Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 754
This story unfolds within the claustrophobic confines of one man’s mind. Its unnamed male protagonist is apparently taking a tour of a modernistic model house in a large city, led by an unnamed female guide. He feels profoundly alienated from his surroundings but also trapped by them. He cannot tell if his unease derives from being in the city, from the building itself (which has doorways that turn out to be walls and vice versa), or perhaps even from the high-tech names of the objects and substances around him. He is certain of one thing, however: Like a rat that the Professor has taught to jump at a certain card to get its food, he has dutifully jumped through all the right doors—only now the doors no longer work.
He cannot stop thinking about the rats the Professor drove crazy by forcing them to deal with problems beyond their mental capacity. When the Professor changed his cards so that the rats could no longer find their food, the animals confronted an insoluble problem. After several painful stages, the rats went insane and were eventually willing to let anything be done to them. The protagonist feels that he has reached that stage himself, seeing in the reflection of his own eyes the same imploring look that the rats had.
In this washable, synthetic, scientifically tested, perfectly self-contained, inhuman house, he becomes convinced that his own mental torment is deliberate. “They,” like the Professor, wait until their subjects are completely trained for a certain door, and then they change it. He recalls the many doors that once seemed to lead to the rewards people are supposed to desire. For himself as a child, the door of religion, of prayers and holy-sounding words, seemed to work, until one day that door would not open, leading to the first painful bewilderment. Other doors followed: science and rationality, professional success, and economic independence. At some point, each door suddenly failed to open to the anticipated reward, inflicting yet another wound.
He feels that going crazy would not be so bad, if only he could stop thinking about how every aspect of his life seems beyond his power to affect it. Even the ground below his feet seems to anticipate his weight and rises to meet his step. His mind wanders at random. Now his thoughts focus on a man in New Jersey, who has inexplicably begun to chop down the trees on his property and take his house apart, brick by brick. Is the man doing all of this because he is faced with an insoluble problem, a joy that has ceased to satisfy and become unbearable?
He concludes that “they” will always change the doors, because that is their job. The logical response would be to accept that fact, but that would mean opting out of the game, which is not permitted, at least not among humans. He remembers an old friend, a poet, who spent his life following “something I cannot name.” After all the preliminary stages, jumping at the doors finally killed him.
The most painful door, the protagonist recalls, promised happiness through romantic and sexual love. He wishes he could speak the truth instead of allowing himself to be guided through this peculiar house. He is exhausted from jumping at doors that inevitably produce a painful disappointment. Do the rats, he wonders, have a name for what they are seeking when they jump at their doors? He does. He calls it plexikoid, and it is “unattainable and ugli-proof.”
Once again, his thoughts turn to the man in New Jersey, to the endless effort it must cost him to care for his house and trees, and to the desperation that he must now feel to destroy what he had treasured for so long. The protagonist senses that he is far from alone in his alienation and despair. Indeed, he tells himself, any doctor can confirm how many people seek a surgical solution to ease their minds—the solution of removing part of the prefrontal lobe of the brain. The ones with the large prefrontal lobes simply cannot bear any more bumping against another door that will not open.
At last, the protagonist carefully makes his way to a glass door leading out of the model house. It opens at his approach, and he almost hopes to see one of the doors from his past. Instead he sees an escalator that takes him down to street level, where the ground rises to meet his foot.