The Room by Maurice Shadbolt, 1962
by Maurice Shadbolt, 1962
First published in the periodical Landfall in 1962 and then collected in 1963 in Maurice Shadbolt's second book of stories, Summer Fires and Winter Country, "The Room" typifies the author's particular kind of social realism. As in much of his fiction, the focus is on personal relations, but the characters are seen more as social representatives than as unique individuals, and their relationship to New Zealand social history is emphasized.
The story is set in Auckland in the 1950s, but the urban environment is juxtaposed with the rural North Island farm inhabited by the Hamilton family since the pioneering days four generations before. The first Hamilton carried with him to New Zealand a "dream of happiness" that he hoped to bring to fruition by his pioneer venture, but his vision was defeated by the truth of the struggle with the land, "the stripped, sunburned acres which had drained all wonder, hope and memory." This pioneer vision is symbolized by the library room on the family farm, a room central to the hopes of its builder but viewed only as a curiosity by the "less introspective" succeeding generations. It becomes central again only to the protagonist, Sonny, and to Margaret, his older sister, who gain from it a new version of the dream of happiness, one that leads them to the university and the city, the world of learning, art, and freer human relationships. First Margaret and then Sonny move from the library to the room in the boardinghouse in the city, becoming representatives of Shadbolt's own generation, which was moving from a provincial, postpioneering society in search of something more challenging and exciting, something more metropolitan. The story focuses on Sonny's first evening in the room, which he has taken over from Margaret, who had died suddenly and shockingly from an illegal abortion two months before. The movement of the story is psychological, toward an epiphany as Sonny seeks to "unriddle whatever secret remained … behind that quickly-shut door" of the room that his sister had inhabited. He searches both for the meaning of her death and for the possible meaning of his own future in the city.
The crucial instruments in Sonny's search are a tiki (a Maori fertility symbol) and a poem and an unfinished letter by his sister. The poem uses Margaret's and Sonny's earlier discovery of a Maori burial cave as an image for her exploration of the forbidden area of sexual love, an area also evoked by the tiki, which gave "a vision, tantalizing and terrible, of an older, darker, god-begun world." The poem and tiki force Sonny to "see the colour of his loneliness," to face the "vast void uncovered" within himself when he realizes that he loves his sister, that he has lost her forever, and that he is angry, even jealous, that she had moved into a sexual world beyond his experience. The letter, to her ex-lover, who had returned to England, tells him of her unexpected pregnancy and reveals that she had planned to have an abortion to be free to help Sonny through his first year in Auckland. Thus, he sees that "he might, after all, have been important to Margaret."
The rooming house itself also contributes to Sonny's epiphany, for when he receives a telephone call for his sister from someone who does not know that she has died, he is forced to acknowledge publicly the painful fact of her death. The rooming house also contributes the sound of a girl crying in the next room, "trapped as securely in her privacy as he was in his own," an indication of "the condition on which life here was lived." Poem, tiki, letter, phone call, and girl all come together for Sonny in a moment when he senses the "strange and terrible" in life, an experience "like contemplating the dark spaces beyond the stars from the porch steps on the farm at night." When he had earlier visited his sister in the city, it had seemed to him that she and her male companion were "talking in an elaborate code" of a metropolitan world of which he knew nothing and that their eyes were "signalling in an even more mysterious code." In the narrative present he has not yet cracked the codes of metropolitan culture or of sexual love, but he realizes that he is beginning the learning process. His sister had wanted to help him enter this process, and the story implies that she has actually done so through her almost sacrificial death.
The story is thus one of initiation into adulthood, an initiation perhaps more cultural and historical than individual and psychological. For Sonny is not a sharply individualized and fully developed character but is rather a representative of a generation moving somewhat uncertainly toward a cultural adulthood. The analogy between individual growth and the development of a national culture is assumed but not explored or questioned in the story.
The representative quality of "The Room" is both its strength and its weakness, as is the case in much of Shadbolt's fiction. On the one hand, the story reverberates with cultural significance, and every detail seems relevant to its themes. On the other hand, the rather heavy-handed prose reveals the strain of reaching for that significance, as does the too obvious artifice of the detail. An impressive thematic pattern has been defined, although at some cost to particular life.