The following academic paper highlights the up-to-date issues and questions of To Room Nineteen. This sample provides just some ideas on how this topic can be analyzed and discussed.
Doris Lessing as a literary artist incorporates autobiographical elements in most of her works. And the short story “To Room Nineteen” is no different. The other recurrent theme of Lessing’s writing is her provocative brand of feminism, which also finds expression in this story. The objective of this paper is to draw parallels between the lives of the author and her lead character Susan Rawlings.
In the short story To Room Nineteen, the protagonist Susan Rawlings is propelled by her circumstances into committing suicide. But, this Lessing has dealt with the subject already in her 1971 novel Briefing for a Descent into Hell, which explores “a man’s mental breakdown and society’s conditioned and unimaginative reaction to it” (Bloom, p.124). In other words, the author tries to present an alternative view of suicide and its social context.
Lessing observes that “it needs a particular training to instill in people the belief that putting a label on some feeling or thing and defining it, is equivalent to understanding and experiencing it” (Bloom, 145). We can understand Lessing’s objection to this kind of simplified emotional categorization, as she herself lived a life that defied conventional cultural expectations. She ran away from her home to the city of Salisbury when she was barely thirteen. In the years following, she worked as a telephone operator and also took up some odd jobs.
These were the 1930s, when young girls of her age were expected to live with their parents. But Lessing was different from the stereotypical colonial girl in that she choose to have freedom and independence in the place of security. This aspect of her personal life is reflected in many of her works, including the story To Room Nineteen (Cahill, p.14).
Doris Lessing was married and divorced twice in her life. This personal history of failed relationships seems to provide her a unique insight into the dynamics of intimate relationships in general. Lessing puts this insight to good use in To Room Nineteen, when she uses the metaphor of a “snake biting its tail” to explicate the troubled relationship of Susan and Matthew (Chettle, p.75). For example,
“At the beginning, Susan and Matthew’s life is said to be ‘like a snake biting its tail’, an image of ineffectiveness, stagnation and sterility. Later in the story, Susan has a vision of her demon prodding an unhealthy-looking snake with a stick. The snake might still symbolize Susan’s self—unhealthy because of too much repression—and so the demon could be seen as shaking her unhealthy self out of its stagnation. In other words, what might be suggested here is a kind of awakening. And indeed, the next time we come across the snake image, Susan’s dormant self has been awakened.” (Bloom, 41)
Lessing’s childhood years spent in the vibrant jungles of South Africa and Rhodesia might have had a subconscious effect in bring out this reference to the snake. After all, snake as a metaphor of the human condition is seldom seen in popular English literature. Hence, her upbringing in the natural atmosphere of African wilderness has had a profound effect on the author’s imagination (Cahill, p.45).
Doris Lessing is also singular among contemporary writers in her sincere efforts to reform society. While there have been many writers from the commonwealth countries, Lessing stands out for her courageous opposition to the Apartheid system in South Africa, for which she was condemned to exile (Bloom, p.150). She was also actively involved in the Socialist movement during the 1940s when she was married to Gottfried Lessing; although she is less optimistic of late on the capabilities of a communist political system to change social iniquities and injustices. Nevertheless, it is difficult to separate the radical political thought of Doris Lessing from the characters she portrays in her works. In the story To Room Nineteen, we can trace a similarity in the internal conflict and confusion of Susan Rawlings and the author’s own ambiguous and uncertain political stance. To illustrate, Susan Rawlings, “because of her conventional understanding of the self and neurosis, is unable to come to terms with the unconscious elements of her self, to move through dissolution towards integration and a creative balance between rational and irrational elements. She is, quite literally, propelled into suicide by the wrong metaphors” (Chettle, p.12). Rawlings’ disillusionment of an ideal self mocks Lessing’s eventual disillusionment with an ideal political system. Further, more positive, more constructive alternative conceptualizations of the self and neurosis are conspicuous by their absence in the narrative. For example, “a conceptualization in terms of the process of artistic creation, equating the creation of the self with the creation of a work of art, would have been possible: here inner conflicts and demon-possession would be seen as necessary steps in a process leading to the creation of a balanced, integrated work of art (or self, respectively)” (Chettle, p.240).
In the short story To Room Nineteen, we find a instances when the author draws upon both “image-schemata of centre-periphery and containment: namely, our psychological experience of the self” (Chettle, p.65). The central character of the story Susan Rawlings, perceives herself as a container with particular components, especially the logical ones, vital to it, whereas other, unconscious, illogical facets to her personality are pushed aside to the fringes, thereby maintaining a semblance of control. While the author’s conception of Susan Rawlings’ innermost conflicts might come across as unusual or even controversial when contrasted with conventional usages of metaphors, such as a metaphor of balance, to represent the different components of the self (Verdonk, p.42). This rebellious streak is evident in Doris Lessing’s life as well, as a result of which she did not conform to social norms, but rather lived life in her own terms. The accuracy, with which she pinpoints the ego hassles afflicting the relationship between Susan and Matthew, is a testimony to this assertion. To quote, “For Susan and she husband Matthew; a healthy self is definitely a matter of control rather than balance. The narrator tells us that with Susan and Matthew all ‘inner storms and quick-sands were understood and charted’” (Verdonk, p.12). Hence, To Room Nineteen follows in the long tradition established by Doris Lessing’s works that incorporate autobiographical elements into supposed works of fiction. In other words, the author’s personal life experiences and general perception of society is reflected in the short story.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Doris Lessing /. New York: Chelsea House, 1986.
Cahill, Susan (Editor), Women and Fiction – Short Fiction Anthology, Published by Signet, 2001.
E. Chettle, Judith, “Lessons in Survival.”, World and I May 1999: 246.
Verdonk, Peter, and Jean Jacques Weber, eds. Twentieth-Century Fiction: From Text to Context. New York: Routledge, 1995.