To Room Nineteen Analysis
by Doris Lessing

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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.

Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

A Woman’s Place
During the first few decades of the twentieth century, feminist thinkers on both sides of the Atlantic engaged in a rigorous investigation of female identity as it related to all aspects of a woman’s life. Some declared the institution of marriage to be a form of slavery and thus recommended its abolition. Others derided the ideal of the maternal instinct, rejecting the notion that motherhood should be the ultimate goal of all women. The more conservative feminists of this age considered marriage and motherhood acceptable roles only if guidelines were set in order to prevent a wife from assuming an inferior position to her husband in any area of their life together. A woman granted equality in marriage would serve as an exemplary role model for her children by encouraging the development of an independent spirit.

The early feminists in America and England, such as Eleanor Rathbone, who became a leading figure in England’s National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, were able to gain certain rights for women, including the right to vote. They were not able, however, to change society’s view of a woman’s place within the home. During World War II, American and British women were encouraged to enter the workplace, where they enjoyed a measure of independence and responsibility. After the war, however, they were forced to give up their jobs to the returning male troops. Hundreds of thousands of women were laid off and expected to resume their place in the home.

Training began at an early age to ensure that girls would conform to the feminine ideal—the perfect wife and mother. Women who tried to gain self-fulfillment through a career were criticized and deemed dangerous to the stability of the family. They were pressed to find fulfillment exclusively through their support of a successful husband....

(The entire section is 1,815 words.)