Study Guide

Room Themes

  • Family

    Barney the purple dinosaur sang, "I love you. You love me. We're a happy family," which implies that any two people (or dinosaurs, or people in dinosaur suits) who love each other can be a family. This is true, especially for young Jack in Room—and not just because he watches Barney. Jack loves everyone in Room: Plant, Chair, Wardrobe, Skylight. Even though these things aren't even human, Jack loves them, and they are part of his family.

    When Jack gets out of Room, he learns he has other family members: Grandma, Grandpa, Steppa, Paul, and more. That's all sweet, but we can't forget about Ma. Room is above all a story about the unbreakable bond between mother and son.

    Questions About Family

    1. Who is Jack's family when he's inside Room? Who is his family Outside?
    2. How does Ma's family change while she's inside Room?
    3. How do you think Jack would define the word "family"?

    Chew on This

    Jack thinks that Ma is the only true family he has. As a result, he has trouble learning to trust other people.

    Ma knows that she has other family outside of Room, but they're not all there for her when she gets out. She learns that the only family member she can alwaystrust is Jack.

  • Freedom and Confinement

    Even if we could choose a Room, say a room with a never-ending chocolate fountain or a room with a floor-to-ceiling TV screen equipped with all the channels and video game consoles known to man, we wouldn't want to stay in it all the time. Although Jack thinks that Room is the whole world, Ma knows it isn't. She's been inside that 11x11 box for seven years. We can't imagine being anywhere for seven years, especially not a place where we could spit from one wall to the other.

    While we get to see Ma and Jack escape Room, Ma finds herself less free than she'd hoped (being pursued by paparazzi will do that to a gal), and Jack finds himself more free than he ever wanted. We've heard that freedom is never free. In Room, what is the price?

    Questions About Freedom and Confinement

    1. Was Ma ever comfortable inside Room, or did she always want to get out?
    2. What unexpected issues does Ma encounter after achieving freedom from Room?
    3. Why would Jack rather be inside Room than be "free"?
    4. Ma mentions that people other than her are locked up in all sorts of ways every day. What does she mean by this?

    Chew on This

    Jack is comfortable inside of Room, so he doesn't want to be "free." He'd rather stay inside, whether in Room, the Clinic, or Grandma's house.

    Freedom is too much for Ma, so she tries to commit suicide. She later realizes that a little confinement is good, and she rents a small apartment for just her and Jack.

  • Exploration

    We live in a pretty cool age, where we can explore the world from the comfort of our couches and computer chairs. We can watch documentaries, check out friends' photos on Instagram and Tumblr, and maybe even read a book every once in a while. In Room, Jack has a TV. He gets to watch Dora the Explorer (hey, that has "explore" right in the title) and SpongeBob, as well as talk shows, nature programs, and more. But he doesn't get to explore the world for realsies – the poor kid doesn't even know there is a real world beyond Room until he's five and he and Ma escape. Once he's in the Outside, Jack isn't just exploring the world for the first time; he's experiencing it for the first time.

    Questions About Exploration

    1. How does Jack explore the world while he's inside Room? How does he do things differently once he is Outside Room?
    2. Do Ma and Grandma encourage Jack to explore new things too quickly?
    3. Near the end of Room Jack says, "Lots of the world seems to be a repeat" (5.642). What does he mean by this? Is he done exploring? Is he already jaded at five years old?

    Chew on This

    Because Ma protects Jack so much while inside Room (see "Fear"), he's afraid to explore new things once outside Room.

    Getting hurt (bee stings, sunburns) is good for Jack, because it lets him experience things and realize that he has the strength to push himself even more.

  • The Home

    There are tons of sayings about the home. It's where the heart is. It's where you hang your hat. It's where your kidnapper and rapist keeps you locked up for seven years.

    Um, wait. That last one is not a popular saying about the home… and we hope that it never is.

    But for Ma and Jack in Room, Room is their home—because that's where they're held prisoner. Thing get a little more complicated after Ma and Jack leave Room, though. Jack believes Room is his home. He was born there, and for five years Ma has told him that Room was the world. His whole world was inside those four walls. It's no wonder he starts to miss the place.

    For Ma, though, it feels like she no longer has a home, in Room or anywhere else. Room was never her home, but even her childhood bedroom is gone now. Both Jack and Ma have to find a new home in the Outside to hang their hat and any other belongings they accumulate along the way.

    Questions About The Home

    1. Room is where Jack grows up for five years. He sleeps there every night, and his height chart is tracked on the wall. Does that make Room his home?
    2. Even though she calls it a prison, is Room Ma's home too?
    3. How has Ma's home changed when she escapes from Room?
    4. What difficulties do Jack and Ma face in trying to find a home Outside of Room?

    Chew on This

    Room is a home to Jack. It's where he was born, where he was raised, where he learned everything that will shape his entire life. Room can be different things to both him and Ma.

    Room isn'ta home to Jack. It's just a place. It never had a heart or soul the way a real home has. He's been forced to live there by a kidnapper. He and Ma can make a home for themselves elsewhere.

  • Society and Class

    Society is governed by so many different rules that it's hard to keep track. We have laws, customs, codes, etiquette, guidelines, regulations, and common courtesies that we have to keep track of and abide by every day. Many aren't written down, and even the ones that are written down are hard to find, hard to understand, or both. We're looking at you, IRS.

    In Room, the rules Ma sets for Jack are much simpler: Don't watch too much TV. Take care of yourself and all of your things. Love each other. We almost feel that if everyone lived their lives by these three simple rules, the world would be a better place. But as Jack finds out, people get hung up on all the other rules and conventions, like boys shouldn't have long hair and you shouldn't steal from the mall. Oh, those silly short-haired law-abiding citizens…

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. Do you think Jack understands the difference between a rule and a convention? What is the difference between the two?
    2. What customs and manners are totally new to Jack in the Outside? What has he already learned?
    3. Which social norms do Ma and Jack find ridiculous after their return to the Outside? Which do they abide by anyway? Which do they rebel against, and how?
    4. Which social norms do Grandma and the rest of Jack's family try to enforce? Would Ma agree with the things they are teaching her son?

    Chew on This

    Living in the Outside totally sucks. Jack has to compromise some of his beliefs and behaviors in order to fit into the real world, like cutting his long hair and not giving hugs to strangers.

    Or, living in the Outside totally rocks. It'll be hard at first, but Jack is going to become an even better person after he learns all the rules and customs of the Outside.

  • Wisdom and Knowledge

    Kids are sometimes described as little sponges. They soak up knowledge (and bad words) and let the wisdom leak out when you least expect it.

    In Room, Jack is no different, and he gets his knowledge from more than just SpongeBob. Because Ma is with Jack 24/7, she teaches him everything she knows. As a result, Jack is a walking Wikipedia of knowledge from pop music to Bible trivia and everything in between. He even has the huge vocabulary to talk about everything he knows. Once Jack and Ma reach the Outside, Jack has a whole host of new places to soak up knowledge. We don't think he'll ever be full.

    Questions About Wisdom and Knowledge

    1. When Ma teaches Jack new things inside Room, what subject areas does she focus on?
    2. What things should Ma have taught Jack in order to better prepare him for Outside?
    3. How does Jack learn things when Ma is recovering by herself at the Clinic?
    4. At the end of the novel, they discuss Jack possibly going to school in the future. How do you think Jack will do in school?

    Chew on This

    Jack only knows as much as his environment will allow. He thinks he knows everything while he's in Room because Room is so small. Once he realizes how large the world is, he realizes he will never know everything there is to know.

    Many of things Ma teaches Jack, like the "fact" that Room is the whole world and that he will always be safe, aren't real, but they're what Ma wishes were real.

  • Language and Communication

    Jack and Ma don't have a lot to do inside Room. You can only run around an 11x11 room, or jump on the bed, or scream for help so many times before you get bored, you know?

    One of the many activities Ma creates to pass the time in Room involves building Jack's vocabulary. Together, they make "word sandwiches," an easier to understand (and pronounce) way of saying portmanteau. Ma has Jack play Parrot, a game during which he recites back phrases people say on TV. (Do you think he can say, "I'd like to buy a vowel"?) They also rhyme words and come up with synonyms to pass the time.

    So, Jack might have a huge vocabulary, but sometimes he doesn't quite know how to use it—he's still only five, after all. The quirky way he puts words together is all part of his charm and unique voice.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. How does Jack's vocabulary allow him to better relate to the world? Does having such a large vocabulary ever cause problems for Jack?
    2. Jack tells Grandma at one point that he knows all the words. Are there words he doesn't know? Are there words he fundamentally misunderstands?
    3. What are some of your favorite "word sandwiches" created by Jack and Ma? Do you have others you particularly like? How many more can you come up with?

    Chew on This

    Ma carefully words things to shape Jack's worldview, and Jack's worldview in turn shapes his vocabulary. For example, Jack believes everything on TV is imaginary, so he starts using the word "TV" to mean "imaginary."

    Jack's vocabulary keeps him from being a so-called feral child, the type of kid you sometimes see on the news who has been raised by wolves or something. Jack's vocabulary makes him civilized.

  • Fear

    The U.S. cover of Room looks pretty innocuous, a word which here means "unlikely to scare the bejeezus out of you." However, inside its covers, Room is pretty freaking scary.

    Jack's five-year-old point of view softens the blow to the average reader, but here's what's really happening in blunt, condensed form: Jack's Ma was kidnapped when she was nineteen and locked in a shed. She's repeatedly raped, she had one child who died and one who lived (Jack), and she raises Jack fearing that she'll never escape. When it becomes likely that her captor will leave them to die, Ma convinces her five-year-old son to play dead and risk his life in order to break them out.

    Thankfully, Ma's plan succeeds, but things don't get much less scary from there. The world is a scary place even outside of Room's four small walls.

    Questions About Fear

    1. What does Ma make Jack afraid of? Why does she want him to fear these things?
    2. What new things does Jack fear in the Outside? Are there things that he should fear but doesn't?
    3. How does Jack use his fear to motivate himself?

    Chew on This

    Ma teaches Jack that it's okay to be both scared and brave at the same time. Maybe there's no way to be brave without being scared.

    Bravery is more about outward actions than inner feelings. Whenever Jack feels scared, like when he's getting a shot, he acts brave. He gets the shot instead of running away from it, as he might have done if he weren't brave.

  • Time

    When you're trapped inside a Room, time can either pass super slowly or go by before you know it. All depends on what you're doing. Just think about being trapped in an airplane bathroom versus being trapped in a casino. Where do you think time passes more quickly?

    Being only five, Jack doesn't have the strongest grasp of time, especially when he's bored. When Jack has nothing to do in Room, he acts like hundreds of thousands of hours pass. When he's occupied, however, the day is over before he can even think about it.

    Ma experiences her own issues with time. For her, it feels as if she's remained still for seven years, while the world outside Room has kept going and going. When she leaves she finds out that technology has evolved, that her family has changed, and that even her friends have moved on without her in the last seven years. Time might heal some wounds, but others it opens anew.

    Questions About Time

    1. When does time pass the slowest for Jack? When does it pass fastest?
    2. Do you think time ever passes quickly for Ma? Or is every day in Room slow and drawn out?
    3. Morris the lawyer suggests that Ma lost the "best years of [her] life" (4.695). Is Ma's time a commodity that was stolen? Was all her time in Room wasted?

    Chew on This

    By scheduling every day and making the most out of every minute, Ma makes a wise time investment in Jack. If she hadn't done that, she might never have broken out.

    Because Jack's life so scheduled, he has trouble adapting to the Outside world, where things don't operate on the same fixed schedule as they did in Room.