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Written by Victoria Joss
Isolation is the most obvious theme of Donoghue’s Room, especially as this theme specifically means isolation against Ma’s will. Yet, Donoghue approaches this theme in an unorthodox manner. Instead of focusing on Ma’s desperate attempts to escape, the narration details her and Jack’s daily, domestic routine. In order to cope with her isolation, Ma creates schedules in a day to pretend that there is some semblance of normality in her life. The full sense of tragedy associated with their isolation only becomes apparent when Ma is ‘gone’ for days at a time. She appears to be mentally ill, and with only Jack for company, is completely devoid of the medical attention she needs. However, perhaps the most terrifying aspect of this theme is that Ma is not only imprisoned, but she is not always isolated. She is visited by Old Nick every night, where he sexually assaults her in return for bringing them groceries. Therefore, complete isolation would perhaps have been more desirable.
This theme of freedom directly contrasts the overwhelming sense of isolation that inhabits the first half of the book. This freedom is long anticipated by Ma, yet Donoghue does not focus wholly on elation. Instead, the author presents a very realistic take on freedom that includes an endless amount of practicalities. Neither Ma nor Jack can simply begin their new life away from Old Nick. They are both emotionally scarred, and physically damaged. Ma must undergo intense dental surgery, and Jack must wear all sorts of protective clothing before he can even go outside. A further implication of freedom is that Jack is presented with too much of it, too soon. For a boy who has grown up in the confines of a single room, he cannot process the possibility of having access to an entire world of freedom. Therefore, this theme cannot be seen wholly as a positive one. For it to be celebrated, Ma and Jack must first let go of their habits they had to adopt to survive in Room.
Bonds between Family
In Room, Jack is all that Ma has, and vice versa. Only once, and by Ma’s Father, is it emphasized that Jack is the product of Old Nick’s rape of Ma. Despite his biological Father, it is only ever the love between Jack and his Ma that is displayed, and family is all they have to remind them that love still exits. Additionally, when Ma begins to reveal to Jack that she has a family too, she recalls specifically playing with her brother Paul in their old hammock. Bonds within a family are also emphasized as important when Ma and Jack escape from Room. Jack must learn to give identities to all people: Paul, Dayna, Bryanna, Steppa, Grandma. Yet ultimately, he still sees these people as strangers, as Doctor Clay and Noreen are. It is only Ma he sees as his true family, a fact reflected at the end where Jack and Ma move back in together. Therefore, Room is a novel about the strength of familial love, and learning to love those again that you left behind seven years ago.
Whilst in Room, Ma lives in a constant state of fear, as to what Old Nick will unexpectedly do next, and what she knows he will do when he visits that night. Fear is therefore both associated with knowledge, and lack of it. As the novel continues, this sense of fear associated with knowledge is emphasized by the difference between adult and child. Jack does not know when to recognize fear, and is only joyful when Old Nick brings him a birthday present. He cannot recognize Ma’s fear in what the sadist will expect in return from her for such a gift. As the novel continues, it becomes apparent that Ma’s body simply shuts down when she cannot cope with an overwhelming sense of fear. It is therefore interesting that later on, fear pushes Ma to take drastic action to escape, instead of stopping her from functioning normally. This theme is therefore more complicated than it originally seems; fear both prevents Ma from attempting to escape again, and yet also helps her to take that desperate leap.
Upon first glance, Room’s genre appears more as thriller horror, rather than a novel that promotes the power of human love. Yet in the darkness of tragedy, there is also light. Whilst acts of love are abused in Old Nick’s attacks of Ma, it is also the only force between Jack and Ma that keeps them sane for so many years. When Ma escapes and is reunited with her family, it is revealed that her Mother never gave up hoping that she was alive. This remains as a perfect example of familial love persevering through seven, long years. There are also instances of love failing. For example, Ma’s Father cannot accept Jack as family, due to him being the product of rape. Donoghue therefore presents a large spectrum of love from the strongest to the weakest. This perhaps suggests that there is no clear-cut definition of who is good and bad, who can love and who cannot. A very realistic landscape of emotion is portrayed throughout this novel.
Communication, and how one communicates, becomes an important theme throughout this novel. In growing up in Room with only Ma, Jack has learned how to communicate within this context, and therefore becomes almost unable to communicate properly in the outside world, which has many different social rules which he has not grown up with. The most obvious example is Jack’s interactions with the TV; in Room, he believes he knows what is real, and what is make-believe. When he encounters the outside, he must alter how he communicates with people and objects he originally thought were only pretend. When he escapes, Officer Oh must decipher how Jack sees the world. He does not know the basic definitions of the outside world, such as ‘garden’; all he knows is ‘Room’. This theme of communication is therefore closely linked with language. Jack’s learned language is completely tailored to his and ma’s existence in Room, and therefore becomes redundant and something completely new to learn when entering the outside world.
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