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Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook

hslavitt's picture

Dear Professor Dalke,

I hope you’re having a wonderful vacation! I thought I’d take your suggestion and write a letter because as much as I’m loving The Golden Notebook, It’s very complex and full of things to be mulled over and discussed. I’m still in the stage where I need to talk things through and figure out more as I go along (I’m only 1/3 of the way done, but I plan to have the book done early on in this coming week). On the topic of Doris Lessing; I’m so glad that she won the Nobel prize for literature! When I went to Barnes and Noble all of her books were gone from the shelf…very exciting.

Here are some ideas/concepts that I’ve uncovered so far and will address in my paper. There is much room for advice and discussion, especially in the area of the large assortment of feminist literary and feminist Marxist theory.

 Doris Lessing: Resisting Reader and Writer/Reader Response Theory 

The Golden Notebook is widely accepted as the modern feminist novel and is a pillar in the female canon, if there is such a thing. The snag? Doris Lessing does not agree. She dissociates from feminism and urges her readers to focus on the effect of a fragmented intellect on a life. Essentially she advocates for a humanist rather than feminist reading of The Golden Notebook. This brings up the issue of the authority of authorial intent; should Doris Lessing’s opinion of her own work have an effect on the reader? It would be helpful for me to draw on the parallels between the acclaim from feminists for Jane Eyre and The Golden Notebook although there is a difference because Doris Lessing is alive. Because Lessing lives to see people’s reactions to her books I can look at articles by feminists about Golden Notebook AND the responses Lessing has to these articles.

In conjunction with my exploration of the matter authorial intent I will apply the theory of reader response theory (will need to find a comprehensive article on reader-response theory). In addition to these other conceptions of readers I will use Judith Fetterley (have read the introduction, will probably want to read more). I, as a “resisting reader” have been, am, and will read The Golden Notebook as a feminist text despite the fact that Lessing implicitly and explicitly shies away from this reading. Pushing this further I will try and develop this concept of a resisting author. If I as a reader resist her disavowal of the feminism I see in her text, she can resist my reading. This will also be an opportunity to examine the discomfort with explicit feminism/using “The F-word.

 Anna as a Woman Writer 

This entire novel is told by Anna through different mediums of writing. It is vital to explore Anna as a writer, particularly as a female writer. Fetterley states that “literature is political”. Not only does Anna write about her political life, the mere fact that she writes at all is political. Looking at Anna as a political, female writer will tie in with how I look at Lessing and her perception of the feminists’ response to her novel. Anna is concerned with authorial responsibility and the purpose of novels. Using Anna’s struggle with these questions I can explore the nature of Lessing’s rejection of her novel as a feminist one. I will also want to just look at Anna’s life as a woman writer. I will probably incorporate A Room of One’s Own and Writing a Woman’s Life and other suggested theory about female authorship.

   Feminism and Marxism Communism/Marxism plays a large role in Anna’s “real” life and is a large presence in all four of her notebooks. This is a way for me to examine the effect of class on women in Anna’s and our society. The question of women’s roles in political organization would also be an interesting area and is one that Anna must constantly try to answer for herself. I would also spend a significant amount of time discussing Marxist feminist theory. In order to do this I need to have a firmer grasp on the ins and outs of communism, with a particular focus on the communist movement that Anna would have been involved in. I would also need a lot of guidance in navigating the Marxist feminist theory and selecting some articles to read and apply. 

Modern “New Woman” Novel? 

The New Woman novels wrote female characters according to the ideals of a new, modern woman. This literary genre was important in the emerging roots of feminism. Interestingly enough this concept of the New Woman was started by the precursor to the Labour Party, the party Anna must work against. I mention this because Anna seems to be writing a modern New Woman novel and she and Molly profess to be a new kind of woman themselves. I would also posit that The Golden Notebook might be a new New Woman novel in and of itself. I would like to explore the history of the New Woman concept and the elements integral to New Woman literature in order to explore this idea. I would need to read some history about this movement and some other articles about it.

 Women on Sex and Relationships 

The Golden Notebook is an interesting look at the interplay between the sexes. Looking at the heterosexual relationships (as they are arguably the central ones in what is so far a heteronormitive text) could be an interesting way of looking at women and their relationship to their sexuality, their opinions on marriage and just how they relate to each other.

 Feminist Concepts and Culture 

This is just a more general collection of issues addressed in the book that are of importance to feminists. This is the one that will expand the most once I’ve finished reading the book. As of now I’ve noticed the repressed, depressed women who are housewives. Anna encounters them in her work with the party and Ella encounters them in her job at the magazine. Perhaps excerpts of The Feminine Mystique would be interesting in relation to this issue. I’d also like to look at some of my third wave feminist books to see if I can draw connections to the issues addressed in The Golden Notebook and the issues that are of interest to feminists from my generation and time in societal culture. This would also be an active attempt to make Lessing’s FEMINIST novel even more relevant to my life as a feminist in 2007.


Anne Dalke's picture

resistance--and an open mind

what intrigues me first and most here is the question of the “resisting writer.” This seems to take the notion of the resisting reader, so important in feminist literary studies, to a new level, as authors push back against the readings that their writings have engendered. Doris Lessing will make a great test case for that concept, and I’ll be intrigued to see how far you can take that possibility.

The comprehensive article on reader-response theory is Jane Tompkins’ introduction to her 1980 anthology, Reader-Response Criticism. Reader-response theory will of course never give the author the final word, but feminism listens to all voices, so this will make for an interesting project.

Your second topic, feminism and Marxism, might make a great compliment to and extension of the first, since resistance is at the heart of Marxism; you could think of your resisting reader and author as literary forms of a political project that began in a very different venue. The classic feminist text to read here is Gail Rubin’s 1975 essay, "The Traffic in Women: Notes on the 'Political Economy' of Sex"; another good source for you would be The Radical Women Manifesto: Socialist Feminist Theory, Program and Organizational Structure (2001).

After that? You start to lose me. Not to say that the new woman novel and sex and relationships --and feminist concepts and culture aren’t of interest, just that…

There are limits of time and energy, and your project will be a stronger one for a tighter focus. Looking forward to seeing how you manage this—while keeping an open mind. Don’t decide now (for instance) that Lessing’s novel is feminist. Go searching….