Oddly, considering that it is among the most influential of Dahl’s stories, ‘‘Beware of the Dog’’ has received little critical attention. It was originally published in the October 1944 issue of Harper’s magazine and reprinted in Dahl’s 1945 critically appraised short story collection Over to , an anthology of seven previously published and three new stories dealing with aviators during the war. It did not, however, sell well, coming out just after the war when interest in that genre of fiction was waning. Mark I. West in the Dahl volume in the Twayne’s English Author Series simply notes that the story is surreal in tone. He does, however, draw attention to a 1942 article in Saturday Evening Post in which Dahl dwells on his mental confusion after his crash in the desert, his dreams before awakening in the hospital, and the shock of finding the complete destruction of his nose by his wounds, all themes of ‘‘Beware of the Dog.’’ On the other hand, Jeremy Treglown, Dahl’s biographer, is concerned mainly with ‘‘Beware of the Dog’’ in its role in establishing Dahl’s career and later as an important source of income when his career began to take off in the early 1960s, when he sold the film rights to the story that was eventually filmed as 36 Hours Skeen is a classics professor. In this essay, he examines Dahl’s theme of totalitarian control of reality in ‘‘Beware of the Dog’’ in the context of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four Dahl uses considerable literary art to make the reader who is reading ‘‘Beware of the Dog’’ for the first time agree with a certain interpretation of the story that can be summarized as follows. Williamson is wounded and blacks out, losing contact with reality as he goes into shock, his mind wandering through fantasy, memory, and hallucination. When he regains consciousness, he is in an army hospital in Brighton, or so he thinks until he begins to see clues that suggest he is not in Brighton but in Nazi-occupied France. The clinching piece of evidence is a house with a ‘‘Beware of the Dog’’ sign written in French. He realizes he is the victim of a monstrous Nazi plot to gain military secrets from him by making him think he is in England and being debriefed by his own superior officers, when really he is to be interrogated by an enemy intelligence officer pretending to be British. Since he realizes this, when the officer starts to ask him about the incident in which he was shot down, he responds with his name, rank, and serial number, all the information he is obliged to give the enemy under the Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War. End of story.
That plot works quite well because it brings the reader along on a voyage of discovery, in which the reader penetrates along with Williamson and the narrator through veils of deception to the truth. However, there are many things wrong with the plot that do not hold up on close inspection. The film adaptation of the story, 36 Hours , addresses many of them. For instance, how could Germans fool Williamson into thinking they were English? (In the film, Williamson is American, and his handlers are captured Americans coerced to play their parts in the deception.) What military secret could Williamson, who is not likely to know much about the war except where he is ordered each morning, possibly possess that would be worth the effort of this elaborate deception? (In the film, Williamson becomes a military diplomat privy to the planning for the D-Day invasion.) Was Dahl slipshod in his writing? By no means. He created a story that can withstand the scrutiny of repeated reading and analysis.
‘‘Beware of the Dog’’ also contains another story. Williamson is wounded and blacks out, losing contact with reality as he goes into shock, his mind wandering through fantasy, memory, and hallucination. When he regains consciousness, he finds his leg amputated. He has been through traumatic experiences for close to two years of war, which can have the effect of producing the temporary mental illness known at the time as shell shock. Since, as the narrator says, Williamson’s leg does not hurt and he sleeps much more than eight hours a day, he is probably receiving morphine injections to control postoperative pain. All of these factors leave his state of mind unbalanced. He begins to suffer paranoid delusions, believing that everything he sees in his environment does not exist at random but is aimed directly at him and was created for the purpose of deceiving him. He finally comes to believe that he has not been rescued but has fallen into the hands of the enemy. His caretakers will be shocked when he reveals these beliefs.
There can be little doubt that Dahl wants us to read both stories, since he gives no way to choose between them. However, of course, they cannot both be true. In the second case, how could Williamson’s caretakers ever persuade him of the truth? Everything they did to prove they were English would only make them seem more German. The ambiguity in the story is in one sense a practical joke played on the reader, but it has a more serious purpose as well.
Dahl is exploring in ‘‘Beware of the Dog’’ one of the great themes of modern literature. Starting with the Enlightenment (a period beginning in the seventeenth century in Europe, when reason became prized as a primary goal) and the Industrial Revolution (the rise of machine power, beginning in the nineteenth century), modern culture detached people from their traditional ways of life and from their traditional structures of belief. Modernity thrusts people into a new and alien world where the rhythm of life is determined not by the sun and the seasons but by a time clock, where work means the separation of the family for much of the day and means tending machines rather than producing one’s food and supplies through agriculture. One hallmark of modernity is that people no longer directly experience much of their reality. Although people now know a larger reality outside of their own village, it is largely a reality presented to them through intermediaries in the mass media. People are told what is real by mass market advertising and by journalism. They must accept the report because it is what is available to them. At the same time, though, they know that a great deal that is reported to them is false. One product is much the same as another, no matter what advertisements say. Reporters parrot back now what is said by one politician and then what is said by an opponent, but they cannot get at any underlying truth. These factors and others make the reality in the modern world seem unreal.
Surrealism was a movement in art and philosophy that attempted to capture the contradictions and sense of unreality of modern life. Writing in 1942 at about the same time as Dahl, the surrealist Salvador Dalı´ summed up this problem this way: ‘‘The sole difference between myself and a madman is the fact that I am not mad!’’ The madman is mad because he believe things about the world that are different from those that everyone else believes: he does not give assent to consensus reality. Dalı´ also does not give assent to a consensus reality that rejects tradition and the human spirit. He does not do so because he is mad, but because he views reality as having gone mad. Williamson is in precisely the same position. Viewed objectively, his actions are those of a madman: he denies the reality of everything around him. However, the reader must at the same time recognize that in the circumstance of the war and in the persona of the Nazis modern reality has gone mad, and Williamson is acting sanely to recognize this truth. In this way Dahl dramatizes or allegorizes the problem of modernity. Williamson’s life has gone wrong, his identity as a pilot is gone, and his leg has been shot off. He feels what is wrong but instead of facing it, he projects it on the world around him. He is not in England but in the hands of the Nazis. Dahl’s audience may have an analogous feeling that something is wrong with modernity.
In ‘‘Beware of the Dog,’’ a totalitarian state creates a false reality in order to deceive a prisoner of war into giving up information. This reflects a basic problem of modernity: so much of the world that one must be aware of is experienced at second hand, and modern life is so tightly controlled. A state could control its citizens by creating a false reality—it seems almost inevitable that it should. The word propaganda is hateful precisely because of the efforts of totalitarian states like Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia to create an artificial reality, disseminating blatant lies as official truths, and even going so far as to alter official records such as newspapers to remove inconvenient facts or people who had fallen out of favor. Free societies have just as many false and controlling messages, however, not only in advertising but in official justifications for government policy at the highest level, such as the justification for war. The myth of the ‘‘Rape of Belgium’’ that the British government used to influence the public in favor of its declaration of war against Germany in 1914, as well the exaggerated or fabricated reports of United States presidents to sway the public and Congress to acquiesce in the Vietnam and Second Gulf wars show that the creation of a false reality can take place under any government. Writing only a few years after Dahl, George Orwell feared that the creation of such an artificial reality was the inevitable condition that the modern world was heading toward. He portrays one such scenario in Nineteen Eighty-Four Nineteen Eighty-Four , Winston Smith has the job of rewriting old newspaper articles so that they agree with the current policies of the government of Oceania (a union of Great Britain and the United States), a state ruled by the totalitarian Party. When Smith tries to find members of a resistance movement to what he recognizes as the tyranny of the state, he is arrested by The Ministry of Love and re-educated so that he is forced, through a process of reasoned argument and torture, to agree in word and in thought with the state propaganda. His interrogator, O’Brien, begins by telling Smith that he is mad because he denies the truth and prefers to remember false things, exactly the opposite of what Smith knows to be true. He then goes on to explore the limits, or rather the lack of limits, of the state’s power to control reality: Winston objects that the laws of nature are unchanging, but O’Brien simply reiterates that everything is as the Party says it is because everyone in the world accepts the Party’s authority. He even insists, ‘‘The earth is the center of the universe. The sun and the stars go round it.’’ The Party creates whatever belief it wants. The effort of creating an entire state of enthusiastic Nazis and enthusiastic Stalinists makes the problem of convincing one a man for three days that he is in England rather than France seem trivial. In the modern world, every person is placed in the position of Williamson, unable to tell whether the world is as it seems or not.
Bradley A. Skeen, Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 30, Roald Dahl, Published by Gale Group, 2010