Asterisk denotes entries on real places.
*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.