Doris Lessing To Room Nineteen
Summary Susan and Matthew’s marriage was a “perfect” marriage. (pp.2542-3) Susan becomes a dutiful wife and mother. (p.2544) Matthew begins to have affairs. (pp.2544-2545) The youngest children (twins) are “off her hand.” (p. 2546) Susan rents a hotel room for solitude. (p.2552) Susan cannot find a way to her real self except by killing herself. Her marriage is “a failure”. (p.2564)
At the beginning, we can see the Rawlings’ marriage was “perfect” based on intelligence and mutual respect. Susan and Matthew Rawlings, having been “stably” married for twelve years, are regarded by their friends as a successful couple, having “everything they had wanted and had planned for.” So they are thought to have guarded their marriage “ in intelligence”. And because of Matthew’s “well-paid” job, Susan and Matthew belong to the upper-middle-class family, raise four children, and live in a gardened house. For the sake of a normal family life, Susan quits her job to be “mother” at home. She becomes a responsible mother and wife so she does not have time to experience the sense of freedom. Until Susan’s youngest children go to school, she feels that she has a chance to live her own life. But, she also feels nothing worthy to do and never has a spare moment to herself. Her day is just taken up in waiting for the children to come home, consulting with the maid or worrying about dinner.
Unfortunately, as she remains faithful to Matthew, Matthew begins to have affairs. However, she has to consciously repress herself because “intelligence” forbids the “irrational” feelings or behaviors; for example, “unfaithful, forgive, quarrelling”…etc. In fact, she is invaded by “restlessness, emptiness”. Then, “she starts questioning everything; for example, the value of her life, the support of love, and the role of wife and mother”. She becomes anxious and distant, pulling away from her husband. Finally, for the sake of escaping her “irrational” feelings or behaviors, she decides to go away from her family to seek for solitude. She rents a hotel room every afternoon where she just sits and thinks. Later, Matthew finds her unusual behaviors and doubts she is having an affair. She knows that Matthew’s rational world will not recognize her “irrational” feelings or behaviors. So, she decides to tell him a lie that she is indeed having an affair. As family life and her husband fail her, she cannot find a way to her real self except by turning on the gas in the rented room 19 until she “drifts off into the dark river.”
Question 1 ★What is Susan’s inner transition in her marriage? Why cannot she live her own life? Inner-conflict: to repress (p.2546) to break down (p.2548) to repress (p.2548) to depress (p.2551) to Mother’s Room (p.2551) to Room 19 and then commit suicide (p.2564)
First, the fact Susan gives up her job is part of the intelligent plan according to the whole intelligent, well-arranged structure of their lives. Here, she starts to experience inner-conflict: she has intellectually selected the role of a responsible mother and wife in family, but at the same time she longs to be a woman with her own career in society. She feels emptiness, but she doesn’t tell Matthew or anyone about her feelings because she thinks it is not rational or sensible. Intelligence forbids every “irrational” feelings or behaviors. Later, as she knows Matthew has affairs, her role as a wife can easily be substituted by any other women. She feels resentment, she is out of control herself, but she has to repress her emotions again because she has to give understanding to her intelligent husband. Then, as she hires a girl to be a “mistress of the house”, her role as a mother is going to be played out. She keeps questioning the value of her role as a mother or wife, even a woman. Again, she feels restlessness. Therefore, she is depressed and isolates herself from others. Finally, her emotions cannot find an outlet, resulting in her suicide. In other words, her intelligence is gradually killing herself.
Reference Cheung, Agnes Ying-fun. The Theme of Escape In Doris Lessing’s Fiction. MA Thesis. The Graduate Institute of English. Taipei: Fu Jen University, 1987. 14-8.
Question 2 ★ How does Lessing express her view of marriage through her narrative technique and the character of Susan?
Answer • Lessing expresses Susan’s helplessness (P. 2545) and emptiness (p. 2549) of her marriage life through Susan’s internal monologue. • Although Susan knows her husband is not faithful to her, she forgives him. She denies her own feelings, feels helpless of her marriage life, and this leads to her actions at the end of the story. (See P.2545) • Through Susan and Matthew’ dialogues, we know that they lack of communication in their married life. (pp. 2559, 2561)
Question 3 ★ How do you comment on Susan’s human relationship in the story? How does it relate to the “mid-life crisis”?
Susan isolates herself from people after all her children go to school; her soul can be emancipated only when she is alone. (cf. Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own) Midlife crisis for women— The feeling of “empty nest” makes women depressed and terrified. However, for Susan, nothing is important in her life, not even her children. In the end, Susan is tired of her madness and surrenders to death. The words— “intelligent” and “civilized”—for her are ironic, and her “intelligence” somehow leads her to commit suicide.