What are examples of symbolism in Roald Dahl's "The Landlady"?

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Tamara K. H. eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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One point of symbolism in Roald Dahl's "The Landlady" is the name of the pub recommended to Billy for his first night in Bath, The Bell and Dragon. The name can be seen as a biblical allusion to two stories found in chapter 14 of the Book of Daniel. The two stories are together called Bel and the Dragon, and both stories concern the topic of idolatry. Idolatry is the worship of images of deities but is also loosely interpreted as the worship or adoration of anything that is not God, such as of material possessions or of people of importance. The allusion to the stories called Bel and the Dragon symbolizes the dangers of the landlady's idolatry in Dahl's short story.

In the story of Bel, the prophet Daniel points out to Babylonian King Astyages the absurdity of worshiping the idol Bel, a title given to multiple gods. Daniel points out to the king that worshiping the idol is foolish because the idol is not the one who eats and drinks the offerings given to it each day; the idol has no power. Instead, the king's priests and their families sneak into the temple each night, through a secret entrance, to consume the offerings.

In the story of the dragon, a great dragon is worshiped by the Babylonians, serving as their idol. Daniel proves the idol has no real strength by feeding it poisoned barley cakes that make it explode, killing the dragon and thereby also proving the foolishness of idolatry.

Similarly to King Astyages and the Babylonians, the landlady in Dahl's story is guilty of idolatry. She expresses her idolatry in her hobby of using taxidermy to preserve any living thing she thinks is beautiful such as her pet parrot and dachshund. More importantly, by the end of the story, it becomes evident she employs a scheme of gratifying her middle-aged lusts by luring young, handsome men into her home, poisoning them with arsenic, and preserving them with taxidermy. We know she is gratifying her lusts because she looks the "length of Billy's body" over, up and down. She also remarks on how "extraordinarily handsome" all three of her visitors have been, including Billy, and notes that Mr. Temple's body was flawless; his skin "just like a baby's." As the symbolism of the allusion to Bel and the Dragon signifies, the landlady kills and preserves these men through taxidermy so that she can continue to worship them, to idolize them. And, interestingly, Billy would have escaped her idolatry, even temporarily conquered her idolatry by sabotaging her plans, had he continued on to The Bell and Dragon, just as Daniel conquered idolatry by killing the dragon in the biblical story.

Therefore, the symbolism of the pub's name, The Bell and Dragon, shows us that Dahl's story is more than just a story about an insane, murderous middle-aged lady; it's a story parodying the dangers of idolatry.

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emilyknight7 eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Most of the symbols in "The Landlady" are acting as foreshadowing. These build dramatic irony, as the reader slowly realizes that the landlady is up to something sinister and, eventually, that Billy Weaver will not make it out of the house.

One example of this is the guestbook. In the story, the landlady has Billy sign the guestbook, as she says she has all her guests do. Billy finds it strange that there are only two names in the book and that both sound vaguely familiar to him. Just as in old fairy and folk tales, knowing someone's name grants some power over that person (think of Rumpelstiltskin), and so Billy's act of adding his name to the book seems to seal his fate. 

Additionally, Billy's observations of the landlady suggest foreshadowing through symbolism. At one point, he notices her "small, white, quickly moving hands, and red finger-nails." From that description alone, she sounds potentially dangerous, with hands that move quickly and red nail polish that signifies action, passion, and blood. 

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