“To Room Nineteen” is a compelling portrait of the type of life that Doris Lessing might have lived. Published in 1963, the story explores the “voluntary bondage” (2767) that comprises modern family life. Lessing famously—and controversially—left behind her two children when she divorced from her first husband while still living in Africa. “To Room Nineteen,” like much of her work, looks issues of motherhood and feminism; and recalls the writing of both Virginia Woolf and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The story asks whether it is possible for a modern woman to find fulfillment in the traditional maternal role, and interrogates the personal sacrifices a mother must make.
Matthew and Susan Rawlings are a perfect couple, “well-matched” (2759), and practical. Every decision they made —whether to marry, where to live, when to have children—was taken with the appropriate amount of seriousness and discussed at length between the two of them. Lessing makes it abundantly clear that they are not a young couple rushing into things (like Harriet the Lovatts from The Fifth Child), but rather mature, responsible adults. They even recognized, “the hidden resentments and deprivations of the woman who has lived her own life . . . and is now dependent on a husband for outside interests and money” (2761). They had taken every precaution to ensure their happiness.
However, it turns out that, “so much is after all so little” (2761). Susan, who once had a successful career and social life of her own, feels empty. She tellingly recalls the first night she spent with Matthew as, “like a very long shadow at sundown,” (2761) indicating an end rather than a beginning. She tells herself that the situation was only temporary, that once the children were in schools, “she would turn herself back into being a woman with a life of her own” (2763). She doesn’t realize the piece of herself she sacrificed to become a mother is gone forever.
Her spare time does increase once the children go to school, but instead of feeling relieved she begins to dread her supposed freedom, telling her husband, “I feel as if there is an enemy there waiting to invade me” (2764). That enemy is the ghost of the independent woman she used to be. Matthew, despite being a parent as well, does not feel trapped by family life the way Susan does. He tries to be sympathetic, but is unable to understand the extent of her problem. Her struggles are particularly feminine in nature. A room to herself, an au pair, a solitary vacation, and even spending weekdays in a hotel away from the house do not help. There is nowhere she can go to escape her role as a wife and mother and simply be Susan.
Spending time away from her family does not make it easier for her to return to them. In fact, it makes it harder. “A sensation that should have been frightening,” (2777) watching her au pair take over her role in the family, has no effect on her. Susan has been defeated the pressures and expectations surrounding motherhood. Suicide is the only way she can escape from the invisible enemy that haunts her—the enemy that is comprised of her the lost potential of her former self. Once she makes the decision she feels free of her former demons, “they had gone forever, because she way buying her freedom from them” (2780). She finally found a way to regain the freedom she lost when she became a mother.
Lessing’s story creates a bleak and frightening portrait of motherhood, one that allows the reader to sympathize with Lessing’s own decision to leave behind her children. Despite doing everything right, Susan is still unable to find fulfillment within her role as a mother. Even worse, motherhood has robbed her of the ability to find fulfillment anywhere else. “To Room Nineteen” urges the reader to reconsider the institution of motherhood, and the role of women in the modern family.
Lessing, Doris. “To Room Nineteen.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 9th ed. Ed.Stephen Greenbaltt, et al. Vol. 2. New York: Norton, 2012. 2759-2780. Print