Isolation—in particular, involuntary isolation—is perhaps the most obvious theme of Donoghue’s Room. 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 a daily schedule, pretending 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 a day at a time: she appears to be mentally ill, and, with only Jack for company, she is completely bereft of the medical attention she needs.
The theme of freedom in the second half of Room directly contrasts with the overwhelming sense of isolation that inhabits the first half of the book. This freedom is long anticipated by Ma, yet freedom isn't as immediately and thoroughly fulfilling as the reader might have expected. Neither Ma nor Jack can simply begin their new life away from Old Nick: they are both emotionally scarred and physically damaged from their time in captivity. 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, an entire world of freedom is literally too much to process. Before their freedom can be celebrated, therefore, Ma and Jack must first let go of their habits they had to adopt in order to survive in Room.
In Room, Jack is all Ma has, and vice versa. Despite Jack being a product of rape, he and Ma only ever treat each other with love—indeed, their familial bond is all they have to remind them that love still exists. When Ma begins to reveal to Jack that she has a family beyond him, she recalls a similarly intimate family moment: playing with her brother Paul in their old hammock. Bonds within a family are also emphasized when Ma and Jack escape from Room. Jack must learn to give identities to all the new people in his family: Paul, Deana, Bronwyn, Steppa, and Grandma. Yet, it is hard for Jack not to see these people as strangers, no more closely related to him than Doctor Clay or Noreen. He views only Ma as his true family, as underscored at the end of the novel when Jack and Ma move back in together.
In Room, Ma lives in a constant state of fear—fear of what Old Nick will unexpectedly do next, and fear of what she knows he will do when he visits that night. We see, therefore, that one can feel fear both for the unknown (e.g., "What will Old Nick do next?") and the known (e.g., routine rape). The reader's experience of the fear inherent in Room is given a further level of nuance from the child's perspective from which the narrative is presented: Jack does not always understand what to fear since he is so young. For instance, he is only joyful when Old Nick brings him a birthday present; he cannot recognize Ma’s fear of what the sadist will expect in return from her for such a gift.
Upon first glance, Room appears to be more of a thriller horror than a novel that promotes the power of human love. Yet in the darkness of tragedy, there is also light. Love is the only force between Jack and Ma that keeps them sane for so many years. When Ma escapes and is reunited with her family, she learns that her mother never gave up hope that she was alive. Yet, there are also instances of love failing or being insufficient; for example, Ma’s father cannot accept Jack as a member of his family because he was the product of rape. 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, both positive and negative, is portrayed throughout this novel.
Jack has grown up and learned to communicate with only one other person in close, captive quarters; therefore, he is almost entirely unable to communicate properly in the outside world, which has many different social rules that he has never experienced. The most obvious example is Jack’s interactions with the TV: in Room, he believes that 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 that he originally thought were only pretend. When Jack 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, meaning that he effectively must learn to speak for the first time once he is liberated.
Experiencing Room's story from Jack's perspective allows us the reader to see Ma's maternal instincts on full display, instincts she maintains despite the horrors of her and Jack's living conditions within Room. Ma is incredibly protective of and invested in Jack's wellbeing and upbringing: they play "thousands" of games together; they watch limited TV; she ensures that they both get exercise, eat, and sleep regularly; and they maintain their hygiene. All of this is a testament to Ma's strong desire to keep Jack as healthy and happy as possible. Glimpses into what Ma's situation was like in the two years before Jack was born further illuminate how maternity has given her hope. She used to let her teeth rot, but now she is "sorry" and brushes them regularly with Jack; she used to cry endlessly, but that stopped when Jack entered the world. These anecdotes show the reader that maternity envigorated Ma to maintain some semblance of hope for a better future. Conversely, however, she expresses sadness when Jack begins talking about getting older, revealing the added layer of anxiety and uncertainty that motherhood has added to Ma's situation: not only does she have to preserve and protect herself, but now she must safeguard Jack as well, raising the stakes for her dramatically.
Room Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Room is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.