The Golden Notebook

The Golden Notebook

by

Doris Lessing

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The Golden Notebook: The Notebooks: 2 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The black notebook, still divided between the “Source” heading on the left and the “Money” heading on the right, now continues only under “Money.” A letter arrives from a Mr Reginald Tarbrucke, who wants to talk about turning Frontiers of War into a television play. Anna replies that she has no faith in the genre; they both rehash their positions in subsequent letters and get lunch anyway. “Reggie” Tarbrucke is surprised she has not been writing more, but insists that he wants “to get anything halfway decent through the meshes,” since the network leaders are “bone-stupid.” Anna wonders if they would film the adaptation in Africa; when prodded, she explained that “the colour bar” is her novel’s central theme. Reggie proposes setting the television version in England, at a military training base. It would still be the same “simple love story.”
As with Anna’s own past, the reader only gets an indirect view of Frontiers of War, as the black notebook is itself divided between the inputs and outputs of Anna’s work; not only did Frontiers of War reinterpret and (in Anna’s mind) twist the truth of her experience, but the “Money” column shows how her novel was in turn reinterpreted by those who sought to profit from her story. “Reggie” both professes to understand Anna’s complaints about television and proves their accuracy by trying to sanitize her novel, removing its main theme and turning it into a love story that idolizes rather than condemns the violence of war and racist violence of British colonialism.
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Anna has no patience for this proposition and no interest in turning her novel into a film. Reggie implores her to consider his offer, which does not even meet her very low expectations. Feeling that she is about to say something self-destructive, she proposes turning Frontiers of War into a comedy: it could be soldiers mourning their lost compatriots while the national anthem plays in the background. Reggie is confused about the comedic aspect; she says he must have realized that the central theme is “nostalgia for death.” It would be a parody of other war films, she proposes, laughing. Reggie turns sour, but diplomatically tells her that idea is for film, not television, which is “a simple medium.” They part ways, and this mocking proposition is the only part of their meeting Anna later feels no shame about. She resolves not to reply to any more media companies; they prove that writing is pointless.
While Reggie apparently understands that Anna is trying to mock him, he does not understand the full weight of her “comedic” proposal: that there is something unseemly about a nation honoring those it has condemned to death; that war is not honorable or truly tragic, but farcical. Of course, her new main theme is what she claimed the novel’s impetus to be in the previous iteration of the black notebook: the thrill of dissolution, whether in war, death, or love. However, in phrasing it as “nostalgia for death,” Anna also points to her own dissatisfaction with her novel, her sense that she is celebrating something horrible.
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Another letter arrives from a television producer, the American Mrs Edwina Wright, who has included a nine-and-a-half page brochure explaining that each of her one-hour weekly variety stories “authentically grapples with genuine experience,” but that none can mention “religion, race, politics, or extra-marital sex.” Anna replies that her novel obviously mentions these forbidden themes, but still ends up having dinner with Wright, “an expensive woman” and fast drinker who brags about her familiarity with British literary circles, but Anna quite likes her. Wright waves to an American man eating alone in a corner; Anna imagines their “dry and measured coupling” that night.
The American brochure again exposes the contradiction between popular media’s insistence that it provides “authentic” truth and refusal to confront the obvious injustices of the time. Wright, clearly successful in her profession, nevertheless also sacrifices her own individuality in order to pursue it; Anna’s image of Wright’s “coupling” with the American man suggests that she sees Wright as also unable to express any individuality or emotion in her most intimate moments.
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At last, Mrs Wright mentions the novel, asking whether the interracial sex can be taken out—Anna thinks it can; Wright grimaces at the American in the corner, clearly hoping Anna would resist but happy to downgrade the plot to mere interracial romance. She proposes they turn Frontiers of War into a musical and imagines how the airman and the African girl might meet—all her scenarios would have been impossible under racial segregation laws in Africa. So she proposes a normal television play, set on an air base in England, with an American soldier and an English girl—Anna mocks her, and Mrs Wright insists that she guards her work too closely, for television is “the art form of the future.”
Wright’s job puts her in a strange position: she wants Anna, as an artist, to insist on the integrity of her work but also knows that she must sacrifice it in order to create palatable television. Despite Wright’s declaration that Anna is too invested in the integrity of her work, Anna is actually less interested in preserving her own story than in presenting a plausible truth—but, again, Wright’s proposal ends up evacuating Frontiers of War of its central political content and trying to tell the exact same story as Tarbucke’s.
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Mrs Wright offers Anna limp professional advice and hopes she will visit America; Anna replies that she is a communist, and Mrs Wright is physically startled and speechless. Anna remembers a similar reaction when she told a Russian communist friend about someone being tortured in a Moscow prison. Mrs Wright says she is surprised and “cannot understand it”; Anna suggests that she vet her writers better. The American man from the corner comes over, and Anna leaves them for the night.
Mrs Wright’s inability to “understand” how someone might be a communist reflects not only the political biases of the 1950s but also the enormous gap between Anna’s view of art and the one growing in popular media. Anna sees how people’s political commitments—the roles they choose—seem to determine their beliefs, rather than vice versa, and shows that her own independence from dogma is part of her feeling of isolation.
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In the red notebook, in an entry dated August 28, 1954, Anna writes that she and Molly want to learn about Quemoy but can find little information. Molly discovers that the Party is hiding news of her friends’ imprisonment from her; they both think about quitting. Molly is fed up with the Party’s lies to defend the Soviet Union. Anna tells Michael about this at night, and to her surprise, he supports her.
Anna is just as suspicious of the Communist Party’s dogmatism as she is of Western anti-Communism’s; Molly and Anna both recognize that the Party has more interest in protecting its reputation than in actually affecting political change but wonder if they can pursue change independent of its infrastructure.
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Anna has a wonderful dream about “an enormous web of beautiful fabric” covered with moving images of myths, all in red, in the shape of the Soviet Union and growing outward—but then the rest of the world, in its other colors, comes into focus and she falls sick. The other colors invade the red, creating an “indescribably beautiful” picture and giving her “almost unbearable happiness,” until everything explodes and she is alone, watching the world’s fragments fly about in chaos. All she cares about, truly, is Michael—he is the only thing that brings her happiness.
Anna’s dream represents the Soviet Union’s attempts to spread Communism throughout the world—while she first feels sick when she sees the rest of the world apparently taking other paths, strangely enough she is delighted to see the Soviets’ redness invaded by the rest of the world. This suggests that she has already unconsciously broken with the Communist Party and can also be seen as a metaphor for her desire for her red notebook to lose its strict division from the other notebooks—her desire for unity.
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“Some scribbled sheets” from November 11th, 1952 recount a group of five communist writers meeting “to discuss Stalin on linguistics” the night before. They talk diplomatically about Stalin, even though by now they dislike him. Anna thinks his pamphlet is nonsense and wonders about “the break-down of language.” She proposes that “perhaps the translation is bad,” and it becomes clear that everyone thinks the pamphlet itself is bad, although nobody will admit it. They turn to other matters; Anna notes that, when more than two communists are around, the quality of discussion deteriorates. She makes tea and remembers an interesting story sent to her by a Comrade, which “could be read as parody, irony or seriously.”
The Soviet writers feel forced to defend something they do not believe in because of their roles in the Communist Party, even though they chose those roles because of their initial political beliefs—when belief translates into action, it seems to betray itself. Anna’s interest in language’s breakdown—the deterioration of the relationship between form and content—also points to the process of mental breakdown and the seeming futility of writing in a world that recycles fiction for its own ends: to the rest of the world, Anna’s own writing and political beliefs no longer mean what she originally wanted them to.
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The story is gummed into the red notebook: Comrade Ted is proud to join the teachers’ delegation to the Soviet Union; as soon as he arrives in his hotel room, he begins religiously documenting his trip. “Two young chaps wearing cloth caps and workers’ boots” come into his room and bring him downstairs to a car that takes him to the Kremlin, where he meets Stalin, who is sitting “behind an ordinary desk” and asks him to “outline for me what our policy ought to be in Great Britain.” After three hours, he leaves and returns to the hotel, where he resumes his diary, “thinking of the greatest man in the world.”
This story partakes in a number of communist clichés: the valorization of “workers,” a vague category often defined flexibly by those in power; Party members’ blind orthodoxy and reverence for political leaders like Stalin, who seem to represent the everyday “worker” despite their inflated power; and the notion that Communist politics will be radically democratic, involving input from everyone.
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Anna’s writing continues: after she reads the story to the group, it falls silent for a moment, then one man calls it “good honest basic stuff,” Anna cracks a joke about dreaming the same fantasy, and the same man says he “thought it was a parody at first.” Another man recalls reading an old story from the 1930s about Stalin helping two peasants fix their tractor in the Red Square. The group disperses with “the room […] full of hostility.”
The man who first sees the story as “good honest basic stuff” and later insists he saw it as a farce shows how beliefs can be so flexible to social pressures that they completely lose their meaning—the story’s multiple interpretations both recall Anna’s own novel, which now seems like a farce to her and is being turned into a farce by producers, and point to the reader’s difficult task in making sense of The Golden Notebook’s layers of meaning and contradiction.
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The novel The Shadow of the Third resumes in the yellow notebook. Patricia Brent recommends that Ella go to Paris for a week—she needs to free herself from Paul Tanner, who left her a year ago. In Paris, she returns to the same hotel where once she stayed with Paul. She unconsciously organizes her things so as to leave Paul space in the room, only to realize far too late what she is doing. She eventually makes her way to dinner and back, feeling anxious and afraid when two men greet her, realizing that Paul’s jealousy has transformed her entire personality. She watches the city out her window, knowing she should venture out but feeling unable to go. She goes to bed and, as usual, cannot sleep except by thinking about Paul. When awake, she remembers the pain he caused her; asleep, she can only remember his sweetness.
The yellow notebook, which ended its first iteration by jumping abruptly from the peak to the disintegration of Ella’s relationship with Paul, resumes a year after it left off; Ella’s life remains defined by her relationship with Paul, which suggests that Anna is still trying to make sense of the way she feels defined by her relationship with Michael for years after their breakup. Ella’s conscious and unconscious minds fight for her independence: she creates living space for Paul without realizing it, and her sleep is bookended by her thoughts of him (which, according to Mrs Marks’s analysis of sleep and dreams in the blue notebook, indicates even more strongly her emotional fixation on him).
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The next day, Ella visits the office of Monsieur Brun at Femme et Foyer. He is polite, if disinterested in the deal that serves as her pretense for visiting Paris, and tells her about his “formidably pretty, intelligent and talented” fiancée, Elise. Ella knows that Patricia would love if she bought the story Comment J’ai fui un Grand Amour from Monsieur Brun, but she also knows it is entirely unsuitable material for their magazine. She explains to Brun how the story would have to be rewritten—the original is about an orphan who gives up her life in a convent to move with a man to Paris, only to have a series of men betray her. The girl leaves a baker (the only man who ever loves her), resumes her previous ways, and then is finally saved by the baker before it is too late. Ella thinks the story is too “French” and needs to lose its religious elements.
Anna seems to rewrite her own experiences meeting with television executives from the opposite perspective: Ella asks Robert Brun to distort his story by removing its taboo elements and, understandably, he refuses. This story mirrors Anna and Ella’s patterns of unfulfilling relationships with men who take advantage of them, but also their self-defeating faith that men will save them from the misery men cause them. Indeed, the French magazine’s story replaces the traditional faith in salvation through God’s love with a secular faith in salvation through romance—which might also be one of the religious elements Ella hopes to remove from it.
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Robert Brun is frustrated but gives up on trying to change Ella’s mind when he sees a woman who looks much like her approaching. To Ella’s surprise, this woman is not his fiancée; he continues to gawk at passing women until his “ugly, yet attractive” and well-dressed fiancée Elise comes over. They discuss the carpet she has bought, and she is delighted to be around him except when she, “his captive,” catches him staring at one approaching girl after another during their 20-minute conversation. It is clear to Ella that the couple is ill-fated: she is just wealthy and “desperately, fearfully in love with him.” Despite her irritation, Ella still does not want Brun and Elise to leave, and she cannot help fixating on Paul Tanner after they do. A man comes to talk with her, and she leaves like “a frightened schoolgirl.”
Robert Brun, much like Dr West, exemplifies male chauvinism despite his prominent position at a women’s magazine: he clearly objectifies women and values his fiancée for her money rather than her love or character, which is all the more ironic because he is trying to sell Ella a love story. Ella sees Elise—whose name is perhaps a play on her own—as slated for the same kind of tragedy that befell her with Paul and Marion with Richard.
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Ella decides to fly back at once and try and cure her heartbreak by writing another novel, but soon returns to thinking of Paul Tanner, realizing that in his absence she was “alone, frightened to be alone,” and without “moral energy.” She notes that “women’s emotions are all still fitted for a kind of society that no longer exists,” that her fixation on a single man is untenable—but she “can’t be like that.” She boards her plane, which has to return to the airport due to “a small fault in the engine,” and realizes she feels completely isolated from those around her. She forces herself to stop fantasizing about Paul saving her and determines to feel the full force of her pain.
Ella sees a connection between the men’s mistreatment of women and the tragedy of modern capitalism: in a society that only values material wealth and external appearances, emotional sophistication and “moral energy” become meaningless to most people. She realizes that, by refusing to feel the pain Michael has caused her, she only further represses and extends that pain; instead, she decides to try and overcome that pain by embracing it.
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An American man reading medical magazines nearby jokes with Ella about the plane, which they eventually board again, all ignoring the fact that the mechanics fixing it were clearly arguing about their repairs in the final moments before they turned it over to the pilot. Ella is pleased to think she is about to die, and is not shocked to realize this. The plane takes off and climbs; Ella thinks about her son and feels grateful that a plane crash would be less hurtful than suicide, which many parents must forego just to spare their children. She falls asleep fantasizing about falling out of the shattered plane and awakens on the tarmac in London.
Ella begins to see that her novel about suicide was more a reflection of her own intentions than she was originally willing to admit; like her protagonist, she only realizes in the moment that she seems to have been planning to die all along, and she enjoys the same thrill of death and dissolution that Anna explored in the black notebook; this is the first thing besides Paul that can get her to sleep.
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Ella shares a taxi with the American, who invites her to dinner. She visits her son and goes to bed, for the first time not thinking about Paul Tanner as she falls asleep. She spends the next day at home, then meets the American, Cy Maitland, for dinner at “a good solid restaurant,” although only after fielding her son’s complaints that she is leaving so soon after getting back. Despite their late arrival the night before, Cy “looked fresh and vital” and explains that he usually only sleeps three or four hours a night. He also does not drink, happily calls himself a “hick,” and eats his steak in less than ten minutes—and works as a brain surgeon.
Although Ella is perhaps disappointed to survive, her psychological near-death experience truly does redirect her attention away from Paul. Cy Maitland is completely unlike Ella: proudly unsophisticated and childish, full of energy but deeply boring, professionally successful but personally unremarkable. Curiously, whereas Paul was a psychiatrist, Cy is a brain surgeon, which perhaps makes him an appropriate next step for Ella: his work is still to fix broken minds, but in a much more intrusive way that requires a much less sophisticated picture of human psychology than Paul’s.
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It is Ella’s turn to talk about herself, but she feels that she “could not be described by a simple succession of statements” and is upset by her attraction to Cy, even though they are completely unalike—she considered him “a healthy savage” and worries that she might become frigid with him, which is such a funny thought that she laughs aloud. Cy proposes she follow him upstairs, so he can make some work calls and she can tell him about herself afterward. She agrees, completely unable to interpret his intentions or his likelihood to cheat on his wife with her.
Ella seems totally comfortable with Cy because his “savagery” makes him emotionally unthreatening; she is even tempted to read a nonexistent subtlety into his actions in order to give him the benefit of the doubt. Her inability to reduce herself to “a simple succession of statements” (whereas Cy happily describes himself in a few sentences) reflects her sense of complex and fluid identity, her insistence on discovering herself and progressing rather than defining herself as one thing (like Richard in Free Women).
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At the hotel, Cy makes his twenty calls and shows Ella a picture of his beautiful wife and five boys, about whom he is exuberant. She wonders whether she should try and excuse herself and dodges his questions about her; so she simply asks him whether he would sleep with her, and he says, “Boy, oh boy, would I?” Viewing him as simply a mass of flesh, she marvels at her own audacity. Sex lasts but a few seconds, after which Cy starts explaining how much he loves his wife, even though they never have sex—he likes how “fine and easy” sex with Ella was, for he lacks the time to really chase mistresses. They have sex again, more slowly, and Ella is astonished to realize that, for the first time and completely unlike with Paul Tanner, she is “giving pleasure.”
Ella is clearly experimenting with Cy, trying to remain as anonymous as possible and invest as little emotionally as possible; Cy’s lack of subtlety and sexual clumsiness border on the absurd, which makes this easy. He has the naivety Ella has lost—but it now looks ridiculous to her, especially in light of his supposedly happy marriage. Ella’s realization that she is “giving pleasure,” taking an active rather than receptive role in sex, offers her a sense of power and control with Cy that she always lacked with other men. Even if she has no future with Cy, her affair with him can still be a means to her independence. They both “use” each other to meet their needs, but without injuring one another—which, so far, is a rarity in this novel.
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Ella understands that “she would never come with this man” and realizes that her sexual integrity required orgasms. Still, she and Cy are both happy, and after she dresses, Cy wonders out loud what marrying “someone like you” would be like. She asks if his wife is happy, and he at once grows surprised and serious before listing all the lovely things his wife has in life, not least of all himself. Ella likes him but explains that she “could no more understand a woman like your wife than fly.”
Ella finds Cy’s wife unfathomable not only because she is satisfied with his brutishness but, more importantly, because he declares that her happiness is simply about the things she has in life—and not at all about what she feels, accomplishes, is, or loves. To Ella, this reeks of inauthenticity: Cy and his wife appear to be living out someone else’s checklist rather than pursuing authentic happiness, which always depends on a person’s specific interests, needs, and character.
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Ella leaves, and the next evening they eat at the same restaurant, where Cy talks about his eventual aspirations to become a senator, and more immediately to interview doctors in Russia—but he cannot, because of McCarthy, with whom he wholeheartedly agrees. Ella says that the woman she lives with is a communist, they agree it does not matter, and they go back to his room again, where “again, she gave pleasure.”
Even though Cy declares that he wants to become a senator, he is scarcely able to explain his political beliefs or express what he disdains about communism. He appears interested in politics because it offers him power, rather than because it would allow him to improve the world, and represents the mindset that turns so many political leaders (communists as well as capitalists) into impotent, droning bureaucrats.
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After sex, they discuss Cy’s specialty, leucotomies. Ella disapproves and mentions that she “once had an affair with a psychiatrist” who was averse to ordering leucotomies; Cy disapproved of her having “once had an affair.” She is glad, though, that this language suggests she is finally over Paul Tanner, whom she still admits to Cy that she loved. Even though Ella says she wants to get married, Cy says he does not understand her, for she is “a pretty independent sort of woman,” although she has “taught [him] things.” He also says someone told him about Ella’s book, which he would love to read (even though he does not read). She is not willing to tell him what it is about and decides to leave instead, as they agree he would not like being married to her.
Leucotomies, or lobotomies, are a surgical process that separates the frontal lobe from the rest of the brain and destroys patients’ complex functions and personality, effectively reducing them to the mental function of a child. Cy’s job ironically points to his own childishness and inability to think for himself, but also suggests that he is complicit in the social repression of women: a sizable majority of lobotomy patients were women deemed “hysterical” by their families and husbands, often because they sought to defy traditional gender roles.
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At home, Ella tells Julia that Cy was “very nice” and she will be “extremely depressed in the morning,” although not because of him. Ella feels “there’s no use my going to bed with anyone but Paul Tanner,” although she intends to persevere.
While Ella enjoys her time with Cy, his childishness and sexual clumsiness still mostly remind her of the satisfying relationship she used to have with Paul.
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The blue notebook continues. In an entry dated September 15, 1954, Anna recounts how Michael declares that their affair is over, but poses it as a question. He celebrates their “great love affair,” but she feels horrible, “as if he were denying my existence,” as he insists she should decide whether their affair was “great” or not. Later, she feels “unreality, as if the substance of my self were thinning and dissolving.” She uses her “critical and thinking Anna,” whom Michael “dislikes most,” to save herself; he accuses her of inventing stories, so she decides to “write down, as truthfully as I can, every stage of a day. Tomorrow.”
Michael’s indifference frightens Anna: he seems to feel nothing after asking whether their relationship might be over and appears to value Anna only for the “great love affair” she gave him, not at all as an individual. They both see her identity as defined in terms of him, and when she tries to break free from him by thinking for herself, he insists that she cannot access the truth—this implies that Anna’s relentless search for the truth of her identity and experience in the blue notebook is in large part driven by her need to prove him wrong, to learn to trust her own judgment above Paul’s.
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September 17, 1954: Anna writes that she was too unhappy to record her whole day the previous night, but wonders if her close attention to the day’s details was in fact what made it an unhappy day. However, she will still write it all down.
Anna’s quest to capture an entire day in fine detail is both a new attempt to capture the real truth and a direct homage to James Joyce, who used a version of this format for his epic novel, Ulysses.
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Anna’s portrait of her day begins. She wakes early, next to Michael, and wonders whether it will be their last time together, which feels impossible in the moment. He reprimands her in his sleep, as he is apt to do. She thinks about his dead family, murdered in the Holocaust, and friends, “communists murdered by communists.” She thinks his very existence is a miracle; he stirs for a second and tells her to go to sleep. She lies down and is “careful not to” fall sleep because Janet is nearly awake.
Anna has trouble reconciling not only her knowledge that her relationship with Michael is collapsing with her feelings of intimacy and affection, but also the pain he has endured with the man she knows so well. She runs up against the limits of her empathy, but Michael also clearly has little empathy for Anna’s competing obligations to care for him and Janet.
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Anna feels tense and resentful, looking ahead to a day full of meaningless tasks, knowing that Michael will have “women in all kinds of capacities” helping him with his work all day. From Mother Sugar, Anna knows that resentment is a universal, impersonal emotion for women; Michael, starting to wake, begins having sex with her, and she thinks about the endless tension between him and Janet, whom she visits after he finishes. Molly and Tommy are sleeping; a baby cries through the wall, and Janet asks why Anna does not have another baby. She sends Janet to school before waking Michael, because “the two personalities—Janet’s mother, Michael’s mistress, are happier separated.” She walks Janet downstairs, gives her a raincoat, and assures her that someone will be home when she returns.
Anna’s silent frustration at her position and hope that Janet will never have to live like her reflect how women’s daily work to sustain and care for those around them gets taken for granted and ignored in a society that primarily values men’s economic labor—which, after World War II, relies on the support of myriad unappreciated women in the workplace. Michael is so accustomed to being served by women that he does not consider their efforts or perspectives. Anna sees how her varying obligations lead to the split in her personality, but prefers this split to the chaos of trying to incorporate the different parts of herself. Sex is mechanical and impersonal, with Michael seemingly using Anna’s body (and her not much enjoying it), the precise opposite of Ella’s sex with Cy Maitland. The crying baby through the wall—like the ones Anna and Max encountered in Africa—represents the ostensibly healthy, functional families that nameless others seem to enjoy—but no character in this book can.
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Anna wakes Michael, who praises her “efficiency and practicality.” She makes breakfast and eats with him while wondering if he is about to end their affair, feeling a sense of loss; instead, he asks if he can stay the next night, too, and then says that she is still more practical, and that “when a women gets all efficient on him, the time has come to part.” She is pained but says she will look forward to that night. With a kiss that represents their love and his insistence that, “if we have nothing else in common, we have sex,” he leaves for work.
Michael acknowledges Anna’s labor only because she performs it expertly, but does not question whether it is right for her to cater to his every need. He at once expects this labor from her and admonishes her for becoming nothing other than his support—it is increasingly unclear what, if anything, Anna gets out of their relationship.
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Anna dons a dress that Michael likes and buys the food she plans to cook for him. She changes the sheets and notices a bloodstain; realizing she is on her period, Anna begins to “feel tired and irritable, because those feelings accompany my periods.” Feeling tense, she waters the plants and then takes the bus, where her mind returns to “the practical treadmill,” now regarding work obligations.
Anna even dresses and shops for Michael, rather than for herself, despite realizing how little he values her. Notably, she experiences fatigue and irritation only when she notices her bloodstain, as though out of obligation—similarly, the “practical treadmill” of the daily grind blocks her off from feeling by structuring her time around obligations to others.
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Anna also starts worrying about having to write down everything from this day, and especially the part about her period: having to write down the word “blood,” which feels like “a major problem of literary style,” similar to when Joyce wrote about “his man in the act of defecating,” but also when men refuse to think about women defecating. Anna worries that she smells, for she hates the smell of menstrual blood (the only smell she hates). Her period is just a “routine problem,” until she has to write about it.
Anna’s reference to James Joyce’s Ulysses comments not only on the transgressive nature of expressing the inelegant parts of human life through the medium of literature but also on the form she has extended from Joyce, which forces everything (including crudeness) into the frame of a story: the attempt to capture the totality of a day, a prototypical day that in turn stands for the totality of human experience.
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Anna will be seeing Comrade John, or as she ironically calls him, “Comrade Butte.” The previous week, after an argument, they joked that they would have shot one another if they had been in Russia; after John left, Anna and Jack discussed the changes in the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death—Jack was the only person with whom she could actually criticize the Soviets or joke about leaving the Party. Today, Jack has asked her to give John, who is his superior, reports on two books; Jack, like Anna, is tired of the Party’s intellectual decline, but he has faith that it will recover in the long term. She loves and will miss Party members’ vigorous commitment to their philosophy, even if it is stuck in the internationalism of the past.
Anna is torn between the sense in which the Party is one of the only social spaces where ideas have power and people like John’s blind commitment to particular ideas, at the expense of questioning and improving those ideas. Whereas the Mashopi Hotel group (besides Willi) was so flexible in its ideology that it never took political action, the Party’s rigid ideology prevents John from even taking new ideas seriously. Jack is the closest foil to Anna’s own perspective on the relationship between ideas and politics—his optimism about the Party’s future does not seem like the product of ideological difference, but rather a difference in basic faith.
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Anna is a half hour late to the Party office—even though she is unpaid—and washes herself in the bathroom, hoping “to defeat the sour musty smell,” before heading up to John’s office. She remembers what Jack has told her about John’s energy and brilliance in the past; she laments how the Communist Party breaks and degrades people like him. For the first time, she starts to see societies and institutions (including the Party) as absorbing their critics, rather than fighting them off; older, hardened members balance out young revolutionaries, who eventually grow older and more hardened. She hates this view of life as “simply a process, a wheel turning.”­­­­ She remembers a recurring nightmare she has about a man who is about to be executed by firing squad, but after a shout of “we have won!” from the streets, trades places with one of the soldiers and shoots him instead.
Anna’s work at the Party is unpaid, much like women’s work in the home. Furthermore, despite getting her labor for free, the Party does not seem to appreciate her contributions. The Party not only absorbs critics by, say, turning John from a freethinking revolutionary into a dogmatic bureaucrat—it is also in the process of doing this to her, and she recognizes the arbitrariness of who ends up in which “role,” defending or attacking an institution one nevertheless believes in. Of course, Anna is already anxiously trying to efface a part of herself—her period, the unseemly baggage of her femininity—in order to fit into the Party.
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It is clear that Comrade John has already decided to publish the two books—Anna notes that she thinks highly of neither and remembers John’s mild disdain for her as a “successful bourgeois writer.” The first book is a badly written account by a bricklayer, “totally inside the current myth” and divorced from reality, but Anna resigns herself to the fact that they will publish it anyway. She realizes that she has been cast in the role of the “captive critic,” as John’s “youthful self, sitting opposite him, which he has to defeat.” When Jack evokes a specific criticism from her, John bangs his fist and yells, “Publish and be damned!” Anna laughs, John asks why, and she says that he proves “the intellectual rottenness of the Party.” She worries about hurting Jack—John is furious—but the book will still be published.
In the Party, as in Michael’s life, Anna is called to faithfully play a role and never step out of line, rather than genuinely expressing her individual feelings and personality; again, she becomes a pawn in men’s symbolic struggles for power, usually with themselves. It is unclear whether John disdains Anna’s success or her class status, but his indifference to her critiques—even though her job was to critique the books—recalls the television writers’ indifference to the intent and themes of Anna’s art, which they value only for its potential success as a cultural commodity.
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Comrade John asks about the other book, and realizing that the Party’s actual operations in no way match her interesting conversations with Jack, Anna decides that she has to quit. She affirms that “both books will be published” and leaves to go read the English newspapers and magazines from all of the communist countries, to see if any stories are “suitable for British conditions.” She realizes that the writing is horrible, “curiously jolly,” and driven by “the myth”—the same one that drove her to write Frontiers of War. She resolves to never write again. The only truly artistic moments in anything she reads are “flashes of genuine personal feeling,” and she hopes that she will come across some piece driven entirely by such feeling. This creates a paradox, given the impulse behind her own work.
The “myth” seems to be just like the one Anna earlier realized she needed to believe in to stay in the Party, or the ones that appeared in her dreams about the Soviet Union as a giant red fabric: a faith in the absolute truth and future potency of one’s ideas, which is tied to the sometimes dangerous (but often politically necessary) desire to dissolve the current order of things. Anna’s search for genuine feeling is what drives her attempts to capture her truth in the notebooks. While Frontiers of War was borne of Anna’s strong feelings about love, war, and dissolution, she used the novel to displace her feelings through a completely imagined story rather than expressing and confronting them directly in the book—which is what she seems to believe good art must do.
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Most of Anna’s work for the Party consists in giving lectures about art—the transformation from communal to individual art, driven by the pain of modernity—once, she stammered and failed to finish her lecture, and she knows “what that stammer means.” She realizes that she wanted this work so that she could hold a public mirror to her feelings about art; despite her hopes for communal art, she and Jack recently realized that their conversations are all about “the individual conscience.”
Years after publishing her novel, unable to write anything else, Anna is much more a critic and theorist of art than an artist; but she recognizes that criticism, too, requires the creative energy that she has lost (as represented by her stammer). Her desire for communal art represents her search for communion with others in a world increasingly fragmented and dominated by individual self-interest. Yet it also seems to contrast with her search for art borne of “genuine personal feeling.”
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The bulk of Anna’s work is what Jack jokingly calls “welfare work.” Before she begins work, she goes downstairs and washes, wondering whether another version of herself might soon decide not to leave the Party and realizing that Michael and Jack, “the ex-communist” and “the communist bureaucrat” respectively, represent her nightmare about the execution. She goes upstairs, realizes that she cannot bear to keep reading magazines, and ends up sharing lunch with Jack, discussing stories of anti-Semitism and repression in the Soviet Union. She starts to find their conversation politically dishonest—they are safe in London—and feel that words are losing their meaning, that they cannot adequately refer to the atrocities in question. She admits that she is planning to leave the Party and begins to regret how this will cleave her from Jack. She starts to cry and decides to do so in her office.
Just as Anna recognizes the arbitrariness in the roles of revolutionary and bureaucrat (as Michael and Jack) she sees an arbitrariness in her own split between the reluctant loyalist who needs the Party for intellectual sustenance and political hope and the cynic who loses all faith in the Party’s potential. She is capable of considering the two opposite dimensions of herself together but recognizes that the emotional strength in this self-awareness also prevents her from acting. Her sense that language is inadequate to represent the horrors of authoritarian repression, of course, reflects her loss of faith in art and writing—but also the increasingly unbridgeable gap between thought and action, ideas and reality.
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Anna turns to her “welfare work,” which gives her “the illusion of doing something useful.” She replies to the letters that accompany novel submissions, invariably from Party members bitter that their manuscripts were rejected elsewhere, excited to contribute to the communist future, but apologetic about their lack of time to write. She gives the writers “practical advice” while working across from Rose Latimer, the “typical Party member” who blindly idolizes anything to do with the working classes and Anna cannot wait to rid herself of. She doubts that her “welfare work” has made any real difference and decides to visit Jack.
Ironically enough, Anna feels a severe sense of alienation from her work—which is the classic Marxist critique of labor under capitalism—even though she is working for the Communist Party. Anna’s letter-writing work is clearly the basis for her character Ella’s job at the Women at Home magazine in the yellow notebook; most of the terrible manuscripts she receives reflects people’s blind faith in the communist myth—a faith, it seems, that they use in order to cope with the misery of their daily lives, which resembles the misery of the housewives whom Ella advises. However, these manuscripts are also borne of people’s true convictions, which calls into question what Anna means when she calls for art borne out of “genuine feeling.” Rose Latimer, who notably shares a name with Mr and Mrs Lattimer from the black notebook, appears to share this naïve faith.
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Jack is a historian of the Party in the Soviet Union—his writings are too truthful to be published. When Anna says she is unsure what to do with herself after leaving the Party, he reminds her that, throughout history, few people have the right conscience for their times. She talks about “being split,” and he goes on about scientific achievement, the grandeur of which prevents anyone from being whole. Surprisingly, when she accuses him of seeing someone like Rose Latimer as whole, he agrees; he tells her that he thinks her “soul is in danger” because her royalties can pay her bills and she might end up “doing nothing at all very much except brood about everything.” Anna thinks that might be perfectly fine. They embrace and she leaves.
Jack’s scholarship—which is unpublishable because it conflicts with the communist myth—can only express a truth in private, precisely as Anna feels unable for most of the book to express her true experiences outside her hidden notebooks. Having a historically appropriate consciousness—a key belief in communism, which thinks that revolutionaries must combine a transhistorical understanding of power with a sensitivity to the present time’s best routes to revolution—means being split, and so Rose Latimer’s wholeness seems to reflect her narrow-mindedness. Science’s success seems to make wholeness impossible not only because it gives people knowledge about themselves that seems to conflict with normal intuitions about identity based on the division between body and mind—people are at once bundles of molecules and conscious, moral beings—but also because of the global catastrophe it promises through the development of nuclear weapons and events of global war.
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Anna takes a stuffy bus home through the rain, wishing to bathe and determining to “leave behind the Anna who goes to the office.” The house is empty; she takes a bath and notices that her dress has a “slightly grimy” collar, picks another outfit and imagines Michael’s criticisms. She makes two dinners (one for Janet, one for her and Michael) and runs to the store for sugar, where the workers call her pet names like “love and duck.” Molly, Tommy, and Janet have since come home; Molly tells Janet a story, and Janet takes a messy bath, then eats dinner in bed while Anna tells her a story about “a little girl called Janet.” Molly leaves for the theater and Anna sings Janet to sleep.
While Anna pursues her political beliefs and fight for women’s liberation at the office, as soon as she gets home, she returns to a stereotyped woman’s role, organizing her life around Michael and Janet. Anna ends Janet’s day by turning her life into a story, much like she packages her own experiences into fiction—with a clear beginning, end, plotline, and message—in order to cope with her actual uncertainty and frustrations. Of course, this novel’s break with that usual form reflects Lessing’s attempt to create unity without blocking out a dimension of the self—just as Anna seeks to do in her conversation with Jack.
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Anna makes veal for Michael and herself, feeling delighted until her happiness disappears into self-doubt and tiredness, guilt and dissatisfaction. She attributes both the happiness and the negativity to “a habit of the nerves from the past.” She ruminates about Michael, the other woman whom he loves more, how he will react to the news of her period, how his love will erase “the resentment against the wound inside my body which I didn’t choose to have.”
Anna’s final job of the day is her first labor of feeling, although it requires her to explain away her other feelings as learned, mechanical reactions to the world rather than genuine responses to her particular situation. 
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Molly returns from the theater and asks if Michael is coming—Anna promises that he is, but Molly doubts her. Anna tells Molly that she will leave the Party and complains of Tommy’s newest girlfriend, who dislikes Molly and voices the criticisms of her that Tommy can’t (just like all his previous girlfriends). Molly remembers Tommy working in the coalmines instead of going to war, but also all the people who have done that work all their lives. Molly also worries about losing the ability to “see anything pure in what people do,” worries that Tommy will marry this girlfriend, who is “one of those academic socialists from Oxford” and talks to him about financial planning.
While Molly’s pessimism gives her clear insight into Anna’s life, she is distraught to hear the same cynical perspective from Tommy’s girlfriend. Whereas Tommy worked in the mines temporarily and takes pride among his bourgeois family and acquaintances in his momentary status as a worker, the true working class never wins the same recognition, which suggests that, as a leftist, he is using them instrumentally rather than truly fighting on their behalf (much like his academic girlfriend or, of course, Anna and Molly themselves). Molly’s question about “purity”—in other words, whether anyone can ever exclusively act for the common good and not for self-interest—is clearly also a question about her and Anna’s participation in politics.
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Anna realizes Michael will not be coming; he calls and says he can’t make it, but that he will call her again soon, and that he is “sorry if you cooked especially for me,” which infuriates her because of the “if.” She hangs up and throws away almost all the veal and “realise[s], at last, that this is the end.” She feels overcome with chaos, drinks some wine, and cries herself to sleep.
The only part of her day that Anna enjoyed—cooking for Michael—proves fruitless; he knows that she would have cooked for him but refuses to recognize the emotional significance of their dinner to her or imagine the energy that Anna must have invested into it. She sees Michael standing her up in this instance as proof of the entire relationship’s failure, both because she is writing retrospectively and because the gap between them is so profound.
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Every word of the above story is crossed through, and Anna writes below: “No, it didn’t come off. A failure as usual.” There is a “more neat and orderly” entry for September 15th, 1954: it was a “normal day,” during which Anna resolved to quit the Party; she “must now be careful not to start hating” it, as she started to with Jack. Janet is “as usual”; Molly is distraught over Tommy; Anna understands “that Michael had finally decided to break it off” and “must pull [her]self together.”
Not only have Anna’s dinner and relationship with Michael failed; she also sees her attempt at writing the precise truth of her internal monologue as a failure, somehow too subjective to capture the truth of experience. So she replaces it with a dry, objective account of just the facts, which clearly seems to miss the subjective truth of fiction.
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