The most important characters in the short story “The Way up to Heaven” by Roald Dahl are Mrs and Mr Foster. The other characters in the short story are only episodic or absent from the action, and they only help to show some aspects of the social setting or the main characters.
Mrs Foster is the main character in the short story, whom the narrator follows and whose point of view he uses. Very few details are rendered about the woman’s outer characterisation. We know that she is rather old (her husband is seventy), that she has a daughter who lives in...
The woman’s inner characterisation is conveyed both directly by the narrator, and indirectly through her thoughts, attitude, and actions.
The woman’s main trait, according to the narrator, is her fear of being late, which has become like an illness over time:
All her life, Mrs Foster had had such a strong fear of missing a train, a plane, a boat, or even the start of a play that her fear was almost an illness. In other respects, she was not a particularly nervous woman...
This fear of being late influences many of the woman’s actions and her interactions with her husband. Mrs Foster is often disturbed and irritated by her husband being ready to leave later than her. In time, she begins to suspect that the man is playing with her patience on purpose: “Mr Foster may possibly have had a right to be annoyed by this silliness of his wife’s, but he could have had no excuse for increasing her anxiety by keeping her waiting unnecessarily.”; “…it seemed almost as though he had wanted to miss the train, simply to increase the poor woman’s suffering. If the husband was guilty...” (p. 41, ll. 1-4)
The woman is so affected by this attitude that it makes her “nearly crazy”. Her anxiety about being late is further illustrated as she prepares for leaving to Paris to visit her daughter. She is constantly asking the time and complains about her fear of missing the plane while waiting for her husband to get ready:
“What time is it, Walker?”
“It’s eighteen minutes past, madam.”
“Now I really will miss it!” she cried. “Oh, I wish he would come!”
Throughout the story, the narrator records her reactions when she thinks that she will be late. Here is just one such example: “The little muscle beside the left eye was trembling violently now. The eyes themselves were very close to tears.”
Two other important aspects in Mrs Foster’s characterisation are her relationship with her daughter and her husband. The woman loves her daughter and her grandchildren whom she never met in person, and longs to live near them: “Mrs Foster did not like the Frenchman very much, but she was fond of her daughter, and, more than that, she had developed a great desire to see her three grandchildren.”
The relationship with her husband is influenced by a latent conflict between them, although the woman considers herself as “a good, loving wife”. The conflict is caused by the woman’s fear of being late combined with her husband’s disregard for this fear and his authoritarian nature.
The main themes of the short story “The Way up to Heaven” by Roald Dahl are typical of crime and mystery stories: the perfect crime and “the worm turns”. These themes are enhanced by the motif of the pathological fear of being late, illustrated by the character of Mrs Foster, who has become so obsessed with being on time that she begins to suspect her husband is intentionally making her late (which might be true). Furthermore, her fear of being late manifests into hysterical fits and even physical reactions.
The perfect crime
The theme of the perfect crime is explored in an atypical way in the short story. Normally, the perfect crime illustrates an act or murder which is flawless and the culprit manages to escape justice. However, in this short story, there is no intentional criminal, but an opportunistic one. Mrs Foster does not plan to kill her husband, although she is an irrational woman due to her fear of being late and she suspects the man is intentionally making her be late. The woman simply takes advantage of a favourable situation and leaves her husband to die trapped in the lift of their six-story house. This situation arises after the woman’s flight to Paris is delayed.
The worm turns
The theme of ‘the worm turns’ refers to victims turning into perpetrators, most often used in crime stories. In this short story, Mrs Foster functions as the initial victim, tormented by her husband who then becomes the man’s perpetrator. The woman is obviously under the authority of her husband and struggles with a pathological fear of missing out and being late. She does not dare to scold the man when he makes her late and needs his permission to visit their daughter.