To Room Nineteen Characters
by Doris Lessing

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To Room Nineteen Characters

(Short Stories for Students)

Mrs. Parkes
Mrs. Parkes, the Rawlings’s housekeeper, is “one of the servers of this world, but she needed someone to serve.” She does her job well, but cannot handle the responsibility of making any household decisions while Susan is away. She impedes Susan’s freedom until Sophie is hired.

Matthew Rawlings
When the story opens, Matthew Rawlings is in his forties, as is his wife Susan. He is a “sensible” man who seems to have made all of the right choices in life. He married in his late twenties and only after he had experienced other relationships, unlike his friends who married young and “regretted lost opportunities.” He chose Susan because he thought that they were “well matched” in temperament.

Matthew is known for his moderation, his humor, and his “abstinence from painful experience,” and so, he has become known as a reliable friend. Others depend on him for his levelheadedness. Matthew’s job fits his personality and so satisfies him. He is a sub-editor for a large London newspaper where he is “one of the essential background people who in fact steady, inspire and make possible the people in the limelight.”

Matthew’s sensible nature does not let him blame his wife when he begins to feel a “certain flatness” to his life. He “never was really struck, as he wanted to be, by joy.” Yet, his shallowness surfaces when he accepts the cultural “inevitability” that men will be tempted by other women at parties their wives cannot attend, since they are home with the children. When Matthew begins to have extramarital affairs, however, they initially leave him feeling guilty.

Readers begin to doubt Matthew’s “intelligence” in his response to Susan’s problems. His conventional nature refuses to allow him to see what is really wrong with her and so he cannot offer any help. As a result he withdraws from her when she stops acting sensibly and rationally according to the unwritten rules of their marriage. When he confronts her about the time she is spending in Room Nineteen, he is relieved when she insists that she is having an affair. His inability to face any really troubling reality causes him to fall back into his conventionality.

It is easier for him to believe that Susan has been unfaithful than to realize that there are serious problems in their marriage. He would rather find any way to avoid divorce, even though they have not been married in any real sense for some time. In an effort to ease the tensions of the admitted infidelities on both sides, Matthew proposes that they all be “civilized” about the situation and meet. Revealing his expertise at hiding his emotions, in this case jealousy, he suggests “reasonably” and “sensibly” that they could become “a foursome.”

Molly Rawlings
Molly, one of Susan’s twins, gives Susan the final impetus to commit suicide. As she watches Sophie comfort Molly through the window, Susan realizes that she is no longer needed by her family and that perhaps they would be better off without her.

Susan Rawlings
Susan is introduced as a mirror image of her husband. They share the same qualities: levelheadedness, intelligence, a good sense of humor, and dependability. Like Matthew, she also has trained herself to avoid any unpleasant experience. Both of them use “their intelligence to preserve what they had created from a painful and explosive world.” She easily adapts to the change she undergoes when she and Matthew marry, giving up her job in a “concession to popular wisdom,” and moving to the suburbs to care for her family. Both she and Matthew appear to have “an infallible sense for choosing right,” and a determination that they would “not make the same mistakes” that they see their friends make.

Susan and Matthew have learned to control their emotions. “[T]he inner storms and quicksands were understood and charted.” Susan selflessly gives up her independence for her family and even comes to accept Matthew’s occasional...

(The entire section is 1,012 words.)