“To Room Nineteen” appears in a long line of works of fiction dealing with passive resistance to conformity and the resulting mental breakdown. Its antecedents include Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (1853), in which the title character’s preferring not to do anything eventually leads to his death, and “The Yellow Wall-Paper” (1892) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, whose protagonist, increasingly unsatisfied by her roles as wife and mother, gradually goes insane. This story also has some parallels to one of Doris Lessing’s later novels, The Summer Before the Dark (1973), whose similarly alienated protagonist leaves her family to escape her depression but eventually returns.
The story of Susan Rawlings can be misinterpreted too easily, especially because of its similarities to “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” as simply a feminist parable of an unfulfilled woman driven to her death by an insensitive, male-dominated society, but Doris Lessing hardly presents the world of suburban London, in an obviously unenlightened period, so starkly. Neither does Lessing intend Susan to be simply a case history of disintegration. She is presented too specifically to be merely a type, and despite her hallucinations, she is more depressed than clinically insane.
“To Room Nineteen” is a vivid portrait of the extremes to which the sensitive individual, especially a woman, may go when the resources of everyday life prove...
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