Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“To Room Nineteen” opens: “This is a story, I suppose, about a failure in intelligence.” This initial omniscient first-person narration provides considerable ironic distance from the characters. The Rawlingses are first seen almost as mechanical creatures of creation with their pathetic little faith in intelligence and sensibility. As the story progresses, however, this narrating sensibility withdraws, and the reader is plunged slowly into the morbid world of Susan’s psyche.

The gradual progression into a desperate mind makes the presentation of Susan’s dilemma less potentially didactic and more emotionally engrossing. This approach also makes the reader, who has been cleverly tricked into sharing Susan’s concerns, less likely to accept easy answers to a difficult situation. The story’s ending reinforces the impossibility of simplistic solutions. Because Lessing’s attention to the details of Susan’s suburban existence have made her an individual, the suicide is likewise too specific an act to be considered nihilistic.

Lessing employs several devices typical of psychological realism. The demon that Susan first imagines in the garden is a visual manifestation of her mental state, her “irritation, restlessness, emptiness.” She fears him because he is an embodiment of all that threatens her. Lessing makes the relationship between Susan and her demon clear when the woman stares into her mirror and sees the reflection first of a madwoman and then of a demon. Susan, the madwoman, and the demon are one.

Color is used to depict the extremes of Susan’s world. Her perfect house is white, suggesting sterility and oppression. She escapes from the house into the garden, whose greenness implies the freedom offered by the contrasting natural world, as does the brown river running by it. When the garden no longer provides any escape, Susan goes to Fred’s Hotel, where her room has thin green curtains, a three-quarter bed covered with a cheap green satin bedspread, and a green wicker armchair. She dies lying on the green satin bedspread and drifts “off into the dark river,” the ultimate escape.