To Room Nineteen Criticism
by Doris Lessing

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The Theme of Self-Knowledge

(Short Stories for Students)

D. H. Lawrence centered many of his novels and short stories on the difficulties inherent in what he called in his Foreword to Women in Love “the passionate struggle into conscious being.” Lawrence’s work traces the chronological development of his characters’ growing awareness of themselves and their relation to their world. He also explores the antithetical forces that can impede an individual’s quest for self-knowledge.

Lawrence believed that we gain knowledge of ourselves through two contradictory processes: our minds (what he called “mental consciousness”) as well as our physical selves (our “bloodconsciousness”). He explains in his December 8, 1915, letter to Bertrand Russell that the bloodconsciousness “exists in us independently of the ordinary mental consciousness.” Lawrence writes:

And the tragedy of this our life, and of your life, is that the mental and nerve consciousness exerts a tyranny over the blood-consciousness, and is engaged in the destruction of your blood-being or bloodconsciousness, the final liberating of the one, which is only death in result.

Doris Lessing joined the discussion generated by Lawrence’s narratives of female and male selfdiscovery, which include his concentration on these antithetical impulses, but adapted them to her own historical moment. Lawrence’s focus in the early decades of the twentieth century was a focus on the quest for an authentic self through the process of sexual awakening, reflecting the age’s rejection of Victorian notions of propriety. Fiona R. Barnes, in her article on Lessing for the Dictionary of Literary Biography, notes that Lessing’s works become “historical records that tackle the central political, spiritual, and psychological questions of the last half of the twentieth century.”

One such work is her celebrated short story “To Room Nineteen.” As Lawrence had done several decades earlier, Lessing centers on her character’s internal quest for an authentic self grounded in the historical moment of the story, here in the early 1960s, when women were struggling to find an identity outside of the domestic sphere. In this story, Susan Rawlings experiences a battle of wills between her mental consciousness, which insists that she accept her traditional role as wife and mother, and her blood consciousness, which sparks her quest for absolute freedom.

During the first-wave feminist movement in America and Great Britain, which occurred from the late nineteenth century to early twentieth century, women made great strides in their push for equality in the areas of voting rights and birth control. During World War II, the American and British government encouraged women to join the workforce, where they added to the accomplishments of the early women’s rights activists by succeeding in positions outside the home.

When the war ended, however, women were forced to give up their jobs, along with their newly developed sense of independence, and to retreat into the traditional roles of wife and mother. Post-war America and Britain returned to a renewed sense of domesticity and social conformity. The secondwave feminist movement did not begin to make significant gains in the fight for equality until the mid 1960s, when in America, the Civil Rights Act was passed, prohibiting sexual and racial employment discrimination.

Barnes writes, “despite her disavowal of feminism [Lessing] is perhaps most successful (and most renowned) for her portrayals of the changing female consciousness as it reacts to problems of the age.” The problem for Susan Rawlings is that she marries before the second-wave activists begin their push for female autonomy. Susan is caught in the middle stage between the two waves of feminism— in the social conformity of the 1950s and early 1960s, a time when the “intelligent” thing to do is to adopt traditional male and female roles.

For the first ten years of her marriage, Susan has allowed, in Lawrence’s terms, her mental...

(The entire section is 4,215 words.)