‘The Landlady’ by Roald Dahl


The Landlady by Roald Dahl, 1959

The magic trick:

Using a third-person omniscient narrator who provides access into the protagonist’s thoughts and feelings, thereby allowing the plot to remain vague

I’ve been reading a lot of stories lately with minimal narration that require me do a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of figuring out the characters’ thoughts and emotions. I like that. I really do. But it is nice to sit down with “The Landlady” and have an old fashioned British narrator who interjects with all kinds of information about the characters’ feelings and motivations. This allows him to sprinkle in some laughs. It also means he can keep the action itself very vague. I mean look, I’m not saying this story is an enigma wrapped in a riddle. We see what is going on crystal clear. But it’s a neat thing when the narration can be expressive and aggressive in its explanations of certain thoughts while the actual events of the story remain subtle. And that’s quite a trick on Dahl’s part.

The selection:

“Very well, then. I’ll leave you now so that you can unpack. But before you go to bed, would you be kind enough to pop into the sitting-room on the ground floor and sign the book? Everyone has to do that because it’s the law of the land, and we don’t want to go breaking any laws at this stage in the proceedings, do we?” She gave him a little wave of the hand and went quickly out of the room and closed the door.

Now, the fact that his landlady appeared to be slightly off her rocker didn’t worry Billy in the least. After all, she was not only harmless – there was no question about that – but she was also quite obviously a kind and generous soul. He guessed that she had probably lost a son in the war, or something like that, and had never got over it.

So a few minutes later, after unpacking his suitcase and washing his hands, he trotted downstairs to the ground floor and entered the living-room. His landlady wasn’t there, but the fire was glowing in the hearth, and the little dachshund was still sleeping in front of it. The room was wonderfully warm and cosy. I’m a lucky fellow, he thought, rubbing his hands. This is a bit of all right.


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