I finished Room by Donoghue a few days ago and I had a few observations that I wanted to share.
I’m not sure if everyone has read the book, but it’s about a mother and her five-year-old son (told entirely from his perspective) who are held hostage in a 11x11 foot shed that is impossible to escape (the mother has tried everything). The boy, Jack, has only ever known this room because his mother was kidnapped while she was a 19-year-old college student. While being held hostage in his shed, she was raped (several times a week) and was twice pregnant. Her second pregnancy gave her Jack. So aside from the world of books, his mother’s stories, and television, Jack knows nothing about the outside world, and doesn’t even know there is a world outside the shed until his mother tells him shortly after his fifth birthday. In a brave attempt to escape, they pretend Jack has died by wrapping him in a rug, and their kidnapper/her rapist, throws his “corpse” in the trunk of his car. Jack and his mother are then able to escape, and the story then continues with their life settling into the world “Outside.”
I’ve read a bunch of reviews of the book, but one thing I definitely think they missed: how being removed from society affected Jack’s “gendering.” One interesting thing that Jack notices when he’s outside in the world is that people judge him for liking things he sincerely likes, like Dora the Explorer, and seem insistant that he conform to the “boy world” by playing with Legos and trains (though I get really annoyed when these are considered “boy toys”!!). His uncle asks why he wants a pink backpack, because in combination with his long hair (which has never been cut), people might think he’s a girl. (This doesn’t seem to bother Jack a whole lot because he loves the bag with Dora on it.)
In fact, people often mistake him for a girl (repeatedly!). The few kids his age that he does come in contact with all think he’s a girl because of the length of his hair. His mother doesn’t seem to mind, and neither does he (though he does correct them). He eventually chops his ponytail off himself with kitchen scissors one afternoon, but not because he is fearful people think he’s feminine. Cutting his hair is primarily used as a sign of letting go of his past. He didn’t cut his hair before because he wanted to be like Sampson (the hyper-masculine figure from the Bible who’s power comes almost entirely from his hair) and was afraid that once it’s cut, he’d lose all his strength. Unlike Sampson, when Jack cuts his hair, it is a symbol of his now-independence from his mother (he does it while away from her for the first time in his life — and the first week he has gone without being breastfed) and makes him a “man” by appearance and by this severance from his mother.
I’m sure I can unpack that even more, but it was an interesting (though fairly subtle) twist in the story and made me wonder what it really would be like to grow up completely removed from all socially constructed gender roles and identities. Of course in this story, he watches TV and is given (very typically “male” designated) gifts from their captor, but what if he had no toys and only books and his mother? I wonder how he would’ve emerged from the Room into the world if he had no sense of what he SHOULD like to wear, based on the fact that he is male. Or is he young enough where he will feel pressure from doctors and other family members to conform to their idea of male? Some things I began to ponder after reading. Of course, I have no clear answers.
Room is an unusual read, though I had some trouble getting into it at first (baby talk really irritates me, but it gets better after awhile). It breaks a lot of the tropes you’d typically find in other books about kidnapping/confinement. I’d say 3.5/5.