Anna’s four notebooks, black, red, yellow, and blue, are otherwise identical—“order had not immediately imposed itself” when their covers are peeled back. Their first pages of each notebook consist of “broken and scribblings and half-sentences” before the titles. Anna has “divided herself into four, and then, from the nature of what she had written, named these divisions.” The black notebook, after drawings of musical and money symbols, reads: “black / dark, it is so dark / it is dark / there is a kind of darkness here.”
In contrast to Free Women, Anna’s notebooks are disorderly and fragmented, a depiction of her internal life and turmoil; it is up to the reader to decide which offers the most authentic, or truest, version of Anna. The notebooks’ four-part division clearly represents Anna’s own psychic fragmentation, and the black notebook moves from the disorder of ambiguous symbols to preliminary attempts at conveying meaning through language.
In the black notebook, two more journal entries precede the title. In the first, Anna writes about the terror and darkness that overcomes her whenever she tries to write, which she can only fight by trying “to deliberately think myself back into that hot light,” like the sun on a hot rock. She also writes about how her agent’s letters fill her with disgust and helplessness—Anna’s novel has taken on a life of its own, and she will not let it become a film. Under that entry, Anna has scribbled, “1951.” Below, she has written another short entry: in 1952, she cut short a meeting “with film man.” Then comes the title: “THE DARK.”
Anna’s earliest entries in the black notebook are at once commentary about and evidence of the “darkness” she confronts as she tries to create meaning out of words and struggles to maintain the integrity of her art against others’ efforts to distort it. These are not merely failed first attempts at describing the trouble of writing, but also an effective summary of what Anna does successfully write in the rest of the notebook.
The notebook’s pages are split, with the heading “Source” on the left and the heading “Money” on the right—the first is a record of correspondence, scenes, and sentences, which last only a few pages, while the latter lists the payments Anna received from Frontiers of War. After three years’ worth of “Money,” the left pages restart, and the right pages become a typed synopsis of the book, now called Forbidden Love for its movie version.
In lieu of truly writing—generating a coherent text out of ideas—Anna instead merely records what she can muster. The “source” column also points to the relationship between Free Women and the notebooks. In one sense, Anna’s apparently objective experiences in the former are the source material for her thinking in the notebooks; in another sense, the notebooks show the reader the source of the intentions, confusion, and struggles that Anna faces in Free Women.
The synopsis is as follows: “dashing young Peter Carey,” an Oxford student, goes to Central Africa for air force training during World War II. He joins a crew of leftists who spend their weeks criticizing racism and weekends having orgies at a hotel. The proprietor’s wife and daughter both fall for Peter, but Peter falls for the wife of an African activist, the hotel’s cook. The landlord’s wife reports Peter’s love and yells at her daughter, “he preferred the dirty black girl to you.” The cook kicks his wife out, and she goes to live on the streets, encountering Peter by chance during his last night before he gets kicked out of the Colony. Of course, “their innocent and pure love, broken by the harsh inhuman laws of this country and by the jealousies of the corrupt, will know no future,” and they part.
The reader will soon encounter a different, lengthier version of this story, based on Anna’s own recollections (both extrapolate from Doris Lessing’s own upbringing in Africa and first novel, The Grass is Singing). Anna’s novel merges two different love stories from her past and centers a male perspective instead of her own. Also, the reader only learns about Anna’s first novel through this indirect synopsis, rather than by reading it directly. This synopsis, which through its brevity inevitably distorts the meaning of Anna’s original text, is in turn created for the purposes of people who wish to distort Anna’s novel by turning it into a film. Beyond sharing the initials FW, Frontiers of War concerns the same thematic questions as Free Women: how love can be possible in a corrupt world structured to prohibit it and whether white, Western, affluent communist activists truly do anything to advance the struggle for justice.
On the opposite page, Anna writes that “the man at the synopsis desk was pleased” but wants to make the story “‘less upsetting’ to the moneybags.” She did not budge, returned home in disgust, and read her book through for the first time, feeling “as if it had been written by someone else.” If she reviewed it upon its publication in 1951, she would have written that it relies on “an unoriginal theme, scantily developed,” that “the simplicity of Anna Wulf’s style is her strength,” whether it is conscious or merely a result of the “strong emotion” that drives her writing. After 1954, however, she would say that the book has “a considerable vigour of insight into the more melodramatic sexual relationships” but nothing new to say about racism—and that it is strange that the art world takes so long to respond to such obvious injustice.
Anna not only recognizes that the reception of her novel depends on and changes with the times, but also that her own reactions to it would do the same: she initially focuses on the quality of her plot and writing but later focuses on the book’s political messages. This points to two differing ways of evaluating fiction and predicts The Golden Notebook’s changing reception in reverse: at first, to Doris Lessing’s disappointment, readers focused on her political messages but ignored her structural and technical innovations. Yet “the moneybags” threaten Anna’s art precisely because they want to sanitize and depoliticize it, so it does not threaten their own financial power by promoting communism; it seems that readers must not separate an artist’s talent from her message, but rather recognize form and content.
Anna writes that, during her three months writing reviews, she has realized that “the function of the novel seems to be changing.” The genre is abandoning its previous connection to philosophy and building one with journalism by seeking to “report the existence of an area of society” to readers who, living in an increasingly fragmented society, desperately reach out to learn about others—“it is a blind grasping out for their own wholeness.”
Similarly, as the world begins to “crack up,” Anna thinks art is coming to be defined by a social rather than individual perspective. Whereas philosophy is a way to find “wholeness” in oneself (by developing a system of beliefs and aligning one’s actions with those beliefs), journalism is a way to make society “whole” (by bridging communities that do not yet understand one another). Implicitly, Lessing seems to be considering whether it is possible to do both at once—and offering The Golden Notebook as an attempt to do so.
However, Anna finds herself “incapable of writing the only kind of novel which interests me: a book powered with an intellectual or moral passion strong enough to create order, to create a new way of looking at life.” She is too scattered, with too many ideas and only one writerly quality: curiosity. Anna resents her inability to enter new domains of the world, but also Mother Sugar’s “small nod of satisfaction” in reaction to the obvious truth “that the artist writes out of an incapacity to live” and the fact that she could say something so banal.
Like philosophy and journalism, Passion and curiosity are opposing forces: passion consolidates, pushing a single idea or vision, while curiosity disperses and fragments, leading people to pursue various, disconnected interests. Just as a writer must turn these opposite forces into complementary ones, Lessing offers a new “order” or “way of looking at life” through a fragmented novel.
Anna has always hated and still hates Frontiers of War. She remembers writing the novel and that the story did not matter—only that it was a way for her to express a truth she could not state directly. Now, she feels sick about the dissonance between the novel’s subject—racism—and “the emotion it came out of,” the dizzying quest for freedom as dissolution, “one of the strongest reasons why wars continue.” World War II was characterized by an ironic “double-feeling” because it jumpstarted the colonial African economy and also because the same people fighting the Nazis were enforcing racial oppression in Africa.
Anna seems to hate that, by using the provocative and timely subject of British racism in Africa as a vehicle to convey her own feelings about romance and freedom, she has belittled Africans’ struggle for equality. The British “double-feeling” about the war reflects the simultaneous dangers and benefits of dissolution, or the breakdown of ordered parts into a disordered whole: it at once leads to chaos and frees people from the existing divisions that disintegrate (whether social or psychological).
Anna remembers the war in terms of Russia’s changing involvement in it. A communist movement developed in the small African town where she was living, but the white revolutionaries failed to engage the black masses and then split into two groups “after a terrible fight.” Among Anna’s “small sub-group,” she was the only one who could freely leave the colony—which she would have done, since she hated it so much, and had only moved there to marry a tobacco farmer named Steven. When she arrived, she immediately realized she “could never stand the life” but went to the nearest city instead of returning to London. Yet she always felt uncomfortable in the Colonies.
Anna introduces her own experiences in reverse chronology; she seemed to stumble into her place in Africa and involvement in politics, making decisions out of convenience and impulse rather than principles and careful reflection. She sees a direct connection between her own lack of clarity and her suspicion that her novel’s message, “order,” or vision is fundamentally flimsy or contradictory.
The black notebook starts following Anna’s involvement in her political “sub-group.” She meets Willi Rodde, who helps her get involved in politics, even though they do not get along or “even enjoy sleeping together.” Willi is full of contradictions—Anna draws up lists of contradictory words about him, but this is the wrong way to describe people’s personalities. Willi is the core of the group, and everyone reveres him even while he grows more dogmatic—but his most interesting trait is that he always carefully plans things years in advance. He clings to “order, correctness, and conservation of what existed,” feels little sympathy for others’ emotions, and “had the most conventional upper-middle-class upbringing imaginable” in Berlin’s “decadent” 1920s and 1930s. He dresses almost as sharply as he speaks and is now a powerful government official in East Germany, since he could not secure a business position in London.
Willi’s main contradiction is the opposition between his leftist politics and his conservative personality: he wants the world to change and the masses to seize power but refuses to change, accept change, or relinquish control, despite his relative privilege. He has strong principles but does not live them out; he acts with his personality, not his beliefs, as evidenced by his decision to pursue business (the failure of which ironically leads him to become a communist bureaucrat). Yet, unlike Anna and Molly, Willi does not seem to lose his faith in communism, precisely because he views the world in terms of theory. Anna’s feeling that she cannot describe personality with a list of words indicates language’s limited ability to capture the true depth of experience; this paradox is at the heart of Anna’s struggle to write and define herself as a writer.
The other three men in their group did not particularly like one another, but had been part of the same homosexual group at Oxford many years before—mostly as a means to social protest, of course. The most interesting of them is Paul Blackenhurst, the model for the pilot character in Anna’s novel—he is so charming that people scarcely realize his coldness, or that he is mocking them—unlike Willi, Paul had “an upper-class arrogance” (he came from a powerful family of English gentry). He and Willi get along, chatting about history and sharing an interest in Anna—as Paul put it, it is “obligatory in the times we live in to be in love with as many people as possible.” Yet he never worries about dying in the war.
As with Willi, there is a total contradiction between Paul’s apparent communist beliefs, on the one hand, and his class background and condescension toward virtually everyone else, on the other. While Willi seems to faithfully believe in his political principles but never translate them into action, Paul simply does not treat principles seriously at all, instead taking pride in his ability to get away with deceiving people into thinking he is a principled man. Paul exemplifies the contradiction of dissolution that Anna wrote about some pages before: he appears liberated and impassioned, but also power-hungry and perilously fearless.
Jimmy McGrath, on the other hand, “suffer[s] a hell of fear.” He ends up surviving the war, but Paul Blackenhurst dies the day before he is supposed to leave for India—still drunk during a blinding sunrise on the airstrip, he walks into a plane’s propeller. Jimmy is middle-class and Scottish but speaks with “an elaborately affected Oxford drawl.” Like Paul, he is only temporarily invested in socialism, and he is stodgy and brutish—but he is actually gay and in love with Paul, although they hate one another. After the war, he marries, and after his wife’s pregnancy, he stops having to pretend to enjoy sex (“in short, a not uncommon English marriage”).
At the end, Paul’s death is a parody of war, which is perhaps a fitting end for someone who structured his life around parodying others. Jimmy is virtually the opposite of Paul, with his crippling anxiety and lack of elegance. His love for Paul is tragic because it is impossible, but encouraged by Paul’s pretensions at homosexuality; in both these senses, Paul earns others’ affection by mocking Jimmy’s reality.
“The most original” is the working-class Ted Brown, who went to Oxford on scholarship and is “the only genuine socialist of the three.” Thin and zealous, he tends to give away his money, clothes, and time. He also loves music, literature, and helping others—especially by mentoring younger men. He ends up moving to Germany, marrying a German woman, and becoming an English teacher. He is also disappointed by the fractures within the group—in fact, to think about it as a group would be wrong, as Ted and Willi never get along, Ted has no connection to Paul Blackenhurst, and Anna is just “the leader’s girl friend.”
It is revealing that Ted’s benevolence and “genuine social[ism]” are grounded in his class status and personal generosity—he is clearly the only one of the group who lives out his beliefs, and Anna seems to implicitly recognize that her disillusionment with leftist politics relates to the sense in which socialism is an abstract ideal for her, with no actual impact on her life, rather than a project necessary to transform her socioeconomic circumstances.
Paul Blackenhurst and Willi hold the group together, with their arguments in the Gainsborough Hotel—which is “really a boarding-house,” and where Willi quickly earns “special privileges” even though he is a German. He does this by teaching the hotel’s “obese, harried, sweating and incompetent” proprietor how to run her establishment.
Paul and Willi are united not only by their arguments about politics, but also by their conflict over Anna; Willi’s excellent business advice again reveals the contrast between his politics and his personality.
After Paul Blackenhurst stumbles on the Mashopi Hotel at lunchtime during flight drills one day, the group follows his suggestion and decides to spend time there instead. When they arrive, Paul follows up on the fanciful story he had told the proprietor, Mr Boothby, about getting stuck in a tree, and Willi convinces him to open the dining room. Paul has already won the affection of a farmer’s daughter and managed to further alienate Ted, who is already frustrated with him. The “full-bodied” and polite Mrs Boothby brings them to dinner; they eat hearty “English pub food, cooked with care.” Willi and Paul boss the waiter around, but Ted is kind to him, and Jimmy gets drunk immediately—the rest follow suit, and they decided to return the following weekend.
The group’s center of power shifts from Willi to Paul as they follow Paul’s suggestion to move to the Mashopi Hotel; despite their theoretical reverence for the working classes and belief in equality, the socialists eagerly take advantage of the Boothbys’ hospitality and the labor of those who work at the hotel: the cook, who is not yet visible, and Mrs Boothby, who notably runs the show while her husband (who technically owns the hotel) sits around and drinks. This episode shows the inequality that leads the socialists to their beliefs but also the utter insincerity of those beliefs.
They return after a lengthy but unproductive “party discussion” on Friday night, which continues in the car ride over—they determine that the antiracist class struggle in Africa needs to be led by black and white trade unions. But, alas, the former do not exist, and the latter are horribly racist. (Anna interjects in the black notebook’s narrative, remarking again that she is breaking into a “self-punishing, cynical tone” that comforts the pain of remembering her political activities in Africa.) Maryrose, as usual, silences the argument—the men never take her seriously, even though she is a formidable political mind. It is a tiring time, between work and meetings and reading, plus helping the disadvantaged and proselytizing about “the gloriousness of life.”
The communists’ sensibilities are so out of touch with actual political possibilities in Africa that they propose class struggle on behalf of institutions that do not yet exist; their meetings are mostly limited to white colonists, and the question remains whether their influence is necessary or even wanted in African people’s struggles for liberation, which the socialists insist on reducing to the terms of class struggle. Maryrose’s position in the group exemplifies how even avowed leftists reproduce gender hierarchies that relegate women to irrelevance.
That night, “slightly mad out of sheer exhaustion” after two years of this lifestyle, Paul Blackenhurst recounts a “whimsical fantasy” of black revolt against the colonial government—perhaps the masses would be suppressed, or perhaps they would win and decide to “strengthen nationalist feeling and develop industry,” which as progressives the socialist group would have to support! Years later, Anna has come to think “that in all those years of endless analytical discussion,” this was the only time any of them was “anywhere near the truth.”
Paul observes that race, and not class, will be the basis of anticolonial revolt, which shows the limits of the group’s Marxist theory and also shows that they would become the targets of such a revolt. In other words, Paul recognizes that the socialists’ moral project is practically impossible and even self-defeating.
They take their rooms at the Mashopi Hotel. All weekend they sleep late, then eat and sleep again, before returning to the city for another tiresome month. They then return for a long weekend with “Ted’s new protégé, Stanley Lett” and his friend, a jazz pianist named Johnnie, to find the hotel packed, with a full calendar of social events. They are greeted by the Boothby’s plain, teenaged daughter June, whose sexual frustration is apparent to the women but invisible to the men—to Mrs Boothby’s relief, June soon meets someone. Just as he had once shocked and subdued Maryrose’s mother with a few harsh words, Willi loves to bully Mrs Boothby. That night, they lead her to leave the dining room in embarrassment by mocking racist colonial clichés, over Maryrose’s objections.
Paul and the other socialists recognize how Mrs Boothby embodies clichés of British colonial racism, but not how they do, too: they spend their days in military training, their free time interacting only with white people, and spend their weekends relaxing by celebrating at a hotel full of British settlers. Stanley offers Ted something of a surrogate relationship, and June Boothby is clearly a foil for Anna and Maryrose’s own romantic dissatisfaction.
Maryrose is “a tiny slender girl,” born and raised in the Colonies, and a former model. Later, as everyone sits outside, drinking into the night, she gets her revenge. She mentions her broken heart—after her brother died suddenly while she was modeling in the Cape, she fell in love with a man who looked just like him. They had a brief affair, and he decided not to marry her (just like the series of men after him, until Maryrose ended up in a loveless marriage with a middle-aged father of three). Paul Blackenhurst makes a joke about incest, and Maryrose says it certainly was, commenting vaguely on her relations with her actual brother prior to his death—everyone is astonished. When Paul propositions her, she replies that, like her “boy-friend from the Cape,” Paul would “never marry me, I wouldn’t be good enough.”
Although Maryrose’s appearance leads the men to patronize her, in fact she is clearly the most self-aware and honest of the group—she recognizes how losing her brother scarred her and constrained her future relationships, even if it remains ambiguous whether her relationship with her brother was literally or just metaphorically incestuous. Unlike virtually everyone else, she does not let Paul get away with his jokes, but calls him out on them—while they both recognize the tragedy of their situation in Africa, Paul mocks it while Maryrose confronts it seriously.
Then the roadsman George Hounslow arrives in his caravan—he kisses Maryrose and Anna, leading them to exchange pained smiles they prefer not to think about, before asking Willi about politics. George underestimates his own intelligence and attractiveness, and he is always frustrated with his family, whom he treats exceedingly well (he cheats on his wife but has a “fierce loyal compassion for her”). He is also “spontaneously irresistibly funny.” He is much older than the rest of the group, who are “the first real friends he had in years”; they adore him, even if he is too humble to realize it. He especially defers to Willi, which is strange because George is one of the “good” ones and Willi is not (Anna realizes that “good” is scarcely a specific or literary word, but everyone save Willi, Stanley, and Paul Blackenhurst was clearly good).
Passionate, humble, and sincere, George embodies a sort of masculinity just as attractive as Paul’s but opposite (and much more genuinely socialist) in character. He represents Anna and Maryrose’s grave mistake: their failure to pursue genuine love in the moment, largely out of fear and instinctual attraction to “bad” men. In this passage, Anna again confronts writing’s failure to fully capture reality: she can instinctively tell the “good” from the “bad” but cannot translate this into literary language or justify her instinct.
This brings Anna back to “this question of ‘personality.’” While some refuse the concept “under pressure of all our knowledge,” it is undeniable that Maryrose will always be Maryrose; even if she has a breakdown, “she would break down into her components.” Is this certainty proper subject matter for the visual arts and not the novel, which is a progressively disintegrating form? Yet Anna would never have been able to write without this certainty.
Anna finds herself caught between the certainties of experience and the fragility of language: even though each person seems to have a distinct, inalienable essence, all attempts to capture or describe personality inevitably fall short. However, literature must still attempt to express personality, knowing it will fail—of course, this is also Lessing’s dilemma in trying to depict Anna Wulf from five different angles (Free Women and the four notebooks).
That night, Willi explains his views on the area’s leftist groups to George Hounslow, but Paul Blackenhurst and Ted take over, proposing in jest that they start a revolution from the Mashopi Hotel and leaving George feeling deeply lonely, as the only remaining true believer in socialism. George decides to engage Johnnie, who, as usual, barely speaks, and Stanley, who refuses George’s offer of wine and insists he does not care about politics. Willi is busy humming to himself, reminiscing about his days in Berlin, and Paul simply admits that the crew has become quite demoralized.
As Paul and Ted divert the conversation to humor, they reveal not only everyone’s lack of faith in the politics they claim to believe but also their lack of commitment to the future of British Africa, which they expect to leave very soon. Politics is more a way to pass time than a genuine commitment, which is further proven by Johnnie and Stanley’s presence in the group.
Stanley and Johnnie go off to bed, and George Hounslow asks what they are doing there—Paul Blackenhurst decides that the Boothbys’ cook will be “the obvious key man” in their revolutionary plans, and George is furious at them all. Ted and Paul try convincing George to go, but he refuses, and they drunkenly stumble away to his caravan with Jimmy. George chases after them and grabs them—Jimmy falls and bloodies his forehead on the ground, and Willi reveals that “the reason why George didn’t want anyone near his caravan was because there was a woman in it.” Anna wonders who it might be, and why she has rejected George for so long, despite feeling such deep love for him in the moment. The group tends Jimmy’s wounds and goes to sleep.
Anna, George, and Jimmy all have minor breakdowns in parallel: Anna sees the contrast between Willi’s mechanical attitude toward sex and George’s genuine passion; Jimmy, for the first of many times, drinks himself into a stupor because he loves Paul and fears dying in the war; George realizes that the people he thought of as political mentors did not truly care about politics. All confront the limits of their reality, which completely fails to meet their expectations.
The next morning, the three airmen come with breakfast, which they had convinced the cook to let them make—and the rest of the hotel’s guests are already partying, so all the socialists but the rigidly mannered Willi join. They stride into the kitchen, where Paul Blackenhurst asks the cook about his family life, to Mrs Boothby’s disdain—she kicks them out. Anna feels a momentary attraction to Paul, who calls her name and makes her realize how unhappy she is.
Paul’s turns his joke about the Boothby’s cook into a reality, even though he is clearly more interested in stirring trouble than actually starting a “revolution” in the Hotel. Although Anna recognizes Paul’s insincerity and general misanthropy, she still appreciates his willingness to act, in contrast with Willi and perhaps even George.
They go into the beautiful “big room,” where Johnnie is busy playing jazz piano and Stanley lingers around him—Stanley only likes Johnnie because he is a “passport to a good time.” Indeed, Stanley is a ruthless lawbreaker, keen to use people for his own benefit—except Ted, whose care he finds flattering but inexplicable. All day, Johnnie improvises on the tunes Ted hummed, but Stanley has “no ear at all.” Paul Blackenhurst points out how pitiful Maryrose is, surrounded by men “positively hang-dog with sex frustration” but still fixated on her brother. And so is Jimmy, who stands next to her but is still in love with Paul. Meanwhile, Paul is reluctantly realizing that he has never been a true homosexual, that he only yearns for Maryrose and Anna.
Although the party’s atmosphere is celebratory, Anna focuses on the romantic tensions it brings out in the guests, who all begin to think about their identities in terms of whom they are capable of loving. This becomes a refrain in the book: people understand themselves through the mirror of their lovers and romantic frustrations, which sometimes reflect people’s true selves more faithfully than self-reflection can.
George Hounslow walks in and comes after Maryrose—he always approaches women with humble words but intent eyes; he is a rare breed “who really, very much, needed women.” He needs them “under his spell,” as his “hidden arrogant power” demands it. He says something to Maryrose, and she punches him in the face. George comes over, in tears, and complains to Paul Blackenhurst, who casually mentions that “I’m in love with Anna and my heart is breaking.” Not wanting to deal with George as he sinks deeper into self-deprecation, Paul decides to go “help Maryrose,” and George turns his attention to Anna, taking her outside to meet Willi on the verandah as the crowd filters into the big room.
George, much like Anna, needs love in order to feel whole—his words conceal his intentions, which are nevertheless clear, just as Anna sees language and her writing as revealing reality despite their failures to faithfully portray it. Unlike George, Paul and Willi are clearly malicious, with no interest in other people and no empathy for George’s predicament—if love is selfish for Paul and Willi, for George it involves a genuine (if sometimes self-sacrificing) commitment to another person’s well-being, even if it is possessive for all of them.
Sitting and drinking beer on the verandah, George Hounslow explains his intolerable family life: he lives in a tiny house with his wife, all four of their ailing parents (who spend all their time playing cards and complaining), and their two sons and daughter. They are poor, and George spends half of his time fixing roads around the country and pursuing his affairs, mostly with African women. This includes the Boothby’s cook’s wife, Marie, who had his child—George finds it horribly hypocritical to preach socialism but not care for his illegitimate son.
It becomes increasingly clear that George needs women’s love to alleviate his miserable home life; nevertheless, he nobly sustains his family out of obligation: the others are materially wealthy but morally impoverished, while George’s material poverty is actually a result of his developed sense of morality. His class status and moral feeling also make him the only one with sincere political feelings.
Willi says George Hounslow has no obligation to his illegitimate son, and Anna has conflicted feelings: she is jealous of the woman but also hates her, she is both repulsed and attracted by George’s “powerful sexuality,” and she still “loved him, quite simply, as a human being.” Willi manages to point out Anna’s prejudice and insist that George would ruin his family if he took in his mixed-race child; George calls Willi “an inhuman swine” and insists that he cannot stand “the gap between what I believe in and what I do.” Willi suggests that George’s child does not capture “the problem of the African in this country.” George storms off, and Willi tells Anna they should stop “sitting around crying about it.”
Willi still cannot connect the big picture of inequality to the daily experiences of people’s lives; he is only selfless in the abstract, but never in his personal relationships. Because of his scarce capacity for empathy, he cannot understand why George might feel responsible for his own son. Willi is dominated by the intellect, George by passion—yet Anna seems to be suggesting that the latter is what genuinely leads to action, and that political courage requires a combination of the two.
Anna goes inside, past George Hounslow, and meets Maryrose, who has clearly been crying after realizing that the group has lost its optimism about changing the world. She remarks that “someone like George could make me forget my brother,” which is why she hit him. She leaves for lunch, and Anna finds George outside, gazing at the cook’s shack, failing to light his cigarette. The gong rings, signaling lunchtime, but George tells her to wait, saying that he could sleep with her, and then Marie, and then his own wife, “and be happy with all three of you.” She insists she does not understand, “lying on behalf of all women.” Suddenly, she tells him he “can’t commit suicide,” and he asks, “why not?” Because he has people to care for, she replies. They walk back to the hotel for lunch, and Anna eats by Paul Blackenhurst.
Maryrose has George’s depth of feeling, but lacks his sense of obligation to act. If Willi offers political insight without passion and Maryrose loses her passion because of her insight, George struggles against the contradiction between the two: his optimism and his knowledge that revolution is impossible. Maryrose seems to feel that being with George would mean dishonoring her brother, and she and Anna are both unsettled to feel that George could genuinely love three women in a way Paul and Willi could not love any. Finally, by abruptly mentioning suicide, Anna shows a deep recognition of George’s moral crisis and hints at her own.
They dance until about five that night—Paul Blackenhurst with Anna, Willi with Maryrose (on whom George Hounslow was also fixated), and Jimmy, somehow cut and bleeding again, by himself. This becomes “the pattern for all the rest” of their days at the hotel. The next night, Stanley begins a “disastrous” affair with Mrs Lattimer—but “disastrous” is a “ridiculous” word, Anna notes, for “nothing was tragic, there were no moments that could change anything or anybody” in those years. Mrs Lattimer is about 45, married to Mr Lattimer, who is a drunk, “bad-tempered commercial type” and insults her relentlessly. She loves her dog, which is red as her hair, and spends the night dancing with Stanley after her husband stumbles off to bed. Barely rested, the group goes back to town at the end of their long weekend, but they return every few weekends for many months.
In retrospect, Anna troublingly realizes that her intense feelings were completely meaningless—nothing that happened in Africa could truly affect her in the long run, and yet (perhaps because it was so inconsequential) her time in Africa was the happiest phase of her life. Like Marion, Mrs Lattimer has a typically miserable relationship with her husband, and her inability to escape it illustrates the pitfalls of marriage, in which love seems to inevitably erode. Her affair with Stanley offers her an escape, a sort of freedom—this is a curious foil to the rest of the infidelity in this book, which inevitably involves men cheating on their wives (not the other way around).
Perhaps six or eight months later, “the crisis, if it can be called a crisis, occurred” with their final visit to Mashopi. Stanley and Johnnie have split from the group, passing time with Mrs Lattimer—who enjoys “publicly playing the mother-and-son roles” with Stanley—and the farmer’s wife, with whom Stanley has set up Johnnie. Anna realizes that she defines her time at Mashopi by its beginning and end, “but that is just the lazy memory,” for events in between must have contributed to what finally happened. However, her attempts to remember leave her exasperated—how can she trust that she “remembered” the important things? For her time with Mother Sugar and the notebooks—she stops her thought mid-sentence, for “this kind of observation belongs to the blue notebook.”
Mrs Lattimer and Stanley’s relationship begins to look incestuous, much like Maryrose’s love for her brother—their love is based on their mutual need for someone to play certain roles in their life, rather than genuine feeling. Anna recognizes that memory and writing distort the truth of experience by recounting it retrospectively and giving disproportionate weight to particular moments that may not have been significant at the time. This also calls into question whether experience or memory is closer to the “truth”—a question that Anna later realizes cannot be resolved. As her faith in writing gradually erodes, she manages to keep going by keeping her notebooks separate.
On this last weekend, Mrs Boothby kicks Anna and Paul Blackenhurst out of the kitchen (being there is “against the rules”), where they have been chatting with the cook, Jackson. Paul instead starts walking Jackson back to his cottage, making sure to show white spectators that he is willing to place his hand on the black man’s shoulder. Ted, jealous of Stanley, who is all too aware of his intentions, tries to convince him that Mr Lattimer is a threat. And George Hounslow’s son becomes common knowledge—the others joke about them realizing their relation through “some mystical link,” like the son becoming George’s servant.
Ted and George continue to pursue their authentic feelings while the rest of the group parodies them, revealing their refusal to be honest about their own emotions and commitments. For instance, while Paul does take something of a stand against colonial racism, he is clearly motivated more by the chance to shock and disrupt than a legitimate desire for social equality. Ted’s feelings for Stanley, although not sexual, are still based on a kind of possessive commitment that he realizes Stanley cannot reciprocate.
There is another dance that weekend, and Anna’s “almost asexual” relationship with Willi continues to anchor the “romantic, adolescent relationships” between almost every other pair in the group. June Boothby brings Paul Blackenhurst and Anna to the kitchen to help with that evening’s dinner, and of course Paul starts chatting with Jackson, which leads to an explosive argument with Mrs Boothby—June storms out, and Paul and Anna calmly leave for the big room. Anna wonders whether Mrs Boothby might have had feelings for Paul, but thinks June’s marriage and upcoming move across the country are probably “at the bottom of her mother’s unhappiness,” along with Mr Boothby’s miserable alcoholism. In retrospect, Mrs Boothby seems like “a lonely pathetic figure” now, but Anna looked down on her at the time, which is now painful to remember.
Anna’s suggests that her bland relationship with Willi keeps the group together by holding the true relationships they want at bay. In fact, this desire for transgressive love—to dissolve the stale, existing romantic order—was the main reason for the group’s existence in the first place. Mrs Boothby is clearly invested in sustaining the strict racial order of colonial Africa, in which Jackson’s position as a servant is as far as the native black population can possibly advance—her tragedy is that nobody appreciated her endless work to sustain the Mashopi Hotel, which reflects the general predicament of domestic work in this novel.
Paul Blackenhurst meets Jackson after his shift ends, while George Hounslow looks at “the father of my child” and complains that he cannot help support the family—he is still sleeping with Marie, whom he still loves, and Jackson is none the wiser about the son who is not his. Mrs Boothby walks outside and yells at Jackson, who goes home. The dancing resumes, and that night Willi is tense with Anna—both because he is tired of George and because he sees her budding relationship with Paul (and she notices his with Maryrose).
George feels a sense of obligation, not jealousy or resentment, toward the man married to his lover. The reader already knows that a crisis is brewing, and the tension between Anna and Willi is a sign of their relationship’s coming disintegration.
Everything is tense in the hotel the next day: everyone gives Mrs Boothby the cold shoulder, and she goes to take a nap, only to watch Stanley visit Jackson in his cottage and ask for the keys to the cupboard, and then Stanley eagerly come inside and make the coffee Mrs Lattimer wanted. Mrs Boothby threatens to fire Jackson, and George Hounslow despairs at what this would mean for Jackson’s family, which would probably have to return to Nyasaland instead of staying near the hotel. Jimmy also disgusted Mrs Boothby the previous weekend by drunkenly kissing Paul Blackenhurst. This final weekend, he and George drink and dance; Mrs Boothby walks in and insists they “take their disgusting behavior somewhere else.” George dances with June instead, Jimmy wanders off, and everyone seems to realize that they will not return to the hotel.
Again, Mrs Boothby is the messenger of prejudice even though she is a pitiable and, at heart, selfless character; Anna seems to chalk her racism and homophobia up to ingrained prejudice or stupidity in the colonies, but fails to realize the true danger it poses (only George does). Most of all, Mrs Boothby seems to be jealous about the love and goodwill that Paul and Jackson, Jimmy and Paul, and even George and June show one another. Meanwhile, Mrs Boothby’s labor and sincerity are never appreciated, so her resentment takes over—like so many invisible housewives in this book.
Around midnight, Paul Blackenhurst mentions that Jimmy has not returned and goes looking for him along with Anna and George Hounslow. They stumble upon Jackson in the kitchen, “angry and troubled” for the first time, looking at “Jimmy lying asleep or drunk or both on the floor.” Mrs Boothby walks in right as Jackson lifts Jimmy up and Jimmy throws his arms around Jackson’s neck, proclaiming that “you love me Jackson, don’t you.” Horrified, Mrs Boothby fires Jackson, who has no idea what is happening and has worked in the hotel for 15 years. George tries to talk to Mrs Boothby, and Jackson is surprised—which suggests that he knows about the affair.
Mrs Boothby’s two prejudices converge, and again she blames Jackson for everything. This entirely uproots his life: the least powerful and malicious person at the hotel suffers horrible consequences for the socialists’ behavior, securing the opposition between their thought and their actions. It seems clear that they should not be the ones to enforce a revolution of any sort in Africa. While the rest of the socialists stay silent, George, of all people, is the only one with the decency and empathy to try and change Mrs Boothby’s mind.
George Hounslow stumbles away, and Anna and Paul Blackenhurst take Jimmy to bed before Paul tries bringing Anna to bed herself, since he knows he might be leaving any day for the war. He walks away, she follows him, and Willi intercepts her, bringing her into the bedroom, where he proclaims that Jackson’s firing is “the best thing that can have happened” because George will “come to his senses.” He calls Anna’s objections sentimentalist, and she leaves him in the bedroom, meets Paul on the verandah and runs away with him, with no destination in mind, stumbling in the rain into the veld, where they spend a few hours. They cannot find their way back, so sit on a rock atop a kopje for the rest of the night. This, Anna writes, was the happiest moment of her entire life.
Willi, again, does not seem to recognize the glaring injustice in front of him, and rather prefers to ensure that people maintain their clear-minded revolutionary vision even though everyone seems to know the revolution will never happen (at least, with their participation). With this show of Willi’s inhumanity and conservatism, Anna makes the crucial decision that dissolves their relationship, eloping with Paul instead—her happiness is a symptom of the drive to dissolution she wrote about before turning to this lengthy story.
In the morning, they see the hotel and realize that they are sitting above a cave filled with Bushman paintings. When they make it back, they find Mrs Lattimer crying on the verandah and Mr Lattimer cruelly insulting her from inside. Anna meets Willi inside; he knows what had happened, and for the only time ever “mak[es] love to me with any conviction.” This is the end of their “sexless” relationship.
The cave paintings point to the kind of mythical, perhaps primitive art that Mrs Marks and Anna later discuss as a sign of universal human experience, much as Anna wondered a few pages before whether the visual arts could capture human wholeness and personality in a way that writing cannot. Mr Lattimer’s abuse of his wife foreshadows Willi’s attitude toward Anna—his anger at potentially losing her is the only thing that drives him to pay her any attention; whereas Anna and Paul had sex because of their love, Willi has sex with Anan in order to prove a love that does not exist.
The next day, George Hounslow is solemn, and Jackson has already disappeared with his family, leaving his chickens behind. Mrs Boothby apologizes to Jimmy, who has no recollection of the night before, but she has no regrets about firing Jackson. The socialists leave and never return. Soon thereafter, Paul Blackenhurst dies and Jimmy is deployed to Germany; Ted purposefully fails his exams to be with Stanley, who “told him he was a fool.” Johnnie keeps playing at parties; George manages to find Jackson and send him money, supposedly on behalf of the Boothbys, who in reality feel no remorse.
By the end of their time at the Mashopi, the socialists have only created further injustice, sending Jackson back to the poverty in which most black Africans are forced to live. The group dissolves, and they all live out tragedies consummate with their personalities: Paul dies in a mockery of war, Jimmy’s anxieties dominate him but prove false, Ted sacrifices himself for the only person who does not appreciate him, and George heroically fights to do what little good he can, given his life’s already tragic circumstances.
“And that was the end of it all,” Anna declares—there is “nothing at all in common” between the truth and the story of Frontiers of War. She remembers realizing at the Mashopi Hotel that she would write the book, feeling the “dangerous delicious intoxication” of “the recklessness of infinite possibility, of danger, the secret ugly frightening pulse of war itself, of the death that we all wanted, for each other and for ourselves.”
The book’s setting and plot are clearly grafted from Anna’s experience at the Mashopi Hotel and the relationships between George and Marie and Anna and Paul, but the very act of distorting the truth to pursue “infinite possibility” is precisely the thrill in writing for Anna.
Some months later, Anna writes that she has reread her above account and found it loaded with nostalgia. Actually, she would “rather die than have to live through any of that again.” Her past self is “like an enemy” or an old friend better left behind.
Anna’s perception of her own past and writing transforms from moment to moment; she is neither a stable writer nor a stable critic of her own writing.
Unlike the black notebook, which starts with a series of doodles and half-finished sentences, Anna’s red notebook begins with no hesitations. It reads, “The British Communist Party,” then “Jan. 3rd, 1950.”
The color red is a straightforward and common symbol for communism; the red notebook’s subject matter seems much more clearly defined.
Molly has told Anna about her reservations with the British Communist Party, which she listed for “dozens of bloody pages” on a form. Anna thinks such open criticism is risky; they both wonder why Molly joined the Party at all, and why Anna thinks about joining it. Molly tears up the form. Anna also gets a call requesting that she talk with Comrade Bill, since rumor says she is planning to join the Party—she was not, but she had been on the brink of it, although she hates joining organizations and can never feel comfortable voicing her criticisms to other members. She wants to join the Party whenever she has to deal with the literary world, which is variously “prissy, maiden-auntish” or commercial and dull, and when she sees Molly during her periods of enthusiastic organizing.
Unlike more dogmatic communists like Willi or fashionable ones like Paul and Jimmy, Anna and Molly seem to agree with the Party’s goals but not its methods, butAnna and Molly recognize that their decisions to join the Communist Party are more a result of personal convenience and reactions to other events in their life than straightforward political stances; Anna recoils from the literary world’s privileged cloister and admires Molly’s passion during her organizing projects, which contrasts with her own confinement to her thoughts and reluctance to act.
The next day, in a glass office building on King Street, Anna meets Comrade Bill, whose brisk, contemptuous attitude throughout the interview leads Anna to reluctantly accept her place in the Party. He is skeptical of her as an intellectual—she fires back, displaying the sarcasm and suspicion that the most dedicated Party members employ to identify themselves. Back at home, Molly assures that “I joined in spite of myself, too”—she was always friends with communists but never joined the party until someone accused her of being a spy.
In fact, the decision to formally join the party — like Anna’s decision to move to Africa—was more of an accident than an intentional move, whether for personal or political purposes; there seems to be no clear line between communist sympathizer and card-carrying party member, except for what it signals to other people. Anna and Molly did not join in a state of frenzied excitement; they were disillusioned with the Party from the beginning.
February 5, 1950: Anna notes that she can only be honest in political discussions with people who have left the Party. Six months later, on August 19, 1951: Comrade John defends the Soviet Union at lunch, but Anna is forced to defend it at dinner with an old friend, Joyce. When he stops by that night, Michael is unsurprised. He plays the Eastern European ex-revolutionary, and it is “fascinating—the roles we play, the way we play parts.”
Anna realizes that people’s political beliefs hinge as much on context and relationships as on independent thought or ideology; yet she feels that others’ membership in the party (but not hers) leads them into a dogmatic perspective that prevents them from thinking freely about what might be good for the world.
On September 15, 1951, Anna recounts the story of journalist Jack Briggs, who “moved steadily to the left” during and after the war, turned down lucrative jobs at conservative newspapers, and ended up fired for trying to write an article on China and blacklisted as a communist—until, at a trial in Hungary, he was named as an anti-communist conspirator, and the Party declared him “a capitalist spy.” Anna meets him, and she and Comrade John go to Comrade Bill, who does nothing and insists that “anyone could be an agent ‘including me.’” Then, Briggs’s editor decides to publish his essay on China, but Briggs refuses. Anna sees this as representative of “the story of the communist or near-communist intellectual in this particular time.”
Briggs was demonized by capitalists for his insistence on taking a moral stand but by the communists for a sheer misnomer; yet the Party seems more interested in defending itself than actually pursuing justice, its stated goal. In the background is the question of how to at once act and think for justice: Bill is suspicious of intellectuals because he sees their commitment to truth as paralyzing their activism and threatening their loyalty, but Anna is suspicious of the Party precisely because it refuses free thought.
On January 3, 1952, Anna wonders why she writes so little in the red notebook. She also wonders why all her entries criticize the Party—which she still has not left.
Again, Anna hints at the notebooks’ failure to capture the range of her experience and bias toward exceptional thoughts, away from the mundane.
Three of Michael’s friends are hanged in Prague, and he insists to Anna that they could not be traitors, but also that the Party would not frame them, so they must have found themselves in “‘objectively’ anti-revolutionary positions.” He cries all night in bed. Anna is busy organizing a petition for the Rosenbergs—nobody outside the Party will sign it, as Britain is on the brink of its own McCarthyism. She cannot explain why she defends the Rosenbergs but not Michael’s friends. Molly cries, too, which reminds Anna of Maryrose crying when she realized that the beautiful revolution will not happen.
Michael looks for an explanation of his friends’ hangings that allows him to maintain loyalty to them as well as the Party. He ends up with a explanation reminiscent of Willi’s beliefs: his friends could have been obstacles to the revolution despite their best intentions and efforts. While this seems like a long shot, it is also precisely what was wrong with the African socialists’ politics and recalls Paul’s insistence that a true mass uprising would also be directed against them. Anna, too realizes (despite her full awareness of the Party’s dogmatism) that she can more easily side with it than criticize it, even on the exact same grounds; she cannot help but feel the double-standard.
The Rosenbergs are executed. Anna wonders why she cares so disproportionately about them, why she feels “responsible for what happens in the West, but not at all for what happens over there” in the communist countries.
Anna realizes that her sense of responsibility is divided between the crimes committed by her ideology and the crimes committed by her country. Again, her uncertainty revolves around how to balance ideas and reality.
Anna cannot stop thinking about Koestler’s insistence “that any communist in the West who stayed in the Party after a certain date did so on the basis of a private myth.” Anna thinks hers is that, within the flailing Soviet Union, “there must be a body of people […] waiting to reverse the present process back to real socialism.” Molly is too busy to discuss—her personality, like Anna’s, is split between a “dry, wise, ironical political woman” and a dogmatic “Party fanatic.” The Party is isolating, which is why Anna will leave. In the next entry, Anna notes that she wrote yesterday that she’d leave the party; she wonders if, when, and why she would.
Anna seems to understand that she could not have remained in the Party based on concrete evidence alone; she needed a story for herself, the myth that unadulterated socialism remained on the horizon but was impossible for her to perceive directly, in order to maintain her faith in the form of socialism she desires. Anna and Molly both waver about their commitment to politics, but this shared commitment also separates them from each other.
At dinner, Comrade John says people stay in the Party because they cannot bear to abandon their “ideals for a better world.” This contradicts his previous insistence that the Party is not cynical. Anna wonders whether she seeks wholeness through the Party—but it actually “intensified the split.” That night, she discusses it with Michael, that “witch-doctor” and “soul-curer,” who affirms that the human soul is far too complex to understand.
In John’s mind, the Party allows people to continue believing in justice, contrary to reality—this gives a false sense of wholeness but in reality amplifies the gap between thought and action. Michael is a psychiatrist, which is curious given Anna’s psychological wavering and the breakdown he creates in her.
Anna and Michael go to East Berlin, which is ominous and terrifying. Some old Comrades are hostile to Michael, thinking him a traitor like his executed friends. They accuse him of spreading “capitalist poison,” particularly because he is wearing a suit—a cheap one, but East Berlin lacks consumer goods, and their bitterness is thoroughly ironic.
Suddenly, Michael’s affiliation sets him on the outs of the party, even though he tried to justify his friends’ executions to himself. East Berlin has the air of authoritarianism, not the egalitarianism that communism is supposed to achieve; Michael’s old acquaintances seem bitter that he comes from a capitalist place, reducing him to a characteristic he cannot choose and ignoring his personal commitments and beliefs.
“Stalin died today,” leaving Anna and Molly upset but feeling that they should be pleased. They suggest that Stalin might not have known about “all the terrible things that were happening,” and later Michael agrees, since “anything is possible.” He mentions that he used to see Stalin as a “great man.” With a headache, he brings Anna to bed, where he again cries through the night.
Anna and Molly recognize the evils Stalin perpetrated but also worry about the instability that his death will inevitably bring their ideology; without Stalin, they now have to confront the contradiction between their affiliation and their values.
During an election in North London, the Communists rehash the tired debate about whether they should try to win (which they cannot) or support Labour (which would mean compromising their values). The meeting ends with a hearty joke: “we aren’t going to win enough votes to split the Labour vote.” Anna goes canvassing in Comrade Bill’s working-class neighborhood, adoring the atmosphere of camaraderie. Other women argue over whether their clothes are too posh. One house plans to vote Labour, another is unlikely to vote at all, in a third a housewife chats obsessively with Anna for three hours, but says she still plans to vote Labour. After two more days, Anna finds only two people planning to vote for the Communists—they are already Party members—and five guilty, self-doubting housewives, who are convinced “there must be something wrong with me.” Anna finds them much more interesting than the election.
While the joke at the end of the meeting successfully diffuses the Party members’ tension, it leaves unanswered the question of whether the Party can or should actually affect politics; when they confront their growing powerlessness, the Party members retreat from caring about politics. Anna recognizes that the overwhelming dissatisfaction that women like Marion and Mrs Boothby feel is an extraordinarily common problem, grounded in married women’s relegation to and isolation in the home. Because women are so isolated, they do not recognize that their predicament is shared.
Jean Barker, thirty-four, is the talkative wife of a condescending “minor Party official.” Like everyone else in the Party, she is writing a novel. Her “verbal incontinence” has turned her into a clown, even though she lacks any sense of humor and only laughs at her own awkward turns of phrase. Her children are proud to have been raised in the Party. Jean manages a canteen and the local Party, but feels that “I’m not doing enough.” She decides to coach a “class of backward children on Saturday afternoons” to make up for this sense of inadequacy; most Party members “aren’t really political at all,” but want to serve others or find the family they never had.
The fact that everyone seems to be “writing a novel” demonstrates the Party’s bias toward idealism and imagination above realistic action, which contributes to Anna’s disillusionment but also challenges her to justify whether her own writing is more likely to help people grasp reality or flee from it. Jean’s work in the party extends her sense of domestic obligations, but her complete selflessness ends up preventing her from self-regulating, or consolidating herself into order.
The yellow notebook (which is entitled The Shadow of the Third and is a manuscript for a new novel) begins with Julia calling upstairs to Ella, who is putting her four-year-old son, Michael, to sleep and has decided not to go to the party. Julia hopes to “wallow in peace when you’re gone” in her small house, which she shares with Ella and little Michael. She is “plump, stocky, vital, energetic, Jewish,” a frustrated and unsuccessful actress. Ella writes miserable articles about fashion and relationships for a women’s magazine, but has started enjoying her new role responding to letters. She also writes fiction on the side. So “there was no reason for Julia to envy Ella. But she did.”
Julia, Ella, and Michael are clearly fictionalized versions of Molly, Anna, and Janet, respectively. Just as Anna transformed her experiences in Africa into Frontiers of War, she seems to be translating her experiences in Free Women into fiction—although the reality of what is fact and fiction later turns out to be far more complicated. The cryptic title The Shadow of the Third expresses this relationship between Anna and her fictional characters: she is in the “shadow” of her novel, whose characters are “shadows” of her reality.
Julia mentions that Ella wants to remarry and should go to the party—they are both “very normal” but lack “conventional emotional reactions” and can never find men “capable of seeing what they really were,” although other women still envy them. Ella does not care that her husband remarried the day after their divorce, and while she is happy with “the child, her self-respect, a future,” she still wants a man, but cannot manage to attend the work party full of people Julia, a working-class communist (but not Party member), considers “absolutely awful” middle-class bureaucrats.
Anna’s analysis of Ella’s romantic difficulties is much more direct and astute than her perspective on her own in Free Women, which attests to the fact that she uses her fiction to explore her emotions in a private medium more thoroughly than she can with Molly. Ella and Julia’s inability to have “conventional emotional reactions”—like Anna and Molly’s ability to dismiss and easily move past their mistakes—both prevents men from controlling them and alienates them from men.
Ella reads Julia one of her letters, which was addressed to the medical advice column but apparently neurotic rather than medical in nature, and they lament the unacknowledged misery of so many thousands of people around the country. Julia goes for her bath; Ella wonders whether she truly wants to go to the party. She then turns to her half-finished novel about a man’s sudden suicide, which he commits after spending his “orderly and planned” life with a “vague and impossible” sense of direction for the future that points to his subtle “substratum of despair,” until he finally understands himself in his final moments. She decided to write it after realizing one day that, were she to commit suicide, she would do it not in despair but in the realization that “that’s what I’ve been meaning to do. That’s been it all the time!”
Ella’s work at the women’s magazine, like Anna’s canvassing for the Communist Party, reveals to her the private misery of so many women confined by gender roles and their unfulfilling relationships with men. Ella’s uncertainty about the party, like the notion that suicide might not be an impulsive mistake but rather an unrealized life plan, suggests that people cannot transparently understand their own desires; rather, the appearance of a coherent life (as for miserable housewives) might in fact point to people’s underlying brokenness and inability to reconcile their desires with their actions.
The novel is hard not because of the writing but because of Ella’s shame at it—she knows Julia would respond badly, with some “judgment from the current communist armoury,” if she were to mention it. And she wonders whether she has secretly decided on suicide, too. She realizes she has decided to go to the party—her dress (like all of her clothes) is unflattering, also like her face and hair, even though she has potential, for “her features were good.” On her way out, she lets Julia know she is going.
The analogy between Ella’s party and her protagonist’s suicide becomes evident. Despite how much Anna contemplates what it means to act on principles, both Ella and her protagonist undertake pivotal actions in their lives—actions that express their principles—by realizing those principles in the moment rather than reflecting on them beforehand. Just as Ella cannot mention the novel to Julia, Anna is likely projecting her thoughts of suicide into her novel because she knows she cannot
Ella hates London’s “weight of ugliness” and decides to walk the last mile to the house, which is like any other house on any other street, “ruled by fear and ignorance.” But she notices a flash of color—a painter’s house, and those of other professionals cut off from the others living around them. Dr West is one of these professionals, and his wife meets Ella at the door. Mrs West looks down on Ella because she is a “career girl.”
Ella sees Londoners’ identical houses as proof that they are “ruled by fear and ignorance,” and so cannot live deliberate or principled lives; yet she does not see herself as living the same way, despite her evident fear before the party and ignorance about her motives for going, Mrs West’s feelings toward Ella reflect dominant gender roles: she seems to think Ella works only because she cannot find a husband, and that her ability to take care of a man and children would be the measure of her value.
Mrs West brings Ella to the living-room, where Ella chats with the “editress,” Mrs Patricia Brent, about her letters and “these people you can’t do anything for,” a phrase she regrets using. Dr West jokes that Ella wants a revolution—the only way to “do anything,” of course. He votes Labour, and Patricia Brent, who likes to prove her tolerance, favors the Tories (her willingness to put up with Ella is also a show of tolerance). Patricia left “one of the big smart woman’s magazines” because she was too out of touch with culture, but she takes Ella’s “highbrow” perspective as a point of pride at Women at Home. So she agrees with Ella’s assessment of her job responding to letters.
The very people charged with helping women resolve their misery see their jobs as hopeless—this implies that this misery has a structural cause, but Dr West laughs at the prospect of structural change. Patricia Brent is proof of the problem: her conservative political beliefs contradict her reverence for Ella, which are based precisely on Ella’s view of the cultural climate she favors.
Ella looks around, noticing the unusually large living-room and hideous blocks of color on the walls. It does not even feel like a genuine party, and Ella wishes she had stayed home—and then a nervous but sweet psychiatrist named Paul Tanner comes over to chat with her. She will later fall in love with him, although he will deny that she had. Here, she feels too entrapped by his pride, which reminds her of her ex-husband George, whom she married “almost out of exhaustion” and felt “sexually repelled by” after the divorce—he slept with, and then married, another woman to spite her, and she was relieved. While she worries endlessly about repeating the errors of her marriage, she just as often uses her love for Paul as proof that she never loved George.
From the moment Ella meets Paul, Anna foregrounds the eventual tragedy of their relationship. Of course, she takes Paul and George’s names from her own past in the black notebook; in reality, they represent Michael and Willi (or Max), respectively, in Anna’s life. This also demonstrates how Anna’s attempts to partition her life and mind into separate notebooks inevitably fails. Yet, whereas George and Paul both offered Anna genuine love in the black notebook, the characters named George and Paul both spurn Ella here, which suggests that Anna is writing in part to overcome her sense of lost love (just as Ella uses her feelings about Paul to overcome her sense that George was a mistake).
Compared to Dr West, Paul Tanner is far more understanding about Ella’s frustrating work—she shows him a letter and explains that there is nothing to be done to help its writer, but that she feels burdened with the obligation nonetheless. She blames the woman’s marriage, and Paul calls her “a sort of psychological social worker,” prompting a joke from Dr West about Paul, “the witch-doctor.” Paul reluctantly agrees, then asks Ella whether she is middle-class—she says she is working-class, and then to break up the conversation, Patricia leads Paul away.
Ella feels caught in a double-bind: she must help the women who write letters, but cannot. This sense of futility, of course, parallels her (and Anna, Julia, and Molly’s) disillusionment with political work, which they feel is the only way to resolve the problems they see yet far outside their control. Ella and Paul’s professions offer competing visions of neurosis: whereas Ella sees the social and cultural causes behind the woman’s dissatisfaction, as a psychiatrist, Paul’s job is to treat it as a mental disorder; yet Dr West seems not to take psychological problems very seriously at all.
After just an hour, with Paul Tanner claimed by Patricia and another captivated woman, Ella decides to go home. She flashes him a smile and leaves, but he chases her outside and offers to drive her home. London now seems “a hazy and luminous city blossoming with lights,” and Paul asks about her life: she talks about working at a canteen during the war, spending six months in a sanatorium with tuberculosis, and her father, a brutish ex-army man. He asks about her novels—she denies that she writes. Ella agrees to go on a drive with Paul the following afternoon and returns inside to Julia’s home.
Suddenly, Paul’s interest in Ella transforms her perception of London as a whole, turning it from a dreary collection of identical houses into something full of life and possibility; this suggests love’s capacity to reshape people’s relationships to the world in addition to just other people. Instead of defining herself by her dissatisfaction in the present, Ella discusses her past and (like London for her) also gains a new depth for Paul and the reader. Yet she remains unwilling to discuss her writing, the most concrete proof of what she hides under the surface.
Julia invites Ella into her bedroom—the party was boring, Ella says, but a man whom she does not much like drove her home; Julia asks why, and Ella simply thanks her for looking after her son and goes upstairs.
Ella does not admit her interest in Paul—but it is unclear whether this comes from her own inability to admit that something good came from the party or her distrust of Julia’s reaction or motives.
The next day, Ella thinks about Paul Tanner’s voice while making lunch for her son, whom Julia has brought to visit friends while Paul takes Ella for their drive. Ella is at once glad and disappointed that Paul comes late; but she loves his voice as he explains the miscommunications in the hospital that delayed him (as the lone working-class doctor in his section, he does not understand how “the upper-middle-classes communicate with each other in inaudible squeaks, like bats”). They find conversation easier, and Ella is “intoxicated” to leave London and realize “that this man would be her lover,” just from the sound of his voice.
Although Ella is usually quite cerebral, she clearly falls in love through her senses and impulses: Paul’s voice (as opposed to his actual words) and the visceral feeling of freedom in the countryside, which recalls Anna’s fixation on the notion of freedom through dissolution in the black notebook, are what change her mind about the budding relationship.
Paul Tanner notes Ella’s pleasure and she mentions how ugly she considers the city’s buildings, how unfair it is that people are forced to live in them. Paul points out that things are “better” economically for most people, making the class barrier between him and Ella obvious. Like him, she insists, the country is split in two, rich and poor. He chuckles that she is “a revolutionary after all,” although she claims to have no interest in politics.
Although, at Dr West’s party the night before, Ella insisted she was working class, it becomes clear that she is not (she is working class in the Marxist sense of the division between workers and property owners, but in practice, she isn’t working class like Paul is). Anna clearly recognizes that her (and Ella’s) distance from hardship allows them to view class and society in more abstract terms than someone like Paul, who spent much of his life fighting to overcome poverty but also feels a sense of gratitude to capitalism for his own success.
Ella hopes they might “get away from the villages,” and Paul Tanner is “frankly startled” (which she only understands later). He asks about Ella’s father, whom she insists is not “like the caricatures” but rather lives alone in an old house in Cornwall and spends his days reading philosophy. Paul asks whether her father likes her—she has never thought of it, but she thinks he does not, and Paul replies, “of course he does.” While her father seems happy to see her when she visits, “it doesn’t seem to make any difference to him.” He follows his routine and “doesn’t even talk to me.” He only has one friend, also from the army, and they barely even talk when they are together. Paul changes the subject, asking whether the small field they have found will suffice. Ella is pleased.
The subtext here is that Paul misinterprets Ella’s desire to get away from people—and, by implication, the sense of suffocation she feels around them—as a shameless sexual advance and seems to think her apparent promiscuity must have something to do with her relationship to her father. Ironically, of course, Ella is not simply using Paul for sex but is rather falling genuinely in love with him, and her father’s apparent lack of love for her has nothing at all to do with it—she appears to feel just as indifferent toward him as he does toward her.
They lie on a rug in the field—Ella worries that Paul Tanner is already trying to sleep with her, but later he insists that she was planning to make love to him on the spot. She always figures he will know the right time. They chat about her ex-husband and son—and then his wife, whom he does not love, and two kids. And there, in the field, it is the right moment for them to make love. Afterward, he asks when she last slept with a man, and she lies, “not since last week.” He gets suddenly detached, then hostile; she wants to cry and cannot stop thinking about George.
Ella and Paul both refuse to take responsibility for initiating sex, yet she also plays into his fears by lying about the last time she had sex in order to hide her own feelings. (She also appears to be denying her residual feelings for George.) Paul’s attitude toward Ella clearly relies on double standards: he resents her claim to have slept with another man (whom she presumably did not love) even though he is still married to a woman he does not love.
When he drops Ella off at home, Paul Tanner asks if she might see a film with him, for she clearly likes him. Ella replies that she will not see him again, and admits that she had not slept with anyone for two years, then calls him stupid, a psychiatrist who cannot “understand the simplest things about anyone.” She goes inside and cries, ignoring the doorbell and the telephone, which ring again and turn out to be Julia, telling Ella she can stay out; Paul calls soon after, and Ella agrees to go to the movies with him. They end up at a coffee bar, though, where Paul speaks of his frustration with the middle-class doctors and his anger at his patients’ helplessness.
Of course, although Ella accuses Paul of not understanding her, she clearly cannot consciously admit her feelings for him—which he, on the other hand, does recognize. However, Ella does point out his apparently inhumanity—as a psychiatrist, he seems more interested in decoding her than emotionally connecting with her. At the coffee shop, Paul’s discussion of his patients clearly parallels Ella’s feelings about the women to whom she writes letters. They both inherit the helplessness of the people they are supposed to be helping; they wish they could save people but recognize that they themselves need saving.
Seemingly having forgotten “the episode in the field,” Ella brings Paul Tanner home, and they make love again. This is “the deepest experience Ella had with a man”; he comes over every night that week and leaves early in the morning, which suggests that “his marriage must be no marriage at all.” On Sunday, they again go to the country, where Paul compares them to “an old married couple already” and tells her she is “sensible” to stay single, which makes her feel “completely rejected” and disdain their sex that night. She chats with Julia, who is pessimistic about Paul and thinks he had “such a tight miserable face”—and he is somewhat miserable, Ella admits, although he has so much energy.
Paul and Ella’s intense and rapidly escalating affair gives the reader an oblique view of what Anna’s relationship with Michael must have looked like; the affairs seem to capture all the intimacy of marriage without any of its commitment or security. Paul’s insistence that Ella should stay unmarried reveals that he has little interest in pursuing this commitment, but also cannot realize Ella’s need for it; he sees her as a “free woman” in the sense that he can use her freely for his enjoyment. And Ella loves Paul for what, in her own depression, she lacks most: energy.
That next night, Paul Tanner is so sweet that Ella is “restored to happiness.” However, he then says that he has to spend the following night with his children, and “suddenly a picture came into her mind” of him leaving money on a mantelpiece, startling her and making her feel that their love is all a lie.
Ella’s reactions to Paul continue to completely dominate her feelings; she cannot square his refusal to commit to her with the knowledge that he is already married, and therefore perfectly capable of commitment.
At work, Ella pays special attention to Patricia after offending her with a temperamental comment. Patricia’s husband left her after 11 years, and she has a “gallant, good-natured, wisecracking cynicism” about men. Ella phones the editor of another magazine, asking if he is free for a lunch but really intending to sleep with him, because “why not?” She is not attracted to him, but with Paul Tanner’s casual attitude, that is the point. Their lunch is lovely, and she overcomes her impulse to give up on her plan, although she cannot stop thinking about Paul during or after sex with the editor (which she ultimately found meaningless).
Patricia’s jaded but outwardly optimistic attitude toward men reflects her sense of injury and resignation, which Ella and Anna are afraid of falling into; Ella sleeps with the editor in order to test her commitment to Paul and realizes that she is, indeed, in love with him. She conceives of her brief relationship with the editor, it seems, as equivalent to Paul’s relationship with his wife.
When they see one another again, Paul Tanner remarks that, “if you love a woman sleeping with another woman means nothing.” Ella does not fully process this comment until the following morning—it means that Paul has also “been experimenting with someone else” during those intervening nights, and this leads her to fully trust him. He asks what she has been up to, and she mentions the editor but not their having sex. So she decides that, since they both found other people uninteresting, they are now truly “together.”
Of course, Ella does not consider the possibility that Paul means to say that Ella means nothing to him because he loves his wife. Their seemingly transparent communication hides their fundamentally different expectations for their relationship and their parallel assumptions that the other person shares those expectations.
Ella and Paul Tanner begin spending every night together—he thinks nothing of his wife, and Ella only worries about her son, who seems to make Paul uncomfortable. Paul treats the boy like an adult, and Ella worries that little Michael will forever lose “a natural warm response to a man.” However, she soon ceases worrying and begins enjoying her happiness.
Paul’s inability, or refusal, to take a paternal role in relation to Ella’s son again shows his refusal to commit to their relationship—he is using her to flee from familial obligation, not to pursue a new family in parallel. Ella feels torn between Paul and Michael, unwilling to subject her son to a false father figure.
Anna remarks that she feels like this novel has already been finished, and that she is reading rather than writing it; she now sees naivety as the central theme in Ella’s relationship with Paul Tanner. Naivety is what Anna sees in her own relationship with Michael—but neither she nor Ella understood during their relationships how men destroy “the knowing, doubting, sophisticated” versions of them and instead force them to live in “spontaneous creative faith.” Now, Anna sees this naivety as the proof of a relationship’s potential, but also as impossible to fully regain in the future. She concludes her commentary, “what Ella lost during those five years was the power to create through naivety.”
Anna feels caught between the roles of writer and reader because she is translating her own life—in which the story of her affair has long been resolved—into fiction. Her analysis of heterosexual relationships suggests that the failures of communication and commitment she has explored in the black and yellow notebooks translate into the imbalanced gender dynamic that forces women into a submissive, emotionally reactive role. However, she sees potential in the naivety of that role, and her analysis recalls her attitude toward dissolution. Both involve loss and potential: naivety means the loss of intellect and maturity, but it also engenders a radically open, curious orientation toward the world. Anna’s insistence that Ella cannot recover her naivety is, of course, a way of writing about her own creative block (her inability to write a second novel). Love seems to offer Anna a means to restore this sense of naivety, which could allow her to create.
The notebook returns to Ella and Paul Tanner: namely, “the end of the affair.” The first, crucial sign is his loss of interest in her letters. Paul feels he has nothing to contribute, as he does not want “to share all the serious business of life” with Ella—she is his mistress, not his wife. In anger, Ella replies that she is his wife, for he tells her everything every night in bed. She knows it is the end of their relationship, even though his reaction is understated.
Anna’s above commentary appears to have been inspired by her discomfort at writing about Ella and Paul’s happiest moments, which would have meant painfully remembering her own with Michael. Instead of exploring this happiness, Anna immediately announces the relationship’s end, as though it were inevitable and sudden.
Ella’s novel gets published, and Paul Tanner “reacts with elaborate sarcasm.” He says that “the real revolution,” greater than any political one, is “women against men”—now women can have babies on their own, so men are “no longer necessary.” Ella calls Paul mad, and he mockingly agrees, replying that she is so sane that she would want to have a baby without men. She says that she would never do so, that she wants his child, that everything has been “happy and easy and joyful” between them. He embraces her.
Paul seems livid that Ella might make something of herself independently of his control; he expects to possess her without making any commitment at all to her. Like Richard, Paul mocks the notion of women’s freedom from men only because it threatens his ability to treat women however he likes. And so he forces Ella to proclaim that she wants commitment only so that he can ensure that their breakup is entirely up to him. Again, his double standard shows that, despite his profession as a psychiatrist, he has a remarkable lack of empathy.
Anna remarks on “the difficulty of writing about sex,” which is better the less one analyzes it (at least for women). It is common knowledge that “sex is essentially emotional for women,” and that even “the most perceptive and intelligent man” cannot understand—like when Julia insists that a marriage broke up because the wife did not love the husband, and Bob insists that it was his “prick the size of a needle.”
Anna seems to see an essential, irreconcilable difference between the way men and women perceive sex; the notion that sex is better with less analysis suggests that language degrades experience and points to the thrill in “naivety.”
Anna has never analyzed her own relationship with Michael—it was “like a curving line on a graph.” Anna explains that, in Ella’s first months with Paul Tanner, because of their love and his need for her, she has vaginal orgasms; later, during sex he switches to “mechanical means,” external stimulation, which gives her clitoral orgasms that she finds “very exciting” but still somehow resents. Vaginal orgasms are the only true kind of orgasm, even though Paul insists that “eminent physiologists” have proved they do not exist. By the end, when she is no longer having vaginal orgasms, Ella knows “emotionally what the truth was when her mind would not admit it.”
Of course, despite her insistence that sex is better when left unanalyzed, Anna decides to analyze it anyway. Paul’s belief that there are no vaginal orgasms reflects the limits of “the most perceptive and intelligent [men]”—who think that their beliefs and instruments are the ultimate test of reality, and that they can define the female experience better than women themselves. Anna is torn between her emotions and body, which hold a kind of unconscious knowledge that her mind continues to resist, and her impulse to believe whatever is most convenient in the moment.
Around the same time, Paul Tanner tells Ella about a lecture at the hospital, during which a male professor insists that female swans do not have orgasms—all the women in the audience walk out, and then the professor declares that women have “no physiological basis for a vaginal orgasm” either. Then Paul walks out and chats with his coworker Stephanie—Ella is uncomfortable at this story but laughs along with him. He calls her “the least jealous woman I’ve ever known” and announces that he will not go home with her tonight; she realizes that he has been mentioning Stephanie quite a bit.
Paul denies the existence of the female orgasm with Ella but agrees that it exists when he talks to Stephanie, which shows that he is entirely willing to believe whatever is most convenient for him to persuade women to sleep with him (but never get too close). Clearly, he views Stephanie the same way he views Ella—but, since it is too hard for her to believe this, she remains stuck in naivety and insists that he must love her above all other women.
Paul Tanner and Ella eat dinner, and he remarks that that he has not “succeeded in changing you in the slightest” before criticizing her appearance and clothing, as usual. He lets down her hair and insists that she “could be a really beautiful woman if [she] would let [herself] be.” Then, he mentions that he might be moving to Nigeria—she understands that “something final [is] happening” and hopes to go with him, then realizes that she has given up every other relationship in her life to focus on him. She asks if she can come; he is apprehensive.
Paul’s attitude toward Ella is completely contradictory.On the one hand, he clearly wants her to prove his influence on, or even ownership over, her by changing her appearance and mannerisms. Yet he is also leaving for Nigeria in part because of the danger of becoming too committed to her. He ultimately resents Ella for not becoming his fantasy, even as he insists she is too attached to him and eager to please him.
One day, Ella comes over while Paul Tanner’s family is away. She clearly sees that “this was his home.” The wallpaper is aged, and the kitchen table is covered with copies of her magazine, Women at Home, which Paul’s wife presumably reads. She wonders why he is showing her his house at all, and they go up to his bedroom, which has two beds, separated by a table with “a big framed photograph of Paul.”
Paul and his wife’s separate beds suggest that their sex life is uninspired, and the giant photo of Paul indicates that he considers the home his domain, even though his wife is clearly the one who maintains it (as proven by her copies of Women at Home magazine). Instead, the copies of Ella’s magazine are the only trace of Paul’s wife, which suggests that she is probably much like the miserable and bored housewives Anna met during her canvassing and also forces Ella to empathize with the woman injured by her affair with Paul.
Ella proposes what Paul Tanner’s miserable wife might write to her own advice column; he admits he is “not exactly proud of [himself] as a husband,” and she wonders why he does not just “put an end to it,” so his wife can find another man. He insists that it is not so simple, that he has asked her, and she does not want to leave him. Paul’s wife, unlike Ella, wants security and respectability—so does he, it becomes clear, and this is Ella’s shortcoming in his eyes. Soon, he says it explicitly, asking why she is not a housewife “like other women” and mentioning her novel before trailing off and explaining how she has sustained him through the previous few months.
Anna points to the conflict of values that lies at the heart of her identity as a “free woman”—the experiential, personal value of pleasure and love against the social values of security and respectability. It seems increasingly clear that it is an all-or-nothing choice: all the characters in this book end up in loveless marriages or short-lived flings. Paul only values Ella because of circular logic: she has previously turned down security and respectability in her life, so he does not take her seriously and denies her the secure, respectable relationship she actually wants. Ella becomes a victim of the way others interpret her past, just as Anna feels defined by her past after publishing Frontiers of War.
Then Paul Tanner suddenly goes to Nigeria—Ella is supposed to follow him in a few weeks, but the “painful grimace of his whole body” at their goodbye makes it clear that she is unwelcome. He only sends Ella one letter; then, he sends one to Dr West, who summarizes its contents to Anna: Paul says his family is going to join him and mentions his affair with “a pretty flighty piece.” Dr West thinks little of this mysterious mistress and hopes Paul would “stay out of England as long as possible” to crush her hopes of marrying him. Ella decides Paul must be writing about Stephanie at the hospital.
Paul never truly breaks up with Ella; he appears unable to tell her directly that or why he is leaving, and his dishonesty and secrecy are clearly the most difficult part of the breakup for Ella, who remains unable to fathom the possibility that Paul values her as little as he does Stephanie. Dr West, too, never imagines what Paul’s mistress (whom he probably knows to be Ella) might feel or desire; as doctors, they both seem to completely lack empathy for women they consider disposable.
Ella feels a deep sense of depression and rejection, which she imagines Paul Tanner’s wife must have felt, too. She dreams that she is keeping Paul’s house, waiting for him to return from Nigeria, and awakens in tears, realizing that “she was the flighty piece,” and Dr West mentioned the phrase to her on purpose. She grows furious rather than depressed. She gets a new wardrobe, haircut, and flat—one big enough for a man.
Ella comes to understand the cyclical pattern in Paul’s mistreatment and dismissal of women, a pattern shared by most of the other men in this book. Dr West expresses his loyalty to Paul above Ella; her switch from grief to fury reflects her realization that she was deceived as well as undervalued, as though Paul did not believe her intelligent enough to realize what he was doing to her.
Then Ella hears that Paul Tanner is back in London for two weeks. As though against her will, she waits for him every night, thinking: “this is being mad.” She sees that this is part and parcel of the same madness that first brought her so much joy in the affair. Soon, Dr West informs her that Paul has returned to Nigeria—this time without his wife.
Ella’s creeping sense of madness comes from the conflict between her conscious desires and her emotional instincts, but she recognizes that this same conflict creates the pure thrill of being in love. In leaving his wife behind in London, Paul adds insult to injury—it is not merely that he preferred his wife to Ella, but that he was not willing to commit to anyone at all.
Anna worries that this story recounts the affair “in terms of what ends it,” which is not how people experience love. Even two portraits—one of the beginning, one of the end—could not suffice. For “literature is analysis after the event.” If the Mashopi piece takes the form of nostalgia, here “the form is a kind of pain.” The daily, iterative beauty of living is for film, not literature.
Anna’s reflections on the limits of literary form helps explain the structure of the novel, which attempts to capture life as it is lived through a fragmented, almost cinematic form. And her commentary about film becomes incredibly important at the end of the novel, when she starts to relive her past through film rather than literature.
The blue notebook begins: “Tommy appeared to be accusing his mother.” Then, Anna wonders why she begins this way, turning reality into fiction as though to evade it, rather than simply to record the facts. So she decides to keep a diary.
Anna comments on the yellow notebook’s function: to cope with reality by fictionalizing it. She announces her belief that the blue notebook will be more faithful to reality than the others—but it remains to be seen whether it actually is.
January 7, 1950: Tommy turns 17. He argues with Molly, which has been happening frequently since his first visit to his father, Richard, after which he accused her of “being a communist and ‘bohemian.’” A few weeks later, Anna explains “the whole long ugly story” of how Richard threatens and bullies Molly. One day, Tommy insists on doing his National Service and attacks Molly’s politics—but he later decides to be a conscientious objector (but attacks her politics anyway). Anna finds this stupid, but fears that her daughter might think of her parents the same way one day. Anna feels helpless thinking about Max; but when Janet was born, “the silly empty marriage” no longer mattered, which she wished Janet could see.
This entry returns to the subject matter and cast of characters from Free Women, although it is set years before that frame story. It shows that Tommy’s moral conflicts with his parents are long-standing—he feels both forced to choose between his parents and forced to maintain relationships with each of them. While he ends up aligning with his mother’s beliefs while speaking out against them, it is unclear whether his decision not to join the military was really an act of political courage or an act of personal cowardice.
Four years before, on October 9, 1946: Anna meets Max in “that horrible hotel room,” sensing his despair as he declares they have “nothing to say to each other.” She insists they are not “the same kind of person,” and they do not have sex; they hear the couple next door doing so in the early morning and Anna is distraught. Max suggests having a baby, and Anna figures, “why not?” They conceive Janet that morning, marry the next week, and separate the next year.
Anna clearly sees that her decision to have Janet was borne of the same impulsivity and arbitrariness as Tommy’s decision to become a conscientious objector. Curiously, her relationship with Max is clearly the same relationship with Willi she described in the black notebook—which is strange because the blue and black notebooks both purport to be recounting truth rather than fiction.
On January 10, 1950: Anna writes about going to Mrs Marks for the first time, because “I’ve had experiences that should have touched me and they haven’t,” like Tommy faltering about the army—she sees how people could so easily convince themselves to pick each side of a dilemma. She also says she will never write another novel—she is not in psychoanalysis because of a writer’s block, she just does not “believe in art” anymore.
Anna’s central problem is that she cannot act because she cannot feel. Able to see both sides of an issue, she feels unable to choose principles on which to act, which explains why she and her characters so often fall into their decisions out of impulse or convenience. Her lack of certainty is connected to her loss of naivety, which she recounted through Ella’s story in the yellow notebook.
On January 14, 1950: Anna dreams “a great deal.” In one dream, she is “dressed absurdly,” sitting at a grand-piano in a full concert hall, “unable to play a note.” She tells Mrs Marks this is “about lack of feeling.” In another, she is dancing with Max in Central Africa during the war. This dream is about the same thing—frigidity, and the fear that she might be frigid again.
Anna’s inability to feel has two primary symptoms: her creative and romantic blocks. At the same time, she seems to believe that her dreams hold unconscious knowledge about her feelings that she cannot access in waking life.
On January 19, 1950: hearing a baby cry through the wall of her room, Anna remembers waking to the same noise each morning in Africa, and then Michael’s “cold irony,” which was also repetitive. Playing with Janet and her blocks, Anna feels nothing. She tells Mrs Marks this is about Michael—but they are still sleeping together. Anna insists it is absolutely not about art, and that she does not “care if I never write another word.” Mrs Marks explains that many of her patients are artists “unable to create any longer.” Anna feels frozen, unable to feel—she cares only for her daughter, not even for Michael, she explains. Then their time is up. On the way out, Mrs Marks reminds her that “the artist has a sacred trust.”
Anna’s dual blocks—art and romance—become the focus of her sessions with Mrs Marks. She feels stuck in a cycle of failure: as the same experiences and symbols recur, they begin to lose their meaning. Mrs Marks seems to suspect her dream about Janet is really about art because it reflects her lack of feeling when she builds something out of the blocks with Janet. Anna’s unprompted insistence that she doesn’t care about art is, paradoxically, the clearest proof that her inability to write continues to weigh on her.
On January 31, 1950: Anna tells Mrs Marks about numerous recent dreams that have felt like “false art, caricature, illustration, parody.” They were pleasant and vivid—even though half were nightmares. She once met a longtime psychoanalysis patient who preferred her dreams to her life. This woman “once believed herself to be a writer,” like everyone else at one point in their lives, but Anna does not want to be like this. Mrs Marks offers “her conducting smile.” Anna knows she is implying that “all my creativity is going into my dreams” and insists on changing the subject. She looks around the room, which is covered in statues and prints, pleasant “like an art gallery,” so unlike the “crude, unfinished, raw, tentative” lives of Anna and everyone around her—which is “precisely what was valuable,” Anna realizes. Mrs Marks agrees to set dreams aside.
Anna’s feeling of false art points to the layers of contradictory meaning and stories in her own accounts—none of them tell the whole truth, and so in a sense they are all false art. Yet Anna seeks the whole truth through her dreams, where the raw material of her life seems to be flowing—indeed, dreams and the novel itself take a “crude, unfinished, raw, tentative” form unlike the packaged, ostensibly coherent form of art. And since the dreams feel like “false art,” it seems that, whether she is awake or asleep, Anna’s energy all goes into false art. She begins to realize that all “valuable” art is false art, that polished art is still more false, and that any art which pretends to be more than “caricature, illustration, parody” is in fact deceptive.
Anna adds that, the day of the above entry, she “stopped dreaming as if a magic wand had been waved.” She and Mrs Marks talk about her resentment for Michael, who mocks her writing and preference for Janet above him, and who says he will not marry Anna right after insisting that “he loves me and I am the most important thing in his life.” One night, Anna and Michael argue about this, and she is “frigid with him for the first time.” Mrs Marks mentions an old patient who never had an orgasm with the man she loved until their wedding night and suggests that Anna is “a real woman,” at which they both laugh. Then, Mrs Marks asks about politics—Anna says that, with the Party, she swings from “fear and hatred” to “desperate clinging,” like with Janet, Molly, and Michael.
Mrs Marks seems to control Anna’s dreams: when she insists they stop, they do, which suggests that these dreams are not purely the product of Anna’s creative energy (as she just argued) but also that psychoanalysis offers Anna a way to transform her unconscious thinking, as it is intended to do. Just like Paul does to Ella, Michael secures Anna’s commitment by insisting on ambiguity, alternatingly declaring his commitment and indifference. Anna’s emotional life seems governed less by her “inability to feel” than by her wild mood swings and inability to reconcile the opposite feelings that overtake her.
On March 15, 1950: Anna tells Mrs Marks she is the happiest she has ever been with Michael, but hates him every morning. Mrs Marks suggests it is “time you started dreaming again,” and as if following an order, Anna does.
Again, Anna’s relationship with Michael is split, and Mrs Marks’s suggestion that Anna dream seems intended to help her reconcile her split parts by finding a means to integrate them in her unconscious.
On March 27, 1950: Anna finds herself crying at night, which Mrs Marks says “are the only genuine tears.” She gains pleasure from the pain—this is the same feeling that led her to write “that damned book,” a phrase that startles Mrs Marks. Anna insists that psychotherapy has merely made her realize “that the root of that book was poisoned,” and Mrs Marks asks whether she keeps a diary, and if she mentions her psychoanalysis in it. Anna knows that Mrs Marks thinks this was “unfreezing” the writer’s block and feels “so angry, so resentful,” as though Mrs Marks is “robbing” the diary from her by incorporating it into their sessions.
Anna writes out of the impulse to resolve her contradictory feelings—pleasure in pain—which is the same reason she goes to psychoanalysis (where she realizes that the thing she feels most strongly is a fear of feeling). She guards her writing intensely: she is unable to bring it into psychoanalysis, even though she brings her psychoanalysis into writing. She feels robbed, like she did by those who sought to use her novel Frontiers of War for a movie rather than remaining faithful to her authorial intent.
For four years, Anna’s blue notebook consists only of newspaper clippings, largely covering the American war in Korea, development of the hydrogen bomb, and persecution of suspected communists (McCarthyism).
In fact, Mrs Marks’s comment freezes Anna’s writing rather than unfreezing it—when her blue notebook becomes public and threatens to escape her control (like Frontiers of War), Anna shuts it down. This fact reveals as much about the underlying fears that prevent Anna from writing another novel as her psychoanalysis sessions do. In fact, she replaces her private thoughts with the most public information of all—international news—and the reader loses all sense of how this news affected her private life.
On April 2, 1954: Anna realizes that she is “beginning to withdraw” from her “experience” with Mrs Marks, who has long known this. On April 4, 1954: Anna has a nightmare about “the anarchic principle” as “an inhuman sort of dwarf.” Mrs Marks is in the dream “like a kind of amiable witch” but, in their session, insists that this figure is part of Anna herself. Anna feels that she is being set loose, with this figure as something like “a talisman against evil.”
Anna seems to be “withdraw[ing]” from psychoanalysis because it has already filled its purpose for her: Mrs Marks enters her dreams as a protective figure, and this dream about “the anarchic principle” becomes very significant later in the novel, where it figures as the dream about “joy in spite.”
On April 7, 1954: Mrs Marks asks Anna if she is taking notes, even though she has not mentioned the diary for three years, and Anna admits that she is just collecting clippings about “war, murder, chaos, misery.” She decides this is a way of “keep[ing] things in proportion,” reminding herself of problems beyond her own. She also dreams about these horrible things, as if they are personal—Mrs Marks asks if it is “an instruction to yourself of how to dream,” and Anna cannot see what is wrong with that.
While Anna has in fact started writing again, she carefully keeps this a secret from Mrs Marks and prefers to instead focus on her years of collecting newspaper clippings. While fixating on the news helped Anna look beyond her perspective, global problems also became personal for her, and she lost the ability to address her underlying creative block. Indeed, her newspaper collecting is probably symptomatic of this deeper creative sterility.
On April 9, 1954: Mrs Marks asks Anna when she is “going to start writing again,” and Anna says, “very likely never,” asking why Mrs Marks fails to understand that “nothing I could write would seem to have any point at all” compared to what is in the newspapers.
Anna feels paralyzed by the world’s disorder: since her writing cannot solve global problems or prove more significant than them, she feels it is meaningless. In fact, even though she just claimed that the newspapers “keep things in proportion,” they lead her to think on a global scale and forget about herself as an individual. Yet this journal entry’s existence proves that Anna has started writing again, even if it is unclear what motivated her.
On April 15, 1954: Anna has multiple dreams about Michael leaving, which convince her that he will indeed leave soon. Though unhappy in life, she is emotionless about it in the dreams. Mrs Marks asks what Anna has learned through psychoanalysis, and she says that she has learned to cry, to become more vulnerable—and also to become stronger. Mrs Marks assures that Anna will write about this, and Anna assures herself that her next appointment will be the last.
The relationship between Anna’s dreams and her waking life seems to have switched: now she feels in reality what she knows but cannot feel in her dreams, which proves that psychoanalysis has successfully taught her to feel again. Of course, what she is afraid to say is that it taught her to write again, and she cannot bear to return to psychoanalysis precisely because Mrs Marks violates the integrity of her art by telling her what to write.
On April 23: during her last appointment, Anna recounts a dream of walking a casket through a room “full of dead pictures and statues.” She hands the casket to the people at the other end of the room, delighted to relieve herself of it, but they give her “large sums of money” in exchange, much to her horror. Then, they are all characters from something she has written. In the casket lie “a mass of fragments, and pieces […] from everywhere, all over the world”—pieces of earth and gunmetal, the flesh and personal effects of the dead. To her, it is too painful to look at; to the businesspeople, it is delightful. Then, it becomes a crocodile, crying diamonds, and Anna awakes laughing.
This dream represents Anna’s deepest fears about her art. Her horror at receiving money reflects her fear of “selling out”—not only by compromising her work’s integrity but also by participating in the capitalist racket that sees art only as a commodity for sale. She fears that she has already done this by losing control over the reception of her first novel Frontiers of War (as represented by her characters becoming her buyers here). The pain that produced her art is a delightful opportunity for the entertainment industry to profit, and the crocodile crying diamonds could be a metaphor for either how her fictional expression of emotions creates something beautiful or how the world has eagerly decided that art she considers dishonest is immensely valuable.
Mrs Marks has no reply to this dream, but says Anna should “drop in to see her” if necessary. Anna knows Mrs Marks is already inside her and will appear in her dreams when she is in trouble. Anna walks outside from “the room which is like a shrine to art” to the “cold ugly pavement” and recognizes her reflection in the window “as the grin on the snout of that malicious little green crocodile in the crystal casket of my dream.”
By deciding not to respond, Mrs Marks actually lets Anna maintain ownership over her dream and its interpretation—even though the psychoanalyst is already buried inside her unconscious. Outside, Anna’s reflection indicates that she may again be ready to write, even if she recognizes that her art may not be taken as seriously as she wants.