Places: The Enormous Room

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1922

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Autobiographical

Time of work: 1917

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Western Front

*Western Enormous Room, TheFront. World War I combat zone in which the narrator’s Norton Harjes Ambulance Service is serving the Allied forces. As an idealistic American volunteer in this Ambulance Corps, the narrator ironically experiences “prolonged indignities and injuries”; feeling badly deceived, he longs for release, a main theme of the novel. That initial release comes, paradoxically, when he is arrested by the French, along with his Harvard friend, B., on suspicion of being spies.


*Noyon (NOH-yohn). Small French city north of Paris where the narrator is interrogated by an investigative board. Kept in a cell overnight, the narrator is overcome by “an uncontrollable joy” that comes from his first sense of regaining something of his selfhood. Because he refuses to say that he hates Germany, the enemy, he is remanded for continued custody in a detention center.


Prison. Detention center and site of the enormous room, in which the novel’s main action takes place; located in the town of La Ferté-Macé in northwestern France’s Orne department, west of Paris. This most unlikely of places, filthy, smelly, and crowded with the imprisoned riff-raff from a dozen different countries, becomes for the narrator the “finest place on earth,” the place of his salvation.

Within the prison, the narrator is thrown into a huge darkened room, given a straw mattress, and told to go to sleep. In the darkness, he counts at least thirty voices speaking eleven different languages. The room is lined with mattresses down each side, with a few windows to let in light at one end. It smells of stale tobacco and sweat. Some of the prisoners are insane, and most of the others are afraid they might become so.

The narrator’s choice of John Bunyan’s novel Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) as his structural myth emphasizes the “enormous room” odyssey as a metaphorical journey through the darkness of losing his tradition-dictated identity, and into the light of a new vision of self, the meaning of community, and the function of his art. Along the way, his teachers of darkness include authority figures–such as Apollyon, the head of the prison–who represent the symbolic structure of a corrupt civilization.

The narrator’s fellow inmates become his teachers of light, particularly the four he calls “Delectable Mountains” (a gypsy, a Pole, Surplice the vagrant, and a black man). These men are outcasts but genuine human beings. Among them, the narrator experiences the bonds of true brotherhood. Enlightened, he emerges as a person who has gained an authentic self-identity, and as an artist whose creative consciousness has awakened and is ready to recreate his world through the creation of new symbols and new relationships between language and experience.

BibliographyCooperman, Stanley. World War I and the American Novel. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1967. Calls The Enormous Room “a carnival in a graveyard” and shows how Cummings avoids conventional rebellion by manipulating language to depict the prison as adding foolishness to tragedy.Dougherty, James P. “E. E. Cummings: The Enormous Room.” In Landmarks of American Writing, edited by Hennig Cohen. New York: Basic Books, 1969. In The Enormous Room, Cummings’ intent was to expose the stupidity and cruelty of wartime governments. Victims are implicitly advised to undergo a process of “unlearning” previously accepted values.Gaull, Marilyn. “Language and Identity: A Study of E. E. Cummings’ The Enormous Room.” American Quarterly 19 (Winter, 1967): 645-662. Demonstrates that since insincerely idealistic language had betrayed realists, Cummings felt compelled to create new relationships between his use of language and its accurate expression of his experiences.Kennedy, Richard S. E. E. Cummings Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1994. An introductory critical biography that identifies factual bases of The Enormous Room, notes its three-part structure, and details its allusions and correspondences to John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. Defines the work’s antiwar and antiauthority themes and its comic-opera descriptions. Lauds Cummings’ preference for feeling, nature, children, and ignorance.Lineham, Thomas M. “Style and Individuality in E. E. Cummings’ The Enormous Room.” Style 13 (Winter, 1979): 45-59. Shows that, despite posturing, Cummings in The Enormous Room uses a versatile style to attack dangerous gentility, conservatism, and complacency and thus to inspire readers to assert their own world-transforming individuality.
Categories: Places