From the very beginning of The Golden Notebook, when protagonist Anna Wulf tells her closest friend and confidant Molly Jacobs that “everything’s cracking up,” the fragmentation of world and mind emerge as driving forces in the novel. Its plot revolves around Anna’s own gradual mental breakdown, or “crack up.” Throughout the novel, she writes endlessly about her deep fear of insanity in four different notebooks in different colors that cover four different aspects of her life—her past (black), her politics (red), her fiction (yellow), and her present (blue)—but realizes that none of them captures the real “truth” of her identity and experience. When she gives up the four books and begins writing everything in the single, titular golden notebook, Anna descends into madness, but she emerges whole, healthy, and able to write. Instead of blocking out parts of her identity to find a single, consistent truth, Anna only achieves a sense of unity and purpose by confronting the chaos within herself and refusing to partition her mind into different books. For Lessing, identity is never simple or coherent, but rather results from the varied, often contradictory experiences and attitudes that make up any life; anyone who tries to define themselves by one thing (like their job, their family role, their belief system) is far more delusional than someone like Anna, who finally refuses to compartmentalize herself and finds sanity by embracing, not rejecting, the contradictions in her identity.
At the beginning of the novel, Anna’s identity is completely fragmented: she cannot integrate her four separate notebooks into a single story (the novel she wishes to write), and she feels that society has split up into groups that no longer understand one another and have resorted to a “blind grasping out for their own wholeness.” Just like Anna’s mind, the novel itself is fragmented, as the reader must constantly switch between Anna’s four notebooks and disjointed thoughts within each of them. She feels that she has become multiple people and, at times, struggles to remain herself, like when she repeats, “Anna, Anna, I am Anna” on the train ride home, after noticing the palpable misery and detachment of the commuters that surround her (a symptom of the capitalist division of labor that reduces each worker to just one function). Meanwhile, other characters in the novel are “multiplied”: in different notebooks, many characters have two different names, and many of the same names refer to different characters—the implication is that nobody can ever be a single thing. Similarly, during her tumultuous relationship with the exiled American screenwriter Saul Green, Anna finds herself unable to predict which version of herself or Saul will show up in any given situation or argument. When she begins to confront her madness, she dreams about “alien personalities” “invading” her body and then entering others’ bodies herself to gain their perspective—which hints that these “invasions” might not be sinister, but rather a metaphorical solution for society’s fragmentation. Just as she tries to hold herself together here, Saul frequently seems to be fighting to control his own body, and during his lengthy rants, he repeats “I, I, I, I,” as though shouting his identity aloud in order to pin it down. And yet words, Anna notes repeatedly, inevitably fail to capture reality: not only do her notebooks never reach the truth of who she is or what she feels, but she realizes in agony that she is “cracking up” because words stop meaning what they are supposed to and language begins to break down.
Anna both desperately seeks to be whole—to recognize herself in her writing and decisions, to feel consistent from day to day, to banish her contradictory beliefs—and deeply fears the mental breakdown she knows is inevitable. She sees two paths from her initial fragmentation to her goal of wholeness. The first is to deny and repress her contradictions (like her simultaneous resentment toward marriage and desire to marry, her belief in communist theory and her disdain for the Communist Party, or her nostalgia for her time in Africa but disgust at the novel she wrote about it). Her second alternative is paradoxical: she can dissolve her fragments, embracing chaos, contradiction, and heterogeneity. Late in the novel, she realizes that her four notebooks have represented the first solution to fragmentation: she has kept herself apart to hold herself together, compartmentalized her contradictory thoughts to avoid ever reading them in the same place. However, when the notebooks begin bleeding into one another (like when Anna realizes her reflections in the yellow notebook should actually belong in the blue notebook), she understands that she must heed the advice Molly’s son Tommy gives her: Anna must stop dividing up her chaos and keeping it to herself, but rather confront it head-on by writing all her thoughts together, in one place, and revealing them to the world.
Lessing shows that everyone is multiple and chaotic from the outset, suggesting that breakdown is not the opposite of wholeness, but rather a means to it. When Anna lets her fragments dissolve into a unified self, she finally “cracks up”—she gives up her four notebooks and writes everything in the single golden notebook, which symbolizes the unification of her identity. But the golden notebook tells a story of madness: Anna hallucinates, dreams that she and Saul have entered one another’s minds, but also finally admits that she has writer’s block and was “buttoning up” her fears and emotional pain the whole time she kept separate notebooks. It is often impossible to tell whether Anna or Saul wrote different parts of the golden notebook, and they only break apart by merging one final time, exchanging opening lines for their next novels. Saul walks away with the golden notebook, which becomes his successful novel, and Anna walks away ready to write the novel Free Women, which has been The Golden Notebook’s frame story the whole time.
Ultimately, Anna’s madness does not result from the multiplicity of her character—everyone is multiple, Lessing insists, and it is strange and unhealthy for anyone to let themselves be defined by a single thing. Rather, Lessing separates madness from delusion: by insisting on dividing her multiple identities into different notebooks, Anna lives in delusion, much like anyone who insists they are only one thing. Anna’s madness—her insistence on embracing contradiction and combining her fragments—is actually a way of healing her delusion. The chaos she finally experiences is precisely what forces her to reconcile the contradictory and seemingly-separate dimensions of herself into a unified and healthy whole that is, nevertheless, not simply one thing. The very existence of Free Women, Anna’s second novel, is proof that she has healed.
Fragmentation, Breakdown, and Unity ThemeTracker
Fragmentation, Breakdown, and Unity Quotes in The Golden Notebook
“The point is,” said Anna, as her friend came back from the telephone on the landing, “the point is, that as far as I can see, everything’s cracking up.”
Most novels, if they are successful at all, are original in the sense that they report the existence of an area of society, a type of person, not yet admitted to the general literate consciousness. The novel has become a function of the fragmented society, the fragmented consciousness. Human beings are so divided, are becoming more and more divided, and more subdivided in themselves, reflecting the world, that they reach out desperately, not knowing they do it, for information about other groups inside their own country, let alone about groups in other countries. It is a blind grasping out for their own wholeness, and the novel-report is a means towards it. Inside this country, Britain, the middle-class have no knowledge of the lives of the working-people, and vice-versa; and reports and articles and novels are sold across the frontiers, are read as if savage tribes were being investigated. Those fishermen in Scotland were a different species from the coalminers I stayed with in Yorkshire; and both come from a different world than the housing estate outside London.
I was filled with such a dangerous delicious intoxication that I could have walked straight off the steps into the air, climbing on the strength of my own drunkenness into the stars. And the intoxication, as I knew even then, was 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.
Five lonely women going mad quietly by themselves, in spite of husband and children or rather because of them. The quality they all had: self-doubt. A guilt because they were not happy. The phrase they all used: “There must be something wrong with me.” Back in the campaign HQ I mentioned these women to the woman in charge for the afternoon. She said: “Yes, wherever I go canvassing, I get the heeby-jeebies. This country’s full of women going mad all by themselves.” A pause, then she added, with a slight aggressiveness, the other side of the self-doubt, the guilt shown by the women I’d talked to:
“Well, I used to be the same until I joined the Party and got myself a purpose in life.” I’ve been thinking about this — the truth is, these women interest me much more than the election campaign.
“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 …
(At this point, Ella detached herself from Ella, and stood to one side, watching and marvelling.)
And so this is the paradox: I, Anna, reject my own "unhealthy" art; but reject “healthy” art when I see it.
The point is that this writing is essentially impersonal. Its banality is that of impersonality.
15th September, 1954
A normal day. During the course of a discussion with John Butte and Jack I decided to leave the Party. I must now be careful not to start hating the Party in the way we do hate stages of our life we have outgrown. Noted signs of it already: moments of disliking Jack which were quite irrational. Janet as usual, no problems. Molly worried, I think with reason, over Tommy. She has a hunch he will marry his new girl. Well, her hunches usually come off. I realized that Michael had finally decided to break it off. I must pull myself together.
“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.
From this point of the novel “the third,” previously Paul’s wife; then Ella’s younger alter ego formed from fantasies about Paul’s wife; then the memory of Paul; becomes Ella herself. As Ella cracks and disintegrates, she holds fast to the idea of Ella whole, healthy and happy. The link between the various “thirds” must be made very clear: the link is normality, but more than that — conventionality, attitudes or emotions proper to the “respectable” life which in fact Ella refuses to have anything to do with.
“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.”
It occurs to me that what is happening is a breakdown of me, Anna, and this is how I am becoming aware of it. For words are form, and if I am at a pitch where shape, form, expression are nothing, then I am nothing, for it has become clear to me, reading the notebooks, that I remain Anna because of a certain kind of intelligence. This intelligence is dissolving and I am very frightened.