Unpacking Emma Donoghue’s Room

The root of the creative impulse is hard to pinpoint so we may never know for certain whether Emma Donoghue intended Room to be a radical feminist novel. I suspect she had no intention of it being described as such, but that she simply wrote the truest lines she knew, as writers do.

Room is extraordinary. It touches on themes that are always  ignored. I saw it giving a voice to women who have been brutalized by men. While this subject is wildly popular in the media, the women are usually portrayed as dehumanized creatures with their dignity stripped from them, and are never quite restored to full humanity in the way Donoghue’s protagonist is.

The idea of a mother and child’s love transcending a rapist’s evil gets right to the heart of what radical feminism is all about. For all the talk of  giving men “an equal stake in child-rearing” women will never be equal to men in a rape culture that exonerates male violence. Never have I read a book that spelled out so clearly that the baby comes from the mother.

The description of the mother-child bond is beautiful; the rapist-father fades into insignificance early on. Into redundancy and irrelevancy.

I can’t stop thinking about it. When I began reading the first few pages I thought it would be simplistic, but now I catch myself revisiting scenes in my head and I find it to be a source of comfort. I think it could be a masterpiece. I’m having difficulty unpacking it all. It was very powerful.

 It is unclear at first whether the child is a boy or a girl. It was a child. The gender ambiguity was significant, and  added to the feeling that Donoghue was writing from a radical feminist perspective. Gender is, of course, a pantomime, a social construct, created by the dominant class (men) to reinforce the subordinate status of women. Gender does not exist per se and the trappings of gender vary from culture to culture. When a boy is raised in a room with his mother until the age of five, he has no cultural context in which to match his sex to his gender. He becomes confused later as to why some human beings tend to have long hair, and others not. “It’s just a convention”, replies his mother. Indeed.

The hint that the second child was in fact her first baby (who had died) reborn was an oriental concept that I can relate to, and it is a female-friendly spirituality. In Japan, it is understood that life is Liquid, that it flows, and that there is no masterplan or patriarchal God. To this end, abortion is given its place in the culture; it is recognized as part of life. “Why would a country strongly influenced by Buddhism’s reverence for life allow legalized, widely used abortion?” asks LaFleur. “Equally puzzling to many Westerners is the Japanese practice of mizuko rites, in which the parents of aborted foetuses pray for the well-being of these rejected “lives”.

In the narratives of women’s own experiences of life and death- which are strikingly different to those of men’s-  the concept of liquid life makes sense. It is in the way that women sense things about their children, including those they may have lost through miscarriage, or even abortion.

When the kidnapped woman was reunited with her parents, the reaction of her own father was very different to that of her mother [and, refreshingly, the portrayal of the adult daughter-mother relationship is one of mutual respect: both women like and love one another] . The mother felt gratitude towards the small boy who had brought her own baby back to her and she was grateful to him for his bravery in assisting the escape. She saw the boy as a child.
But to the father, the child represented the fact that his daughter was A Raped Woman, his property violated and trespassed upon. And there was a hint that he saw her has damaged goods and that it might have been better  for him if she had been killed because then his “property” wouldn’t have been returned to him sullied.
The father couldn’t love the child for being a child; he symbolized something else.

The escape took place pretty soon into the novel, which was another of its beauties.  It wasn’t written by a man: it wasn’t voyeuristic., the child needn’t lose his innocence by having the degradation revealed to him in order to unleash the novel’s power. There was no glamorization of brutality. This was not a Hollywood novel, their escape was not The End.

Upon escaping, they were confronted with a new horror: the patriarchal attack on their small family unit, led by the medical and clinical psychologist stakeholders. The child intuitively knew that the only thing his mother needed in order to feel better was to be reunited with him, although she may not have realised it herself. But the psychologists and drug-pushers wouldn’t leave her alone until they’d found her correct ‘dosage’, when what had in fact pushed her over the edge was the vulture journalists taking photos of her child to splash around the newspapers. Her reaction was not irrational; it was perfectly, cleanly, rational.

The priorities of the patriarchy were on display in the media fixation on the fact she was still breastfeeding her five year old in the fascinating dialogue with the press.

It does not enter the consciousness of a patriarchal society that breastfeeding is a pretty damn reliable contraceptive for many a woman, or that it can relieve PND by releasing the feel-good hormone, oxytocin, into the bloodstream. But in representing a certain erotic closeness that cannot be interrupted by a third party and which binds the motherbaby unit together, it is threatening.

Breaking down the mother-child bond is a societal imperative in our culture. Post-partum mothers are often asked by medical staff and other handmaidens of the patriarchy whether they have resumed their sex life, and are often told to resume intercourse as long as their ladybits are in working order. In truth, a good two year wait would do the mother a world of good so that pregancies can be prevented and she can concentrate on her baby. But this the Patriarchal Penetration Agenda will not allow.

A woman suffers being raped and abused by a psychopath in a single room for over five years and upon her release the media is fixated on the fact she is still breastfeeding her boy. This was the truest part of the novel, accurately reflecting the values of the patriarchal system under which we live. Donoghue, I salute you!


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