"Am I not OK?": negotiating and re-defining traumatic experience in Emma Donoghue's room

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Author: Lucia Lorenzi
Date: Spring-Summer 2016
Publisher: The University of British Columbia - Canadian Literature
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 6,011 words
Lexile Measure: 1650L

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At the end of Emma Donoghue's Room, a novel that explores both the horror of life in captivity and the uneasy transition back into the world after escape, five-year-old Jack and his mother return to the site of their imprisonment--a garden shed Jack has only known as Room--for one last look around. Donoghue's novel gives equal attention to life during and after captivity: indeed, much of the book's tension revolves around the complexities of a young woman who attempts to parent her young son born as a result of rape--as normally as possible given the circumstances--both in captivity and following their escape and transition back into non-captive life.

For Jack, who was born and raised within the confines of Room, the return to the place he once unflinchingly considered his home (and the entirety of his world) is marked by a distinct sense of unfamiliarity. Jack observes: "We step in through Door and it's all wrong. Smaller than Room and it smells weird" (413). While Jack reflects that he "[guesses] this really was Room one time" (414), the novel ultimately ends with an ambivalent statement about both the physical space of Room as well as Jack's perspective on the events that led to Ma's imprisonment, his birth, and their eventual re-emergence into the world: "I look back one more time. It's like a crater, a hole where something happened" (414).

While it is tempting to read this final scene of Donoghue's novel along the theoretical lines that posit traumatic experience as an aporia or a site of belatedness, as a moment where Jack cannot "register the wound to [his] psyche because the ordinary mechanisms of awareness and cognition are destroyed" (Leys 2), I argue that this closing vignette illustrates one of the complexities that is negotiated throughout the novel, namely that Jack does not experience Room in the same way as Ma, and not necessarily as traumatic at all. Indeed, the major narrative shift of the novel--Ma's realization that she must convince her son to play an active part in their plan to escape from Room--is complicated precisely by the fact that Jack does not seem to experience his life or his environment as fundamentally traumatizing, and must therefore be convinced of the urgency of the situation. While theorists such as Cathy Caruth note that a traumatic event "may or may not be catastrophic, and may not traumatize everyone equally" (4), I suggest that Room goes one step further in its theorization of trauma, asking readers to consider if it is in fact the external framing of Jack's experiences in Room that is traumatic for him, rather than his experiences in and of themselves. In contrasting his experience of captivity and freedom with that of Ma, and in exploring how Ma struggles to convey the seriousness of their experiences while also protecting Jack from pathologization, I argue that Room calls attention to the ways in which traumatic experiences are shaped by and in conversation with the very definitions of trauma...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A491086628