to get people very slightly less stupid than we are to accept truths that the great men have always known,” to mediate between the visionaries and the masses. A dozen people, from the yellow notebook and reality, appear before the film stops and the projectionist asks how Anna knows she put “the correct emphasis” on it—the word “correct,” old-fashioned Marxist jargon, makes Anna sick.
Anna starts to feel that an alien force controls her memories. Her memory’s form as a movie continues to represent both the distortion of reality (as in the television and film industries’ attempts to adapt Anna’s novel Frontiers of War) and a kind of storytelling closer to the reality of individual experience. Anna’s real and fictional loves merge to announce what they have just done: mediate between ideas and reality. Anna still wonders how she can feel that one perspective is “correct” while still helping people “accept truths that the great men have always known.”
The projectionist runs through various films: Mashopi, then Paul Tanner and Ella, then Michael and Anna, Ella and Julia, Anna and Molly. He laughs when it says, “directed by Anna Wulf,” over Anna’s pleas that the films are not hers. Anna is “faced with the burden of re-creating order out of the chaos that my life had become,” unable to tell fact from fiction, and realizes that it is all fiction because it is all fit into her own viewpoint.
Anna’s experiences and fictions meld into a continuous, chaotic narrative, much like the novel itself, that Anna at once controls—in the sense that the reader can only access these stories through her perspective—and has no control over in the sense that that no author ever controls the life of any story, either by capturing a whole truth or by determining how a story is received.
The projectionist asks if Anna knows how June Boothby would see their time together, and Anna starts composing a story, frustrated that she is writing in “the style of the most insipid coy woman’s magazine” but frightened to realize this is nearly her own style. June does not help her mother with dinner and thinks Mrs Boothby must know what she feels. Then, “he” gets out of a lorry, and June stands up to walk mechanically towards him, toward the hotel. The projectionist laughs and said he told Anna she couldn’t do it.
June Boothby is insignificant in the black notebook, which is precisely the projectionist’s point: he challenges Anna to imagine another person’s perspective on the same events, and she cannot—despite her efforts to tell a whole story, stretch herself personally, and incorporate other people’s perspectives into herself, Anna cannot fathom June Boothby.
Anna wakes up, “exhausted by the dreaming,” but actually, she soon realizes, exhausted because Saul has returned. She can feel that he has been just past the door, on the landing, “in a tense indecisive pose” deciding whether or not to come inside. She calls to him and realizes who the projectionist from her dream was. She tells Saul he has “become a sort of inner conscience or critic,” and he responds that she is the same to him. She declares that he will have to break the relationship, because she is not strong enough.
Anna and Saul have not only caught one another’s neuroses but also invaded one another’s consciences; they feel that they are controlling each other’s minds, perceptions, and anxieties. If Saul authors Anna’s dreams, then readers must question who truly writes the golden notebook: Anna, Saul, or some combination of the two.
Saul looks at Anna with “anger, dislike, suspicion”; he wants to fight her now, but his real personality will do what she asks later on. He accuses her of trying to kick him out, and she sits up, yelling “stop it,” telling him he knows it is a cycle, realizing and promising that he would leave anyway when Janet returned. Saul would see Anna and Janet as “two women, two enemies”; what “pure chance” that she had a girl and not a boy.
Now it is Anna’s turn to act as Saul’s conscience. She notes that he acts as replacement company for Janet in her life, especially because she mothers him as much as she has to mother her own daughter—Saul could not stand to compete with Janet for Anna’s attention and affection.
Anna watches Saul fight “to refuse entrance to alien personalities,” like she did during the dream. They put on jazz and lose track of the sick versions of themselves. She wonders aloud why the masses cannot succumb to such alien personalities, too, and they ironically mock their faith in revolution. For the first time, Saul said, he is starting to conceive his life as something besides waiting to participate in the revolution—all his American socialist friends have done the same, falling into pedestrian jobs and marriages, which he despises. He wishes he could go back to his old “gang of idealist kids,” and Anna jokes that all American men are happiest reminiscing “about the group of buddies.” Similarly, Anna writes, she has “buttoned up” her strongest desire: “being with one man, love, all that.”
While Saul and Anna both fight their “invasions,” they see how change requires the same thing, people’s domination by agents that initially appear foreign to them. This hints that their “invasions” might not be threats to their sanity but actually a pathway to it—perhaps they can achieve the personal transformation they need through madness, not despite it. Saul and Anna rehash the usual evidence of ex-communists’ disappointment; Saul sees his old political activities as simply a means of feeling idealistic about the future with his friends (like the masochistic gang in Anna’s last story in the yellow notebook), while Anna sees real love as the deeper desire underlying the rest of her anxieties. Here, their ability to “unbutton” these repressed desires demonstrates that they are increasingly confronting the true causes of their madness.
Anna calls Molly, but recites their coming conversation to Saul while she waits for Molly to pick up: Anna will reveal the affair and explain how she has “buttoned up” her past insistence on finding men who would love or hurt her, plus her communism. Molly does not pick up. Saul asks what he will become; Anna says he will turn into “a very gentle, wise, kind man” who could dissuade people from pursuing their good causes. All the “real people” she knows, she promises Saul, have “a history of emotional crime.” She offers that he looks poised to become “one of those tough, square, solid middle-aged men” that others credit with wisdom, although “one of the corpses” would occasionally call out, “remember me?”
Anna clearly does not need Molly to pick up, since she already knows how their conversation would go—Molly, too, proves a sort of inner critic for Anna. She recognizes that turmoil and guilt can engender a unique kind of moral growth, but she also suggests that Saul’s potential wisdom—which she describes through an image of Willi Rodde—might be a farce, based on others’ reverence for men who seem to know what they are talking about. Perhaps there is something more noble in the “corpses” than the “real people” (like Anna’s “real men” who are only real because they make her suffer).
These “corpses” are people who have given up their own path along “the golden road to maturity,” like Anna herself, who is busy pushing a boulder up the “great black mountain” toward the “few great men” at the top. Saul is a boulder-pusher too, she insists, and not one of the “few great men.” He snaps back into his “I, I, I.” Anna drinks while he lectures, shooting words like bullets that ricochet off the walls. For a moment, Anna blacks out and returns to her nightmare of a crumbling city; when she awakens, Saul is momentarily lucid before returning to the “I I I I, but I against women.”
Anna sees the choice between wisdom and ignorance as the choice between fighting despite impossible odds, which requires a realistic cynicism about the possibility of change combined with the moral courage to act anyway, and the cycle of blind naivety and moral discouragement that has led Anna to give up her parallel struggles for justice and love. Saul’s assertion of his ego—his fight against the truth that he is merely pushing a boulder up someone else’s mountain—appears as an act of war, a moral crime in itself, which momentarily destroys Anna’s consciousness.
Anna cries “weak, sodden whisky-diluted tears on behalf of womankind” and watches them both get aroused. Saul drags her to bed and kisses her asleep; she laughs herself to sleep and awakens, next to him, “full of happiness.” But Saul is exhausted, distorted from his “I I I I.”
By trying to impose his ego, Saul tires himself out, too—perhaps this will lead others to see him as a “real person,” but this will require delusion on his part as well as his observers’.
They have coffee in silence, and Saul says he will go to work; they go to bed and he says he has to leave, goes for a walk, and asks Anna to stop him—she will not, for it does not matter if he is visiting a woman. He comes back inside her room, and she thinks of De Silva saying, “I wanted to see what would happen.” She and Saul both do. Saul compares her to a spy, saying he will never “be corralled by any dame.” She says he is now and laughs, before they agree they hope “we’ll never have to say that again.” Saul leaves the flat.
Anna acutely recognizes that Saul’s infidelity is a symptom of his failing struggle for moral courage with himself: it is an easy way to assert power over Anna, eroding her power over him. By refusing to let infidelity injure her, however, she breaks its power over her and forces Saul to confront and accept his own vulnerability to her.
Anna thinks about reading Saul’s diary but knows she will never look again. Feeling ill, she pours some scotch and feels vertigo, the kitchen’s colors and faults attacking her. She comes to the big room, which seems just as bad, “an insistent attack on my attention from a hundred different points.” She has to crawl to bed and falls asleep, ready for the projectionist, knowing what he will tell her. This knowledge, like her other recent moments of insight, is powerful but inexpressible through words. The dream simply feels like “words spoken after the event, or a summing-up, for emphasis’ sake, of something learned.”
Of course, in reality Anna is still hurt by Saul’s affairs, which feels like the universe attacking her, threatening to invade her mind: the very essence of madness. In turn, she takes recourse to the version of Saul she has internalized. Again, this knowledge that exceeds the potential of literature—not only does the notebook’s fail to describe the dream, but the dream fails to describe Anna’s foreknowledge, just as the novel cannot possibly capture Anna’s identity.
The projectionist runs Anna through the films, the same films, which now seem “realistic,” crude, with a new attention to details, like Mrs Boothby’s curves and sweat, Willi’s humming, Mr Boothby’s “envious, but un-bitter” gaze at the man with his daughter June. There is Mr Lattimer ogling Mrs Boothby, then Paul Tanner getting his clean shirt—“Get it?” asks the projectionist.
Anna manages to see the same images from a new perspective, finding details from her memory she never noticed before. Her vision is expanding, surely, but so is her knowledge of its limits. She realizes that she can see more, but she can never see everything; her writing can never capture the whole “truth,” which of course explains the novel’s fragmented structure.
The films all begin fusing together, then slowing down to show a peasant planting a seed, water trickling down a rock, a man standing with a rifle, a woman telling herself, “No, I won’t kill myself.” The projectionist will not answer, so Anna turns off the machine, and then (still in her dream) reads her own words from a page: these scenes are about the “small painful sort of courage which is at the root of every life, because injustice and cruelty is at the root of life.” By emphasizing “the heroic or the beautiful or the intelligent,” Anna refuses to accept this. She takes these words to Mother Sugar, asking whether this courage is the same as the grass growing thousands of years after the world is destroyed by the hydrogen bomb. Anna will still not give it “all that much reverence.” Mother Sugar looks impatient and disappointed.
The films, like Anna’s notebooks, merge into singular images that represent a moral stand, action out of knowledge rather than naivety. This includes the stand against suicide, which Anna has clearly had on her mind throughout the novel, even if she has been unable to express it directly. She finally develops a better theory of action and creativity than Ella’s “power to create through naivety”: creation through courage, which means boulder-pushing: mundane resilience, not fantastic heroism. This is the essence of writing and politics alike.
Anna wakes up, needing Saul. “A short story: or a short novel: comic and ironic:” a woman begins alternating between two men, one night after the other, hoping to free herself from men and find them equally enjoyable. They both realize there is another man; one becomes jealous, the other “cool and guarded.” The woman falls for the jealous man who loves her, but he leaves her when she announces that she has emancipated herself by taking two men.
Anna returns to the form of the yellow notebook, which affirms that she does successfully combine the different aspects of her thought into the golden notebook—even though her madness is only deeper, not yet resolved. This story seems to be about Anna’s relationship with the two versions of Saul, and how his divided personality tears them apart. In freeing herself from any particular man by taking two (like Saul does with women), the woman in Anna’s story manages to lose one of them, and is thus no longer free.
Anna wonders what it would take to fit Ella into this story; Ella would be more defensive now, and with Saul, she would be more intelligent and cool than Anna. Anna realizes she is “creating ‘the third’—the woman altogether better than I was.” She hopes her imagination will come to life, then laughs at herself.
Anna recognizes that her novel, The Shadow of the Third, was a “third” to her own life the whole time; it represented her capacity to imagine an ideal version of herself rather than her capacity to confront the truths about herself.
Saul comes upstairs, tired and not combative, and announces that it is curious Anna is laughing, and that he has been thinking about her while walking through London. She said she is laughing because he was walking about, “making sets of moral axioms to save us both with.” She says she is laughing about “free women” and tells him her story’s plot. He says to put laughing on her agenda, as this would save her.
Even as Saul wanders the streets in an attempt to separate himself from Anna, the version of her that lives inside his mind persists; her laughing alone represents a kind of independence from his control and her agony, which she has apparently achieved through her “third.” The notebook explicitly connects to Free Women for the first time.
Saul says that Anna needs to start writing again—she will “really crack up” unless she comes to terms with her creative block. She declares that whenever she tries to write, “someone comes into the room, looks over my shoulders, and stops me”: figures from her past, from masses and revolutions. Saul tells Anna to get paper and a pencil, to “just begin.” He gives her a first sentence for a story about “the two woman you are”: “the two women were alone in the London flat.” Anna gives Saul the first sentence for his novel: “On a dry hillside in Algeria, the soldier watched the moonlight glinting on his rifle.” He declares he will only write it down if she will give him her notebook—she does. He tells her to cook for him, something he “never though I’d say to a woman.” She does, and they sleep.
Now, the solution to Anna’s romantic block forces her to address her creative block; just as their merged identity has helped them confront their madness by leading them deeper into it, Anna and Saul’s merger allows them both to write again, as they trade the first lines of what become their next works. “The two women were alone in the London flat” is the first sentence of Free Women. Astonishingly, the golden notebook reveals that Free Women is not an objective frame story about the “real” Anna Wulf, who reveals her subjective feelings and history in the notebooks; rather, Free Women is the real Anna Wulf’s fictionalization of her life, an heir to the yellow notebook. The “true” Anna, Tommy, Molly, Richard, and Marion can never be grasped directly, only inferred by interpreting the notebooks. It is also unclear whether the notebooks in The Golden Notebook are Anna’s real notebooks or merely the ones that Tommy peruses in Free Women, a fictional version of any real notebooks Anna may keep.
In the morning, Saul looks too ill to go out; Anna wants to tell him this, to insist that “I must look after you. I’ll do anything if only you’ll say you’ll stay with me.” She fights her impulse to hold him, but then blacks out and does. He whispers, “Ise a good boy,” words from literature in half-parody, then “jerked himself out of sleep.” Anna and Saul agree to never “go lower than that.” He packs his things, and she sees him as the same Saul Green who first came to her flat a few weeks before, wearing his well-fitting clothes as though in an imitation of someone strong and broad-shouldered. She can see the sick Saul behind him, but feels that this Saul is like her brother.
Since Anna has given Saul her notebook and they have exchanged their first lines, Anna seems to recognize that it is time for them to separate, to rediscover a sense of order in themselves and move on with their separate lives. They have achieved unity not by resolving the contradictions among the divided versions of themselves or becoming just “one thing,” but rather by allowing their contradictions to coexist and their identities to remain multiple. They have found order through and in their disorder, rather than trying to find order by banishing their disorder.
Saul tells Anna to write the first sentence down. He says they are part of the same team, “the ones who haven’t given in, who’ll go on fighting.” He notes that he is sometimes delighted to see books that have already been written, which means that he will not have to write them instead. He promises that he will come back for the book soon, then “say goodbye and I’ll be on my way,” but to where he did not know.
Anna and Saul affirm their new identities as boulder-pushers and see their writing as part and parcel of their struggle. This is the last the reader hears from the Anna who writes the notebooks—even though it is still unclear whether Anna or Saul is writing. There is no word on what happens to Anna, or her relationship with Saul, after he leaves.
After the opening sentence—“On a dry hillside in Algeria, the soldier watched the moonlight glinting on his rifle”—the golden notebook continues in Saul Green’s writing. It is a short novel about the Algerian soldier, a farmer who joins the F.L.N. and wonders why he feels nothing about torturing French prisoners. The Algerian soldier talks to one of these prisoners, a young philosophy student, who says all his thoughts can be pigeon-holed into two categories: “Marx” and “Freud.” They envy one another, for the soldier’s trouble is that he thinks and feels nothing he is expected to think or feel. Talking too loudly, they attract the attention of the Commanding Officer, who decides the protagonist is a spy and has them both shot on the same hillside where the book began. Saul Green’s novel turns out to be rather successful.
This story, which the rest of the book has repeatedly alluded to with various references to the Algerian war and a farmer holding a rifle, represents Saul’s equivalent of Free Women. The soldier’s relationship with the prisoner symbolizes Saul and Anna’s relationship (and relationships between men and women more broadly), and also recalls Anna’s dream about a prisoner and the member of a firing squad switching places: the roles of aggressor and victim are first reversed (in the revolution) and then ultimately revealed to be arbitrary (as the prisoner and prison guard end up fulfilling the same role and getting shot). The reference to Marx and Freud points to the two main influences on this book (in the red and blue notebooks, the Communist Party and the ironically named Mrs Marks, respectively) but also shows how thinkers struggle to incorporate the ideas of those who came before them without becoming completely dominated by them. Finally, like Free Women (which now continues for one more section) Saul’s novel comes full circle, ending just as it began.