Study Guide

Room Fear

By Emma Donoghue


Part 1: Presents

Beep beep, that's Door. Ma jumps up and makes a sound, I think she hit her head. She shuts Wardrobe tight. (1.410)

Ma's reaction to Old Nick's appearance is instant fear. It's incredible how much she manages to compose herself in his presence, given how frightening he is.

Nothing makes Ma scared. Except Old Nick maybe. Mostly she calls him just him, I didn't even know the name for him until I saw a cartoon about a guy that comes in the night called Old Nick. (1.105)

Ma is scared of Old Nick and for good reason. He abuses and rapes Ma multiple times a week. Even though Jack doesn't know exactly what's going on, he knows it's a reason for fear.

If the rings [of the stovetop] ever go against something like a dish towel or our clothes even, flames would run all over with orange tongues and burn Room to ashes with us coughing and choking and screaming with the worst pain ever. (1.188)

Yikes. That sounds terrible. And it would be. There's no way Jack made up all this detail by himself. He must have gotten it from Ma. She's made sure to scare Jack into being safe, because she doesn't want to lose him, especially not in such a horrible way.

"I don't like there to be hidey places." "What's the big deal?" "Zombies." "Ah." "Or ogres of vampires—" (1.224-1.228)

Even though Jack is smart and understands that some things are real and some things are imaginary (yes, some of the things he considers imaginary are also real, but that's another topic), like any child, he's still afraid of imaginary things, like zombies, ogres, and vampires. They could be lurking anywhere!

"Germs could make you die." (1.26)

While this is technically true, this comment by Ma makes Jack unreasonably scared of germs. It also comes from a place of fear: Jack is her son and the only person Ma has, and she has to be really careful because she is not able to get him medical care.


"Also there's Mouse, he's my real friend and you made him gone–" "Yeah," shouts Ma, "so he won't run over your face in the night and bite you." I'm crying so much my breath's all whoopy. I never knowed Mouse would bite my face, I thought that was only vampires. (1.486-1.488)

Here we again see Ma's uncanny ability to strike fear into Jack's heart. And once again, she's right. Mouse could very well nibble on Jack. But we have a feeling that she just doesn't want Mouse around because he could eat food and spread germs, not because she's terrified that Mouse'll eat her son.

Part 2: Unlying

What if [Old Nick] comes and Ma won't wake up, will he be even more madder? Will he make worse marks on her? (2.153)

Jack is expressing quite a bit of empathy here. He's not afraid for just himself; he's afraid for Ma and her safety. That's very sensitive for a five-year-old.

"This man ran up asking for help, his dog was having a fit and he thought it might be dying." (2.700)

This is Old Nick's ploy to get Ma in his truck, and it worked. It worked because he knew Ma would be scared for the dog's life. It threw her off guard, making it easier for him to snatch her. Like Jack, Ma seems to have always cared about other people—but it was her empathy, in a way, that got her into trouble. That could be why she wants to scare Jack out with stories: she wants him to understand dangers that maybe she didn't understand well enough.

Old Nick

"Let's start all the neighbors wondering why I'm cooking up something spicy in my workshop." (2.231)

Old Nick is afraid, too. He's afraid that someone will figure out that he has a woman and child locked up in a shed in his backyard. He's afraid of getting caught. Plus, we can't forget the fact that he kidnapped Ma in the first place. Why did he do it? Is he that afraid of being alone?

Part 3: Dying

"Scared is what you're feeling," says Ma. "but brave is what you're doing. […] Scaredybrave." "Scave." (3.306, 3.07-3.308)

We kind of like "scaredybrave" more than "scave" but it's a good word that becomes kind of a mantra for Jack. This word is Ma's way of helping Jack overcome his fears, not by ignoring them, but by understanding that it's okay to be scared as long as you can push through your fear.