Roald Dahl’s short story “The Way Up to Heaven” first appeared in The New Yorker (February 27, 1954) and was included in his collection Kiss Kiss (1960). It concerns Mr. and Mrs. Eugene Foster, an affluent elderly couple who live in a six-story house on East Sixty-Second Street in New York City. During their more than thirty-year marriage, Mrs. Foster has been a devoted wife, serving her husband’s needs and subjugating herself to his overbearing will without resistance. He had, as Dahl writes, “disciplined her too well for that.” The Fosters live in their gloomy house with their servants; few visitors come to call. Their only child, a daughter, lives in Paris with her husband and their three children, the grandchildren Mrs. Foster loves deeply, even though she has never seen them.
The most significant character traits of Mr. and Mrs. Foster—and their relationship—are established immediately through exposition. Mrs. Foster has a pathological fear of being late on any occasion; Mr. Foster torments her cruelly by making her wait for him, quite unnecessarily, past the hour when they must leave to arrive safely on time. She has suffered his delaying tactics for years on special occasions and has only recently begun to suspect that he deliberately causes her great suffering.
The plot gets underway as the Fosters prepare to leave home for six weeks. She is flying to Paris to finally meet her beautiful grandchildren; Mr. Foster will move to his club while she is gone. He has dismissed all the servants in the interim to save money. He will come home occasionally to check for mail. Mrs. Foster is overcome with increasing anxiety as she counts down the minutes until 9:15 a.m. when they must leave in order for her to arrive at the airport. She fears that if she misses her plane, her husband will change his mind and not let her go at all. She wishes she could simply live in Paris and be with her grandchildren always.
Mr. Foster finally appears at 9:22, but makes her wait again while he goes to wash his hands and otherwise delays getting in the car. Mr. Foster tells her that he will not bother to write to her while she is gone. On the drive to the airport, their chauffeur must slow down because the fog has rolled in. Mrs. Foster is beside herself with fear and worry that she will miss her plane. Mr. Foster tells her continually that her flight surely will be cancelled because of the weather. As her agony intensifies, the muscle in her eye begins to twitch nervously, as it always does when she is most distressed. Mrs. Foster is shocked when she realizes her husband is watching this nervous tic, well aware of the effect he is having upon her.
Arriving at the airport, Mrs. Foster learns her flight has been temporarily delayed. Mr. Foster leaves her there. Mrs. Foster waits all day for her flight to leave, but it is finally cancelled until eleven o’clock the following morning. She hates to leave the security of being at the airport, and she does not want to see her husband again; however, she is exhausted. Giving up, she phones her husband. The servants have all gone, but he insists she take a taxi and come home for the night.
Back at home, Mrs. Foster suggests he not ride with her to the airport again the next morning. He agrees, but says their driver can drop him at his club on her way, even though his club is downtown, not on the way to the airport. When she mildly protests, he says, “But you’ll have plenty of time, my dear. Don’t you want to drop me at the club?” Defeated once again, Mrs. Foster goes to bed.
The following morning, Mrs. Foster is ready by 8:30 for the car that will arrive at 9:00. Her husband appears after 9:00, asking for coffee. She did not make coffee. He then disappears to find some cigars, saying he will meet her at the car. At 9:20, Mr. Foster walks slowly down the steps to the car, pausing to check the weather. After finally getting into the car, Mr. Foster suddenly tells the chauffeur to stop as they are pulling away. He begins looking for a present for his daughter he planned to send with Mrs. Foster. As he searches through his various pockets, Mrs. Foster’s suffering intensifies. When he says he will go back inside to look for it, she begs him to mail it later. Ignoring her, he “commands” her to stay in the car, and he goes back into the house.
Mrs. Foster waits...and waits. She asks the chauffeur for the time: 9:30, barely enough time to get to the airport. Suddenly, she sees the small present “wedged down in the crack of the seat on the side where her had been sitting.” She notices that it had been “wedged down firm and deep, as though with the help of a pushing hand.” She quickly sends the chauffeur to bring her husband back, but the man returns at once, saying the door is locked. Mrs. Foster finds her keys and goes after her husband herself.
As she fumbles with the key at the locked front door, Mrs. Foster suddenly stops, remaining motionless as she listens to some sounds from deep within the house. She listens intently, “to hear and to analyze these sounds that were coming faintly from this place.” Then she withdraws her key, runs down the steps, and leaves for the airport without Mr. Foster. As she tells the driver to hurry, a significant change has occurred in her; the softness is gone from her face, and she speaks with “a new note of authority.” During her flight to Paris, Mrs. Foster feels calm, strong, and quite wonderful.
While in Paris, Mrs. Foster writes chatty weekly letters to her husband, always reminding him to eat regularly, “although that is something I’m afraid you may not be doing when I’m not with you.” At the end of her visit, Mrs. Foster returns home, but she does not seem particularly sad at leaving, almost as if she knew she would be returning soon. She sends a cable telling Mr. Foster she is on her way home. When she lands in New York, she seems “interested” that there is no car to meet her, perhaps even “amused.”
Arriving home, Mrs. Foster rings the doorbell several times, waiting for an answer that does not come. She lets herself in with her key, noticing the large pile of letters on the floor where they had been delivered through the mail slot. The house is dark and cold, and she notices a “curious odor in the air that she had never smelled before.” She walks quickly to a place in the back of the house, disappearing for a moment to investigate something as if to “confirm a suspicion.” When she returns, there is a “little glimmer of satisfaction on her face.” She wonders for a moment what next to do. Then, using her husband’s address book, she calls a repair service to come fix the Foster’s elevator that is stuck between the second and third floors of their house. Ms. Foster waits for the elevator repairman, sitting patiently at her husband’s desk.
“The Way Up to Heaven” is notable both for its irony and for the foreshadowing of the surprising conclusion. The title itself introduces the first of many ironic elements, since it is the elevator in the Fosters’ house that conveys Mr. Foster to his death. It is also ironic that Mr. Foster meets his demise because he insists on dismissing the servants for six weeks to save money, he insists Mrs. Foster return home when she is first stranded at the airport, and he returns to the house pretending to look for the present he has hidden in the car. The story’s conclusion is foreshadowed in several subtle ways, including Mrs. Foster’s recognition of her husband’s deliberate cruelty, her desire to live in Paris permanently, and her lack of regret when her six-week visit comes to an end. The most obvious foreshadowing is her writing that she doubts her husband will be eating regularly while she is gone and her noticing the strange odor when she comes home.
As a revenge tale, “The Way Up to Heaven” satisfies because Mr. Foster’s sadistic behavior is so thoroughly redressed by the wife he so completely underestimates. Mrs. Foster did not plan to kill her husband, but when she saw a sudden opportunity to free herself from his cruelty and make a happy life for herself in Paris, she acted. Apparently she was not as “well disciplined” as her selfish and arrogant husband believed her to be.