Autobiographical elements in To Room Nineteen by Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing as a literary artist incorporates autobiographical elements in most of her works.  And the short story “To Room Nineteen” is no different.  The other recurrent theme of Lessing’s writing is her provocative brand of feminism, which also finds expression in this story.  The objective of this paper is to draw parallels between the lives of the author and her lead character Susan Rawlings.

In the short story To Room Nineteen, the protagonist Susan Rawlings is propelled by her circumstances into committing suicide.  But, this Lessing has dealt with the subject already in her 1971 novel Briefing for a Descent into Hell, which explores “a man’s mental breakdown and society’s conditioned and unimaginative reaction to it” (Bloom, p.124).  In other words, the author tries to present an alternative view of suicide and its social context.  Lessing observes that “it needs a particular training to instill in people the belief that putting a label on some feeling or thing and defining it, is equivalent to understanding and experiencing it” (Bloom, 145).  We can understand Lessing’s objection to this kind of simplified emotional categorization, as she herself lived a life that defied conventional cultural expectations.  She ran away from her home to the city of Salisbury when she was barely thirteen.  In the years following, she worked as a telephone operator and also took up some odd jobs.  These were the 1930s, when young girls of her age were expected to live with their parents.  But Lessing was different from the stereotypical colonial girl in that she choose to have freedom and independence in the place of security.  This aspect of her personal life is reflected in many of her works, including the story To Room Nineteen (Cahill, p.14).

Doris Lessing was married and divorced twice in her life.  This personal history of failed relationships seems to provide her a unique insight into the dynamics of intimate relationships in general.  Lessing puts this insight to good use in To Room Nineteen, when she uses the metaphor of a “snake biting its tail” to explicate the troubled relationship of Susan and Matthew (Chettle, p.75).   For example,

“At the beginning, Susan and Matthew’s life is said to be ‘like a snake biting its tail’, an image of ineffectiveness, stagnation and sterility. Later in the story, Susan has a vision of her demon prodding an unhealthy-looking snake with a stick. The snake might still symbolize Susan’s self—unhealthy because of too much repression—and so the demon could be seen as shaking her unhealthy self out of its stagnation. In other words, what might be suggested here is a kind of awakening. And indeed, the next time we come across the snake image, Susan’s dormant self has been awakened.” (Bloom, 41)

Lessing’s childhood years spent in the vibrant jungles of South Africa and Rhodesia might have had a subconscious effect in bring out this reference to the snake.  After all, snake as a metaphor of the human condition is seldom seen in popular English literature.  Hence, her upbringing in the natural atmosphere of African wilderness has had a profound effect on the author’s imagination (Cahill, p.45).

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