To Room Nineteen Themes
by Doris Lessing

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Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“To Room Nineteen” appears in a long line of works of fiction dealing with passive resistance to conformity and the resulting mental breakdown. Its antecedents include Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (1853), in which the title character’s preferring not to do anything eventually leads to his death, and “The Yellow Wall-Paper” (1892) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, whose protagonist, increasingly unsatisfied by her roles as wife and mother, gradually goes insane. This story also has some parallels to one of Doris Lessing’s later novels, The Summer Before the Dark (1973), whose similarly alienated protagonist leaves her family to escape her depression but eventually returns.

The story of Susan Rawlings can be misinterpreted too easily, especially because of its similarities to “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” as simply a feminist parable of an unfulfilled woman driven to her death by an insensitive, male-dominated society, but Doris Lessing hardly presents the world of suburban London, in an obviously unenlightened period, so starkly. Neither does Lessing intend Susan to be simply a case history of disintegration. She is presented too specifically to be merely a type, and despite her hallucinations, she is more depressed than clinically insane.

“To Room Nineteen” is a vivid portrait of the extremes to which the sensitive individual, especially a woman, may go when the resources of everyday life prove inadequate. Susan’s problem is not that being a wife and mother is not enough, although she clearly misjudges Matthew’s flimsy character. Neither is her predicament so clear-cut that it can be solved by a job or career. Susan is driven to suicide because she cannot find an identity that makes sense to her. If her world makes little sense, she can exert her selfhood only by retreating from it. If this world insists on intruding into her privacy, she loses her battle for identity.

Lessing wants readers to be moved by Susan’s suicide and not try to explain it away, but recognize the limits of reason. Susan cannot accept what cannot be rationally understood and wants to consider her unease to be her fault, but blame is not an issue here: “Nobody’s fault, nothing to be at fault, no one to blame.”

Susan is a prisoner of her rational intelligence, refusing to acknowledge that reason cannot explain or solve everything. Unlike the protagonist of The Summer Before the Dark, she has no illusions about freedom because, if achieved, it would place a greater burden of responsibility for her state on her. What she ultimately wants is not freedom from responsibility, obligations, or family, but from the inescapable—herself: “not for one second, ever, was she free from the pressure of time, from having to remember this or that. She could never forget herself; never really let herself go into forgetfulness.” A portrait of such extreme alienation takes “To Room Nineteen” well beyond the limitations of any political or sociological interpretations.

Lessing underscores the universality of Susan’s story when the narrator comments on the banality of thinking the individual can place all the elements of life in order, can be in complete control. Such reasonable, highly educated people are essentially dry and flat. The Rawlingses are described as “Two people, endowed with education, with discrimination, with judgement, linked together voluntarily from their will to be happy together and to be of use to others—one sees them everywhere, one knows them, one even is that thing oneself: sadness because so much is after all so little.” When a thinking person such as Susan realizes the impossibility of truly imposing order on chaos, even greater chaos results.

Themes

(Short Stories for Students)

Conformity and Restriction
Susan experiences social as well as personal pressure to conform to specific cultural dictates. Her class, place, and gender all place social restrictions on her. Her class (middle) and place (suburbia) have been proscribed by specific...

(The entire section is 1,315 words.)