Theme refers to a universal idea or message that runs throughout a story. A story may have more than one theme, or a major (central) theme and other sub- or alternative themes, which may or may not be linked to the central theme.
We find a number of themes in the story, The Landlady, by Roald Dahl.
The central theme is deception. The landlady appears to be a good soul, kind-hearted, caring, generous and, most importantly, benign. She easily deceives Billy Weaver and he is taken in by her seemingly innocuous appearance and gentle, kind words as illustrated in the following lines:
She was about forty-five or fifty years old, and the moment she saw him, she gave him a warm welcoming smile.
"Please come in,” she said pleasantly.
She had a round pink face and very gentle blue eyes.
She seemed terribly nice. She looked exactly like the mother of one’s best school friend welcoming one into the house to stay for the Christmas holidays.
She looked up at him out of the corners of her eyes and gave him another gentle little smile.
After all, she was not only harmless – there was no question about that – but she was also quite obviously a kind and generous soul.
As the story progresses, the reader becomes horribly aware that the gentle landlady is anything but. She is a cold and calculating serial killer, who carefully selects her victims and like, a spider weaving its pernicious web, carefully ensnares her chosen victim by being especially kind and caring. The unsuspecting Billy Weaver is soon trapped and when he drinks her almond-flavoured tea, we the readers, realise to our dismay, that that is probably the last cup of anything he will ever have.
Another theme which features strongly is irony.
There are many examples of both verbal and situational irony featured in the story. The example of deception mentioned above, is one such. A few other examples from the text are the following:
Certainly it would be more comfortable than The Bell and Dragon.
The fact that Billy was impressed by the pleasant image of the apartment, with its yellow chrysenthamums, the fireplace, the parrot and the 'pretty little dachshund', is ironic, since this seemingly comfortable adobe was nothing like it seemed. It was a place of murder most foul. He would have been better off going to The Bell and Dragon after all.
He had never stayed in any boarding-houses, and, to be perfectly honest, he was a tiny bit frightened of them.
The irony here is obvious. If Billy had acted on his fear, he would have saved his life.
“You see, it isn’t very often I have the pleasure of taking a visitor into my little nest.”
Neither Billy or the reader, at this juncture, is aware of the irony contained in these words. The reader only realise later, the implication of what the landlady says here. her boarding house is a veritable nest for her victims. She preserves and stores their bodies there, just as she had done with her dog and her parrot.
... I'm inclined to be just a teeny weeny bit choosy and particular – if you see what I mean.”
The verbal irony lies in the fact that the landlady knows exactly what she means, but the unfortunate Billy does not. She carefully selects her victims.
Thirdly, naivete (or inexperience) is also a theme.
Since Billy is only seventeen and therefore lacks much knowledge of the world, he is quite gullible. If he had known more, he would have definitely noticed the tell-tale signs of the landlady's evil and her intent, such as:
... and her blue eyes travelled slowly all the way down the length of Billy's body, to his feet, and then up again.
He noticed that the bedspread had been taken off the bed, and that the bedclothes had been neatly turned back on one side, all ready for someone to get in.
“I’m so glad you appeared,” she said, looking earnestly into his face. “I was beginning to get worried.”
He noticed that she had small, white, quickly moving hands, and red finger-nails.
But I think he was a trifle shorter than you are, in fact I’m sure he was, and his teeth weren’t quite so white. You have the most beautiful teeth, Mr Weaver, did you know that?”
There wasn’t a blemish on his body.”
“A what?” Billy said.
“His skin was just like a baby’s.”
It is tragic that Billy hadn't noticed the particular and very specific attention that the landlady paid him and that she was so precise when speaking about her earlier guests, or even that her wearing red nail polish was incongruous. In his naive estimation, she
appeared to be slightly off her rocker ... a little dotty.
The theme of innocence, youthful innocence as embodied in Billy Weaver, runs strongly throughout the book. Billy is presented as a frank, fresh-faced young man, barely out of school, who seems unaware of the pitfalls of life out in the real world. He doesn't for one minute seem to think that there is anything sinister about the landlady. He is completely taken in by her, her friendly ways and charmed by her comfortable rooms. It is true that he does detect some oddity in her behavior, but he cheerfully and patronisingly puts it down to her being 'slightly dotty', and nothing more. Although he mulls over the disappearance of the two guests that stayed there before him - a disappearance that made the news - he treats it as an intriguing mystery rather than as a hint of danger.
Youthful innocence, then, is a prime theme of the book; also the way in which young, innocent trusting natures are taken advantage of by older, more devious and wicked minds.
I think one of the most obvious themes is that of appearances versus reality. It is interesting that the landlady is, at first at least, remarkably hospitable towards Billy. She treats him very generously and gives him his own floor for his own, and likewise charges him a minimal rent. Clearly Billy is taken in by this "kindness" which causes him to ignore the various signs that something sinister is going on here. Of course, it is all to easy to be taken in by a nice old lady who seems to be living by herself, when actually something much more sinister is happening. The fact that the tea tastes of bitter almonds indicates what is really going on, for the taste of bitter almonds is an indication that cyanide has been placed in the tea.