Roald Dahl is a beloved children’s author. He is famous for writing stories such as James and the Giant Peach, The BFG, and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. These stories have endeared him to readers since the 1950’s, when he began writing. Previous to that, he had been a flying ace with the British Air Force during the war. He later moved to America to live with his wife, and remained there until his death.
While Dahl is most famous for being a children’s writer, he also wrote a number of adult-oriented poems and short stories. These pieces were written in a similar form and voice as his children’s works; they are playful and vibrant, with a trend of irony flowing through many of the works. However, his adult works had a much darker tone than his children’s stories, which often focused on teaching an implied moral or lesson to the readers; meanwhile, his stories and poems for adults were much more cynical and dark, rather than uplifting or educational.
This short poem is structured in three distinct couplets. It is a narrative poem that tells the story of an apparently brief interaction between a young boy and his mother’s female friend. Each couplet is rhymed, and each line is eight syllables in length. The lyrical structure of this poem creates a playful feeling to the poem, even though the subject matter is not childish.
Due to the fact that the entirety of the poem is only six lines, Dahl appears to have chosen his statements and words carefully, ensuring that the meaning of the poem was fully understood in the limited words being shared. Dahl is known for the fact that his adult poems also tend to be metaphorical in nature – even when an outward meaning is evident.
A woman who my mother knows
Came in and took off all her clothes.
In the first couplet, the author gives a brief introduction to his subject. The interesting part of his description is not how he describes her, but rather the vagueness he surrounds her with. He mentions that his mother "knows" the woman, but does not indicate anything else about her. This lack of detail gives room for the reader to insert any details about the woman from their own personal experiences.
The implication is that this woman is significantly older (i.e. his mother’s age), which creates a feeling of a risqué relationship, or possibly an implication of Freudian theory at work. However, the age is never acutely stated.
Metaphorically, the fact that the woman is so vague leaves room for her to represent any (or every) woman. The idea that his mother knows her could indicate that there is some sort of indirect relationship between them, but it is not a close or intimate relationship. At the same time, the act of undressing is symbolic of giving the intimate details of one’s life. Thus, the dichotomy of sharing personal information within an impersonal relationship is being focused on by the author.
Said I, not being very old,
‘By golly gosh, you must be cold!’
The second couplet is referring back to the author. He mentions that he is young, which makes sense as the woman is his mother’s friend, not his. It also ties in with the use of "golly, gosh" in the second line, which is a childish statement of excited confusion, rather than the more colorful, adult terms that are usually used as people mature. As well, his immediate reaction is that without clothes, she will be cold. This is a logical conclusion based on the thought process of a boy, and is based on inductive reasoning – clothes keep you warm, so if someone is not wearing clothes, they will be cold.
Metaphorically, you see the author’s personal view of himself as an innocent being at the time of the interaction. The childish way that he deals with a situation that could hold clear sexual implication for adolescents or adults indicates inexperience in such matters. When this innocent inexperience is tied to the earlier metaphor of the personal and impersonal elements of the relationship, it can be seen that the author is essentially viewing himself as a young man who has not been in an intimate emotional relationship with a woman. The fact that he viewed her as probably being "cold" indicates the need of the woman for help, and it can be inferred that had she agreed, he would have helped her to become clothed again. Realizing that this actually symbolizes his response to the topic the woman unexpectedly broached, it appears that he was embarrassed for himself and her that the topic would even come up in their conversation.
‘No, no!’ she cried. ‘Indeed I’m not!
I’m feeling devilishly hot!’
This couplet emphasizes the completely opposite reaction that the woman had to the situation. Her deductive reasoning was opposite of the author’s, but still logical; while he assumed she would be cold after taking her clothes off, she states that she took her clothes off because she was too hot. It also implies that she undressed in front of him, or despite being in front of him, on purpose. The author also excludes any indication that she was planning on dressing again at any point afterwards.
This couplet symbolizes the fact that the woman is ok with the topic being broached, whatever that topic was, and actually brought it up to him on purpose. However, his reaction ran counter to her intention. Essentially, the author is explaining that though he has interest in relationships with women, he has a habit of drawing the wrong conclusions; he is lamenting that he does not understand their thinking.
It is also interesting that, while he appeared slightly embarrassed in the earlier stanza, she was not embarrassed in the least. In fact, her use of the adverb "devilishly" implies that she is actually trying to tempt him, possibly to act in an immoral manner. The author fails to include a conclusion explaining how the episode ended, leaving it open to the reader to determine exactly how the author responded.
Ultimately, this poem revolves around the difference in genders, specifically in the way they think. It also includes elements of the idea of the maturing adolescent, specifically in the author’s comparison of his age and innocence to that of the woman.
This short poem outlines a symbolic interaction between the author and an older woman. She undresses, symbolizing a moment of intimate discussion that was unexpected. The author states his logical conclusion to the action, but finds out that the opposite is actually what is true. Ultimately, the poem is reflecting the author’s personal evaluation that he is unable to understand the opposite gender.