‘The Door’ by Magda Szabo: Story of an intense psychological relationship

‘The Door’ is a novel by Magda Szabo, a Hungarian writer. I was struck by the similarity in the climax scene to the Hindi writer Yashpal’s short story ‘Parda’. In both the stories tragedy strikes when ‘the door’ and the ‘parda’, meaning curtain, drop or are torn apart, leaving the stark reality staring in the face of the spectators and the reader.

Spoiler Alert: This review of ‘The Door’ may be a bit of a spoiler for anyone who wishes to read the book.

The Story: The Door is a story of an intense relationship between two women, a writer and her domestic help. Some people may wonder what could be interesting in the story of a domestic help? I was held spell-bound while reading the book. There seemed to be some kind of psychological war going on between these two women. Emerence, the domestic help has an extraordinary mysterious personality and the sensitive writer is continuously discovering new sides to her character as well as facts that do not seem to quite fit in. The writer discovers that Emerence grew up in an area quite close to where she came from, yet refused to acknowledge or wish to return to her hometown. Emerence claims to have worked with various important people and received expensive gifts from them.

The Protagonist: Emerence is the janitor of a housing complex and in that capacity has been allotted a small apartment with a porch. She does the work of five people, cleaning homes, the common facilities, sweeping the streets of the fall leaves in autumn and the snow in winter. For a while one is left wondering why the book is titled the door? The door and what lies behind it is part of the mysterious personality of the woman. Emerence entertains people on the porch and no one is allowed beyond that door. The writer at times suspects that she has stolen expensive artifacts from her previous employers and is hiding them in her apartment.

The Dog: The other two characters in the book were a dog and the writer’s husband, also a writer. The dog was a stray, freezing on the street on Christmas eve, that the writer and her husband had picked up. Emerence and the dog connected immediately and she named it Voila! The writer was almost jealous of the relationship between the woman and the dog.

The Husband: The husband was a silent one, and was least interested in the domestic affairs of the house, always buried in a book. This was the reason the writer decided to hire help as she was unable to concentrate on her writing. Emerence, however, took a liking to him and made it obvious. This becomes another cause for envy for the writer. All in all Emerence seemed to have taken control of the house and all its inhabitants. At the end when Emerence was in trouble, he did not lift a finger, and it is left to the writer to manage her hospitalization under dramatic circumstances. She did all this at the time when she received the most important award for the literary work and had to attend the many ceremonies related to it. When the chips were down and Emerence was at her worst, blaming the writer for her state, and when the writer was in need of some moral support, the husband says ‘Poor Emerence! Sometimes you can be astonishingly unjust. How can you not have understood what is so clear to everyone else?’ The writer is shocked and wonders what was ‘so obvious’? I found this so typical. Never did anything to help, but ready to pronounce judgement. The writer thinks ‘So now I was Judas’.

The Climax: In a dramatic sequence of events, when Emerence had not opened her door for a few days and had not touched the food that was left on the porch by the kind neighbours, it was decided to break down the door. In the climax, when the door was removed, a strong stink emanated from the room, many cats fled and the stark reality of sheer chaos with excreta and stale food all over the place, was revealed. Emerence had suffered a stroke and was paralyzed on one side. Her pride did not allow her to ask for help or open the door for fear of revealing the terrible condition behind the door.

This climax was very much like the scene in Yashpal’s ‘Parda’. When Choudhary was unable to pay up, the moneylender lost patience and pulled down the ‘parda’/ curtain at the door of the house. What was revealed was the pitiful half naked state of the women of the house. This was similar to the state of Emerence and her room when ‘the door’ was pulled down.

Emerence was aware that she had been exposed. A carefully built up image of a strong, well-to-do woman, in control of herself and her surroundings was brutally shattered. And she blamed the writer for her state, for her shame, for the exposure. All the neighbours were aware that the writer actually saved her life as the doctor pointed out, but no one was willing to explain this to Emerence.

The Guilt: The writer goes through tremendous mental trauma, with Emerence refusing to talk or even look at her, and her husband squarely putting the blame on her. She was riddled with guilt when really she should have been thanked for her efforts to save Emerence. She finally recovered her composure with help from the doctor and the authorities, and decided to confront Emerence. This was another traumatic scene, with the stubborn woman refusing to see sense and the writer running out of patience.

The End: For all her crankiness, the popularity of Emerence was revealed when she was admitted to the hospital. Waves of people visited her and brought food, flowers and gifts, till the hospital authorities had to put a stop. She finally died having made peace with the writer and herself. At her funeral, the cemetery and the town were swarming with people, and it not quite clear where they had come from. Emerence’s nephew inherited everything valuable and the writer inherited whatever was in the apartment. The authorities and she went to the house, which had an inner room that was never used or opened. When the door was opened it revealed extremely grand and ornate furniture, two fine figurines and an ancient clock. But the covers had been removed and everything was covered in layers and layers of dust, untouched for decades it seemed. One touch and everything disintegrated into dust. And so ended the saga of Emerence and her eminence!

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