On Shared Suffering: Room by Emma Donoghue

[Spoiler Alert]

The intimacy of shared pain is a recurring theme through ‘Room’. Similar life experiences create rich and ennobling connections with people,  but our different responses to painful experience inevitably drag others through our own recounting or re-living of an event. ‘Room’ asks question about how we respond to suffering in the context of other people who we care about.

Ma’s capacity to protect Jack from the horror of Room by creating a world within those walls revolts against her as they leave this narrow world and enter the expansiveness of Outside. In maintaining this narrow world for Jack Ma creates a cage for her son which she is all too willing to escape. Hence Jack narrow world makes him incapable of understanding Ma’s reluctance to keep items from Room or to re-visit it. His insistence forces her to relive experiences that she would sooner forget. Though Jack and Ma’s experiences and response are opposed throughout the Novel it is clear that a range of other moderate forms of shared suffering are implicated through these questions.

These are most clearly observed through Ma’s parents. Their divorce in response to Ma’s disappearance and Grandpa’ reluctance to even see Jack highlight the ways in which we must live our lives in the context of another’s suffering. Grandpa’s attempt to find closure for a daughter he believed to be dead caused such pain for Grandma (who never gave up hope) that she could no longer maintain their relationship.

Donoghue’s book has little to teach about how these experiences are to be handled. Jack’s insistence finds them moving through the house and garden back to the shed that had been her prison, but his world, for so many years. She is overwhelmed by the sensation and yet he is underwhelmed. Jack’s experience suggests that our pain is not as significant as we sometimes suppose. Must it be recognised and explored; need it be discussed and analysed, and who do we involve in such processes? Is it wise to explore such pain with those who have shared our experiences (but whose perspectives are probably incommensurable with our own) or are they best explored with certain empathic others who must endeavour to hear our suffering. Additionally how significant is the perpetrator in our pain? Should they be the ones to understand or change as a result of our narratives?

All of this is suggestive of the way that meaning is constructed through pain in our lives. Pain is embedded in relationships and it is difficult to fully interpret how we are to negotiate these webs of subjectivity. Is pain for us or for other people; and if it is for us is the management of our pain a necessary virtue that requires the sacrifice (or pain) of others on our behalf? In each of the characters in ‘Room’ there was an underlying sense that pain was self-centred rather than other-centred. This is most sharply focussed when the reporter asks why Ma did not give Jack away for adoption. The monstrosity of Ma’s decision to protect is focused through this dialogue, for she betrays a willingness to sacrifice her child to save herself. There is no doubt that we see them redeemed together but one wonders whether there redemption was not of a demonic sort; a dependent redemption that bound these souls together in a self-serving re-living of their pain.

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