Bioethics Forum Essay
The Lady Writer and the Valkyrie: Magda Szabo’s Novel The Door
An old woman desperately needs medical attention. Yet she fiercely refuses every offer of help from friends, neighbors, and the local doctor. No one will get past her door, she vows. Respecting her autonomy means leaving her alone, possibly to die. Intervening to save her means risking her wrath and losing her friendship and respect. This drama is at the heart of Magda Szabo’s novel The Door, originally published in Hungarian in 1987 and republished in 2015 in a new English translation. It was named one of the 10 best books of 2015 by The New York Times Book Review, an accolade too late for its author, who died in 2007 at the age of 90.
This is not a mystery story. The novel’s narrator, a thinly disguised portrait of the author, provides the ending in the first chapter. She describes a recurring dream in which she cannot open the locked steel-frame door to her home to let ambulance workers in to “save her patient.” The dream is a version of a real event, she says, and once in a dire situation a locked door was opened to her. As a result, she mourns, “I killed Emerence. The fact that I was trying to save her rather than destroy her changes nothing.”
A Mutual Dependency
Between this confession and the final door-opening at the book’s end, the novel traces the relationship between Magda, a well-educated, upper-class “lady writer,” and Emerence, her illiterate, controlling, indispensable peasant housekeeper. It is a novel of domesticity but also an indirect political history of Hungary after the Stalinist era. Magda, a young writer whose work has not been published under Communist rule, is emerging as an important figure, much in demand by media, publishers, and even foreign literary circles. She feels unable to manage the household after she and her husband move to a new, larger apartment. Enter Emerence, a “Valkyrie of a woman,” who takes her time in deciding whether to take on this new assignment because, she says, “I don’t wash just anyone’s dirty laundry.” Her criteria aren’t clear but Magda and her husband pass the test.
It is hard to call the relationship between such completely different women “friendship.” It is more of a mutual dependency. Emerence is at times cruel, callous, and openly scornful of Magda’s writing as “not real work.” She hates the Church, all religions, doctors, the upper classes, and any kind of authority. Yet she is kind to people in distress, takes care of sick people, including Magda’s husband, sweeps the streets in the neighborhood, and makes fine meals—always on her own terms. Averse to anything political, in the war she sheltered both Jews and Germans from their pursuers. She has an almost mystical relationship with animals, and commands the love and loyalty of Viola, the stray dog Magda and her husband have adopted. From time to time she tells Magda about her troubled past, and Magda learns to tolerate her erratic, at times unfathomable behavior. And through it all Emerence keeps the household running smoothly. In her own way, she loves Magda.
This strange relationship continues for many years. Emerence has many people in her life– neighborhood residents and shopkeepers; the Lieutenant Colonel, who sorts out her problems with the authorities; and her nephew, whom she helps financially. But Magda comes to be seen as the person closest to Emerence. In fact, she is the only person to have been allowed in the front parlor of Emerence’s spotless apartment, where she secretly keeps nine cats.
The Door Is Opened
The situation begins to unravel as Magda is awarded a prestigious prize and prepares to leave for Athens to represent Hungary at an international conference. Emerence develops the flu and a bad cough. She refuses to see a doctor. The neighbors leave food on the porch but it is not touched. When a foul stench begins to emerge from the apartment, Emerence still refuses entry but tells Magda that one of the cats has died. Magda comes up with a plan. She will promise to bury the cat. When Emerence opens the door, the doctor and a handyman will grab her and bring her to Magda’s home or to a hospital. But Magda is scheduled to be at a TV studio for an interview, so she is at the scene only to get Emerence to open the door and put the cat in a box. The doctor and handyman do the rest. When she returns she finds that Emerence has been taken to the hospital, and that her apartment is closed because the filth was so pervasive that the doctor ordered it to be decontaminated. In fact, Emerence herself had to be decontaminated before the hospital would accept her. She apparently had a stroke weeks earlier and was trying to manage while incapacitated. In the hospital doctors say that Emerence may not live. Putting aside her personal feelings, Magda does her political duty and goes to Athens. When she returns, Emerence is recovering in the hospital. To assuage her own guilt, and to help Emerence recover, Magda tells her that no one saw the filth of the apartment and that she cleaned it all herself, both lies.
The hospital doctor now says that the hospital needs the bed and Emerence is well enough to go home. In his view she “will now be able to face facts.” But he doesn’t know Emerence. Facts are not important to her, and she realizes that she has been doubly betrayed by Magda—first by planning her removal from her home; and second, by failing to tell her that the whole neighborhood knows that she, the most immaculate of women, has been found in squalor. Magda is overcome with guilt. In the end Emerence doesn’t leave the hospital. She has a heart attack and dies, her time of death signaled by Viola’s frenzy.
The final door – the inner door that has been locked for years – is opened after Emerence’s death. The contents are Magda’s inheritance, as set out in Emerence’s will. In the room covered by sheets is a magnificent set of late 18th century furniture, given to Emerence by the Grossman family for sheltering their daughter Eva from the Nazis. But the furniture has been infested with wood-eating insects and disintegrates at the first touch “into a river of golden sawdust.” The book ends as it began with a reprise of the dream.
The Limits of Autonomy and the Persistence of Guilt
In perhaps less dramatic ways, many caregivers, both professionals and family members, find themselves in similar situations. An aging parent, a long-time patient, a friend or neighbor, refuses to accept help even if it means enduring suffering and a preventable death. In this story the efforts to help were ill-timed and ill-thought-out, but based on compassion. The narrator’s recurring dream, and the author’s confessional novel, are testaments to the long-lasting impact of failure to respond to an emergency in a way that respects the ill person’s deepest beliefs. Perhaps there was no way to save Emerence, but with people of less extreme principles and standards, acceptable options may be available. Doors exist not just to keep people out but even more important, to let them in.
Carol Levine directs the Families and Health Care Project at the United Hospital Fund in New York. She is a Fellow of the Hastings Center and the editor of Living in the Land of Limbo: Fiction and Poetry about Family Caregiving. This essay originally appeared in Hektoen International: A Journal of Medical Humanities.