In the 1950s, when “The Way Up to Heaven” was published, husbands were expected to be the heads of household, while their wives were meant to be comparatively passive. In “The Way Up to Heaven,” Dahl pushes this unequal dynamic to its extreme. Mr. Foster is not simply controlling, but also sadistic: ordering Mrs. Foster around, exploiting her pathological fear of being late, and indirectly trying to stop her from going to visit their daughter. To make matters worse, strict 1950s gender roles dictate that Mrs. Foster must passively allow his cruelty and give his intentions the benefit of the doubt. Furthermore, while the rigid gender norms of the day exacerbate their mutual unhappiness, the strict social taboo against divorce keeps them in a volatile and miserable marriage. The characters’ adherence to social and gender norms therefore leads to an absurd and outrageous outcome: when their dynamic becomes unbearable for Mrs. Foster, it seems more normal to her to leave her husband to die in an elevator than to simply leave their marriage. This is a clear critique of the norms of gender and marriage, which discourage Mrs. Foster from standing up for herself, encourage Mr. Foster to believe he can be sadistic with impunity, and ultimately lead Mrs. Foster to a state of murderous distress.
For most of the story, Mrs. Foster adheres strictly to her socially-mandated role as a wife and mother. She is a dutiful wife who supports her husband, having “served him loyally and well” for over thirty years, and she is a good mother who thinks often of her daughter and her grandchildren, sending them presents whenever possible. Dahl describes her as “modest” and “faithful,” traits that are not considered important in the same way for men. These traits of hers are exactly what Mr. Foster takes advantage of; his cruelty relies on her being a “good wife” who will not protest and who will always give him the benefit of the doubt.
By contrast, Mr. Foster inhabits an extreme stereotype of the male role. He is clearly the family’s breadwinner (although he appears to be retired from his “many enterprises”), and he is indifferent to family life, dismissing Mrs. Foster and ignoring altogether their daughter and grandchildren. Mr. Foster is in charge of the household, as he makes decisions without regard to his wife’s desires or objections, such as sending the servants away on vacation while Mrs. Foster is gone, or forcing her to accompany him to the club before she catches her flight. Since having a command of the household was considered normal for men of that era, Mr. Foster’s cruelty nearly passes as typical masculinity: perhaps his controlling behavior is simply good management of the household, and perhaps his inattention to punctuality is a result of having more important matters to attend. It’s certainly part of Dahl’s commentary on gender roles that Mr. Foster’s cruelty is almost indistinguishable from socially normal male behavior.
While Mr. and Mrs. Foster drive each other crazy, the two of them never contemplate divorce, as divorce was a social scandal in the 1950s. Since the Fosters are stuck together despite their suffering, Dahl paints marriage as a trap for both Mr. and Mrs. Foster: Mr. Foster seems miserable in the company of his wife, and Mrs. Foster explicitly contemplates that her life will be restricted as long as “her husband was still alive.” So, with no way out of a bad marriage, Mr. Foster takes out his unhappiness on his wife by torturing her, and Mrs. Foster leaves her husband to die in an elevator, a fate that seems more socially normal to her than simply leaving her marriage. Therefore, Dahl critiques both the rigid gender roles that push Mrs. Foster essentially to murder, and the social conventions surrounding marriage that prevent Mr. and Mrs. Foster from finding fulfilling separate lives.
Gender and Marriage ThemeTracker
Gender and Marriage 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.
And now, lately, she had come more and more to feel that she did not really wish to live out her days in a place where she could not be near these children, and have them visit her, and take them out for walks, and buy them presents, and watch them grow. She knew, of course, that it was wrong and in a way disloyal to have thoughts like these while her husband was still alive.
“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.
“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.
“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.