In “The Way Up to Heaven,” Mr. and Mrs. Foster behave with a strict sense of propriety. While propriety is normally associated with decency, Dahl parodies this notion by having propriety exacerbate the couple’s cruelty. Mr. Foster uses upper-class propriety to his advantage by using his manners to conceal that he is being surreptitiously cruel to his wife. Meanwhile, Mrs. Foster is smothered by her sense of propriety, since she feels that it’s not proper for her to accuse her husband of cruelty or make a fuss, so she remains silent and compliant even while he abuses her. However, Mrs. Foster ultimately finds her own way to be cruel while maintaining the illusion of propriety when she leaves him in the elevator to die, a deliberate act that will seem, to outsiders, like an accident—a tragic result of being rich enough to afford an elevator at home. By decoupling propriety from decency, then, Dahl demonstrates that class and manners have nothing to do with whether somebody is cruel or kind. In fact, sometimes those who are acting most properly have the most to hide.
Mr. Foster is the epitome of propriety masking maliciousness. This is clearest in his behavior towards his wife, as he tortures her with a “manner so bland” that it’s difficult to discern whether he is behaving normally or sadistically. He makes her late for things (exacerbating her anxiety over punctuality) by doing normal tasks, such as washing his hands, musing over the weather, fetching cigars, or searching for a gift. All of this behavior seems perfectly normal for an upper-class man, and yet this is what makes it so insidious: Mr. Foster’s seeming normality and unflagging propriety allow him to get away with literally torturing his wife, and his upper-class status and manner give him an authority that his wife and servants would not dare question.
While propriety frees Mr. Foster to behave badly, Mrs. Foster is smothered by propriety for most of the story. Part of being a good, upper-class wife is being passive and compliant in serving her husband’s needs. This, of course, means putting his desires before her own, such as when she refuses to contemplate moving to Paris to be with her daughter since her husband would never want to do this, or when she agrees to drop her husband off at the club before going to the airport, even though this will make her anxious and might even make her miss her flight. Worse, Mrs. Foster’s sense of propriety prevents her from pushing back when she suspects that her husband may be making her suffer on purpose. Even as evidence mounts that his lateness is deliberate, she gives him the benefit of the doubt until his cruelty is absolutely undeniable, because it would be improper for her to accuse him of bad behavior. Therefore, Mrs. Foster’s propriety traps her in passive behavior, preventing her from prioritizing her own desires and from standing up for herself in the face of abuse.
However, when Mrs. Foster finally discovers her husband’s deceit and takes her opportunity to get revenge, she gets away with leaving him in the elevator to die because her behavior never seems improper. Mrs. Foster is alone when she hears Mr. Foster get stuck in the elevator, so nobody knows that she was aware he was trapped when she left for the airport. Furthermore, she continues to behave as a dutiful wife during her trip, writing letters to her husband weekly and returning home to him when the six weeks is up. Then, when she finds the house eerily empty, she takes the natural next step and calls the elevator repair company to fix her broken elevator, pretending not to know that anything is amiss. Mrs. Foster has plausible deniability that her behavior is normal rather than cruel, which mirrors the way her own husband used propriety to mask his malicious behavior.
Furthermore, just as Mr. Foster’s authority as an upper-class man made him immune from suspicion, Mrs. Foster evades suspicion by leaning into the role of helpless, elderly rich lady. She tells the elevator repair person to come immediately because she can’t walk up stairs, which prepares the elevator repair person to feel sympathy towards her even before discovering her dead husband in the elevator. The norms of propriety that have smothered her for so long—the very norms that pushed her to this absurd act—are suddenly helping her to get away with her crime. Dahl therefore ridicules upper-class standards of decorum, showing how propriety can exacerbate and mask cruelty, snobbery, and neglect, allowing wealthy, well-mannered people to maintain moral authority while acting depraved.
Propriety and Class ThemeTracker
Propriety and Class 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.
“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.