Analysis of "The Landlady" by Roald Dahl
Roald Dahl's The Landlady is a standout among his many memorable short stories. It's a horror story with gradually building tension, leading to a shocking conclusion. It's a manageable length at about 3,500 words.
This article starts with a summary and then looks at a theme, foreshadowing, irony and some questions to consider.
Summary of The Landlady
Billy Weaver arrives in Bath by the London train at 9 PM. It's cold with some wind. He asks the porter if there's a fairly cheap hotel nearby. He's directed to The Bell and Dragon about a quarter mile down the road.
It's Billy's first time in Bath. He's been sent by the Head Office in London and is to report to the local Branch Manager as soon as he can.
Billy is seventeen, is wearing new clothes and is starting his business career. He walks briskly down the residential street. It's lined with formerly swanky homes that are showing their age.
A illuminated window catches his eye. It has a notice that says "Bed And Breakfast." He moves closer and looks in. There are flowers, green velvety curtains, and a dog curled up by a fire. The room is nicely furnished. He also notices a parrot in a cage.
It seems like a decent place to stay, more comfortable than a pub. He thinks about The Bell and Dragon—the beer, darts and company, not to mention it would be cheaper. He's a bit frightened of boarding-houses. He decides to walk on to see The Bell and Dragon before deciding.
Just as he's about to leave, his eyes are riveted to the sign, "Bed And Breakfast." He feels compelled to stay. Without really thinking about it, he moves to the front door and rings the bell. Before he can draw back his finger, the door is answered by a middle-aged woman. Billy is startled by her speedy response.
She gives him a welcoming smile and invites him in. Again, he feels a strong desire to go stay. He asks about a room, which is only five and sixpence for the night. It's surprisingly cheap. He accepts and goes inside.
She seems very nice. She helps him with his coat. There are no other coats on the rack. She says it's just the two of them, and she doesn't get many visitors. This sounds odd to Billy. She says she's choosy about whom she takes in. Nevertheless, she's always ready in case a suitable young gentleman comes along, like Billy. She looks him up and down.
She leads him up the stairs to the second floor, showing him a small, charming room. It's comfortably prepared. She refers to him as Mr. Perkins, and Billy corrects her.
The landlady says she was beginning to worry, but Billy assures her there's no need. She asks him about supper. He says he's not hungry, and is just going to go to bed. She asks him to sign the guestbook, as the law requires, before going to sleep. She then leaves him to unpack.
Billy doesn't mind that she's odd. After all, she's harmless and generous. She probably lost a son in the war and was still dealing with it.
He goes down to the living-room. It's cozy and the dog still sleeps by the fire. He writes in the guestbook. There are only two other names in it—Christopher Mulholland and Gregory Temple. Both names seem familiar to him. He scans his memory for how he knows them—through his sister, his father or school. He can't place them.
The landlady enters with a tea-tray. Billy asks about the two men, whether they were famous for anything. She doesn't think so, but they were handsome, like Billy. He points out the dates of their visits, two and three years ago. She's surprised by how long its been. She refers to him as Mr. Wilkins, and Billy corrects her again.
Billy says he remembers the two names from the guestbook being connected in some way. His hostess offers him tea and a biscuit. He continues talking about the men, sure that he'll remember who they are.
He thinks he remembers Christopher Mulholland, a schoolboy who was on a walking tour. She says it couldn't be the one who stayed with her. She invites Billy to sit by her to have his tea. She watches him as he drinks. Billy catches a scent from her—pickled walnuts, new leather or the corridor of a hospital.
The landlady says Mr. Mulholland loved his tea and drank a lot of it. Billy says he must have left fairly recently. She claims he never left, and neither did Mr. Temple. They're both staying on the third floor.
Billy slowly puts down his cup. She asks how old he is. She says Mr. Mulholland was also seventeen. She compliments his teeth.
She says Mr. Temple was twenty-eight, but didn't have a blemish on his body. Billy takes another sip of tea. There's silence for a while.
Billy says the parrot had him fooled from outside; he thought it was alive. The landlady says she stuffed it, along with her little Basil. Billy looks at the dog curled by the fire and realizes its also been stuffed. He has some admiration for the skill involved. She says she stuffs all her little pets when they die.
She offers more tea, but Billy declines. It tasted faintly of bitter almonds and he didn't really care for it. She confirms that he signed the book. That way she can check his name if she forgets, the way she does with Mr. Mulholland and Mr. Temple.
Billy asks if there have been any other guests in the past three years. She smiles gently at him and says no, only him.
Theme: Appearance vs. Reality
The landlady turns out to be a sinister character. Obviously, she couldn't be presented this way throughout the story. We'd question Billy's intelligence, and there'd be no mystery or surprise for us. This makes it necessary that there be a gap between how things seem and how they really are.
We're alerted early on to the fact that Billy, in his young naivety, accepts things at face value. He's impressed by the important people at Head Office who are "absolutely fantastically brisk all the time", and adopts this attitude himself. He doesn't look deeper into whether they're accomplishing much.
The illuminated window of the "Bed And Breakfast" looks much nicer than the surroundings. The line of houses have peeling paint and cracked, blotchy façades. The bright spot with its vase of chrysanthemums catches his eye. It looks like the best place on the street, but turns out to be the worst.
Billy also relies on appearances when he sees the parrot and the dachshund inside, thinking "animals were usually a good sign in a place like this." Of course, there's no reason a bad person couldn't have animals in the home.
The landlady "looked exactly like the mother of one’s best schoolfriend welcoming one into the house to stay for the Christmas holidays." She seems like a perfectly pleasant and safe person to be around.
She twice calls Billy by the wrong name—Mr. Perkins and Mr. Wilkins. She seems like she's absent minded, certainly not someone who'd be able to plot against him. But her motive could be to give that exact impression. Perhaps she intentionally uses the wrong name to make herself seem harmless.
The hostess invites Billy to sit with her by the fire and have his tea. This sounds comforting and safe, but it's actually the moment of no return for Billy. After ingesting the tea, he won't be able to do anything.
Just after this, the false appearances fall away. The landlady says that the other two young men from the guestbook never left. They're still on the third floor. Although Billy doesn't react to this like he's in danger, the reader has no doubt anymore. We don't know exactly what's going to happen to him, but we know this lady is far from harmless.
1. What are some examples of foreshadowing?
The foreshadowing starts in the first paragraph: it's "deadly cold" and "the wind was like a flat blade of ice on his cheeks." The "deadly" part turns out to be right on, and there are literal blades in his near future.
While his hostess serves the tea, Billy notices she has red finger-nails. This could make us think of blood. Later, we find out that she has blood on her hands, that she literally kills people.
The most obvious example of foreshadowing occurs late in the story when we know for sure Billy is in danger. He talks about the stuffed parrot and finds out that the dog by the fire is also dead and stuffed. While Billy's eventual fate isn't explicitly stated in the story, this parallels how he ends up.
2. What are some examples of irony?
- The landlady has a bed prepared for Billy with a hot water bottle, and tells him he can light the gas fire, but she knows he won't be using any of these things.
- When telling Billy that by law he has to sign the guestbook, she says "we don’t want to go breaking any laws at this stage in the proceedings, do we?" Her concern for obeying the law is funny, knowing what she's planning.
- When Billy goes down to the warm and cozy living-room, he thinks he's a "lucky fellow." Turns out he's one of the unluckiest fellows in the area in the last two years.
3. What are the warning signs that Billy's in a dangerous situation?
- The cheapness of the room.
- The landlady is very choosy about her boarders—she only takes in young, handsome men like Billy.
- She says she was beginning to worry about Billy's arrival when she didn't even know he was coming. She was worrying about something selfish.
- Her insistence that Billy sign the guestbook before bed implies he wouldn't be able to do it later.
- The sanitized scent Billy notices from her is related to her taxidermy.
- She says Mr. Temple didn't have a blemish on his body.
- The tea tasted of bitter almonds, which implies it contained cyanide.
4. Why doesn't Billy react when she says the other two men are still upstairs?
I think this is the point where the reader thinks Billy should definitely get out of there. He continues making conversation like everything is fine.
Billy seems to be chalking this revelation up to the "dotty" manner he noted earlier. Maybe she's just crazier than he first thought. This would make Billy feel superior to her and, thus, not in any danger. The fact that he doesn't even ask her to clarify implies he doesn't take her seriously and simply wants to move on.
5. Why does Billy recognize the two names in the guestbook?
Billy remembers reading these names in the newspaper. They would both have disappeared mysteriously. He remembers they were linked in some way. They could have both been last seen in Bath. They could also have been linked because they were travelers. Mr. Mulholland, whom he remembers from the paper, was on a walking tour. Mr. Temple could have been traveling on business, as Billy is.