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Suicide as Redemption: A Woman's Quest for a No Man's Land in Lessing's "To Room Nineteen"

To quest for freedom is a human nature, especially for women in a patriarchal society. In Lessing's "To Room Nineteen" the Room in the title indicates Susan Rawling's quest for a no man's land for physical and psychological freedom from the excessive family responsibilities, but ultimately it turns out to be a free space for her suicide.  The story centres on the psychological introspection of a middle aged English woman whose world in a mid twentieth century London suburb revolves around her husband, her four children, and her home. Even when Susan becomes physically free after packing her youngest children off to school, she discovers that her husband has been having an extramarital affair. So she embarks on a psychological journey of self-discovery that ultimately becomes a descent into madness and suicide. In other words, Susan sees herself as a mere container with certain elements, especially the rational ones central to it; whereas her other unconscious elements are kept outside in the periphery. And when her repressed desires return, a clash between rationality and emotional instinct starts and goes on until this lack of unified sensibility leads her to find an escape in a no man's land through suicide. In this essay, I would explore the warring impulses between intellect and instinct, mind and heart, against the backdrop of early 1960 London, when women were caught in the social conservatism of the past and unable to see the promise of a future that would encourage choice, fulfillment and personal freedom. I would also focus on Lessing's illuminations of the restrictions placed on women of this era and the devastating consequences of those restrictions. For these, I would apply Beauvoir's and Rich's theories on female predicament in patriarchal societies, some Psychoanalytic and Marxist criticism, and some existential philosophy on suicide as an absurd reasoning.

Susan is a person who needs to have a feeling of comfort, love and freedom at the same time. At the beginning of the story, everything seems so perfect. Her family is a role model for other people, seeming they have everything: children, home, education, job etc. These material things are probably enough for an outsider to consider this relationship a success. But everything is not the same inside the house as it appears to be from the outside. In Lessing's words, "they had everything they had wanted and had planned for. And yet…." By the dots, the writer is implying that yet there was something which was not all right. It starts when Susan's spurred desires start questioning the over ‘intellectual' basis of her deprived marital status. So she thinks "children can't be a centre of life and a reason for being."

Matthew thinks that he works in a newspaper office all day long "for the sake of Susan, children, house, and garden"; while Susan gives up her job in an advertising firm, out of ‘practical intelligence' for the sake of household affairs. The gender discrimination becomes apparent in the narrator's statement "they had played the same roles, male and female." Here, we can locate Simone de Beauvoir's concept of ‘role playing' in a patriarchal society where a husband dominates a family. However, Susan fights against her inner emptiness and the roles she is supposed to play as a mother, a wife and a house manager. Again, from Marxist Feminist perspective, Susan is not getting her wage for family labour. And towards the end of the story, it seems that Mathew is "paying her off" like one pays a prostitute off only for physical satisfaction. However, they only have conversations in their big, comfortable bed as they do not have any other opportunity to talk.

In fact, everybody has a time in their life when they just need to be alone. Whether it is to think about life or free themselves from their daily stress, isolation from the world may be a necessary thing. In this story, Susan craves for freedom from the bondage of her responsibilities because her role as a wife, a mother and a mistress of a family is so demanding that it is always there not merely during her staying at home, but also follows her wherever she goes. Besides, it is universal that a marriage without emotional bond is flat and dry. So Susan feels she needs something which is not available at home. To be specific, she believes that she needs to be alone to find her identity after signing away her life, as a quest to escape from the "energy of relation" like Adrienne Rich.

From Beauvoir's point of view, we can say that when Susan has become the mother of four children, the myth of "ideal motherhood" is imposed upon her. As a mother she seems to be bound to show the responsibilities towards her children prior to anything else. She has no time and space to think about her individuality. Rather, by taking away her economic freedom, she is reduced into a husband-dependent and marginalized ‘other'. Since Matthew has the economic power, he can have sweet times with another girl, while Susan hardly had freedom to do anything for amusement because of her excessive family concern. Further, society does not approve of it because the socio-cultural norms and forms are constructed and controlled by patriarchy.

The main existential crisis in Susan and Matthew's family life starts when Matthew confesses about a casual affair with a girl and Susan apparently forgives him. It becomes as if a sinner has confessed to a church father who has redeemed his sin. But "Matthew's confession" and Susan's "forgiveness" are merely words like those given by Anse Bundren to Addie Bundren in William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. Whether Matthew confesses or not, and Susan minds it or not--seem to be absurd to her. However, Susan is inwardly depressed and confused about the significance of her own fidelity and her faith on her husband's. In Lessing's words: "so either the ten years fidelity was not important or she isn't". So, there is no meaning in their marital "bondage" now. Still she suppresses and puts behind with sophistication this question of self importance as an absurd thing. Such absurdity has a vital influence on Susan's suicide.

Again, Lessing's story bears the testimony of Beauvoir's idea that "one is not born but rather becomes a woman". Becoming woman, for Susan, is a process that is instituted by her occupation of the role of wife and mother, a position that establishes her as Matthew's substitute "other". Susan's position is the inferior one, because the tasks with which she is occupied do not fulfill her. They encourage, in Beauvoir's terms, "immanence" rather than "transcendence".

We can associate Susan's mental condition with Martin Heidegger's philosophy that states that man cannot live without clinging to some fundamental ideal in life. And in this case, Susan's ideal is dissolving; and she is more and more often threatened by emptiness. In this regard, Lessing states ironically: "Intelligence forbade them--barred, too, quarrelling, sulking, anger, silences of withdrawal, accusations and tears. Above all, intelligence forbids tears"--the most spontaneous, intensive and passionate human emotion; which may, if suppressed too much, lead one either to madness or death. Lessing adds that "she behaved with a conscious controlled decency that nearly drove her crazy." The narrator also says ironically that with this "well-matched" couple, all "inner storms and quicksands were understood and chartered", like William Blake's "London" where even the world of nature is controlled by the forces of the law. In Lessing's story, it is the human nature that is controlled by forces of Freudian ‘super-ego'. The result is a destructive confrontation between the rational elements of the self which defend the inner territory and the irrational, unconscious instincts and impulses which attack it. So she must pursue a no man's land. From political perspective, a no-man's-land is dominated by no country. But from cultural aspect, Susan looks for a space free from all patriarchal norms and values.

To interpret the narrative from Adrienne Rich's theory, Susan's "energy of relation" suppresses her "energy of creation". Here, by "energy of relation" I want to indicate the fact that until Susan's twins' going off to school, she has no nurse or maid to help her. "Often enough she was bored, since small children can be boring…very tired; but she regretted nothing". All these obligations are due to her family bondage. By "energy of creation", I want to indicate her inability to exercise "a life of her own" with complete liberation of body and heart. So she waits "for her own slow emancipation away from the role of hub-of-the-family into woman-with-her-own-life. She is already planning for time and space for freedom when all the children would be off her hands." Here the narrator makes Susan's existential crisis clear: "her soul was not her own, as she said, but her children's". This lack of individuality has the major bearing with the heroine's quest for a suicide spot, a no man's land.

In "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence", Adrienne Rich has also shown how compulsory heterosexuality or marriage as a political institution disempowers women. This theory is applicable in the life of Susan who looks at "Herself as she had been at twenty eight, unmarried: and then…about fifty, blossoming from the root of what she had been twenty years before. As if the essential Susan were in abeyance, as if she were in cold storage". It means that for twenty two years there has been no development in her life. Gradually she realizes that what she considered being her "innermost self" is only a set of superficial roles, and that "essential Susan" is being sacrificed ("nailed…To her cross") as she becomes more and more aware of the house as a form of social confinement. However, she is eventually compelled to reject the social responsibilities and the pressure to be what she is not. And that implies Susan's search for a room of one's own like that of Virginia Woolf.

Susan's dream of freedom turns into a nightmare even when her youngest twins go off to school, because she never has a spare moment to herself. Her eagerness for carefree moment turns into a threatening, malevolent, demonic energy; only serving to remind her how thoroughly she is still tied to her responsibilities for the house and children. Now, her worry and restlessness about twins can be associated with Beauvoir's myth of "ideal motherhood." However, Susan's epiphany is a symbol of "universal womanhood":

She spoke to herself severely thus…First, I spent twelve years of my adult life working ‘living my own life.' Then I married, and from the moment I became pregnant for the first time I signed myself over, so to speak, to other people. To the children. Not for one moment in twelve years have I been alone, had time to myself, so now I have to learn to be myself again.

And "she resented the fact she would never be alone", ironically not even in room nineteen of Fred's hotel. Here it should be mentioned that freedom for Susan in not merely physical solitariness, but also psychological relief.

As a rejection of "ideal motherhood", once Susan finds herself unconsciously storming with anger at the playful twins and then is "couched weeping on the bed." Because she suffers from guilty conscience for her deviation from the stereotypical maternal instinct towards her children. But Matthew does not realize her real problem, rather comforts "her with his body. She became calm". Here again, we see how husbands treats with wives even in a moment of crisis, as a mere "body" devoid of mind. Thus, the relationship becomes mechanical, without any passion. So it is vulnerable and separable.

Constant family-concern also drives her to look for a no man's land. In the narrator's words, "she could not prevent herself from being conscious of her, every minute, yes this was what was wrong with her: she needed, when she was alone, to be really alone, with no one near" and dear. She was possessed with resentment that "not for one second, ever, was she free from the pressure of time, from having to remember this or that. She could…never really let herself go into forgetfulness".

Under the above circumstances, Susan at first chooses one private room of the house for her own, to be alone, to find her individuality. Here, Lessing resembles with Virginia Woolf's "A Room of One's Own" in various ways. But as it fails, Fred's hotel room number nineteen provides her another space where she can be private and recover that which Lessing terms as the "essential Susan" beneath the superficial roles as a wife, a mother and a manager of a large house. However, she cannot be a success here either. That is why, she thinks of freeing herself from this prison house. Subsequently, she cannot find peace even at Hollywood sea beach, because still she appears to be tied to her family with phone connection. Thus she feels "emptiness" from within. Therefore, she will go "To Room Nineteen", like Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, as a search for perfection and redemption in life.

"Demon" also pursues Susan to a no man's land. One day Susan finds herself kneeling by her bed and praying: "Dear God, keep it away from me, keep him away from me". By "him", she indicates the devil. She also imagines him or it, as a youngish man, or perhaps a middle aged man pretending to be young. Since these characteristics match so much with Matthew, I think Susan uses "demon" as a metaphor of Matthew. Again, from psychological perspective, demon can be called Susan's alter ego. However, the demon gradually takes over her inner territory in such a way that ultimately she becomes unable to accept her demon as her truest self, to live her own otherness and feels like becoming alienated as "a stranger" even at home. Next, I will explain how such an existential crisis compels her to seek a no man's land for redemption through suicide.

According to Foucault's view, Susan's identity has been constructed by how others see her. For instance, Matthew treats her as a "wife", children see her as a "mother" and the maids see her as a "mistress of home"--according to their relation with her; and all expect the traditional responses from her. But she embodies the existential philosophical view that "existence precedes essence." That is why, "She dreamed of having a room or a place, anywhere. Where she could go and sit, by herself, no one knowing where she was." And in a gesture of sterile escapism, she flees from her invading alter ego and takes refuge in a no man's land, an ordinary room in Townsend's hotel where she can survive like a refugee of gender-war: "She was alone. She was alone. She was alone." Here the refrain implies the significance of a woman's being free from all patriarchal constraints, as Adrienne Rich's vision in "Aunt Jennifer's Tiger." Besides, Susan's interior conversation with the hotel manageress Miss Townsend manifests her real problems and demands:

Miss Townsend, my four children and my husband are driving me insane, do you understand? Yes, I can see from the gleam of hysteria in your eyes that comes from loneliness controlled…Miss Townsend, I'm besieged by seven devils [probably referring to the gaze of Matthew, four children, a maid and an au pair girl]…let me stay here in your hotel room where the devils can't get me….

There is an indication in the narrative that Susan "knew quite well she was made." Actually it is the patriarchy that has "made" her almost a mad. Therefore, withdrawing herself spiritually form the burden of the large family, she determines to arrange her life, no matter what it will cost, so that she could have that…absolute solitude, where no one knows her or cares about her. She cannot encounter the horrors of existence. Again, according to existentialism, if one has no root to cling to, all one's existence becomes a nightmare of nothingness. So, Susan is frustrated enough to commit suicide in a land where no man will restrain her freedom of choice.

Susan's exploration of a no man's land in Fred's hotel is partially successful. She at least glimpses the possibility of an alternative, independent and non-split self identity here like Mrs. Mallard of Kate Chopin's "The Story of an Hour":

She was no longer Susan Rawlings, mother of four [children], wife of Matthew, employer of Mrs. Parkes and Sopphie…relations with friends, and school teachers…She no longer was mistress of the…house and…she was Mrs. Jones, and she was alone…has no past or no future…Yet there have been times I thought that nothing existed of me except the roles that went with being Mrs. Matthew Rawlings.

Here two things seem very important to me. Firstly, this is the first time we have heard her real name "Mrs. Jones" other than Susan Rawlings. It symbolizes her rediscovery of self-identity which had been existed until her marriage. Secondly, her is not born, rather becomes a woman. So Susan challenges that sort of "compulsory heterosexuality" which gives no time and space for women-liberation.

Instead of solving Susan's problems by sharing with her confused feelings and emotions, Matthew adopts "intelligence" by asking her: "Do you want a divorce, is that it?" Here, his "rational" suspicion is that she has a lover. And she understands that he hoped she did have a lover, so that he can have Phil Hunt. However, the metaphysical divorce occurs even before the physical one when Susan discovers that her freedom in room 19 is invaded by Matthew's detective. From now on, she "was not the same… [as the world had searched her out]. The pressures were on her she was here with his connivance; he might walk in at any moment, here, into room 19"–Susan fears. Her sense of freedom and peace is over. Metaphorically Matthew's inquiry involves an extension of the realm of the cultural forces, so that the hotel room is as it were colonized by patriarchy.

As Susan feels imprisoned in the hotel room too, the only possible redemption for her is suicide. In other words, the demonic forces like earlier ones take over her here, too: "Several times she returned to the room, to look for herself there, but instead she found the unnamed spirit of restlessness, a prickling fevered hunger for movement, an irritable self-consciousness". Susan does not realize that the unnamed spirit is a key element of her own spirit and that it needs to be balanced with its rational elements. On the contrary, she is still on the run, still unable to face true otherness. Hence, her quest for a no man's zone in a hotel room has inevitably been a failure. Ultimately life becomes ‘purposeless' and ‘meaningless' to her, as seen by the existential philosophy.

"To Room Nineteen" is not only a physical search for freedom, but also a psychological journey of Susan to the realization of herself and her husband. Understanding that his doubtful rational sensibility will not be unified with her emotional faculties, she tells him a lie that she is indeed having an affair. It may be her attempt to assess his faith upon her fidelity. However, instantly Matthew says "I must confess I've got a bit of an affair on myself," in the way as if he has got a license for his adultery. Even his rationality goes so far as to propose her a "foursome", a too sophisticated or "civilized" custom. In Lessing's words–"if one never allows oneself envious emotion, naturally one says: Let's make a foursome!" Now all bondage seems absurd and terrifying to her as she feels: "he was not her husband."

Last of all problems but not the least, now Susan has to "produce Michael Plant", her false lover, anyhow for foursome, which is impossible for such a fidel wife. So she decides that she would not try to do it with any illegal transaction. So "she had left her house, the big, beautiful white home without another look." Thus she is saying a final good bye to everything associated with marriage and buys her freedom from demons. But still she is concerned about what may be rumoured about her even after suicide, not only by Matthew but also by the patriarchal society: "How to leave him believing she was dying because of a man? Oh, how ridiculous! How absurd! How humiliating! But she decided not to trouble about it, simply not to think about the living." Some existential questions attack her psychology now. For instance, "what hypocrisy to sit here worrying about the children when she was going to leave because she had not got the energy to stay." As the sense of nothingness and meaninglessness torments her life, she is finished. So she chooses the extreme way of committing suicide to get freedom and takes its responsibility, in a space where no man interrupts her decision.

Now, a question may arise--is suicide the only and right solution to female problems in a patriarchal society? To answer to this question, we can analyze suicide firstly from Susan's subjective perspective and then from psychoanalytic, feminist and existential philosophical perspectives. Susan tries to find self fulfillment through an illusive and destructive search for dissolution after the failure of her mission for a no man's land in hotel Room 19. So she "drift (s) off into the dark river" of unconsciousness and death. As a Feminist critic, my view is that suicide seems to be the ultimate destination of the conflicts between men's domination and women's urge for emancipation in many cultures of the world. Meanwhile, Marxists may think that financial independence for Susan could save her.

To conclude, Susan's gender, status and class--all undergo socio-economic as well as personal pressures to conform to specific cultural dictates. Through her, Lessing depicts the depression of traditional housewives in a patriarchal society and their quest for a no man's land to enjoy an unrestricted and carefree life. However, hemmed in by over "rationality", Susan's deep seated emotions and desire for freedom cannot be controlled or expressed, resulting in her suicide. From Rich and Beauvoir's perspectives, the patriarchal norm of "marriage" turns Susan into an "other" of Matthew. Besides, the myth of "ideal woman" has compelled her to some expected "role playing." As a result, she becomes depersonalized and suffers from identity-crisis. So, room 19 firstly becomes a dreamland or utopia for Susan "where she could go and sit, by herself", disturbed by none. But rather than becoming a space to "live her own life", ironically it has become a free space to take away her own life. Finally, from existential philosophy, all Susan's crises lead her to question the meaning of her life, as Nora of Ibsen's A Doll's House. And everything becomes absurd and meaningless to her. Due to the utter frustration, alienation and disorientation, since she cannot relocate herself as she was before marriage; she cannot solve the mystery for her existence and cope with the post-marital situation. She finds nothing to live for and cannot tolerate the horrors of the voidness of her existence. In existential view, man commits suicide as a means to avoid such states of absurdity, meaninglessness and angst of life. In Room-19 of Fred's hotel, Susan finds a no man's land, an option to choose suicide with her subjective decision and without anyone's interference--as a means of extreme freedom or redemption from patriarchal norms. Thus she embraces death out of bearing its responsibility–as we find in "Absurdity and Suicide" ofThe Myth of Sisyphus in which Albert Camus says: "I see many people die because they judge that life is not worth living."


Works Cited

Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural

Theory. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 1995.


Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second  Sex .Gallimard, 1949.


Lessing, Doris. "To Room Nineteen." A man and Two Women. London, 1963.


Rich, Adrienne. "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence." Signs.



Weber, Jean Jacques. "How metaphor leads Susan Rawlings into suicide: A

cognitive-linguistic analysis of Doris Lessing's ‘To Room Nineteen'."

About the Author

M.A in English Literature (1st Class)

Lecturer in English, Green University of Bangladesh

Former Lecturer, Dept. of English, Darul Ihsan University, Bangladesh


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