2002 NEMLA
(Re)Presentations of Violence and Aggression

Nancy Knowles
Eastern Oregon University


Structural Violence and Narrative Structure in Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook

Violence is often defined narrowly as a physical act. Such narrow definitions limit efforts to stop violence by failing to make necessary connections between physical violence and what can be termed structural violence--non-physical violence, often a byproduct of a cultural system or structure, that results in shortened life or reduced quality of life (Brock-Utne 8). Because structural violence can have physical effects and even cause retaliatoryviolence, ignoring its participation in the issue of violence can have dangerous consequences. Namely, lack of physical violence may not constitute peace when other factors, such as oppressive racial, sexual, or class attitudes, also exist.

Representation of violence as both physical and structural occurs in a number of 20th-century women's novels including Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook, which chronicles the life of fictional author Anna Wulf. The examination of violence in this novel occurs through complex juxtapositions caused by the relegation of the story into Anna's various notebooks and an entire novel within the novel. By juxtaposing seemingly unrelated events, thisfragmented structure encourages readers to see the violence alluded to inthe backdrop of the novel as intimately associated with the issues of race,sex, and class depicted in the foreground of the narrative. Furthermore,the structure itself suggests a means of resisting violence: the reader,who is responsible for more work in creating meaning in fragmentedpostmodern texts like The Golden Notebook than inconventional realist fiction, learns, through reading, the critical stancenecessary for connecting seemingly disparate events and for deconstructingrhetoric used to perpetuate violent human relations. In particular,Lessing's novel probes the thought processes that underlie violence inany form--the dualistic thinking that uses a negative concept of the otherto define the self..

By dualistic thinking, of course,I mean the logic of binary oppositions in general--the assumption thatpairings like good/bad, male/female, dark/light, or black/white include twocompletely antithetical terms. Although this binary logic may soundreasonable to anyone educated in a system that teaches synonyms andantonyms, such thinking becomes problematic when transferred from the realmof language to relations of power among people. When an individual imagineshim- or herself as belonging to a group partaking of characteristics on oneside of a binary opposition, those partaking of opposing characteristicscan be denigrated in order to elevate the self. Such thinking undergirdsunequal power relationships including sexism and racism, as scholars likeSimone de Beauvoir and Edward Said have argued. This denigration orothering is essentially an extreme utopian urge,conceptually cleansing and empowering the self by expelling all negativeaspects and projecting them onto and thus disempowering people who aresomehow different from the self. When this dualistic thinking becomesentangled in economics or politics, for example, the results can bedevastating.

Lessing's novel reveals that dualistic thinkingoccurs in the relationships between men and women, between colonizers andthe colonized, between soldiers on the battlefield, between parents andchildren, and between political party insiders and outsiders. Such thinkingpervades both structural and physical violence. One way the novel depictsthis pervasiveness is by using the fragmentary quality of the novel tojuxtapose dualistic thinking in otherwise non-violent everyday life withsituations in which this thinking clearly involves physical violence. Thisjuxtaposition indicates the intimate connection between structural andphysical violence and the need to eradicate dualistic thinking in order toeliminate both kinds of violence.

This juxtaposition of violentbackdrop and seemingly peaceful foreground occurs within sections andbetween sections. For example, the novel mentions war as the catalyst formore mundane activity: the Spanish Civil War is the event during whichAnna's friend Molly and Molly's ex-husband Richard originally meet(16) and World War II is the reason for Molly's becoming a journalist(17). Other examples include Anna's ex-lover Michael's memories of1952 Czechoslovakia where members of Michael's family were executed ingas chambers (332) and the events of 1956--the invasions of Hungary andSuez, and Khrushchev's revelations at the 20th Congress of the CommunistParty of the Soviet Union about Stalin's ruthless purges--which causeAnna, like Lessing herself, to leave the British Communist Party. Theseinstances of violence mentioned as part of the novel's backdrop--wenever actually see any of them depicted--help us interpret the seeminglyless violent activities of day-to-day life. Similarly, World War II is thecontext for Anna's less adventurous experiences at the Mashopi Hotel inSouthern Rhodesia that fill the black notebook. Anna's novelFrontiers of War, which chronicles her Mashopiexperiences, lurks behind what Anna intends to be the more truthful detailsin the black notebook. Although excerpts from the novel itself never appearin Lessing's novel, the emphasis on war in the novel's titleaccompanies the black-notebook characters' activities on the Rhodesianhomefront. Thus, The Golden Notebook reveals thefrontiers of war exist not surrounding some distant battlefield but in themidst of our mundane lives.

Another kind of violence also lurks inthe backdrop of the Mashopi events--imperialism. Although the narrativefocuses primarily on the social activities of the white people staying atthe Mashopi Hotel, the narrative also provides glimpses into the life ofJackson, the hotel's black cook. In particular, Anna's friend Georgehas an affair with Jackson's wife, resulting in a child, and the hotelproprietor, Mrs. Boothbay, fires Jackson on the pretext of what appears toher to be homosexual behavior, but her real reason is most likely thatJackson discusses politics with the white guests. While we witness nophysical violence associated with colonialism in Africa, the incidentssurrounding Jackson point to the widespread oppression of Africans on theirown territory, oppression that can be seen as structural violence, whicheven though not physically violent in the novel, can reduce the comfort andlength of life and can lead to physical violence, as it has throughoutAfrica. Like instances of war, colonialism in the backdrop reflects on thebehavior of the more rounded characters depicted in the novel'sforeground. Necessary for all the instances of violence occurring inbackdrop and foreground is the belief that certain people deserve to bekilled or oppressed, a belief that requires the dualistic thinking thatseparates self and other. Thus, the violence in the backdrop of the novelcalls attention to the violence caused by the binary system from which Annacan't seem to extricate herself. The juxtaposition of physical violencein the backdrop with structural violence in the foreground also points toviolence as an outcome of binary thinking even in seemingly peacefulrelationships.

The most frequently dramatized instance of binarythinking affecting otherwise non-violent relationships between people isAnna's repeated pattern of taking lovers who are not capable of lovingher. Willi, Anna's lover in the Mashopi sequences, is the first. Perhapsbecause we don't glimpse much of his consciousness, he seems more of abully than the others. Anna observes that Willi applies the need for a"'good hiding'" to women in the way the colonials apply it tonatives (98). Notice the way the text explicitly uses the more violentcolonial backdrop as a metaphor for intimate relationships. However, thefault is not only the bully but also the woman who loves a bully. Annacomments, "It was from Willi I learned how many women like to bebullied" (98). Here, the binary logic that makes blacks and whitesinherent opposites applies to women and men; men are supposed to bully, andwomen are supposed to admire them for it. Implicit in the assumed absoluteopposition between these roles is the fact that one part of the pair, themale part, has considerable advantages over the other. This alignmentbetween the structural violence occurring in male-female relationships andthe physical violence pervading the novel's backdrop is what makesThe Golden Notebook such a powerful and influentialcomment on gender issues.

Besides calling attentionto the relationship between structural and physical violence in thejuxtaposition of background and foreground events, the novel's critiqueof dualistic thought also occurs through the novel's testing ofpotential solutions to violence, particularly through Anna's search foran ethical artistic means to render life. The most significant potentialsolution to violence that the novel rejects is communism. The novel'sexploration of communism indicates it fails to address the root cause ofviolence because, although communism calls attention to structural violenceoccurring through economics, it does not account for the dualistic thinkingunderlying both structural and physical violence. Although communism'segalitarian vision sounds like it might help people overcoming the"othering" that divides them, the Communist Party itself, inAnna's experience, becomes just one more way to "other" people asoutsiders. For example, being a party member forces Anna into a defensiveposition when speaking with people from outside the party (157, 161). Thisdefensive position oversimplifies and polarizes issues, reducing thelikelihood of discussing and solving complex problems and thereby doingviolence to the critical thought necessary for effective activism. An imageof the problem with this defensive position occurs when Anna notices theglass on the Communist Party building: "The protective glass gave me twofeelings-one of fear; the world of violence. The other, a feeling ofprotectiveness-the need to protect an organization that people throwstones at" (155). Both fear and protectiveness can lead to anoversimplified, reactionary stance. Unless members can criticize the partyline, they are unable to compromise, and if they are not allowed to seeoutside party doctrine, they will be reduced to stereotypes (49), unable totranscend us/them, either/or issues. As Anna writes in the red notebook,"[. . .] somewhere at the back of my mind when I joined the Party was aneed for wholeness, for an end to the split, divided, unsatisfactory way weall live. Yet joining the Party intensified the split [. . .]" (161). Inpromising the unified, humanist reality people seek and yet creating adefensive in-group anxiety, the Communist Party ironically precludes theunity it promises. Where communism ideally should make everyone equal, whenit becomes an imposed ideology, it can be used inthe same way that other values can be used, to establish the righteousnessof the self at the expense of others, to justify, for example, ComradeIrene's spitting at Michael "'for wearing a very slightly bettersuit than her husband has'" (163). Communism's unifying visionthus becomes an extreme utopian urge necessitating the expulsion of any"other" to a subordinate position where the other can be usedinversely to define the self and can be treated as a seemingly deservingtarget for violence.

Instead of providing a unifyingversion of truth like that supplied by communism, The GoldenNotebook urges readers toward a more realistic, complex solutionto the problem of dualistic thinking than communism can provide--criticalthinking. Instead of giving our free will to large movements like communismthat will determine our thinking for us, we should keep a critical distancefrom issues and movements so that we can make informed decisions about waysto move toward more peaceful living. The GoldenNotebook not only dramatizes critical thought as a solution byshowing Anna's psychological development through the course of the novelbut also models critical thinking by insisting the reader take a moreactive role in making meaning from the novel than the reader might inreading more conventional literature. In particular, the novel invites thereader to navigate the juxtaposition between the fragmented, multi-genericnotebooks and the novel-within-the-novel Free Women, which can be considered traditional realism (Sprague 19). Juxtapositionof these two different styles of writing operates ironically by "rubbingtogether" (Hutcheon 19). Not only does this rubbing together emphasize"between," which disrupts binary opposition (Michael 73), but alsothe meaning that emerges "between" the items juxtaposed does notreplace their stability but rather questions that such stability has everexisted (Hutcheon 14). Questioning the stability of conventional narrativeas the way to view the world is particularlyimportant, and "civilized irony, contemplating life," as Lessingargues, is key to defeating the fanaticism (Linfield 65) that reifies oneterm in a binary opposition and projects all threatening elements outsideits province into devalued space.

Free Women is ratherconventional, particularly at the end where ex-communist Anna plans to jointhe Labour Party and ex-communist Molly intends to get married. IfFree Women were the only part of TheGolden Notebook, the "consensus" (Ermarth) seeminglyreestablished at the end between unconventional characters and theirconventional society would remain. However, because the notebooks revealmore character complexity than Free Women, theymake the conventional ending seem trite, improbable, and unsatisfying.Becoming more conservative members of their society is not what we'dexpect or want for these characters, nor does it answer the questionsraised by the plot's conflicts, especially those related to violence.Further examination of this jarring juxtaposition reveals that Free Women parodies the conventional novel form. The weddingending as the pat conclusion to Lessing's complex and influentialdramatization of "the sex wars" represents the most significantsignal of parody. Other clues include the irony of the title (that anyone,particularly women, is or could be free in such a violent society); thedeflation of suspense by revealing details of the plot in the Table ofContents and in "flashforward" narrative elements (e.g. on p. 180);and the use of summary that occurs increasingly toward the end ofFree Women. This summarizing indicates the reducedimportance of those later sections because of their conventionality.Readers need little detail here because the story is familiar; they havebeen lulled into consensus with the existing system through marriage plotsmany times. However, Lessing refuses to participate in such lulling; thesummary and deflation of suspense reduce narrative pleasure in thesesections in a Brechtian way that makes readers aware of the readingexperience. Aware as readers, they will think more criticallyabout their entertainment and its affect on their view of reality.

Another way The Golden Notebooksignals the use of parody is through three explicit discussions of howdifficult parody can be for readers to detect. The first is a story thatAnna comments could be read as ironic, parodic, or serious about a Britishcommunist meeting Stalin and telling him his ideas about how the CommunistParty should operate in Britain (302). The second is "Blood on theBanana Leaves," a parody by Anna's colleague James, which is intendedto replace his normal literary review in a magazine. The editor doesn'tunderstand the intended parody and demands his review (440). The thirdinstance is the newspaper photo of Richard's current wife Marion whobecomes naively politically active. The photo bears the parodic caption:"'It's absolutely sickening the way the poor Africans are beingtreated.'" Reading the paper, Marion doesn't realize that the useof her words in this context is parodic. She's genuinely pleased tothink she's doing good (513). These explicit examples of parody callattention to Lessing's own use of parody.

Theseexamples also emphasize the purpose of Lessing's use of parody: thedifficulty of such a rhetorical strategy is, of course, that it depends soheavily on the knowledge and awareness of the audience. In doing so, parody"implies" (Iser) a critical reader, a reader who brings wideknowledge, multiple perspectives, and intellectual playfulness to the text.Such a reader would understand the dualistic thinking underlyingconventional power hierarchies and be able to apply that understanding notonly to texts but to life. Lessing's novel cultivates such a reader andworries over those times when "[. . .] something had happened in theworld which made parody impossible" (440). Parody fails in these times becausepeople like the editor and Marion know only one set of values and can inferonly one meaning from a text. Readers with more experience readingmulti-layered texts would expect such complexity in the surrounding world.Thus, the novel models unconventional, self-aware artwork as one means ofeliminating the dualistic thinking that is the root cause of physical andstructural violence.

In conclusion, through the juxtaposition ofphysical violence in the backdrop and structural violence in the foregroundand the juxtaposition of the notebooks and fictional elements of the novel,The Golden Notebook demonstrates that eradicatingstructural and physical violence requires recognizing their intimateconnection and developing a critical stance that unsettles the self-otherdichotomy on which so much violence is based.


1. A number ofscholars identify Lessing's concerns as either pacifist or feministwithout connecting these political stances to each other or to Lessing'sconcerns about global human rights issues. In this respect, previousscholarship fails to capture the scope of Lessing's accomplishment. Forexample, Fand indicates that Lessing "gives priority to 'thebomb'" but comments that so do feminists (104). Fand does not developthis idea. While Gardiner identifies Lessing's emphasis on the problemof "treat[ing] other people as objects" (91), her discussion ofempathy lacks connection to Lessing's preoccupation with larger globalissues. Barnouw observes that Lessing identifies thought processes as theroot cause of violence (116) but, like Gardiner, doesn't connect"othering" to global issues. Like other scholars, Abel addresses therejection of dualistic thinking in The GoldenNotebook (102), but her argument is undercut by aligningLessing's ideas with those of the French feminists, which rely heavilyon the male-female opposition. Furthermore, Abel, like other scholars,fails to connect Lessing's feminism with her interest in peace and humanrights.

2. Here I amrelying on Burwell's discussion of utopia as having "a circular andself-fulfilling relation to its fear of contamination: it projects internalcontradiction onto a subsequently devalued place, and when thiscontradiction confronts it as external contamination, utopia reinforces theboundaries that sustain an image of itself as separate andself-contained" (2).

3. Scholars who have observed the irony or parody in The GoldenNotebook include Draine (72), Fand (100), Green (Changing 127), Schweickart (274-75), and Sprague(10).

4. Arlett characterizes thedistancing effect of the notebooks as similar to distancing in Brecht'sdrama (36).

5. As Fishburn observes about Lessing's science fiction, Lessingcreates a "dialectical relationship between the text and her readers"(Unexpected 12). Greene comments that The Golden Notebook is "'writerly'" in Barthes'ssense of the term; it requires reader participation (Doris 23).

Works Cited

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Barnouw, Dagmar. "'Disorderly Company': From TheGolden Notebook to The Four-Gated City.." Contemporary Literature 14 (Autumn 1973):491-514. Rpt. in Sprague and Tiger, eds. 115-25.

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---. The Unexpected Universe of Doris Lessing: A Study inNarrative Technique. Contributions to the Study of ScienceFiction and Fantasy 17. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1985.

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---. Doris Lessing: The Poetics of Change. Ann Arbor: U of MichiganP, 1994.

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Lessing, Doris. The Golden Notebook. New York:Bantam, 1962.

---. Introduction. In Lessing Golden vii-xxii.

Linfield, Susie. "Against Utopia: AnInterview with Doris Lessing." 59-74.GET CITE.

Michael, MagaliCornier. Feminism and the Postmodern Impulse: Post-World WarII Fiction. Albany: State U of New York P, 1996.

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