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Book Club Discussion: Room by Emma Donoghue

By Angela Hallstrom

First, my apologies! Even though this is completely embarrassing to admit, yesterday (Thursday, the day we were supposed to discuss this novel) I spent the entire day thinking it was Wednesday. I’m blaming it on the end of the school year. So forgive me for not having this discussion up and ready to go. Now, without futher ado, let’s discuss Room by Emma Donoghue. A plot summary and possible discussion questions are below, but feel free to respond to the novel in any way you’d like.

In many ways, Jack is a typical 5-year-old. He likes to read books, watch TV, and play games with his Ma. But Jack is different in a big way–he has lived his entire life in a single room, sharing the tiny space with only his mother and an unnerving nighttime visitor known as Old Nick. For Jack, Room is the only world he knows, but for Ma, it is a prison in which she has tried to craft a normal life for her son. When their insular world suddenly expands beyond the confines of their four walls, the consequences are piercing and extraordinary. Despite its profoundly disturbing premise, Emma Donoghue’s Room is rife with moments of hope and beauty, and the dogged determination to live, even in the most desolate circumstances. A stunning and original novel of survival in captivity, readers who enter Room will leave staggered, as though, like Jack, they are seeing the world for the very first time. –Lynette Mong, Amazon Best of the Month Sept. 2010

Discussion Questions:

1-Room tells a harrowing story, but Donoghue’s decision to have a 5-year-old boy narrate the novel blunts some of the horror as it is filtered through his perception. What did you think about Donoghue’s decision to use Jack as the narrator? What were the benefits and drawbacks of this decision?

2-Donoghue said the following about her novel: “Room is a universal story of parenthood and childhood, and in Jack and Ma’s relationship I wanted to dramatize the full range of extraordinary emotions parents and children feel for each other: to put mothering in a weird spotlight and test it to its limits. Because it does have limits. Yes, Room celebrates mother-love but it also painfully calculates those moments when Ma has to recognize that Jack needs something other than her protection. Those moments all parents come to when love takes the form of stepping back, letting go.”

What do you admire about Ma? If you were in her situation, what would you have done differently? Even if you disagreed with some of Ma’s choices, could you understand why she made them?

3-What parallels can you draw between Jack’s expulsion from his confined and limited but relatively “safe” existence in Room into the chaos and danger of the real world, and Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden? Do you see any other religious themes in this novel?

4-Donoghue has revealed that the idea for Room sprang from news reports about Elizabeth Fritzl, an Austrian woman who’d been kept captive by her father Josef for 24 years, resulting in the birth of seven children. When asked about this association, Donoghue said, “I was naive about what that association would do; soon Room was being misdescribed and attacked as ‘a novel about Josef Fritzl’. This began to ease as soon as the book was published, because almost every review defended my novel as not-the-exploitation-story-they’d-expected. But it has still left me with the fervent wish that no book of mine will ever be linked to a real contemporary case again. . . . Something I tried to explore in the second half of the novel is the complicated soup of sympathy, nosiness, squeamishness, sentimentality and judgmentalism in which such cases [like the Fritzl case] float. Tweets, websites, tv interviews, they all serve our voyeuristic craving for details of awful cases, and we all share the blame.”

How does Donoghue critique the media in the second half of the novel? Should she be included in the critique as the author of a novel that has a sensational news story as its genesis? How should we feel about our own fascination or interest in such stories? Is it pure voyeurism, or are our motives more complicated?

About Angela Hallstrom

(Advisory Board) grew up in Utah, then moved to Minnesota, then came back to Utah, then packed up her husband and four kids and moved to Minnesota--again!-- in the summer of 2010. Although she loves the Land of 10,000 Lakes, she dearly misses Slurpees, Sunday dinners at her Mom's house, and eating a whole entire Cafe Rio pork salad while lunching with her Utah-based Segullah sisters. And yes, she finds it telling that everything she misses about her hometown is somehow related to food. She has an BA in English from BYU, an MFA in creative writing from Hamline University, and has taught writing to high school and college students.

6 thoughts on “Book Club Discussion: Room by Emma Donoghue”

  1. The intimacy of shared pain is a recurring theme through ‘Room’. Similar life experiences create rich and ennobling connections with people, but our different responses to painful experience inevitably drag others through our own recounting or re-living of an event.
    Ma’s capacity to protect Jack from the horror of Room by creating a world within those walls turns against her as they leave this narrow world and enter the expansiveness of Outside. Jack’s narrow world makes him incapable of understanding Ma’s reluctance to keep items from Room or to re-visit it. His insistence forces her to relive experiences that she would sooner forget. The divorce of Ma’s parents is another sub-narrative exploring this theme.
    Donoghue’s book has little to teach about how these experiences are to be handled. Jack’s insistence finds them moving through the house and garden back to the shed that had been her prison, but his world, for so many years. She is overwhelmed by the sensation and yet he is underwhelmed. Jack’s experience suggests that our pain is not as significant as we sometimes suppose. Must it be recognised and explored; need it be discussed and analysed, and who do we involve in such processes? Is it wise to explore such pain with those who have shared our experiences (but whose perspectives are probably incommensurable with our own) or are they best explored with certain empathic others who must endeavour to hear our suffering. Additionally how significant is the perpetrator in our pain? Should they be the ones to understand or change as a result of our narratives?
    In each of the characters in ‘Room’ there was an underlying sense that pain was self-centred rather than other-centred. This is most sharply focussed when the reporter asks why Ma did not give Jack away for adoption. The monstrosity of Ma’s decision to protect is focused through this dialogue, for she betrays a willingness to sacrifice her child to save herself. There is no doubt that we see them redeemed together but one wonders whether there redemption was not of a demonic sort; a dependent redemption that bound these souls together in a self-serving re-living of their pain.

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  2. Aaron, a really interesting response. Thanks for sharing it.

    I think you're right on here: "our different responses to painful experience inevitably drag others through our own recounting or re-living of an event." That's the danger of forming intimate relationships, yes? We can't separate the other from ourselves; when they hurt, we hurt, and vice versa.

    I don't know if the pain in Room was any more self-centered than the pain we all experience, however. Of course, Ma's decision to keep Jack rather than give him up for adoption is horrifying when we look at it critically, but I also understand why she did it. Although this situation is magnified and more intense than most of us will ever endure, don't we all ask other people to sacrifice and even suffer (even children!) because we need them? And is it even possible for a person who's chosen to enter into intimate relationships to suffer without asking our loved ones to suffer with us? Doesn't this make all of us "self-centered"?

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  3. I had a very different perception of Ma's decision to keep Jack, and that probably colored my perception of the outcome of her decision. I didn't see it as self-centered at all. My thought was that asking Old Nick to leave the baby somewhere so that he could have been adopted could have resulted in at least three equally probable outcomes: abandoning the baby somewhere like a hospital, killing the baby & burying him near the other child she gave birth to, or Old Nick keeping the child and raising Jack himself. Only one of those outcomes could have been acceptable to Ma, and since she had very little reason to trust Old Nick to abide by her wishes, she may have decided to keep Jack as a means of making sure that he remained alive and giving him as "normal" an upbringing as she possibly could, given her terrible circumstances.

    While Jack was tiny, Ma could give him most of the things he needed to survive and develop, and she managed to keep Old Nick away from him, so Jack really had no idea how terrible their situation was. I think that the timing of their escape had a great deal to do with Ma realizing that she could not continue to protect her son from their captor, nor could she continue to meet Jack's developmental needs as he grew.

    To me, it seemed as if Ma's instinct was always to protect Jack, even at her own expense, until she became so overwhelmed by the trauma of her experiences that she attempted suicide. While they were in Room, she made huge efforts to give Jack as many varieties of experience as possible, and she never burdened him with the full depth of her emotions. Once they were free, she countered her own desires to be outside, to never revisit Room, etc. with the need to move at Jack's pace in acclimating to a world he had never known. Ma obviously struggled with these decisions and the emotional trauma they inflicted on her, but she acted in ways that were very sensitive to her child's needs.

    I do see the theme of shared pain throughout the novel. I found it interesting that the things that seemed most painful to Ma were sometimes the things that were most helpful for Jack's adjustment to life outside of Room. The visit to Room at the end of the book is an obvious example, but also her parents' divorce and her mother's remarriage. Ma's own father was unable to look at Jack without envisioning his daughter's abuse, while Steppa was one of the people who did the best at relating to Jack and patiently helping him transition to life Outside.

    One aspect of the book that impressed me was Jack's resilience. Sure, he had issues with transitioning to a life outside of Room (his response to other people's touch feeling like an electric shock, and other overwhelming sensory experiences), but Ma had obviously done such a good job at protecting him from the emotional horror of their situation that Jack's first instinct is to love and trust. His biggest meltdown is after Grandma scolds him for talking to strangers and he realizes that there are other bad people in the world like Old Nick. By the end of the book, I still saw a long road ahead for Ma and Jack, but Jack was already starting to make sense of the world around him and feeling safe. To me, that made Ma's choices seem more self-sacrificing than self-centered. Perhaps it is the fact that the book is told from Jack's point of view that left me ultimately feeling hopeful for the future.

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  4. Bekah, thanks so much for your thoughtful response. I agree that Ma sacrificed a great deal in the novel and did her best to do right by Jack. I also agree that her willingness to confront painful memories — things she would avoid if it were up to her alone and didn't have Jack to consider — show that she's willing to do this, even outside of Room when Jack is no longer in mortal danger.

    The novel is an interesting and complicated take on parenthood, to be sure.

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  5. So, so much to say about this awesome book! I'll need to rethink some of the main elements, but I'd like to respond on the media front:

    There is a danger in any story for the media becoming unethical, especially in such sensational stories. I would argue though, that Ma nor Jack haven’t met any real journalists just TV ones. 😉 As someone who works in news writing, I’m part of several journalism associations with strict codes of ethics. More and more I see people who can’t tell the difference between media entertainers like Glenn Beck or Stephen Colbert and actual journalists who report the news.

    On some level, Ma and Jack’s story should be discussed a little- if only because we need to come to terms with the hows and whys something like this could happen. And what we in the public can do to prevent it from happening again. But such shouldn’t come with any invasion of privacy.

    It’s interesting to note how Ma’s negotiations with puffy-hair journo poser was not unlike her negotiations with Old Nick to get a Sundaytreat. That says something.

    There’s more of a comment I want to leave about the bigger themes of the book, but I’m still trying to process what I want to say. There’s so much and it’s all perfectly executed in telling such a story.

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