Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
The Enormous Room is Cummings’s autobiographical narrative of the time he spent in La Ferté Mace, a French concentration camp a hundred miles west of Paris. Cummings and a friend, both members of an American ambulance corps in France during World War I, were erroneously suspected of treasonable correspondence and were imprisoned from August, 1917, until January, 1918. In this book, Cummings describes the prisoners with whom he shared his captivity, the captors who subjected their victims to enormous cruelty, and the filthy surroundings of the prison camp.
Written in the form of a pilgrimage and modeled after John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), Cummings’s narrative also shows the influence of early American black autobiographies. Like Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress and the slaves who wrote their own stories, the narrator in Cummings’s self-portrait faces an arduous journey to freedom, a voyage not unlike the ones described in many early black autobiographies also modeled on Bunyan’s classic. In Cummings’s voyage, the autobiographer emphasizes and celebrates his belief in individuality, especially as it is seen in the characters of the prisoners, including the gypsy dubbed Wanderer, the childish giant named Jean le Nègre, and the clownish captive called Surplice.
In The Enormous Room, the reader follows the enslaved Cummings along three legs of his journey: first, the period before La...
(The entire section is 1289 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
The poet E. E. Cummings and his friend W. S. B. are unhappy as members of the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Service, a unit sent by Americans to aid the French during World War I. One day they are arrested by French military police. From hints dropped during an investigation, Cummings gathers that W. S. B. wrote letters the censor found suspicious. Because they are good friends, both men are held for questioning. They never find out exactly what they are suspected of doing. On one occasion, Cummings is asked whether he hates the Germans. He replies that he does not, that he simply loves the French very much. The investigating official cannot understand how one can love the French and not hate the Germans. Finally, Cummings and W. S. B. are separated and sent to different prisons. Again and again Cummings is questioned and moved from one spot to another, always under strict guard.
Late one night, he is taken to a prison in the little provincial town of Macé. There he is thrown into a huge darkened room, given a straw mattress, and told to go to sleep. In the darkness, he counts at least thirty voices speaking eleven different languages. Early the next morning he meets W. S. B. in the room, who tells him that all the prisoners there are suspected of being spies, some only because they speak no French.
That morning, he learns the routine of the prison. The enormous room is lined with mattresses down each side, with a few windows to let in light at one...
(The entire section is 1174 words.)