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'Room' - a review of the novel by Emma Donoghue

Updated on January 7, 2016
Plato's Cave
Plato's Cave | Source

Summary of the story


'Room', by Emma Donoghue, was short listed for the Man Booker Prize 2010 and is Ms Donoghue's 7th novel.

Here she portrays the story of a young, nameless woman of twenty six who, at the age of nineteen was snatched off the street by a sadisitic, unempathetic stranger called Old Nick. The man locks her in a customised soundproofed and fortified shed in his back yard which is the room of the story.

We do not learn her real name as the story is narrated by her five year old son Jack, who simply refers to her as 'Ma', although Ms Donoghue hints at a possible name for her further on in the book.

Jack is the product of Old Nick's nighttime visits to Room when he rapes the captive woman (we know this because Jack refers to Old Nick squeaking the bed springs. Of course, Jack in his innocence does not understand the implications of this).

Apart from his 'visits' Old Nick also removes the trash and delivers essentials which Ma has requested, such as groceries, vitamin pills, clothes etc. Room has a toilet, bath, kitchen area with a fridge and a stove, basic furniture and a tv. It is complete in itself and Old Nick tells Ma she should be grateful for being so well looked after!

The only source of light is a skylight in the roof, through which they can see the sun and at certain times of the month the full moon which Jack believes are the two faces of God.

Room is the only place Jack knows. It is his entire world. He was conceived there, born there and has hitherto lived his entire life within the confines of its 11'x11'.

He sleeps in the wardrobe. All the features of Room are personalised, such as Rug, Bed, Door, Bath, Wardrobe etc.

Jack's ma is an intelligent, reasonably well educated young woman who does her best to bring Jack up well. For example she teaches him good manners, to pray, the 3 R's, and allows him limited access to the tv which she tells Jack will rot his brain if he watches too much of it.

The story begins on Jack's fifth birthday. Shortly after this event Ma decides it is time to come clean, to 'unlie' about their appalling situation. She tells Jack that there is a real outside world and naturally, because Jack has never known anything other than Room, he does not believe her. He is completely confounded and confused by what she says and accuses her of lying.

After six years of enduring her horrific incarceration Ma hatches a plot to escape and the second part of the book deals entirely with their new life in the outside world, specifically Jack's reactions to it.

Enough of the story line! What does it mean?

Having read many reviews of this novel I did not feel any touched on the possible real message behind the story.

It is clearly allegorical, but most reviewers seemed only to grasp it simplistically ie the story of a young boy and his mother shut away in a room by an abusive stranger. It is true, it can be read an enjoyed as such, but I am certain there is more to this story than initially meets the eye!

The first thing that struck me was the choice of name for the captor - 'Old Nick'. Old Nick is another name for Satan. This is the first clue to the true intentions behind this novel.

Old Nick grabs the young woman off the street by lying to her. The woman is caught off her guard and falls for the lie he spins to get her into his truck.

Although Old Nick is clearly the perpetrator of the crime, she too played a part in that she was not paying sufficient attention and fell for the obvious lie about his sick dog. It was the oldest trick in the book; but despite warnings she must have had about not going off with strangers, she nevertheless ignored them and thought it would be okay to go with him. This refers to 1 Peter 5 v 8 'Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour'.

Her predicament mirrors the soul who has been deceived and taken into captivity through its own carelessness and lack of attention. The young woman had known freedom, but through her own choice, ie that of ignoring good advice found herself in a terrible situation from which there appeared to be no escape. In mythology, a young woman represents the soul.

She had become his slave as one's soul also becomes slave to the dark. There seems to be no way out.

Jack, however is born into captivity through no fault of his own. He lives in Room for all of his first five years and truly believes Room is the whole world and all that can be experienced. For him nothing exists beyond his narrow understanding.

Jack represents the coming of consciousness in the situation. According to early teachings Christ was born in a cave not a stable as we have been told in the bible. The name Christ in gnostic terms, means 'consciousness'.

Room represents the cave, Jack, christ-consciousness in you. A new life waiting to burst forth out of the dark.

The author alludes at one point halfway through the novel, to Plato's Cave.

According to Plato in 'Republic', Socrates describes a group of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives. They watch shadows projected onto the wall by things passing in front of a fire behind them, and begin to give names to the shadows. Jack gives names to all the items in Room, which represent the shadows. As the shadows are as close as the prisoners get to viewing reality, items of furniture in Room are the nearest Jack gets to his reality.

The young woman in our story is determined to break free from captivity and devises a cunning plan to ensure their escape. This involves Jack being rolled up in Rug (upon which he was born), playing dead, and Old Nick taking him away on his truck for burial.

This happens at Easter time, which is our second clue.

Old Nick falls for this trick and whilst Jack is in the back of the truck he struggles free from Rug, like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon. He jumps into the road and alerts passers by who call the police. Old Nick has been found out and arrested.

The emergence of Jack from Rug is like being born again. He bursts forth from unreality into Reality and has new life; the soul at last attains consciousness.

Plato explains how the philosopher (the soul) is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall do not make up reality at all, as he can perceive the true form of reality rather than the mere shadows seen by the prisoners.

In 'Room' Jack is a Christ- like figure who died (by being rolled up in Rug) and rose again (by bursting out of Rug). As a result his mother is saved and released from captivity.

At the end of the story they revisit Room. Ma doesn't want to go but Jack insists. When they finally see it for the last time neither of them can believe they lived there for so long. It is so small.

Having experienced enlightenment you cannot turn back. As in the movie 'The Matrix', having taken the red pill you cannot go on to take the blue pill.

Enjoy this beautiful music by Harold Budd!

And finally!

Read what the author has to say in this article in The Guardian newspaper recently -


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