Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1289
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 notes: “After all, men in La Misère as well as anywhere also rightly demand a certain amount of amusement; amusement is, indeed, peculiarly essential to suffering; in proportion as we are able to be amused we are able to suffer.” Cummings’s description of this classic notion of scapegoating is especially poignant because he is describing himself as well as his readers: “I, Surplice,” says Cummings, “am a very necessary creature after all.”
Another memorable prisoner with whom Cummings shares his space is Zulu, thus called, says Cummings, partly because he looks like something Cummings had never seen, partly because the sounds of the two syllables appeared to relate to his personality, and partly because Zulu seemed to like the name. Cummings is particularly attracted to this prisoner because Zulu embodies the qualities that Cummings cherishes: individuality, vitality, emotion, and timelessness. Zulu is “A Verb; an IS,” according to Cummings, meaning that he is an example of life and action—as a verb represents action—not a victim of passivity, the quality Cummings associates with nouns.
His insights into scapegoating and verbs are two of the many lessons Cummings learns during his captivity; they are lessons that contribute to the changes that occur within him and that result in his being a different person when he leaves La Ferté Mace. Having entered the prison as a youthful soldier who flippantly used language to parody wartime rhetoric and officials, he leaves the prison as a more thoughtful individual, one who sees the power of language to celebrate the wonders of life and individuality. As he prepares to leave the prison, he writes a poem, not only the first stanza of a ballad, as he had done in the beginning of his journey, when he had hoped that the next day he would write the second, the day after, the third, and the next day, the refrain—never having done any of it.
On the boat to America, Cummings is surrounded by strangers, and when he arrives in New York he is struck by the image of anonymous Americans, hurrying about in a frenzy of activity. He sees New York differently from the time he left it because he himself is different. This final scene in The Enormous Room, a picture of separateness yet potential connectedness, reflects the basic lesson that Cummings learned from his education in prison: He can neither completely nor permanently unite himself with others. He can, however, celebrate his individuality, his sense of self, and his gratitude for being alive and able to use language to describe his journey into and out of La Ferté Mace and the trips that lie ahead of him.
One of the strengths of The Enormous Room is that it explores several important issues, including war, society, and language. In the tradition of war novels, it protests the war, but it is more of a parody than a protest, as Cummings uses humor to present his view of people. Thus one has the plantons, the cruel jailers, whom Cummings depicts with a mixture of mockery and sympathy, and the prisoners, whom Cummings describes with humor and joy as they find ways to remain individuals despite the efforts of their captors to dehumanize their innocent victims.
The Enormous Room is a book about society insofar as it protests society’s tendencies toward dehumanization, nonreflection, mechanization, and overintellectualizing. Amid his descriptions of prisoners and jailers, Cummings inserts his protestations about education, government, and religion, suggesting that these institutions rob people of their individuality.
The Enormous Room is also about language, the vehicle that Cummings manipulates for two reasons: to show the dangers of empty rhetoric and to help readers see the world in a new way. Like other artists during and after World War I, including Ernest Hemingway, who objected to the lofty words that frequently concealed reality, Cummings protests the politicians’ words that, in his view, were largely responsible for the “Great War.” Cummings uses language as art—art that is intended to help people see in a new way. Thus he describes the prisoners, whom he calls Delectable Mountains, in poetic terms that force the reader to see these characters as beautiful individuals, not as dirty criminals.
Finally, The Enormous Room is about Cummings, the prisoner who begins his captivity as a young Harvard graduate and who grows through the process so that he is able to transcend his Cambridge roots and connect with prisoners whose lack of education and sophistication taught him who he was and wanted to be. At the conclusion of the book, when Cummings returns to New York, he is a different person, one who has recaptured the joy of childhood and the importance of being an individual who celebrates humanity, life, and love.