Mind deeply secure.’ (Bender, 2010.) To Jack, Room

Mind style first
define by Roger Fowler as “consistent structural options, agreeing in cutting
the presented world to one pattern, giving rise to an impression of a world-viewKM1 .” (Fowler, 1977KM2 .) Leech and Short refined the term to mean “any distinctive linguistic
representation of an individual’s mental self.” (Leech and Short, 1981.) Leech
and Short suggest that mindstyle can be analysed in particular with those who
clearly impose an ‘unorthodox conception of the fictional world.’ (Leech and
Short, 1981KM3 ) In short, mind style is a theory that is concerned with the way in
which a reader can get access to a certain characters’ view on the world. It often
gives an insight into a character’s consciousness that ‘deviates from a common sense
version of reality.’ (Gregoriou, 2009.)

Emma Donoghue’s Room revolves around a protagonist who has a deviant
conceptualisation of the world. What makes this novel so captivating is
Donoghue’s nuanced treatment of the notions of domesticity, freedom and
sexuality. These three motifs are intertwined and explored through the
narration of 5 year-old Jack. The novel is based upon the incarceration cases of Elizabeth Frtizl and Jaycee Lee
Dugard. Room follows the lives of
Jack who is the son of a young woman, who we know only as Ma. This woman was
captured at the age of nineteen and imprisoned in a modified garden shed. She
is regularly raped by her captor but otherwise left in solitary confinement with
enough food, five books and a television. As a product of repeated sexual
assaults, Ma gives birth to a boy who she chooses to raise without disclosing
to him the unfortunate circumstance they are in. The story is told in the
perspective of her son, Jack who is five years old. Jack has lived his entire
life in captivity with his Ma, and to him, that room is all he knows. He is
‘happily ensconced in a routine that is deeply secure.’ (Bender, 2010.) To Jack,
Room is the entirety of his world and therefore, life in captivity is
undeniably shaped his perception of the world, including his sense of reality.
The story follows the lives of both Jack and Ma after their successful escape from
Room and ‘freed’ in to the outside world. For Ma, this is a process of
returning back to her former life, but for Jack, his limited cognitive
development is overwhelmed with the ‘vastness’ of life outside of Room.

Donoghue uses deviant linguistic and
stylistic choices to showcase Jack’s particular view of the wold and how he
mentally processes the integration in to ‘normal life.’ Many people interpret Room as simply a triumphant survival
novel, however I argue that the novel goes one step further in its
‘theorization of trauma’ (Dore, 2017,) and focuses instead on Jack’s complex
ontological struggles. By analysing the mind style of Jack from him living
inside room to being in the outside world, we are able to question whether it
was being in Room that was more psychologically traumatic for him or whether in
fact the integration in to the world is simply too much. How much does a child
need freedom? Or is it more important to be safe?


‘Mountains are too big to be real, I saw one
in TV that has a woman hanging on it by ropes. Women aren’t real like Ma is,
and girls and boys not either. Men aren’t real except Old Nick, and I’m not
actually sure if he’s real for real.’ (Room, p.66.)

A way of understanding Jack’s primitive
cognitive development and why he struggled to adjust to his new surroundings is
to look at how he was mentally conditioned in Room. Ma taught Jack that there
was only Jack, herself and Old Nik in the world and everything outside of Room
was ‘outer space.’ In Jack’s mind, there is a dichotomy between what is ‘real’,
which is everything he sees and experiences in Room, and what is ‘not real’
which everything he sees on television. Furthermore, Jack and Ma have a daily
routine they rarely deviate from. Within this routine, Old Nik comes to the
shed to sexually assault Ma and Jack instinctively knows to go in to the
wardrobe and not be seen. Thus, it is easy to see how Jack has been conditioned
to view everything that happens in Room as normal. There are many elements to Room that reflect Plato’s Allegory of
the Cave, specifically Jack’s exposure to the outside world. The allegory is
explicitly mentioned in the novel itself when Jack sees an interview about his
case between three scholars on the television in the hospital once they have
been rescued. One scholar describes the case as ‘culture of a shadow on the
wall of Plato’s Cave.’ (Room, p.367.) In Plato’s Allegory, these shadows that
the prisoners saw represent a distorted version of reality, which reflects how
Jack mentally processes what is real to him and what isn’t. Plato writes that
the cave in which the prisoners are trapped in is the ‘World of Sense’ which is
what one senses and is considered mostly an illusion, and outside the cave is
considered the ‘World of Forms’ which represents a constant reality (Chung,
2017.) When applying the theory to Room, Jack’s
emergence in to the outside world brings about a clash between these two
worlds, and it is this clash that manifests Jack’s particular perspective of
the world.

1: Jack’s Mindstyle in Room

Grice’s Maxims

Jack uses a number of ‘salient features’ in
his language, which can be interpreted as a reflection of his upbringing inside
room. His language use can be described as ‘deceptively easy’ in terms of his
lexical density and sentence structure (Chmelinová, 2012.) This creates a very
informal tone to the novel and also due to the ‘apparent absence of a narrator-reader
relationship,’ the illusion is created that we are overhearing Jack’s ‘ordering
of his sensory and ontological impressions.’ (Leech and Short, 1981.) There are
a number of features of Jack’s mindstyle that reflect this. Firstly, Jack frequently
uses cataphoric references, for example it is only mentioned much later on in
the novel that Jack is still nursed by Ma, but Jack only ever refers to this as
‘it’, ‘some’ or ‘lots’: ‘so she lies own on the white of Duvet and me too and I
have lots.’ (X) Furthermore, Ma and Jack’s captor, known as Old Nik, is first
introduced as ‘him,’ with no additional information until half way through the
next chapter: ‘I don’t think he came last night after nine, the air’s always
different if he came.’ (X) Additionally, apart from the direct and indirect
speech, the novel is mostly written as free direct thought and in a stream of
consciousness narrative mode. Due to this, Jack voices all his internal
thoughts, meaning there is a lot of extra, and sometimes irrelevant,
information we are given. This can be analysed using Grice’s Cooperative
Principle’s. In Gricean terms, Jack struggles to adhere with the maxims of
‘quality’ and ‘relation,’ which are as follows:

1. ‘Make your
contribution as informative as is required.

2. Be relevant’                                                                                                                    (Grice,
1975, p.45)

This can be seen in the first few sentences
of the novel, which reads: ‘Today I’m five. I was four last night going to
sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I’m changed to five,
abracadabra. Before that I was three, then two, then one, then zero’ (1) Due to
the narratological methods in practise, it can be deduced that Jack’s
communicative behaviour is ‘involuntary’ rather than ‘deliberate’, as a result
of ‘genuine inability to assess what normally counts as the appropriate level
of detail in communication.’ (Semino, 2007, p.157.) In usual practise, to
contravene Grice’s Maxims would be to ‘violate’ or ‘flout’ the maxim. (Grice,
1975, p.50.) But as Semino suggests, Jack’s communicative behaviour is a direct
reflection of his ‘cognitive impairment’ and therefore, this is more of an
‘infringement’ of the maxims. (Semino, 2002.) Thomas defines this term as ‘a
speaker, who with no intention of generating an implicature and with no
intention of deceiving, fails to observe a maxim so is said to ‘infringe’ the
maxim’ (Thomas, 1995, p.74) It is these ‘infringements’ that are most relevant
to the reader, as they provide information as to how Jack makes sense of the
world around him.

Foregrounding Theory

A means of theorising Jack’s mindstyle is by
looking at Mukarowsky’s foregrounding theory, which is a method that
differentiates everyday language from ‘literal language’ (Li, 2013.) This can
be achieved by either a ‘parallelism’ or ‘deviation’ from the normal
phonological, lexical, grammatical and syntactical choices. (Mukarovsky, 1970.)
Jack uses a number of characteristic language features that highlight his
mindstyle and thus, a reflection upon his situation. Jack’s linguistic
deviation can be divided in to five categories.

Firstly, Jack exhibits discoursal deviation.
This is manifested in a number of ways, for example Jack does not seem to be
able to grasp the normal rules for the ‘deletion of repeated lexical items’ and
the ‘substitution for coordinated structures.’ (Leech and Short, 1981.) This
can be seen throughout the novel, for example ‘Yesterday morning and the day
before that and the day before that’ (XX.) Additionally, Jack and Ma share a
‘secret language’ of neogalisms, for example: ‘Meltedy Spoon,’ ‘Scave’ and
‘Eggsnake.’ This represents the extremely close and excusive bond between then,
and also differentiates them from the outside world.

Jack also displays syntactic deviation. He
frequently uses declarative sentences, particularly in the first part of the novel,
where Jack is living in Room oblivious to his incarceration: ‘Today I’m five,’ ‘I always have lots’ and ‘It was hiding
all night invisibly.’ This acts as a way of Jack reinforcing what he
knows to be true when he is in Room. Due to the extremely limited space and
experience, Ma has taught him almost everything there is to know about his
perceived world. Often these declaratives Jack uses are incorrect to the
outside world, for example ‘Then you wished and wished on your egg till you got
fat’ and ‘I’ve got the best nose in the family.’ These declaratives invoke a
sense of pathos to the reader and highlights Jack innocence and obliviousness
to the world outside.

Jack’s mindstyle contains a lot of
grammatical deviation. Firstly, Jack often does not use the standard
subject-verb-object word order, for example: ‘To sick me like I was when I was
three’ and ‘how you did a picture asleep.’ Additionally, Jack has an
inconformity of verb tenses, for example: ‘getting born,’ ‘to hot the air’ and
‘to sick me.’ He also struggles to use the correct verb inflections, for
example ‘cutted the cord’ and ‘forgetted to have some.’ These grammatical
deviations are important in exploring Jack’s mindstyle as it reflects the fact
that in Room, Jack has no one other than Ma to correct his language, therefore
he is restricted to not having outside influences to correct him, thus
emphasising his life in captivity.

Jack displays many examples of phonological
deviation. He uses alliteration such as ‘wardrobe is wood,’ ‘push the pin’ and
‘silly squeaky doors.’ Jack also uses onomatopoeia, which is characteristic of
a young child during play, for example ‘zoomed, boom boom, zigging,’ These
further emphasise Jack’s limited development and also highlights the conflict
between what Jack perceives to be normal and true, with the reality of their
life in captivity.

One of the main features that define Jack’s
mindstyle is his graphological deviation. According to the usual grammatical
standards, he uses capital letters incorrectly by giving regular nouns proper
noun status. Jack uses capitals for inanimate objects inside Room, such as
‘Kit, Shelf, Bed, Rug, Thermostat and Mirror. However, this is in fact used as
a method of personification. Personification is typically used to give inanimate
objects human characteristics, however in the case of Room, it is used to
highlight the special relationship Jack has with these objects. Jack only has
Ma, so he sees the objects in Room and the characters on the television as his
friends. This is reinforced through his use of marked personal pronouns: ‘Ma
leans out of Bed to switch on Lamp, he makes everything light up whoosh’
and ‘I’ll visit Dora and Spongebob and all my friends.’ Through this evokes
sympathy for Jack, its main use highlights Jack’s mindstyle. Jack does not know
any different, therefore he is seemingly comfortable in his condition.

Upon analysis, it can be seen that Jack also
displays deviation on a semantic level. Throughout the novel, Jack uses a
semantic field of games. To Jack, everything in Room can be compared to a game.
For example, in the phrases: ‘I can skateboard on Rocker’ and ‘I’m snowboarding
instead.’ Also, when Jack makes reference to himself, he uses words with
sematic connotations of a game: ‘when you’re on at the same time I’m off.’
Beyond this extract, Ma taught Jack two games, the first called ‘Scream’ where
‘we clear our throats and open wide our teeth and shout holler howl yell shriek
screech scream the loudest.’ The second game Jack refers to as ‘Keypad’ which is
where he types in potential passcode combinations for the lock in the shed that
they are kept in. There is therefore a juxtaposition between what Jack believes
to be part of a game in his everyday life and the reality of these games,
either not being real (i.e playing with Dora on TV) or in fact being rescue

There are critics who believe that writing
the novel in the perspective of Jack is limiting. According to Blackwood, ‘the
novel knows that we are fascinated with women’s sexual abuse, but uses the
child’s innocence to allow plausible cover for our staring.’ (Blackwood, 2015).
It seems that Blackwood, any many similar critics, have missed the very essence
of the novel, being not so much about Ma’s abuse, but focused around the
ongoing mental struggle following their release in to the real world.
Therefore, Jack’s perspective is entirely appropriate. Through his mindstyle,
you are able to witness a clear and honest view of someone who has never
experienced this world before. In fact, his very use of deviant language
features ‘border on poetry in recapturing a pristine awareness of things’
(Leech and Short, 1981.)

2: Ma attempts to tell Jack about the ‘real world’

After eight years in captivity, Ma decides
that Jack was old enough to be told about the tragic circumstance they are in.
What is most poignant about this is to analyse the way in which Jack
linguistically responds to Ma telling him the truth. There are a number of ways
in which he does this. Jack has been conditioned to think there is nothing
beyond Room, but when Ma attempts to tell him otherwise, he struggles to
mentally make sense of this and uses similar linguistic deviation to when he
was living obliviously in Room. When Ma attempts to tell Jack that she has her
own mother and that there is much more to his world, Jack’s first thought is
that Ma is playing a game: ‘Why she’s pretending like this, is it a game I
don’t know?’ Furthermore, the only things he can relate this new information to
is the television: ‘Like Dora’s abuela,’ ‘A house in TV’ and ‘you actually
lived in TV one time?’  Since Jack has
been so mentally conditioned to believe things are a certain way, he struggles
to see any different. As Donoghue herself puts it: ‘Room has a perfectly valid
existence to Jack as a world. It doesn’t seem small to him, because he’s never
experienced anything bigger.’ (Donoghue, 2014.)

What also becomes more apparent is Jack’s
immediate resistance to believe any different from what he already knows. The
way in which he resists can also be analysed using Grice’s Cooperative
principles. When Ma gives Jack all this new information, he immediately rejects
the idea and changes the subject, thus breaking the relation maxim. For
example: ‘What’s for lunch’ and ‘Is there any cheese that’s not sweaty.’ Jack
‘infringes’ the maxim (Semino, 2007,) as it seems as though he can’t help but
put his mind to something else as he physically does not have the mental
capacity to fathom the truth.

impressions of life outside of Room

Once Jack and Ma have been found, they spend
a considerable amount of time in hospital, getting various checks and
medication to readjust in to the real world. Their case comes to global
attention and from the overwhelming scrutiny from the press and the whole
experience, Ma needs further hospitalisation following an attempted suicide.
Jack is then taken to Ma’s parents’ home where he is introduced to six new
family members and is overstimulated with how new and large everything is.
Through looking at Jack’s mindstyle, it is clear that until the very end of the
novel he struggles to see the benefits of life in the real world and does not
understand why he and Ma cannot return to their former life in Room.

Grammatical Competence

Jack’s exposure to the world and how he mentally
processes this can be theorised. Jack has difficulties in conversation as he
has only ever spoken to one person his whole life. Thomas (1983) calls this
‘pragmatic failure.’ He divided this concept in to two elements: ‘grammatical
competence’ and ‘pragmatic competence.’ Jack’s mindstyle as he enters this
world can be split in to these two categories. Firstly, there are many
linguistic features that Jack does not adhere to in terms of grammatical competence.
Jack has learnt to grasp that there is more that one of the same object,
therefore he starts to use definite articles, such as ‘There’s a toilet’ and ‘A
sink’ (p.213.) However, he still uses capital letters to personify the objects
in room: ‘There’s a toilet that’s not Toilet and a sink that’s not Sink.’ This
suggests that he still sees these objects as his friends. Additionally, Jack
uses fewer declarative sentences and more interrogatives. He appears to be in a
constant state of confusion: ‘Why?’ ‘Who’s the they that pumped Ma’s stomach?’
‘Won’t she burst?’

Pragmatic Competence

Jack frequently relates everything back to
Room. He believes that ‘persons wear funny things’ (p.242) and are ‘nearly
always stressed and have no time.’ (p.358) Often, through indirect thought we
can see that Jack yearns for his former life in Room: ‘This is not Room’
(p.225) and ‘what I’d like the best is to be in Room’ (p.310.)  Jack still believes he is in another planet.
He sees Room as a completely separate entity and refers to all the new people
he meets as ‘Outsiders.’ This therefore shows this separation he has made
between himself and Ma with everyone else. Furthermore, there is this
continuous dichotomy between what Jack believes and what the reality is. In
reality, Jack and Ma have been freed and returned back to normal life, but for
Jack he believes the real world is more of a trap: ‘Ma said we’d be free but
this doesn’t feel like free?’ (p.320.) ‘In Room I was safe and Outside is
scary’ (p.273) In Room, he was able to do as he pleased, he learnt to get food
by himself and entertain himself, whereas once he was released, he does not
know how to do this: ‘In Room I could get up on my own and make breakfast. Here
I don’t know what to do.’ (p.298.) Jack is unable to make sense of non-literal
language (Semino, 2014.) In particular, he is unable to linguistically decode
metaphors and idioms and is unable to ‘disregard the literal meanings of
metaphorical utterances,’ (Semino, 2014,) such as:

‘               ‘But
that’s me, the bonsai boy.’ ‘I’m not a tree I’m a boy’ (p.270)

‘Gimme five’ ‘I’m
not going to give him my fingers’ (p.224)

According to Semino (2014,) the way in which
Jack is unable to understand what people mean comes under the ‘Theory of Mind.’
This is the ‘inability to construct the mental states of others.’ (Semino,
2014, p.149) Therefore, as shown, Jack struggles to work out whether someone is
speaking literally or figuratively. For Jack, Room is not just new in terms of
its scale, it is also linguistically new. Though these are humorous to the
reader, they emphasise the confusion that Jack faces in the real world. He
struggles to deviate from the routine he had in room, work out who his friends
are and also who he can and cannot talk to. This is linguistically embodied
through various semantic fields. Firstly, Jack continuously refers back to
everything being a game: ‘I think he’s on mute’ (p.277,) ‘like a cyborg’
(p.206) and ‘it’s like an alien spaceship game (p.310.) Since all Jack knows of
the world outside of room is what he sees on television and the games he plays,
he cannot relate to anything other than cartoons or games. Finally, there is a
continuous semantic field of excessiveness. Jack is ‘reeling from
the sensory overload of modernity.’ (p.366.) He frequently says everything is
too much: ‘In the world there’s so much’ (p.333,) ‘there’s too many rules’
(p.342) and ‘the food looks nice but too much to choose.’ (p.345) It is evident
that Jack just is not coping well with the vastness of ‘Outside’ and it will
take a long number of years for him to get used to his new life.


It is evident that till the very end of the
novel, he struggles to see the benefits of being outside of Room. Donoghue
successfully uses Jack’s child-like mindstyle to explore big questions about
the world.  Through analysis of this
mindstyle, it is clear to see that ‘systematic patterns in a character’s
communicative behaviour can often lead to inferences about the peculiar
workings if that character’s mind.’ (Palmer, 2004) We can see that Jack’s
upbringing in Room has defined how he cognitively processes everything around
him. For Ma, Room was a means of incarceration but for Jack it was very much a
safe haven.







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