By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Door in the Wall’ is a short story by H. G. Wells (1866-1946), which was published in his 1911 collection The Door in the Wall and Other Stories. One of his most popular and widely studied short stories, ‘The Door in the Wall’ is about the conflict between our private, imaginative worlds we seek solace in, and the public world of responsibility, science, and rationalism in which we are compelled to live.
You can read ‘The Door in the Wall’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of the story below.
‘The Door in the Wall’: plot summary
The narrator, Redmond, recounts how his friend Lionel Wallace confided in him about an obsession which had come to consume his life. When he was just five years old, Wallace tells him, he wandered from home and onto the London streets, where he found a green door in a white wall. His father, a lawyer, is a stern and distant man, and Wallace knows that his father would not approve of him approaching the door.
However, his curiosity gets the better of him, and he opens the door to find himself in some sort of enchanted garden, a version of childhood paradise. He meets a tall girl who approaches him and kisses him, and she introduces him to other children, with whom he plays games. When a woman starts to read a story to him, he realises that she is narrating the story of his own life, and when she gets to the point in his life when he encountered the green door, the beautiful garden suddenly vanishes and Wallace finds himself back on the London streets.
When Wallace gets home, he tells his father about the door and the garden (his mother has died), but his father assumes his son is making it all up and chastises him. Wallace endeavours to forget about the door in the wall because he has been forbidden to discuss it. However, he cannot completely forget it, and he dreams of returning to the garden.
As a grown man, he has stumbled upon the door in the wall, always at different locations in London, but whenever it has appeared he has been unable to stop and go through it because he has had a pressing engagement to attend. Wallace tells Redmond that he has seen the door in the wall three times in the last year alone, but every time he has continued on past it without stepping through it. On two occasions he was unable to stop because of work (he is now a successful politician), but on another occasion he was attending to his father, who lay dying.
The door and the memory of the enchanted garden beyond it have become a preoccupation, crowding out all other thoughts, and he is unable to concentrate on anything as a result. A few months after he confided this story to Redmond, we are told, he was found dead, having stepped through a door meant for construction workers at a site in Kensington where work was being carried out on a railway extension.
‘The Door in the Wall’: analysis
Wells’s story is about the conflict between the public and the private, the world of the imagination versus the world of action, and even, perhaps, the sane world of the rational person versus the insane inner life of the artistic person who lacks the ability to distinguish between the real world and the world of fantasy.
This last point is likely to be in the minds of many people when they first read ‘The Door in the Wall’. Redmond, the narrator and our intermediary between Lionel Wallace and us as readers, is sceptical about whether there ever was a door in the wall. Did Wallace imagine it all? He was still very young (and imaginative?) when he stepped through the green door that first time and apparently found himself in an enchanted world. Ever since then, he claims to have seen the door in the wall numerous times, but the next time he actually opens it and steps through it, he dies.
Redmond remains open-minded: it could be that Wallace was granted ‘an inestimable privilege’ in being given access to this other world, or he could have been ‘the victim of a fantastic dream’. Redmond, and Wells, leave the matter open for us to decide for ourselves.
It is understandable why a lonely child like Wallace – his mother died when he was born, and his father’s only engagement with his son seems to have been when he was punishing him for telling ‘lies’ about where he’d been, while an ‘authoritative’ governess is responsible for looking after him – might seek to create a fantasy world where he is made to feel welcome by others and forms close bonds with other children. (Is the ‘tall girl’ in the garden an unconscious projection of the mother he never knew, one wonders? The fact that she lifts him up, kisses him, and then leads him by the hand certainly invites that comparison.)
Perhaps the experience was invented out of such desperation that it had the force of a hallucination which seemed real to him at the time, and remained real.
Of course, Wells doesn’t necessarily want us to psychoanalyse Wallace or decide whether the door in the wall really was a portal to another world. The ambiguity is deliberate and we may decide that we, like Redmond, are meant to retain an open mind. What he wants to explore in ‘The Door in the Wall’ is the conflict between imagination or ‘play’ and the somewhat more cold and regimented world of reality where we have to spend our time as we grow older.
Wells could have made it so that Wallace did stop at the doors he spotted as an adult, but was unable to access the dream world again when he stepped through them; but this would have risked destroying the ambiguity over whether that first encounter was genuine. Instead, Wallace is so caught up in his political career, in being a public figure in the ‘real world’, that he doesn’t even have time to stop and try the handle.
In the last analysis, ‘The Door in the Wall’ is a tragic story about a lonely boy who either finds solace in his own (powerful) imagination, or who actually discovers a portal to another world. Either way, he finds it impossible to get back there, because his father has pushed him to make a success of his life and has no time for indulging such ideas. The fact that Wallace dies in an accident while trying, finally, to get back to that world highlights how unhappy he was, and how – whether real or imagined – that brief time in the enchanted garden was perhaps the only time in his life when he was truly happy.