Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Sarton, in The Small Room, examines the role of the professor in a small New England college. Just what are the duties and responsibilities of the professor? What kind of commitment is necessary? What does this commitment demand of the individual? What is the price of excellence?

Emotions, too, are important. Sarton maintains that emotions show feeling which is an integral part of being alive and effective and happy. The loneliness of the professional woman is understandable, and the loneliness of women professors at Appleton is evident, primarily in Lucy Winter. The others seem to find fulfillment in their work and their interactions with colleagues.

The need for love and concern is not only a need of faculty; it is also a basic need of the student. Cope’s seeming indifference to Jane’s quiet pleas and Lucy’s attempt to ignore Pippa’s obvious expressions of need for attention, or love, serve to emphasize that faculty should be concerned about the whole person—not merely the academic needs of the student. That these students are mature individuals becomes clear when the plagiarism case is given to the student council for action. Sarton points out that students, too, can act with wisdom and understanding.

Teaching in a women’s college is, according to Cope, a special kind of challenge. She also believes that those individuals who have roots in their work also have roots in life. What happens in the many small rooms at Appleton is relevant to life. In this sense, Appleton is a microcosm of the world.