There Are Doors Critical Essays

Gene Wolfe


(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

There Are Doors appears to follow the pattern of a science-fiction novel of alternate history, but gradually the protagonist’s view of reality is validated and the alternate history is revealed to be a realm in which a mythic goddess influences events. Although technological rationales are provided for some happenings—for example, the living doll Tina is explained as a cleverly constructed machine—the novel is premised on a traditional myth, that of Astarte and her human consorts.

The myth is re-enacted in a world of Kafkaesque incidents and surreal events reminiscent of Joseph K.’s quest in The Castle (1926), to which the narrative explicitly alludes. Green wanders from his anonymous urban life in the Richard Nixon era to a female-dominated world that is also a police state threatened by terrorists. This parallel reality is also afflicted by a strange disease that causes the male lovers of women to die young, so that men who become romantically involved with women are choosing an early death.

Green’s name provides a link to myths dealing with the fertility of vegetation and the land, a symbolism discussed at length in Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1890-1915) and the cultural studies of Jane Harrison. His secondary name of Mr. Pine also identifies him with fertility and enduring love; a pine tree is “ever green.” It is not surprising that a hero linked with fertility symbolism would be lost in both urban wastelands of the story. As reinforcement of the symbolism, Lara explains at one point that, metaphorically, she represents “the sea,” while Green embodies what might be described as “the land.”

The names of other characters are also significant. Lara is easily identified with numerous romantic feminine goddesses through her many names: “Lara Morgan,” for example, suggests Morgan Le Fay. Gene Wolfe also compares her explicitly to John Keats’s “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” (another supernatural feminine figure who, like Lara, sometimes enters the human world to take a lover). North, whose name is a topical reference to right-wing extremists, may also be identified with the spirit of winter and sterility that rules the land during Green’s first visit to Lara’s world.