Room. Four little letters represent Jack's entire world. Room is what he calls the room where he is born and lives until he is five years old. He was born in captivity, like a baby panda (aw, pandas), because his mother was kidnapped when she was nineteen. Ma tells Jack that Room is the world. She does this because she doesn't believe she'll ever see the outside again.
Ma doesn't want her son to be raised in a prison; she wants him to have a happy life. And he does. He loves it in Room. He loves Plant and Table and Chair and Eggsnake and all his friends. To Ma, "It [isn't] a home, it [is] a soundproofed cell" (4.803). But to Jack, it's not a bad place. His life doesn't seem sad or lonely to him. It's his life, and it's a happy one.
At the end of Room, Jack convinces Ma to return to Room. She sure does not want to go back to that place, but she eventually concedes and contacts Officer Oh to take them back to Room one last time.
Earlier in the novel, on Jack's birthday, Jack takes the M&Ms off his cake and leaves little craters in the icing, which Ma defines as "holes where something happened" (1.260). At the end, Jack sees Room as a crater. He's nice enough to remind us that this is "a hole where something happened" (5.1131), and then he and Ma go out the door. Sure, it was traumatic, but it was something that happened that defined Ma and Jack's life, and that brought Jack into existence. They wouldn't be together if it hadn't happened. Just as the removing the candies signaled the end of Jack's birthday, closing the door on Room signals the end of a huge chapter of Jack's and Ma's lives.
Jack realizes that he's outgrown Room. "Has it got shrunk?" (5.1158) he asks. (Still need to work on syntax, buddy.) He may have grown a little physically, but more importantly, he's grown a lot emotionally. He's seen the whole big world (or at least a globe) at this point, and he realizes just how small Room was. There's a lot more for him in the world. Seeing Room one last time, Jack realizes that it'll always be a part of him, but it's okay to leave it behind.
The first half of the book takes place in Room. It's, well… it's a Room. It's in the backyard of a kidnapper's house, and it's where the kidnappers has held a girl for seven years. To her, it's a prison. To Jack, her son, it's the entire world. (Read more about Room on our "About the Title" page.) Room is separated from Outside (i.e., the whole rest of the world) by Door, which is made of "shiny magic metal" (1.72). It's locked by a special keypad and only Old Nick, the kidnapper, knows the code.
When Ma's escape plan works in the second half of the book, she and Jack find themselves in the Outside world. We're not sure exactly which city they're in, but they're definitely in a city filled with tall buildings, many playgrounds, and a large mental healthcare Clinic. But we're not even sure what country we're in. Grandma has a lot of U.S. state quarters in her purse, but Jack calls his butt a "bum" (3.717) and someone calls him a "lad" (4.1368), which makes it sound like they're on the other side of the Atlantic. (Perhaps Ireland, where Emma Donoghue is from?)
We're a little more confident in pinning down the time period. Jack knows who Rihanna, Lady Gaga, and Kanye West are, which puts us into at least 2008. And Ma doesn't know what YouTube or Facebook are until she gets out of Room, so she could very well have been kidnapped in 2001 or 2002. By the time Jack is five, it's at least in the late 2000s.
Jack lives in a few different rooms in the Outside world. He and Ma stay at The Cumberland Clinic, and Jack gets some space to himself at Grandma's house. The most important room, though, may be his own bedroom, which belongs to him and to him alone, which he gets when Ma moves into her own apartment at the end of the book.
The complex Ma moves to is called Independent Living, a place where Ma can live independently from the Clinic, and, in a brilliant move of double meaning (nice job, Emma Donoghue) Jack and Ma can learn to live independently from each other in separate rooms.
Let's just hope it's rent-controlled, too.
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.
Simonides (c. 556-468 BCE),
"Danaë" (tr. Richmond Lattimore)
The epigraph sets us up for a superhero origin story. No, really, it does. Simonides was a Greek poet and this poem, the Lamentation of Danaë, is about a woman trapped in a chest and set afloat at sea. Hmm, being trapped in a small space and feeling lost and set adrift in the world? Yep, that's an appropriate epigraph for room. Ma feels the same way.
The child Danaë is talking to in this fragment isn't just any old snot-nosed kid. It's Perseus. Yes, that Perseus: the same Perseus who killed Medusa, slayed a sea monster, and married Princess Andromeda. Ma views Jack as her own little hero, and we see Jack free Ma from the box she has been trapped in for years.
Jack's heroic escape lands Old Nick in jail—which is the modern day equivalent of beheading a gorgon, for sure. We'll have to wait for Room 2: Room 2 Grow, or some other ludicrously named sequel, to see just how Jack grows up. Will he marry a princess of his own?
You probably were expecting a 1 or 2 on the ol' Tough-o-Meter for a book narrated by a five-year-old. But Jack doesn't have an average vocabulary for a five-year-old. Sure, he watches Dora the Explorer and SpongeBob and plays with toys like Eggsnake and Meltedy Spoon, but he also talks to his Ma—and only his Ma—about everything. Sometimes he busts out big made-up words like "Hugeormous" (1.129), knowing it's a combination of huge and enormous.He knows that poignant means sad, but other times he has to be told that stable can mean someone is in good health, not doing something with horses.
So, while the words might be easy to read, it can be a little exhausting to be inside the mind of a five-year-old boy for so long, especially one as curious as Jack. He asks questions about everything, and while the long explanations are fascinating to him, they can be a little tiring to the adults involved. But stick with it, and he might teach you something… and not just about LEGOs.
Just because Room is told from the perspective of a child, that doesn't make it childish. Jack talks like a five-year-old would: he personifies inanimate objects and cutely exaggerates everything he has to do. This is how he describes his day: "We have thousands of things to do every morning, like give Plant a cup of water in Sink for no spilling, then put her back on her saucer on Dresser. Plant used to live on Table but God's face burned a leaf of her off" (1.80).
Through his voice, Jack boils down complex philosophical ideas into statements that even we can almost understand. For example, at the end, when he and Ma return to Room, Jack says, "Maybe it's not Room if Door's open" (5.1112). He may not have grasped the use of articles left, but he understands that Room isn't the same when the Outside is accessible from it. Before, Room was set apart. Now, Jack and Ma are a part of everything. And the world might just be better because of that.
How would this story be different if Ma narrated it instead of Jack? Because Jack himself does not fully understand what is happeneing, a lot of the horror of the story is left to the reader's imagination. Does Jack's child-like perspective make the horrific events of the novel easier to read, or does it make the events seem even more horrible?
The sun in Room reminds us of the creepy baby in the sky from the Teletubbies, because Jack always describes it as "God's yellow face" (1.73). For Jack, the moon is God too, specifically "God's silver face that only comes on special occasions" (1.286).
Jack doesn't just think this up out of the blue. It's highly likely this is what his mother taught him, and it shows us how strong their faith is. In Room, faith is one of the only things Ma has to keep herself going, and she passes this on to Jack. She also occasionally occupies her time by reading The Shack, a book all about a loving and accepting God.
Ma passes on her faith that God is the provider, not Old Nick—which, not so coincidentally, folks, is a nickname for Satan. Jack even says that food comes from "Baby Jesus in the fields in Outside" (2.450).
In Room, Tooth is Ma's Bad Tooth, a rotten tooth that comes out inside a bagel one morning at breakfast. Old Nick doesn't exactly provide Ma with quality dental care while she's his prisoner inside Room. He won't even give her cream cheese for her bagel.
Jack saves Tooth, even putting it into his sock when he escapes from Room. He doesn't think of it too much when he's with Ma, but after she attempts suicide and Jack has to live with Grandma, he thinks about Bad Tooth almost every day. He holds it in his hand or his mouth like it's some sort of worry bead. Eventually, it becomes just "Tooth" instead of "Bad Tooth," because it's the only way Jack has to connect with his mother when she's in the Clinic without him. It's a bodily connection between Jack and Ma, in a way, and it might remind us that Ma has been breastfeeding Jack for all five years of his life.
When Ma returns, Jack realizes that he swallowed Tooth and lost it forever. Jack goes into a panic after losing it. He tells Ma that he has to have Tooth, but she says "Trust me, you don't" (5.904). Jack is left wondering if he'll ever poop Tooth out or if "maybe he's going to be hiding inside me in a corner forever" (5.908).
The latter is pretty much true. Tooth is a part of Ma, and whether or not she and Jack are together, he will always carry a part of her with him, literally or not.
As Room progresses, Jack has bad dreams more frequently. Here's a taste of a couple of the nightmares:
Dr. Clay says that Jack's "brain is probably doing a spring cleaning" (4.1001). This is true. Jack is too young to understand what's going on around him. A lot of his dreams come from places of misunderstanding, guilt (at keeping too many toys), and fear (do we even have to list all the things he has to be afraid of at this point?) At the end of the book, Jack's just like Virginia Woolf, with a room of his own. Maybe this will allow him to put his thoughts in order and keep the bad dreams at bay.
Jack is the real selling point of Room. His wide-eyed five-year-old innocence and curiosity brings a freshness to this story… and makes it bearable. If it were told from Ma's point of view, we'd probably be suicidal. She has to lean on her faith to give her hope to survive, and some days she can't do it. But Jack, as a child, tackles every day as though it is glorious and wonderful.
Without Jack, not only would the story be even harder to read, but it would feel just like any other true crime story you see on TV. Sad that we live in a world where Room feels familiar, isn't it? Through Jack's eyes, we see the horrors of the world in a different light. Heck, we see the whole world in a different light, and it makes this sick, sad world we live in seem like a wonderful place to be. Maybe Jack shows us the potential our world has to be a better place, while at the same time showing us how horrible it is that an innocent child could ever be in these horrific circumstances.