The Door in the Wall
The Door in the Wall
H. G. Wells 1911
H. G. Wells’s short story “The Door in the Wall” was first published in 1911 as part of a collection titled The Door in the Wall, and Other Stories. The conflict between science and imagination is the major theme of the story, which was enormously popular when it first appeared. Today Wells’s reputation rests almost entirely upon his science fiction novels, which include The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), and The War of the Worlds (1898), all of which are acknowledged classics of the science fiction genre and continue to be widely read and adapted into other media. “The Door in the Wall” is considered by both readers and critics to be Wells’s finest short story.
“The Door in the Wall” examines an issue to which Wells returned repeatedly in his writing: the contrast between aesthetics and science and the difficulty of choosing between them. The protagonist, Lionel Wallace, possesses a vivid imagination but goes into politics, where he is considered extremely rational. Wells himself was both a trained scientist and a writer of fiction, and this theme recurs in several guises in Wells’s work. The story suggests both the magic and the danger of a nostalgia for a buried time. It is a story about politician Wallace who, while growing up in a joyless home, discovers a door in a wall leading to an enchanted garden. Wells’s recurrent theme of science versus art is part of a wider contrast between the rational and the imaginative elements of experience. Wells has often been seen as being caught on an intellectual battleground between his scientific training in rational thought and his gift of a vivid imagination. Wallace’s inability to bridge the gap between his imagination and his rational, scientific side leads to his death.
H. G. Wells was a scientific visionary and social prophet. One of the most widely read British writers of his generation, he explored the new territory of science fiction and crusaded for a new social order in more than forty-four novels and social and historical books.
Herbert George Wells was born into a poor family in Bromley, Kent, a suburb of London, on September 21, 1866. He sought to escape poverty by receiving an education at London University and the Royal College of Science, where he studied zoology. One of his professors, the noted biologist T. H. Huxley, instilled in Wells the belief in social and biological evolution that Wells later cited as the single most influential aspect of his education. After graduating, Wells wrote a biology textbook and began submitting fiction to various magazines, determined to fulfill his dream of being an author. His childhood fascination with science, coupled with his science education, found expression in The Time Machine, the first of several enormously popular novels of scientific mythmaking, which was followed by The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Invisible Man, The War of the Worlds, and The First Men in the Moon.
Fame brought Wells an invitation to join the socialist Fabian Society, an alliance that later turned sour despite Wells’s great enthusiasm for the socialist cause. In his personal life, he sought the ideal woman, one who would combine passion and intellect, and this led to a stormy ten-year love affair with the young English author Rebecca West. (Their union resulted in a son, Anthony West, who grew up to become a distinguished writer himself.) Wells’s ambivalence about the benefits of science and technology contained in his earlier novels increasingly gave way to a sense of himself as a social architect and cautionary prophet. Throughout the 1930s he took center stage in warning that humankind was on the brink of disaster, while zealously planning the reconstruction of society. Throughout this time his fiction took on an instructional tone, reflecting the author’s increasingly bitterness about humanity and its prospects for perfectibility. Wells died in 1946 at the age of eighty.
Confiding to his friend Redmond who narrates “The Door in the Wall,” Lionel Wallace relates that a preoccupation is gradually coming to dominate his life, one that is even affecting his career as a successful politician. Long ago as a lonely child of five he had wandered out of his home into the streets of West Kensington in London, where he noticed a green door set in a white wall. It was very attractive to him, and he wanted to open it, but at the same time he felt that his father would be very angry if he did. Wallace’s father is described as “a stern preoccupied lawyer, who gave him little attention and expected great things of him.” Wallace’s mother was dead, and he was being raised by a governess. Nevertheless, the young Wallace gives in to the temptation and finds himself in an enchanted garden. Wallace describes the garden as a children’s paradise with an inspiring atmosphere. The garden’s colors are clean and bright, and the child is filled with happiness. There are various animals, including two tame panthers, beautiful flowers, and shady trees. Wallace meets a tall, fair girl who “came to meet me, smiling, and said ‘Well?’ to me, and lifted me and kissed me, and put me down and led me by the hand.” He meets other children and they play games together, although he cannot remember the games, a fact which later causes him much distress.
A woman begins to read a book to the boy, and soon it becomes apparent that the story she is telling is that of his own life. When the book reaches the point in his life at which Wallace finds himself outside the green door, the enchanted world vanishes, and the boy finds himself once more on the dismal West Kensington street in London.
Wallace tells his father about the garden—and is punished for telling what his father assumes is a lie. In time, and as a result of this punishment, Wallace succeeds in suppressing the memory. But he can never quite forget it completely and often dreams of revisiting the garden. Throughout his life he unexpectedly comes upon the door in the wall in different parts of London, but each time he is rushing to an important commitment of one sort or another and does not stop to open it.
Wallace tells his friend Redmond that three times in the past year he has seen the door, and on each occasion he has passed it by: once because he was on his way to a vital division in the House of Commons; once, significantly, because he was hurrying to his father’s deathbed and once because he wished, for reasons of personal ambition, to continue a discussion with a colleague. Now his soul “is full of unappeasable regrets,” and he is barely capable of working. One morning a few months later, Wallace is found dead, having apparently mistaken a door at a dangerous construction sight for the elusive door in the wall.
Redmond, the narrator of “The Door in the Wall,” meets his old friend Wallace for a dinner one night. Wallace tells Redmond the story of the door in the wall. At first, Redmond does not know if he should or should not believe his friend’s wild tale: “But whether he himself saw, or only thought he saw, whether he himself was the possessor of an inestimable privilege, or the victim of a fantastic dream, I cannot pretend to guess.” This unwillingness to judge his friend displays his sense of sympathy. Redmond represents the voice of reason, making Wallace’s story more believable because it is told by what readers assume is a reliable narrator. Furthermore, because Redmond is relating the tale, readers also learn of Wallace’s strange death, which seems to verify the tale Wallace tells him at dinner. Redmond’s account of the story also lends it a tragic tone because it is related after Wallace’s death—a feat not possible if Wallace himself was the narrator.
Politician Lionel Wallace is the protagonist of “The Door in the Wall.” As a child living in a joyless home, he discovers a door to a visionary garden of happiness. His cautious nature is shown by his trepidation upon encountering the door, because he knows his father will be angry if he opens it. A child of a strict, Victorian upbringing, Wallace has been conditioned to deny his imagination and put all his effort into becoming successful. Nevertheless, the young Wallace gives in to the temptation—not yet having mastered self-control—and opens the door in the wall, and finds himself in an enchanted garden filled with beautiful flowers, tamed panthers, and friendly children. When Wallace tells his father about the garden, his father punishes him for lying, causing Wallace to suppress the memory of the garden.
Throughout his life, Wallace sees a similar door a few times, but he is too driven by his ambition for worldly success to stop and open it. Now, at age 39 and very successful, Wallace regrets passing up the garden and vows to stop the next time he sees the door. This regret illustrates his desire to give in to imagination and to break free from his rational life. Wallace’s inability to distinguish between reality and fantasy, however, is demonstrated at the story’s end when he is found dead at a construction site, having apparently mistaken a workmen’s door for the door to his garden.
Alienation and Loneliness
Whether Wallace’s fantastic tale about the garden is true is of less significance than the fact that it
Topics for Further Study
- Research three scientific advances of the first decade of the twentieth century, when Wells was at the peak of his popularity. How did these advances affect people’s everyday life? Write about other scientific advances that have been made since Wells’s time.
- Wells is regarded as one of the most prominent champions of the early twentieth-century spirit of British liberal optimism. Find out what British liberal optimism was. You may want to consult David Daiches’s New Literary Values, (1936), specifically the chapter “Literature and Belief”: G. K. Chesterton’s The Victorian Age in Literature (1912), especially the chapter “The Breakup of the Compromise”: or William H. Marshall’s The World of the Victorian Novel (1967). What events have taken place since the early 1900s that have eroded British liberal optimism?
- Do some biographical research on Wells. You may want to consult your school’s encyclopedias, H. G.: The History of Mr. Wells, by Michael Foot (1995), or The Importance of H. G. Wells, by Don Nardo (1992). How did Queen Victoria’s political views influence Wells?
is a metaphor for his alienation and loneliness. Wallace’s mother died when he was born, and his father was stern and expected great things of him. The treatment Wallace received as a child forced him to retreat into a private world of imagination. The only place where he could find love and attention was through the door in the wall. Wallace was forced as a child to repress his imagination: “I tried to tell them, and my father gave me my first thrashing for telling lies. When afterwards I tried to tell my aunt, she punished me again for my wicked persistence. Then . . . everyone was forbidden to listen to me, to hear a word about it.” Because he had to retreat into a private world just so he could use his imagination, alienation and loneliness became familiar feelings for Wallace. These feelings persist throughout his life and make it difficult for him to connect with other people.
Sanity and Insanity
At first, Redmond does not know if he should believe his friend’s wild tale: “But whether he himself saw, or only thought he saw, whether he himself was the possessor of an inestimable privilege, or the victim of a fantastic dream, I cannot pretend to guess.” The reader is more willing to believe Wallace’s fantastic story because it is filtered through the sensible, “sane” voice of the narrator. Redmond fits the preconceived notion of a sane person in that he seems to have a normal, healthy mind, makes sound, rational judgments, and shows good sense. Wallace seems just as sane at first; he does not fit the stereotype of an insane person because he holds a prestigious job and seems successful. Wells’s intention was not to develop an insane character but to show the consequences of having to separate the various components of one’s personality. As a child, Wallace is forced to suppress his imagination, and he carries this into adulthood. He has been made to think that imagination is a terrible thing. Therefore, Wallace begins to view his childhood experience not as imaginary but as real, and this is the only way Wallace can accept this part of himself. In a Freudian interpretation, he no longer has the ability to differentiate between real and imaginary, since the imaginary is off limits to him. In the end, it may seem that Wallace has gone insane—mistaking a door at a railway construction site for the magical door in the wall—but he is merely trying to return to that brief time in the garden when he was allowed to be himself.
Public vs. Private Life
In his public life, Wallace is an extremely successful Cabinet Minister in the British government. He is trusted and respected. Redmond, the narrator, holds Wallace in the highest esteem. The morning after Wallace tells Redmond the fantastic story, Redmond says, “I lay in bed and recalled the things he had told me, stripped of the glamour of his earnest slow voice, denuded of the focused shaded table light, the shadowy atmosphere that wrapped about him.” Because Wallace is a politician, he is skillful at speaking and presenting himself, which is why Redmond believes him. It is not until Redmond is alone that he begins to question the tale. In private, Wallace is not so competent; he longs for the enchanted garden, that special place behind the wall that he has never known in his public life. His father has raised him to be rational and dull, cold and interested only in his career. Redmond says “what a woman once said of him—a woman who had loved him greatly. ’Suddenly,’ she said, ‘the interest goes out of him. He forgets you. He doesn’t care a rap for you—under his very nose.’” Wallace, like many people raised in such repressive environments as Victorian England, is unable to unite his public and private selves into one balanced person.
“The Door in the Wall” poses an issue which Wells returned to repeatedly in his writing: the conflict between aesthetics and science. Wells himself was both a scientist and a writer of fiction; similarly, Wallace possesses a vivid imagination but goes into politics, where he is considered extremely rational. This theme recurs in Wells’s work and is part of a wider contrast between tangible and imaginative elements of experience. Wells has often been considered a participant in the debate between the virtues of science and the necessity of imagination. Wallace’s inability to bridge the gap between his imagination and his rational, scientific side leads to his death.
Point of View
“The Door in the Wall” is told from the point of view of Redmond, Wallace’s friend. Redmond speaks in the first person (“I”) as he relates Wallace’s story. At first, Redmond does not know if he should believe his friend’s wild tale: “But whether he himself saw, or only thought he saw, whether he himself was the possessor of an inestimable privilege, or the victim of a fantastic dream, I cannot pretend to guess.” The reader is more willing to believe Wallace’s fantastic story because it is filtered through the sensible, trustworthy voice of Redmond, the narrator. This particular point of view also allows the reader to find out about Wallace’s demise, something that would not have been possible if Wallace told the story himself, although it prevents readers from knowing what Wallace’s final thoughts were.
“The Door in the Wall” relies heavily on symbols. A symbol is something that is used to represent or refer to something else. Many of Wells’s symbols are dreamlike and represent masculine and feminine forces: “‘There was,’ he said, ‘a crimson Virginia creeper—all one bright uniform crimson, in a clear amber sunshine against a white wall. That came into the impression somehow . . . and there were horse-chestnut leaves upon the clean pavement outside the green door. They were blotched yellow and green, you know, not brown nor dirty, so that they must have been new fallen.’” The white wall is a feminine symbol representing Wallace’s desire for nurturing, which he has repressed since the death of his mother. The white wall is contrasted with the “clear amber sunshine,” a symbol for the masculine ego—for the dominant and logical as opposed to the passive and emotional. The symbolic colors in this passage reinforce the contrasting masculine/feminine symbols on which so much of the story hinges. The amber sunshine and red creeper (masculine, virile, dominant) is juxtaposed with the whiteness of the wall (moon, feminine). The green door symbolizes fertility; it is the color associated with the Roman and Greek goddesses of love, Venus and Aphrodite. In opening the door and entering the world beyond his father’s domain, Wallace passes into the feminine realm of imagination and sympathy. The door itself is a common literary symbol that represents the passageway between the conscious and the unconscious.
Psychologists who study dreams note that leaves are a symbol of happiness. The leaves Wallace describes are “blotched yellow and green,” suggesting that his happiness is short-lived. Although Wallace is exceptionally happy inside the garden, he never regains his sense of delight outside of it, and for the remainder of his life he is tormented with “the haunting memory of a beauty and happiness that filled his heart with insatiable longings, that made all the interests and spectacle of worldly life seem full and tedious and vain to him.”
It is irrelevant whether or not Wallace’s fantastic tale is true; more importantly, the tale serves as a metaphor for Wallace’s alienation and loneliness. Wallace spends his life longing to return to the enchanted garden, where he knew love and the joy that comes with using one’s imagination. In his everyday life, these things were frowned upon. Therefore, the story is a metaphor for Wallace’s desire to return to an innocent, beautiful time and place.
Fantasy literature is intended to leave the reader in a state of uncertainty as to whether events are due to natural or supernatural forces. This is the case in “The Door in the Wall,” in which five-year-old Wallace visits an enchanted garden. He has utmost confidence in his story’s truth. His friend Redmond is not so sure. Fantasy literature usually begins in an unremarkable, everyday setting. In Wells’s story, the men meet for dinner and conversation. Readers are slowly pulled into the fantastic story. By gradually easing them into it, readers are more apt to believe the fantasy. In “The Door in the Wall,” readers are never quite sure if Wallace really did visit the magical garden or if it was purely a fantasy invented by his imagination.
Optimism in the Edwardian Age
Wells is regarded as one of the most prominent champions of the early twentieth-century spirit of British liberal optimism—the belief that scientific advances have made life almost perfect and that there is nothing left to discover. At the Royal College of Science, Wells studied zoology with noted biologist T. H. Huxley, who instilled in the young scientist the belief in social as well as biological evolution that Wells later cited as the single most influential aspect of his education. His works are ranked with those of playwright Bernard Shaw as exemplary of the era’s exuberant sense of release from strict Victorian convention and the belief in the escalating benefits of scientific progress.
“The Door in the Wall” was published at a time of great change in England; rapid cultural change had been taking place since the death of Queen Victoria in 1901. Victoria had ruled Great Britain since 1837, and her reign was known for its conservative outlook on sex, politics, and the arts. In the years following Victoria’s death, the English people embraced the possibilities of a new, modern era.
The Schism between Art and Science
Great strides in art and science were taking place at the turn of the century. As inventions such as the automobile, the airplane, and motion pictures began to transform everyday life, the unsettling pace of progress began to affect the arts, which questioned the wisdom of such unbridled growth. Wells, who was both an artist and a scientist, however, was excited by both imagination and technology. Some of the scientific advances that sparked Wells’s imagination during these years were Orville and Wilbur Wright’s first airplane flight in 1903, the discovery of gamma rays by Paul Villard in 1900, Max Planck’s proposition of the
Compare & Contrast
- 1900s: “The Door in the Wall” is written in a time when the British are concerned with domestic matters. King Edward VII begins his reign following the death of Queen Victoria in 1901. In Parliament, the Conservatives are divided on several issues and the general election of 1906 puts the Liberals in power by a significant majority. As the ruling party, the Liberals create Britain’s early welfare program. The Labour Party is formed during this time as well, with 29 original members.
1997: In May, after eighteen years of Conservative rule, the Labour Party wins the majority of seats in the House of Commons, and the Party’s leader, Tony Blair, becomes Britain’s youngest prime minister since 1812. The Conservatives, or Tories, suffer their worst defeat since 1906. Blair is said to represent a new Britain, a more liberal, multicultural society.
- 1900s: A prevalent attitude in Britain is one of liberal optimism, the belief that scientific advancements have vastly improved the quality of life, and that there is little, if anything, left to discover. In 1905, Albert Einstein publishes a paper that outlines his theory of relativity. The incandescent electric light bulb, invented by Thomas Edison in 1879, proves to have an enormous impact on how people spend their time by the turn of the century.
1990s: Scientific advancements are made in a number of fields, most notably in medical research dealing with cancer and AIDS, and in space exploration. In 1996, scientists successfully clone a sheep, causing great debate concerning bioethics. In 1997, the plutonium-powered Cassini space probe is launched to explore Saturn.
At the same time, new ideas about art were gaining popularity. Wells was influenced by these as well. For example, he read Creative Evolution (1907), a book by French philosopher Henri Bergson that stressed the importance of change through a creative life force, in opposition to a scientific view of nature. This view stresses intuition as superior to scientific or intellectual perception. Wells was also interested in the visual arts; he saw that the traditional forms and concepts of art were starting to break down dramatically after 1900 as a variety of alternative aesthetic principles, particularly Cubism, began to develop. Cubism began in 1907 with Pablo Picasso’s painting Demoiselles d’Avignon and attempted to break away from the conventions of perspective that had ruled European art since the Renaissance.
The first decade of the twentieth century saw enormous changes, and Wells reacted to much of it in his writing. It was the conflict between art and science, however, that Wells primarily explored in his fiction. The contrast between imagination and science and the difficulty of choosing between them is dramatically illustrated in “The Door in the Wall.”
Since its first publication, “The Door in the Wall” has been recognized by critics as one of Wells’s most accomplished stories. In 1924, Alfred C. Ward published a short interpretation of the symbolism of the garden in his Aspects of the Modern Short Story, paying particular attention to the theme of the deceptive natures of time and happiness. Among other critics, Bernard Bergonzi, in his The Early H. G. Wells (1961), has also examined the symbolism of “The Door in the Wall.” Such critics as Roslynn D. Haynes and J. R. Hammond have studied the story’s themes, focusing on the conflict between science and the imagination, and between reality and the projections of the imagination—noting that the difference between them is often hard to distinguish. Jerome Hamilton Buckley, in an essay in his The Triumph of Time (1969), has suggested that the story’s ending is open to interpretation by the reader. Because of its ambiguity, “The Door in the Wall” remains a much-examined and widely read short story.
Williams was previously an instructor at Rutgers University and is currently a freelance writer. In the following essay, she offers an overview of the psychoanalytic interpretations of Wells’s “The Door in the Wall,” suggesting that Wells warns of the dangers of ignoring the value of imagination.
In “The Door in the Wall,” H. G. Wells explores what Roslynn D. Haynes has called a characteristically Wellsian concern: the relationship between imagination and reason, or between the aesthetic and the practical. As a boy, Lionel Wallace, now a prominent politician and man of the world, stumbled across a green door in a white wall. Entering, even though he felt certain “his father would be very angry,” Wallace found a fantastic garden. He sees the green door several more times during his life, but always at times when stopping to enter the garden would mean sacrificing worldly success.
The symbolic garden at the center of this difficult story has been read differently by critics throughout the years. Early in this century, critics such as Alfred C. Ward, writing in Aspects of the Modern Short Story: English and American, saw the garden simply as an emblem of “any one of those fine aspirations by which men are moved and from which they are debarred by the fret and wear and tear of the workaday world.” In other words, this is a story about the many beautiful dreams we neglect because of our mundane preoccupation with our jobs. Later psychoanalytical critics, such as the Freudian critic Bernard Bergonzi and the Jungian critic J. R. Hammond, read the garden and its imagery and symbolism as part of a complex psychological drama enacted between the conscious and unconscious elements of Wallace’s psyche.
Psychoanalytic literary criticism first became popular in the 1940s, and it remains a strong influence on many critics today. Sigmund Freud set forth the basic tenets of what he called psychoanalysis in his Introduction to Psychoanalysis in 1920. He continued to expand upon his original ideas until his death in 1939, creating the tenets of what is today known as classical psychoanalytic criticism—a methodology for interpreting literature by seeing it as wish-fulfillment. For a classical Freudian, literature (like dreams, according to Freud) acts as an arena for playing out unconscious (often sexual) wishes that cannot be realized in everyday life because of our social standards. These wishes are often hidden (or sublimated) in the story. For a psychoanalytic critic, then, the story has both its obvious content (what the story seems to be about), and the suppressed, hidden meanings that can be revealed by examining and translating the story’s language, imagery, and symbolism.
In his book The Early H. G. Wells: A Study of the Scientific Romances, Bergonzi argued that the green door through which Wallace enters the garden is “an obvious womb symbol” and that Wallace’s trip to the garden is “a return in fantasy to a prenatal state.” Wallace never knew his mother, so the tall fair girl and the somber woman in the garden are, according to Bergonzi, stand-ins for his real mother. Wallace’s trip to the garden and his long-cherished wish to return are aspects of a revolt against his father and his father’s authority. Bergonzi reads “The Door in the Wall” as a classic Oedipal myth.
Oedipus, a character from Greek mythology, kills his father and marries his mother. Freud coined the phrase “Oedipal complex” to represent what he felt was a unconscious desire in young boys to compete with the father for the mother’s affection, and their wish to dispose of their fathers in order to be the sole object of their mothers’ attention, like Oedipus. Because these desires are repressed in order for the boys to exist successfully within society, the desires appear instead in literature, dreams, and other acceptable forms. One stumbling block for this interpretation of “The Door in the Wall,” however, is that fact that, since his mother is already dead, Wallace cannot be said to be in competition, in any meaningful way, with his father for his mother’s love (though it does seem clear that
What Do I Read Next?
- Wells’s 1895 novel The Time Machine gives a glimpse of the distant future, suggesting that the evolution of humankind is not necessarily progressing toward a more refined species.
- Wells’s nonfiction book A Modern Utopia (1905) established him as a leading proponent of socialism, world government, free thought, and free love, and as an enemy of the entrenched English establishment.
- Charles Darwin’s monumentally important study, The Origin of Species (1859), was a huge influence on Wells. The book asserts that Homo Sapiens have evolved from other creatures.
- Edward Bellamy’s classic novel Looking Backward (1888) describes an ideal social and industrial system of the future. Wells was ambivalent about such notions of progress, at times embracing them and at other times suspecting that Bellamy’s embrace of the concept of scientism—progress driven by science—was shallow and not in balance with human nature.
- “The Bungalow House,” a story by Thomas Ligotti, published by Carroll & Graf in The Nightmare Factory (1996), concerns the fracturing of a man’s mind and his preoccupation with a house he sees every day while riding the bus.
- William Morris’s famous novel News from Nowhere (1890) describes an idyllic utopia of social and ethical progress. Wells felt the same way about this book as he did about Bellamy’s.
- Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden (1909) tells the story of ten-year-old orphan, Mary Lennox, who gains the key to a mysterious walled rose garden at her uncle’s mansion. The book is considered the first modern novel for children.
- Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (1865) is a story of a logical girl who falls down a rabbit hole into a strange land. It is considered a premier example of fantasy literature by an author who also had an extensive background in mathematics.
he has an unconscious desire to rebel against his father’s wishes). Bergonzi recognizes this, remarking that the “picture is not exclusively Freudian in its implications.”
Carl G. Jung, originally a student of Freud’s, broke with Freud and developed his own theories of psychology. Jung’s work has had as great an impact on literature and anthropology as that of his teacher and mentor. For Jung, the collective unconscious—unconscious elements shared by all humans—contains primordial images and patterns of experience he calls archetypes. Because they are universal, these archetypes appear again and again in literature, religious stories, and mythology—in all cultures and in all times. Jung felt that truly great writers are able to tap into the experiences of the collective unconscious and create literature that, by using archetypes, revitalizes us by “integrating” or bringing into balance, different warring aspects of the psyche.
The work of a Jungian critic such as Hammond, then, consists of identifying the archetypal elements in a given work of literature and determining whether (or how) integration occurs. Hammond, in “Lost Orientations” in H. G. Wells and the Short Story, reads the garden Wallace enters as a symbol for the unconscious, and argues that the door is a “familiar psychological metaphor for the threshold between conscious and unconscious.” Wallace’s conflict is between the masculine, rational world represented by his father and his career and the feminine, imaginative realm represented by the garden; but it is also a conflict between the two sides of his psyche—the masculine persona and the feminine anima, a Jungian term that represents the unconscious feminine aspect of any given man. To achieve psychic wholeness, Wallace needs to integrate the two. Because he cannot, he becomes miserable. Whether or not Wallace finally succeeds in integrating these two warring aspects of his psyche is a matter still open to the interpretation of the individual reader. He does come to recognize and value the world the garden represents; but we never really know for sure if he succeeds in returning to the garden.
The conflict between aesthetic and practical or scientific concerns was one that Wells knew from firsthand experience. Throughout his life, he felt the pull of competing interests. Wells escaped the lower-middle-class life of his parents by winning a scholarship to the London University, where he studied biology. While writing his first book—a biology textbook—Wells was already writing fiction and publishing short stories. At the time he wrote “The Door in the Wall,” Wells was deeply involved in politics himself and had just finished a nonfiction book called A Modern Utopia. Wells returned to the conflict between imagination and reason repeatedly in his writing. On the one hand, Wells had a profound faith in scientific progress to create an ever-better society. On the other, he was well-aware of the dangers of divorcing progress from social responsibility. His famous novel, The Island of Dr. Moreau, published in 1896, depicts a misguided exponent of scientific progress who tries to turn beasts into humans. In The Invisible Man, Wells again raises the question of whether science and humane interests are compatible. An outcast scientist discovers a way to make himself invisible and plans to use the knowledge to terrorize the world.
Of course, Wells was neither the first nor the only writer to take up the conflict between the aesthetic/imaginative side of human nature and the rational/scientific side. These are age-old concerns. In his Republic (upon which Wells based his A Modern Utopia), Plato derided all artists, especially writers, because he thought they served no purpose other than to inflame emotions and make people unreasonable. What is remarkable about the different ways writers have approached this conflict, from Plato to Wells, is that they all see these two “worlds” as irreconcilable opposites. Wells poses the problem as an either/or question. There seems to be no possibility to have both worlds; no chance, for example, that Wallace might leave the garden door ajar and mix the two worlds together. This is odd because in our everyday lives we mix the two, just as Wells himself most certainly did in his
“Wallace does come to recognize and value the world the garden represents; but we never really know for sure if he succeeds in returning to the garden.”
time. Insisting on seeing the garden as irreconcilably opposed to the everyday practical world makes for a more dramatic story, but it means there is no possible ending to this story that is not pessimistic. Wallace must choose one world or the other; he cannot have both. In the end he has either escaped the rational, practical world of his father and politics by returning to the garden, or he has been killed by the dream of it.
So what are we to make of this story? Lionel Wallace has worked hard, has done good things, and has tried to serve his country honorably. At least twice when he turns away from the green door it is in service to others; and he has frequently sacrificed his own desires to please his father and others. The work of people like Wallace is indispensable; it builds societies. And yet the garden appears in his life because it is something Wallace needs. Whether we read it as Freudian manifestation of a desire to rebel against his father or Jungian need to integrate the masculine and feminine aspects of his psyche, it seems clear that the garden represents something necessary to Wallace, even if the value of the garden can never be measured by the standards of the practical world. And perhaps that is the point. Plato banished the artists out of his ideal Republic; perhaps Wells warns us that we do so at our own peril.
Source: Deborah Williams, “An Overview of ‘The Door in the Wall’,” in Short Stories for Students, Gale, 1998.
J. R. Hammond
“I have been greatly influenced in my life, work, and attitudes by the writings of H. G. Wells,” Hammonds has written. An English writer, he has published several important works about Wells. In the following excerpt, Hammond analyzes the imagery in “The Door in the Wall” and illustrates
“If one takes the garden as a metaphor for the imagination, the theme of the story can be read as Wallace’s recognition of his true nature.”
how it contributes to the theme of opposition between reality and imagination.
‘The Door in the Wall,’ one of Wells’s most deservedly familiar short stories, is the story of a prominent politician, Lionel Wallace, who is haunted by the vision of an enchanted garden glimpsed in childhood. The story makes extensive use of archetypal and dream imagery and interweaves within its narrative a pattern of leitmotivs characteristic of Wells as man and writer.
The door and the wall are described in such unforgettably vivid terms that the image is fixed indelibly on the imagination:
‘There was,’ he said, ‘a crimson Virginia creeper in it—all one bright uniform crimson, in a clear amber sunshine against a white wall. That came into the impression somehow . . . and there were horse-chestnut leaves upon the clean pavement outside the green door. They were blotched yellow and green, you know, not brown nor dirty, so that they must have been new fallen.’
The imagery of this passage becomes clearer when it is expressed in the following form:
The white wall is a feminine symbol, representing the gentle, motherly aspects of Wallace’s (and, by implication, Wells’s) nature. This is contrasted with the ‘clear amber sunshine’, a symbol for the masculine ego, for the dominant and logical as opposed to the passive and emotional. The door is a familiar psychological metaphor for the threshold between conscious and unconscious. In passing through the door and entering the enchanted garden Wallace leaves behind him the conscious, rational world of his daily life and enters the domain of imagination and dreams, a world in which the longings of his innermost self come to the fore. In the language of dreams leaves are an allegory for happiness. The leaves Wallace describes are ‘blotched yellow and green’, suggesting that his happiness is transitory. Though Wallace is blissfully happy inside the garden he never regains his sense of delight outside it and for the remainder of his life is tormented with ‘the haunting memory of a beauty and happiness that filled his heart with insatiable longings, that made all the interests and spectacle of worldly life seem full and tedious and vain to him’. The symbolism of colour in this passage reinforces the contrasting masculine/feminine imagery on which so much of the story hinges. The whiteness of the wall (= moon, feminine, the anima) is juxtaposed against the amber sunshine and red creeper (= masculine, virile, dominant). The green door suggests femininity, the colour of Venus and Aphrodite. In opening the door and entering the domain beyond, Wallace passes into the feminine realm of imagination and sympathy, leaving behind him the worlds of duty, career and ambition. . . .
And it is at the moment when he returns to his moment of hesitation—’so at last I came to myself hovering and hesitating outside the green door in the long white wall’—that he loses sight of the beautiful garden. This element of ambiguity recurs throughout the narrative. At each crucial stage in the story Wallace is torn between conflicting desires.
This dichotomy is aptly symbolized by the contrasting female figures who befriend him in the garden. The first is described as ‘a tall, fair girl’ who takes him by the hand and fills him with ‘an impression of delightful rightness, of being reminded of happy things that had in some strange way been overlooked’. This girl with her ’sweet kind face’, pleasant voice and classical features is recognisably an anima figure, the embodiment of those qualities of femininity, allurement and mystery which haunt so much of English literature (cf. Estella in Dickens’s Great Expectations, Beatrice Normandy in Wells’s Tono-Bungay and Sarah Woodruff in John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman). It is she who initiates Wallace into the enchanted garden, who leads him into conversation and guides him through the paradisal domain. She is contrasted with ‘a sombre dark woman, with a grave, pale face and dreamy eyes . . . wearing a soft long robe of pale purple’. This enigmatic figure shows him a book containing scenes from his life up until the moment of entering the garden. When, in his eagerness to learn what happens next, he attempts to turn the pages Wallace remembers that ‘she bent down upon me like a shadow and kissed my brow (my italics)’. This dark woman with a grave bearing and sombre expression can be seen as the Shadow, a personification of the unconscious, instinctive aspects of his make-up. It is she who looks at him sadly while he follows the story of his life and she who resists his fingers while he struggles to look into the future. She recognises his nature and is aware that, though fascinated by the garden, he is destined to leave it behind him in his quest for career and influence. The two figures symbolise the contradictory drives which pull him throughout his life: the one happy, beckoning, mysterious; the other austere, emotionless, dutiful. The dichotomy haunts him throughout his career. When, later in life, he suddenly catches sight of the door in the wall he experiences ‘a queer moment, a double and divergent movement of my will (my italics)’. He is filled with a sense of ‘unforgettable and still unattainable things’:
Those dear friends and that clear atmosphere seemed very sweet to me, very fine but remote. My grip was fixing now upon the world. I saw another door opening—the door of my career.
It is significant that when he looks back to the moment of first seeing the door, he remarks: ‘I forgot the sort of gravitional pull back to the discipline and obedience of home, I forgot all hesitations and fear, forgot discretion, forgot all the intimate realities of this life.’ Discipline, obedience, discretion, reality—it is these which are momentarily laid aside in the quest for beauty and enchantment.
‘The Door in the Wall’ is built up on this pattern of opposites, a very characteristic feature of Wells’s fiction. The enchanted garden with its beautiful people and aura of peace and happiness is continually contrasted with the ‘grey world’ outside the wall—with the bullying at school, the tawdry world of politics, the demands of career and ambition. The garden is described in terms which convey an unmistakable echo of the Garden of Eden:
There was something in the very air of it that exhilarated, that gave one a sense of lightness and good happening and well-being; there was something in the sight of it that made all its colour clean and perfect and subtly luminous. In the instant of coming into it one was exquisitely glad—as only in rare moments, and when one is young and joyful one can be glad in this world. And everything was beautiful there. . . .
What is so striking about these descriptive passages is the extensive use of contrasting imagery: masculine—feminine; conscious—unconscious; life—death; inner—outer; immortality—transience. It is as if Wells is deliberately posing a series of contradictions. The hard, masculine spikes and the gentle doves; the cold marble and the brightly coloured paraquets. The broad red steps and the great avenue of trees symbolise Wallace’s journey through life, his progression to higher levels of consciousness. At the climax of his journey he arrives at a spacious palace filled with fountains, an apt metaphor for the unconscious, for the centre of his imaginative life: full of the promise of beauty and desire. The ‘grass-covered court’ suggests the enclosed quality of Wallace’s life, the fact that the only real happiness he ever knows takes place within the confines of the garden. But the delightful games with his companions are played against a backcloth of ‘very old trees’, and a sun-dial surrounded by flowers. Always one is reminded of time, of the transience of beautiful things. In the ‘marble seats of honour and statuary’ can be detected a precognition of his worldly ambitions, his successful political career. But what are we to make of the ‘old man musing among laurels’? The laurel is traditionally an emblem of victory, of a triumph over odds. The venerable figure musing among these symbols of conquest reinforces the ambiguity of Wells’s parable: which is Wallace to conquer—his ambitions or his dreams? It is this element of doubt which pervades the story to the end.
If one takes the garden as a metaphor for the imagination, the theme of the story can be read as Wallace’s recognition of his true nature. On the one hand, imagination and wonder (‘I became in a moment a very glad and wonder-happy little boy’); on the other hand, reality and conformity. These are the competing drives which pull him in opposite directions throughout his life.
Source: J. R. Hammond, “Lost Orientations,” in H. G. Wells and the Short Story, St. Martin’s Press, 1992, pp. 125-31.
Roslynn D. Haynes
In the following excerpt, Haynes examines Wells’s depiction of the conflict between science and imagination in “The Door in the Wall.”
‘The Door in the Wall’ . . . partakes very largely of the aura of fairy tale, even of myth, albeit one that is psychologically valid. It concerns the politician Lionel Wallace, who once, as a child of a joyless, inhibiting home, discovered a door to a visionary garden of happiness. This door presented itself to him as simultaneously attractive and illicit, and it
“Wells has often been seen as being caught on an intellectual battle-ground between his scientific training in rational thought and his native gift of a vivid imagination. He himself was apparently aware of this conflict.”
has reappeared temptingly at critical moments throughout his distinguished public career. Hitherto he has remained true to the latter, passing by ‘the door that goes into peace, into delight, into a beauty beyond dreaming, a kindness no man on earth can know.’ Wallace is subsequently found dead in an excavation, having one night apparently mistaken the workmen’s door in the hoarding for the door in the wall of his garden. The story poses a question to which Wells returned repeatedly in his writing—the contrast between the aesthetic and the practical, scientific inclinations of man and the difficulty of choosing between them.
I am more than half convinced that he had, in truth, an abnormal gift, and a sense, something—I know not what—that in the guise of wall and door offered him an outlet, a secret and peculiar passage of escape into another and altogether more beautiful world. At any rate, you will say, it betrayed him in the end. But did it betray him? There you touch the inmost mystery of these dreamers, these men of vision and the imagination. We see our world fair and common, the hoarding and the pit. By our daylight standard he walked out of security into darkness, danger and death.
But did he see like that?
This theme recurs in several guises in Wells’s work, being part of a wider contrast between tangible and imaginative elements of experience, or between science and aesthetics, a conflict which was all too pertinent to Wells’s own experience. Wells has often been seen as being caught on an intellectual battle-ground between his scientific training in rational thought and his native gift of a vivid imagination. He himself was apparently aware of this conflict intermittently during his science course at South Kensington, when poetry seduced attention from geology practical work, [Experiment in Autobiography] and he portrayed a similar struggle in several student characters—in Lewisham and in William Hill of ‘A Slip Under the Microscope’—and at greater length in George Ponderevo’s dalliance with art. Thus even in a manifest fairy story, ‘The Door in the Wall,’ Wells is preoccupied with a question, partly psychological, partly sociological, raised by his own experiences as a science student. It is certainly conceivable that this divided intellectual allegiance still beset Wells in the literary field—how far was his imagination justified in leaping beyond the limits of the scientifically acceptable postulates of his day? Or alternatively, how far did a desire to put forward a point of view as scientifically as possible emasculate his potential literary gifts?
Source: Roslynn D. Haynes, “Scientific Method and Wells’s Credentials,” in H. G. Wells: Discoverer of the Future: The Influence of Science on His Thought, New York University Press, 1980, pp. 49-50.
Jerome Hamilton Buckley
Buckley is a distinguished American educator and literary scholar whose studies focus primarily upon Victorian literature. In the following excerpt, he briefly outlines Wells’s “The Door in the Wall” and suggests that the ending is open to interpretation.
[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]
[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]
Source: Jerome Hamilton Buckley, “The Passion of the Past,” in The Triumph of Time: A Study of Victorian Concepts of Time, History, Progress, and Decadence, Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1966, pp. 113-14.
Bergonzi is an English literary critic and writer of fiction and poetry who has written full-length critical studies on the works of H. G. Wells, T. S. Eliot, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. In the following excerpt, he provides an overview of Wells’s “The Door in the Wall,” offering his interpretation of the symbolism of the door.
The politician Lionel Wallace is, in the eyes of the world, a successful man; but, as he confides to the friend who tells the story, he has a ‘preoccupation’ that is gradually dominating his life and even affecting his efficiency. As a child of five he had wandered out of his home and through the streets of West Kensington, where he had noticed a green door set in a white wall. It was immensely attractive to him, and he had a very strong desire to open it and pass through (he somehow knew that it would be unfastened), but at the same time he felt an equally strong conviction that this would be wrong or unwise: in particular he felt his father would be very angry if he did so. Nevertheless, he yields to the temptation and finds himself in a beautiful garden. (One is reminded here of the garden which Alice sees through the little door in Chapter I of Alice in Wonderland.) Wells’s account of the garden tries to give the sense of a child’s paradise but is scarcely satisfactory; nevertheless, it can be accepted as shorthand for a type of locus amoenus. It has a rare and exhilarating atmosphere, its colours are clean and bright, and the child is filled with joy. There are rich flower-beds and shady trees, and various animals, including two splendid tame panthers. He meets a tall fair girl who ‘came to meet me, smiling, and said “Well?” to me, and lifted me and kissed me, and put me down, and led me by the hand. . . .’
“It remains a question whether the dream of a lost peace and security has ultimately released Lionel Wallace from the distractions of the world or merely betrayed him.”
He meets other children and they play games together, though he cannot remember the games (a fact which later causes him much distress).
Then presently came a sombre dark woman, with a grave, pale face and dreamy eyes, a sombre woman, wearing a soft long robe of pale purple who carried a book, and beckoned and took me aside with her into a gallery above a hall—though my playmates were loth to have me go, and ceased their game and stood watching as I was carried away. ‘Come back to us!’ they cried. ‘Come back to us soon!’ I looked up at her face, but she heeded them not at all. Her face was very gentle and grave. She took me to a seat in the gallery, and I stood beside her, ready to look at her book as she opened it upon her knee. The pages fell open. She pointed, and I looked, marvelling, for in the living pages of that book I saw myself; it was a story about myself, and in it were all the things that had happened to me since ever I was born. . . .
When the record of the book reaches the point at which he had found himself outside the green door, the whole enchanted world vanishes, and the little boy is once more in the dismal West Kensington street. Throughout his later life he dreams of revisiting the garden, and at long intervals he has unexpected glimpses of the door in the wall, in different parts of London, but always when the exigencies of his immediate circumstances make it impossible—or at least, highly inconvenient—for him to stop and open the door. The child’s vision, as Wells presents it, has all the marks of a return in fantasy to a prenatal state: the door is an obvious womb-symbol. This suggestion is emphasized when we recall that Wallace’s mother had died when he was two: the tall fair girl who greets him when he arrives in the garden, and the sombre dark woman who initiates him into the events of his life after birth (and who is referred to as ‘the grave mother’) can both be taken as aspects of the mother he had scarcely
“The child’s vision, as Wells presents it, has all the marks of a return in fantasy to a prenatal state: the door is an obvious womb-symbol.”
known. Yet Wells’s picture is not exclusively Freudian in its implications; it also has elements of an older mode of regarding prenatal existence—the Wordsworthian. This is apparent in the reference to the children with whom the little boy plays, and who call him back when the dark lady draws him aside:
Hence in a season of calm weather
Though inland far we be,
Our Souls have sight of that immortal sea
Which brought us hither,
Can in a moment travel thither,
And see the Children sport upon the shore. . . .
After his mother died Wallace had been brought up by a governess; his father is described as ‘a stern preoccupied lawyer, who gave him little attention and expected great things of him’. In the sphere of public life his father’s expectations are fulfilled, for Wallace has an unusually successful career. Yet his constantly cherished secret desire to return to the garden represents a potential revolt against his father’s authority; had he not, as a boy of five, felt that his father would be very angry if he went through the green door? We have here the elements of an Oedipus situation: ultimately Wallace destroys himself in daring to risk, for the second time, his father’s displeasure, by opening the door and returning to the delectable world which he identified with his dead mother.
This fate is, in a sense, predictable, but on the narrative level the way in which Wells brings it about is extremely adroit. Wallace tells his friend that three times in the past year he has seen the door, and on each occasion he has passed it by: once because he was on his way to a vital division in the House of Commons, once, significantly, because he was hurrying to his father’s death-bed, and once because he wished, for reasons of personal ambition, to continue a discussion with a colleague. And now his soul ‘is full of unappeasable regrets’, and he is barely capable of working.
A few months later he is dead:
They found his body very early yesterday morning in a deep excavation near East Kensington Station. It is one of two shafts that have been made in connection with an extension of the railway southward. It is protected from the intrusion of the public by a hoarding upon the high road, in which a small doorway has been cut for the convenience of some of the workmen who live in that direction. The doorway was left unfastened through a misunderstanding between two gangers, and through it he made his way.
On the next apparition of the door, we may assume, Wallace resolved, at whatever cost, to open it and rediscover his garden; this represented a virtual and perhaps an actual abandonment of his career (and so struck, symbolically, at his father). At this point Wallace’s visions—or hallucinations, if we prefer it—and the physical world around him were in fatal conjunction. There is a certain grim irony in the fact that the deep pit into which Wallace fell can be seen as just as much of a womb-symbol as the enclosed garden he was seeking.
Source: Bernard Bergonzi, “The Short Stories,” in The Early H. G. Wells: A Study of the Scientific Romances, University of Toronto Press, 1961, pp. 84-7.
Alfred C. Ward
In the following excerpt, Ward offers his interpretation of the symbolism of the garden in Wells’s “The Door in the Wall,” paying particular attention to the deceiving nature of time and happiness.
Turning to the Parables in The Country of the Blind, we find three stories that can be thus designated: “The Door in the Wall,” “The Beautiful Suit,” and “The Country of the Blind.” The first describes how Lionel Wallace, when a little fellow between five and six years old, wandered through West Kensington streets one day, and came to a green door set in a white wall. The door attracted the child, as it were magnetically, so that he opened it and discovered a wonderful and beautiful garden stretching far and wide, with distant hills. He found delightful playmates there; and, afterwards, a grave and sombre woman who took him to a seat and showed him a book:
The pages fell open. She pointed, and I looked, marvelling, for in the living pages of that book I saw myself; it was a story about myself, and in it were all the things that had happened to me since ever I was born.
In a while the grave woman stooped to kiss the boy’s brow, and at that moment he found himself crying in a long grey street in Kensington. He thought he would be able to find that door again whenever he went to look for it; but he could not. He did see it again, several times in his life, but it was always in some different locality; and Wallace was always prevented by some immediately urgent worldly call from passing again through the door. A time came when he determined that nothing whatever should keep him away from the wonderful garden whenever next he should see the green door in the white wall; and one morning his body was found in a railway excavation near East Kensington Station, beyond a hoarding in which a small doorway was cut. . . . The advantage of both this story and “The Beautiful Suit” is that they may be interpreted according to the temper of the individual mind. Wallace’s mysterious garden might be any one of those fine aspirations by which men are moved, and from which they are debarred by the fret and wear and tear of the workaday world. Men cry: “We have no time for the beauty that lies beyond the door in life’s wall. We are too busy to-day; let our time for rest and the sweet things of life be to-morrow.” And when that remote to-morrow dawns at last, the wonderful garden of which they had the freedom in childhood, eludes them after all, and in the hour of delusion they walk behind a hoarding—into the pit beyond. Yet that is not all, maybe. H. G. Wells says of Lionel Wallace:
I am more than half convinced that he had, in truth, an abnormal gift, and in sense, something—I know not what—that in the guise of wall and door offered him an outlet, a secret and peculiar passage of escape into another and altogether more beautiful world. At any rate, you will say, it betrayed him in the end. But did it betray him? . . . By our daylight standard he walked out of security into darkness, danger, and death.
But did he see like that?
Source: Alfred C. Ward, “H. G. Wells,” in Aspects of the Modern Short Story: English and American, University of London Press, Ltd., 1924, pp. 139-41.
Batchelor, John. H. G. Wells, pp. 4-107. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
Provides an overview of Wells’s “The Door in the Wall,” offering an interpretation of the door’s symbolism and commenting on the narrative style of the story.
Analyzes the imagery in Wells’s “The Door in the Wall” and illustrates how the imagery contributes to the theme of opposition between reality and imagination.
Wood, James Playsted. I Told You So! A Life of H. G. Wells, pp. 109-22. New York: Pantheon, 1969.
Examines Wells’s style of depicting the conflict between science and imagination, and contends that the theme of conflict between the two is paramount in “The Door in the Wall.”
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