What is the theme of the short story "The Way Up To Heaven"?
There are three interwoven themes in "The Way Up To Heaven." They might be called: "The perfect crime," "Revenge," and "The worm turns." They might also be categorized as sub-genres of murder mysteries.
Roald Dahl, an English author, may not have known much about America, although his stories were frequently published in elite American magazines. He sets the story in Manhattan but says the Fosters, obviously very wealthy, live in a six-storey house and have four servants. A six-story house sounds like an anomaly. Who would build such a monstrosity? Naturally they need an elevator especially, since both are old.
Mr. Foster enjoys tormenting his wife by dawdling when they are going out together and making her fear she is going to be late.
All her life, Mrs. Foster had had an almost pathological fear of missing a train, a plane, a boat, or even a theatre curtain.
They have been married for thirty years, and she has always been a meek and mild wife, like Mrs. Maloney who kills her husband with a frozen leg of lamb in Dahl's "A Lamb to the Slaughter." In "The Way Up To Heaven" her husband is being particularly cruel because she has to catch a plane to Paris, where she expects to spend six weeks visiting her grandchildren.
Dahl takes pains to establish that the house will be vacant for six weeks. Mr. Foster intends to stay at his club. Dahl establishes another important detail:
"Will you write to me?" she asked.
"I'll see," he said. "But I doubt it. You know I don't hold with letter-writing unless there's something specific to say."
After a flight delay forces them to return to their house to stay overnight, Mr. Foster deliberately dawdles again next morning in order to make his wife either miss the plane or just barely be able to catch it. At the last minute he goes back inside on the pretense of looking for a present he intended to have her take to France. She has never really known for sure that he has been sadistically tormenting her all these years, but this time she learns the truth when she finds the gift-wrapped present inside their chauffeur-driven car.
She reached over and pulled out a small paper-wrapped box, and at the same time she couldn't help noticing that it was wedged down firm and deep, as though with the help of a pushing hand.
She runs back to the front door and inserts the key--but then she stops and listens intently.
The way she was standing there, with her head in the air and the body so tense, it seemed as though she were listening for the repetition of some sound that she had heard a moment before from a place far away inside the house.
Instead of entering, she has the chauffeur rush her to the airport. She spends six wonderful weeks with her daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren in Paris. She writes her husband every week but never hears from him. When she returns to the New York house, which has been vacant all this time, she has to make a phone call. From what she says, the reader realizes the horrible truth: her husband had gotten stuck between the second and third floor on the elevator. The repair man will find the shrunken corpse, but Dahl leaves the ending to the reader's imagination.
The worm has turned. Mrs. Foster has taken her revenge by intentionally leaving her husband imprisoned in the elevator for six weeks. It was a perfect crime, like Mrs. Maloney's in "A Lamb to the Slaughter." No one could suspect that Mrs. Foster knew her husband was doomed to die an agonizing death.