Narrative Perspective in Emma Donoghue’s ‘Room’
Telling a story through the eyes of a child is by no means a new literary technique. Fantastical novels such as Rowling’s Harry Potter and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little Cabin in the Big Woods use the younger generation for their central points of view. This tactic encourages a sense of adolescence discovery – almost magic – whilst simultaneously drawing the reader back in to their own childhood. Using this particular perspective changes the way the narration records the world, and thus how the story is told. In Room, Donoghue uses the five-year-old Jack as the narrative perspective. His infantile ignorance furthers the sense of tragedy; the reader is more aware of his situation than Jack is. Additionally, it enhances the feelings of alienation that are inevitable when entering the real world. It is also interesting to consider the impact on the novel if instead Ma were the narrator. The focus would perhaps have been more on the psychological side, and less on what Jack gives us; he records what he sees, and the simple emotions it makes him feel, without the further complications of an adult psyche.
Fundamentally, the difference between an adult and child is a matter of perspective. In using Jack as the narrator, Room presents an alternate and usually unseen perspective. As Jack was born in Room, it is the only space, and only reality, he has ever known. Therefore, the place where he is unknowingly kept captive is defined as ‘home’, whilst the freedom of the outside world is ‘make believe’, something Jack only ever sees on television. This sense of subverted reality is approached from the beginning, where Jack and Ma’s routine temporarily convinces the reader that their existence within room is wholly normal:
Another rule is, the wide of the walls is the same as the wide of Floor, I count eleven feet going both ways, that means Floor is a square. (p.26)
Donoghue’s opening pages recount Jack and Ma’s days through their established routine. Almost like a list, Jack specifies their individual activities, including mealtimes, washing and activities. This excerpt comes from another pastime, where Jack decides to measure Room. This particular activity, above all the others, is especially significant. Whilst Jack thinks he it is merely a game, Ma understands the significance of this ‘square’; by measuring Room, Jack is essentially reducing their entire existence down to numbers. This is one of many examples where Jack simply lives out his usual routine, whilst an underlying unease is constantly present. There is a world beyond these four walls, yet Jack’s reality is so small. Furthermore, Jack’s narration capitalises all that he deems an important part of his life; as a child would name a stuffed toy, Jack names the different elements of Room. ‘Floor’ almost becomes a sentient being, as if he is playing with one of his friends, and this sense of misplaced normality increases. To conclude, it is these rules, games and rituals that simultaneously creates a life for Jack within Room, yet also will lead to inevitable problems when his world becomes much, much larger.
Many experiences are measured through comparing one to another. For example, a common phrase in adult narrative perspectives is ‘it was the happiest day of my life’, relying on other days to compare this to. Before the eight years she spent in captivity, Ma grew up and experienced the outside world. As a child born in Room, Jack has not. Therefore, these events are not only enhanced by a child’s perspective, but also defined by Jack’s particular and unique experiences. Everything is so new that seemingly normal activities are sensationalised to such an extreme. This is particularly emphasised in Jack’s initial transition to the outside world: “I put on my cool shades to watch God’s yellow face in our window […]” (p.231). Jack appears as if almost a new-born. The label ‘sun’ is something that we are taught about from such a young age that it not longer occurs to us. The fact that he doesn’t know this, and instead refers to it as ‘God’s yellow face’ is yet another subtle reminder that Jack has not had the privileges of a childhood education. It perhaps is also a gentle reminder that everyone has a different perspective of the world, and that Jack is only just discovering his. Additionally, the use of pronouns must also be considered important, albeit initially not. Jack labels the window as ‘our[s]’, dictating that it belongs to him and Ma. When he lived in Room, he believed that everything was theirs too. This slight choice of language presents the difficulties present in Jack’s transition from Room; he must now accept that everything in this world will not, by definition, belong to him and Ma.
As previously explored, Donoghue’s novel is less based on event, and ratheron human reactions, specifically Ma and Jack’s. A child’s narration can therefore illustrate the difference between how an adult and child would process a similar experience, whether positive or negative. Ma is arguably subjected to more abuse in her attempt to protect Jack; she is repeatedly raped by Old Nick, and spent years on her own before Jack was born. She has also known a life before Room, so will feel the loss of her freedom especially acutely. Jack cannot feel any of this, as Room is the only reality he has ever known, and freedom is an unknown concept to him. At the end of the novel, he requests to visit Room again. As he leaves, he moves on without any psychological attachment to it, despite the awful things events that have occurred there:
I look back one more time. It’s like a crater, a hole where something happened. Then we go out the door. (p.401)
This return to Room is markedly significant. For the first time, Jack has experienced the outside world and now has an environment he can compare to Room. He describes it as a ‘hole’; the place that originally he viewed as a home is reduced to nothingness. This obsolete sense of emptiness is furthered through referring to their captivity as ‘something’. This especially illustrates the particular use of the infantile narration; to Ma, those seven years were certainly more than ‘something’. It not only suggests the capacity for children to heal and move forward easily, but it also presents undertones of a time period that is too painful to describe. Therefore, this narration is perhaps the only technique that Donoghue could have employed for them to have simply walked out the door. The especial beauty of Jack’s narration is it’s implicit innocence; he records simply what they do, and very little of how he feels. It is with this ending that the reader is almost reassured. For Jack, Room will remain only has a place where ‘something happened’, and nothing more.
Perhaps the most important effect of Donoghue’s choice of narration is the order of realisation that it forces on the readership. In encountering the story through a child’s perspective, we notice that Jack depicts events and his subsequent emotions in extremely simplistic terms. As he is the primary, and only, narrator, we are forced as readers to follow this pace. Therefore, we only realise the events that are happening through subtle hints, where Jack himself does not even realise. Every night in Room, Jack heard a series of squeaks and grunts from Old Nick. Whilst he does not realise that he witnesses the rape of Ma every night, the reader does. In Donoghue allowing the reader to realise these facts by themselves, rather than writing it clearly on a page, it increases this sense of tragedy with infinite effect.
 Room, Emma Donoghue (Basingstoke & Oxford: Picador, 2010)
Physical, Mental, and Emotional Freedom in ‘Room’
When thinking of the word “freedom”, one definition usually comes to mind; physical freedom, or the ability to go wherever, whenever. However, there are many more aspects to freedom than just physical freedom. There is mental freedom, which is having peace of mind and being able to think clearly and there is emotional freedom, which is having the freedom to express your inner thoughts and emotions without fear. The novel Room, by Emma Donoghue, is about a five-year-old boy named Jack who has spent his whole life confined in an eleven-by-eleven foot space (“Room”) with his mother, whom he calls “Ma”. The novel explores the concept of freedom and discusses how Ma and Jack’s experiences in Room limit their freedom in a physical, mental, and emotional way.
Ma and Jack’s freedom is physically limited in Room, as they are trapped inside by their captor, Old Nick, and are literally unable to escape. They are constricted to the eleven-by-eleven foot perimeters of Room, and when Jack figures out how small a space Room is, it proves further how physically limited he is. As he’s counting the tiles in Room, Jack explains, “Another rule is, the wide of the walls is the same as the wide of Floor, I count eleven feet going both ways, that means Floor is a square (19).” Later, when Ma tells him about her life before Room and her ability to do whatever she wanted, Jack is curious about what life would be like without four walls surrounding him at all times. Jack asks Ma,“Could we swing in the hammock?” Ma responds with, “We could do what we like, we’d be free (90).” Ma knows that she and Jack cannot leave Room as Old Nick will not allow them to but she is hopeful for the day that she and Jack will be physically free. Jack does not understand what it is like to be able to do whatever he wants and go wherever he would like as his physical freedom is restricted inside of Room.
As well as being physically limited by their experiences in Room, Ma and Jack’s mental freedom is also limited. Jack does not perceive the world in the same way as other five-year-olds and Ma is constantly trapped by her memories of Room and Old Nick’s abuse. In Room, Jack only interacts with Ma. He is not used to being with kids his own age and when his Grandma later brings him to the park to socialize with other kids, Jack feels uncomfortable and unsafe. (261) “‘I can’t go in the playground because there’s kids not friends of mine,’ [I say.] Grandma rolls her eyes. ‘You just play at the same time, that’s what kids do.’” Since Jack has grown up in an enclosed, isolated, environment, he has not cognitively developed the same way as other kids. He is constrained by his past experiences in Room which have affected him in such a way that he is unaccustomed to being with other kids and has been held back from a normal childhood. Not only has Jack been mentally affected by his experiences in Room, so has Ma. Room is such a part of her identity that even after she leaves Room it is almost impossible for her to go a day without being reminded of it. When she is getting interviewed, after leaving Room, Ma is still sensitive about her experiences inside. When a television interviewer inquires about her relationship with Old Nick, she snaps. (240) “I was just wondering whether, in your view, the genetic, the biological, relationship-’ ‘There was no relationship,” says Ma, she’s talking through her teeth.” Even though Ma is physically free, she is not mentally free now that she is out of Room. Ma is still haunted by her memories of Room and everything that Old Nick did to her, and in a way, she is no more free than she was before.
Ultimately what pushes Ma over the edge is not her physical or mental freedom but her lack of emotional freedom. Inside of Room, she could not properly express her emotions without fear of hurting Jack. When she leaves Room, Ma is so overwhelmed by everything that she has kept contained that she deems the only solution to be suicide. When Jack finds Ma after she overdoses, he realizes just how limited her emotional freedom was, and begins to understand why she did what she did. “She took the bad medicine, I think she was too tired to play anymore, she was in a hurry to get to Heaven so she didn’t wait . (257)” Ma feels she should be happy after escaping Room, the prison she has been locked up in for the past seven years of her life, but she feels everything but happiness. When she is having a conversation with Grandma, Grandma thinks that she needs rest. Ma knows that sleep can not fix her feelings of instability. Jack observes his mother: “Ma says, ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I’m supposed to be happy.’ ‘You just need to rest, okay?,’ says Grandma. ‘No, I don’t. I don’t need to rest! (270)’” Ma’s experiences in Room have limited her emotional freedom. In Room Ma was unable to complain otherwise Old Nick would hurt her. Ma does not feel happy despite escaping Room as she is emotionally overwhelmed and her experiences have completely limited her overall emotional freedom.
It can be concluded that Ma and Jack’s experiences in Room have limited their freedom in multiple ways: Physically, they were unable to leave Room; mentally, they are haunted by their memories of Room; and emotionally their experiences have left Ma and Jack overwhelmed, and have prevented the two of them from living normal lives. As Ma puts it, “People are locked up in all sorts of ways (242).”