The Small Room

May Sarton’s The Small Room was a satisfying, thought-provoking read. I’m a sucker for academic novels, so I was delighted to find out that this book is about a young woman who travels to small-town New England to begin her first college teaching job. Lucy Winter is fresh out of grad school, although she wasn’t your typical grad student: she went through her Ph.D. program merely because she wanted a reason to stay near her fiance who was in medical school. But now the engagement is over and she unexpectedly finds herself with a job. As the novel opens, she is on the train heading north to Appleton, a women’s college.

What she finds is a small, close-knit community that appears to be sleepy and peaceful. She goes to a beginning of semester cocktail party to meet fellow faculty and teaches her classes for the first time, all the while trying to figure out her role in this new place. She opens her first class with a long account of her educational life, hoping to make an impression on the students, but she immediately doubts herself afterward. She wants to do a good job and is willing to take risks in the classroom, but she knows she is not entirely sure what she is doing.

Of course, she can’t stay on the outside of this community for long, and, of course, it’s not nearly as sleepy and peaceful as it seems. She gets pulled into its dramas and intrigues through one of her students, a star pupil of the campus star professor. When she discovers this student has plagiarized, she immediately reveals it to a colleague, an act that sets a whole train of events in motion, events that not only cause controversy, but that make the college think hard about what it is and what it stands for.

The novel is fundamentally about teaching — what it means to be a teacher and a student and the ways the two can interact. Lucy struggles with the question of how much of herself she should share with her students. Her opening speech about her education starts things off on a personal note, but she is reluctant to respond warmly when a student shares her private troubles. She feels there should be boundaries between teachers and students, and she also knows that allowing those boundaries to drop away can be exhausting. Teaching demands a great deal of energy, and teachers need to protect themselves from giving up too much of themselves to others.

And yet strict boundaries are impossible to maintain: students are persistent in their efforts to get a personal response from Lucy, and once she stumbles into the plagiarism scandal, she is drawn even further into their lives.

The novel is also about what it means to be a woman who teaches. Early on one of the characters says, “Is there a life more riddled with self-doubt than that of a woman professor, I wonder?” The novel was published in 1961, and the question of whether it’s worth while to educate women who will just get married and raise children lingers in the air. The faculty at Appleton take a strong stand on this: as one character claims, “We don’t teach domestic science; we are not interested especially in producing marriageable young ladies.” Lucy wonders, though, what her own commitment to the intellectual life is, and what it would mean for her to stay on at Appleton. She wants a family, but with her engagement over and her life established in a quiet town full of married couples, she is not sure that will be possible. She considered her Ph.D. program as a joke, after all; does she really want to devote her life to scholarship and teaching, at the possible expense of other relationships? As I read this, I kept thinking about Dorothy Sayers’s novel Gaudy Night, which is also about women intellectuals struggling with the sacrifices the intellectual life can demand. In a culture that expects women to be wives and mothers or, if they want to take work seriously, to give up those roles, what is a smart woman supposed to do?

The novel is short and is a quick read, but it takes up a lot of great questions and offers some interesting answers. It’s satisfying to watch Lucy figure out who she is as a teacher and what she wants her place in the Appleton community to be. It’s also interesting to think about teaching generally — what really helps students learn and what roles a teacher can and can’t play. The novel shows well what a complicated job it is to try to inspire other people with the love of learning and at the same time to remain a satisfied, whole person oneself.


Filed under Books, Fiction

13 responses to “The Small Room

  1. Great review, Dorothy. A perfect overview of the novel. I really enjoyed it, too, because I am also a sucker for stories of university life. I felt it was very intelligently done, and I loved the psychological perspective.


  2. This might be a novel my h would enjoy, he of academia, and although it’s not my favourite genre (not being in academia) I like the sound of this, too. TY for the review, Dorothy.


  3. Thanks, Litlove. I really enjoyed your post about the novel! I haven’t really made a conscious effort to seek out academic novels — I just read them when I happen to come across them — but maybe I should.

    Lilian — oh, that would be cool if he enjoyed the novel! I think it should be better known than it is.


  4. I love novels set in academia, this sounds like my kind of book. Enjoyed your review.


  5. Dorothy,

    Your post reminds me of the movie ‘Mona Lisa Smile’ with Julia Roberts as an art prof. teaching at Wellesley. It touches on similar issue of the educated woman’s seemingly only choice for a future, that is, to get married and be a housewife. Sarton’s novel sounds like a great read. Thanks for a wonderful review!


  6. I’ve been trying to catch up on everyone’s thoughts about the book since I got back and finally reached yours. You’ve picked out the most interesting parts of the novel I think, the necessity for boundaries between students and teachers were so interestingly drawn I thought – no wrongs and no rights, just decisions to be made that have consequences. Loved the parts where Lucy tries to wake up students to reality (the rage in her lecture and when she goes off to meet students for tea) and ends up giving more away of herself than she would ever really wish to do.

    I was really interested in Maria and her husband – how she no longer works, but she seems to take immense pleasure in the passion of their marriage when they’ve negotiated his adoration of Caryl Cope. There’s that moment at the end where her husband says she’s not a teacher so she can’t understand and she reminds him she did teach. I expected her to blow up about that, but she pulls it out quite calmly like it barely matters to her now, she just wants to remind him. I did think there was just a smidge more writerly sympathy for the women who felt the need for deep relationships, than there was for Caryl who is about to cast off her relationship of ten years. Also loved that all the female professors were in such different situations, even though none of them were married there’s such variety in how they remain unmarried (the mother that won’t die for example).


  7. Even though the book was about the people who educate, it really felt by the end of the novel Lucy had received an education as well. She seemed almost angry at the beginning of the novel, but by the end she fell into it all very comfortably. I hadn’t thought of Gaudy Night, but now that you mention it, it would be a great book to read again. It’s sad that after 50 years women teachers still feel pulled in so many directions and have to give up parts of their lives to do what they love, or make sacrifices in terms of children. I really enjoyed this as well–a nice, thought provoking story.


  8. I’ve read Sarton’s journals, House by the Sea and Journal of a Solitude, and your review makes me think I would like her novels as well. From what I remember, she did not have very much in the way of peace; she felt very much an outsider and was happiest alone, though she battled loneliness too.

    I agree with Arti that the themes Sarton touches on here are very similar to the film Mona Lisa Smile. If you haven’t seen it, I think you would like it.


  9. I just ordered this book as it appeals on so many levels. As a lover of lit, I used to think I wanted to teach, but found I didn’t have the aptitude or the real desire to develop it. However, I remain so interested in observing academia and this sounds like a fascinating look at women, lit, academia. I liked your comparison to Gaudy Night, which I loved.

    >In a culture that expects women to be wives and mothers or, if they want to take work seriously, to give up those roles, what is a smart woman supposed to do?

    It’s amazing that this question continues to have to be asked.


  10. I find this book at the library or the bookstore. I was going to order it, but by the time I thought about it, I would not have received it in time to discuss it with the Slaves. Nevertheless, from what all of you have been saying it is something I really have to order anyway…especially since I went away to a small women’s college in 1967 and I think I would recognize Appleton. Great review.


  11. I got this one at the library book sale last spring, and now that everyone has written about it, I can see I need to read it, especially since I am another one of those suckers for stories of university life.


  12. If you would like to continue reading Sarton’s fiction, I highly recommend As We Are Now. It is rather gut wrenching, but such a wonderful novel. And since you like novels about academia, you really should try Stoner by John Williams. It is a great book even if one doesn’t particularly like academia novels, and that much better if you do.


  13. This sounds like a great book, Dorothy. I read Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” when I was on my first maternity leave and I found myself struggling with so many of these questions, the main one: what is an MBA career girl doing playing peek-a-boo and changing diapers? Man, was I bored. In love, of course. Bored, out of mind.


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