The Symbolism of Wilderness in Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness and Doris Lessing’s To Room Nineteen
In her essay, Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness, Showalter introduces and discusses the different explanations for the difference in women’s writing; the biology, psyche, language, and culture of women. Showalter finds fault with all but is partial to culture and discusses it at length. She goes on to cite a model in which Women, the “muted” group, have their own sphere, which is overlapped by the dominant Men’s spheres.
She calls the crescent of the Woman’s sphere, which is not overtaken by the men‘s the “wilderness? Men’s crescent is not defined as wilderness; since the women of this society, though they may never see the crescent men have to themselves, are still exposed to it, and respect it, since they are part of a society dominated by it Men, however, do not know or respect the women’s side. She connects this with writing by saying that women are, then, involved with two different cultures Because men‘s societies are catered to themselves, and in their lives, they can ignore the “women’s” side, in their writing they can ignore the “woman” culture.
Women, however, cannot escape and cannot ignore either culture- and thus their writing is often representative of both: an overarching, shallow meaning which represents the dominant male culture- and a hidden, deeper meaning rooted in the “muted” women’s culture. In Lessing’s short story, “To Room Nineteen ”, the reader can clearly identify these ideas presented in Lessing’s writing The story focuses on a married couple, Matthew and Susan; and Susan‘s slow slip into madness and depression, leading to eventual suicide. The hotel rooms represent the idea of wilderness, along with her private room in the house, the garden, and the river. This wilderness in which Susan feels some comfort is countered by the idea of the “civilized marriage bed’ﬂ Her husband’s words, advice, and comfort, the sex they have, their children, their workers, the house they have, his mistresses, all represent the male—dominated sphere which makes up all of the dominant society. The clearest representation of this idea is the plot concerning Susan’s private room. The room itself represents the wilderness, and woman’s culture, Lessing makes wonderful, though discreet social commentary through this scene.
The room can be linked directly to current, ongoing problems with feminists, and everyday women, trying to claim their own space and rights, and people interfering and reacting to this assertion. Susan speaking to Matthew and getting his consent and advice, before getting her own room and space on her own- represents women’s long historical struggle to gain even basic human rights from the patriarchy. The cardboard sign, “Do not disturb”, which was created by the children, represents society extending its hand and labeling the women’s space and whoever/whatever is inside it as they see fit Matthew speaking to his oldest son, then the son explaining things to the other children represents the inherent problem with men stepping up and claiming titles as feminist leaders. Of course, men should take part in the feminist movement, but claiming leadership roles and loudly announcing their feminist intent, to get attention, to make it about them, is counter-intuitive. Finally, the real “kicker”- an idea that surprised and delighted me when I realized it was there was represented by the lines: “What it amounted to was that Mother’s Room, and her need for privacy, had become a valuable lesson in respect for other people‘s rights. Quite soon Susan was going up to the room only because it was a lesson it was a pity to drop Then she took sewing up there, and the children and Mrs. Parkes came in and out: it had become another family room,” (Lessing 318).
What this represents is the overwhelming idea that the feminist movement, the fact that it is a movement, that people react to and criticize, that a woman’s space, her wilderness, is subject to mystery and debate, defeats the purpose and negates any benefit of the movement itself or the space. The movement cannot escape the dominant male society, and even Woman’s wilderness is not far enough from the dominant society for her space to be her own. This idea that women’s wilderness cannot escape the dominant society is the overall message behind this story (the underlying “muted” message) and the overwhelming reason, plot-wise, that Susan commits suicide to escape to her own space, into the “dark river”.
- Showalter. Elaine. Feminist Criticixm in the Wildernerx. 308327. Print. Lessing, Doris.
- “To Room Nineteen.” T1) Room Nineteen. Vol. 1. London: Jonathan Cape, 1978‘ 305-336. Print.