In "The Umbrella Man," do you agree with the old man's actions? Why yes? Or why no?

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William Delaney | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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I can understand why the Umbrella Man behaves the way he does, but I cannot condone it. After all, he isn't stealing umbrellas because he is hungry. He spends his ill-gotten gains on triple shots of straight whiskey. If he is so addicted to whiskey, he could at least buy it by the bottle. That way he wouldn't have to steal so many umbrellas and wait for rainy days. He is paying, it would appear, a pound for three ounces of whiskey, probably at least three times as much as the same amount would cost if he bought a bottle of Scotch and drank it at home. He certainly doesn't seem to be getting much companionship out of going to those pubs. But, of course, he has to buy something at each pub in order to have the opportunity to steal an umbrella.

The narrator introduces herself as follows:

I'm going to tell you about a funny thing that happened to my mother and me yesterday eveninig. I am twelve years old and I'm a girl. My mother is thirty-four but I am nearly as tall as her already.

Why did the author Roald Dahl decide to have a twelve-year-old girl narrate the incident? It seems likely that he wanted the point of view of a person who hadn't yet developed a strong sense of morality. The girl calls the incident "a funny thing." Dahl has said that his characteristic black humor is necessary to most of his stories because otherwise they would seem merely cruel. By using this mischievous girl, who enjoys seeing a trick played on her mother, he can give the story a comical slant. If he told the same story from the mother's point of view, it probably wouldn't be amusing at all. The mother is stuck with a valuable umbrella which she will feel guilty about owning if she keeps it but which she is unable to return to its rightful owner.

The essence of the scam is told in a few words. The girl's mother tells the old man:

"Do hurry up. We're getting soaked to the skin standing here."

"I know you are," he said. "And that is why I'm offering you this umbrella of mine to protect you, and to keep forever, if . . . if only . . . "

"If only what?" my mother said.

"If only you would give me in return a pound for my taxi-fare just to get me home."

The real victim, of course, is not the mother but the man who lost a silk umbrella worth approximately twenty pounds (or about a hundred American dollars in those days) and will have to walk home in the rain. It doesn't take much cleverness to sell a $100 umbrella for $5. Why doesn't the old man at least ask for five pounds. In the film adaptation of the story (Tales of the Unexpected, 1980), the umbrella man actually does sell his stolen umbrellas for five pounds.

The little girl, being young and naive, doesn't consider such obvious questions as:

"How many triple shots of straight whiskey can this old man hold in one afternoon?"

"Why doesn't he ask for more than one pound?"

"What does he do to support his drinking habit on days when it isn't raining?"

"How long can he get away with stealing umbrellas before he gets caught?"

Dahl was right in using a twelve-year-old girl as narrator because he makes his story "funny" and avoids having to deal with a lot of embarrassing questions. Note that the girl says,

" . . . about a funny thing that happened to my mother and me yesterday."

Since the mother acquired the umbrella only one day ago, the girl-narrator does not have to answer the most glaring question:

"What is the mother going to do with the stolen umbrella? Will she keep it? Throw it away? Or what?"

 

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