The Door in the Wall

H.G. Wells

In his novels and short stories, H.G. Wells often uses narrative devices which give the stories a suggestion of truth, that they are non-fiction rather than fiction. In The Door in the Wall, that patina of credibility is achieved by the use of a framed narrative. As the story is one of fantasy, this assurance of truth is important, and the primary narrator is conscious of that, asserting that Lionel Wallace considered it ‘a true story’ in the first paragraph.

Fantasy or Reality?

The narrator’s conviction of the story’s credibility is firmly established, with reference to Wallace’s ‘simplicity of conviction’ and his own assurance that ‘I believe now, as I believed at the moment of telling.’ Yet Wallace’s tale is ‘frankly incredible’ and ‘a fantastic dream’. This preamble is an important preparation for the story; by using it, Wells has indicated that the story is scarcely credible, but reassured the reader of its veracity, though he does leave the reader to ‘judge for himself.’

The social world of the story also has a role to play in this reassurance. The narrator and Lionel Wallace are comfortable, affluent people, established by the setting of Wallace’s narration, surrounded by a ‘shaded table light… and the pleasant bright things, the dessert and glasses and napery of the dinner’. These are upper class gentlemen, demonstrated by their shared private school in Kensington, an expensive area of London, and Lionel’s ‘extremely successful… career’, which gave him the possibility of a high government position. These men are not inventive spinners of tales, but part of the bedrock of English late-Edwardian society.

The reader encounters Wallace’s story in a combination of reported and direct speech, through the memory of Redmond, the primary narrator, necessitating some suspension of disbelief to accept that Redmond remembers it all accurately, including Wallace’s long speeches. His verbal reconstruction of the garden he finds behind the mysterious door is fabulous, a clear contrast with the door’s surroundings of ‘mean dirty shops’.

The Magical Garden

Wells creates the magical qualities of the garden partly through adjectives, such as ‘clean and perfect and subtly luminous’, and partly through the impressions it gives to Wallace, who feels that it ‘exhilarated, …gave one a sense of lightness and good happening and well-being’. The elements of fantasy are accentuated by the animals which inhabit it. While there are ‘white doves’, traditionally a symbol of peace, there are also ferocious predators; here, however, the ‘two great panthers’ are meek, one ‘rubb[ing] its soft round ear very gently’ against Wallace’s hand. Wells develops the sense of the exotic by including ‘a Capuchin monkey’ and ‘parakeets’, creating a zoological range quite alien to London. There is a sense of elaborate richness, with ‘marble seats of honour and statuary’ and ‘pleasant fountains’. The dreamlike atmosphere is continued with the appearance of the ‘tall, fair girl’, who ‘lifted, ‘kissed’ and ‘led’ Wallace through the garden.

The key to the garden is the woman, whose appearance comes as a kind of climax after all the initial details of the garden and its inhabitants. After the lexis of joy used for the activities of the garden – ‘gladness’, ‘delightful’, ‘happiness’ – the adjectives for the woman are strikingly different: ‘sombre, dark’ and ‘grave, pale’. The shift of tone is immediately apparent and suggests the significance of the lady in her ‘soft long robe of pale purple’. This description of her clothing, with the assonance of its stretched vowels and alliteration, creates a gentleness which removes any threat from the initial adjectives. Her magical book, where she shows Wallace ‘a story about myself’ in its ‘living pages’ is made even more potent by the mystery of its ending, which returns him to ‘a long grey street in Kensington’, so different from the wonderful garden. The description of the street carries connotations of misery, which are enhanced by his ‘wretched little figure, weeping aloud’. In one sense, the return to reality is a return home, but Wells has used that term repeatedly in the description of the garden: arriving there was ‘just like coming home’, the panthers ‘welcomed me home’, Wallace felt ‘a keen sense of homecoming’ and ‘all were kind to me’.

An Uncompassionate Home

The point is confirmed when Wallace reaches his actual home and tells his tale. The reader has already been told that Wallace’s ‘father was a stern, preoccupied lawyer, who gave him little attention and expected great things of him.’ This forbidding image is taken further when ‘my father gave me my first thrashing for telling lies’. The lack of comfort in his home is confirmed when ‘my aunt… punished me again for my wicked persistence’. Perhaps the cruellest note is that ‘Even my fairy tale books were taken away from me’, confirming how Wallace’s family is alienated from imagination, which is so important for Wallace himself.

The contrast between the misery of home and the compassion of the garden raises the question of how readers should interpret the garden, and in particular, the ‘sombre woman’. The reader is told early in the story that Wallace’s ‘mother died when he was two’ and Wells presents his home as a joyless, forbidding place and that he lacks any signs of love from his remaining parent. It is therefore tempting to read this woman with the ‘pale face and dreamy eyes’ as Wallace’s projection of his absent mother and his ‘playmates’ as the siblings he never had. The fantasy garden creates a happy, welcoming ‘home’ where he is treasured and guided, a necessary substitute for his actual place of residence. Therefore, for all its colour and vibrancy, the garden must also represent death, which is why he cannot stay as a child, but where he returns in the final part of the story.

The Door’s Appearances

However, that interpretation does not explain the other appearances of the door in Wallace’s life. He tells Redmond of a number of occasions when the door has appeared – and one occasion when it eluded him when he searched for it. In this way Wells creates further mystery about the door – it appears and vanishes, in apparently different places, of its own accord. And crucially, it appears at significant moments in Wallace’s life – on his way to his Oxford interview; going to visit his ailing father; travelling to the Houses of Parliament for an important vote; discussing a future ministerial position, for example. We often metaphorically refer to important moments in life as doors which open; in Wallace’s case, each time this happens, he is offered an alternative. Wells makes it clear that his failure to reopen the door to the fantasy garden has left Wallace listless and despondent – the ‘loss is destroying me’, he says. His yearning for the lost garden is deeply at odds with his public position as a member of the government.

Wells uses the concluding section to give the reader the context of Redmond’s memories of Wallace’s narration and the details of his death further the mystery. Did the door and garden in some way represent death after all? Did Wallace mistake the door? As the narrator himself asks, ‘Was there, after all, ever any green door in the wall at all?’ The story ends with mystery, but Redmond still ponders the ‘altogether more beautiful world’ which Wallace found, and recognises that he was a man ‘of vision and imagination’.

Narrative methods to consider:
  • Framed narrative
  • Fantasy
  • Mystery
  • Dialogue