Adultery and Divorce in the 1960s: Reading and Contextualizing “To Room Nineteen”
In Doris Lessing’s short story, “To Room Nineteen” Susan and Matthew Rawling seem to be the perfect couple, until Matthew begins to have affairs and Susan is left alone to her own thoughts and eventually goes mad and kills herself. An underlying theme that Lessing could be hinting at is how adultery affects a marriage. During the 1960s, divorce was becoming a more prevalent solution to marital issues. By collecting historical information and considering the characters in this story, it can be assumed that Lessing believed that divorce was a suitable solution for some marriages.
During the 1960s, divorce was considered to be a widespread tragedy in London. Laws about divorce were made and it was said that a couple may only get divorced if it were “irretrievably broken down.” According to the London Times article, “Breakdown or Offences” there were three different ways a marriage could be considered broken down: “desertion for a continuous period of at least two years; separation for at least two years when both parties agree to a divorce; separation for at least five years when there is no such agreement”. This suggests that if a couple were in any of these three situations, their marriage was undoubtedly broken down. However, This article also argues that there are other reasons that people should be able to easily obtain a divorce, for instance, adultery, this is considered an “offense” according to this article. During this time, “adultery is one of the surest legal grounds for divorce,” however, this article also makes the assertion that adultery cannot always be proven, and this is an easy way for people to easily get a divorce on “fictitious” allegations. In 1969, an article called “Divorce on Demand” was published in the London Times, this article argues against the idea that “one isolated instance of adultery is evidence that a marriage is finished, and even worse so to broaden the definition of cruelty that it could be interpreted to mean simple incompatibility.” This article argues the point that adultery should not be a reason for divorce (at least not a single-time offense) because this could mean that the people simply weren’t compatible for each other, but it was difficult for them to obtain a divorce, so they were forced to become unfaithful to their spouses.
In “To Room Nineteen” Susan Rawling’s husband Matthew is unfaithful to their marriage, and instead of divorcing, Susan decides to stay with Matthew, during which, she eventually goes insane and commits suicide. Throughout the story, Susan justifies Matthew’s affairs with the argument that monogamy is unrealistic. One instance of this is Susan and Matthew even joking, saying “Of course I’m not going to to be faithful to you, no one can be faithful to one person for a whole lifetime,” (Lessing). This is significant because Susan doesn’t seem to be bothered by Matthew’s unfaithfulness, but as time passes the loneliness consumes her and drives her mad.
Towards the end of the story, Susan tries to convince Matthew that she had been unfaithful to him in order to make him relate to how she is feeling, but this quickly backfires and only causes Susan more strife. When telling Matthew about her fictitious lover, Michael, he seems unfazed and offers to join them on a date, to which Susan thinks, “Of course, she said to herself, of course he would be bound to say that. If one is sensible, if one is reasonable, if one never allows oneself a base thought or an envious emotion, naturally one says: Let’s make a foursome!” (Lessing). This allows Susan to come to the realization that Matthew understands that monogamy is unrealistic. By using the phrase “if one is sensible, if one is reasonable,” Lessing is suggesting that jealousy is an absurd feeling to have, and if a person was smart they wouldn’t invest in their envious emotions.
It is thus critical to consider Susan Rawling’s not divorcing Matthew Rawlings as a warning to people who in unfaithful marriages. Lessing makes the point that Susan, who only wanted to be with Matthew for the rest of her life, is the one who goes mad in the end. Instead of divorcing him, she tried to salvage what she had and was unsuccessful doing so.
“Breakdown Or Offences.” Times [London, England] 16 Jan. 1968: 9. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 14 Nov. 2017. “Court Circular.” Times [London, England] 12 May 1949: 7. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 14 Nov. 2017. “Divorce On Demand.” Times [London, England] 2 July 1969: 9. The Times Digital Archive. Web. 14 Nov. 2017. Lessing, Doris. “To Room Nineteen” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 9th ed. Eds. Jahan Ramazani, Jon Stallworthy et al. Vol F. New York, NY, London, ENG: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012. 2759-2780. Print.
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In Doris Lessing’s short story, “To Room Nineteen” Susan and Matthew Rawling seem to be the perfect couple, until Matthew begins to have affairs and Susan is left alone to […]