"The Landlady" and Other Short Stories

"The Landlady" and Other Short Stories Summary and Analysis of "Genesis and Catastrophe"


“Genesis and Catastrophe” is subtitled “A True Story” (607), raising the stakes for the story we are about to hear. (In fact, it is a fictionalized account of true events.) The narrative begins with a doctor telling an unspecified woman that she has a son. The woman asks if he is alright, and the doctor assures her that her son is alright and that she will see him soon. The woman asks again if her son is alright, and inquires about whether her son is still crying and why he has stopped crying. The doctor continues to ask the woman to calm down as she continues to insist upon seeing her son. The doctor reassures the woman that she has borne a strong, healthy child, and that the nurse in the adjacent room is washing her baby in order to bring it over to the woman. After once more insisting that the woman’s child is alright, the doctor asks the woman to lie back and relax and to close her eyes.

The woman then reveals to her doctor that she is praying that this child lives, because none of her other children lived. Hearing this disorients the doctor, as he only met her husband that day, since the couple were new to the town. The young woman’s husband is a drunkard that works at the local customshouse on the border, while the young woman is gentle, religious and always sad. Rumors circulate that she is the third wife of her drunkard husband.

As the doctor bends over the young woman, pulling a sheet up onto her chest, the woman shares that she has lost 3 children in 18 months. First, her son Gustav died after constantly being ill. Fourth months prior, her daughter Ida died. According to the young woman, Ida was beautiful, but when the doctor replies “I know” (609), the woman retorts with “how can you know”? The doctor then responds that he is sure Ida was lovely, but that her “new one is also like that” (609). The young woman explains that Ida was a very beautiful child, and after her sons Gustav and Otto died, she would put her ear to Ida’s chest to make sure she was breathing at night. The doctor begs the young woman to rest, but the young woman recalls how she was already pregnant again when her daughter died, and her husband tells her soon after that the family is moving to Braunau.

The young woman is frightened that her children are inheriting something that leads to their deaths. She recalls that when her son Otto was born, her husband peeked into the cradle and asked why all of his children were “so small and weak” (610). Three days later, Otto died almost immediately after his baptism.

We then learn that the doctor is speaking with Hitler’s mother, as she decides to name her son Adolf, and the doctor reassures her that he will soon learn to walk and talk. After deciding to name her son Adolf, since it is similar to her husband’s name, Alois, Frau Hitler panics because the doctors asked her the same question before her son Otto was born, and the doctor again has to reassure her that everything will be alright.

The innkeeper’s wife comes into the room carrying baby Adolf, who is wrapped tightly in a white woolen shawl. The innkeeper’s wife remarks on the baby’s lovely hands and long, delicate fingers, and the young woman eventually looks at her baby and begins smiling and cooing at her child.

The woman’s husband then walks in wearing a dark-green uniform. The doctor congratulates Herr Hitler on the birth of his son, and Alois bends closer and closer to the baby and to his wife Klara with strange jerky movements. The innkeeper’s wife jokes that their son has “a marvelous pair of lungs” (612) because of how loudly he screams, and Alois confronts the doctor about how small the child is, insisting that the child will soon die like his other child. After Klara begins to cry, the doctor nudges Alois towards Klara, and Alois bends down and kisses Klara on the cheek. The story ends with Klara begging God to be merciful and to preserve her son’s life.


"Genesis and Catastrophe" focuses on the birth of Adolf Hitler, a historical fact that lends gravity and importance to Dahl's short story. Dahl begins by claiming this is a true story, and, though parts of this story are dramatized, Adolf Hitler and his parents are historical figures. This historical reference introduces many ethical implications, as a baby born to a strange drunken father and a grieving mother becomes a dictator and the cause of murder, violence, and genocide throughout the world.

In the beginning of the story, Dahl introduces ambiguity in order to unsettle the reader. The first lines of the story obscure what is occurring. Initially, the doctor begins by reassuring a woman that her son is alright. Several paragraphs in, it finally becomes clear that the woman has given birth to a son that the doctor is caring for. Finally, the story reveals that the woman is Adolf Hitler's mother, and that she is grieving her three dead children. By initially obscuring the characters and circumstances within the story, Dahl allows for a dramatic turn that surprises and disrupts the reader.

By beginning this story with Klara's grief and pain, the narrator establishes empathy for her. Klara is lamenting the death of her three children, and only sees death as a possibility for her newborn son. As the doctor empathizes with her, and reflects on her horrific marriage with her alcoholic husband, the narrator's tone is compassionate towards Klara, though still ambiguous and unsettling.

This story also employs heavy dramatic irony, as the audience knows that many of the character's statements about Adolf turn out to be true. Klara's doctor insists that "the small ones are often a lot tougher than the big ones," (610) and, as readers, we know that Adolf Hitler will grow into a tyrannical and arguably tough adult, as he lays the world to waste in World War II. Meanwhile, the innkeeper's wife comments that she hears Adolf screaming "just after he [comes] into this world," (612) and Adolf Hitler is later known for his constant screaming. This dramatic irony lends further shock and intrigue to this story, as the predictions within the story, and the reassurance that the doctor provides, accurately, and insidiously, depict Adolf Hitler later in life.

Finally, this story introduces an immense ethical dilemma to the reader, presenting more questions than answers. Indeed, writing Adolf Hitler's birth introduces the idea that any part of the narrative could have gone differently. This piece also introduces perspective into the story of Adolf Hitler. Though Adolf Hitler is now known as a tyrannical and evil dictator, he was born and had a loving mother. This story ends with Adolf's mother insisting that her son must live, as she prays to God to be merciful to her son. Though the audience knows who Hitler will become, this portrait of Hitler's birth adds humanity to his mother and family, while also leading the reader to consider whether any change to this story, or the possible death of Adolf like all of Klara's other children, would have changed history and prevented the unimaginable evil of World War II.