Throughout The Golden Notebook, Anna Wulf’s central feeling is what Tommy describes as “paralysis of the will.” Anna is unable to write, love, or commit to politics, even though she knows what she wants and what she must do to achieve it. For Anna, thought and action are not merely disconnected; they are actually opposites: the more Anna reflects, the less she feels able to act, and when she does act, it is often out of impulsivity and convenience, based on others’ expectations for her rather than the principles in which she so strongly believes. Her search for freedom is in large part a struggle to define herself rather than letting predetermined roles, myths, and chance define her fate, and she finally succeeds through a series of epiphanies at the end of the book, during her madness, when she realizes the fundamental value of the “small painful sort of courage which is at the root of every life, because injustice and cruelty is at the root of life.” This palpable moral courage—the drive to act on principles—is what allows Anna to heal, at once overcoming her romantic fixation on the past, sense of political disillusionment, and inability to write.
Anna’s paralysis stems largely from her sense that her ethical principles are unachievable; she repeatedly talks about her “moral exhaustion” or lack of “moral energy” and often feels as though her thinking is so developed that no action could ever live up to her political, romantic, or ethical vision for the world. After spending years obsessively reading newspapers, Anna tells Mrs Marks, her psychoanalyst, that “nothing I could write would seem to have any point at all” in comparison with the horrible events unfolding in the world. She feels that art has lost its meaning, and that action is the only thing that can heal the world. However, she also feels that she cannot act, as she lacks the power to change the capitalist division of labor, entrenched gender roles, and elitist art world that confine her life and work. Anna’s moral vision of an equal society is so distant from the reality she sees that she simply gives up.
As a result of her “moral exhaustion,” whenever Anna does take decisive actions in her life, she does so out of impulse and convenience, rather than out of commitment to her principles. In the black notebook, Anna reveals that she moved to Africa on a whim and chose to stay after leaving the farmer she had moved there to be with, simply because she could not think of anything better to do and even though she was the only member of her socialist group who could have legally moved back to London. When she decides to have a daughter with Willi Rodde (or Max Wulf, depending on the notebook), she does so only because he proposes it, and she thinks, “why not?” Anna fills the roles that are predetermined for her by her relationships, social status, and political affiliation. Later, she realizes that her entire life has been conditioned by role-play: she and Molly frequently comment on the way Party members and ex-Party members end up defending whatever their role dictates, and when her daughter Janet leaves for boarding school, Anna finds herself with nothing to do and nobody grounding her in what used to be her normal reality. But from the very start of the book, Anna agrees with Molly and Tommy that people like Richard (Molly’s ex-husband and Tommy’s father, a successful but brutish businessman) lose all sense of moral vision and turn entirely into their jobs; people fit themselves into roles and become examples of a type rather than the full, self-aware, morally-conscious people who would occupy a just society.
Near the end of the book, Anna develops the capacity for moral courage that allows her to achieve multiple kinds of freedom: the freedom from emotional dependence on men, the freedom from writer’s block, the freedom to publicly disagree with the Communist Party, and most of all the freedom to define her future. She goes to psychoanalysis in an attempt to address her creative block, and after years of discussing her deepest emotions, realizes that she has learned to feel but not become any morally better; this is because her analysis focused on interpreting her feelings through archetypes, universal stories that she feels deny her own creative agency and force her into yet another “role.” After this epiphany, she quits psychoanalysis and decides that it is time “I leave the safety of myth and Anna Wulf walks forward alone.” This is perhaps Anna’s first moment of moral courage, though she discovers many others in her relationship with Saul Green: she calls him out for his hostility and cruelty in a way she did with no man before him, and ultimately this leads them to the close, if codependent, relationship that in turn leads her to give up her four notebooks and combine them into the golden notebook. During a conversation with Saul, she realizes that “a free society dies or cannot be born” unless people have the “guts” to express political dissent, and during one of her dreams about him she sees that she has written the line about the “small painful sort of courage which is at the root of every life.” Together, these realizations lead Anna to take her ultimate moral stand: writing and publishing her second novel, Free Women, in which she fictionalizes her internal conflict between courage and resignation through the character of Tommy, who repeatedly asks Anna about the relationship between their values and their actions and insists that it is cowardly, dishonest, and irresponsible of Anna to keep her notebooks private.
Lessing’s numerous portraits of well-intentioned but practically impotent people show that it is not enough to understand the world’s injustices and envision a better society; rather, people must sustain this kind of moral vision without losing themselves in fantasies of it and simultaneously develop a critical, realistic perspective on the world’s failures without becoming completely distraught. The Anna in the notebooks recovers from her initial paralysis and cycle of creative failure by learning to bridge her values and actions through moral courage. Meanwhile, the Anna from Free Women seems to start and end in the same place—with Molly in the flat, gossiping about their peers, and leaving to take care of Janet—but with the one crucial difference that, by the end, she has learned to act on her principles (by becoming a marriage counselor and teaching children) rather than trying to define herself by fulfilling established roles in the Communist Party or literary world.
Action, Freedom, and Moral Courage ThemeTracker
Action, Freedom, and Moral Courage Quotes in The Golden Notebook
George said: “No, it’s the responsibility. It’s the gap between what I believe in and what I do.”
“It seems to me like this. It’s not a terrible thing — I mean, it may be terrible, but it’s not damaging, it’s not poisoning, to do without something one wants. It’s not bad to say: My work is not what I really want, I’m capable of doing something bigger. Or I’m a person who needs love, and I’m doing without it. What’s terrible is to pretend that the second-rate is first-rate. To pretend that you don’t need love when you do; or you like your work when you know quite well you’re capable of better. It would be very bad if I said, out of guilt or something: I loved Janet’s father, when I know quite well I didn’t. Or for your mother to say: I loved Richard. Or I’m doing work I love …”
What is terrible is that after every one of the phases of my life is finished, I am left with no more than some banal commonplace that everyone knows: in this case, that women’s emotions are all still fitted for a kind of society that no longer exists. My deep emotions, my real ones, are to do with my relationship with a man. One man. But I don’t live that kind of life, and I know few women who do. So what I feel is irrelevant and silly … I am always coming to the conclusion that my real emotions are foolish, I am always having, as it were, to cancel myself out. I ought to be like a man, caring more for my work than for people; I ought to put my work first, and take men as they come, or find an ordinary comfortable man for bread and butter reasons — but I won’t do it, I can’t be like that …
“Isn’t it odd, Anna? He’s been hovering between life and death. Now he’s going to live. It seems impossible he shouldn’t. But if he had died, then I suppose we’d have felt that was inevitable too?”
She was thinking: If someone cracks up, what does that mean? At what point does a person about to fall to pieces say: I’m cracking up? And if I were to crack up, what form would it take? […] Anna, Anna, I am Anna, she kept repeating; and anyway, I can’t be ill or give way, because of Janet; I could vanish from the world tomorrow, and it wouldn’t matter to anyone except to Janet. What then am I, Anna? — something that is necessary to Janet. But that’s terrible, she thought, her fear becoming worse. That’s bad for Janet. So try again: Who am I, Anna? Now she did not think of Janet, but shut her out. Instead she saw her room, long, white, subdued, with the coloured notebooks on the trestle table. She saw herself, Anna, seated on the music-stool, writing, writing; making an entry in one book, then ruling it off, or crossing it out; she saw the pages patterned with different kinds of writing; divided, bracketed, broken — she felt a swaying nausea; and then saw Tommy, not herself, standing with his lips pursed in concentration, turning the pages of her orderly notebooks.
“I'm going to make the obvious point that perhaps the word neurotic means the condition of being highly conscious and developed. The essence of neurosis is conflict. But the essence of living now, fully, not blocking off to what goes on, is conflict. In fact I've reached the stage where I look at people and say—he or she, they are whole at all because they've chosen to block off at this stage or that. People stay sane by blocking off, by limiting themselves.”
“But now I can feel. I’m open to everything. But no sooner do you accomplish that, than you say quickly — put it away, put the pain away where it can’t hurt, turn it into a story or into history. But I don’t want to put it away. Yes, I know what you want me to say — that because I’ve rescued so much private pain-material — because I’m damned if I’ll call it anything else, and ‘worked through it’ and accepted it and made it general, because of that I’m free and strong. Well all right, I’ll accept it and say it. And what now? I’m tired of the wolves and the castle and the forests and the priests. I can cope with them in any form they choose to present themselves. But I’ve told you, I want to walk off, by myself, Anna Freeman.”
He smiled, as dry as she, and said: “Yes, I know what you mean, but all the same it's true. Do you know what people really want? Everyone, I mean. Everybody in the world is thinking: I wish there was just one other person I could really talk to, who could really understand me, who'd be kind to me. That’s what people really want, if they're telling the truth.”
Very few people really care about freedom, about liberty, about the truth, very few. Very few people have guts, the kind of guts on which a real democracy has to depend. Without people with that sort of guts a free society dies or cannot be born.
Still asleep, I read the words off a page I had written: That was about courage, but not the sort of courage I have ever understood. It's a small painful sort of courage which is at the root of every life, because injustice and cruelty is at the root of life. And the reason why I have only given my attention to the heroic or the beautiful or the intelligent is because I won't accept that injustice and the cruelty and so won't accept the small endurance that is bigger than anything.
“Write down: The two women were alone in the London flat.” […] “On a dry hillside in Algeria, the soldier watched the moonlight glinting on his rifle.”