Dr. Andrea Powell Wolfe Recommends “Room” by Emma Donoghue

This semester we are introducing Recommended Reads, a new segment in which Ball State students and faculty contribute a short review of a recommended piece of literature. Continue below to read our first installment in the series, Dr. Andrea Wolfe’s review of Room by Emma Donoghue. Be sure to check back for a new Recommended Reads post every Friday.

A thrilling and often heart-wrenching page-turner, Emma Donoghue’s Room also serves as a study of the stages of psychosexual development set out by Lacan and revised by later feminist psychoanalytic theorists.  The novel is narrated by Jack, a seemingly contented boy of five who, at the beginning of the story, has never left the single-room apartment that he shares with his mother.  The only person to enter and exit the room is Old Nick, who comes in the night after Jack is supposed to be asleep in the wardrobe where he sleeps.  Ma eventually reveals to Jack that Nick abducted her seven years ago and that she and Jack are his captives.  The two of them implement an escape plan, and the rest of the novel is about their adaptation to the outside world.

Due to the extreme circumstances of his early life, Jack remains in a state of intense attachment to his mother long after infancy. Indeed, Jack imagines that he and his mother are perfectly joined, “like coloring blue crayon on top of yellow that makes green” (10).  Jack exists in a pre-Oedipal state, that which Lacan calls “the Real,” in that he lacks an understanding of the boundaries between Ma and himself.  He happily describes their daily activities in the room: he rests on top of Ma in the bath, listening to the “bang of her heart” (14), and he lies down with Ma and “has some” breast milk before nap.  Their routine might remind us of Kristeva’s “semiotic,” a realm in which mother and child exist without the need for language.  Jack resists leaving this realm and entering into the “symbolic,” wherein, psychoanalysis would suggest, his use of the language of our culture would reflect conformity to its social structure.

At the same time that he remains dependent on Ma in many ways, though, Jack becomes more and more autonomous throughout the narrative.  Even in the first chapter, he knows that the image that he sees in the mirror is not really him.  He thus passes through Lacan’s “mirror stage,” in which he recognizes the discrepancy between “the image” and “the I”—and fully recognizes himself as an independent subject.  Ultimately, Ma asks Jack to play a crucial role in a new escape plan, one that will work only if he can be “scave,” scared but mostly brave (116).  Jack agrees to separate from her temporarily and to communicate with those Outside.  Although he is inexperienced with talking to anyone but Ma, he effectively enters into the “symbolic” by leading the authorities to Room, where they rescue Ma and discover the evidence that they need to arrest Nick (155).

In general, psychoanalysis assumes that we progress through psychosexual stages in order to learn our proscribed gender roles and, ultimately, to enact these as adults.  In a patriarchal culture, this means that boys learn to either subdue or, Kristeva argues, “abject” women (i.e. their mothers) in order to define their own subjectivity.  Indeed, Jack starts to see himself as separate from Ma after they escape from the room.  He literally says goodbye to his mother’s breasts (303) and to Room (321).  Also importantly, the identity that he claims is a distinctly male one.  He repeatedly reminds strangers that, despite the fact that his hair has never been cut, he is a boy.  He later engages in play traditionally coded as masculine, learning to build LEGOS with his grandfather (281) and play soccer with Uncle Paul (310).  But instead of rejecting Ma, Jack seems—even at the age of five—to begin to recognize her subjectivity.  He relates to the reader his mother’s need for “a room of her own” in their new independent living apartment and her desire to one day return to college (304).

And, in the end, Jack poignantly renders a narrative of his development that, however indirectly, also depicts his mother’s story of trauma, resistance, motherhood, and recovery.  Instead of rejecting the (m)other in order to reify and claim the power of the patriarchy, Jack accepts Ma as a subject in her own right and incorporates her experiences as central to his own.  In this way, Room perhaps starts to imagine an alternative to that which Lacan calls “The-Law-of-the-Father.”  It challenges the idea that we must subject or abject our (m)others in order to develop into independent adults, demonstrating instead that healthy development  might allow for—or even require—the acceptance of otherness.  Emotionally stirring and intellectually provocative, this novel is recommended for those interested in contemporary reformulations of the psychosexual stages of development—as well as anyone looking for a good read.

Donoghue, Emma.  Room.  New York: Back Bay Books, 2010.

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