During our past few lessons in English, we have read the story ‘The Landlady’ By Roald Dahl. A short, unusual and exciting story, it is about a seventeen-year-old handsome boy called Billy Weaver, who has been sent to Bath by his boss. It is his first time in Bath, and he is completely unfamiliar with the whole place. As he wonders about the dark, empty streets of Bath, looking for a pub to stay in, he is captivated by a very pleasant-looking boarding house. Peering into the window, he sees animals sleeping in the cozy room and is compelled to ring the doorbell, even though he would rather stay at a pub, and allows himself to be persuaded to stay by a sweet, gentle-looking old woman who seems quite mad but harmless. The woman is so incredibly eager for Billy to stay, and keeps hinting about how she already knew he was coming and how everything was ready for him. Billy dismisses this as nothing but kindness and reassures himself several times that the boarding house was fine and that the woman had probably just lost a son in the war and never quite got over it.
When he signs the guest book, he notices that there are only two other entries, and the last one was made over two years ago. Surprised and suspicious, he begins questioning the older woman about the two men, whose names Billy recognizes. As he tries to pinpoint where he’s heard of them, the woman constantly tries to change the subject and is ever so insistent on him drinking his tea. The woman reveals personal information about the last two borders that alarms Billy, and he begins to realize a few things, like how the pets are stuffed, the woman is a fanatic taxidermist, how she smells of hospital corridors and how the tea tastes of bitter almonds, the same taste as arsenic… The Story ends abruptly when the woman confirms Billy’s suspicions that he has been the only border over the last few years, leaving the reader to work out that obvious and inevitable end awaiting the poor Billy.
In this essay, I will explore the narrative structure including ideas of converting the story/details, why Roald Dahl chose to write things in a certain way, include details one might, at first thought, find unnecessary, disclose information and his effectiveness of the exposition, structure, important features of the story and its unusual ending. Exploring the opening of the story, one realizes how important the details are. Of course, the story could have started as Billy rang the doorbell of the boarding house, instead of having two pages of exposition and description, however, after reading the whole story, one realizes that the exposition was necessary. To start off with, Roald Dahl describes the weather as “The air was deadly cold, and the wind was like a flat blade of ice on his cheeks”, which immediately, in the opening paragraph, creates tension and a sense of foreboding in the reader, who now expects something creepy to happen. Certain aspects of Billy are emphasized which become later important in the story, such as: Explaining that it was Billy’s first time in Bath and that he was a complete stranger with no one he knows there, and hinting his youthfulness, shows he is instantly vulnerable in that he is alone, young and eager to get out of the cold.
The vivid description of Billy’s character and his ambition to succeed in his work creates sympathy in the reader towards Billy’s terrible and inevitable fate. The description of the cold, dark streets empty of any other people makes the warm, cozy-looking boarding house with its’ pleasant furniture, fireplace, animals “sleeping” and even more pleasant woman seem that much more appealing, and one understands why Billy would turn to a boarding house when he knew that the pub would be a lot more convenient. However, whilst Billy is weighing the pros and cons of staying at a boarding house, he mentions how “he had never stayed in a boarding house before, and, to be perfectly honest, he was a tiny bit frightened of them. The name itself conjured up images of watery cabbage, rapacious Landladies and a powerful smell of kippers in the living room.”
The mention of “Rapacious landladies” contradicts Billy’s later impression of the landlady, who seems awfully kind and generous. So from the very beginning, Billy had a grudge against boarding houses, and his reason makes him seem childish and afraid, and it also emphasizes how strongly the boarding house affected him, and that even after deciding to walk to the pub, he is compelled to stay against his preconceived ideas. His inability to resist the boarding house’s hold on him is probably the first real hint, which plants seeds of suspicion in the reader’s mind. Without all this exposition and description of the place, character and weather, the story would be missing important details, especially some which become more significant later.
The whole way through the story, Roald Dahl has cleverly dropped hints, in a clever order, starting off as very subtle, and gradually becoming more obvious as the story leads to the climax. As each hint is dropped and the plot becomes more apparent, the tension magnifies and the reader puts the hints together to realize what is about to happen. If one reorganized the order of events or hints that took place in the story, it would not be as effective. For example, when the old woman first shows Billy his room and tells him that he has the whole floor to himself, Billy accepts that with only a little thought as to why the place would be empty of other customers. Yet, later in the story, when Billy thinks aloud “I suppose he left fairly recently” the woman contradicts herself, by saying “he never left. He’s still here. Mr. Temple is also here. They’re on the third floor, both of them together.” If the woman had told Billy this from the beginning, then he would have wanted to meet them and would find the fact that there were no other coats or hats on the stand even more suspicious.
Another hint in the story is the way the woman describes the other two borders in such personal detail that makes her appear slightly perverted and twisted. Near the end, tells Billy how “there wasn’t a blemish on his body” (referring to Mr. Temple) “His skin was just like a Baby’s” If the woman had described her customers to Billy when he first entered the boarding house, Billy would have been put off and probably left. How an old woman like her would know exactly what her customer’s skin looked like on his body seems too obvious to reveal in the beginning. The last example is that the Landlady is a taxidermist. The sight of the animals “sleeping” in the living room by the hearth is what catches Billy’s eye the most. Using the fact that he sees animals appearing well treated, he ironically, naively assures himself that “animals were always a good sign in a place like this”. If Billy had known from the beginning that the animals were dead yet still on display and that the woman’s hobby was stuffing “all her pets”, Billy would have been suspicious of the woman’s sanity and her sinister intentions right away and would most likely NOT have wanted to stay in a place with a fanatical taxidermist’s collection of dead pets.
This is the key hint to Billy’s fate, and as it is the penultimate hint, it is very effective in that order reaching the climax. There are many important features of the story. If Billy had been a girl, and the landlady a landlord, then it would have been the classic murder story of a disappearing girl at the hands of some psychotic man. A girl walking alone in a strange town at night – people wouldn’t be surprised if she disappeared. As a girl, Billy would have been a lot more cautious, and at the slightest hint of any creepiness from the landlord, the girl would have left. As a landlord, it would seem strange of him to fuss about with tea and would be immediately suspicious if he’d been eager to take her in. Through the story, Billy dismisses the landlady’s bizarre behaviour and reassures himself with the excuse that she must have “lost a son in the war and never got over it”, but what kind of excuse could a young girl make about some old man’s creepy behaviour towards her?
It seems normal enough that older men fantasize and are obsessed with younger, beautiful girls, but one would certainly not expect a respectable-looking older woman to be obsessed with young, handsome men. This suggests that Dahl has drawn his ideas from fairy tale villains, for example, the witch in Hansel and Gretel. Another important feature in the story is the landlady’s deceiving appearance. She looks so kind and warm- with round, rosy cheeks and gentle blue eyes. Her manner of welcoming Billy in and generosity makes it impossible for Billy to refuse her hospitality. Any suspicions or doubts of his safety would be dismissed, as Billy was a young, most likely strong, tall man and would be no match against a feeble old woman, despite her clear desperation to keep him. For example, near the beginning of the story, The Landlady offers to lower the rent to ensure that he stays, even though Billy thought the rent was extremely low already.
The setting of the story is also an important feature. Because of the dark, empty streets and cold weather, Billy feels intimidated and his eagerness to find some lodgings were magnified, so the cozy boarding house seems so appealing and tempting. It is almost a bit like Hanson and Gretel, where the children’s biggest mistake is giving in to their temptation and allowing themselves to the house made of candy. If Billy had arrived during the day, and the streets of the bath were crowded and pleasant looking, he would not have been at all eager to find any lodgings and would have wanted to meet people at a pub instead of resorting to a lonely old boarding house. Even its warmth and coziness would not have been so appealing in broad daylight with streets crowded with people bustling about in their everyday lives. The twist is that the warm inviting appearances are the antithesis of a usual murder setting.
The ending is probably the most important, unusual and effective part of the story. The way the hints are subtly dropped in a certain order, one may not realize immediately that they play an important role in the story, and may discharge them as mere details. But as the story unfolds, and the hints become more and more obvious, rousing increasing suspicion, the story seems to come together in the reader’s mind instead of on paper. Almost as if Roald Dahl has given the reader a plot of which the ending is inevitable, and the reader lets the ending take place with their imagination and knowledge. Several things are not clarified like the last hint dropped by Roald Dahl, which sets the lid on Billy’s fate.
For example, Billy notices when he sits next to the landlady that she smells strangely of pickled walnuts or hospital corridors. Roald Dahl does not explain that the smell is due to the embalming fluid she must have used to stuff the animals, because the story is written from Billy’s point of view, and for Roald Dahl to mention something such as that, would not be possible to come from Billy’s point of view as he would most likely not know what embalming fluid smelled like, and even if he did, he would not be suspicious enough at that point in the story to link the smell to that. Another example is the fact that the tea tasted strangely of bitter almonds, and that Billy did not care much for it even after he’s drunken it, makes the reader realize that he has been poisoned, and that, taller/stronger than the landlady or not, he could not defeat the older woman.
One wonders why this certain hint was not clarified. Roald Dahl could have explained that the poison arsenic tastes like bitter almonds, as most people would not realize that. But it does not really matter as the fact that he even mentions the strange taste must mean that there is a strange substance in the tea, therefore we automatically assume that it has been poisoned, and knowing this, means he is too late to be saved. The story is a cliffhanger, ending abruptly. This is effective for this type of novel as it has been building up all this tension throughout the story, and leaves the reader right at the cliffhanger, which makes the reader think highly of this exciting and unusual story. By this stage, the reader has no doubt that Billy will die at the hands of the psychotic old woman, and the fact that the story can truly end in the reader’s mind is so much more effective, creating a gloomy sense of inevitability for Billy’s fate. To finish off, I would just like to say that I enjoyed ‘The Landlady” greatly and that I found it a very well thought of the plot. The story was short, and perhaps the storyline in itself was not even that interesting, but Roald Dahl’s ability to make it exciting and unusual turns it into an effective story, proving that Roald Dahl’s knowledge of when to include certain details and when to disclose information and how to set out a very clever plot, makes him an effective story-teller.