To what extent is Susan conditioned by her physical and social environment?
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.
Susan's life is directed by the social dictates of a middle-class couple. When she marries Matthew, she is the center of an appropriate social set, and then she waits the appropriate amount of time before having children and moving to a house. She also feels that she must stay at home while her husband works, and she avoids "the mistake of taking a job for the sake of her independence."
Susan runs her life in a way that is eminently reasonable but that makes her feel flat and that she can't, ultimately, follow. When her husband has a one-night fling that he confesses to her, she tells herself that it's silly to care, but she clearly does. She tells herself, "intelligence forbids tears." She is forever acting the way she is supposed to act but does not feel; as a result, a great emptiness comes to occupy her, and she feels she can only be herself when she is alone in a sordid hotel room. She does not claim this space in her house. She tries to create a room for herself in her own house but, in a move full of symbolism, gives it up when her family doesn't really comprehend her need for aloneness. She never claims her space, emotionally or physically, in her own house, and she winds up killing herself when she can't escape from her physical and social constraints to find a sense of freedom.
In the short story “To Room Nineteen,” author Doris Lessing uses Susan’s developing mental illness as an allegory for the detrimental effect of a patriarchal society on women in general. The root of Susan’s growing depression could be identified as the point at which she discovers husband Matthew’s affair. Due to the nature of familial expectations at the time, Susan is unable -- and perhaps unwilling -- to change her situation. Rather, she devoutly accepts this event as a natural event in married life, and she duly continues in her role as mother and housewife. However, this quickly begins to become a detriment to her mental state:
“ . . . and nothing wrong, either, except that Matthew never was really struck, as he wanted to be, by joy; and that Susan was more and rnore often threatened by emptiness.”
As the story progresses, so does Susan’s gradual isolation from the world, and therefore does her depression. Her children begin attending school regularly, leaving her alone at home with the housekeeper, and leaving her with nothing to occupy her mind or hands other than her own thoughts. (Again, this is seen as the normal progression of a woman’s life at the time.) She begins to refer to her feelings of restlessness and constant irritation as “the enemy,” an indication of her growing awareness of her own inner dissatisfaction with the empty life she has been living. As time goes on, she becomes unable to face this cardboard version of herself that exists within the walls of her own house, leading her to rent a room away from her obligations. This gives her the opportunity to become someone completely distant from her true self. This split in Susan’s mind allows the reader an inner view of the conflict between a woman’s personal growth and the expectations placed on her due to society.
As her identity crisis progresses, her utopia found in room 19 begins to crumble with her husband's discovery. Rather than face the shame of failure in the eyes of her husband, and therefore in the eyes of the world at large, Susan chooses her only way out. In this case, her suicide represents the steps that women must take in society in order to achieve true freedom from patriarchy: choosing oneself over all other prerequisite obligations.