How does Roald Dahl explore gender roles?
In his stories, Dahl often casts women who appear non-threatening as femmes fatales. In "Lamb to the Slaughter," we meet Mary Maloney, a doting pregnant housewife who murders her husband after he tries to leave her. A similar situation occurs in "The Way Up to Heaven," as the obedient Mrs. Foster leaves her husband and races to the airport to make her flight to Paris, apparently leaving her husband to die trapped in an elevator. In both of these instances, docile wives reassert their power through murderous means, unsettling domestic and gender roles.
Discuss the effects of ambiguous endings in Dahl's stories.
Several of Dahl's stories end ambiguously, including "The Visitor," "The Landlady," and "The Way Up to Heaven." In "The Visitor," Oswald sends a mysterious box to his nephew with his collected diaries. In the last story in the diaries, Oswald learns that he may have slept with the leper daughter of a kind man that takes him in after his car breaks down. But, this is only a possibility, and the story ends before an explanation is given. In "The Landlady," a similar cliffhanger is presented, as the landlady tells Billy that the two previous boarders still live on the third floor of the home, and Billy tastes something strange in his tea, but the story only suggests that the landlady is poisoning Billy and will taxidermy him. Similarly, "The Way Up to Heaven" ends with Mrs. Foster calling an elevator repairman and explaining that the elevator is stuck between the second and third floors, suggesting (but not definitively showing) that her husband is dead after being trapped there.
These ambiguous endings allow for the reader to imagine the final outcome, creating heightened suspense. By not quite resolving the climax of the story, Dahl creates memorable conclusions and leaves the reader in anticipation.
Discuss the role that World War II plays in Roald Dahl's stories.
Roald Dahl's early stories all focus on Royal Air Force pilots in World War II, and on the effects that World War II has on these young men. This semi-autobiographical element informs these stories, and introduces a darker tone to many of Roald Dahl's works. Later stories by Roald Dahl also seem inflected with some of the darkness and pessimism of the war, as insidious people and events continue to occur. In "Genesis and Catastrophe," Dahl again revisits the war with a story about the birth of Adolf Hitler, which presents a unique moral dilemma to the reader. Since this story is about a baby, could there have been a different historical outcome if any of the factors changed? What would happen if Hitler had died like his mother's other children? What does it mean to wish death on a baby, especially if that baby grows into a tyrannical murder and dictator? World War II introduces these questions and themes into Dahl's stories, and shapes this collection.
What is the significance of the frame story in "An African Story"?
The frame story begins with a narrator finding a story in a pliot's suitcase. This pilot crashes near the old man's shack, and after hearing a story the old man tells him, writes the story down "in his own words" (4). Telling this story "lift[s] a great weight off [the old man's] shoulders" (4), which suggests that the old man feels some guilt for setting up Judson. The frame story indicates the significance of perspective and the written word, as the pilot writes this story down and preserves the old man's tale. This framing also explores the old man's possible guilt and regret, and sets the story in the context of World War II.
How does Dahl use revenge as a central theme in his short stories?
Revenge plays a crucial part in many of Roald Dahl's stories. In "An African Story," the old man exacts revenge on his assistant, Judson, after Judson beats the old man's dog. Meanwhile, in "Lamb to the Slaughter," Mary Maloney exacts revenge on her husband when he tries to leave her by murdering him with a leg of lamb—the dinner she had planned to prepare for him. A similar situation occurs in "The Way Up to Heaven," as Mrs. Foster seems to leave her husband trapped in an elevator in order to make her flight to Paris. Here, revenge serves as an assertion of power, and a restoration of order. But, in "An African Story," the old man's account of his revenge lifts a great weight off of his shoulders, suggesting there is some guilt in exacting revenge, and redemption in sharing these stories.