1 Introduction

The Irish-Canadian author Emma Donoghue describes Room,1 her seventh novel, as “a universal story of parenthood and childhood” (Donoghue in Prospero 2010). It narrates the story of Ma, a 26-year-old woman who has been imprisoned for seven years in an eleven-by-eleven-foot soundproof garden shed in an unnamed place in America with her son, Jack, born out of sexual abuse and raised in this room up to the age of five. They are locked up, subjugated and humiliated by a man nicknamed Old Nick, their kidnapper, who feels entitled to do so because they are “things that belong to him, because Room does” (Donoghue 2010, 81). He forces them to live under precarious conditions: isolated in a confined space, provided with little food of poor nutritional value, insecure and subjected to violence. They become highly vulnerable human beings, Ma more than Jack as she is also a victim of verbal, psychological, physical and sexual abuse. But Room not only explores “the horror of life in captivity”, it also deals with “the uneasy transition back into the world after escape” (Lorenzi 2016, 19) due to external factors, such as excessive medical intervention and extremely sensationalist mass media coverage, and internal factors such as mental and emotional instability or lack of abilities to relate to other human beings.

Emma Donoghue conceived the story of Room shortly after the real-life case of Josef Fritzl emerged in Austria in 2008, when Elisabeth Fritzl revealed that she had been held captive for 24 years by her own father, Josef Fritzl, who had psychologically, physically and sexually abused her during her imprisonment in the basement of the family home in Amstetten, Austria. It also emerged that she had delivered seven children while in captivity. According to Mark Medley (2010), Donoghue was drawn to one of them, “Felix, the young boy who’d never seen the outside world […]. The idea of a child, emerging into the modern world ‘as if he was a Martian, having heard things about the outside but never knowing it was fully real,’ inspired the novelist”. Medley (2010) adds that “Donoghue began writing Room in January 2009 after a period of research during which she explored subjects ranging from infanticide to dungeon construction to unassisted labour. Donoghue didn’t just read about kidnappings, but other examples of children raised in confined or traumatizing settings”.

The novel is divided into five chapters that represent Ma’s and Jack’s metamorphosis from captivity in Room to “freedom” in Outside: “Presents” (Jack celebrates his 5th birthday and describes life in Room), “Unlying” (Jack discovers there is a whole world to explore outside Room, he calls it Outside), “Dying” (Ma and Jack design a plan to trick Old Nick and carry out the “Great Escape”), “After” (Once in Outside, both Ma and Jack are provided with medical help and family support to adapt to a new life full of hardships) and “Living” (they try to overcome their fears and recover from what had been a curtailment for Jack and confinement for Ma and become real survivors).

This present chapter deals with the different types of abusive conditions in which Ma and Jack find themselves while they are first imprisoned in Room and later free in Outside, the devastating effects these have on their bodies and psyche, the different practices of resistance that they enact to cope with what Judith Butler calls “a disproportionate exposure to suffering” (2016, 25) and the transforming process they must undergo to adapt to the different situations of oppression and confinement they face both in captivity and after escape.

Judith Butler’s Theory of Vulnerability helps us understand how Emma Donoghue resorts to the notion of vulnerability in resistance to shape Room characters’ subjectivity, Julia Kristeva’s Theory of the Abject explains why Ma and Jack fall into the category of socially disturbing elements and are, consequently, confined, controlled and forced to accept the patriarchal symbolic order. I also draw from Boris Cyrulnik’s Theory of Resilience to examine the process that the protagonists, psychologically wounded people, must undergo to overcome trauma, become whole again and achieve social integration. I have divided my analysis into two sections following the narrative development in the novel. The first deals with the situation in the confined space they know simply as “Room” and the second with their changed conditions in the world at large, or “Outside”.

2 Violence, Vulnerability and Parodic Resistance

Locked up, Jack and his mother depend on their captor, who controls the social and material conditions in which they live. If we understand vulnerability “as a deliberate exposure to power” (Butler 2016, 22), Jack and Ma are absolutely vulnerable, since they are confined, subjugated and threatened with food, water or power cuts by Old Nick, who forces them to live under the precarious conditions already mentioned. These conditions affect Ma more than they affect Jack for two reasons, first, she is fully aware of them and, second, violence in her case implies physical ill-treatment, sexual assault and psychological torture. Jack, the narrator of the story, does not witness how Old Nick exercises physical and/or sexual violence against Ma because when this predator is in Room, he is told to stay hidden in a wardrobe, but he can hear Old Nick tormenting his mother, as the following quotation illustrates. In it the captor sarcastically presents himself as a protective figure and Room as a kind of pleasant and safe sanctuary guarding its inmates from all the perils women must face in the world outside Room:

The first thing Old Nick says I don’t hear.

“Mmm, sorry about that,” says Ma, “we had curry. I was wondering, actually, if there was any chance—” Her voice is all high. “If it might be possible sometime to put in an extractor fan or something?” […]

“Huh, there’s an idea,” says Old Nick. “Let’s start all the neighbors wondering why I’m cooking up something spicy in my workshop.” […]

“Oh. Sorry,” says Ma, “I didn’t think—”

“Why don’t I stick a flashing neon arrow on the roof while I’m at it?” […]

“I’m really sorry,” says Ma, “I didn’t realize that the smell, that it, that a fan would—

“I don’t think you appreciate how good you’ve got it here,” says Old Nick. “Do you?”

Ma doesn’t say anything.

“Above ground, natural light, central air, it’s a cut above some places, I can tell you. Fresh fruit, toiletries, what have you, click your fingers and it’s there. Plenty girls would thank their lucky stars for a setup like this, safe as houses. Specially with the kid—”

Is that me?

“No drunk drivers to worry about,” he says, “drug pushers, perverts …” Ma butts in very fast. “I shouldn’t have asked for a fan, it was dumb of me, everything’s fine.”

“OK, then.” (Donoghue 2010, 69)

This piece of dominant masculinist narrative aims at taming Ma, at depriving her of her voice and agency—and consequently of her subjectivity—and at establishing a clear power relation based on possession—by resorting to terror and by stressing Ma’s situation of dependency. Although Ma is deeply affected by Jack’s induced confinement and abuse, she resists Old Nick’s destructive power by simply staying alive, as Butler says: “under certain conditions, continuing to exist, to move, and to breathe are forms of resistance” (Butler 2016, 26) and by changing her tactic. After having struggled against her predator for years before Jack is born, once she becomes a mother, Ma strategically decides to play the role of the acquiescent “Stepford wife”2 (Donoghue 2010, 233), that is that of the submissive automaton subjected to a condition of sexual slave, always ready to respond to the demands of her despotic master. However, she never stops mentally rejecting her captor’s control and actively thinking about a strategy to escape it.

Ma’s bodily exposure aims at lessening the effects that Old Nick’s violence can discharge upon them, so they can survive longer and ameliorate their living conditions. Here, vulnerability can be seen as part of her own exercise of power, thus, “resistance appears as the effect of power, as part of power, its self-subversion” (Butler 1997, 93). In this relation of power and parodic resistance, subversion on the part of Ma must be restricted to the imaginary, since resistance—organically linked to death—is interpreted by the power from which it originates as “‘death drive’, ‘madness’, ‘anarchism’, and finally ‘destructive’” (Samaddar 2010, 137), that is, as potentially disruptive of the symbolic order, the “register of regulatory ideality” (Butler 1993: 18), as established by the power.

Ma’s exposure to continuous suffering by her captor rapist is devastating her to such an extent that she requires regular medication to deal with it, and when this is not enough to relieve her physical pain and mental anguish, she stays in bed for a whole day totally disconnected from life—or “Gone”, with a capital letter, as Jack calls it. Ma then goes through what the internationally renowned psychologist Boris Cyrulnik calls a “psychic near-death experience” (2010, 36). Confinement and abuse erode Ma’s sense of identity, she becomes a split subject, a divided ego with two parts: “the transparent, social part of it, which is often cheerful, masks a darker part that is both secret and shameful” (Cyrulnik 2009, 176).

Although Ma is deeply psychologically wounded, she makes titanic efforts to create a magical world in Room for Jack, who perceives the locked, soundproof, isolated and terribly small shed as a “nice and warm” space (Donoghue 2010, 8) where he and his mother have “thousands of things to do” (Donoghue 2010, 8). His mother constantly stimulates him to carry out both physical and mental exercises. The “socio-emotional and cognitive development” that Boris Cyrulnik states as essential for proper self-realization (2010, 148) is partly achieved. Although he cannot experiment a socialising process among other children and adults, he enjoys his childhood while learning to behave as an “ethical subject” loving and respecting his mother, caring for all the living creatures that also inhabit Room—a plant, a mouse and a spider—and all the objects in it, developing moral rules and following guidelines for proper conduct.

He is always inspired by his mother, an intelligent woman, a caring mother, a proper figure of attachment, a source of affection and a model of principled behaviour. Jack believes himself to be “the dead spit of” Ma (Donoghue 2010, 7), not only like her, but a part of his mother, since they are fully connected with each other on a physical, mental and emotional level. The mother–child bond is so strong that Jack cannot perceive any real boundaries between them. The unity that Ma and Jack represent is physically manifested through breastfeeding; he loves this intimate connection to his mother’s body even at the age of five.

Jack adores Ma, a god-like figure.3 She seems to know everything and satisfy his curiosity by answering all his questions. Ma not only provides him with an education in an entertaining way, but also explains important aspects of life to him through tales and stories he can easily understand like “Dylan the Digger”, “Baby Jesus”, “Ginger Jack”, “Jack the Giant Killer”, Alice in Wonderland, “The Mermaid”, etc. Through these stories, the boy has access to knowledge and truth, although, as she says, “A different kind of true” (Donoghue 2010, 71). At the age of five, the boy has the impression that he knows everything he needs to understand his world.

Ma transmits him human values that he can understand and embrace, she does a myriad of things to make him happy, she devotes her full attention to him, she provides him with constant love and care and she makes him feel useful, powerful and unique. Jack is induced to thinking that he is a hero with “superpowers”, “Super Prince JackerJack” (Donoghue 2010, 135) who, noble, pure, mentally strong and brave, is meant, he himself says, to kill evil ones (Donoghue 2010, 54) like Old Nick in order to protect and save the good ones like his own mother. Jack indeed saves Ma from despair by giving her a reason to live. As Miriam Borham-Puyol affirms, maternity “enables Ma to develop a stronger will to survive her confinement and torture. Maternity gives purpose to her life, which had lost all meaning in the midst of her traumatic experience” (2020, 79).

From the very moment Jack is born, Ma constitutes her subjectivity as a mother, the very act of renaming herself as Ma—concealing her real name from Jack—implies an act of resistance that lets her imagine herself an agentive and powerful subject rather than a passive and powerless object of sexual exploitation. Indeed, thanks to the loving bond that she creates with her son, using Sarah Bracke’s expression, Ma is able to “endlessly bend […] without breaking” (2016, 66).

To keep Jack safe in the protective bubble she has created for him, Ma prevents Old Nick from seeing, talking or interacting with Jack and avoids talking to Jack about Old Nick so that he cannot become “realer” in his mind (Donoghue 2010, 18). This terrifying, but somehow not totally real element for Jack, never haunts the boy; Ma is ready to keep acquiescent and submit herself to bodily exposure as long as Old Nick does not relate to Jack. She also tells Jack that everything outside Room, except Old Nick, is not real, that all they can touch is real, but that all they like but cannot have is fantasy. That is, people, animals or things that appear on TV are not real (Donoghue 2010, 20); this way, the boy does not really long for anything he cannot have access to.

He is happy with the few elements available in Room. He does not feel isolated because he imagines that his world is populated by many other beings, some with human shapes that can be found in books and on TV—Dora the Explorer, Baby Jesus, Alice in Wonderland, Dylan the Digger—and some with non-human shapes that cohabit Room—Tooth (a tooth from his mother), Rug, Bed, Wall, Eggsnake, Sink, Wardrove, Wonky Chair, Meltedy Spoon, Spider, Mouse and Plant, among others. To all are given capital letters to stress their value and uniqueness. Whether fantastic or real, he attributes all of them human features maintaining with each a special relation by talking and interacting with them. As Libe García Zarranz states by “personifying the objects in Room, Jack grants them a sense of material agency, while simultaneously depicting the boundaries between the human and the nonhuman world as porous” (2017, 49).

As Ma wants the world they inhabit to be cohesive and meaningful, to follow some kind of logic and purpose, she builds it on a solid, highly organised and structured base. She not only establishes the rules both must comply with, but also the activities they have to accomplish to create a routine according to the time and day of the week: Monday is laundry day, Friday is Mattress time, Sunday is the day on which they get a”Sundaytreat” (they get something extra that they like or need), etc.

In their daily routine, they devote some time to creativity playing with toys, reading, storytelling, singing, drawing, stringing eggshells together with a needle to make a kind of snake that they name Eggsnake, etc. They also invent “word sandwiches” such as “scave”—denoting that someone is scary and brave—or “coolary”—indicating that something is cool and scary. No doubt, Ma tries “to make the room as creative a space as possible” (Donoghue in Marcus 2016). Due to Ma’s educational strategies, Jack is capable of performing many tasks which help preserve his physical and mental health in the precarious life conditions they face: he knows how to do the laundry, to organise his meals, to sew, to water plants, to entertain himself, etc. and he carries out all these activities on his own when Ma is “Gone”.

He enjoys life in Room, “a big womb, the space in many ways a true extension of a mother’s body, a limited area of total closeness and care” (Bender 2010). It is the only place he knows, and in it, he has a coherent sense of selfhood. In fact, the only thing that the child really fears is Old Nick separating him from his mother—thus breaking the bond between them—as some kind of punitive action.

Despite Ma’s efforts to provide Jack with a joyful and healthy environment, despite trying to conceal the physical, psychological and sexual damage that Old Nick imprints on her and hiding Jack from Old Nick’s sight to make her son’s life more bearable, captivity also leaves its mark on the boy. From a psychological point of view, confinement has “undeniably shaped Jack’s perspective of the world, including his sense of reality. […] Jack has difficulty understanding the relationship between his own existence and those of the people he sees on television” (Lorenzi 2016, 23). From a physical viewpoint, Jack’s physical development is retarded due to the lack of space, sun and fresh air and a poor diet. On his 5th birthday, he is only 3 feet and 3 inches (approx. 99 cm) tall. The child is so extraordinarily small that when Old Nick sees him by chance, he pejoratively describes the boy as “a basket case” (Donoghue 2010, 74). Butler says that “the body is less an entity than a relation, and it cannot be fully dissociated from the infrastructural and environmental conditions of its living” (2016, 19).

Conditions of living in Room become extremely unbearable after a brief episode of insurgency during which Ma asks Old Nick for vitamins and a better diet—an act of resistance to their conditions of austerity. The captor, wielding his disciplinary power, stops providing them with any food or electricity for days. Ma, fearing that both would die in Room, decides to tell Jack the truth about their situation of confinement and of Old Nick’s perverse nature. This way the boy can confirm something he had previously guessed: that their night visitor is “not human like […them]” (Donoghue 2010, 18), that he is the source of Ma’s suffering and that his idealised Room is also a prison. She also reveals to him that Room is not the real world, but Outside—America—a place full of wonders and enjoyment where people can be free. Ma wants Jack to understand the need to leave Room, the place he loves and knows so well, which creates some confusion in the boy’s mind.

Ma tries to convince him about the urgency to achieve freedom and both design a plan to escape from Room. They call it “The Great Scape”. Jack, as brave and powerful as Super Prince JackerJack, has the leading role (Donoghue 2010, 135), possessing in Ma’s opinion special capacities and skills to undertake bold actions which will save them from both captivity and eventual death. According to the escape plan, Jack must pretend to be ill and then dead, so Old Nick takes him out of Room to bury him. Once on Old Nick’s truck, he must jump from it, find a police officer and tell him about Room to save himself and Ma. As the ultimate strategy of resistance, Ma exposes Jack to real danger, to fear of the unknown, to detachment from the person he loves and depends on to save him from the horror she anticipates is to take place in Room. Jack follows the plan as designed and with a third person’s help ends up at a police station unfolding, in his own terms, his and Ma’s story. Thanks to his agency, Ma can be rescued from Room.

3 Resilience, Normalcy and Social Integration

As Marisol Morales Ladrón states: “Their escape, which marks the ending of their nightmare, is only apparent since they will now have to face the no less stressful experience of adapting to society and of being accepted by it. Jack’s first contact with the ‘real’ world is, consequently, more traumatic than his incarceration” (2017, 89). As soon as Jack is in Outside, i.e. outside Room, he experiences a sense of displacement and a crisis of identity: “I’m not in Room, Am I still me?” (Donoghue 2010, 138), he wonders. Besides, social interaction proves to be difficult for him. He and his mother, “Roomers”, communicate in a way and display a behaviour pattern that is not shared by other people in America, “Outsiders”. “Outsiders are not like us” (Donoghue 2010, 264), “Outsiders don’t understand anything” (Donoghue 2010, 152), he thinks.

These “Outsiders” consider Ma and Jack as damaged people who need physical and mental “reparation” before they are socially integrated. In Kristevan fashion, we could say that “Outsiders” regard “Roomers” as abject people,4 for this reason, the former force the latter to undergo a process by which these can become “normal” or normative subjects according to the American symbolic order. This explains why Jack and his mother are taken from Room to Room Number 7 at Cumberland Clinic, a psychiatric centre for people who are, Ma clarifies to Jack, “a bit sick in the head, but not very. They can’t sleep maybe from worrying, or they can’t eat, or they wash their hands too much. […] some of them have hit their heads and don’t know themselves anymore, and some are sad all the time or scratch their arms with knives even, I don’t know why” (Donoghue 2010, 191). At this psychiatric centre, they are no longer under the authoritarian control of Old Nick but under the continuous control of a team of doctors—a psychiatrist, a neurologist, a psychotherapist, a nutritionist, a dentist, etc.—who represent a kind of paternalistic form of power aiming at institutionalising normalcy. This medical team is meant to assess the physical and mental damage inflicted upon Ma and Jack during their stay in Room, to make the proper diagnosis and, finally, to guide or monitor them in the healing process towards eventual normalcy—resilience—and social reintegration. At this stage of the narration, Ma and Jack are fully pathologised subjects.

After medical examination, Dr. Clay determines that Jack is “a newborn” suffering from separation anxiety, in need of social adjustment, sensory modulation and proper spatial perception and that Ma is a patient that suffers from insomnia, tachycardia, depersonalization, jamais vu, cognitive distortions and re-experiencing. He wants them to stay at the psychiatric centre, a panoptic institution,5 for “continuity and therapeutic isolation” (Donoghue 2010, 253). Once again, they are confined and isolated, and, once again, they are told that this is so for their own good. This discourse of protection accompanied by close surveillance—as they also become objects of scientific study—limits Ma’s and Jack’s agency, thus reducing their possibility to feel free, safe and whole. Not surprisingly, Jack asks Ma if they are really “free” at the clinic.

Ma’s and Jack’s sense of being sick, damaged, odd or abject is enhanced by mass media offering negative or sensational descriptions of them both. In the first piece of TV news that Jack has access to, shortly after he and his mother are released, they are portrayed as degraded, deformed and idiotic beings:

LOCAL NEWS AS IT HAPPENS. […]“… bachelor loner converted the garden shed into an impregnable twenty-first-century dungeon. The despot’s victims have an eerie pallor and appear to be in a borderline catatonic state after the long nightmare of their incarceration.” There’s when Officer Oh tried to put the blanket on my head and I don’t let her. The invisible voice says, “The malnourished boy, unable to walk, is seen here lashing out convulsively at one of his rescuers.” (Donoghue 2010, 165)

Later on, Jack reads a newspaper article in which he is compared to a little monkey in terms of physical and intellectual capacities: “Jack says everything is ‘nice’ and adores Easter eggs but still goes up and down stairs on all fours like a monkey. He was sealed up for all his five years in a rotting cork-lined dungeon, and experts cannot yet say what kind or degree of long-term developmental retardation—” (Donoghue 2010, 216). This article, entitled “HOPE FOR BONSAI BOY”, also makes reference to the limited space in which he was raised and its negative effect upon the child’s size (Donoghue 2010, 215). Ma detests media employing hate speech to constitute Jack through discursive means as “a freak, or an idiot savant, or feral” (Donoghue 2010, 236). Some reporters prefer to deal with him at a symbolic level; consequently, their discursive productions are of a different nature, for them “Jack’s the child sacrifice […] cemented into the foundations to placate the spirits” (Donoghue 2010, 293) or a creature whose archetypical reference is Perseus “born to a walled-up virgin, set adrift in a wooden box, the victim who returns as hero” (Donoghue 2010, 294).

Ma abominates these descriptions as much as she dislikes the reverential labels she sometimes receives: “a beacon of hope”, “an angel” and “a talisman of goodness” (Donoghue 2010, 235). To counteract this Madonna-like image, she openly confesses—as an act of resistance to media subject formation—that she is “not a saint” (Donoghue 2010, 235) in a TV interview that she accepts with a twofold purpose, to obtain funds for Jack’s future needs and to tell the truth about their captivity in Room in order to put an end to fake and sensational news spread in relation to it. Ma feels intensely trapped when taking part in this interview because it includes a series of what she considers to be “stupid questions” that address superficial and morbid aspects of their confinement and a terrible accusation, she has not been the strong, loving, protective, altruistic and self-sacrificial mother that the patriarchal symbolic order expects a female progenitor to be. According to the female interviewer with an essentialised notion of motherhood, Ma should have asked Old Nick to give Jack up in adoption so the child could have enjoyed a “normal, happy childhood with a loving family”; this way implying that Jack has been neither happy nor loved in Room and that not only Old Nick but Ma is to blame for Jack’s physical, mental and emotional disabilities. This is an extraordinary example of how people may undergo “linguistic vulnerability”6:

[…] “Heaven forbid. But did you ever consider asking your captor to take Jack away?”


“To leave him outside a hospital, say, so he could be adopted. As you yourself were, very happily, I believe.”

I can see Ma swallow. “Why would I have done that?” “Well, so he could be free.”

“Free away from me?”

“It would have been a sacrifice, of course –the ultimate sacrifice– but if Jack could have had a normal, happy childhood with a loving family?”

“He had me.” Ma says it one word at a time. “He had a childhood with me, whether you’d call it normal or not.”

“But you knew what he was missing,” says the woman. “Every day he needed a wider world, and the only one you could give him got narrower. You must have been tortured by the memory of everything Jack didn’t even know to want. Friends, school, grass, swimming, rides at the fair …”


Ma’s got tears coming down her face, she puts up her hands to catch them. […]” (Donoghue 2010, 237–238)

The fact that Ma ends up crying at this point of the interview clearly illustrates the wounding power words may have and that “We do not only act through the speech act; speech acts also act on us” (Butler 2016, 16). Resorting to Butler’s Theory of Language, we may state that the interviewer’s words imply some “performative” practice by which Ma is resignified from the Madonna-like mother to the irresponsible, egocentric woman. This injurious address provokes in Ma such a degree of anxiety and discomfort that she psychologically collapses, thus revealing her vulnerability to the interviewer’s dominant position and discourse. This episode has detrimental consequences, as some hours later Ma tries to commit suicide by taking an overdose of tranquilisers. As Lucia Lorenzi affirms:

By the end of the scene, it becomes clear that it is not necessarily Ma’s trauma that pushes her to the point of emotional breakdown, but rather the trauma induced by the interviewer’s violent attempts to shape, control, and manipulate Ma’s narrative. As Donoghue’s novel makes clear in this scene in particular, it is not only perpetrators or perpetrator narratives that can enact violence against victims’ stories and subjectivities, but also those who have other forms of narrative control and power, such as the media who enact a kind of public violence. (Lorenzi 2016, 30)

Mass media—as represented in Room—manipulate information linked to Ma and Jack’s story to create a sensational narration that may be appealing to the audience but that does not necessarily correspond to facts. Media have the power not only to construct a parallel reality by de-contextualising and recontextualising data, but also to form subjects through injurious interpellation or to resignify words, categories and names in order to achieve their intended goals. TV shows and newspaper articles exploit their image and their tragedy to gain audience or readership, and paparazzi—“vultures with their cameras and microphones” (Donoghue 2010, 191)—constantly chase them to steal pictures of them and obtain an economic benefit. By acting this way, by presenting Ma and Jack as abject beings, mass media are contributing to Ma’s and Jack’s sense of vulnerability, magnifying their suffering and, at the same time, hindering their social reintegration. Fully aware of the potential destructive power of the media, Ma tries to protect Jack from them in the same way she protected him from Old Nick—she does not want them to approach or see him.

At this point of the novel, Jack inhabits a world that he perceives as alien and disorganised. He realises that he does not like people looking at him or touching him, that he is afraid of loud sounds, that rain scares him or that he cannot stand new smells. Frightened, insecure, treated as a freak, totally disoriented, Jack suffers from sleep disorders, nightmares, eating disorders, identity problems and confusion. And the worst thing, Ma, always strong, always wise in Room, also finds herself out of place in Outside, traumatised by Old Nick in Room and stigmatised by mass media in Outside, she finds herself, in Cyrulnik’s terms, having to “choose between annihilation and fighting” (2010, 100), death and survival.

Doctors at the Cumberland Clinic prescribe Ma and Jack drugs, habits and norms to foster their transformation from “abject” to “normal” subjects, from damaged to resilient subjects. Resilience, in clinical terms, is defined as the “capacity to recover after shock […by] returning to a prior state” (Gerard Bouchard in Bracke 2016, 55) or the capacity to “control damage and reverse it” (Bracke 2016, 56), but self-blame, shame, fear and confusion make resilience—and the task of social integration—difficult for them both.

According to Cyrulnik, a leading proponent of the Theory of Resilience, three conditions must be given to achieve it: “Bond, function, and meaning”, or in other words, “loving, working, and historicizing” (2010, 51). As the whole story is narrated by Jack, readers can observe the way these three conditions operate better in his case than in Ma’s. While Ma is at Cumberland Clinic trying to physically and psychologically recover from her suicide attempt, Jack explores Outside with Ma’s relatives, mainly with Grandma and her new husband, Leo, who helps him to understand it. These adults also provide him with love and protection; they represent, in Butler’s terms, the “network of support and sustenance” (Butler 2016, 21) that he needs to assimilate and overcome separation from Ma (a most traumatic situation for him). He is also highly active playing games, visiting places, relating to new people, etc. He is also able to narrate his story in a very open and natural way, what has happened to Ma and him in the past and its consequences in the present: “I’m from somewhere else […] Old Nick kept me and Ma locked up and he’s in jail now with his truck but the angel won’t burst him out because he’s a bad guy. We’re famous and if you take our picture we’ll kill you” (Donoghue 2010, 247).

As he wants to be understood and accepted by people in Outside, he tries to assimilate and reproduce the norms and conventions—the latter defined by Ma as “silly habit[s] everybody has” (Donoghue 2010, 222)—that rule their social behaviour. Although these norms and conventions are relevant because, as Butler argues, they take hold of people in a deep and abiding way (2016, 17); Jack’s natural method of reasoning finds it difficult to learn them because they are grounded on cultural arbitrariness: “There’s too many rules to fit in my head” (Donoghue 2010, 274), he complains. In his exploration of Outside, he also discovers that people live in a world of clear-cut categories, where that of gender is of utmost relevance. Jack infers that bodies are gendered-marked—thus deducing the “link between corporeality and subjectivity” (Sabsay 2016, 288)—and noticing that his body is constantly mistaken for that of a girl’s due to his long ponytail, he gets a pair of scissors and cuts it all off. With this performative act, Jack is conforming to a gender norm so as not to be called a freak. He, who had enjoyed a natural symbolic order structured by the law of his mother (protective god-like figure) in Room, tries now to adapt to the normative and oppressive symbolic order as structured by the “Law of the Father” in Outside.

Outside, Jack concludes, is not the promised land that Ma had described in Room: “Ma said we’d be free but this doesn’t feel free” (Donoghue 2010, 257), but quite the opposite, “Outside is the scary” (Donoghue 2010, 219). Emma Donoghue, no doubt, resorts to Jack’s personal crisis in a world he logically finds oppressive to reveal its flaws. As Said contends, the representation of crisis as a phenomenon “leads to criticism of the status quo” (1983, 232). In this vein, for instance, Jack—and Emma Donoghue herself7—is particularly concerned with the way adults treat children, by paying special attention to boys and girls who are deprived of affection and/or care by their own parents and, in contrast, adding value to the privileged relationship he maintains with his mother. He—and, obviously, the author—is denouncing that in Outside—the United States of America or any other country similarly developed—children may be deprived of the basic elements they need to feel happy and safe, to develop skills and to gain self-confidence, love, attention and respect:

Also everywhere I’m looking at kids, adults mostly don’t seem to like them, not even the parents do. They call the kids gorgeous and so cute, they make the kids do the thing all over again so they can take a photo, but they don’t want to actually play with them, they’d rather drink coffee talking to other adults. Sometimes there’s a small kid crying and the Ma of it doesn’t even hear. (Donoghue 2010, 287)

Jack suffers a substantial transformation adapting to a new reality, but also adapting to a new relationship with Ma, who has also changed in Outside. When Jack’s mother leaves the clinic, they both move to an apartment in an “Independent Living Residential Facility” (Donoghue 2010, 301). This apartment represents a fresh start and—as the very name of the living community suggests—an independent type of life. This new home is linked to new rules: no more breastfeeding, no more Tooth sucking and no more sharing the same room—they are to have “a room of their own” in clear reference to Virginia Woolf’s famous essay. Donoghue states in an interview that, although Room celebrates mother-love, Ma has to recognise that sometimes “love takes the form of stepping back, letting go” (Donoghue in Prospero 2010).

The new rules serve a purpose, establishing some kind of boundary between them so that they can achieve some degree of autonomy. Ma also sets new trials to force their mind open to a whole new world: “We are going to try everything one time so we know what we like” (Donoghue 2010, 311). They want to enjoy themselves by discovering the pleasures that life may offer them, but to achieve this goal they need to rearticulate themselves as subjects; this implies that they must be brave, accept changes and prepare themselves to face hard-to-accomplish challenges such as:

[…] there’s things we might try when we’re braver.

Going up in an airplane

Having some of Ma’s old friends over for dinner Driving a car

Going to the North Pole

Going to school (me) and college (Ma)

Finding our really own apartment that’s not an Independent

Living Inventing something making new friends living in another country not America Having a playdate at another kid’s house like Baby Jesus and

John the Baptist Taking swimming lessons Ma going out dancing in the night and me staying at Steppa and Grandma’s on the blow-up. Having jobs Going to the moon

Most important there’s getting a dog called Lucky […]. (Donoghue 2010, 312–313)

Split subjects—psychologically wounded people—need to overcome their traumas to knit themselves and become whole again. For this purpose, three weeks after leaving Room, Jack and Ma visit it. It is raining, both Ma and Jack are utterly frightened; Ma is afraid of Room and Jack of raining, but both hold hands and bravely head for the shed. Jack is to learn two important lessons, i.e. that rain does not hurt and that Room is “all wrong”, small, empty and smelly (Donoghue 2010, 319). It totally disappoints him and, as a consequence, he stops idealising it: “Nothing says anything to me” (Donoghue 2010, 319), “It’s not Room now” (Donoghue 2010, 320). This visit clearly convinces Jack that there is no way back; Jack and his mother are determined to start a new life. In the last lines of the novel, Emma Donoghue portrays mother and child together backing each other to conquer their respective fears and emerge, using Cyrulnik’s terminology, triumphant from their ordeal to find their “place in the human adventure” (2010, 168). They are now, no doubt, on the way to constitute their new subjectivity thanks to their ability to evolve and adapt to their new reality. By doing so, they can envisage the possibility of a life that can be not only “livable” but enjoyable.

4 Conclusions

In Room, Emma Donoghue represents human vulnerability through Ma and Jack, who experience the horrors of life in captivity—appalling precarious conditions, extreme violence, total dependency, isolation and destructive power. However, far from depicting them as passive victims of Old Nick’s inhuman ill-treatment, the author describes them as agentive designers of strategies to cope with it in order to survive. These vary from bodily exposure, silence, split subjectivity, artistic creativity, daily routines or parodic resistance to the invention of a magic—but cohesive and meaningful—parallel world.

Although Donoghue does not hide the devastating effects that confinement and continuous abusive power on the part of Old Nick have on the mental and physical health of Ma and Jack, she rather focuses on the formidable bond that mother—a god-like figure—and child—a redemptive Jesus-like figure—establish. This is not only portrayed as a source of protection, happiness and affection, but also as a source of knowledge and moral and ethical values.

Their lives threatened, scaping from Room is the ultimate strategy of resistance. Unfortunately, against all odds, Outside proves to be also a repressive, violent and controlling space where they cannot fit. Physically and psychologically damaged, they are regarded as abject people who need to undergo a healing—transforming—process to become resilient subjects before they are socially accepted. Therapeutic isolation and close surveillance prescribed for them at Cumberland Clinic reduce their possibilities to feel free, safe and whole.

Mass media, the fourth power, also contribute to Ma’s and Jack’s perception of being constantly monitored, judged and rejected by issuing a series of news that offer a distorted image of them and by addressing them injurious speech. Traumatised by Old Nick, pathologised by Cumberland Clinic doctors and stigmatised by mass media, at the end of the novel, Ma and Jack try to control damage and reverse it in order to conquer paralysing fears, to achieve a greater degree of autonomy, to create a more coherent and satisfactory sense of selfhood, to enjoy inter-personal relationships or to explore new personal and geographical territories.


  1. 1.

    Shortly after its release in 2010, it became an international bestseller and winner of prestigious literary awards such as the Canada and Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for Fiction, the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, the Governor General’s Award, the Orange Prize for Fiction, the New York Times Best Book of the Year, the International Dublin Literary Award, etc. The film version (2015), directed by Lenny Abrahamson with screenplay by Emma Donoghue was equally successful.

  2. 2.

    In reference to Ira Levin’s novel The Stepford Wives (1972).

  3. 3.

    Emma Donoghue states: “Room is a peculiar (and no doubt heretical) battle between Mary and the Devil for young Jesus. If God sounds absent from that triangle, that’s because I think for a small child God’s love is represented, and proved, by mother-love” (Donoghue in Prospero 2010).

  4. 4.

    According to Julia Kristeva, abject is “what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules” (Kristeva 1982, 4).

  5. 5.

    Panoptic institutions, affirms Michel Foucault, “induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power” (Foucault 1995, 201). Through disciplinary mechanisms, these institutions produce “subjected and practised bodies, ‘docile bodies’” (Foucault 1995, 138).

  6. 6.

    Judith Butler explains in relation to linguistic vulnerability that “who we are, even our ability to survive, depends on the language that sustains us. One clear dimension of our vulnerability has to do with our exposure to name-calling and discursive categories in infancy and childhood –indeed, throughout the course of our life. All of us are called names, and this kind of name-calling demonstrates an important dimension of the speech act” (Butler 2016, 16).

  7. 7.

    In an interview with Wendy Smith carried out in 2016, Emma Donoghue stated that her “thoughts […had] tended to hinge on parents and children” (Smith 2016, 65) for ten years.