Room-by-Emma-DonoghueWriter: Emma Donoghue

Genre: (Lil’) Dude with a Problem
Subgenre: Domestic Problem
Book Genre: Literature/Drama
Total Pages: 321

Opening Image (p. 1-6): Jack wakes up in Room on his fifth birthday. He is happy. Carefree. We get a first glimpse of the world he was born into.

Theme Stated: Before the book begins, Emma Donoghue has printed a poem by the Greek poet, Simonides. “My child, such trouble I have. And you sleep, your heart is placid; you dream in the joyless wood; in the night nailed in bronze, in the blue dark you lie still and shine.”

The theme of the book is childhood innocence. How far a mother will go to protect it. And what happens when it is lost.

Jack is kept ignorant of the horrors of his mother’s circumstances and eventually he will have to learn to deal with the truth. He will have to grow up.

Set-Up (p. 1-74): Through Jack’s point of view, we are introduced to Room where Jack lives with Ma. We learn that although Room seems to be some kind of prison for Ma, to Jack it is the whole world. The world he accepts. Everything else is “TV” (as in not real) because his only knowledge of life outside this Room has come from what he’s seen on TV. In the first few pages, we learn that Jack still breastfeeds (clearly one of the “Six Things That Need Fixing”). We are also introduced to “Old Nick” who we realize is the man holding them prisoner, but through Jack’s eyes, he is simply the man who comes at night (from whom Jack has to hide) and brings them things. Like food, clothes, toiletries, and “Sundaytreat.” But what’s clear to us (and not to Jack) is that Old Nick is some kind of rapist. Who comes in every night while Jack is meant to be asleep, and has sex with Ma.

It is clear that Ma has gone through a lot of trouble to keep Jack’s life happy and carefree. They exercise, sing songs, watch TV, read books, and play games — although many of the games are meant to try to break them out. (Like “Scream” which consists of screaming at the skylight and a game where Jack puts in random numbers on the door keypad.) But to Jack, it’s all fun.

The set-up of this book is long. But Emma Donoghue gets away with it because she inserts several smaller “mini” catalysts along the way to keep the story interesting. Through various key moments, we see that Jack is slowly starting to question his world. He’s getting older and things aren’t making as much sense as they used to. He’s no longer able to simply believe everything his mother says. Rationale is kicking in. And the more evidence we see of this, the more we know that change is coming. We know the story is going somewhere. It’s not 75 pages of status quo. And in a stasis=death moment around page 48, when Jack accidentally scares “Old Nick,” causing a fight and Ma to wake up the next morning with bruises around her neck (bruises that Jack finally recognizes as fingerprints from Old Nick’s hand), we realize that things can’t go on like this. All of these smaller catalyst moments build and build until we finally get to…

Catalyst (p. 74-80): … after Jack sneaks out of Wardrobe (where he’s supposed to sleep when Old Nick is there) and wakes up Old Nick, causing Ma to start screaming, Ma and Old Nick fight and Old Nick storms out. He gets angry and cuts the power in Room as a punishment. Jack and Ma are forced to live in the dark and the cold and eat slimy cold vegetables. We know (even if Jack doesn’t) what Ma is thinking: This can’t go on. Her son’s life is now in danger. It’s time to do something.

Debate (p. 74-135): Both Ma and the reader know that something has to happen. The two have to try to get out of Room. But how will they do it? This is a debate section for both Jack and Ma. For Ma, the question is: “What is the best escape plan? And will it work?” For Jack, there are several questions running through his head: “Why does Ma want to leave Room? What is outside of Room? Can I carry out Ma’s crazy plan?”

It is also revealed in this section how Ma came to be in Room. She was kidnapped when she was 19 (seven years ago) and brought to this room, which is a converted garden shed in the backyard of Old Nick’s house.

Jack is completely overwhelmed. Ma is finally coming clean about “Outside,” and the mind-numbing truth that Jack has to try to digest: Room is not all there is. There is a whole outside world. Everything they watched on TV is not fake, it’s real. And it’s outside this room. This, of course, comes as a huge shock for Jack and he has trouble coping. And even more difficult for him to accept is the realization that for the escape plan to work, Jack will have to leave Ma (for the first time in his life), leave Room, and step into the unknown: The Outside World.

Break into Two (p. 135-155): Enacting the Great Escape plan. Our hero must take an active step to leave his old world behind and enter the new one. Ma and Jack pretend that Jack has become very ill and has died from lack of proper care. She rolls Jack up in Rug and tells Old Nick to bury him somewhere far away. Unknown to Old Nick, Jack has been practicing unrolling himself from Rug. While in Old Nick’s truck, Jack manages to unroll himself and jump from the truck. Old Nick spots him and runs after him. Thankfully, Jack is saved by a person walking his dog who sees the spectacle, gets suspicious, and calls the police. Old Nick flees the scene, the police come, they find Room and break Ma free.

B Story: The B Story in Room is Jack’s relationship with Tooth (his mother’s rotten tooth that fell out earlier in the book). He has it with him during the Great Escape and afterwards, it is really his only friend and connection to his old life in Room. The farther he gets from Room, the more he clings onto it. Similar to the “Wilson” in Castaway, this inanimate object makes Jack feel safe.

Fun & Games (p. 155-197): Jack and Ma are in “Outside,” which for Jack is quite the upside-down version of Room. He immediately notices (and is overwhelmed by) all the differences. To him, everything feels wrong.

Jack and Ma are placed in a psychiatric facility while they get adjusted to being outside of Room. They have to wear masks all the time to protect themselves from germs. There are several great fish-out-of-water moments: Jack doesn’t understand how the toilet flushes on its own, doesn’t know how to use a shower, doesn’t understand words people use, doesn’t like that the plates are blue, doesn’t like the way the hair conditioner smells, bumps into things because his spatial perception is all out of whack from being in that small room all his life. Jack wants everything to go back to the way things were. There are too many new things to try to absorb at once. He is having a rough time adjusting.

Meanwhile Ma just wants to go outside the building and do all the things she hasn’t been able to do in seven years. But Jack is too afraid to go outside.

Midpoint (p. 197): Blake Snyder says the “magical midpoint” often features a “public coming out” of the hero as he tries out his new identity. In Room, this is clearly when Jack goes outside (as in outdoors) for the first time. He “comes out” of the facility that has been sheltering him and faces the scariness of the outside world. Granted, he doesn’t like what’s out there and runs back in, but he does it.

The midpoint in Room is interesting, as there is really two journeys happening here: Jack’s and Ma’s. For Jack, the midpoint marks a “defeat.” So far, he is really not liking “Outside.” All he wants is to go back to Room. He has gotten his first cold, is still not adjusting well, worries constantly about everything, misses his “routine,” still has to go up and down the stairs on all fours, and overall, just isn’t happy. Jack just wants to go back to the way things were.

For Ma, on the other hand, the midpoint represents a victory. She thinks she’s gotten everything she’s wanted. She’s out of Room, escaped from Old Nick (who has been caught and arrested), has her freedom back, her family, fresh air, etc. But for both Ma and Jack, their respective victories and defeats are false because…

Bad Guys Close In (p. 198-248): While Jack’s life slowly improves (and he starts adjusting to life on the Outside), Ma’s life quickly deteriorates. Reality seems to be sinking in for her. She’s realizing that at some point she’s going to have to get back to real life and pay bills, and deal with all the media attention they’ve been getting. It is in this section that we learn the details of Ma’s first baby — the one who died during childbirth (because of Old Nick’s negligence).

During therapy sessions, it’s clear to us (and somewhat to Jack) that Ma is starting to lose it. She’s overwhelmed by everything that’s happening, and is not coping well. Ma’s father flies in from Australia and doesn’t want to meet Jack (it’s too disturbing for him, knowing he’s the son of his daughter’s rapist). This sends Ma over the edge with rage.

And finally, the crux of the Bad Guys Close In section is when Ma agrees to do a TV interview about her experience and the TV interviewer insinuates through her questioning that Ma may have made poor choices for Jack. After this, Ma goes into a comatose state of depression.

Meanwhile, Jack is start to show signs of improvement. He’s now able to climb up and down the stairs on two feet (as opposed to all fours), and he has the courage to venture out of the clinic with his aunt and uncle (without Ma) to see a dinosaur exhibit — something he NEVER would have done a few days ago.

All Is Lost (p. 248-149): Jack returns from his field trip with his aunt and uncle to find Ma unconscious after having overdosed on pills.

Dark Night of the Soul (p. 250-284): Jack is sent to live with his Grandma and “Steppa” (his nickname for his step grandpa) while his mother recovers in the clinic. It’s evident he is regressing now, after the trauma with his mother. He has difficulty being away from her and his grandmother is having a hard time dealing with him and his issues. He doesn’t want to sleep alone and insists on sleeping in the room with Grandma and Steppa. He sucks on Tooth all day long, gets frustrated at one point and punches Grandma, and refuses to get out of bed. When Grandma tries to take him to the playground, he has a miserable time and can’t relate to other kids. But soon they receive word that Ma has stabilized and Jack is even able to talk to her on the phone. However, she tells him that he still can’t see her for a while.

Break into Three (p. 284): There’s a clear break-into-3 moment when Jack cuts off his long ponytail (all on his own). His ponytail is very symbolic of his time in Room. It also marks him as Jack from Room. The media seem to identify him with his ponytail and the fact that he grew up in such conditions. Earlier when Ma asked if Jack wanted a haircut (after several people thought he was a girl), he adamantly refused. So now, in this moment, when he cuts off his hair on his own, it’s clear he’s making an active decision to move on. In his own five-year-old way, he’s learned the theme, accepted that change is inevitable, and is embracing his new life outside of Room.

Finale (p. 284-321): After his brave step into the world of Act 3, Jack shows much bigger signs of improvement. When he goes out to run errands with Grandma, it’s clear that he’s adjusting much more to his new environment. Things don’t stress him out as much, he’s not obsessively worrying about everything he sees that is different, and he’s even finding things that he likes: like the car wash. At the library, Jack even makes his first friend, a young boy named Walker.

There’s a clear synthesis of Act 1 and Act 2 moment when the police send over some of Jack’s things from Room — like Rug, Remote, and Jeep. Even though he’s embraced change, he still revels in the items and enjoys the nostalgia of them.

Ma is finally released from the clinic and comes to take Jack to their new apartment. He tries to breastfeed the minute they get there, but Ma explains that the milk has all dried up. We think Jack is going to have a meltdown, but he deals with the news really well, another sign that he’s moved on and matured.

To continue progressing, Ma and Jack make a deal to try something new every day.

Final Image (p. 317-321): Jack and Ma visit Room one last time for closure. Ma has a hard time going back, but Jack is excited — until he steps into Room and is surprised by how different it is. He even says to Ma, “I don’t think this is it.” He’s confused by how small it suddenly looks (after having been living in the big outside world for the past few weeks), and how weird it smells.

Jack says goodbye to Room and in a beautiful mirror to the Opening Image, they both leave through the open door that once held them prisoner. They are free.