Beyond the Door

Story Background
“Beyond the Door” was published in Fantastic Universe in January 1954. I read it in We Can Remember It For Your Wholesale: The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick: Volume 2. It can be found there on pages 15–20.


Plot Summary
Larry brings home a German-made cuckoo clock, which he purchased wholesale, as a gift for his wife Doris. Doris is delighted by the gift, but upset that Larry ruined the moment by pointing out that he got it wholesale. Doris begins to wonder about the cuckoo bird in the clock. Does he sleep before coming out? Does he listen to people? Overtime Larry is less than pleased with the cuckoo and his wife’s attachment to the clock. Doris accuses him of not treating the clock well by not fully winding it up. Doris takes over this important task. Doris notices a small cut on Larry’s thumb.

When Larry is at work, Bob Chambers visits. Bob, who is sexually attracted to Doris, and Doris flirt a bit. Doris shows Bob the clock. She tells Bob that Larry does not like the clock because the bird comes out for her alone. She tells him she wants the clock in her room, but that it would be wrong. Larry comes home early and demands both Bob and Doris leave the house, keeping the cuckoo clock behind. Larry continues his bad relationship with the cuckoo clock. But he does talk to it about his jealousy over his wife’s relationship with Bob. When he demands that the cuckoo come out and sign to make up for his weeks of silence, the cuckoo strikes him in the eye, knocking Larry to the ground.

Doris, Bob, and a doctor talk about Larry’s death. The doctor thinks the placement of the body is too strange for a suicide. Bob thinks something else uncanny killed him.

This short story explores the tensions, anxieties, and jealousies of the suburban household. It is a theme that Dick commonly returns to and is one of the most memorable of his motifs. Larry is a patriarchal jealous husband. Lacking a child, he brings a gift to his wife that he immediately claims as his own morally. Even when he kicks Doris out of the house, he keeps the cuckoo clock because he “paid for it.” He is insanely jealous of both his neighbor and friend Bob Chambers and—more uncannily—the cuckoo clock. The heart of his jealousy over the clock seems to emerge from the fact that it responds only to her. Even when he “works” to sustain the clock, the cuckoo does not respond to him. It also, apparently, snips at him, undermining his claim to absolute authority in the household. Sexual tension runs through the story as well. Bob and Doris openly flirt while Larry is at work. The sexual proficiency and endurance of the cuckoo clock is hinted at strongly. Most striking is Doris’ desire to put the clock in her room, apparently to consummate this barely hidden desire. “But I know he won’t come out because he doesn’t like Larry. When I’m here alone he comes right out for me, every fifteen minutes, even though he really only hast to come out on the hour. [. . .] He comes out for me because he wants to. We talk; I tell him things. Of course, I’d like to have him upstairs in my room, but it wouldn’t be right.” (18) Clearly she is having an affair with the clock. She later has an affair with Bob. The cuckoo was a sexually liberating force for her.

Another possible reading of the story focuses on the impact of clock-time on the family. This is slightly less satisfying textually, but allows us to think about technology. As historians, sociologists, and philosophers have pointed out for decades, the transformation of human life due to clock time has been profound. At its heart, human’s lost their autonomy over the arrangement of their life. Instead of sleeping, working, eating, and travelling on their own schedule, they became bound to clock time. Larry literally brings a clock into the household. A working man, he expects it to work as designed. The clock disrupts this system by emerging based on its desire for Doris, instead of the schedule. The clock ruined the marriage, but not because it was working as designed, but because it did its own thing. As tyrannical as clocks are to human agency and freedom, we rely on them for the image of stability and order. The disorderly clock ends up literally killing the patriarch.

Wikipedia entry on “Beyond the Door.”

Delightful. A short film based on “Beyond the Door.”

Tyranny of the clock.



About tashqueedagg

Searching for the radical themes in American literature. American literature for the age of Occupy
This entry was posted in Consumerism, Family, Philip K. Dick, Sexuality, Suburbia, Technology and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Beyond the Door

  1. Pingback: Human Is | Philip K. Dick Review

  2. terenceblake says:

    I see the two readings you propose as working together. The cuckoo clock is the object of a struggle between two régimes: the mechanical and the machinic (in the sense of Deleuze and Guattari’s “desiring machines”). Larry embodies the mechanical régime: the clock is an object of consumption, the acquisition made in a favorable economic transaction. It has a job to do, and should respect its specifications, or be coerced into doing so. For Doris the clock is an experience tied to memory (“like my mother had”) and to desire. Larry’s expectations are prosaic, the clock should tell the time correctly, and Doris should be glad to have got what she wanted. Doris’s approach is animistic, she immediately has an emotional reaction, begins to fantasize, personifies the cuckoo, desires to associate Bob with the experience.
    As the clock is an antique and Bob is interested in antiques (and in Doris) perhaps Larry was not being totally utilitarian in his choice of present, perhaps the clock was part of an erotic contest with Bob to win Doris’s desire. Bob seems to be younger (“that young punk”), to have lots of free time (he accompanies her to the stores while Larry is working) and to have an expensive hobby (“antiques”) and a time consuming one (“books”). Larry works hard, including doing overtime, and would like to be admired for his business acumen in acquiring the clock “wholesale”.
    The playing out of the plot seems to be a repetition of a preceding triangle. Doris’s mother had such a clock “when Pete was still alive”. Larry sees his wife, Bob, and the clock as forming a triangle of desire: “They would be quite happy together, Bob and Doris and the cuckoo”. Larry too has begun to fantasize around the cuckoo.
    Doris is not innocent in all this. She does not regret that Larry works to much, but is upset that he sometimes breaks routine by calling to see if everything is alright. She flirts with the cuckoo just as she flirts with Bob, and puts up no protest when Larry kicks her out, presumably just moving in with Bob. The cuckoo fulfils her wish of being rid of Larry, just as her mother (perhaps) got rid of Pete. So Doris has a cuckoo aspect too, in that the cuckoo female is alleged to change its mates frequently. When Bob, at the end, wonders if Larry’s death was not an accident but “something else”, we automatically think that the missing term is deliberate (i.e. murder), but another antonym to accident could well be “law”. In which case he should beware of what happens next. Doris may be following a law of her nature even more stifling than Larry’s mechanical routine, and more dangerous;
    Doris feels her reactions are fair self-defence against Larry’s patriarchal monologue: “After all, she couldn’t keep listening to him forever without defending herself; you had to blow your own trumpet in the world”. The cuckoo too couldn’t listen to Larry’s threats forever, and “defended” itself.
    The title phrase “beyond the door” is associated with the behaviour of the cuckoo, remaining inaccessible and aloof: “someplace inside the clock, beyond the door, silent and remote”. This inside space it withdraws to connotes domesticity, whereas Larry is subject to the law of the outside, of the workplace, which involves renunciation and compromising of desire: “But it isn’t fair. It’s your job to come out. We all have to do things we don’t like.” The cuckoo, like Doris, does not wish to bend to this law. Doris wishes to defend herself and to “blow her own trumpet in the world”.

    • tashqueedagg says:

      Thanks for all the love (Twitter and WordPress) and your contribution to this review. Compared to your comments, my analysis is redundant. I will have to continue to make up in quantity.

      Currently, I am looking at “Beyond the Door,” “Out in the Garden,” “Human Is,” and “Of Withered Apples” as essentially the same story of the bored and frustrated housewife having an affair with a non-human entity. Of them, I like this one the best because of it use of clock-time as a motif.

      I hope to pull some of these themes together into some more elaborate essays when I get through the stories sometime next month. Cheers!

      • terenceblake says:

        I don’t think I’ve read the other stories you mention yet, but your blog has inspired me to read or reread as much of Dick as I can. The theme I have been seeing so far has been the notion of synchronic (spatialised, stabilised, controlled) time versus diachronic (durational, unstable, unpredictable) time. His early stories seem to explore oppressive mechanical or stabilised systems and potential ways out that ultimately turn out to be impasses, worse versions of the same. This is the “iron prison” of the post-“2-3-74” works. THE GOLDEN MAN is a good example, as the world is trying to stop change by stamping out mutants. The “superior” mutant, the one that gets away, is the harbinger of a worse stasis than before. STABILITY is the prototype for this failed escape, as Benton undoes “stabilization” by introducing an even more mechanical submission. I liked your idea of the “disorderly clock” disrupting the patriarchal system, but I think that as with the deviant behaviour of the cuckoo, an even harsher system replaces it.

      • tashqueedagg says:

        Great term, “iron prison” of 2-3-74. I agree completely. It seems to me that too many fans (and too many scholars) look back from the last decade. In doing so they miss many great ideas and stories. I prefer to work up from the roots. I glad I inspire you to look at those stories again. Someday, after I get my book on PKD out, I may consider another focusing just on the early stories (1947-1955). I have some themes in mind and I will test them out in some short essays coming up shortly (maybe in July and August when I am back in the US). I think there is lots to be done about the posthuman for sure. This comes back in “Our Friends from Frolix 8,” but that is another mostly neglected work. What is it with Dick fans and their selective reading? Most scholars seem to take the same 15 novels as their core source material.

        “Deviant behaviour of the cuckoo.” Ah, maybe, but I cannot say anything too bad about the cuckoo. It did take out a douchy husband. Plus, I have been thinking that it is a pretty lousy example of clock-time. It was always doing its own shit. I imagine that if you were nice to it, maybe it would help you get home from work early. (The inverse of what the clocks programmed by bosses used to do.)

  3. Pingback: Review: Beyond the Door | Xeno Swarm

  4. terenceblake says:

    I get your point about not projecting the concerns of the future novels back onto the early stories, but my hypothesis is that PKD’s work is “metaphysical” from the beginning. One can see an evolution from the psychological and social motifs of the ealy short stories to the existential and ontological themes of THE EXEGESIS, but I would argue that even the first stories can be seen as gnostic tales. In particular Dick in the late novels makes a distinction between two sorts of time, two time axes: the fake, intercalated time of the Empire in which things only seem to change, and the real time that we only glimpse. This is what I have been trying to get at with my terminology taken from Bernard Stiegler of “synchronic” or stabilised, spatialised, programmed time (clock-time)and “diachronic” or disorderly, mutating, individuating time (becoming). I see this distinction at work in the early stories, and this is what gives them their haunting quality: Dick is describing a life, a society, a world in stasis. There is an attempt to escape into freedom by introducing a destabilising element (the “god who runs”, the cuckoo clock, the withered apple tree, etc.). Something moves, there is an impression of greater sexual, emotional, or mental freedom. But the new order turns out to be even more oppressive and binding than the old. In the short stories it is often the women who suffer the most from the static de-personalised patriarchal order, who show the elemnt of freedom necessary to initiate change, and who fall back again into the synchronic trap.

    • tashqueedagg says:

      That is cool. I still think some motifs get lost after 1973 and need to be discovered by going back to the roots. Class and labor is good example of this. Another is his exploration of posthumanism, which collected together is as significant on posthumanism as Asimov’s robots stories were for robots but as far as I know they have not been analyzed as a unit. I think there are 15-20 clearly “mutant” stories, and another 10-20 that clearly build on those questions. I guess I am saying that the Exegesis may be hidden in his early work, but much of his early thinking is made opaque from the perspective of the Exegesis.

      I do not get too much out of the metaphysical side of Dick. I think most of the Exegesis is really quite ridiculous. What I find compelling about the metaphysical stuff is the politics and sociology of it. How an urban space changes before our eyes. Times Square turns into Disneyland almost over night. How the stores in the malls, fashions, and handheld tech changes. How our political systems shift from democracies to dictatorships. How our youthful belief that love is forever fades to bitterness, tears, and ultimately divorces and divided families. So, yes there are shifting realities, but that is rooted in our late capitalist world (which as you point out at some basic level is static and banal despite surface changes).

      I am not sure that it is true that the old order is always more oppressive than the old. “Vulcan’s Hammer,” The Penultimate Truth,” “Our Friends,” “Galactic Pot-Healer,” ..I could do on. These all end with people more free than when they began, and it is not a metaphysical twist that proves illusory. It is real hard won freedom. In this way, I find him quite a revolutionary and promethean thinker.

  5. Pingback: SYNCHRONIC versus DIACHRONIC in the stories of Philip K Dick | Xeno Swarm

  6. terenceblake says:

    What I have in the back of my mind is Deleuze and Guattari’s book on Kafka as revolutionary and “promethean”, in the sense of detecting, enouncing, and trying to resist the “diabolical powers” of the future knocking at our door. They claim that the attempts at escaping the stasis of capitalism that one sees in the short stories in the form of animal-becomings fail, and that it is only in the novels that we get at least the beginnings of a liberation of desire, hidden behind an oedipal mask that is foregrounded, hence the seeming pessimism, but that is not Kafka’s last word. Dick’s themes are different but I think the short stories are often about failed escape attempts. The novels you cite as leading to more freedom are more successful attempts, because his analysis has deepened.
    I agree that something is lost as Dick becomes more metaphysical and less sociological. However I think that metaphysics is itself political, as do Deleuze and Guattari, Bernard Stiegler, and Paul Feyerabend (all of whom are anarchist thinkers for me). So I don’t think that the Exegesis makes the early work’s more political themes opaque, I would rather say that the early works clarify the political nature of the Exegesis. Finding the Exegesis in the early stories is a way of broadening their scope rather than an attempt at sublimating them out of the social field.
    Much of the Exegesis is ridiculous, and Dick is quite conscious of that fact and sending himself up. But there is a lot of conceptual creation and analysis going on too. An important aspect of the book is that there is no final level of interpretation proposed, and that he considers science fiction’s cognitive estrangement as having an application to the real world, on a level with philosophy and religion.
    I see the god who runs, the cuckoo clock, the withered apple-tree, the globe from STABILITY, the Rexorian mindswapper, etc. as unsatisfying versions of the “pink light”, envisaged agents of liberation that fail to live up to expectations. Dick’s analysis of toxic relations and encounters continues and deepens (e.g. the encounter with Gloria in VALIS) and his analysis of self-delusion, including his own, is refined. The alienating nature of metaphorical explorations of reality taken literally as veridical descriptions of reality is precisely his theme.
    On the question of “post-humanism”, I think that Dick is post-post-humanist, as the story “Human Is” suggests. Dick explores the theme of post-humanism, and it would be interesting to study his work from that angle, but ultimately it is a literalisation. Given that the concept of “human” is an ideological construct used to legitimate the social order, we are all post-human and have always been. Exploring such post-humanity technologically is an exciting prospect, but a one-dimensional post-human is still one-dimensional. Lyotard makes an interesting contrast between two senses of post-human (which he calls “inhuman”), predicting the full extrapolation of the processes of complexification at work in capitalism at the expense of the other inhuman designated with the term of the “unconscious” but uncontainable in any theory of the unconscious. Technological posthumanism seems to me to provide no line of resistance to capitalism, but only to reinforce its attempt to capture all of reality inside its quantitative grid.

    • tashqueedagg says:

      Yes, you are correct. I was just thinking of poor Nat Anteil and Fay Hume (Confessions of a Crap Artist). Talk about failed escape attempts.

      He is hostile to transhumanism (and to my bewilderment even technological post-scarcity). I was talking about posthumanism (mutants, precogs, etc.) They are not a solution either for Dick, but I think an analysis of the posthuman reveals quite a lot about his view toward the technocracy.

      Anyway, I tease that out here and there. It is in my manuscript as well.

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  8. terenceblake says:

    If you want to see where I am coming from philosophically, this is fairly short:

    • tashqueedagg says:

      Reading now.

      Are you a philosopher, by the way? I am a labor historian by training.

      • terenceblake says:

        I am an English teacher in a French technical lycée. But my training was in philosophy, and I came to France to attend Deleuze and Foucault and Lyotard’s classes. So I have a more abstract approach than you, but complementary , I hope.

  9. terenceblake says:

    The paper is an English version of a talk I gave in French at Bernard Stiegler’s Summer Academy in 2012.

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