The Enormous Room

by E. E. Cummings
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Cummings was kept in prison while abroad in France. Discuss his book, The Enormous Room, as it relates to both prison and the mind of the author.

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Like many other young Americans, E. E. Cummings volunteered as an ambulance driver in France during World War I. Along with a friend, W. S. Brown, Cummings was arrested for allegedly being pro-German after Brown wrote what a censor interpreted as anti-war sentiments. In person, both expressed reservations about their...

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Like many other young Americans, E. E. Cummings volunteered as an ambulance driver in France during World War I. Along with a friend, W. S. Brown, Cummings was arrested for allegedly being pro-German after Brown wrote what a censor interpreted as anti-war sentiments. In person, both expressed reservations about their involvement in the war. Cummings was imprisoned for four months until diplomatic intervention led to his release. During his imprisonment in La Ferté-Macé prison, while he occupied a large room with about 30 other prisoners from numerous countries, Cummings wrote what he could and later recalled more. He later transformed the experience into the fictional treatment, The Enormous Room.

Cummings’s confidence in his innocence and imminent release, although sometimes diminished, generally supported his attitude toward the ordeal. His writing tends toward emphasizing the absurdity of his situation, and more generally of the wartime atmosphere that had led him there to begin with. The day is filled with routine activities, such as cleaning and eating. During exercise hours outside, they can observe and sometimes converse with female prisoners. Because there are few organized activities, interpersonal relations occupy much of the day, and the men often fight.

Many of the prisoners have been there much longer, and some have mental issues. A Belgian painter he befriends, and with whom he can discuss art and literature, is among those who develops mental problems. This experience makes Cummings realize he cannot assume his own mental health will not likewise deteriorate. Cummings phrases part of the book in the language of Paul Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, including the nickname of Delectable Mountains that he gives to several other prisoners. He becomes friends with one of them, nicknamed the Wanderer, and meets his children who are allowed to visit. Among the other positive relationships he develops are those with a Polish man, an African Frenchman, and the kindly Surplice.

Although Cummings is honest about his dark moments, he comes across as positive and generally outgoing, even humorous able to form bonds with those he assumed were in worse situations than his. After a few false starts, when it looked like he might be transferred to a different prison—as had occurred to his friend Brown—he was released, and then returned to the United States.

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E.E. Cummings, best known for his poetry, wrote The Enormous Room (1922), a sort of travelogue autobiography of his imprisonment in France, where he had been an ambulance attendant during WWI. The “enormous room” is a metaphor for the contradiction of being in France, a vast country, and still being imprisoned by the restrictions on freedom of thought. While in the real prison (for various unfounded charges, including sympathy for the German cause), Cummings used his mind and imagination to expand his freedom beyond the prison walls of his physical environment, thus making his cell, his room, enormous. When he was freed (through political pressure brought on the government through his father’s influence with the Woodrow Wilson), he pursued his writing career; his poetry, which uses but breaks the rules of grammar and the English language, has often been seen metaphorically as expanding out of the “prison” of grammar to the “enormous” possibilities of expression. The book itself is a highly imaginative “journal” of travels Cummings actually made, as well as flights into the “enormous room” of his imagination.

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