‘Beyond the Door’ is an early work by the renowned science fiction author Philip K. Dick (1928-82), though not as widely recognized as some of his more famous and complex stories. Nevertheless, it holds a compelling allure that merits deeper analysis. Originally published in 1954 in Fantastic Universe and later included in the second volume of Dick's collected stories, Second Variety, ‘Beyond the Door’ can loosely be categorized as a work of fantasy.
The story revolves around a married couple, Larry and Doris. Doris has an affinity for cuckoo clocks, so Larry decides to surprise her by gifting her a German-made cuckoo clock, considering Germany as the birthplace of these timepieces. Unfortunately, Larry inadvertently upsets her by revealing that he bought the clock wholesale, dampening the joy of the gift.
As the plot unfolds, it becomes evident that their marriage is troubled, with Doris engaging in a secret affair with a man named Bob. She takes a liking to the cuckoo clock and begins to believe that the tiny cuckoo, which announces the time every fifteen minutes, reciprocates her feelings and likes her in return. Conversely, Larry becomes convinced that the cuckoo harbors animosity towards him.
When Doris invites Bob to see the cuckoo clock, Larry unexpectedly returns home from work, uncovering the affair. He throws them both out but decides to keep the cuckoo clock since he paid for it. In the weeks following Doris' departure, Larry's annoyance with the clock grows as the cuckoo's appearances become erratic and seemingly unwilling.
Driven to frustration, Larry resorts to taking a hammer to the clock, forcing the bird to emerge. However, the cuckoo violently pecks him in the eye, causing him to fall off his chair and meet his demise. The story concludes with Doris and Bob hearing about the strange circumstances surrounding Larry's death. Bob suggests that the cuckoo may have played a sinister role in his demise, hinting at the possibility of the cuckoo being the murderer.
In this tale, Philip K. Dick masterfully weaves together themes of marital strife, infidelity, and the inexplicable, leaving readers pondering the enigmatic nature of the cuckoo clock and its possible malevolence.
Philip K. Dick's ‘Beyond the Door’ holds its power in exploring the contrasting perspectives of the husband and wife, Larry and Doris. The titular cuckoo, hidden 'beyond the door' of the cuckoo clock, becomes a symbolic representation of disruption and threat to the stability of their marriage and family life.
The Cuckoo as a Symbol of Disruption
The cuckoo, traditionally associated with being an unwanted presence in the family nest, serves as a potent symbol in the story. Larry, viewing the cuckoo clock as a mere object he acquired at a wholesale price, fails to comprehend the deeper emotional attachment that Doris forms with the clock. For Doris, the cuckoo represents more than just timekeeping; it becomes an object of affection, with her anthropomorphizing the cuckoo as 'he.' The cuckoo and Bob Chambers, her lover, both challenge the stability of the traditional suburban American family, and she forms a stronger bond with them than with Larry.
Cuckoo Clock and Gender Dynamics
The choice of the cuckoo clock is significant in relation to gender dynamics. Doris desired a cuckoo clock, like the one her mother had, implying her desire for a disruptive force to break free from the mundane routine of her marriage with Larry and escape to be with Bob. The clock, with its regularity and association with the workaday world, contrasts with the cuckoo, representing disruption and unpredictability. Despite the cuckoo's refusal to conform to the clock's regularity, it performs flawlessly for Doris, symbolizing the role it plays in her fantasy of escaping her current life.
A Subtle Critique of Doris and Larry
The story subtly critiques Doris for her infidelity and dissatisfaction with her stable home life. While Larry works for both of them, she becomes moody when he reveals the clock's wholesale origin. In contrast, she conducts an affair with Bob while Larry is at work. Her collaboration with the cuckoo to get rid of Larry signifies her desire to liberate herself from the marriage. However, this choice also leads her into a life of uncertainty with Bob, who lacks a regular job and spends money on books and antiques.
Fantasy Elements and Critique of Bored Housewives
Although the story contains elements of fantasy, primarily the cuckoo's behavior, it subtly addresses the critique of bored 1950s housewives who disrupt the status quo in search of excitement, often leading to unforeseen consequences. While Larry is not entirely sympathetic, his symbolic death at the hands of the cuckoo emphasizes the threat that such disruptive forces pose to established relationships and domestic stability.
‘Beyond the Door’ delves into complex themes of desire, infidelity, gender roles, and the lure of disruptive elements in the mundane world. Philip K. Dick masterfully intertwines these themes with elements of fantasy, providing readers with a thought-provoking tale that extends beyond the surface narrative.