To Room Nineteen Questions and Answers
by Doris Lessing

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

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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...

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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.