The Way Up to Heaven

by

Roald Dahl

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The Way Up to Heaven Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Mrs. Foster has an “almost pathological fear” of being late, especially for a trip. While not otherwise a nervous woman, just thinking about being late makes her so nervous that her eye twitches. This has grown into a “serious obsession”—a half hour before leaving for anything, Mrs. Foster emerges fully ready and frets until her husband, Mr. Foster, (“who must have been well aware of her state”) is ready to go.
Mrs. Foster is a sympathetic character, with just one unlucky quirk: like an eye twitch, her fear is a hindrance that she cannot help. She is portrayed as deferential to her husband: she must “flutter and fidget” from room to room while he makes her wait. The power imbalance in their relationship is established immediately.
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While it’s reasonable that Mr. Foster might be irritated by Mrs. Foster’s nervousness, it’s not an excuse for deliberately making her wait. This is not necessarily what he is doing, but he is always precisely a minute or two late, and he is so nonchalant that it seems like he is “inflicting a nasty private little torture” on his wife. What’s more is she would never dare to bring it up because he “disciplined her too well for that.”
Mr. Foster’s habit of making his wife wait makes him somewhat suspicious: he is either uncaring and does not notice, or he does notice and is being deliberately cruel. Either way, Mrs. Foster has learned over the years that she cannot even tell him to hurry without risking his anger and further cruelty. He is taking advantage of the power dynamic.
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If indeed Mr. Foster was deliberately making her wait, this behavior was “doubly unreasonable” since Mrs. Foster has been a good wife for over thirty years who had “served him loyally and well.” She is such a good and modest woman that she hasn’t allowed herself to believe that her husband could be torturing her on purpose, but more recently, she has found herself beginning to wonder.
Mrs. Foster is undeserving of her husband’s treatment, having “served him loyally” for over thirty years. This characterization again adheres to stereotyped gender roles. There is a suggestion of disloyalty on the part of Mr. Foster, but nothing is certain yet.
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Mr. Foster and his wife live in a six-story house in Manhattan with four servants. Normally, the place is quite grim, but today it is abuzz. Servants are draping furniture and bringing down suitcases while Mrs. Foster is dithering about nervously, fearing she will miss her plane and repeatedly asking the butler the time. They are supposed to leave at nine fifteen and the plane takes off at eleven.
Mr. and Mrs. Foster are part of the upper class, which is why they are able to employ several servants, and they are often concerned with propriety. The fact that Mrs. Foster only dares to complain in front of the butler shows how complete Mr. Foster’s control over her is.
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Mrs. Foster is headed to Paris to visit her daughter and finally meet her grandchildren of whom she has only seen pictures. It took her months to persuade her husband to “allow” her to go, and she fears that if she misses the plane he will cancel the trip. He insisted on seeing her off at the airport, so she is, again, waiting for him.
Mr. Foster’s cruelty in regards to this trip is especially distasteful: his wife only wants to see their daughter and their grandchildren. It is not a selfish trip and it is one that a good mother (and grandmother) would certainly want to make, so it’s inexplicable and sinister that he’s trying to stop her.
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More and more, Mrs. Foster finds herself wishing that she could live in Paris to be with her grandchildren all the time. She holds their photographs dear and, more than anything else, she longs to visit them, take them on walks, buy them presents, and watch them grow. But this would involve living in Paris and her husband would never agree, so she dismisses this these thoughts as disloyal.
As a devoted parent, Mrs. Foster is a sympathetic character. Mr. Foster, in comparison, expresses no interest in seeing his family. Furthermore, the question of disloyalty emerges here: if Mrs. Foster is disloyal for merely thinking about being a benevolent grandmother while living elsewhere, what, in comparison, is Mr. Foster in his cruelty?
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Finally, Mr. Foster emerges and says casually that they should probably get going. Mrs. Foster replies that the butler has his coat and reminds him that the car is waiting. He examines her carefully, squirrel-like in his movements, and then calmly insists on washing his hands first. Mrs. Foster asks Walker (the butler) if she’ll make it in time, and he reassures her that he thinks she will. Mrs. Foster hurries to the car and Mr. Foster walks slowly behind, saying he wouldn’t be surprised if the flight were already cancelled.
Mrs. Foster’s hysteria is even clearer in comparison to Mr. Foster’s calm, calculating nature. Her desperation is exacerbated by his cruelty, and it also has to do with her powerlessness thanks to the unequal power dynamic. His stalling by washing his hands and pretending to examine the weather reveal his insistent deception and disloyalty.
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As they drive, Mr. Foster says that he arranged everything with the servants, giving them half-pay for six weeks, and he will telegram when he wants them back. He will be staying at the club while she is gone, only occasionally stopping by the house to get the mail. Mrs. Foster meekly suggests that their butler could stay and do that, but Mr. Foster refuses because he’d have to pay Walker full wages and he wouldn’t trust him alone in the house. Mrs. Foster asks if Mr. Foster write back to her while she’s gone but he tells her probably not.
Mr. Foster is distrustful of his own servants, and opts not to keep any of them on while Mr. and Mrs. Foster are away, even though it would be convenient for the Fosters in several respects. This reveals his cheapness and a certain class bias, and it also shows that Mr. Foster has a suspicious nature, unlike his trusting wife. Even though Mrs. Foster seem to have a point about the value of keeping them around, she is again cowed by her husband’s authority.
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The fog thickens as they approach the airport and it seems unlikely that Mrs. Foster will fly that day. Mr. Foster tells her to stop fussing, his tone somehow changed. He tells her to resign herself to missing her flight, and Mrs. Foster notices to her horror that her husband is staring at the place where her eye twitches.
Mr. Foster’s cruelty again comes through in his insensitivity to his wife’s misery and preoccupation. He abuses his power by talking down to her, bullying her, and browbeating her, repeating that she will miss her flight. She catches a glimpse of his dishonesty in his strange change of tone, but she cannot clearly read his expression, so she suspends disbelief about the intentional nature of his cruelty since she can’t prove it.
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Though visibility is poor, they keep driving, guided by the driver’s single yellow lamp, and then they finally stop. Mr. Foster cries that they must be stuck, but the driver tells them they are at the airport. Mrs. Foster rushes out of the car and is told that her flight is postponed but that she should stay there and wait.
Mr. Foster’s cruelty is emphasized by the driver’s neutrality. While Mr. Foster is eager to see them stuck, the driver is a neutral party that calmly intervenes.
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Mrs. Foster runs back to tell her husband the news and they agree that there’s no point in him staying. He says goodbye to her. She waits all day at the airport, checking with the clerk every thirty minutes or so until she is told around six o’clock that the flight is postponed till eleven o’clock the next morning. Exhausted, Mrs. Foster would like to just sleep in the airport, but she realizes this would be a ridiculous thing for an elderly lady to do, so instead she calls her husband.
Mrs. Foster does not stay at the airport because of her sense of propriety and class, and also because of her gender. It would not be “ladylike” to find a place to sleep at the airport. It’s odd and troubling, though, that she would rather sleep at the airport than go to her own home. She still relies on her husband, which is shown by her decision to call him.
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Mrs. Foster wants to get a hotel, presumably near the airport, but her husband tells her to use their house. He insists on staying with her, browbeating her for her anxieties about there not being food in the house and the servants being gone. She meekly accepts and goes home. The fog is slowly clearing up.
Mrs. Foster proposes staying at a hotel because the servants have gone and she relies on them, indicating her class status. Mr. Foster is cruel here, berating his wife with gendered language (he insists that she always wants to “fuss” and calls her “woman”) with no sympathy for her anxiety about making the plane. Again, in keeping with their adherence to strict gender roles, Mrs. Foster acquiesces to his desires. He is being essentially disloyal by insisting that she come back to the house when she would be much happier and more likely to have a smooth trip if she were to stay at a hotel.
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Mrs. Foster arrives home, tells her husband of her new departure time, and that the weather is clearing. Mr. Foster says he has ordered a car for nine o’clock the next morning. He won’t come see her off again, but he insists that she drop him off at the club on her way. Mrs. Foster suddenly feels he is a million miles away and that she doesn’t even know him. She reminds him that the club is out of the way, but he says they’ll have plenty of time. As always, she acquiesces.
Taking advantage of his wife’s exhaustion, Mr. Foster craftily finds another way to interfere in his wife’s travel plans, showing the extent of his cruelty and disloyalty. Mrs. Foster is starting to realize his cruelty, which manifests in her feeling that he is “suddenly so small and far away that she couldn’t be sure… even what he was.” He has already ordered the car for nine o’clock in the guise of taking care of her, but again he is forsaking his duties as a good partner by insisting that they go first to the club.
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The next morning, Mrs. Foster is again ready long before nine, but her husband does not appear until just after the hour. He asks about coffee and her luggage, as nonchalant as ever. She, on the other hand, is even more desperate than the previous morning. He insists on getting some cigars and meanders outside, telling her perhaps she’ll be lucky this time.
Mr. Foster, with his insistence on bringing his cigars and his “curiously cut Edwardian jacket,” becomes a grotesque caricature of a wealthy but sadistic husband. Mrs. Foster’s assessment of his “goat’s legs in… narrow stovepipe troupers” shows her slowly changing perspective on her husband and makes him seem all the more ridiculous, foreshadowing his downfall. Mr. Foster’s disloyalty and cruelty manifest themselves in his slow walk to the car and in his nonchalant comment that perhaps his wife will be lucky this time, as if he himself isn’t the reason she is always delayed.
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They are already a few minutes behind, and Mrs. Foster asks the driver to please hurry. Just as they are about to leave, Mr. Foster stops the driver. He claims he can’t find the small gift, a white paper box that he wanted Mrs. Foster to give to their daughter. He doesn’t find it in his jacket and concludes he must have left in the bedroom. Mrs. Foster says she never saw such a box and she begs him to leave it: they can mail it, it’s only a silly comb anyway. Mr. Foster blows up, furious that she has “forgotten herself for once.” He commands her to stay in the car while he returns to the house to look.
Since Mr. Foster cares so little for his daughter and grandchildren, his sudden commitment to giving his daughter a gift is perplexing and suspicious. Mrs. Foster pleads with him to leave it, in her desperate state revealing her thoughts on her husband’s gift-giving abilities. While this is the smallest of slights, it is not permitted in their relationship and he yells at her because she has forgotten herself “for once.” This implies that he is very much aware of how often she accepts his abuse. There is also the issue of propriety and class: as a wealthy man, it is more embarrassing for his wife to slight him in front of “the help.”
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Mrs. Foster pleads with him to be quick, and she asks the driver again if they have enough time, to which he responds, “Just about.” Then she spots something wedged down in the crack of the seat and realizes it is the gift that her husband was talking about, but it seems awfully deep in the crack of the seat to be placed there by accident. She tells the driver to go and get him, but the door is locked, and she realizes it’ll be faster if she does it herself.
Finally, Mrs. Foster discovers how deep her husband’s sadistic streak runs, since there is no way to interpret this besides that he has hidden the gift on purpose to make her late. In this, her long-held suspicions of his cruelty are confirmed. He has been deceiving her throughout the story, but the trick of the box feels particularly nasty since it is in the guise of gift giving, an act of goodwill.
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Sliding the key into the keyhole, Mrs. Foster suddenly stops, all franticness gone, listening for some unnamed sound. She stays there for over ten seconds, then suddenly springs to life again and runs back down the steps, telling the driver it’s too late and she has to go. Her husband will get a cab to the club. Her whole attitude seems to have changed, becoming somehow harder and more authoritative, but the driver hardly notices.
Though the reader will only become aware of it later, this is where Mrs. Foster enacts her revenge. She hears her husband get stuck in the elevator, and, knowing no one will come for him, makes the decision to leave him there to die. This revenge is a long time coming, justified by her husband’s abuse, and it’s strikingly deceptive, because no one will be able to prove that she did it. It also indicates the shift in the balance of power in their marriage. Mrs. Foster is now speaking with authority and has lost that “soft and silly look” about her. She takes control of her fate and her husband’s.
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Mrs. Foster urges the driver to go quickly, and she makes her plane with a few minutes to spare. She is finally relaxed, in a strange, calm new mood. She feels wonderful and strong. In Paris, she enjoys herself with her grandchildren, buying them presents, telling them stories, and taking them for walks. She writes to her husband every Tuesday, reminding him to eat his meals regularly. After six weeks, she returns, but with an air of someone who will be back soon.
Mrs. Foster’s revenge frees her in both the literal and figurative sense. She finally feels comfortable and strong, and she can interact with her daughter and grandchildren, unburdened by her abusive marriage. She reminds her husband to eat his meals, but this is an ironic touch when she knows that he’s starving in an elevator. She has been disloyal towards her husband, but she has become loyal to herself and remains loyal to the rest of her family.
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Arriving back in New York, there is no car to meet Mrs. Foster. She gets a cab, but no one answers the door at their house. With an amused and calm air, she opens the door, only to find a huge pile of mail, clearly untended. The place is dark and cold, with a strange atmosphere and a peculiar, unfamiliar smell. She briefly disappears to a certain corner of the house and returns with a “glimmer of satisfaction” on her face. Then she calmly picks up the phone and dials the elevator repair company, asking them to come fix the lift, which is stuck between the second and third floors.
Mrs. Foster’s trick is finally revealed: she heard the elevator get stuck and decided to leave her husband in there while she was away for six weeks, killing him. She behaves with the utmost propriety, calmly calling the elevator service. Her revenge, likewise, has been very intentional, but within the realms of propriety for her class status, because no one knows that she did it. She can be just as cruel and disloyal as her husband, it turns out, but she only chooses to do so in retaliation for his years of making her suffer.
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