Narrative Perspective in Emma Donoghue’s ‘Room’

July 29, 2019 by Essay Writer

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.

[1] Room, Emma Donoghue (Basingstoke & Oxford: Picador, 2010)

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