Room Study Guide

Room was published in 2010 by Emma Donoghue. It was shortlisted for many awards, including the Man Booker Prize and the Governor General’s Awards in 2010; it was also The New York Times Notable Best Book of the Year, an ALA Notable Book, the Irish Book Awards winner for Best Irish Novel, the Salon Book Award winner, and many more.

On her website, Donoghue explains, “Room was inspired by… having kids; the locked room is a metaphor for the claustrophobic, tender bond of parenthood. I borrowed observations, jokes, kid grammar and whole dialogues from our son Finn, who was five while I was writing it. Room was also inspired by... ancient folk motifs of walled-up virgins who give birth (e.g., Rapunzel), often to heroes (e.g., Danaë, Perseus). Room was also inspired by… the Fritzl family’s escape from their dungeon in Austria – though I doubt I’ll ever use contemporary headlines as a launching point again, since I didn’t like being even occasionally accused of ‘exploitation’ or tagged ‘Fritzl writer’. But on the whole, publishing my seventh novel – and having the great good fortune to win new readers all over the world – has been a delight.”

Donoghue focuses heavily on the themes of isolation and the impacts of being given too much freedom to process. It also offers an eye-opening perspective on kidnapping. The reader does not witness the kidnap itself: instead, she is introduced to Jack and Ma seven years into their captivity. Therefore, we are normalized to their surroundings in Room before we are normalized to their presence in the outside world, the same situation experienced by the protagonists. By using Jack’s voice, the voice of a child, to narrate the story, the shocking events that occur—Old Nick’s nightly visit to rape Ma, her broken wrist, turning off the electricity as a punishment—are described simply but are deeply unsettling to the reader.

Critics were mostly extremely positive about the work. The New York Times deemed the book “Sophisticated in outlook and execution… Ms. Donoghue makes the gutsy and difficult choice to keep the book anchored somewhere inside Jack’s head… Utterly plausible, vividly described.” The New Yorker agreed, calling it “Astounding, terrifying… It’s a testament to Donoghue’s imagination that she is able to fashion radiance from such horror.” Newsweek exulted, “Narrated by a 5-year-old boy so real you could swear he was sitting right beside you… Room has all kinds of emotional wallop. But what makes the emotion possible is that this book is built like a finely crafted instrument that perfectly merges art and function… Room is so beautifully contrived that it never once seems contrived. But be warned: once you enter, you’ll be Donoghue’s willing prisoner right down to the last page.”

Room was adapted into a critically acclaimed film released in 2011, starring Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay, as well as for the stage in 2017.