Part I: Presents
Jack, a five-year-old boy, narrates the novel. The circumstances of the novel are not immediately apparent, but the reader will eventually discern that Jack’s mother, "Ma," was kidnapped by “Old Nick,” imprisoned in “Room,” and gave birth to Jack. Jack does not know that there is anything unusual about his life.
Jack has just turned five today and Ma recounts his birth. They are in Room, the only home Jack has ever known. Ma gives him a picture she drew for him. Jack pins her drawing up over Bed, but Ma does not want Old Nick to see it, so they move it to the inside of Wardrobe.
That day, they play games and sing songs. Jack is very inquisitive and asks Ma questions about everything. Ma points to the skylight in Room, as there are no windows, and says that the sun—“God’s yellow face”—will not be out today.
They have thousands of little things to do, from watering Plant to Ma taking her pills. She has bad teeth but does not take more painkillers than she needs to. They watch a little bit of TV; Jack knows that before he came around, his Ma would watch too much and become a zombie, so now they limit themselves. Jack loves Dora the Explorer and SpongeBob.
Ma marks how tall Jack is now on the wall. They discuss what to request for Sundaytreat, which is something Old Nick brings every week. Jack learns Ma is twenty-seven.
They take a bath and Ma brings down Labyrinth afterward. It is made of toilet rolls and a bouncy ball gets lost in it. They also do Phys Ed and run around doing Track. They then play Simon Says and have lunch. Jack helps Ma because one of her wrists is bad.
After lunch, they read from one of the books. They have nine books—four without pictures, five with. Jack chooses Dylan the Digger and Ma makes a face because they’ve read it so often.
Jack thinks about what he knows to be real and what is not. Ma is a woman but the only one, and Old Nick is a man and the only one. Mountains are in the TV and are too big to be real. Jack calls things that are not real “TV”; this includes things like ice cream and grass.
They take a nap; when they wake up, Jack suggests using Ruler to measure Room and the things in it. Afterward, they have spaghetti and broccoli for dinner.
Jack wonders if they should ask for plant food for Sundaytreat, but Ma says she already has a list of things going. They make a birthday cake after dinner for Jack and he is very excited. Ma tells him she saved and secreted away a few chocolates from a few weeks ago to add to the cake, but Jack is distressed and begins yelling that he does not like her to have secret hidey places: there could be scary things there. He also gets upset that there are no candles on the birthday cake and says he does not want it. Ma grows quiet. Jack yells that they should have gotten them for Sundaytreat; Ma replies that she needed painkillers. She explains that Old Nick has to be able to get things easily and he does not want to go to multiple stores looking for things. Jack thinks that stores are TV.
They eat the cake and Jack believes it is the best thing ever. It is 8:33 and too late for TV, so Ma ties up the trash and puts it near the door with the list of food. Jack gets ready for bed and Ma tells him a story. Since it is almost 9, he goes into Wardrobe where he sleeps so Old Nick cannot see him. Jack hears Ma taking two painkillers at night.
He thinks about how he has seen Old Nick partially through the slats of the Wardrobe but never entirely or up close. He has some white hair on his head. Jack wonders if he could be a zombie. In the wardrobe, Jack tries to fall asleep right away so when he wakes up it will just be him and Ma.
It does not seem like Old Nick is coming tonight, though, so Jack is allowed to return to Bed. Ma breastfeeds him, which he loves. He calls it “having some.”
In the middle of the night, Jack sees Ma flashing the light over and over again.
The next day, they eat breakfast and watch TV. The snow is almost gone from the skylight. They go through their routine, eating, playing, and cleaning.
While Ma is napping, Jack hears something and discovers a mouse, but he is upset when Ma wakes and shoos it away. He does not want to listen when she explains that there cannot be more mice coming in.
Jack suggests a new book for Sundaytreat, but Ma grimaces and says that Old Nick once told her they have too many and they should just watch TV.
They have dinner and Jack practices reading from the milk carton. They play board games and watch TV. After singing silly songs, Jack gets ready to go in Wardrobe. They hear the beep beep of the electronically-locked door; Jack hurriedly gets in and Ma shuts the door.
He can hear Old Nick say the cake looks tasty. Old Nick says something to Jack, but Jack, frightened, does not reply. Old Nick asks for cake; when Ma says it is getting stale, he complains that he is just her errand boy. She slowly thanks him and gets him cake.
The lights go out and Old Nick creaks the bed. Jack counts the creaks. The TV turns on, and Old Nick and Ma talk a bit. Jack falls asleep.
It is raining in the morning. Jack wonders why Ma did not tell Old Nick it was his birthday earlier so that he could have gotten a birthday treat. He begins to cry and says it might have been a dog named Lucky. Ma tries to remind him that there is no room for a dog. Jack continues to cry and says that Lucky and Mouse could be friends. Ma says crossly that there is no Lucky.
The rest of the day, they go about their routine. Monday is laundry day. They wash things in Bath and dry them on Thermostat. They eat lunch, nap, and do Scream, which they do every day except Saturday and Sunday. During Scream, they stand on Table, to be near Skylight, and scream at the top of their lungs—then, they quiet down to listen. One time, Jack asked what they were listening for, and Ma said, "You never know."
It is rainy all day. They watch a cooking show and a fitness show. Ma asks Jack if they could rearrange the furniture, but he does not want to. Jack realizes they have had three fights in three days; he wishes he were still four because they fought less back then.
It is time for bed, and they say goodnight to all the objects in Room.
The next morning, Jack is elated to discover that Old Nick brought a remote-controlled Jeep as a late birthday present for him. Ma is holding her face, which means she is hurting. Jack eats breakfast and starts playing. Remote is the boss, and it makes Jeep go around Room.
Ma cleans all day and makes dinner while Jack plays. Jack wonders why they thank Baby Jesus before meals and not Old Nick; after all, Ma thanked him for bringing stuff the other night. Her face is cold; she said it was a fake thank-you, and he does not actually make any of the things he brings.
Tonight, they watch music videos; Jack dances, but Ma does not want to dance tonight.
Jack wants to sleep with Remote and Jeep, but Ma says he may only sleep with Remote because it is small enough. He asks if they go into TV when they’re dreaming, and, in a faraway voice, she says they’re never anywhere but here.
Old Nick arrives, complaining about the price of something and not finding something else. Jack has a funny idea to turn Jeep on while it is on the shelf; Old Nick will be confused. He does it and suddenly hears a crash; Old Nick, who was sleeping, roars in rage.
Ma’s voice is wobbly; she reassures him she is not trying to pull anything—the Jeep fell off the shelf and it was an accident. Old Nick angrily leaves.
Jack calls out to Ma. She does not answer. Finally, in a hoarse and scary voice, she tells him to go to sleep. She does not bring him out of Wardrobe tonight.
Jack comes out himself and gets into Bed. Ma is hot and seems to be asleep.
Part II: Unlying
The next morning, Jack sees dirt on Ma’s neck, but he realizes they are marks from Old Nick. She asks Jack what he was trying to do and says she is mad that he woke Old Nick up: Old Nick thought she was trying to do something to him. Jack giggles at first, but then he stops.
The two go about their day as usual, but during reading time, Jack is frustrated when Ma says she does not want to read Dylan the Digger because she does not like Dylan. Jack says that Dylan is his friend, so she keeps reading.
That night, they play Scream a lot; Ma’s voice becomes hoarse from it. While they are watching TV, Jack sees a man using the same bottle of pills they have, and he is confused. He thinks that Old Nick must have gone into TV to get them. He begins asking Ma more questions; at first she is not very responsive, but finally, she tells him that what they see on the TV are real things and that these things are outside Room. This is hard for Jack to understand.
The next day, Ma is "Gone." This means she won’t wake up properly, and she stays in Bed with the pillows on her head. On such days, Jack feels like there are hours and hours. He does get to watch TV as much as he wants, though, and he begins wondering, “How can TV be pictures of real things?” (61.) He wonders about the things floating around in Outside Space.
The hours pass by. Jack eats and reads all the books. He does not Scream. He wants to ask Ma more about Outside, but he knows she probably won’t “switch on” if he shakes her. He cries a bit, watches TV, looks at the stain on Rug from when he was born, and wonders what would happen if Ma were Gone a second day.
It grows dark. He wishes he could have some, but he can’t. He wonders what would happen if Old Nick came back. Would he put more marks on Ma?
Thankfully, Ma is not Gone the next day. They discuss Sundaytreat and read out of the no-picture books. In the middle of the night, Ma flashes the light over and over again.
On Saturday, Jack asks for a story he’s never heard of before. Ma tells him of a mermaid caught by a fisherman who has to live in a cottage and cannot get out; she has a baby—Jack bursts out that his name can be “Jackerjack”—and finally finds her special comb so she can get out of the cottage.
Jack goes into Wardrobe. The beep beep sounds and Old Nick comes in. When Ma asks him meekly for an extractor fan because the smells linger in Room, he mocks her for the neighbors being able to hear. He goes on about how lucky she is to have natural light, central air, and fresh fruit; most girls would love this setup. Ma apologizes for asking for a fan.
Jack listens to the creaking and falls asleep.
In the morning, Ma is relieved when her bad tooth finally comes out. Jack wonders if she will have the Tooth Fairy visit, but she says the Tooth Fairy doesn’t know about Room. Jack thinks a lot about Outside now.
That evening, Old Nick is telling Ma how annoyed he is about the cost of vitamins, and he tells Ma that she has no idea how much things cost these days. He also tells her that he’s been laid off for six months now, but when she starts to ask more questions, he shuts her down angrily.
Old Nick then knocks on the slats and tries to talk to Jack, but Jack knows he cannot say anything. Old Nick comments that there must be something wrong with the boy since she’s never let him see him. He calls to Jack that he has a lollipop for him.
Jack falls asleep but wakes up in the middle of the night while it is still dark. He wonders about the lollipop and decides he has to get up to see. Quietly, he comes out of Wardrobe and looks at Old Nick in Bed. Old Nick wakes up and says hello; Ma jerks awake and starts screaming. Jack races back to Wardrobe, and Old Nick chastises Ma for being crazy.
In the morning, Jack asks Ma why Old Nick called him a freak and said there is something wrong with him. She comforts him by saying that Old Nick is trying to drive her crazy.
When Ma gets up to get milk, she thinks it is strange that the light is not on in Refrigerator. Lamp doesn’t turn on either, and Ma says grimly that there must be a power cut.
It is a strange day; the normal hums and noises are not there, and Jack misses TV. It is cold in Room. He ignores Ma’s protestations and gets the lollipop that Old Nick mentioned out of the trash. They play games and sing, and Jack plays with Bad Tooth. The only thing they can eat is raw vegetables.
The power does not come back on and Ma apologizes to Jack, saying that Old Nick is trying to punish them because she made him mad.
The next day, the power is still off, but Ma remarks that it is good that the water still works. When Jack wishes aloud that Old Nick would never come back, she explains that that would mean they would be stuck here because they do not have the code to get out of the door.
They do Phys Ed to keep warm, and Ma suddenly says she has a story for Jack. Her abruptness surprises him, but he is excited.
Ma begins to tell him how she was a kid once and lived with her mother, father, and her brother, Paul. Jack has trouble with this, but Ma pushes onward. She says she was Outside, not in TV, and that she is telling Jack now because he is old enough. She is “unlying,” not lying. Jack likes being in here with her, which she understands, but she says that she wishes she were Outside with him.
Later, they see a leaf on the skylight, and Jack stands on the trashcan on the table to see it. He also sees unbreakable polycarbonate mesh, which Ma identifies for him. There are no airplanes, skyscrapers, or girls, so he assumes that Ma was lying about Outside.
It is so cold that Jack can barely feel his fingers. They have cereal for dinner. There is not much to do without any light once the sun sets. Jack listens to Ma telling him more about the world.
The next day, Ma is hitting the floor with her hand; she tells Jack she just wants to break something but can’t. They talk about her parents and brother again, and Jack asks if they can come here. She ruefully says that she wishes they could and prays for it every night, but they don’t know where Room is. Jack suggests asking for a telephone from Old Nick, but Ma replies that he would never allow it.
It is a long, cold day. Jack is elated to see an airplane through the skylight and feels certain now that Ma was telling the truth.
Hours pass; Ma cries a bit because she is scared about their situation, which also scares Jack. She decides to tell him another story. She begins by saying that Old Nick tricked her to get in his pickup truck when she was nineteen and a student, claiming that his dog needed help. This was a lie: he blindfolded her and drove her away. He forced medicine on her, and when she woke up, she was in Room. She screamed when he opened the door, but he knocked her down and she did not try that again. She used to sleep sixteen hours a day, or counted seconds, and finally, when he brought a TV, she watched a lot of it. She also tried to get out; she tried everything, including digging a hole.
At this, Jack is impressed because he knows The Great Escape, but Ma tells him sadly that she dug up some of the cork on the floor and even the wood and lead foil and foam, but below that was a chain-link fence. She could never dig out. When Old Nick found the hole, he burst out laughing. Another time, she took the lid off the toilet and hit him, but it wasn’t hard enough and Old Nick closed the door on them in time. She pressed a knife against his throat and ordered him to give her the code to the door, but he twisted her wrist and got free.
Jack tears up at this, and Ma softly tells him not to cry. Ma concludes that they cannot try to hurt him again, or else they will be left to starve.
Suddenly, Jack’s eyes hurt; Lamp has come back on.
Room is a novel that, even with the entrapment and abuse of Ma, is an interesting portrayal of how to live. In that sense, it is similar to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which Donoghue cites as an inspiration and a motive in fashioning her own “mother child modern myth.” The novel has been lauded for its discombobulating narration by a child and the ambiguity of what exactly was happening until Jack releases more and more tidbits that clarify the situation.
The narration is told through the perspective of Jack, the five-year-old who is the product of Old Nick’s sexual abuse of Ma. They are both kept in a room in Old Nick’s back garden, but Ma becomes increasingly aware that she and her son have to escape. Both halves of the novel—the first set in Room, the second in the outside world—force the reader to reconsider what living means. The first half, within the confines of those four walls, presents how many of us take our freedom for granted; being able to leave our houses is classed as a basic right, yet Ma and Jack do not have it. The second half is also interesting, as Jack is experiencing everything in the world for the first time. He has never seen a car, the sun, or the outside world at this point, and his adjustment means he has to grow up extremely quickly. The narrative is circular: Ma and Jack start as they begin, standing in the Room. Yet, in the end, they have the option to leave, and this makes the physical space something else entirely: it is now merely a room, not a prison.
The novel is told from Jack’s perspective, yet deals with some extremely adult, shocking themes. For example, Jack is told to stay in the wardrobe and can hear Old Nick talking to his mother whilst the bed squeaks. He is unaware that he is actually hearing the rape of his mother every night, a horrible dramatic irony. His narration also presents a naivete that completely rewrites the captivity narrative. He sees their activities as nothing more than games, while they are, in fact, instances of Ma training them to remain healthy and perhaps help facilitate the best chances of escape. The gym games are to maintain their physical strength, and their screaming games are to try to get someone to hear them.
Because Jack is the narrator, there are certain authorial choices Donoghue made to give the reader the impression of veracity. Jack personifies the objects in the room because they are unique, singular entities and they are his friends. He has trouble understanding the outside world because, as he notes, everything out there seems to be a repeat. When asked about her process of writing in a “kid” voice, Donoghue explained to an interviewer: “Writing in Kid from the start (once I had figured out exactly what peculiar dialect of age-five-but-hyper-educated Kid he would start) was what helped me invent not only what thoughts would occur to Jack but what their zigzag sequence of association would be. I wanted the novel to be highly patterned but in a naive manner, so that, for instance, Jack’s cult of numbers (five is good, nine is bad) would link to the ‘magic numbers’ of the keycode that are keeping them locked in, and be echoed by the ‘magic numbers’ of the license plate that allow the police to track down Old Nick.”
Donoghue also presents an interesting take on identity throughout the novel. We never learn Ma’s name; her entire identity is constructed through Jack’s perspective. Consequently, we never really learn about Ma’s life before Jack in Room, or who she was before she was kidnapped. Donoghue explains that she never seriously considered having the story told by anyone other than Jack, which would subvert the “banal trope of every second crime novel: the weirdo, fetishistic watcher/stalker/kidnapper/kidnapper of women or children.” She never wanted to give Old Nick that much prominence in my novel: "just as Ma does, I chose to keep him at arm’s length, not letting him set the terms of the story. And as for telling it from Ma’s point of view, I can’t imagine how to do that without the novel degenerating into a tearjerker, because at every point Ma knows all the reasons to be sad. Nor did I think any of the experts or other adults (such as Grandma) needed their own narration; I thought I could put their sense of Ma and Jack across through reported dialogue.”