Tales of the Unthinkable
Kevin A. Woolsey once said, “The essence of wise living is anticipating the unanticipated and expecting the unexpected.” However, many people fail to follow this advice in their lives. Life is nothing but a series of surprises, and if one is not able to predict these changes, they will undergo atrocious tragedies. In fact, despite being called “the unexpected,” one could argue that the unexpected can indeed be foreseen. In the short stories “Skin” and “The Way Up To Heaven,” both by Roald Dahl, the victims fall subject to the cruelest fates because they fail to pay close attention to their situations. In “Skin,” an old, poor, and naive man named Drioli takes a shady offer from a stranger in exchange for the promise of money, lots of it; however, the stranger’s true intention is to kill Drioli and steal his painting. Before taking the deal that resulted in his demise, if Drioli had taken a step back and asked himself a few smart and relevant questions about his situation, he would have avoided his rather unfortunate fate. In “The Way Up To Heaven,” Mrs. Foster, a kind and gentle old woman, transforms into someone with a completely new persona after being constantly annoyed by her husband for many years. At the end, when Mr. Foster least expects it, Mrs. Foster leaves him to die in an elevator in their own mansion. Before his wife is transformed into a person who can let a person die in an elevator if Mr. Foster had thought about the implications of his actions he would have been able to avoid such tragic death. Ultimately, both of the victims in the stories end up dead not because they were unlucky or cursed, but because they were not able to see the consequences of the actions and expect the unexpected. Through the short stories “Skin” and “The Way Up To Heaven,” Roald Dahl successfully conveys the message that anyone can be taken by surprise and may undergo tragedy when they least expect it since people tend to overlook signs of danger, underestimate other people’s capabilities, and engage in risky activities.
The first mistake that causes people to undergo unexpected tragedy is that they overlook crucial signs of danger. In “Skin,” the old man Drioli takes a life-changing decision without regard to the critical signs of the danger he faces. As a result of his greed for money, he rashly takes the decision to leave with the gloved stranger, hoping that the stranger will keep his word and give Drioli money. He even has a suspicion about the man as “He [doesn’t] like the man’s long flexible neck, or the way he crane[s] it forward at you when he [speaks], like a snake.” Drioli’s intuition is telling him that something is off about the man in canary gloves; however, Drioli is so intent on getting the fortune that he is promised, he disregards his intuition and follows the man in canary gloves. Before rashly taking the decision that he does, if Drioli had taken a step back and thought about the predicament that he was in, he would have realized that this stranger had an ulterior motive, which was not to give a random old man a fortune’s worth of money. In doing so, Drioli might have been able to escape his tragic fate. Today, it is common knowledge that one should never go somewhere with a stranger because the same thing that happened to Drioli could happen to anyone. Roald Dahl also shows that overlooking signs of danger can cause unexpected tragedy in “The Way Up to Heaven” since Mr. Foster fails to recognize the warning signs regarding his situation and as a result, faces a tragic end. For instance, he knows that his wife is exceptionally intent on visiting her grandchildren as “It was a miracle that [Mr. Foster] had agreed to let her fly to [her daughter’s place in Paris] alone for six weeks to visit them.” Despite this, he decides to take his sweet time delaying his wife so she would be late for her flight. In fact, it is when Mrs. Foster realizes that her husband has been deliberately stalling her that she snaps and transforms into a new person almost instantaneously. Had Mr. Foster realized how important visiting her grandchildren and her daughter was to Mrs. Foster, he may have been able to predict the extent that his wife would go to in order to visit them and he might have been able to escape his unfortunate end. Through these two short stories, Roald Dahl successfully shows that one of the reasons that people are caught by surprise and undergo unexpected tragedy is that they tend to overlook signs of danger.
Another common mistake that can lead people to undergo tragedy is that people tend to underestimate others’ capabilities. Roald Dahl shows this in “Skin” through Drioli and the man with canary gloves. Drioli is so happy that he is going to become rich when presented with the offer of a life in riches that he completely underestimates the capabilities of the stranger offering him money and takes the stranger’s word that he will be safe. After Drioli looks up at the tall man in the canary gloves who just offered him a life of luxury and comfort for the one condition that Drioli stays at the Hotel Bristol in Cannes, he slowly asks, “But do you really mean it?” The fact that Drioli takes the man’s word means that Drioli severely underestimates what the man is capable of. As a result, the man takes advantage of this and manipulates Drioli to get the painting that he desires. In “The Way Up To Heaven.” In this story, Mr. Foster thinks of Mrs. Foster as a kindred old woman who would never do something to harm him no matter what he does. For the most part, this is true; however, because Mr. Foster constantly annoys Mrs. Foster for many years, Mrs. Foster’s persona changes. Mr. Foster fails to understand the capabilities of Mrs. Foster despite the many hints that he should have received the day that Mrs. Foster is supposed to leave for Paris. Finally, he pulls the last strand from Mrs. Foster when he is caught red-handed deliberately stalling Mrs. Foster by hiding a box in the car and going back in the house to find that very box. “At this point, Mrs. Foster suddenly [spots] spotted a corner of something white wedged over and [pulls] pulled out a small paper-wrapped box, and at the same time she [cannot] couldn’t help noticing that it [is] was wedged down firm and deep, as though with the help of a pushing hand.” Mr. Foster underestimates Mrs. Foster in two ways. The first way that he underestimates her, is that he does not think that Mrs. Foster will find the box that he has hidden. The second way that he underestimates her is that he does not think that Mrs. Foster will realize that he intentionally hid the box. As a result of these fatal mistakes, he suffers a tragic fate. In both of these stories, Roald Dahl shows that one of the reasons that people undergo tragedy is that they underestimate others’ abilities.
In addition to overlooking signs of danger and underestimating others’ abilities, people tend to undergo unexpected tragedy because they tend to engage in risky activities without considering the consequences of their actions. For instance, in “Skin” by Roald Dahl, Drioli shows the painting done on his back to the public, which puts his life in danger. While this may seem to be an innocent and harmless act, many people will go to great extents to get what they want, or in this case, get their hands on an original masterpiece such as the one painted on Drioli’s back. One such person who would go to such extent is the dealer of the gallery that Drioli is in. When Drioli reveals his painting to the entire gallery, the dealer takes advantage and tells Drioli “I will buy it.” In fact, when Drioli asks the dealer how he can buy the painting as the painting is literally a part of Drioli, the dealer replies “the painting itself is of no value until you are dead.” The dealer in this story is willing to kill Drioli just to get his hands on the masterpiece that is painted on Drioli. As a result of Drioli’s ignorance of the implications that even the smallest of actions could have, he puts himself in a dangerous and potentially life-threatening position, which comes to show how risky activities can lead to unexpected tragedies. Roald Dahl also shows this in “The Way Up To Heaven.” In this story, Mr. Foster annoys his wife over and over again by making her worry about being late to an event. By toying with her for many years, Mr. Foster creates a very dangerous situation for himself because if his wife found out about his true intentions, she could snap at any given moment and commit unspeakable crimes. In fact, Mr. Foster nearly gets away with his mishaps; however, on one particular day, he pushes her too far and Mrs. Foster finds out the truth. On the day that Mrs. Foster is supposed to go to Paris to visit her daughter, her flight gets canceled, which she is nearly late to because Mr. Foster insists he tags along. That night, Mr. Foster insists that Mrs. Foster brings him to his club before she goes on her flight. Mrs. Foster, usually a very loyal wife, talks back to Mr. Foster and tells him “It isn’t on the way to the airport.” Mr. Foster is playing with her wife’s emotions, a very dangerous game, and still does not recognize that his wife is on edge. Mr. Foster, not knowing the consequences of his risky activities, continues to play this game throughout the next morning. Right before Mr. Foster is able to get away with his misdeeds, Mrs. Foster realizes that Mr. Foster has been toying with her and leaves him to die in an elevator. By playing such a risky game with his wife, Mr. Foster builds on the emotional turmoil in his wife and in the end, caused his wife to kill the person who she loves most in the most unexpected of ways.
Roald Dahl’s short stories show that anyone can be taken by surprise and may undergo tragedy when they least expect it since people tend to overlook signs of danger, underestimate other people’s capabilities, and engage in risky activities. People often talk about luck, and how tragedies only happen to them because of their “bad luck.” In contrast, this statement could not be further from the truth. People often face tragedies as a result of their own actions and poor judgment whether they acknowledge that fact or not. However, by noticing signs of danger when they come, estimating people to their full capabilities, and not engaging in risky activities, people can avoid such tragic and unforeseen tragedies. Ultimately, people can take control of their lives and avoid tragedies in their lives by using proper judgment in their actions.