To what extent is Susan conditioned by her physical and social environment?

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M.P. Ossa | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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Doris Lessing's feminist short story "To Room Nineteen" explores the internal pressures of Susan Rawlings: A former worker at an advertising agency who now duly performs her duties as both wife and mother.

Social pressure is identified in this story as the agent of change in Susan's life. First, she renounces her job in order to be a housewife, then a mother, and then a caretaker for her four children, her husband, and even her housekeeper, Mrs. Parkes, who is described as 

one of the servers of this world, but she needed someone to serve.

For women living in the mid-twentieth century, which is the historical context of the story, the expectation of becoming wives and mothers is very strong. So strong it is that Susan, who seems to be quite independent, elects to enter the world of motherhood dead on: She is devout, eliminates worries from her mind, and does not question anything. Even when she finds out that Matthew, her husband, had an affair with a known friend of both, Susan chooses to bury this instance in her brain as if it never happened.

All these different instances of self-restriction: Avoiding reality, performing tasks expected of others, discrediting personal needs, and taking for granted one's kindness and patience eventually come back to haunt Susan. So much indeed that Susan begins to have hallucinations as well as a compulsive need to be left alone.

Slowly she begins to abandon her family only to book a room, room 19, where she finally finds her niche. Room 19 is the place where Susan can finally be herself, alone, and in peace.

Yet, we see a wave of guilt permeating her soul. It will not ever leave her be. This is the reason behind Susan's suicide: The way society tries to mold her is simply not working for her. The expectations that her culture has of her do not work for Susan either. What would be the perfect escape? Death. That is precisely how Susan finally acquires her long-lost liberty.