The Golden Notebook as a transitional text between modernist and

postmodernist periods:
This is an examination of how The Golden Notebook both borrows from and
rebels against its modernist predecessors, Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence and James
Joyce as well as how it imagines potential possibilities for authorial and female
subjectivity in the postmodern era.
The Golden Notebook falls betwixt and between modernist and postmodernist
conceptions of the subject. On the one hand, as Magali Cornier Michael argues in
"Woolf s Between the Acts and Lessing's The Golden Notebook ", The Golden
Notebook maintains "the traditional agenda of telling an individual's story", but on the
other "its mode of questioning and its attempt to find new notions of the subject" also
"show clear signs of a movement toward the postmodern". This simultaneous - and
some might argue contradictory - operation complicates critical attempts to evaluate
The Golden Notebook, whether in relation to canonical texts of modernism and/ or
postmodernism or in relation to the canonical texts of feminism. By refusing to define
the subject in one way or the other, The Golden Notebook makes it difficult, if not
impossible, for critics to call it, simply, "modernist," "postmodernist," or "feminist".
Within this context, the novel's obsessive consideration of freedom -
especially what it means to be a "free woman" - becomes increasingly significant.
The novel defines freedom in two primary ways: on the one hand, "freedom" might
signify a unified, integrated subject's refusal to live according to social conventions, a
coming into her "true" identity; on the other, "freedom" might signify the chaos or
"cracking up" that accompanies the breakdown of social conventions and the
disintegration of individual subjectivities. The opening paragraphs of the novel seem
to privilege the second definition. In Free Women: I, Anna says to Molly, "The point
is, [. . .] the point is, that as far as I can see, everything's cracking up" (G Nb p 25).
Anna's assertion undercuts the first definition of freedom, which is more compatible
with .. feminism and with modernist aesthetics. Anna appears to understand her
world and her experience of that world as fragmenting and fragmented and to see
"unity" as a totalizing fiction.
Taken on its own, then, this statement seems to endorse the second definition
of freedom, which generally anticipates postmodern and, more specifically,
poststructuralist theories of subjectivity that posit "a centerless, dispersed subject
who is literally a composite of various socially and culturally constructed roles or
positions - not perspectives - that cannot be reconciled" (Michael 40). Yet, readers
make a mistake if they take this statement on its own. Just a short while later in this
opening conversation, Anna continues "wryly" and "with an anger new to Molly,"
"Free women. [. . .] They still define us in terms of relationships with men, even the
best of them" (G Nb p 26). In this moment, Anna complicates her original "point"
about fragmentation. Anna's theory that "everything's cracking up" is ultimately
undermined by the drive - of society, but also of individual subjects - to consolidate
both the subject and the work of art as unified entities. In other words, postmodern or
poststructuralist theories of subjectivity, and by extension postmodern or
poststructuralist aesthetic theories, seem for Anna to offer an alternative but neither
an escape from nor answer to the problems posed by "the traditional humanist notion
of the centered, rational, self-determining subject" (Michael 40) or traditional
In her 1971 introduction to the novel, Lessing clearly rejects ["purely feminist]
approaches because they cannot account for the novels central theme, "breakdown."
According to Lessing, "nobody so much as noticed this central theme, because the
book was instantly belittled, by friendly reviewers as well as by hostile ones, as being
about the sex war, or was claimed by women as a useful weapon in the sex war" (G
Nb p 8). Lessing laments that she has "been in a false position ever since, for the
last thing I have wanted to do was to refuse to support women, but goes on to insist
that "this novel was not a trumpet for Women's Liberation" (G Nb p 8).
Lessing is against considering her novel a feminist icon. The Golden
Notebook stresses through theme, dialogue & structure that any kind of single-
mindedness, narrowness, obsession, was bound to lead to mental disorder, if not
madness. Like Spivak, Lessing believes that "Feminism is a sort of obsession that
leads to madness defeating its own goal"
Some critics have evaluated The Golden Notebook as a 'writerly' text, which
Roland Barthes privileges "because the goal of literary work (of literature as work) is
to make the reader no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text" ….Jeannette
King argues that The Golden Notebook constitutes an example of "a 'writerly' rather
than 'readerly' text, in which the reader is actively engaged in constructing meaning
rather than in passively consuming it". Similarly, Gayle Greene categorizes The
Golden Notebook in this way, because "it admits to its own uncertainties and
contradictions, to its processes of production, and by involving the reader in those
processes, allows 'something new'" ("Feminist Fiction" 310).
Michel Foucault, [as well] … offers a sensible supplement to Barthes's ideas
about the 'writerly' text as we approach Lessing's novel. Foucault's conception of the
writer as faceless - as lacking or subverting unified, identifiable, sustainable
subjectivity - calls into question the idea that through writing one might attain
intelligibility or express some essential truth about the self. The written word, the text,
elides the face of the author, elides specific identity. This elision allows for the writer
to "move" her discourse, "opening up underground passages, forcing it to go far from
itself, finding overhangs that reduce and deform its itinerary". In other words, (p46)
when one writes "to have no face" one opens up the possibilities of language, and
this opening allows the writer to negotiate the policing forces of contemporary
culture, to sidestep the hold of the morality of bureaucrats and police on the writing
This notion that the writer gains greater freedom within discourse through self-
effacement recurs throughout The Golden Notebook… Particularly in the "yellow
notebook", Anna's draft of a novel that she calls The Shadow of the Third, the
narrative insists that Anna/Ella's experience of sexual pleasure and love requires
dissolution of her individual subjectivity, and the narrative links this dissolution to the
aesthetic demands of literature. After Ella, Anna's fictional alter-ego, settles into her
relationship with Paul, readers witness repeated instances in which Ella seems to
lapse out of consciousness, to lose herself in her experience of pleasure... For
example, the narrator says, "Ella was completely happy. She drifted along on a soft
tide of not-thinking" (G Nb p 187) ... The erasure of Anna/ Ella through pleasure
allows her to feel happiness; the wiping out of her thinking self, her cogito, is
essential to her ability to have the relationship with Paul, which only later will become
[written] literature.
Writing seems to efface the female author, but this effacement offers Anna-
as- writer freedom to move within the constraints of language. Only when Anna
realizes this can she write her second novel, Free Women, a novel whose first
sentence is composed not by Anna but by Saul. The sovereignty of one unified
"author" over the text is radically and concretely undermined. In this, The Golden
Notebook imagines a postmodern alternative to modernist conceptions of authorial
agency and authority.
Throughout the novel, the narrative gestures toward modern iconic authors
Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence, and James Joyce, and in these gestures the
narrative tries to come to terms with how these authors' texts represent female
subjectivities and how they characterize the creative process
Critics have concentrated most extensively on Lessing's The Golden
Notebook as a response to Virginia Woolf. This should not surprise us: Lessing s
protagonist shares the name "Woolf," albeit with a different spelling; her protagonist,
like Woolf, is a writer who acquires her name from her husband; her protagonist, like
Woolf, battles mental illness; and her protagonist, like Woolf, exhaustively considers
issues of sex and gender. For Roxanne J. Fand,
Doris Lessing, like Virginia Woolf, cycles and recycles the impersonal through
her personal experience as a woman. Her work takes up where Woolf s
leaves off around mid-twentieth century, and continues to demonstrate that
the subjectivities of women are not confined to narrow domesticity and
immediate personal relations, but may encompass larger social collectives in
the material historical world...
With these similarities in mind, critics have compared Lessing's novel to, most
notably, The Waves, Between the Acts and Mrs. Dalloway. As Jean Tobin notes in
"On Creativity: Woolf's The Waves and Lessing's The Golden Notebook ," there is
"clear evidence within The Golden Notebook of Lessing's having read and been
influenced by Woolf's novels" .
The Waves is a series of soliloquies spoken by six characters. As the six
characters or "voices" alternately speak, Woolf explores concepts of individuality,
self, and community. Each character is distinct, yet together they compose a gestalt
about a silent central consciousness. Woolf here is concerned with the individual
consciousness and the ways in which multiple consciousnesses can weave together.
The book similarly breaks down boundaries between people, as Woolf explained in
her Diary that the six characters were not meant to be facets of consciousness
illuminating a sense of continuity. Lessing obviously was inspired by this idea in
portraying the different Annas in The Golden Notebook. Lessing was also probably
inspired by the play within the novel in Woolf's Between the Acts. Like this novel,
Lessing's The Golden Notebook explores relationships between the characters and
aspects of their personalities. Lessing may also have been influenced by Mrs.
Dalloway in detailing 2 days of Anna's life in her blue notebook as Woolf detailed a
day in Clarissa Dalloway's life. Lessing also treated the theme of mental illness
through both her protagonist Anna & her lover Saul whereas Woolf treated the same
theme through only the character of Septimus, a shell-shocked war hero.
However, Lessing's response to Woolf in The Golden Notebook seems to be
a direct challenge to the domesticated lady modernist. Anna Wulf lives as a "free
woman," who, although she may not really be free, is free with her sexuality, is not
bound to a husband, and is able to recover from her bout with madness. Anna Wulf,
in other words, is no lady modernist. Not only does she not court that role, she
rejects it outright. Moreover, Anna Wulf's texts challenge readers who would reduce
her modernist influences to Woolf alone.
Perhaps the most radical challenge to such impulses is the way in which Anna
perpetually alludes to Lawrence's Women in Love and Lady Chatterley's Lover, ;
especially throughout the Yellow Notebook. Repeatedly Anna calls Ella "woman-in-
love" as she describes her love affair with Paul. Like Lady Chatterley's Lover explicit
descriptions of the physical (and emotional) relationship between a working-
class man and an upper-class woman, Anna extensively articulates the virtues of the
"real" vaginal orgasm over the clitoral (G Nb p 200). (describes the relation between
Ella & Paul). On the one hand, readers can interpret these allusions as an overt
claiming of Lawrence as an influence on the novel, and if this is the case, the novel
can pose challenges for feminist readers. Nevertheless, it seems a mistake to read
these moments in the novel as a wholehearted endorsement of Lawrence model for
female sensuality. While it is true that such moments in the narrative do not operate
ironically, they also do not seem to operate in full voice. Instead, they seem to
operate in a space between, on the one hand acknowledging the influence of
Lawrence while at the same time forcing readers to face Lawrence's theme that love
can only happen through a physical element, without the mind which might, to late-
twentieth-century or twenty-first-century eyes, seem distasteful, if not entirely wrong.
The same can be said of the way that the narrative of The Golden Notebook
deals with Joyce, yet Joyce, in contrast to Woolf and Lawrence, seems crucially and
overtly influential to the novel as an exercise and experiment in language and
writing. First, the two central characters of The Golden Notebook , Molly and Anna,
share the names of Joyce's two great female characters, Molly Bloom of Ulysses and
Anna Livia Plurabelle of Finnegan's Wake. Moreover, Anna refers to both Ulysses
and Finnegan's Wake by name in her narrative: she links Joyce's representation of
Leopold Bloom defecating to her attempt to record her menstruation in the Blue
Notebook (G Nb p 3o4); in the Red Notebook, she links her own feeling that "words
lose their meaning suddenly" to "novels about the break-down of language, like
Finnegan's Wake " (G Nb p 272). These direct references, in contrast to the more
oblique and yet still clear references to Woolf and to Lawrence, firmly position The
Golden Notebook as a successor to Joyces great encyclopedic novels. Still, just as
The Golden Notebook does with Woolf and Lawrence, it challenges Joyce: it takes
him to task, as it does his modernist peers, for his modernism and for the iconic role
he embodies as a great, and many would say the greatest, modernist novelist. It
takes Joyce's Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake to task for the underlying assumption
within each, that language can be controlled by an author, whether through changing
its emphasis or through recreating it completely. The Golden Notebook refuses to
endorse any such aspiration. Thus, The Golden Notebook works as a response to
and break from modernism and not just an extension of it.