Piranesi is a book by Susanna Clarke published in 2020. The Doctor’s Wife is an episode of Doctor Who by Neil Gaiman that aired in 2011. What do they have in common? House. In this essay, I will…
show that the House in Piranesi, a seemingly endless span of rooms containing marble statues and an ocean, is literally the same character as House in The Doctor’s Wife, Season 6, Episode 4 (DWS06E04).
Spoiler Warning: Note that this will contain spoilers for the Doctor Who episode and the book.
This essay assumes that you have read Piranesi more recently than you’ve seen the Doctor Who episode. I will provide a short summary of each and then will provide a play-by-play summary of the Doctor Who episode linking it back to portions of the book. Note that I’ll be skipping a lot of the drama of the TARDIS, which is where a lot of the charm of the episode comes from. After describing the similarities in the two pieces of work, I will “Bring It All Together” (skip there if you don’t want the recap) and refer back to the evidence.
The Doctor’s Wife is a lovely Doctor Who episode where the Doctor is tricked into visiting a pocket universe by a consciousness referred to as House. House is an entity that has tricked many Timelords in the past into visiting and has eaten their TARDISes. After the Doctor lands, the TARDIS’s matrix is removed and inserted into a person named Idris. House posses the shell of the TARDIS with Amy and Rory, the Doctor’s companions, inside while the Doctor works with Idris and gets a chance to speak verbally with the TARDIS matrix for the first time. Magic happens, House is extracted from the TARDIS and the TARDIS matrix is returned by the end of the episode.
Piranesi is an interesting book about Piranesi, a man who has been living in a space he calls House. House is full of marble statues and the ocean tides occasionally sweep through the Halls of the House. Piranesi treats House as something almost religious based on his written descriptions. Piranesi has lost his memory of our world and is visited by several other characters throughout his time in the House. One important figure is the Other (Valentine Ketterly), who is trying to figure out the mysteries of the House and also (unbeknownst to Piranesi at the beginning of the book) trapped Piranesi there in the first place. Laurence Arne-Sayles is the one who teaches Valentine Ketterly and other characters how to get to the House.
DWS06E04: In The Doctor’s Wife, we are introduced to several characters who are in a junk yard. The myriad of clothing they are wearing makes it difficult to tell what time period they might be in. Uncle, a human, is wearing a military outfit. Nephew, an Ood, is wearing a suit. And Aunty and Idris are wearing dresses. The state of their clothing is in disarray, like they have been holding onto this clothing for a while. The place is a junk yard because it’s an open system that allows object from the outside to enter, even though it’s concealed from the outside world.
Piranesi: Compare this to Piranesi, where the characters who make their way into the House are left with nothing except what is on their back. The House exists as a place where there are merely two materials: water and marble. Sea life, birds, humans, and clothing appears to have seeped into the House from Earth. Objects are allowed into the House, even though it’s concealed from the outside world.
Emptying The Mind
DWS06E04: Nephew places his hands over Idris’s ears and, per the script: “Nephew will drain your mind and your soul from your body. And leave your body empty…but soon you’ll have a new soul.” Note that Nephew’s eyes are a green color at this moment and Ood are canonically capable of powers that humans do not possess. This story does take place in the Doctor Who universe, after all.
Piranesi: Something similar happens in the House in Piranesi, albeit more slowly. The characters that enter the House slowly lose their memory and minds. It’s uncertain how long the process takes, and we never see someone properly “empty” in the House. The Other insists he cannot be there for more than an hour, but that seems like more of a precaution than an actual time limit.
A Pocket Universe
DWS06E04: The Doctor receives a “scrumptious little beauty” which is a Timelord Emergency Messaging System. The Doctor says “there are no more Timelords left in the universe, but the universe isn’t where we’re going…” The Doctor pulls some levers, burns up bits of the TARDIS, and they’re outside the universe and have unwittingly landed on House, the villain of the episode.
When Rory inquires about where they are, the Doctor provides a simple metaphor: “Imagine a great big soap bubble with one of those tiny little bubbles on the outside.” The implication that this universe is, as stated above, a pocket universe.
Piranesi: Compared to the method of travel in Piranesi, the Doctor must spend a lot of energy to get to where House is located. The characters in Piranesi are able to reach the House from anywhere on the planet if they’re skilled enough at returning to a childlike state of mind. They’re capable of crossing over by merely meditating. The Prophet suggests that ancient knowledge from the Earth could have seeped into the House over thousands of years and created the halls of the House, and it’s clear that the House is somewhere that could, in a loose sense, be described as a pocket world, if not universe. The House seems to have its own gravity, its own oceans, its own labyrinthine halls that are receptive to creatures from the Earth entering its spaces.
Now, compare this to Piranesi, but perhaps on a different scale. The Earth is the great big soap bubble, and the House is the tiny little bubble on the outside.
What is the House?
DWS06E04: “The House? What’s the House?”
“The House is all around you, my sweet. You are standing on him. This is the House. This world.”
The Doctor looks into a vent at a green light. “I see. This asteroid is sentient.”
“We walk on his back, breathe his air, eat his food, AND DO MY WILL.”
“So you’re like a sea urchin. Hard outer surface, that’s the planet we’re walking on, big squashy oogly thing inside.”
Note that as House is talking, the Ood is holding up his translation sphere, which glows green along with the Ood’s eyes. The implication here is that the House is both a physical object (asteriod) and a consciousness, but despite both of these, he still requires the Ood translation sphere to be capable of speech. House will talk later in the episode when he is in control of the TARDIS, but we know from other episodes that the TARDIS is capable of producing its own noises and has at least one speaker.
Uncle also states clearly that: “Too late. House is too clever.” The fact that House has tricked many Timelords into visiting so he can eat their TARDISes certainly implies a certain devious cleverness. Had the Doctor not been the last of the Timelords, it is entirely possible he would not have escaped from his situation.
Piranesi: It is difficult to get a good grasp of what exactly House is in the book, but it is clear that is what Piranesi calls the world around him. The ocean, the statues, and the halls, all of it is “House.” It is also clear from the book that being in this space has resulted in Piranesi losing bits and pieces of his memory; filled with something else. In the canon of the book, people who reside too long within the House are susceptible to losing their short term (and long term) memory. Piranesi, who has been in the House far longer than the other characters we see in the book, not only loses bits and pieces of his memory and connects this change to him becoming a different person:
“This, I suppose, is where I differ from both Matthew Rose Sorensen and Piranesi; I find I do not care greatly about clothes.”
“But I, who am not Piranesi – or at least not only him- realise that this wouldn’t go down too well.”
What if the House isn’t only a physical object, but a consciousness that presses its way into the inhabitants of the space?
DWS06E04: During the episode, House is able to push his consciousness into the (now empty) TARDIS and talk to Amy and Rory and simultaneously take control of the TARDIS. House discusses his plans to leave the pocket universe to seek out additional TARDISes, which implies that the House isn’t bound to the physical asteroid from. It is capable of existing separately as a consciousness and transferring from one physical object to another.
Piranesi: The last words of the book are: “The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness Infinite.” Throughout the book, Piranesi views the House and its halls as something akin to religion, nowhere more than this last sentence. It reads as if Piranesi views the House as a conscious being capable of kindness. At different points in the book, Piranesi alludes to the House “providing” for him, as though it has a mind of its own.
Corridors and Halls
DWS06E04: When House takes control of the TARDIS, he states “Corridors. I have corridors. So much to learn about my new home.” House learns to appreciate the architecture of the TARDIS, which is an improvement over a round asteroid junkyard covered in bits of old TARDISes.
Piranesi: The House in Piranesi takes the form of innumerable rooms containing marble statues.
The Powers of the House
DWS06E04: “Why shouldn’t I just kill you now?” “Because…killing us quickly wouldn’t be any fun. And you need fun, don’t you?” “You need to be entertained, and killing us quickly wouldn’t be entertaining.”
As Amy and Rory run though the TARDIS, House is able to make them hallucinate and experience time jumps and, potentially, time dilation. It’s unclear in the episode if this is a capability of House on its own or if it’s only possible because House is controlling the TARDIS. What is clear, is that House is capable of “messing with our heads” as Rory states.
Piranesi: Consider for a moment that characters losing their short term memory and James Ritter’s longing to return to the House aren’t latent properties of the House, but a power that the consciousness of the House is capable of. What if the “consciousness” of the House is capable of causing characters to lose their short and/or long term memory and causes the characters to want to return to the House (ie James Ritter, Raphael, Ketterly, Laurence Arne-Sayles, Piranesi)
DWS06E04: After taking control of the TARDIS, Nephew is the only character that the House brings with him from the pocket universe. Aunty and Uncle collapse to the floor when House decides he’s done with them. This makes sense because the Ood appears to have more capabilities than Aunty and Uncle, as clearly shown earlier in the episode where Nephew removes the consciousness from Idris.
Piranesi: The House in the book can be said to have many servants. Each person who teaches someone else to get into the House is helping extend the House’s influence. Laurence Arne-Sayles helps Valentine Ketterly, James Ritter, and Sarah Raphael get into the House. Ketterley helps Matthew Rose Sorensen get into the House and Sorensen helps James Ritter into the House. It is unclear if Matthew Rose Sorensen will help anyone else into the House, but it is clear that multiple characters know how to make it into the House and that the knowledge can be spread.
DWS06E04: The House asks why he shouldn’t just kill the Doctor and his companions and the Doctor rebuts that he is the only hope for House to get out of the pocket universe into the Doctor’s universe. By deleting rooms, as recommended by the Doctor, House successfully makes it out of the pocket universe. With the rooms deleted, the Doctor, Idris, Amy, and Rory are transported back to the main TARDIS control room, Idris dies and the TARDIS matrix is released back into the TARDIS. The TARDIS matrix pushes House out of the TARDIS. House pleads “Stop this! Make her stop! Make her stop!” and is last heard of in the episode with a groan that fades away. It is unclear where exactly House went. It was clearly pushed from the TARDIS, but is House dead? Or has the consciousness merely been pushed out of the TARDIS and floating about into our universe?
Bringing It All Together
Assume for a moment that Doctor Who and Piranesi exist in the same universe and please continue reading.
The Doctor’s Wife has just ended. The Doctor, Amy, and Rory celebrate in the TARDIS, which has returned to its usual self after pushing House out. House, a disembodied consciousness, floats through space. But House is a clever entity; the Doctor said so himself. House focuses inward and makes plans for the future. He can feel that this place is vast and he will take his time.
As happens in so many Doctor Who stories, House gravitates to planet Earth and starts anew. House knows the best place to hide is in A Pocket Universe, and so either creates one or stumbles upon the location in Piranesi. This new pocket universe resembles the one we see in The Doctor’s Wife. Think of it as a great big soap bubble that is attached to the earth instead of attached to the outside of Our Universe. It’s an Open System, where objects and creatures can get in and out if they know how. At House’s old pocket universe, Time Lords, Ood, and other creatures crashed or landed and House gobbled them up. In this new place, birds, sea creatures, and (eventually) humans will stumble in. Most unwittingly, but a few will enter intentionally.
From the book, we know that several humans have stumbled in and died. It’s unclear how long ago each human stumbled into the space. We know from the story that people who spend a long time in the House slowly start to lose their short term memory, and, potentially their minds. It’s unclear from the book what is causing this, but what if the House itself was responsible for slowly Emptying the Mind of each human that entered the space? Without an Ood to do its bidding, House isn’t capable of speeding up the process as we saw with Nephew and Idris.
The architecture of the house does not resemble the junkyard asteroid that we saw in the Doctor Who episode for several reasons. First off, House is not relying on luring ships to land or crash land on the surface. Secondly, House has finally some experience with architecture from his stay in the TARDIS. It may be a bit of leap to say that House saw the corridors of the TARDIS and decided to make the Halls of the House (See Corridors and Halls heading above), so we will perform some speculation here. If House’s little bubble started as not much more than a drain hole on earth, it would have allowed salt water and small sea creatures to enter. With shells from the sea creatures and a bit of time, it would be possible for House to form limestone and marble rocks. Now, it’s unclear how long House has been around, but Laurence Arne-Sayles claims it has been around since ancient times. What if House had fashioned itself sets of corridors to trap unsuspecting people who made it inside? And what if one of the people who ended up inside of House were a marble sculptor from the Roman Empire?
It’s unclear what The Powers of the House are in the context of the book, but if we link House to the Doctor Who episode, it seems that the House has some ability to influence his world. If House is able to form marble from the materials he’s given, who is to say that House can’t form halls and statues? It seems a stretch to say that the seemingly infinite halls and statues of the house were formed by a human hand, so it makes more sense that House has the ability to fashion the world, albeit maybe a bit slower than The Consciousness would like. House also knows that The Doctor is out there, so he purposely takes things slower than he typically would.
This brings us back to an important question: What is the House? In the Doctor Who episode, it is a creature that tricks its prey and eats. It doesn’t really have plans for world dominance or anything of the sort. In Piranesi, it’s unclear what the House might want, but from the context of the book, it appears that the House is responsible for wiping the memory of Matthew Rose Sorensen.
After all is said and done, Piranesi/Matthew Rose Sorensen returns to human society with knowledge on how to help others get to the House. Will he enjoy his time with the rest of the humans or will he want to return to the House? We do know from the end of the book that he does help James Ritter return, so it isn’t a leap to assume that he might eventually help other people get to the House. Unwittingly, Piranesi has become A Servant to the House will perpetuate the cycle of guiding more and more people into its Halls.
In case you are not convinced that the House from The Doctor’s Wife is the same entity as the House in Piranesi, please take a moment to note that the Doctor Who episode was released in 2011, approximately 9 years before the release of Piranesi in 2020. Additionally, Susanna Clarke has made it apparent she is familiar with Doctor Who by referencing “‘Timey-Wimey: Steven Moffat, Blink and J.W. Dunne’s theories of Time’, Journal of Space, Time, and Everything, Volume 64: 42-68, University of Minnesota Press” on page 165 of the book.
House has found a new servant to lure humans into its halls and has a direct connection to the United Kingdom of all places. One day, the Doctor will uncover what House has been doing, and we’ll see just how clever the House really is.