(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The Enormous Room is Cummings’s autobiographical narrative of the time he spent in La Ferté Mace, a French concentration camp a hundred miles west of Paris. Cummings and a friend, both members of an American ambulance corps in France during World War I, were erroneously suspected of treasonable correspondence and were imprisoned from August, 1917, until January, 1918. In this book, Cummings describes the prisoners with whom he shared his captivity, the captors who subjected their victims to enormous cruelty, and the filthy surroundings of the prison camp.

Written in the form of a pilgrimage and modeled after John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), Cummings’s narrative also shows the influence of early American black autobiographies. Like Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress and the slaves who wrote their own stories, the narrator in Cummings’s self-portrait faces an arduous journey to freedom, a voyage not unlike the ones described in many early black autobiographies also modeled on Bunyan’s classic. In Cummings’s voyage, the autobiographer emphasizes and celebrates his belief in individuality, especially as it is seen in the characters of the prisoners, including the gypsy dubbed Wanderer, the childish giant named Jean le Nègre, and the clownish captive called Surplice.

In The Enormous Room, the reader follows the enslaved Cummings along three legs of his journey: first, the period before La Ferté Mace; then, the period beginning with the second day in the enormous room; and finally, the departure from the French prison. During the first part of the autobiographical journey, Cummings appears as a rebellious American soldier parodying the rhetoric of wartime communication in his description of dissension within the ranks:To borrow a characteristic-cadence from Our Great President: the lively satisfaction which we might be suspected of having derived from the accomplishment of a task so important in the saving of civilization from the clutches of Prussian tyrany [sic] was in some degree inhibited, unhappily, by a complete absence of cordial relations between the man whom fate had placed over us and ourselves. Or, to use the vulgar American idiom, B. and I and Mr. A. didn’t get on well.

Rebellious and independent, the young Cummings quickly learns the price of asserting these two qualities: He is imprisoned and joins a multitude of other captives who try desperately, and usually successfully, to retain their individuality despite their captors’ efforts to rob them of this quality.

Enclosed in the space he calls “the Enormous Room,” Cummings is entrapped in an oblong room eighty feet by forty feet. This room in La Ferté Mace both restricts and unites an international menagerie of humanity (Dutch, Belgian, Spanish, Turkish, Arabian, Polish, Russian, Swedish, German, French, and English), including the American animal, E. E. Cummings. Among the most memorable of these fellow prisoners is Surplice—the court jester of the enormous room, the fool, the scapegoat, the eternal victim—who occupies an important spot in both the prison and the world, as Cummings...

(The entire section is 1289 words.)

The Enormous Room Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The poet E. E. Cummings and his friend W. S. B. are unhappy as members of the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Service, a unit sent by Americans to aid the French during World War I. One day they are arrested by French military police. From hints dropped during an investigation, Cummings gathers that W. S. B. wrote letters the censor found suspicious. Because they are good friends, both men are held for questioning. They never find out exactly what they are suspected of doing. On one occasion, Cummings is asked whether he hates the Germans. He replies that he does not, that he simply loves the French very much. The investigating official cannot understand how one can love the French and not hate the Germans. Finally, Cummings and W. S. B. are separated and sent to different prisons. Again and again Cummings is questioned and moved from one spot to another, always under strict guard.

Late one night, he is taken to a prison in the little provincial town of Macé. There he is thrown into a huge darkened room, given a straw mattress, and told to go to sleep. In the darkness, he counts at least thirty voices speaking eleven different languages. Early the next morning he meets W. S. B. in the room, who tells him that all the prisoners there are suspected of being spies, some only because they speak no French.

That morning, he learns the routine of the prison. The enormous room is lined with mattresses down each side, with a few windows to let in light at one end. It smells of stale tobacco and sweat. Some of the men in the room are insane, and most of the others are afraid they might become so. The dull routine begins at five thirty in the morning, when someone is sent down to the kitchen under guard to bring back a bucket of sour, cold coffee. After coffee, the prisoners draw lots to see who will clear the room, sweep the floors, and collect the trash. At seven thirty, they are allowed to walk for two hours in a small, walled-in courtyard. Then comes the first meal of the day, followed by another walk in the garden. At four, they are given supper. At eight, they are locked in the enormous room for the night.

There is little entertainment except fighting and conversation. Some of the men spend their time trying to catch sight of women, who are kept in another part of the prison. The poet begins to accustom himself to the enormous room and to make friends among the various inmates. One of the first of these is Count Bragard, a Belgian painter who specializes in portraits of horses. The count is a perfect gentleman, even in prison, and always looks neat and suave. He and Cummings discuss painting and the arts as if they are at a polite party. Before Cummings leaves, the count begins to act strangely and withdraw from his friends. He is losing his mind.

One day, Cummings is taken to see the head of the prison, a gross man he calls Apollyon....

(The entire section is 1174 words.)