Today it was time to pluck a Norton* from a crowded shelf and read a short story found therein for my read-a-new-story-every-day-for-the-month-of-July project.
(*this forever reminds me of Paul Gagne and Rosa and the "What's a Norton?" conversation at Cambridgeside Borders....ahhhhh, so good!)
Today's Story: "To Room Nineteen"
Author: Doris Lessing
My Rating: A
I loved this story. If it is not perfect, it is definitely existentially heartbreaking. I think that for many 21st-century readers it can be difficult to look back at a feminist 1963 text without being patronizing, dismissive, wistful, idealist, or some combination of those. (I mean, look at how many ostensibly bright young things blithely declare that they are "not feminists"--and look at how many journalists continue to ask them that question.) That is rather sad. If you approach "To Room Nineteen" with an open literary mind, you just might hear it speaking some hardcore truth at you.
As Lessing herself says in the opening line, the Rawlings' marriage was a "failure in intelligence." The many levels on which this is true unfold as the story goes on: the intelligent/pragmatic approach to marriage, determined to shrug off any emotional messiness by negating the very possibility of emotional messiness, which is done by letting everything just simply be okay, not acknowledging that there is a wronged party; the failure to use Susan's skills in her chosen profession while she raises small children; the failure to discover the truth about one's partner's activities, whether through direct questioning or sleuthing. But Susan's "practical intelligence" for the sake of her family, household, the whole construction is what ultimately fails the most.
There were a few moments while reading this where my intense connection to what Lessing says filled me with that joy that can only come through reading something wondrously true. First of all, the passage in which Matthew and Susan's marriage is described as "like a snake biting its tail" where you can't figure out about which point to say "For the sake of this is all the rest." (p. 2371 in the Norton Anthology of English Literature Third Edition Volume 2, 1974, if you're interested) was beautiful:
Children? But children can't be a center of life and a reason for being. They can be a thousand things that are delightful, interesting, satisfying, but they can't be a wellspring to live from. Or they shouldn't be. Matthew and Susan knew that well enough.I love this for stating so succinctly something that is so obvious and yet, if you say it aloud today to, you know, parents? Or grandparents? Or the blogosphere? you're likely to get ridden out of the internet on a rail. What? Children aren't your life reason for being? Are you insulting stay-at-home moms? How dare you? etc. etc. Note the distinct lack of anyone ever claiming -- still, fifty years later -- that children are any man's reason for being. Note also how well Doris Lessing puts it. Note further that she then eliminates Matthew's job as a reason-for-being candidate as well. She is searching for something more, for an essence that is deeper than what fabricated ideas of Marriage and Home and Relationship and Earning a Living can tell or give us.
Matthew's job? Ridiculous. It was an interesting job, but scarcely a reason for living...
Their love for each other? Well, that was nearest it. If this wasn't a center, what was? (still on p. 2371)
But what I love even more is that this isn't about children at all. Everyone wants to make it about that because, as Simone de Beauvoir reminded us, it's a lot easier to ascribe divine mumbo-jumbo to childbearing and raising than to dishes, cooking, and gardening. But it's not about that. Doris Lessing, through this character Susan Rawlings, explains a need that is so simple and so deeply felt, so fundamental, that it becomes impossible to explain, agonizingly so, because that just makes it worse that no one understands it:
Yes, this was what was wrong with her: she needed, when she was alone, to be really alone, with no one near. She could not endure the knowledge that in ten minutes or in half an hour Mrs. Parkes would call up the stairs: "Mrs. Rawlings, there's no silver polish. Madam, we're out of flour." (p. 2378)"Yes!" I practically screamed at the pages in my hand. "Yes, yes, yes! I just want to be alone--and be really alone when I am alone! Why can't I just be alone for a little while! And why is it wrong to want so desperately to be alone?"
Basically, every time I try to explain this to anyone (usually Brian) I fail miserably. And I'm not even sure forcing anyone to read "To Room Nineteen" would help because they would get so caught up in the marriage/children/household aspects of it and that, my friends, is the missing of the whole point. It's not that this Woman/Wife/Mother/Homemaker wants to be alone and therefore we should all be understanding and supportive while admitting that being a mother is the toughest job in the world. It's not any of that at all. It's that this woman (this woman. herself. period.) wants to be alone. But you can't see that, because you are forever defining her as this Woman/Wife/Mother/Homemaker. It's like that internet meme you might have seen that rejects the "She's important because she's someone's mother/sister/daughter/wife" by crossing out everything from the second apostrophe on: "She's important because she's someone
How can we not acknowledge here Virginia Woolf, who emblazoned the room-of-one's-own notion onto personal literary consciousness (and every self-respecting writer's psyche, to boot)? And how can we not further acknowledge Virginia Woolf through Michael Cunningham's The Hours, which so marvelously channeled her and also echoes Lessing's "To Room Nineteen" themes, as Cunningham's woman chooses life?
Think about Virginia Woolf in The Hours, and you see that it isn't about children and motherhood. It's about a person. My conversations with Brian about "a room of one's own" invariably end with me lamely trying to explain why it's hard for me to write (full-time freelancing) and work from home when he's at home or when we don't even have our own home and as we circle 'round and 'round trying to hone in on why I can't create I find myself stuttering, "But then I have to think about when we're eating lunch..." or something equally not at all to the point.
Forget about the writing in a room of one's own. Don't people just want to be alone with themselves, ever? Apparently not, as evidenced by the inability to put down the smartphone for five seconds...always seeking something outside yourself...is this not a rejection of your life?
The character Susan Rawlings questions herself when she thinks the word "bondage." Surely, she reasons, neither she nor her husband can actually feel bound because they still have, sort of, a happy marriage, "lying in each other's arms content." (p.2380) Obviously, she concludes, there is something wrong with her.
No, her state (whatever it was) was irrelevant, nothing to do with her real good life with her family. She had to accept the fact that after all, she was an irrational person and to live with it. Some people had to live with crippled arms, or stammers, or being deaf. She would have to live knowing she was subject to a state of mind she could not own. (p.2380)Clearly, at this point I fell irrevocably in love with "To Room Nineteen." I am not alone in the world, I conclude, in feeling as I do... although I don't see myself progressing exactly as Susan Rawlings does, or even nearly. Just understanding her. And maybe doing one or two things the same.
If you can understand what Susan feels about solitude, you can understand me. It has nothing to do with children, or being "trapped" in a marriage, or anything remotely like that. It has to do with questioning everything, and wondering why the world does something to you when you're in a relationship. It has to do with trying to fathom solitude. It has to do with being. Is everyone asking themselves these questions? Is it just women? Writers? Tormented souls?
I can't even say "Where have you been all my life?" to Doris Lessing, because I totally know about her and her unmistakably important place in literature, and feminism, and feminist literature (words that shouldn't rub you any way at all, least of all a wrong way). I've even written about her and The Golden Notebook before. But let's just say that her story "To Room Nineteen" makes me want to rush out and devour everything she's ever written. Joyous literature!