Room is a novel that constantly contrasts the difference between freedom and captivity. This important theme is portrayed in the skylight, the only part of Room that allows Ma and Jack a glimpse of the outside world. The skylight proves that there is an outside world still there, yet always remains out of reach; it serves as a constant reminder of Ma’s captivity and the possibilities that are just out of reach. The skylight also develops into an important symbol for Jack: when he sees the leaf land on the skylight, it begins to prove to him that trees exist in the outside world, too—not just on the TV. Symbolically, the skylight is also a source of light—and of hope—in a room that is otherwise dark and hopeless.
The Room (Symbol)
Physically, the garden shed in which Ma and Jack are held is simply an 11x11-foot room—yet, symbolically, it is much more. For Ma, Room is a personal hell, and her confinement means that her life has been taken away from her. This is emphasized by the fact that there is a door that Ma could attempt to leave through, yet her fear keeps her paralyzed from trying. In contrast, Jack has spent his entire life in Room; it is his home. He believes that these four walls are as big as the world will ever be. Therefore, the symbolic connotations for him are not negative, providing a confusing paradox between what Room represents for the two main characters. Only once Jack and Ma return to Room at the end of the story and find that it has lost all symbolic significance are they truly free from it.
Jack's Hair (Symbol)
As Jack grows up, his hair grows past his shoulders, as Ma does not cut it. It therefore symbolically represents his strength, as Samson’s hair did before it was cut off. This is reiterated in how Jack sees himself: despite being only five, he sees himself as Ma’s protector and wants to hurt Old Nick when he finds out what he did to her wrist many years ago. Ultimately, Jack is an extremely brave character in escaping Room as he did.
What's especially interesting about Jack's hair is that it also symbolizes the very limitations of symbols: when Jack's hair is cut off, he retains his courage and inner strength, unlike Samson. This ties into the novel's theme of fact vs. fiction, and the difficulty that many have in distinguishing between the two: Jack's hair is not the source of his power, but merely a representation of how fundamentally courageous he is.
The TV (Symbol)
The TV in Room symbolizes the cruel version of Plato's Allegory of the Cave that has been brought to life in Jack's captivity. In his Republic, Plato offered the now-famous Allegory of the Cave as a way of illustrating humanity's progression from ignorance to enlightenment: people begin their lives chained inside of a cave, watching the projections of shadow puppets on the cave's back wall and thinking those shadows to be the real things in the world. Then, once we are liberated from our captivity, we discover that the shadows were mere projections made by puppeteers—and then, we walk outside of the cave to see the real objects of the world, illuminated by the sun. Plato intended this story to be an allegory for people being "liberated" by philosophy, moving from a mere complacent sensory experience of the world around them to a more intellectual contemplation of the abstract principles that define reality itself. Yet Room seems to poke a bit of fun at this style of philosophy by illustrating how out-of-touch such an allegory is with the terrifying, inhuman reality of someone who grows up in captivity and really is entirely out-of-touch with reality: we see that the "projections" that Jack experiences through the TV leave him woefully unprepared to actually live a life in the real world, upon his liberation. This symbol calls to mind the scene in which news anchors are callously intellectualizing Jack's traumatic childhood later in the novel (see the "Quotes" section of this ClassicNote for further discussion).
Old Nick (Symbol)
The name "Old Nick" is a reference to the Devil. Etymologist Charles P.G. Scott sees it as deriving from "Old Iniquity" and explains, “In considering the application of the name Nick thus derived, and of other familiar personal names, to the Devil, we are not to think of that personage as the black malignant theological spirit of evil, but rather as a goblin of limited powers, a ‘poor’ devil, who may be half daunted, half placated, by a little friendly impudence or homely familiarity.” This is a perfect way to think of Old Nick in Room: he is able to carry out great evil, but he is tricked by a young boy and is ultimately caught and imprisoned.
Room Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Room is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.