Room, Lenny Abrahamson, 2015
“There’s doors and… more doors. And behind all the doors, there’s another inside, and another outside.”
To imagine the experiences of someone who had only ever seen the inside walls of a single room is a difficult task. How can we possibly comprehend that level of restriction on experience? And indeed, how can we begin to understand the perception of reality of someone in that experience. In Room, Lenny Abrahamson (in an adaption of the 2010 novel by Emma Donoghue) presents us with such a scenario.
Room tells the story of a child growing up in captivity, locked in a shed in the garden of a suburban American home. Jack (Jacob Tremblay) has never known a world outside the room he shares with his Ma (Brie Larson), a woman who was abducted by a teenager and forced to bear her child locked away. Ma fights her situation by doing everything she can to be a good mother to her child, but Jack’s life is still a one of great restriction. The only access he has to the outside world is a small television, and the occasional intrusions of his captor, known to him only as Old Nick (Sean Bridgers).
He presents with a very skewed perception of reality, understanding that the plant he has in the room is real, but that the trees he sees on his TV set are not real. His reality is, in effect, determined by his sphere of reference, and his only sphere of reference is the shack in which he lives.
It is perhaps all too easy to see this as a completely dysfunctional viewpoint. We know that Jack is misled about what he perceives as reality, and we have a much better understanding of what things really do exist in the world. However, perhaps this is not the case. Are we, as well, not fixed by our life experiences to define reality through our own lens?
One of the most famous thought experiments in the history of philosophy addresses a similar theme. Plato, writing in The Republic, talks of a cave in which the inhabitants are chained so that they are forced to face the back wall of the cave. Behind them is a fire, and in front of the fire a walkway on which various objects are paraded. Those in chains see the flickering shadows of the objects, and because it is all they have ever known, believe the shadows to be reality.
These captives seem in many ways like Jack. They have only ever known one reality, and they blindly accept it. In fact, when one who has seen a deeper reality comes to them in the cave and tries to convince them that they are wrong, they see him as mad. Similarly, when Ma tries to convince Jack that the sea and grass and trees are real, Jack reacts very violently. He does not want to believe that the world is not as it seems to him. The “new” reality is frightening and confusing.
Plato’s point is that as humans we only ever accept the reality with which we are presented (to borrow a phrase from the Matrix). Furthermore, in doing this we are not realising our true potential as humans. Plato saw the purpose for humans as being to discover a deeper level of reality. We must break free of our shackles of perception and use reason to guide us out into the light.
But is this such a good thing to aim for? When Jack finally does manage to escape from his captivity, he finds the world to be a bewildering place. It is hard to imagine how surreal and otherworldly it must seem to him to finally see trees and sky as reality rather than just flat images on his TV screen. After some time living in freedom, Jack in fact asks to go back to the room, the place which holds so many horrors for his mother.
It is easy to sympathise with this desire. We all desire comfort and security, and it can be against our intuitions to keep open-minded to new ideas and realities. Yet Plato worries if we do not allow ourselves to do this, we risk stagnating.
Nowadays, due to the impact of social media and the Internet, it is perhaps easier than ever to live inside our own echo chamber. We accept the views of the people we have chosen to connect to, and find it very difficult to accept anything that directly contradicts those views. Plato, in The Republic, challenges us to think outside our narrow framework in order to fully develop and aim for some level of objective truth.
Of course, it is all very well and good to say we should aim for objective truths about the world, but thought experiments like Room and Plato’s Cave possibly open up more problems than they resolve. If we are to move to a different reality, how are we then to ascertain that that is reality, and not yet another illusion? What if there is no such thing as objective reality? Maybe a safer option is to stick to our own safe world view, living in our own subjective sphere, and take comfort in the things we know.
Whether or not that is denying a fundamental part of who we are is still up for debate. Regardless, we all have our Room, and we would do well to recognise more regularly that our Room is not necessarily that of our neighbours.