The Symbolism of the Doors in “The Starless Sea” by Erin Morgenstern

This was probably my most anticipated book of 2019. A while back, I read The Night Circus by Morgenstern, which instantly became one of my favorite books and the one I most frequently recommend to people asking me for suggestions regarding books to read. I actually preordered this book so I could get it the day it was released. Now, with books that you have high expectations for, sometimes it is hard for them to meet those expectations. But while The Starless Sea is not as good as The Night Circus (a difficult book to surpass, in my opinion), it was still excellent and well worth the read.

The book is a tale rich with symbolism that traces a young man’s discovery and journey into a subterranean realm populated with stories.

Far beneath the surface of the earth, hidden from the sun and the moon, upon the shores of the Starless Sea, there is a labyrinthine collection of tunnels and rooms filled with stories. Stories written in books and sealed in jars and painted on walls. Odes inscribed onto skin and pressed into rose petals. Tales laid in tiles upon the floors, bits of plot worn away by passing feet. Legends carved in crystal and hung from chandeliers. Stories catalogued and cared for and revered. Old stories preserved while new stories spring up around them.

(p. 6)

This image symbolically describes the human collective unconscious, that vast repository populated with all the stories and myths that have existed or will come into being. Every writer, poet, artist, and musician seeks to tap into this reservoir of inspiration, and some, like Morgenstern here, attempt to describe it. But it can only be described symbolically, since the wellspring of artistic creativity is something that exists beyond our comprehension. But we all sense its presence, just below the surface of our psyches.

While art can be a reflection of the mystical source of consciousness, it also has the ability to draw the audience into the realm of the mystical through the use of symbols. The door is one of those symbols, representing the transitional space between ordinary reality and the deeper realms of the subconscious.

The son of the fortune-teller knows only that the door feels important in a way he cannot quite explain, even to himself.

A boy at the beginning of a story has no way of knowing that the story has begun.

He traces the painted lines of the key with his fingertips, marveling at how much the key, like the sword and the bee and the doorknob, looks as though it should be three-dimensional.

The boy wonders who painted it and what it means, if it means anything. If not the door, at least the symbols. If it is a sign and not a door, or if it is both at once.

In this significant moment, if the boy turns the painted knob and opens the impossible door, everything will change.

(p. 13)

Doors to the subconscious exist not only in art, but they can manifest spontaneously anywhere in the world, instantly transporting an unsuspecting individual into the proverbial Wonderland of an altered state of consciousness.

There are numerous doors in varying locations. In bustling cities and remote forests. On islands and on mountaintops and in meadows. Some are built into buildings: libraries or museums or private residences, hidden in basements or attics or displayed like artwork in parlors. Others stand freely without the assistance of supplemental architecture. Some are used with hinge-loosening frequency and others remain undiscovered and unopened and more have simply been forgotten, but all of them lead to the same location.

(p. 61)

There is a very subtle yet extremely important warning hidden in this passage. Morgenstern writes that some doors “are used with hinge-loosening frequency.” I interpret this as a caution to those who use consciousness-expanding drugs as a portal to glimpse the hidden realms of the subconscious. Just as doors can become unhinged, the human psyche can also become unhinged when thrown open too frequently through the use of certain chemicals. While it can be difficult to seek out the undiscovered doors in remote locations, it seems a much more prudent path for those seekers of deeper knowledge.

As William Blake famously asserted in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.” The Starless Sea is yet another door for us to enter into the infinite and ineffable expanse of the human creative spirit. And now the wait begins for Ms. Morgenstern’s next novel.

4 Comments

Filed under Literature

4 responses to “The Symbolism of the Doors in “The Starless Sea” by Erin Morgenstern

  1. Hi Jeff – I read and liked The Night Circus when it came out, but I haven’t read The Starless Sea. I think I’m going to put it on my list. Books with symbolism are always good and I l really ike the door symbol. Hope you’re enjoying some good reading time during the holidays!

    • Hi Barb! Yes, getting some good reading in, as I hope you are too. I think you will like Starless Sea. Morgenstern’s writing is exquisite. Night Circus is a tough act to follow, but she has done well. Look forward to hearing your thoughts on the book. Cheers, and hope 2020 is a great year for you.

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