The Way Up to Heaven

by Roald Dahl

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Student Question

Where is irony present in "The Way Up To Heaven" by Roald Dahl?

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The basic irony in the story "The Way Up to Heaven" is situational irony. Mr. Foster knows full well that his wife has a pathological fear of being late for any occasion. He takes a sadistic delight in torturing her by all kinds of delaying tactics, but she doesn't realize he is doing them deliberately in order to increase her anxiety. On the occasion dramatized in the story he pretends that he forgot a present he wanted to give his wife to take to their daughter in Paris. They are already almost too late to get to the airport for takeoff, but he insists on going back upstairs to get the unimportant little gift. While she is waiting in the limousine, Mrs. Foster makes a discovery that changes her life by revealing the truth about her husband's character.

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.

This is proof positive that her husband has been doing this sort of thing for years just to torment her. From being a meek housewife Mrs. Foster has a transformation in character reminiscent of that which motivates Mary Maloney to kill her husband with a frozen leg of lamb in Roald Dahl's "Lamb to the Slaughter." And Mrs. Foster also kills her husband and gets away with it.

The affluent Fosters live in one of those narrow six-story townhouses in Manhattan which require an elevator to get up and down the floors. When Mrs. Foster rushes up to the front door, intending to tell her husband she found the package and hurry him to the airport, she hears sounds through the front door which mean something to her, although not to the reader.

Yes—quite obviously she was listening. Her whole attitude was a listening one. She appeared actually to be moving one of her ears closer and closer to the door. Now it was right up against the door, and for still another few seconds she remained in that position, head up, ear to door, hand on key, about to enter but not entering, trying instead, or so it seemed, to hear and to analyse these sounds that were coming faintly from this place deep within the house. Then, all at once, she sprang to life again. She withdrew the key from the door and came running back down the steps. “It’s too late!” she cried to the chauffeur. “I can’t wait for him, I simply can’t. I’ll miss the plane. Hurry now, driver, hurry! To the airport!”

The townhouse has been shut down for six weeks. The servants have been put on leave. No one is going to be visiting the townhouse during all the time Mrs. Foster will be visiting her daughter and grandchildren in France. The author has established that Mr. Foster is not a letter-writer, so his wife should not be surprised if she doesn't hear from him. In the meantime she will write him occasionally from France.

When the six weeks are up, she returns to New York and finds that the townhouse shows no sign of having been entered by anybody in all that time. Then she pretends to discover that there is something wrong with the elevator. It is stuck between floors. Ironically, Mr. Foster's little ruse of pretending to go back upstairs for the gift he knew he had left stuffed down beside the seat in the car caused him to get stuck in the elevator. When the elevator repairman arrives it is he who will discover, to Mrs. Foster's feigned horror, that her husband is a shrunken corpse. Obviously the sounds Mrs. Foster heard through the front door when she was leaving for Paris six weeks ago were the sounds of the little elevator getting stuck between floors and those of her trapped husband rattling the elevator door and calling for help. Ironically, her husband brought his death upon himself, and he got just what he deserved. It was her anxiety about getting to the airport on time that gave her an excuse for not entering the townhouse but leaving in the limousine and assuming her husband could get to his club by taxi. 

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