In “The Umbrella Man,” the narrator (a twelve-year-old girl) and her mother encounter an elderly man who pretends to be feeble in order to gain their sympathy, sell the mother stolen goods, and use the mother’s money to buy himself a drink. Although the narrator witnesses most of what her mother sees, author Roald Dahl uses the mother to emphasize the con artist’s unscrupulous behavior. Through the mother’s eyes, the old man’s strong tolerance for alcohol and his clever scam are revealed.
The mother pays him the one pound for a silk umbrella (that obviously is worth more), supposedly for cab fare to get him home. Then the narrator soon spots him spryly dodging traffic while crossing the street. She and her mother follow the quick-footed old man as he navigates his way around other pedestrians and a few corners. When she loses sight of him, the narrator asks her mother where he went.
“He went in that door!” my mother said. “I saw him! Into that house! Great heavens, it’s a pub!”
They peek into the pub; to their surprise, he pushes himself through crowds, reaches the bar, and orders a drink. The bartender brings him
a smallish tumbler filled to the brim with light brown liquid.
Interestingly, the supposedly refined mother is able to identify the hard liquor from a distance. Moreover, she even can discern the exact amount, saying it must be a “treble whiskey.”
Even more surprising is the “little” old man’s ability to hold his liquor; he downs the triple shot of whiskey all in one swallow. He then deftly proceeds with his scam. After grabbing his hat and coat before exiting,
in a manner so superbly cool and casual that you hardly noticed anything at all, he lifted from the coat-rack one of the many wet umbrellas hanging there, and off he went.
He steals another umbrella to fool another future sap into giving him money to purchase more alcohol at a different bar. This elegant scam has multiple victims: the umbrella owners who are bereft of a shield against rain and the sympathetic people who are fooled out of a pound. As the narrator’s mother declares,
So that’s his little game! … You see how clever he is! … He never goes to the same pub twice! … I’ll bet he prays like mad for rainy days.