Form And Content In The Golden Notebook English Literature Essay

Published: Last Edited:

This essay has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work written by our professional essay writers.

The Golden Notebook is Doris Lessings most famous novel and it was published in 1962. This novel is also considered one of the major works of twentieth-century literature. Many feminists of the 1960s have seen it as an influential work that revealed the experience of women in society.

The novel is about Anna Wulf, a writer and single woman, who keeps four different colored notebooks where she writes about her life. In black notebook she writes about her experiences in Africa, before and during WWII, which inspired her for to write her first novel. In red notebook she writes about her experience as a member of communist party. Yellow notebook is an ongoing novel that is being written based on the ending of Anna's own love affair and in blue notebook she writes her own memories, dreams in a form of a diary. All four notebooks and the frame narrative cover themes of Stalinism, the Cold War and the threat of nuclear conflagration, and women's struggles with the conflicts of work, sex, love, maternity, and politics.

In The Golden Notebook Doris Lessing explores the theme of breakdown, mental and societal breakdown, 'that sometimes when people 'crack up' it is a way of self-healing, of the inner self's dismissing false dichotomies and divisions'. (Lessing, 1989: 8) It also has a powerful anti-war and anti-Stalinist message, an analysis of communism, and examination of the up-coming sexual and women's liberation movements.

Relationship between form and content is a subject that must be raised when it comes to analyzing The Golden Notebook. This paper begins with depiction of the novel's major themes and then it explains its form, bringing these two topics into connection later on. It is almost impossible to discuss this novel without explaining its form because the form of the novel supports its central theme. This will be analyzed in the chapter dealing with form but also in the chapter that explains relationship between form and content in the novel.

This novel has been translated into a number of other languages. In 2005, The Golden Notebook was chosen by TIME magazine as one of the one hundred best English-language novels from 1923 to present.

Major themes

Doris Lessing stated that major themes in her novel The Golden Notebook are theme of 'breakdown' and theme of unity. But most of the criticism of the novel after it was published and written articles about The Golden Notebook even in our time focus attention on other themes that are elaborated in the frame novel and in the four notebooks. These themes are the situation of women, relationship between men and women, motherhood, sex, creativity, work, belief and politics.

The situation of women in the novel is presented through its central character Anna Wulf. She is a writer who got her financial independence after publication of her first and only novel 'Frontiers of War' and is faced with writing block because she feels 'incapable of writing the only kind of novel which interests me: a book powered with an intellectual or moral passion strong enough to create order, to create a new way of looking at life. It is because I am too diffused. I have decided never to write another novel.'(Lessing, 1989: 76)

Anna feels like 'everything's cracking up' because she struggles to reconcile her own life with the political and philosophical atmosphere of her age, to make sense of the chaos she feels all around her. Theme of creativity is explored through Ana's writing block and it is connected with the theme of unity that has its victory over the theme of 'breakdown' in the fifth gold colored notebook where Anna finally gets capable of writing a novel as in one piece not to diffuse it into four aspects.

Besides being a writer Anna is also a divorced woman and a mother. Doris Lessing discussed theme of motherhood in the novel describing relationship between Anna and her girl Janet.

"Lessing writes about the conflicts between the maternal and the erotic life, of the responsibility that can keep a suicidal mother alive in the midst of breakdown, of the efforts (sometimes disastrous) to conduct a career while rearing a child. She has never had any time for would-be women writers who complain that pregnancies silenced them or reduced their output: get on with it, that was her bracing advice. She did see the problems women writers face as being different from those faced by men, and although she vehemently rejected the feminist label, of course we read her as a feminist." (

Anna is shown as a woman emotionally self-sufficient and committed to her lifestyle of passionate politics and frequent affairs at the same time she feels empty and hates herself for craving the security of love, for she sees it as giving in to all that feminine sentimentality that she wishes to be above. Men are shown like unfaithful, polygamous, unsatisfactory, and rude to their wives, unable to give pleasure, bullying, selfish, and indifferent to their children. But Anna is obsessed with them treating her terribly. The worse they behave to her, the more sexually excited she becomes. So it is uncertain if this is really a social commentary or a personal story. Sexual relations in the novel are characterized with cruelty, betrayal and emotional numbness.

This novel reflected on such subjects which were taboos in the time it was published and later on. These subjects like menstruation, orgasm and frigidity were masterfully confronted with literary decorum.

As for political theme the novel describes a world in which Stalin is being exposed for his crimes in the Soviet Union, the British Communist Party is collapsing, and in the States Senator McCarthy's 'Red Terror' is decimating the left wing intelligentsia.

Form in The Golden Notebook

The Golden Notebook has autobiographical layers: the character Anna reflects elements of author Doris Lessing's own life, while Anna writes an autobiographical novel about her imagined Ella, who writes autobiographical stories. The form of the novel also interlaces the political conflicts and emotional conflicts in the characters' lives. Rejection of traditional form and structure in art and literature can be seen in examination of The Golden Notebook. This rejection is also characteristic of feminist theoretical viewpoint; it is often that feminism and postmodernism overlap as in this novel.

Skeleton, or frame of the novel is a short novel, realistic narrative of the lives of Molly and Anna, and their children, ex-husbands and lovers-called Free Women- and it could stand by itself. But it is divided into five sections and separated by stages of the Anna's four notebooks, Black, Red, Yellow and Blue. "The Notebooks are kept by Anna Wulf, a central character of Free Women. She keeps four, and not one because, as she recognizes, she has to separate things off from each other, out if fear of chaos, of formlessness- of breakdown. Pressures, inner and outer, end the Notebooks; a heavy black line is drawn across the page of one after another." (Lessing, 1989: 7)

Each notebook is returned to four times, intermixed with episodes from Free Women, creating non-chronological, overlapping sections that interact with one another. This post-modernistic styling, with its space and room for "play" engaging the characters and readers, is among the most famous features of the book. When notebooks are finished, their fragments are tied to form something new The Golden Notebook. "In the inner Golden Notebook, things have come together, the divisions have broken down, there is formlessness with the end of fragmentation-the triumph of the second theme, which is that of unity."(Lessing, 1989: 7) In its form this novel is different from the other experimental novels of the 1960s in its grappling with narrative, identity, tone, and truth. Form is important in The Golden Notebook because it elaborates its main theme of 'breakdown' and helps readers to understand Anna's attempts to stay sane in a world that seems to be falling apart.

Relationship between form and content in The Golden Notebook

"This novel, then, is an attempt to break a form; to break certain forms of consciousness and go beyond them. While writing it, I found I did not believe some of the things I thought I believed: or rather, that I hold in my mind at the same time beliefs and ideas that are apparently contradictory. Why not? We are, after all, living in the middle of a whirlwind."(

The Golden Notebook depicts behaviors, ambitions, concerns and the particular problems of the times in which we live. That is accomplished through portrayal of a central character in the novel writer Anna Wulf who deals with some kind of a block which prevented her from creating. Depicting reasons for the block Doris Lessing also made the criticism about entire society. In Anna's notebooks Doris Lessing made another book, a book about literary criticism, using different literary styles in a way that the shape of the book and juxtapositions of the styles would provide the criticism. In doing so through the criticism of literature Mrs. Lessing made a criticism of life, and wrote about problems of alienation. Doris Lessing defines this process of writing a book inside another book as fusing these two books into one, keeping the shape of the book enclosed and claustrophobic-'so narcissistic that the subject matter must break through the form.' (

There are four different colored notebooks Black, Red, Yellow and Blue to affirm the novel's themes of compartmentalization and breakdown.

"These notebooks represent the strain to personality of unintegrated consciousness, and it remains as characteristic of (female) experience now as then that what Lessing calls the existence of "false dichotomies and divisions" - the self as fragmentary and compartmentalised and thus as potentially dishonest in and of itself - damages individuality and its status in culture. The artificial-personal supplants the universal-personal; truth becomes intermittent and fractured, calling for madness, breakdown and disintegration of personality in order for division and falsehood to be swept away." (

The novel is centered around these four notebooks; each notebook is different, the black one where she speaks of her early years in Africa, the red one where she speaks of her positions on Communism, a yellow one where she has a "novel within a novel", and finally the blue one where she has a personal diary. These four notebooks deal with various themes: sex, parenthood, creativity, work, belief and politics.

Doris Lessing has insisted that despite extensive inclusion of issues of social, political, sexual, and psychological import in The Golden Notebook, its real meaning, is not in its content but in its shape. In an interview with Florence Howe she said that in the 'Free Women' section, the envelope, she was really trying to express her despair of writing a conventional novel. She described this section as an absolutely whole conventional novel and the rest of the book as the material that went into making it. She also remarked in an introduction to the novel The Golden Notebook that her major aim was to shape a book which would make its own comment, a wordless statement: to talk through the way it was shaped.

"Although framed by a conventional novel called Free Women, the point of the novel, according to Lessing, is the "relation of its parts to each other." By viewing her life from these different angles, going over her experiences, gauging her responses, and carefully probing her intertwined layers of consciousness, Anna eventually manages to unify her identify in one notebook. As she does so, she comes to terms with her growing disillusionment with communism, the trauma of emotional rejection and sexual betrayal, professional anxieties, and the tensions of friendship and family."(

Relationship between form and content is most clearly shown in the relationship between yellow notebook and blue notebook in the last section of notebooks. In the yellow notebook Anna offers nineteen possible forms for writing a novel/story, these possible forms, all nineteen of them, are used for writing story that makes the blue notebook. For example first possible story to write is about a woman who has an affair with a man younger than herself. In the blue notebook's story Anna has an affair with a man who is younger than herself knowing that this is just as she suggested in the first possible story 'another love affair merely'. (Lessing, 1989: 467) Second possible story offers theme of a man who uses the language of emotionally grown people to gain a woman. This is what happens in the blue notebook between Anna and Saul. Third possible story is about women falling in love with men unworthy of them. In Anna's and Saul's story that is referred to in Molly's warning that any woman who gets involved with Mr. Green is out of her senses , and that he is a man to go to bed with for one night and to lose his telephone number afterwards.


In one of her quotes Doris Lessing suggests to writers that they should write first of all to please themselves, and not to care about anybody else. In Lessing's opinion writing can't be a way of life because important part of writing is living; a writer must live in such a way that writing emerges from it. This is the best possible description for her novel The Golden Notebook published in 1962, her most famous novel is written in a manner that reflects real life. This novel emerges from life of its author; the character Anna reflects elements of author Doris Lessing's own life, it is like she has poured every experience she had ever had into her characters.

The Golden Notebook is a story about a writer Anna Wulf who has some kind of block which prevents her from creating. Through describing the reasons for the block Doris Lessing made a criticism of society. Novel is shaped in order that its form can stand itself as a statement and it presents novel's central theme of 'breakdown'. Anna Wulf keeps four different colored notebooks where she writes about her life as if it was divided into four segments: her early experiences as a young woman and artist are written down in the black notebook, her political beliefs and activities in the communist party in England are in the red notebook, an ongoing novel about her alter ego Ella is in the yellow notebook and her memories and dreams are written in a form of a diary in the blue notebook. The notebook of the title is a fifth, gold-colored notebook in which Anna attempts to tie these notebooks together to emphasize other important theme that is theme of unity.

This novel also has a powerful anti-war and anti-Stalinist message, an extended analysis of communism and examination of up-coming sexual and women's liberation movements. It has been translated into number of languages and it was chosen by TIME magazine as one of the one hundred best English language novels from 1923.