How do the physical and social settings in the story "To Room Nineteen" by Doris Lessing contribute to the overall meaning of the story?

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gpane eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The physical and social settings of this story can be taken as symbolic of the main character, Susan Rawlings. The story deals with her mental and emotional conflicts as she struggles to find her identity in modern society, navigating conventional social roles as wife and mother while also endeavoring to assert her independence and achieve self-realization.

The two main settings are the Rawlings' suburban family home and the hotel room (the room nineteen of the title) to which Susan periodically escapes. They are vividly contrasted: the family home is expensive, expansive, busy, and comfortable, while room nineteen is small, cramped, and squalid—to all outward appearances, quite depressing. Yet it is in this room, and this room only, where Susan can feel at ease, where there is no one else there, and no one knows her.

She was free. She sat in the armchair, she simply sat, she closed her eyes and sat and let herself be alone.

Room nineteen becomes Susan's refuge from what she feels are the ever more stifling demands placed upon her by family and society at large. The settings therefore become highly ironic: it is the mean little hotel room which gives Susan freedom (and her ultimate escape from society in the form of suicide), whereas her beautiful, rich, large family home suffocates her. In this way the settings reflect the overall ironic mode of the story. The wry, ironic tone is evident in the very first sentence:

This is a story, I suppose, about the failure in intelligence: the Rawlings' marriage was grounded in intelligence.

This marriage of this couple, who are not only intelligent but healthy, good-looking, well-off, and sociable, at first appears to epitomize success and achievement in modern society. However the story ruthlessly exposes the lack of real meaning and fulfillment in their lives, showing the utterly disastrous effect it has upon Susan in particular; the two main settings play a big part in this.

Jessica Pope eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Doris Lessing's To Room Nineteen, protagonist Susan Rawlings struggles with issues of identity and alienation. The story depicts her increasing anxiety, depression, and nihilism as she attempts to find meaning in her life. The physical and social settings in the story constitute the very limits from which Susan seeks to break free. 

Susan occupies two physical spaces in the story. Primarily, she resides within the confines of her suburban home. This physical setting of home symbolizes the domestic and social trappings of Susan's life. She has no privacy in her home; her husband and four children have marked every room as their own.

Whereas her husband and children live in the home, Susan merely serves in the home. She resents cleaning, cooking, and housekeeping. Her resentment of these domestic duties runs so deep comes that Susan eventually comes to resent even the furnishings in the home (which always have to be polished) and the dishes in the kitchen (which have to be cleaned constantly). 

Seeking to escape the suffocating domesticity of her suburban home, Susan retreats to a nondescript hotel room in the city. The room is dingy and sparse. It is completely utilitarian. There are no sentimental pictures on the wall and no dishes to clean. There are no obligations in room nineteen.

For Susan, room nineteen is a space of freedom in which she can explore and create an identity for herself outside the boundaries of domestic life. However, Susan cannot escape her role as wife and mother. Even in the anonymous city space of room nineteen, she continues to feel restrained and alienated by her domestic roles as wife and mother.