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Getting It Together

hslavitt's picture

So my paper is extremely late because the task at hand seems completely daunting. I want to do the actual text of The Golden Notebook justice by exploring it in its own right, but there is an incredible amount of relevant external theory and social context to explore.

I can’t seem to help myself from conflating Anna and Doris Lessing. If you read the book knowing about the semi-scandalous history of its reception you can’t help but read Anna as some sort of mouthpiece for Lessing. Anna, a woman writer herself, works through her outlook on writing and its implications. Anna wrote a highly acclaimed book entitled Frontiers of War that, like Lessing’s book The Grass is Singing, is a highly politicized novel about illicit romance in apartheid Africa. Because Anna constantly struggles with indecision about whether or not literature should be political, I can’t help but wonder if Lessing is using Anna as an outer manifestation of her struggle with the nature of her own novel. Anna also seems at a loss as to whether she has certain responsibilities as a writer. As a communist, she feels her novels should uphold that dogma. As a woman, she strives to portray accurately her notion of a “free woman” and, like I argue Lessing does with Anna, constantly conflates herself with her character, Ella. Lastly, and I think this is the most interesting, both Anna and Lessing live through the reception of their work. Both highly uncomfortable with the success of their work, Lessing and Anna react to the reactions to their book negatively. Anna states quite articulately that her book “Frontiers of War now has nothing to do with me, it is a property of other people” (Golden Notebook 54) and Lessing expresses a similar sentiment in her 1971 introduction to The Golden Notebook and in numerous interviews and articles.

Okay, so I guess I should explain the aforementioned scandal before I continue with my paper. Basically there is long, intertwined, fraught relationship between Lessing, The Golden Notebook, and feminism. That is exactly why I chose this book. Lessing wrote The Golden Notebook as a book exploring the harmful effects of compelled compartmentalization of oneself. The book, soon after it was released, was declared to be the feminist novel that the Women’s Movement had been waiting for. Lessing vehemently and bitterly disavowed this reading of her book. She said that her “boo[k] was not read in the right way”, that this novel “was not a trumpet for Women’s Liberation. Doris Lessing also holds personal opinions that do not often align with feminism. She states that men who marry bullying men “get what they deserve”, that the aims of feminism “look small and quaint” compared to the larger issues of the time, and more recently claimed that feminism was bullying and ruining boys. Yet why is this novel still, after all of this tension between Lessing and feminism still considered one of the most important feminist novels?

Why do I think this novel is feminist? First of all, as an aside, it is interesting to note that Lessing also expresses an opinion similar to the “post-feminists” who think that feminism is irrelevant because the goals have already been achieved. While not entirely parallel it is an insight to the similarities in the rhetoric of those who reject feminism and that in and of itself is a useful tool in a feminist’s tool belt. But back to the book itself, just in the fact that it depicts the reality of women’s lives without shying away from any emotion or idea, no matter how uncomfortable reveals the truth behind the why of the necessity of feminism. Women do get angry, get bullied by lovers, struggle with being writers, get bored with daily life, join political parties, see therapists, get depressed. We may not like it, but it happens and Lessing approaches it honestly. I also think it is feminist in its utter rejection of the trifecta of typical endings in literature about women: marriage, madness, and death (preferably suicide). Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice? Marriage. The Awakening, Wide Sargasso Sea and Anna Karenina? Madness and then death. In The Golden Notebook Anna almost marries, but doesn’t, almost goes crazy, but doesn’t, and almost, due to her depression, commits suicide. So yes, I DO think this is a feminist novel…the question is Does it matter what I think?

I’ve looked at a few important pieces of literary theory to try and parse out what it means for a reader to think one thing about a text and for an author to think an entirely oppositional, different thing. I suppose I’m using The Golden Notebook and the nature of it’s reception as a grounded case study for this conceptual theory, but I dislike it because I feel like I’m minimizing the importance of this particular book. Anyway, I started out with Jane P. Thompkins general introduction to Reader-Response criticism. Although this discipline varies from critic to critic, all of it examines the interaction between the reader, the text and the reaction to the text. More importantly, it asks the question of where the value lies in this interaction. I also read the introduction to Judith Fetterley’s book about resisting readers. This was extremely useful because Fetterley articulates the politicization of novels that both Lessing and Anna struggle with. The idea of a resisting reader is interesting and, I think, vital to understanding what happened with The Golden Notebook. I felt the need to approach this book as a resisting reader because, although Lessing is a woman author, I knew the she disliked a feminist reading of her book and that was honestly what I intended do going in to this project. I also acted as a resisting reader because I realized that I found some of Anna’s choices just as problematically sexist as if I were reading a book by a male author. I felt myself resisting some of Anna’s choices and therefore the choices Lessing made about what she would write as Anna’s choices.

The one thing both of these pieces neglected was the complications that arise when the author of the text in question is prolific, still alive and most importantly unafraid to write about their work and the “right reading” of it. Adding the author writing about their intentions for the book to an already complicated mix is an important aspect of my reading of The Golden Notebook. I started thinking about Lessing’s reactions to her (resisting) reader’s reactions. Lessing strongly disagreed with her reader’s reactions in much the same way that a resisting reader would with a text. If our reaction is the text that Lessing “reads” does that make Lessing a resisting reader? Not quite, but I do think that there should be a space for a seemingly unrecognized resisting writer.

I’m trying to incorporate the theme of communism, feminism, and socialist-feminism into this paper. Lessing, a life-long member of the communist party, rejects feminism for many of the things that both she and Anna hate and find in the communist party; impotency, group-think mentality, contradictions, and distance from real life. Just as they have similar faults, communism and feminism have deeply intertwined agendas; the liberation of second class citizens, overthrowing existing systems of oppressive power, and discovering and appropriating the means of oppression and liberation. Then there is socialist feminism, an ideology that unites both. Again I would explore the implications of this on The Golden Notebook and vice versa.

Obviously I have wore work to do in terms of basing my ideas in the actual texts I looked at (to be honest I have lots more text to look at). I also can’t decide if I want to make this paper a touch more formal…perhaps everything except for my personal reaction to everything. Here is what I’ve read/ plan on reading for the final draft: 

Buckley, Mary. Women and Ideology in the Soviet Union. Ann Arbor, MI : University of Michigan Press, 1989.


Coole, Diana. Women In Political Theory. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1993.


Dooley, Gillian. “Doris Lessing Versus Her Readers: The Case of The Golden Notebook.” Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. Ed. Tapan K. Ghosh. New Delhi: Prestige Books, 2006.


Eisenstein, Zillah. “Constructing a Theory of Capitalist Patriarchy and Socialist Feminism.” Women, Class, and the Feminist Imagination: A Social Feminist Reader. Eds. Karen V. Hansen and Ilene J. Philipson. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1990.


Fetterley, Judith. The Resisting Reader. Indianapolis, IN:  Indiana University Press, 1978.


Greene, Gayle. Changing the Story. Indianapolis, IN:  Indiana University Press, 1991.


Hazelton, Lesley. “Doris Lessing on Feminism, Communism, and ‘Space Fiction’.” 25 Jul. 1982


Knapp, Mona. “The Golden Notebook: A Feminist Context for the Classroom.”

Approaches to Teaching Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. Eds. Carey Kaplan and Ellen Cronan Rose. New York, NY: The Modern Language Association of America, 1989


Philipson, Ilene J., Karen V. Hansen. “Women, Class and the Feminist Imagination: An Introduction.” Women, Class, and the Feminist Imagination: A Social Feminist Reader. Eds. Karen V. Hansen and Ilene J. Philipson. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1990.


Rubenstein, Roberta. “The Golden Notebook in an Introductory Women’s Studies Course.”

Approaches to Teaching Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. Eds. Carey Kaplan and Ellen Cronan Rose. New York, NY: The Modern Language Association of America, 1989


Rubin, Gayle. “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex”. Women, Class, and the Feminist Imagination: A Social Feminist Reader. Eds. Karen V. Hansen and Ilene J. Philipson. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1990.


Showalter, Elaine. A Literature of Their Own. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977


The Radical Women Manifesto. Seattle, WA: Red Letter Press, 2001.


Tompkins, Jane P. “An Introduction to Reader-Response Criticism.” Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism. Ed. Jane P. Tompkins. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980


Anne Dalke's picture

why resistance arises....


what a rich topic! a thick and complicated book, your reading of it, the author's resistance to your reading of it, your resistance to the author's resistance...

my short bit of advice: claim your readership, and your resistance. Of COURSE it matters what you think, and reader response criticism is the theory that articulates why....

I'm passing on to you my own version of reader-response theory; it's called "Why Words Arise," and I hope will also embolden you to say what you think about what Lessing's novel does, and why it does it--