Department of English

Faculty of Arts, Chulalongkorn University

The Landlady



Roald Dahl

(13 September 1916 – 23 November 1990)


This short story by Roald Dahl was first published in The New Yorker, November 28, 1959.


142  Swindon: In other versions the city is Reading.


142  trilby hat: a soft felt hat, traditionally made from rabbit hair, with an indented crown and a narrow flexible brim.  See Hat Dictionary and Glossary of Hat Terms.  See pictures at Men's Trilby Hats.  Find discussion of hats (the trilby among them) in cultural or symbolic terms at History of Hats and Hat History.


143  pussy-willows: The pussy willow flower is considered to symbolize motherhood; "To dream of a pussy willow means there is a child in your near future."  In some versions of the short story, "yellow chrysanthemums, tall and beautiful," are the flowers in the vase.  Yellow chrysanthemums, according to the Society of American Florists, mean "secret admirer."  Note that pussy willows are associated with spring and chrysanthemums are associated with autumn.


143  rapacious (Merriam-Webster)

[Latin rapac-, rapax, from rapere to seize]
1: excessively grasping or covetous 

2: living on prey 

3: ravenous <a rapacious appetite>


143  dithering (Merriam-Webster)

1: shiver, tremble 

2: to act nervously or indecisively: vacillate


148  Dempsey and Tunney: Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney are heavyweight boxers famous for their 1927 fight.  See The Dempsey-Tunney fight.


151  bitter almonds: toxic type of almond (unlike the sweet almond).  See Almond.  Note, however, that the toxic content of bitter almonds are supposedly destroyed by heat.



Study Questions for Roald Dahl's “The Landlady

Some things to think about as you read and reread.


Humor: Felicity, Dahls widow, explains the perception that her husband is a funny man: “It is in his writing, in his descriptions of things. It was a hidden, subversive humour, not a comedian telling jokes” (Day).  Do you find evidence of this humor in “The Landlady”?


Good and Bad Signs: Billy Weaver observes at the beginning of the story that “Animals were usually a good sign in a place like this” (143).  What other signs, good and bad, do you notice?  How are they presented?  How accurately do they signal the place (the Bed and Breakfast) and the events to come? 


Descriptions of the Landlady: When the landlady first appears, she is compared to a jack-in-the-box (144).  Later she is described as having a round pink face and very gentle blue eyes.  Some other similes and descriptions are she looked exactly like the mother of ones best school-friend... (145), the old girl is slightly dotty, and smiling down at him with pale lips.  What do you make of these impressions that sometimes hint at oddities and other times evoke comfort?  Is her reference to the Bed and Breakfast as my little nest an implied simile that she is like a mother bird?  What is suggested by Billys speculation that his landlady has “probably lost a son in the war, or something like that, and...never got over it” (146)?  Does the “peculiar smell” emanating from her that reminds Billy of “pickled walnuts?  New leather?  Or was it the corridors of a hospital?” at all odd or unexpected (149)?


Speed: Examine the “briskness” of Billy.  It is a businessman quality he would like to have.  When does Billy act “briskly” when does he not?  What about the movement of the landlady?  What is the significance of time and of how quickly or slowly things happen in the story?  Why are words like “at once” or “suddenly” used so often in the story?


Emphasis: Notice how italics are used in this story.  There seems to be quite a few.  What do they emphasize?  What information or characteristic do they convey about the speaker or the plot?



Suspense: Dahl has admitted that The main thing that ties all my work together is a terrible fear of boring the reader.  I always feel compelled to hold the reader, get him by the throat and never let go until the last page (West 65).  How does he grip the reader in The Landlady?



Review Sheet


Billy Weaver

the landlady

Mr. Greenslade

Christopher Mulholland

Gregory W. Temple




Bed and Breakfast







Sample Student Reading Responses to Roald Dahl's “The Landlady


Response 1:






Nilobol Wongsam

2202232 Introduction to the Study of English Fiction

Acharn Puckpan Tipayamontri

November 6, 2008

Reading Response


Guilty Pleasures


Billy Weaver, in Roald Dahl’s “The Landlady,” gives a clear criterion for his preferred place to stay when he asks the porter “is there a fairly cheap hotel not too far away from here?” (142).  Having also taken the “slow afternoon train”—presumably cheap as well—which deposits him at a late hour (“about nine o’clock in the evening”) in Bath, Billy reveals himself to be an aspiring businessman who is concerned not with the business of how much he could make but with how little he would spend.

Yet, as he follows the porter’s ready reply to try the pub Bell and Dragon, he encounters a bed and breakfast.  Here, Billy observes the “brilliantly illuminated” temptation: “tall and beautiful” pussy-willows which “looked wonderful” beside green velvety curtains, “a bright fire burning in the hearth,” “a pretty little dachshund” curled up asleep in a room “filled with pleasant furniture,” containing “a baby-grand piano and a big sofa and several plump armchairs” (143).  Billy’s vacillation in front of this lavish visual so averse to his sense of thrift recalls an earlier contrast between seeing and feeling: “the moon was coming up out of a clear starry sky over the houses opposite the station entrance.  But the air was deadly cold and the wind was like a flat blade of ice on his cheeks” (142).  The setting for this story establishes a discomfiting tension between the pleasantness of what is seen and the unpleasantness of what is felt.

 The word “dithering” (143), used to describe Billy in front of the house window, contains both the physical and mental push and pull between his pleasure at the sight and displeasure of the idea: “he was a tiny bit frightened of them [boarding-houses].”  It is also a continuing reminder of the “deadly cold” in the expositional discrepancy.  By the time Billy sees the landlady’s “warm welcoming smile” (144), its contradiction to his earlier feeling toward “rapacious landladies” makes the conflict between seeing and feeling almost a motif in the story.

Accepting to stay at the “fantastically cheap” bed and breakfast (144), then becomes an act of guilty pleasure for Billy not because of indulgent spending but because of indulgent skimping.  His disapproving instincts lose to apparent low cost: “The old girl is slightly dotty…but at five and sixpence a night, who gives a damn about that?” (145).  The landlady’s guilty pleasures bring these words back to haunt Billy.  Her pleasure in having beautiful boys smacks of illicitness: “They were tall and young and handsome, my dear, just exactly like you” (148) and “we don’t want to go breaking any laws at this stage of the proceedings” (146).  This vocabulary shift to “proceedings,” evocative of the court, hints at a shift in the story where the business at hand is no longer economic but (il)legal.  One suspects that an overnight stay at a local bed and breakfast is turning into a longer mysterious series of events.  Our act of continuing to read is Dahl pulling us inexorably into the mire of a murder that we would rather not be a part of, much like Billy Weaver being drawn into the house despite his trying to hold back (144).

“When I’m writing for adults, I’m just trying to entertain them,” says Dahl (West 65).  To continue reading is to continue seeing Billy’s downfall.  Ignoring his feelings and believing only his eyes probably costs Billy his life.  Even though the anticipated climactic murder never takes place explicitly in the text, are we ignoring our feelings of guilt as we are “entertained” by the pleasure not of killing, an illicit act, but of reading about it?


Works Cited

Dahl, Roald.  Tales of the Unexpected.  London: Joseph, 1979.

West, Mark I.  “Interview with Roald Dahl.”  Children’s Literature for Education 21.2 (1990): 61–66.










Key Terms to Date

plot vocabulary

plot, main plot, minor plot

conflict, internal conflict, external conflict, clash of actions, clash of ideas, clash of desires, clash of wills,
major, minor, emotional, physical

cf. conflict in fairy tales:

antagonist (antagonistic)
suspense (suspenseful)
mystery (mysterious, mysteriously, mysteriousness)
surprise (surprising, surprised)

plot twist

artistic unity (unified)
time sequence

in medias res
complication (complicate)

inciting force
rising action
falling action
anti-climax (anti-climactic)
conclusion (conclude, conclusive)
resolution (resolve, resolving)
flashback, retrospect

plot structure
initiating incident
beginning, middle, end
chance, coincidence
double plot

parallel plot
subplot, underplot
deus ex machina
disclosure, discovery
movement, shape of movement






Day, Elizabeth.  "My years with Roald, by the 'love of his life.'"  Interview.  The Observer 9 November 2008.  14 November 2008 <>.


West, Mark I.  "Interview with Roald Dahl."  Children's Literature for Education 21.2 (1990): 6166. (pdf file, 366.2 KB)



Other books by Dahl

Dahl, Roald.  Someone Like You.  1953. (collection of short stories)


Dahl, Roald.  Fantastic Mr. Fox.


Dahl, Roald.  The Enormous Crocodile.





Roald Dahl



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Last updated November 29, 2008