Let us construct a fable. Let us picture a woman thrown into a dungeon. There she bears and rears a son. He grows up seeing nothing but the dungeon walls, the straw on the floor, and a little patch of sky seen through the grating, which is too high up to show anything except sky. This unfortunate woman was an artist, and when they imprisoned her she managed to bring with her a drawing pad and a box of pencils. As she never loses the hope of deliverance, she is constantly teaching her son about that outer world which he has never seen. She does it very largely by drawing him pictures. With her pencil she attempts to show him what fields, rivers, mountains, cities, and waves on a beach are like. He is a dutiful boy and he does his best to believe her when she tells him that that outer world is far more interesting and glorious than anything in the dungeon. At times he succeeds. On the whole he gets on tolerably well until, one day, he says something that gives his mother pause. For a minute or two they are at cross-purposes. Finally it dawns on her that he has, all these years, lived under a misconception. “But,” she gasps, “you didn’t think that the real world was full of lines drawn in lead pencil?”
“What?” says the boy. “No pencil marks there?” And instantly his whole notion of the outer world becomes a blank. —C.S. Lewis, “Transposition,” from The Weight of Glory (SPCK, 1941)
Lewis’s “fable” parallels, with such eerie clarity it may not be a coincidence, the premise of Emma Donoghue’s novel Room (Little, Brown and Company, 2010), adapted for the screen by Lenny Abrahamson this past year. The film, starring a magnificent Brie Larsen and a brilliant child-actor, Jacob Tremblay, is the story of a young woman, Joy, kidnapped and locked in a garden shed for eight years. There she bears her son, Jack, fathered by her kidnapper, whom she nicknames, not coincidentally, Old Nick and whose real name she never learns. When the film opens it is Jack’s fifth birthday; we the audience are introduced to “Room” as an entire self-contained universe made up of the love of mother and son, whose only chink to the outside world is a single, luminous skylight.
Abrahamson’s spare, self-effacing direction concentrates resolutely on this relationship, showing just enough of the horrors of Joy’s abuse to let the audience know that they are there and genuine, before returning to the fragile zest for life of the young and developing Jack. Given the premise of the film, it is perhaps not so much a plot spoiler as a merciful reassurance to say that Jack and Joy (allusive names for any reader of Lewis) do not remain trapped in the garden shed for the entirety of the film. However, as Lewis foresaw, perhaps the most interesting aspect of his fable is exactly the challenge posed by the outside to someone whose entire world has previously been Room.
The beginning of the film shows that Joy is already having difficulty convincing Jack of the reality of a world beyond Room: anything on TV is automatically and utterly “not real,” like the pencil marks in Lewis, rather than occasionally falsified or distorted representations of reality. The film chronicles very delicately the layers of trauma that Joy and Jack must peel back in order to re-enter the world and to come alive again. And while never for a moment portraying their captivity and their captor as anything but evil, in all his self-centered banality, Room asks what kind of beauty could grow out of the self-sacrifice of Joy for her son, and is not afraid to show that the journey into a larger world, while emphatically worthwhile, is not an easy one.
The simplicity and fable-like quality of the premise of Room, not to mention the names of the characters, lend themselves naturally to a viewer with a penchant for allegory. Again, Abrahamson’s direction and the loving particularity of the performances of Larsen and Tremblay does much to ensure that, if Room is indeed an allegory, it is an allegory with physicality. Joy and Jack are never ciphers.
You feel Joy’s weariness, her malnutrition, the physical damage of abuse, and the cost she takes on herself of building a world fit for her son to inhabit, and you feel the sometimes exhausting energy bloom of a bright, inquisitive five-year-old boy with no space to play and few external stimuli. At the same time, the questions Lewis was asking in “Transposition” are built into the structure of the fable.
How are we, like Joy and Jack, ignorant of larger dimensions of reality, of the world in which we live, and are making do, in prison, with mental furniture that may not reflect that larger, more complicated space? What holds us captive, and who, sitting with us in our captivity, does what they can to make it bearable? When we are in fact liberated from our captivity, will we immediately rejoice, or will a part of us long for the safety and familiarity of our old prisons?
How long will the stink of prison, the memory of abuse, and the shame borne by its victims still cling to us, and what will it take to set us free? And when we are set free, will we finally understand the true glory of those souls who have sat with us on Job’s ash heap and wept with us until our day of deliverance drew near?
The featured image comes via Slate.