Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Maternal Archetypes in Room

Some years ago, I wrote about archetypes, important paths to a richer reading experience. Archetypes are also character types, motifs, and symbols that writers use to dip into the deep well of human experience.

The 2015 film, starring Brie Larson, titled Room, is an excellent vehicle to review the maternal archetype. Both mothers in the film are nurturers and teachers, capable of selflessness.

The protagonist, named Ma, bears the child of Old Nick, her captor and rapist. Yet her son, Jack, is precious to her. No matter how he came to be, he is her son, and she proves patient and resourceful. She must be his playmate and mentor, his cheerleader and disciplinarian, his normalcy and his defender.

Ma is but a teenager when she bears Jack, but she must summon a woman’s knowledge to nourish him. She supplements his meager diet with breast milk long after most children are weaned. She must also negotiate with her captor to meet Jack’s other needs, including gifts, toys, and books.

Ma uses eggshells to stitch together a toy snake for imaginary play.
Photo courtesy of Al Griffin
Jack is as much a prisoner of Ma’s kidnapper as Ma herself. Pre-school is not an option so Ma must teach Jack his letters and numbers. She makes a whole world of one 10 x 10 garden shed. It is their haven, a schoolroom, kitchen, and window on a world entirely invented by Ma.

When Old Nick punished Ma by withholding power to the shed, it grows cold and Ma has no electricity to cook food. After the days of punishment, Jack develops a high fever. Ma begs her captor to take him to a doctor. He refuses, offering to bring some medicine. Ma realizes that Jack will never be safe as long as he lives at the mercy of Old Nick so she hatches a plot.

Ma coaches Jack to play dead inside a rolled-up rug. He’s just a little boy, afraid and uncertain, especially because Ma must now reveal an entire universe beyond the shed’s doors--a universe she had never shared so that Jack would not be aware of his deprived life in a prison.

Jack is understandably incredulous and that exacerbates his fear. Nevertheless, Ma is willing to let him go in order to give him a chance to live and rolls him into the carpet. She lies to Old Nick, telling him Jack died and asking him to carry the boy away in the rug.

Old Nick does so, tossing the rug into the back of a pickup. Ma had coached Jack to roll free when he heard an engine start up and a vehicle begin to move, and Jack remembers. He is quite slow to act, however. He doesn’t jump free quickly, and when he does, Old Nick sees him go over the side. With Jack’s knee hurt, Old Nick catches him easily, but a stranger tries to intervene until the attention from passersby causes Old Nick to drop the boy and drive away.

Another woman, a police officer on the scene, comforts Jack and coaxes him to speak. She listens closely and pieces together clues that lead back to Ma so mother and son are reunited and soon together in Ma’s childhood home.

There another mother must nurture Ma, her own daughter, and Jack, her grandson. She must be patient to help both endure and thrive. She must be understanding beyond all measure. Jack is receptive; he longs for stability and family, for play and friends. Ma, on the other hand, needs professional help to overcome trauma; a mother’s love alone is not enough--except the mother’s love she has for Jack. She overcomes her sorrow and rage and fear to survive and mother her son.

Reading Challenge:

Read “Room.” As you do, consider the ways in which women are shown to be nurturers and teachers. List the ways in which they are selfless.

Writing Challenge:

Identify and write about the maternal archetype in Cinderella. It’s not the stepmother, is it?

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.