The Small Room by May Sarton

Small Room

I read this one for The Classics Club.

I have to admit that I approached this, the second Classics Club read I’ve finished, a little warily when I began reading its Prologue, which is eerily reminiscent of The Yellow Room by Mary Roberts Rinehart, a book I decidedly didn’t like (funny how they both have “Room” in their titles). We begin here, just as we did The Yellow Room, with our heroine Lucy on a train from New York to New England, a young woman whose physical description we get from her judgment of her reflection (here, it’s in the train window. Rinehart’s was in the mirror in the train’s bathroom), a tired writing technique. Both heroines seem a bit naïve, although adventuresome enough to be on a train alone, headed toward an unknown future.

But that was merely the discouraging Prologue, which probably wouldn’t bother anyone who hasn’t read and disliked The Yellow Room. Get past the Prologue, and this book quickly reveals itself to be a minor miracle. I’m in awe of May Sarton for having written such a rich and deep book, full of provocative ideas, in a mere 249 pages. On top of that, she’s managed to provide us with extremely well-drawn, complicated characters. I’ve read far longer books in which the characters remained complete mysteries to me by the end. Here I was, at first, tempted to identify stereotypes, but then each character goes on to prove that he or she is much more than a stereotype.

The premise of the story is that young Lucy has just broken off her engagement to a medical doctor. Having earned her Ph.D. at Harvard (sort of on a lark, if you can believe that), while he was in med school, she’s decided to take a job as an English professor at Appleton, a women’s college set in New England. During her first term, she discovers that one of school’s prize students, who happens to be a protégé of one of the school’s most revered professors, has plagiarized (from Simone Weil, of all people, a woman who fascinates me in her own right). Lucy has to decide what to do and finds herself caught in the middle of understanding both the student Jane and the professor Carryl. They both seem to trust this new arrival on campus — which is a bit unrealistic but works here because, in Lucy, Sarton has given us a character who is extremely insightful, while being young and insecure enough to be humble in a way that realistically would draw others to her.

Along the way, Sarton examines social issues of the day that are still relevant. We get a chance to see how things have and haven’t changed in the 50+ years since the book was first published in 1961. One of the major themes is a suspicion of psychology/psychiatry, and a divide between the younger and older generations, the older generation being far more suspicious, the younger being more accepting. In 2015, it seems almost laughable that a campus would be split over hiring a resident psychiatrist. By the same token, despite our counseling centers today, many still remain suspicious of therapy.

Sarton also studies generation gaps in this book. I tend to think we’re awfully obsessed these days with the naming and defining of generations. We have “The Baby-Boomers”, “The Gen-Xers”, “The Millenials”, etc. It was a bit of an obsession with the characters in this book as well. No one has trendy names for the different generations, but Sarton notes the differences among the very young (the students), the young (faculty Lucy’s age), the middle, and the older generations. They all seem to be envious and annoyed with each other by turns.

Love, in its many forms, is another theme — both heterosexual and homosexual (brave for Sarton’s time), so is the role of the teacher. Sarton also encourages the reader to ponder what, exactly, excellence is and at what costs it is achieved. Gender roles are another issue raised in the book. I’m listing all these issues and thinking how impossible it must sound to someone who hasn’t read the book that she could have covered all that while exploring the ethical dilemma of making a very young person pay the lifelong price for having made a mistake. Impossibly, though, she does. Oh, and on top of all that, we get a look at class, money, and power. It’s an amazing little book.

Before this, I’d never read any of Sarton’s prose, only some of her poetry. I remember it as being dreamy, so I was surprised by how matter-of-fact, how crisp her writing is here. The poet in her seemed only to shine through in some of her super metaphors and similes. Here’s a nice example:

This was exhausting but exhilarating, quite different from one of the freshmen sections which seemed like a huge, oppressive elephant she had to try to lift each morning.

I got to the end, though, and was no longer surprised. The poet lives throughout this entire book in Sarton’s ability to do what poets always do: evoke so much with so few words. I take multiple hats off to her.

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10 thoughts on “The Small Room by May Sarton

    • I think a number of you wrote about this one for something (Slaves of G?), which is how I got interested. See? Occasionally, I actually read some of the books I’m forced to put in the tbr tome because of you :-)!

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