Emma Donoghue’s Room begins as a story about how a young child processes a confined world when it’s all he’s ever known, but it becomes a story about how his mother tries to cope with her frayed and exploded existence.

As Jack starts to learn about an outside world beyond the fantasies and mythologies his mother has supplied him with, his safe, contained world opens up into something he could have never imagined, even with all the information he gleaned from television. Jack soon finds that the real Outside world is more like the nonsense world in Alice in Wonderland than his scheduled and orderly Room. It’s easy to make sense of things when there are very few things, and when you’re supplied with tidy explanations for every mystery.

Ma tells Jack that there is nothing outside their Room but black, unlivable space. You can imagine them floating in their makeshift shed, bobbing along like an abandoned spacepod. At first, that’s what they might as well be, but Ma gets a series of shocks that awaken her drive to return Outside, and save her son from death, or worse: becoming a young man inside Room.

The Outside world has too many mysteries to explain them all away. It’s impossible to dry yourself from the flood of unanswered questions once it’s touched you. Part of this big, scary, and unpredictable world involves Ma herself, who turns out to be much more complicated than Jack realized. She orchestrated Jack’s experience in Room around comfort and enjoyment to the best of her abilities. She succeeded in creating a beautiful world for Jack even in one of the worst circumstances imaginable, but the result of Jack’s wonderland attachment to Room is that he’s ignorant of the extent of his mother’s suffering. “I keep messing up,” Ma says. “I know you need me to be your ma but I’m having to remember how to be me as well at the same time and it’s . . .”


In the book, Jack’s thoughts are a unique lens to show Ma’s struggles. His mother’s psychological and existential crises bubble to the surface once they are “free,” and Jack’s immediate safety isn’t her entire world anymore. There is a self Ma left behind that she cannot find anymore. Meanwhile, there is a past Jack yearns to return to that she wants to escape, would erase if she could, if it meant not erasing Jack. Jack is an embodiment of the horror, and her only reason to hope for life. Still, his attachment to Room, an attachment that Ma ensured with her storytelling magic, is abhorrent to her. She can’t blame a five-year-old child for not understanding, but his love for Room constantly picks at her wounds from the experience. She has to step up and teach him new things: teach him about newness and loss, and detachment. She has to teach him that Room isn’t Room anymore.

One of Jack’s only clues about the degree of his mother’s stress and sorrow are days when she’s “gone,” and won’t get out of bed. Sometimes they happened in Room, but he was able to go about his schedule. When one of her gone days happens Outside, Jack’s world really starts to turn upside down. It’s the moment when his selfhood starts to split, mostly painfully, from Ma. He conceives her to be an extension of himself, or that he’s an extension of her, but Ma (her real name isn’t revealed in the book) needs to find a way to be herself, whoever that is, after all she’s gone through. She feels alien to herself, but her nurse Noreen points out, “You’d have changed anyway. Moving into your twenties, having a child–you woulnd’t have stayed the same.”

The critically acclaimed film adaptation of Room is currently in theaters.


Proofread with the help of Grammarly.