The Way Up to Heaven

by Roald Dahl

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What is the theme of Roald Dahl's "The Way Up To Heaven"?

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The theme of "The Way Up to Heaven" is primarily revenge. Mrs. Foster takes passive-aggressive revenge on her husband, who has tormented her with deliberate delays, by letting him die in a stuck elevator. Additionally, the story explores themes of the perfect crime, passive aggression, and poetic justice, as Mr. Foster's own actions lead to his demise.

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The theme of "The Way Up to Heaven" is essentially revenge. Mr. Foster has been secretly tormenting his wife for years with his procrastination and deliberate delays. She doesn't resent his behavior because she can't be sure whether he is doing it intentionally or it is just an annoying character trait. One morning, she find definite evidence that he is a sadist who enjoys torturing her because he knows how important it is to her to be on time for appointments.

Since Mr. Foster uses passive aggression to torment his wife, it is poetic justice that she should get revenge through the same passive aggression. She doesn't actively do anything to kill her husband; she only refrains from doing something. When Mr. Foster delays their trip to the airport by pretending he left something behind in their house, Mrs. Foster, waiting in the car, hears a sound of the elevator getting stuck between the floors. Instead of helping him, she proceeds to the airport, thereby letting him die.

Mrs. Foster's deadly revenge might be considered excessive, but Roald Dahl takes pains to show that Mr. Foster has been using his sadistic passive aggression against his poor, long-suffering wife systematically. Her revenge is a reaction to a whole series of injuries she has suffered at the hands of this petty tyrant over many years.

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What is the theme of "The Way Up To Heaven"?

“The Way Up To Heaven” is a perfect-crime story. The main theme is the commission of a perfect murder.

A supplementary theme involves Mrs Foster's “pathological fear” of being late and her husband’s passive aggression in deliberately making her anxious about being late. Mrs Foster does not understand whether her husband is tormenting her deliberately.

Mrs Foster was and always had been a good and loving wife. For over thirty years, she had served him loyally and well. There was no doubt about this. Even she, a very modest woman, was aware of it, and although she had for years refused to let herself believe that Mr Foster would ever consciously torment her, there had been times recently when she had caught herself beginning to wonder.

So a another theme might be called “The worm turns.”

Perfect crime stories are a familiar genre. Edgar Allan Poe wrote several. Such stories can either end in success or failure. Most often the protagonist plans a perfect murder but gets caught because of overlooking one detail. Less often the murderer plans a perfect murder and gets away with it. That is the case in Poe’s famous story “The Cask of Amontillado.” In Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Black Cat” the murderer does get caught.

Roald Dahl’s “The Way Up To Heaven” strongly resembles his “Lamb to the Slaughter,” in which Mary Maloney kills her husband with a frozen leg of lamb and then destroys the murder weapon by cooking it and serving it to the policemen who are investigating the crime. In both stories the perpetrators are sweet, domestic, docile women who kill their husbands in a momentary flare-up of passion.

In “The Way Up To Heaven,” Mrs Foster finally discovers positive evidence that her husband has been deliberately tormenting her all these years, and she takes her revenge by letting him get stuck between floors on the elevator for six weeks while their house is vacant and completely unattended. Both women get away with their crimes because no one would suspect such devoted and submissive wives to murder their husbands and also because there is no way of proving murderous intent.

So the main theme of “The Way Up To Heaven” is the successful commission of a perfect crime, and supplementary themes are passive aggression, “the worm turns,” and "the biter bit."

In a story including "the biter bit," the aggressor is appropriately punished by being caught, so to speak, in his own trap. Mr Foster would not have gotten stuck in the elevator if he had not been pretending that he had to delay their departure in order to go back upstairs to look for a gift he wanted his wife to take to their daughter in Paris.

At this point, Mrs Foster suddenly spotted a corner of something white wedged down in the crack of the seat on the side where her husband had been sitting. 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.

Mr Foster’s trick costs him his life. His wife finally realizes the subtle sadist has been deliberately torturing her with his passive aggression for years, and thus she has the motive for letting him perish in the stalled elevator. His going back up on the elevator provides both the motive and the means for his own execution. This bit of irony is what makes the story appealing.

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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.

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