While Anna Wulf’s rich internal life and deep understanding of the way patriarchy conditions her world have given Lessing’s novel a canonical place among classics of Western feminist literature, some readers also note the brutal irony of Anna and Molly’s situation: while they are perfectly capable of supporting themselves without men, they nevertheless long to get married; they seek love and define themselves by their quest for it, even while men treat them as disposable sexual objects. And they fully understand this paradox. While Lessing focuses on Anna and Molly’s search for satisfying romance, she does not reinforce or defend the traditional picture of women as emotional love-seekers destined to define themselves through men; rather, she shows how love can play a central role in everyone’s personal, emotional, and collective development, but men are trained to turn away from it by putting sex before love and rejecting the kind of healthy relationships, founded on genuine equality and vulnerability, that can spur personal growth, satisfy the need for understanding and companionship, and heal people’s wounds.
Women’s quest for love in the novel is not abstract or fantastical, but rather grounded in their particular needs and experiences—no man sweeps a woman off their feet in this book. In the yellow notebook, Anna argues that love can lead to “spontaneous creative faith,” or “the power to create through naivety.” In other words, by immersing themselves in relationships, people can become radically open to future possibilities. Anna presents love as a means for personal development, which may explain why she often falls out of “love” with men she is initially drawn to, while she grows to love Michael and Saul Green, whom she did not originally find attractive. There exists a tension between lust and love, between attraction for the sake of self-gratification and attraction for the sake of mutual growth. Yet many of the book’s men see love as simply about pleasure or security, rather than as an enduring commitment to this shared sense of personal development. In his relationship with Anna’s alter ego Ella, for example, Paul Tanner can only see two kinds of relationships, neither of which involves genuine love: his marital relationship, which creates security and respectability, and his extramarital relationship, which is about pleasure. He cannot imagine combining them both, which is why he abruptly leaves Ella without so much as a formal breakup.
Paul’s case is representative, for this novel’s men are generally emotionally frigid: they substitute sex for love and are uncomfortable with equal relationships with women. Men repeatedly tell Anna (and Ella) she is lucky to be single, which really means that they are lucky to be able to have sex with her without having to love or commit to her. These men value Anna only insofar as they can “claim” her as a conquest; they want to own her, not take her seriously as an equal, and certainly not open up emotionally to her. In fact, Paul uses “love” as an excuse for cheating on Ella, claiming that “if you love a woman sleeping with another woman means nothing.” Of course, not only does he not love Ella, but he is also talking about how little sleeping with her means when he already has a wife whom he loves (but still treats horribly).
Men’s disproportionate focus on sex doesn’t mean that women don’t care about physical intimacy. Anna, for instance, suggests that the quality of sex reflects the emotional connection underlying a relationship, especially for women, and has Ella chart her relationship with Paul by tracking her orgasms. Meanwhile, Anna recognizes that she does not truly care about Willi (or Max, as he is known in other notebooks) precisely because they never have sex. Yet, when she sleeps with the brutish and sexually inexperienced American surgeon Cy Maitland, Ella learns to distinguish between the previous sex she has had and “giving pleasure,” taking an active or passive role; while “giving pleasure” to Cy is empowering, Ella knows it will never satisfy her. She later realizes that she need not have her sexuality “contain[ed]” by men; instead of offering men sex in exchange for love, she can use it to pursue her freedom and test out different relationships, just like men do with her. Her friend Julia (a fictionalized version of Molly Jacobs) insists that, contrary to popular belief, men cannot simply get aroused with anyone—sex is not merely mechanical for them, but they do repress and avoid its emotional implications. Men’s attitude toward sex (and especially affairs), Ella and Julia realize, is driven fundamentally by their fear of attachment.
Ultimately, the relationship that saves Anna from her loneliness and creative block—her brief fling with Saul Green—is remarkable because she finds him as emotionally invested in her as she is in him, even if it takes him a long time to admit it and this investment manifests in radically different ways. At first, Saul mirrors other men’s attitudes, trying to maintain power over Anna: he sleeps with other women constantly and literally runs away when she points out his behavior. Yet he and Anna eventually become mutually dependent and vulnerable, to the point that their identities begin to merge and their personalities become indistinguishable in the golden notebook, which they both seem to write. Although Anna suffers from Saul’s instability more than he does from hers, he eventually feels immense guilt about his infidelity and even claims that Anna is imprisoning him, just as she sees so many men imprison their wives and mistresses. After mutually tormenting one another for a few weeks, Anna and Saul reach a point of relative equality by the end of the book, symbolized by their one-for-one exchange of their next novels’ first lines: they both recognize that they have grown close enough to one another to gain a new understanding of themselves, and that it is therefore time for them to move on and overcome their creative blocks. This love, the novel suggests, promises to break Saul’s pattern of abuse toward women, Anna’s pattern of unfulfilling relationships, and both their patterns of creative impotence. Ultimately, Anna’s great achievement is not a stable, long-term relationship but rather merely the “spontaneous creative faith” she had lost so long ago: the ability to write and overcome her emotional dependence on Michael. While Lessing’s characters often approach romance through their own needs and anxieties, when they do find serious love, they manage to heal themselves in a way they could not have done alone: by finding, as Tommy puts it, “just one other person I could really talk to, who could really understand me, who’d be kind to me.”
Love and Sex ThemeTracker
Love and Sex Quotes in The Golden Notebook
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.
“How can you separate love-making off from everything else? It doesn't make sense.”
“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.)
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.
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.
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.”
Then I remembered that when I read my notebooks I didn’t recognize myself. Something strange happens when one writes about oneself. That is, one’s self direct, not one’s self projected. The result is cold, pitiless, judging. […] If Saul said, about his diaries, or, summing his younger self up from his later self: I was a swine, the way I treated women. Or: I’m right to treat women the way I do. Or: I’m simply writing a record of what happened, I’m not making moral judgements about myself — well, whatever he said, it would be irrelevant. Because what is left out of his diaries is vitality, life, charm. “Willi allowed his spectacles to glitter across the room and said …” “Saul, standing foursquare and solid, grinning slightly — grinning derisively at his own seducer’s pose, drawled: Come’n baby, let’s fuck, I like your style.” I went on reading entries, first appalled by the cold ruthlessness of them; then translating them, from knowing Saul, into life. So I found myself continually shifting mood, from anger, a woman’s anger, into the delight one feels at whatever is alive, the delight of recognition.
“What's wrong with you?” he said. He came over, knelt beside me, turned my face to his, and said: “For Christ sake's, you must understand sex isn't important to me, it just isn't important.”
I said: “You mean sex is important but who you have it with isn't.”
“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.”