The Relationship Between Narrator and Reader in Emma Donoghue's Room

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About this sample


Words: 1659 |

Pages: 4|

9 min read

Published: Nov 22, 2021

Words: 1659|Pages: 4|9 min read

Published: Nov 22, 2021

‘Writing, when properly managed … is but a different name for conversation … The truest respect which you can pay to the reader’s understanding, is to halve this matter amicably, and leave him something to imagine, in his turn, as well as yourself.’ (Laurence Sterne) 

'Why Violent Video Games Shouldn't Be Banned'?

The importance of Room, a 2010 novel written by Emma Donoghue, lays in its authentic and yet accessible character study of Jack and his mother, who are being held captive and later flee. Due to the careful selection of language and understandably distorted perspective of the main character, who is a child, readers become immersed in the story, as they try to uncover their true psychological state.

The depiction of being kidnapped, held captive and then finally fleeing is often sensationalized in news reports, with fictional literature having the chance to focus more on the individual, subjective suffering of victims. 'As Room recreates the private trauma of recent real-life cases, which usually remain hidden from the public, it goes beyond the way media are able to represent such cases, which makes the process of reading Room a potentially voyeuristic experience' (Dinter 55). It is a novel that offers more than a narrative on tragedy or an account of before and after the traumatic event. Rather, its main focus is the innocent mind of a child, who is challenged with a tremendous amount distress without having the mental capacity to comprehend it. The slow process of growing up under harsh circumstances and later being overwhelmed with the outside world, offers a fresh perspective on such a particular situation that is usually represented by much older characters.

Having a child narrator provides with a unique opportunity for the whole story to become one ‘in the making’ – a story that is further developed and explored by the audience. 'Because child narrators are unable to control the effects of their surroundings, they are trapped as observers and sometimes unwilling participants in their situation. Children have a limited perspective, but their voice can push these limits' (Farrow, 13). They are simply passive narrators who inform the audience of what goes on in the story. Jack is the perfect example of this as a 5-year-old boy, born to a mother who was kidnapped and then repeatedly raped and abused. His understanding of the world is strictly limited to the small room in which they are both held against their will and a television that gives him a miniscule insight into the world outside.

The inherent cluelessness due to his young age as well as his protective mechanism of blocking certain events makes Jack an unreliable and yet authentic narrator. 'In wardrobe I always try to squeeze my eyes tight and switch off fast so I don’t hear Old Nick come, then I’ll be in Bed with Ma having some and everything OK' (Donoghue 33). Jack senses that Old Nick is hurting his mother while the reader knows, that what is truly happening is rape. This makes us not only more empathetic and emotionally involved in the story, we are also asked to focus more on his mother, whose adversity isn’t directly acknowledged. In the chapter ‘Unlying’, he claims 'She won’t wake up properly. She’s here, but not really. She stays in Bed with the pillows on her head' (Donoghue 74). It is impossible for such a young character to give a more informative description of her state, and yet we, mature readers, can assume she’s having a depressive episode. This is a common occurrence in the book, which leads us to always look for traces of information on how she’s coping. The outwardly expression of trauma clearly varies between both of them and Jack’s narration is neither able to fathom the whole situational context nor the emotional repercussions.

What is unconventional about this novel, is how at ease the main character seems within such a horrific circumstance. Innocence, youthful ignorance and Ma’s deliberate invention of stories to protect Jack make the book more accessible to a wider audience. 'The physical distance grants the narrator a status of unattainability and of near divinity, because the Narrator is in a situation that The Reader will never be Able to attain. Consequently, the reader cannot offensively question the narrator’s portrayal of his surroundings and has to Take parts of the narrative at face value, due to spatial circumstances'. The descriptions of the Room are detrimental to our imagination and sense of what the living conditions are like for Jack and Ma. Every sentence is a stated fact that at times must be thought-through critically while keeping in mind that Jack’s point of view is the only one we will ever get.

Clarity offers itself when the main characters are freed and spend time at a clinic, where they undergo recovery. What the readers get is a dialogue between our two main characters with staff and family, allowing us to get to know them better, but Jack’s narrative becomes flustered due to the unfamiliarity of ‘the outside’. At this point it’s his mother, Ma, who becomes the centrepiece of this book, especially since we see her interacting with doctors and her family. 'He and Ma talk about stuff like why she can’t get to sleep, tachycardia and re-experiencing'. While Jack does not understand these terms mean, for us it is an important clue to what could easily be a Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The language becomes the most direct once Jack witnesses an interview his mother has, where she describes their staggering ordeal to a tv presenter. For the first time ever, we can properly fill in all the gaps in the story, that had had been up to that point only vague guesses based upon fractions of information given by a child. It is also a moment where morality and ethics must be judged by the audience; the questions asked by the tv presenter are so impudent we feel directly interrogated. Ma is asked whether she ever considered asking Old Nick, the man who kidnapped her, raped her and was abusive in all the possible ways, to take her child away, 'to leave him outside a hospital, say, so he could be adopted' (Donoghue 33). We encounter a dilemma that the child narrator himself is acutely unaware of, while deeply emphasizing with Ma, who indeed had to make that choice. This is the pinnacle of Donoghue’s writing, for the stakes of a dialogue between the reader and Ma couldn’t be higher.

It is not uncommon to question the value of having such a young main character, whose life experience is limited. Jessica Lynn Griffin Farrow admits in her Senior Paper titled The Struggle to Survive and Thrive: Assessing the Cognitive Complexities of Trauma and Recovery in Emma Donoghue’s Room that 'Some critics may argue that child narration does readers disservice. Children are not as observant of their surroundings, meaning the reader is responsible for filling in the blanks that the child narrator has left'. This proves the dilemma to be a matter of perspective. One could argue that the story would be much more compelling, if we were to read the narrative of Ma, who had a much bigger understanding of the circumstances and consequences. But it cannot be denied that it would completely change the tone and even content of the book. The readers would be no longer following small traces of revelations and instead would read a harrowing account on crime and trauma.

Analysing Jack’s use of language along with Donoghue’s decision to capitalize specific words leads us to predictable conclusion – common objects around him have kept him company during his whole life. Isolated in a single space for five years with his mother, he found comfort in their permanence and practicality. 'He personifies the furniture surrounding him, referring to it as his friends ‘Bed’, ‘Rug’, ‘Sink’ or ‘Wardrobe’ with a capital letter, not knowing that millions of beds, rugs, sinks and wardrobes as well as other objects he has only or in fact never seen on TV exist outside of Room' (Dinter 10). It is important to mention the repetitive patterns, such as Sunday treat, which was something he expected to receive even in the clinic. In spite of his age, Jack isn’t any that different from those who are exposed to his narrative. We, as readers, spare him the judgement and instead are forced to think of our own lives, and how routines are the greatest source of solace during difficult times.

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The author, Emma Donoghue, managed to tackle one of the most intricate challenges that writers face - she was able to create a piece of nonfiction that is credible and also original. 'The difficulty that comes along with child narration is finding and maintaining a voice that has ring of childhood, yet can hold the attention of adult readers' (Farrow 16). From the beginning of the book we accommodate to the simplistic language and use it as a platform for our own imagination, while reflecting on many important subject matters. Just as Jack reaches a point of maturity, when he no longer wants to return to Room, we as readers reach a closure, for he has helped us to explore it to the full extent.


  • Dinter, Sandra. 'Plato's Cave Revisited: Epistemology, Perception and Romantic Childhood in Emma Donoghue's Room (2010)'. C21 Literature: Journal of 21st-Century Writings 2.1, 2013, 53-69.
  • Farrow, Jessica Lynn Griffin. “The Struggle to Survive and Thrive: Assessing the Cognitive Complexities of Trauma and Recovery in Emma Donoghue's ‘Room.’” , NC DOCKS (North Carolina Digital Online Collection of Knowledge and Scholarship), 2018,
  • “Presents.” Room, by Emma Donoghue, Picador, 2015, pp. 3–401.
  • Steinmetz, Linda. “Extremely Young & Incredibly Wise: The Function of Child Narrators in Adult Fiction.” 2011,
  • Sandra Dinter – Plato’s Cave Revisited: Epistemology, Perception and Romantic Childhood in Emma Donoghue's Room (2010)
  • Jessica Lynn Griffin Farrow - The Struggle to Survive and Thrive: Assessing the Cognitive Complexities of Trauma and Recovery in Emma Donoghue's ‘Room
  • Linda Steinmetz - Extremely Young & Incredibly Wise: The Function of Child Narrators in Adult Fiction
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The Relationship Between Narrator And Reader In Emma Donoghue’s Room. (2021, November 22). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 21, 2024, from
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