Exploring the experiences of individuals in extreme and in the case of ‘Room’, unconceivable aspects of life, the theme of manipulation is central to the progression of both Sylvia Plath’s ‘Ariel’ and Emma Donoghue’s ‘Room’. Contrary to Donoghue, Plath stands as an autobiographical writer, drawing upon her own life surrounded with false pretences and manipulation as the main motivation for her writing, such as the uncovering of her father’s hidden identity as a Nazi sympathiser. By contrast, while it has been bluntly concluded Donoghue’s work was spurred solely by the notorious Fritzl case, following one of the world’s most heinous living criminals, who ‘fathered seven children with his daughter while he kept her locked in a cellar for 24 years’1. It is far more revealing, in light of the theme of manipulation, to consider the meticulously constructed first-person narrative perspective of five-year-old Jack, through which Donoghue successfully ‘shields readers on their descent into the abyss’2. By providing such a naïve and vulnerable persona, Donoghue successfully intensifies the force of the novel, exemplifying the effects of psychological manipulation. Making the novel, as suggested by literary critic Rachael Allen, ‘less about human suffering and more about human survival, and human development.’3.
One of the more subtly explored forms of manipulation in the novel is Ma’s psychological manipulation of Jack. This is presented most strongly through Ma’s, protective yet manipulative actions into having Jack think ‘Room’ is the entire world, with everything beyond its four walls make-believe, and ‘only TV’4. She shield’s Jack from the grim realities of their entrapment, hiding her depression with her construction of ‘Gone’5 days, and labelling their futile cries for help, ‘Scream’6, a concept Jack understands only as a harmless childhood game. These manipulative actions allow Jack to live an ironically ‘normal’ life, with the realities of his 11 ft x 11 ft prison subverted into a world with endless opportunities. In light of research into childhood psychological development, Jack’s naïve persona draws parallels with Professor Jay Belsky’s judgements in regards to the strikingly comparable Josef Fritzl case, where he determines ‘as a youngster, your immediate environment is your whole world’7. While this appears to be a strong conclusion in mind of Jack’s seemingly content state, it can be argued such manipulative actions reveal a string of complex issues upon Jack’s emergence into the real world, outside ‘Room’. Loss of innocence is similarly mirrored in Plath’s ‘Balloons’, which Tracy Brain argues ‘addresses Plath’s sensitivity towards her son’s psychological development’8, contrasting to typical poetic explorations of parent-child relationships that seek to portray idealistic, harmonious scenarios. By creating a connection across the texts, a reading of the poem could seek to highlight ‘Room’s’ Jack as a metaphorical embodiment of the balloon, with its description as ‘guileless and clear’9 connoting a vulnerable childlike nature. Such a description parallels Jack’s lack of perception of anything beyond the boundaries of ‘Room’10. Thus the eventual popping of the balloon represents a shattering of innocence, as in Jack’s integration into the outside world. Nevertheless, contrary to Jack the child in ‘Balloons’ (critically suggested to be a symbolic representation of Plath’s son), is eager to explore ‘the funny pink world he might eat on the other side’9. Exemplifying the arguably negative impacts of Ma’s manipulation of Jack, who immediately longs for the ironic ‘safety’ of ‘Room’10 and familiar home comfort of ‘Sunday Treat’10 .
The clearest instance of manipulation in ‘Room’ is that of Ma by the novel’s antagonist, Old Nick. Not only is his deceitful character portrayed in his actions leading to Ma’s kidnap, but is more importantly extended in his treatment of his captives within ‘Room’ itself. Specifically, his sarcastic retort ‘I’m just the grocery boy…at your service ma’am’11 evokes a sense of self-victimisation, suggesting Old Nick ironically believes Ma owes him something and should be thankful for everything he does for both her and Jack. This creates a degree of role reversal, with Ma ironically occupying the position of power and authority over her captor, emphasising the force at which Old Nick’s calculating and manipulative character is revealed. Furthermore, his standing as one of the central male characters of the novel works to create a negative impression of male dominance over vulnerable women. Working to similar effect in ‘Daddy’, Plath references her relationship with her late father, by describing how she ‘lived like a foot’12. Such a metaphor acts a reference to the complications Plath’s father experienced with his foot, eventually led to his death. In this sense, it can be determined Plath attempts to portray how she was made to feel a burden to her father, his inferior. Critics have argued through her poetry Plath accepts ‘she was doomed to sexual and social victimization’13 and this certainly appears to be the case in
1 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/7371959.stm, accessed 10:40, 20/11/2017
2 Reading Group Guide, Room, a novel by Emma Donoghue, Back Bay Readers’ Pick, November 2013, page 2
3 https://clinicpresents.com/i-knew-the-chills-would-be-justified-emma-donoghues-room/, accessed 18:59, 06/11/2017.
4 Donoghue, Emma. ‘Room’, Picador, 2011, page 22
5 Donoghue, Emma. ‘Room’, Picador, 2011, page 51
6 Donoghue, Emma. ‘Room’, Picador, 2011, page 74
7 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/7370889.stm , accessed 9:55, 13/11/2017
8 Plath Profiles 77, Red Earth, Motherly Blood: Articulating Sylvia Plath’s Anxieties of Motherhood Jemma L. King, Aberystwyth University, page 7, accessed 10:09, 27/11/2017
9 Plath, Sylvia. ‘Balloons’, Ariel, 1965, pages 28-29
10 Donoghue, Emma. ‘Room’, Picador, 2011, page 15
11 Donoghue, Emma, ‘Room’, Picador, 2011, page 45
12 Plath, Sylvia. ‘Daddy’, Ariel, 1965
13 Kathleen Margaret Lant: On ‘Daddy’, January 2014, taken from: http://www.modernamericanpoetry.org/criticism/kathleen-margaret-lant-daddy, accessed 20/11/2017