The marriage at the center of “The Way Up to Heaven” is characterized by cruelty: for years Mr. Foster deliberately stokes Mrs. Foster’s “pathological fear” of being late, so, ultimately, Mrs. Foster leaves her husband trapped in an elevator to die. This might seem an extreme overreaction by Mrs. Foster, but Dahl depicts Mr. Foster’s persistent and malicious lateness as the crueler behavior—after all, it causes Mrs. Foster such distress that it leads her to effectively kill her spouse in order to free herself from suffering. By portraying Mrs. Foster’s act not as unjustifiably cruel, but rather as righteous revenge, Dahl suggests that persistent and malicious cruelty (however subtle or trivial) can be worse than a single act of murder. When someone suffers at the hands of another, she is righteous, rather than cruel, to take action and escape her suffering.
To justify Mrs. Foster’s decision to leave her husband in the elevator, Dahl meticulously catalogues Mr. Foster’s cruelties, particularly surrounding her planned trip to Paris. Her solo trip to Paris, to visit her daughter and grandchildren, is something Mrs. Foster wants dearly. Despite that it would bring her great happiness and it seems like a normal thing for Mrs. Foster to do, Dahl is clear that Mr. Foster does not want his wife to go. Mrs. Foster considers it a “miracle” that he’s allowing her to go in the first place, and she suspects constantly—and with good reason—that he is trying to make her miss her flight in order to sabotage her trip. That Dahl never specifies why Mr. Foster opposes his wife’s trip makes him seem pathologically controlling, and his attempts to make her late for her flight are doubly cruel, because they are simultaneously meant to ruin the trip while also needling her most acute anxiety, punctuality. All of this behavior is especially cruel, since Mrs. Foster has been a “good and loving wife” for several decades, who had “served him loyally and well.” She has done nothing to bring about his cruelty; rather, it is unjustified and malicious, meant exclusively to torture and control a kindhearted woman.
By contrast, Dahl portrays Mrs. Foster as a sympathetic character, even though she commits a monstrous act, because she is kind, relatable, and has experienced years of emotional torture at the hands of her husband. For many years, Mrs. Foster has given her husband the benefit of the doubt, allowing that his cruelty could possibly be accidental or careless. This shows her generosity of spirit, since she wants to assume the best in him. She’s also shown to care deeply for her family. Of her grandchildren, Dahl notes, “She doted on them, and each time a new picture arrived she would carry it away and sit with it for a long time.” All she wants is to “take them out for walks, and buy them presents, and watch them grow,” a selfless and generous desire, but she worries that this desire is disloyal, as her husband does not want the same thing. Clearly, she puts others before herself, even though her husband doesn’t deserve it.
Mrs. Foster’s kind personality and the acute suffering her husband is causing her (shown by her twitching eye and her profound anxiety) make her a sympathetic character, while Mr. Foster’s callous and malicious behavior towards his wife makes him a villain. Because of this, when Mrs. Foster hears that Mr. Foster is stuck in the elevator and decides to go to the airport instead of rescuing him, readers see her not as behaving cruelly, but rather as claiming justified revenge on the man who made her suffer and stood in the way of her happiness. Therefore, while Mrs. Foster essentially murders her husband, she is much less cruel: after all, his own cruelty justified her behavior, while her sweet nature did not justify his.
Cruelty and Revenge ThemeTracker
Cruelty and Revenge Quotes in The Way Up to Heaven
At least half an hour before it was time to leave the house for the station, Mrs. Foster would step out of the elevator all ready to go, with hat and coat and gloves, and then, being quite unable to sit down, she would flutter and fidget about from room to room until her husband, who must have been well aware of her state, finally emerged from his privacy and suggested in a cool dry voice that perhaps they had better be going now, had they not? …His timing was so accurate - just a minute or two late, you understand - and his manner so bland that it was hard to believe he wasn’t purposely inflicting a nasty private little torture of his own on the unhappy lady.
“But don’t you really think Walker should stay there all the time to look after things?” she asked meekly.
“Nonsense. It’s quite unnecessary. And anyway, I’d have to pay him full wages.”
“Oh yes,” she said. “Of course.”
“What’s more, you never know what people get up to when they’re left alone in a house,” Mr. Foster announced, and with that he took out a cigar and, after snipping off the end with a silver cutter, lit it with a gold lighter.
She couldn’t be sure, but it seemed to her that there was suddenly a new note in his voice, and she turned to look at him… She glanced at him again, and this time she noticed with a kind of horror that he was staring intently at the little place in the corner of her left eye where she could feel the muscle twitching.
“In that case, dear, I’ll just get myself a room somewhere for the night. And don’t you bother yourself about it at all.”
“That would be foolish,” he said. “You’ve got a large house here at your disposal. Use it.”
“But, dear, it’s empty.”
“Then I’ll stay with you myself.”
“There’s no food in the house. There’s nothing.”
“Then eat before you come in. Don’t be so stupid, woman. Everything you do, you seem to want to make a fuss about it.”
“No,” he said slowly. “I don’t think I will. But there’s no reason why you shouldn’t drop me at the club on your way.”
She looked at him, and at that moment he seemed to be standing a long way off from her, beyond some borderline. He was suddenly so small and far away that she couldn’t be sure what he was doing, or what he was thinking, or even what he was.
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.
The chauffeur, had he been watching her closely, might have noticed that her face had turned absolutely white and that the whole expression had suddenly altered. There was no longer that rather soft and silly look. A peculiar hardness had settled itself upon the features. The little mouth, usually so flabby, was now tight and thin, the eyes were bright, and the voice, when she spoke, carried a new note of authority.
Once a week, on Tuesdays, she wrote a letter to her husband, a nice, chatty letter—full of news and gossip, which always ended with the words “Now be sure to take your meals regularly, dear, although this is something I’m afraid you may not be doing when I’m not with you.”
“Hello,” she said. “Listen - this is Nine East Sixty-second Street…Yes, that’s right. Could you send someone round as soon as possible, do you think? Yes, it seems to be stuck between the second and third floors. At least, that’s where the indicator’s pointing…Right away? Oh, that’s very kind of you. You see, my legs aren’t any too good for walking up a lot of stairs. Thank you so much. Good-bye.”
She replaced the receiver and sat there at her husband’s desk, patiently waiting for the man who would be coming soon to repair the lift.