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Door In The Wall, H.G Wells cover


26 April 2023

Modern Life and The Door In The Wall


Forgive me for perhaps oversimplifying or compartmentalising the world we find ourselves in today in this essay.

However, I don’t think it’s a controversial statement to say that something isn’t quite right. In the developed world at least, we are living in an era of unparalleled material wealth and comfort. The vast majority of us live in comfortable dwellings with pretty easy access to sustenance if we feel so inclined. Compare this to over 100 years ago. In 1890, 78.7% of the world population was living in extreme poverty-that’s less than $1.90 a day. Nowadays, only 9.98% of people face the same plight, with most of the gains happening in what we consider as the developed world.


So, most of us have never had it so good. Yet, it seems that our material abundance has only left us with some kind of spiritual deficit. Depression is now the leading disablement in the world and the fourth leading cause of deaths amongst 15-29-year olds is suicide. What the bloody hell has happened to us?


A friend recently gave me a copy of H.G Wells’ short stories which included the 14-page tale The Door in the Wall. With great gusto he encouraged me to read it and since I had some time to kill, I obliged. So, while on an early evening train catapulting through the North East, I had a flick through.


The story is told by a narrator who described a conversation he had with an old school friend called Lionel Wallace. Wallace, who by this point has reached his middle age, did very well in school and university and has had a successful professional career as an influential politician. However, he also speaks of his unhappy childhood. His mother died when he was very young and his father was an absent yet stern figure, never showing him any affection despite his maternal bereavement. Wallace goes on to recount an experience he had in his early childhood when he strayed away from his home, coming across a green door in a white wall. The young boy was intrigued by and drawn towards the door, and so, with certain apprehension, opened it and stepped through. Upon entering he found himself in a beautiful garden with luscious vegetation and exotic wildlife. He was accompanied by several comforting figures, with one of them showing him a book that contained the story of his life. Wallace recalls feeling happiness and equanimity in the garden, before it faded away and he was left back out on the street in a daze of confusion and despair. 


Wallace saw the door in the wall several other times as his life progressed, but for one reason or another he never stepped back in. In the case of his later life, ambition and desire for professional advancement precluded him from opening the door. He was preoccupied with attending an important division at the house of commons and in another case did not want to cut short a conversation that would serve to advance his political career. 


The story ends with the narrator telling us of Wallace’s untimely death reported in the newspapers. One night he walked through a service door that led to an excavation shaft, falling to his death. 

For me, Wells’ tale is a strong allegory of how modern life is. It represents the rift between our imaginary, and longingly desired inner world versus our actual life. The latter is characterised by familial and societal pressure, as well as a constant pursuit for the accumulation of material wealth and status. This is embodied by Lionel Wallace, who was shaped initially by his tyrannical father’s aspirations for him, and then by his own overbearing ego, which fuelled his desire for societal status. On the surface, Wallace was a highly capable and successful man, yet underneath something was missing. His lack on contentment is indicated by his regular fantasies of the nirvana behind the door and his desire to go back through. It is something he knows he will never experience in the real world. 


This seems to be the case for so many in our day and age. Despite never having it so good, so many are desperately unhappy. The gulf between their inner lives and outer experiences is too wide and too painful. It is a bitter reminder of the life not lived. 


Now I think it is necessary to state that there is some nuance to this idea. Societal and familial pressure isn’t exclusively a tyrannical force. After all none of us really know what the hell we are doing at the best of times so some level of guidance from those around us is ultimately beneficial. Similarly, society can act as a benevolent force. As an approximation of the collective will of all people it gives us a framework in which we can act and interact with one another. To live completely out of society would be a difficult thing to do, possibly leading to individual debasement. For all of the times the impulse to break away and live in a hut in the wilderness enters your mind, ask yourself how laborious this life would actually be.


So, it is evident there is a balance. But it seems to me that many in the modern world suffer from a similar plight to Lionel Wallace. The demands of society and of others is too overbearing and curtails our individuation. In Essays on Analytical Psychology, Carl Jung sums this idea up well. He wrote: ‘Society, by automatically stressing all the collective qualities in its individual representatives, puts a premium on mediocrity, on everything that settles down to vegetate in an easy, irresponsible way. Individuality will inevitably be driven to the wall’.


Ask yourself this question. What is your dream, your ideal? What would you do if you were not burdened by the expectations of others and the often times rigid boundaries of society? Compare this to what you’re actually doing. The fruitless applications to internships for jobs you have no real interest in anyway or perhaps the appeasing of people you’d rather say bugger off to. 


Maybe it’s time you thought about your garden- envisaged who you could be and what you really want out of life- and then tried to put it into practice. Carefully consider the pressures others put on you and how you may be at society’s whims, burning away that which is overbearing or dogmatic. Maybe it’s time you found your door in the wall, and took a step through. 

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