Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook: Readers, Writers, and the Act of Feminist Writing

hslavitt's picture
               Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook:Readers, Writers, and the Act of Feminist Writing


 

 The Socialist and the Suffragist-C. P. Gilman, 1912 

Said the Socialist to the Suffragist :

"My cause is greater than yours!You only work for a Special ClassWe for the gain of the General Mass,Which every good ensures !" 

Said the Suffragist to the Socialist :

"You underrate my cause!While women remain Subject Class,You never can move the General Mass,With your economic laws !" 

Said the Socialist to the Suffragist :

"You misinterpret facts,There is no room for doubt or schismin Economic determinism----It governs all our facts !" 

Said the Suffragist to the Socialist :

"You men will always findThat this old world will never moveMore swiftly in its ancient grooveWhile women stay behind !" 

"A lifted world lifts women up"

The Socialist explained"You cannot lift the world at allWhile half of it kept so small,"The Suffragist maintained. 

The world awoke and tartly spoke :

"Your work is all the same ;Work together or work apart,Work, each of you, will all your heartJust get into the game."


 

 

               The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, a fascinating and rich text, acts as a case study for many of the feminist issues that are still relevant to our lives today. Whether it is the tension between feminists and “postfeminists”, the act of feminist critique of literature, the feminist issues that Lessing depicts in the actual content of the novel or the intersection between the ideologies of feminism, an “ism’ claimed by many of the readers, and communism, an “ism” the Lessing claims. No matter the location of the feminism, within or exegetical, there is something inherently feminist about The Golden Notebook when author and reader, social and political, all outside forces are stripped away.

               Before addressing anything else, it essential to understand the long and fraught relationship between Doris Lessing and feminism. In 1971 Lessing wrote “I support [feminism], of course, because women are second class citizens”[1], but marginalized the importance in her statement that in comparison to the other changes taking place in the world “the aims of Women’s Liberation will look very small and quaint”[2]. Even so, her opinion that misogynistic “attitudes in male writers were taken for granted, accepted as sound philosophical bases, as quite normal, certainly not womanhating, aggressive or neurotic”[3] is one that supports a deeply feminist sentiment about the sexist androcentricity of literature. Later, in 1982, Lessing’s rejection of feminism went from disinterest to disgust. She exclaimed in an interview with The New York Times “What the feminists want of me is something they haven't examined because it comes from religion. They want me to bear witness. What they would really like me to say is, 'Ha, sisters, I stand with you side by side in your struggle toward the golden dawn where all those beastly men are no more.' Do they really want people to make oversimplified statements about men and women? In fact, they do. I've come with great regret to this conclusion”[4]. Most recently, Lessing has vehemently declared war sexism: the so-called sexism faced by men, that is. She claims that “a ‘lazy and insidious’ culture had taken hold within feminism that reveled in flailing men”[5] and that “it has become a kind of religion that you can’t criticize because then you become a traitor to the great cause, which I am not”[6].  She rails against the supposed “unthinking and automatic rubbishing of men which is now so part of our culture that it is hardly even noticed”[7]. She imagines our society to be one where “little girls fat with complacency and conceit while the little boys sat there crumpled, apologizing for their existence, thinking this was going to be the pattern of their lives”[8].            The progression of the relationship between Lessing and feminism sets the context for a discussion of The Golden Notebook, arguably “the most widely read and deeply appreciated book on the woman’s liberation reading list”[9]. Lessing “has not always been content with the ways her books have been read, and she has expressed her disquiet in interviews, essays and other publications”[10]. She felt that critics and readers “belittled” the book “as being about the sex war”[11] and declared that “this novel was not a trumpet for Women’s Liberation”[12]. Lessing states that from the reception of the book she “learned that [she] had written a tract about the sex war, and fast discovered that nothing [she] said could change that diagnosis”[13]. Lessing’s distasteful sarcasm is apparent, and undeniably she is entitled to her churlish rejection of the success of The Golden Notebook, but Lessing incriminates her own reaction as she herself is a large proponent of a reader’s authority over a text’s meaning .            She marvels at “how far apart the intention of the author and the comprehension of the readers can be”[14] and that she do[es]n’t know any writer who isn’t continually astonished at what we’re supposed to be up to”[15]. She remarks on “how odd it is to have, as an author, such a clear picture of a book, that is seen so very differently by its readers”[16]. Her belief “that the writer is nothing but an isolated voice in the wilderness. Many hear it; most pass by”[17] and that a “book is alive and potent and fructifying and able to promote thought and discussion only when its plan and shape and intention are not understood”[18] are negated by her “propensity to write forewords, prefaces, author’s notes and afterwords”[19]. Her intentions are indeed often made known to the reader. According to her, The Golden Notebook was supposed to be a “story which neither political positions nor sociological analyses were capable of exhausting,” not a “treatise on feminine stereotypes of the ’60s”[20]. While she says that “it is not only childish of a writer to want readers to see what he sees, to understand the shape and aim of a novel as he sees it – his wanting this means that he has not understood a most fundamental point”[21], she herself “cannot accept that her readers do not see the book as she intended it. But she denies being a didactic writer”[22]. If we are to take Lessing at her word it should not matter whether we, the readers, think The Golden Notebook is about feminism.

I can’t seem to help myself from conflating Anna and Doris Lessing. In light of the reception of The Golden Notebook and Lessing’s reaction to the reception, Anna a woman writer herself, seems to be Lessing’s doppelganger in terms of  Lessing working out her conception of writing and its  personal, social and political 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 inner 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, Anna 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 and, more importantly, the interpretation of their work, Lessing and Anna react to the reactions to their books 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”[23]. Despite their vehement protestations, Anna’s book is read as a cautionary tale and The Golden Notebook is read as a, probably the, contemporary feminist novel. Yet, it is crucial to explore why feminism, feminists and the feminist canon utterly cling to The Golden Notebook as the paragon of feminist writing despite the scornful resistance the author openly and repeatedly expresses. Are we wrong? Are we missing the point?

The Golden Notebook  has been hailed as “a central text that articulated our experiences as women”[24], “a manual of womanly experience”[25], “a feminist gospel, a representative of Modern Woman”[26], and “an almost legendary weapon in the armoury of ‘conciousness raising’ about politics, psychoanalysis, feminism”[27] and Lessing a “Cassandr[a] of women’s experience”[28]. These descriptions are very much complicated by Lessing’s rejection of feminism and an uninhibited feminist reading of The Golden Notebook is put at risk. Despite this, we need not despair over how feminism can be found in the text. One method of reading feminism into this novel is learning from the gender stereotypes that Lessing masterfully documents. In The Golden Notebook “the women are as passive and dependent as the men are aggressive”[29]. Following these gendered stereotypes the dynamic presented to the reader is “all male characters in the book share an inability to love, female characters share an emotional deformation caused by the failure of their male partners to love them”[30]. Lessing, in playing out these gender stereotypes, reveals how crushingly harmful they are. On the one hand “Anna and Molly…have rejected the social convention—marriage—that would make them legal and economic dependents of men…they not only understand the theory of class struggle but also have begun to see gender as a factor in that struggle”[31] on the other, though they “have professions and children, lead independent lives”[32], they are “fragmented and helpless creatures, still locked into dependency on men”[33]. This revelation prompts the recognition of not only the existence of female “anger and sexuality”[34] , but also of their importance as “attributes of realistic characters [and]…as sources of female creative power”[35]. Lessing, a pioneer in the surfacing of female rage and sexuality, is also unique in the deliberate “centrality of female friendship… unprecedented in fiction”[36]. Because Lessing “began to point out, in a variety of notes of disillusionment and betrayal, that the ‘free women’ were not so free after all”[37], feminists could find a starting point from which to work toward true freedom.According to Mona Knapp “a feminist critique…is, considering its reception as the very symbol of feminism, inevitable”[38]. The feminist form of “the activities of reading and writing—[are] an important arena of political struggle”[39] 39Indeed all “feminist fiction of the late sixties and early seventies, like the feminism of which it was part, crossed national borders to assume the character of an international movement”[40]. This feminist critique is not by any stretch removed from real social change because “literature is political”[41] and it is clear the “major role feminist writing played in making feminism: Lessing’s…The Golden Notebook antedated the resurgence of feminism”[42]. Furthermore, “the feminist novelists…are aware of their place in political system and their connectedness to other women”[43]. Even though Lessing may not be one of “the feminist novelists…[who is] aware of their place in political system and their connectedness to other women”[44], she accomplishes those very same goals through her “encyclopedic study of intellectual political women in The Golden Notebook [which] precede[d], and in a sense introduced, the Women’s Liberation Movement”[45]. Because “literature acts on the world by acting on its readers”[46], the feminist effect The Golden Notebook has on its readers is the legacy it leaves behind, separate from Lessing’s intentions.There is value in any reading of The Golden Notebook because “literature on women—both feminist and antifeminist—is a long rumination on the question of the nature and genesis of women’s oppression and social subordination”[47] which is, after all, the rallying topic of feminism. “The Golden Notebook is a feminist novel, both in terms of content and textual strategies—“feminist” not in offering strong female role models who infiltrate existing structures (which Adrienne Rich defines as ‘tokenism’, not feminism), but in envisioning “a profound transformation of world society and of human relationships”[48]It is not hard to admit that The Golden Notebook “certainly isn’t an explicitly feminist text”[49]. In fact, “that Anna is no model of feminist strength and independence, she would be the first to admit”[50]. This goes beyond the “concerns of early feminist criticism: the search for strong ‘role models’[and]‘explicit feminism’”[51], finding feminism in the act of resisting the misogyny depicted in the text instead. This begs “the central question of The Golden Notebook—how to oppose a system by means of linguistic and literary conventions that have been forged by that system—is a central question facing feminist theory today: can we use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house?”[52]. I wonder if it is necessary to, like older feminist criticism, demand only feminist content, or if we can uncover feminism through the very act of rejecting “the dualisms which are the basis of Western thought, confirming not only male power but the whole epistemological and linguistic structure that sanctions it”[53]. So even though “women obviously cannot rewrite literary works so that they become ours by virtue of reflecting our reality, we can accurately name the reality they do reflect and so change literary criticism from a closed conversation to an active dialogue”[54]. This process would mean that even though “feminism, as Lessing has frequently stated, was not the point of The Golden Notebook…the book nevertheless spoke straight from the heart of the contemporary feminist climate in the early 1960’s and thus proves that the feminist content of a literary work is, often enough, independent of the author’s intentions. Because The Golden Notebook grew alongside, not in deliberate collaboration with, the awakening women’s movement, it transmits a particularly animated and genuine view of the period’s crucial insight—that sex is politics and that both our given sexual and political norms are ripe for revision”[55].Why do I think this novel is feminist? First of all I agree with every justification for a feminist interpretation I wrote about before. 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. I also think that The Golden Notebook lends itself to “a radical critique of literature, feminist in its impulse, would take the work first of all as a clue to how we live, how we have been living, how we have been led to imagine ourselves, how our language has trapped as well as liberated us”[56]. So yes, I do think this is a feminist novel. The question is: does it matter what I think?            Doris Lessing has outright stated that she disagrees with feminism and that The Golden Notebook is not about the “sex war”. Even so, I the reader still hold that The Golden Notebook is a deeply feminist novel. Clearly “The first is the issue of control: does the text control the reader, or vice versa?”[57]. This exploration of where the value lies in an interaction between a text and a reader is what reader-response theory addresses. Within reader-response theory there are “reader-dominant and text dominant poles”[58], but the majority lies somewhere along the spectrum. The basis of the theory is that “reading always involves a subject and an object, a reader and a text”[59] and the vital questions: “what constitutes the objectivity of the text? What is ‘in’ the text? What is supplied by the reader?”[60]. The answer to the first question seems to tend toward the idea that “the words on the page are ‘trivial’, since their meaning can always be altered”[61]. The answer to the second question is that “there is no distinction between what the text gives and what the reader supplies; [s]he supplies everything[62]. This particular literary theory is crucial for feminist literary study because it is so conducive to respecting reinterpretations of misogynistic text. It gives space for readers like me to appropriate authority over The Golden Notebook as a text. This leads to “‘gynocentrics’[which] is in fact constituted by feminist criticism—that is, readings—of female texts. Thus, the relevant distinction is not between woman as reader and woman as writer, but between feminist readings of male texts and feminist readings of female texts”[63]. Just as I can do feminist readings of a male text that proclaims to not be feminist, I can do a feminist reading of a female text that similarly proclaims to not be feminist. It is because of this insistence on rejecting the limits set by outer forces, be they authorial, societal or political, that “feminist critics…wor[k] under the sign of the ‘Resisting Reader’”[64].

The one thing both of that I found lacking in reader-response theory is both the text and the reader are accounted for, but none of it addresses the issue of the author. This was especially prevalent for me in dealing with The Golden Notebook because Lessing is an author who is still alive and more importantly unafraid to write prolifically about  her work and what she perceives to be 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. There are multiple layerings of resistance in a feminist reader’s interactions with this text and its author. Lessing claims that this is not a feminist text, yet I, as a “Resisting Reader” deny this and read The Golden Notebook as a feminist novel anyway. This did indeed happen on a global scale. Lessing, as the author resists my resistant reading of her text (although whether it is really hers is unclear). Lessing strongly disagreed with her reader’s reactions in much the same way that a resisting reader would with a text. If our reaction to The Golden Notebook 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.

Although she may resist feminism, 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. In fact, one is critical to understanding the other because 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. In The Golden Notebook it is clear that “not only gender stereotypes but also sociopolitical factors predetermine each character”[65]. The importance of “Marxist analysis to the study of women’s oppression is twofold. First, it provides a necessary class analysis for the study of power. Second, it provides a method of analysis that is historical and dialectical”[66]. The Golden Notebook “combines Marxist exposure of the ways ideology is inscribed within literary forms…with a feminist analysis of personal as political and of female identity as processive, in a radically feminist text which is also ‘writerly’”[67]. This allows for “new ways to conceptualize the labor force the bases for gender inequality, housework, the social origins of male/female psychological differences, women’s history, sex, and the effects of ideology”[68] It is not the patriarchal capitalism, as Zillah Einstein claims, that “breaks through the dichotomies of class and sex, private and public, domestic and wage labor, family and economy, personal and political, ideology and material conditions”[69]; it is socialist feminism.          


[1] 1971 Introduction to The Golden Notebook  pg. xiii

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid pg xiv

[4] Interview with The New York Times: July 25, 1982

[5] “Lay Off Men, Lessing Tells Feminists” by Fiachra Gibbons August 14, 2001 The Guardian

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid

[9] Quotation from Susan Lydon in Changing the Story by Gayle Rubin pg 52

[10] “Doris Lessing Versus Her Readers: The Case of The Golden Notebook” by Gillian Dooley

[11] 1971 Introduction to The Golden Notebook  pg. xii

[12] Ibid xiii

[13] Ibid xv

[14] Quotation from Doris Lessing: Conversations in “Doris Lessing Versus Her Readers: The Case of The Golden Notebook” by Gillian Dooley

[15] Ibid

[16] 1971 Introduction to The Golden Notebook  pg xxvii

[17] Quotation from Doris Lessing: Conversations in “Doris Lessing Versus Her Readers: The Case of The Golden Notebook” by Gillian Dooley

[18] 1971 Introduction to The Golden Notebook  pg xxvii

[19]“Doris Lessing Versus Her Readers: The Case of The Golden Notebook” by Gillian Dooley

[20] Quotation from Doris Lessing: Conversations in “Doris Lessing Versus Her Readers: The Case of The Golden Notebook” by Gillian Dooley

[21] 1971 Introduction to The Golden Notebook  pg xxvii

[22] “Doris Lessing Versus Her Readers: The Case of The Golden Notebook” by Gillian Dooley

[23] The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing pg 54

[24]The Golden Notebook in an Introductory Women’s Studies Course” pg 72

[25] Quotation of Elizabeth Wilson in Changing the Story by Gayle Rubin pg 52

[26] Quotation of Susan Lardner in Changing the Story by Gayle Rubin pg 53

[27] Quotation of Patrick Parrinder in Changing the Story by Gayle Rubin pg 107

[28] Changing the Story by Gayle Greene pg 52

[29] The Golden Notebook: A Feminist Context for the Classroom” pg 111

[30] Ibid

[31] Ibid pg 112

[32] A Literature of Their Own by Elaine Showalter pg 301

[33] Ibid

[34] Ibid pg 35

[35] Ibid

[36] Changing the Story by Gayle Greene pg 109

[37] A Literature of Their Own by Elaine Showalter pg 301

[38] The Golden Notebook: A Feminist Context for the Classroom” by Mona Knapp pg 108

[39] The Resisting Reader by Judith Fetterley pg 39

[40] Changing the Story by Gayle Greene pg 33

[41] The Resisting Reader by Judith Fetterly

[42] Ibid pg 33

[43] A Literature of Their Own by Elaine Showalter pg 35

[44] Ibid

[45] Ibid pg 308

[46] The Resisting Reader by Judith Fetterly

[47] “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex” by Gayle Rubin pg 74

[48] Changing The Story by Gayle Greene pg 110

[49] Quotation from Jenny Taylor from Changing The Story by Gayle Greene pg 109

[50] Changing The Story by Gayle Greene pg 109

[51] Ibid

[52] Ibid pg 117

[53] Ibid pg 121

[54]The Resisting Reader by Judith Fetterly

[55] The Golden Notebook: A Feminist Context for the Classroom” by Mona Knapp pg 114

 

[56] Quotation of Adrienne Rich from The Resisting Reader by Judith Fetterly

[57] “Reading Ourselves: Toward a Feminist Theory of Reading” by Patrocinio P. Schweickart pg 36

[58] Ibid pg 37

[59] Ibid

[60] Ibid

[61] Ibid pg 36

[62] Ibid pg 37

[63] Ibid pg 38

[64] Ibid pg 42

[65]The Golden Notebook: A Feminist Context for the Classroom” by Mona Knapp pg 112

[66] “Constructing a Theory of Capitalist Patriarchy and Socialist Feminism” by Zillah Einstein pg 115

[67] Changing The Story by Gayle Greene pg 115

[68] “Women, Class, and the Feminist Imagination: An Introduction” by Ilene J. Philipson and  Karen V. Hansen  pg 3

[69] “Constructing a Theory of Capitalist Patriarchy and Socialist Feminism” by Zillah pg 130

Comments

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.