Anna and Molly, the feminist protagonists of the novel, are women who want to live a life where they aren't defined by their marriages or their relationships with men. They insist on their right to live lives of full intellectual and political engagement, and they can be critical of traditionally chauvinistic behavior, such as Richard's many affairs with his secretaries. The novel highlights how even a movement such as Communism, which worked to overthrow an existing political order, did not necessarily challenge gendered norms. Lessing offers a complex and nuanced portrayal of feminism because she portrays female characters that desire both freedom and romantic love: both Anna and Molly struggle with the desire to be "free women" while also having men in their lives.
Anna has published a very successful novel, and she uses her writing as a way to navigate and make sense of the world. The contents of the four notebooks show her trying to understand her self, her past, and the world around her. She tries different forms of writing such as diaries, journals, lists, and memories. While writing allows Anna to articulate her thoughts and emotions, it is not always a strategy that supports her in leading a meaningful life. As Tommy critiques her for doing, writing means that Anna can always self-censor, edit, or revise in a way she could not if she committed to actions or speaking. Because Anna does not always share her writing, it also does not always allow her to actually build connections with others. While Anna's relationship to writing might be complicated, it is also essential to her. As Sarah Henstra writes wryly, "The reasons she is unable, and refuses, to write another novel are so complicated and deep-seated that their articulation requires all 640 pages of the novel and even then does not cure her of the problem" (pg. 99).
For a significant portion of her life, Anna is driven by her commitment to a Leftist political ideology and her hope that if she works hard enough on behalf of the Party, she will be able to create real change and a juster world. At the same time, Anna is intelligent and perceptive enough to be aware that individual personalities, pettiness, and emotions become an inevitable part of any political movement. She often finds herself torn over whether she can continue to work for the Party in good faith. The novel also highlights the tension of the grinding weariness of performing labor on behalf of a political cause, such as knocking on doors during an election campaign.
Even though she is conflicted about the ways that romantic relationships might impinge on a woman's freedom, Anna often experiences sexual desire towards various men. She is also interested in critically examining the experience of desire; for example, she thinks about why she experiences desire and sexual pleasure with some men and not with others, and she also notices when her partners experience desire differently than she does. As part of her life as a free woman, Anna has to wrestle with the reality that love and desire are still deeply intertwined for her. She misses Michael deeply, and she finds it hard to enjoy sex with other men after their relationship collapses. She is also hurt and betrayed when she realizes that Saul has been sleeping with other women.
The sections of the book set in Africa raise the theme of colonialism: various white European characters find themselves existing in places where native Africans have largely been exploited and subjugated. Anna's overall search for a clear understanding of herself is complicated by her existence as a white woman living in a colonized society. Her novel raises important questions about racial inequality, showing that Anna has reflected on the realities of colonialism. Over time, however, it also becomes apparent that many people ignore these aspects of her novel and choose to read it instead as a simple love story.
Anna's use of four different notebooks is initially meant to help her keep different parts of her life separated and organized. However, as Anna's mental health declines, it becomes increasingly difficult for her to see herself as a coherent individual. Because she sees tensions between her identities of mother, lover, writer, and political organizer, she begins to feel more fragmented and conflicted. Anna's sense of personal fragmentation reflects a broader sense of global fragmentation in the Cold War era. At that time, individuals no longer felt a sense of security or stable world order, and social norms (such as the expectation of raising children within wedlock) were also becoming less secure. Anna's feelings of fragmentation threaten to drive her to the brink of madness.
In her life and writing, Anna is unafraid of confronting taboos. She lives for years in a relationship with a man to whom she is not married, and then she gets divorced and lives as a single mother. As a single woman, Anna has many affairs with married men, and while she is sometimes frustrated or hurt by these relationships, she is never ashamed of breaking the taboo of adultery. Her novel prominently features an interracial love affair, and Anna stubbornly refuses to omit this content in order to make money off of adaptations. Anna seems to thrive off of living an unconventional life and doing whatever she wants, but she also experiences a sense of isolation arising from making choices that most others would not accept.
The Golden Notebook Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Golden Notebook is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.