Room, by Emma Donoghue, published by Picador, 2011
Emma Donoghue’s novel Room (2010) is deeply unsettling, depressing, and, in some ways, hopeful. Inspired by the Josef Friztl case (2008), Room is the harrowing tale of five-year-old Jack and his Ma, imprisoned in Room—a solitary garden shed—for seven years. Elizabeth Friztl had been kidnapped and kept locked in the basement of her house for twenty four years by her father. In the interim, she had been subjected to physical assault, sexual abuse and rape which had resulted in the birth of a total of seven children – all of whom had been fathered by Elisabeth’s father, Josef. In Room, Jack is born to his mother following the miscarriage of her firstborn, a daughter, fathered by her kidnapper who is referred to as Old Nick in the story. Although this is the primary context of the plot, the story is not so much about the confinement as about the newfound freedom of Jack and his mother. And, it is precisely in this that Donoghue calls for a revision of the notions of freedom and reality.
What renders the narrative so poignant and the suffering so palpable is the innocent incomprehension of the child narrator. Alert and astute, Jack has been born and raised within the four walls of Room. From the very first page, the novel plunges us into Jack’s world – a world created by his father but built by his mother. The innocent banter between a child and his mother gradually gives way to the daunting realization that their existence is confined to a box slightly larger than a coffin. Trapped in a soundproof room, Jack and his Ma subsist on vitamin pills and weekly ration brought in by Old Nick in exchange for sex with Jack’s Ma. Even within this, Jack’s private world is made up of words – a lexicon of daily mundane objects and habits, personified and reified by the attribution of gender to everything – from Room to Wardrobe to Toothbrush to Rug. His friends include Dora the Explorer on television and Egg-Snake under his bed (which is shells of used eggs strung together with thread). Jack has been told that the only world which exists is the room in which he lives. All that he sees and touches within the room are ‘real’, and all that he watches on the screen of the television are not.
It is only after his fifth birthday that his Ma ‘un-lies’ and tries to convince him that ‘reality’ is just the reverse – the Outside is real. By this time, we, readers, have been drawn into Jack’s world. We have experienced and shuddered with the discomfort of suffocation as he lived each day, caught in the monotonous cycle of routine, like a helpless hamster running on a wheel. So, when Jack’s Ma makes an elaborate but risk-ridden plan for them to escape, we read on with bated breath, wishing that they succeed. But, what we forget to realize is that Jack is not necessarily unhappy. Jack is content with his life inside Room. We feel stifled and suffocated because we, with all our knowledge and experience of the world, think of ourselves as free only outside the confines of four walls. We feel that Jack is being deprived of a normal, real life that can only exist outside the consciousness of being confined. Almost as if to prove us wrong and to make us re-think along different lines, Jack encounters the Outside and is thoroughly disillusioned by all that he sees. To quote him: “I’ve seen the world and I’m tired now…Everything’s wrong” (155). Indeed the Outside he had been made to envision as liberating is just as restrictive as Room. The Outside is where Jack’s mother cannot breastfeed him without attracting public disdain; it is where his Ma is made to feel selfish and insensitive for not having considered the option of releasing him through adoption. So, do they really escape? Or is it just a transportation from one cage to another, where the second cage, being shaped by discourse, emotions, and expectations, is surreptitiously pervasive?
The focalisation of the child becomes a powerful narratorial device to ensure that the reader retraces the steps to childhood innocence and ignorance, and, in spite of preconceived notions of ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ re-encounters the world again. The takeaway from the novel is not just the harrowing awareness of the actions of a deranged mind that resorts to kidnap, confinement, and rape but also a not-so-gentle reminder of alienation amidst the familiar and the familial (as experienced by both Jack and his Ma, on their return to the Outside). As a woman, Jack’s Ma is victim to gender-based oppression not only when she is inside Room but also amidst civil, liberated society which constantly seeks to impress its own ideals upon her. Without resorting to philosophers and theorists, Donoghue makes us aware of alternative ways of perceiving the world, which we complacently accept as a given, through the simplicity of a child’s uncomplicated cognition. As Jack succinctly summarizes:
“When I was four I thought everything in TV was just TV, then I was five and Ma unlied about lots of it being pictures of real and Outside being totally real. Now I’m Outside but it turns out lots of it isn’t real at all.” (277)
– Adreja Mukherji