‘‘Beware of the Dog’’ begins with the description of the view from the cockpit of a plane in flight: ‘‘Down below there was only a vast white undulating sea of cloud. Above there was the sun, and the sun was white like the clouds, because it is never yellow when one looks at it from high in the air.’’ Like much of Dahl’s prose in this story, the passage is lyrical and evocative, but it is also purposefully disorienting. Dahl wants the reader never to be quite sure of what the meaning of the text is. One knows what the beginning of the passage means only when one reaches the end. It develops that the view is that of the pilot (whom we later learn is named Peter Williamson) of a Spitfire, the first-line fighter plane used by the RAF during the Battle of Britain and throughout World War II. This information goes a long way toward establishing the setting.
Williamson has been shot. His right leg is almost destroyed; ‘‘the cannon-shell had taken him on the thigh, just above the knee, and now there was nothing but a great mess and a lot of blood.’’The‘‘cannon’’referstothethirty-millimeter cannons that typically armed the German Messerschmitt fighter aircraft, the ME-109 and ME110, in contrast to the .50-caliber machine guns favored by the British. With a freely bleeding arterial wound, Williamson, since he is still conscious, must have been hit no more than a few seconds before the narrative begins. Having lost so much blood, Williamson is going into shock and becoming delirious. His mind wanders to a fantasy of landing safely at his home airfield and having the mechanic Yorky and his fellow pilots think he is joking about his wound. The effects of shock keep him from feeling any pain from his wound. He is on the verge of blacking out.
In Williamson’s fantasy, his comrades think he is playing a practical joke, only pretending to have a wound. The military routine of making a report on his mission to a superior officer inserts itself in his mental wandering. Then he imagines that he is visiting Bluey, his nickname for his girlfriend or fiance´ e in London, and getting drunk with her. The memory of repairing an axe by re-securing the head to the shaft intrudes. This fantasy of mending something broken forms an analogy to his severed leg. Fortunately, Williamson snaps back to reality and refreshes himself by breathing oxygen from his mask. He realizes that he cannot possibly fly any farther; he has to bail out and parachute to the ground if he wants to live. He is able to do so because he relies on his training rather than having to consciously think of each step he has to go through. He is returning to England from flying a mission in France, and he thinks he will probably land in the English Channel. In his confusion, he does not know exactly where he is. As he jumps out of the plane, his body begins to spin in the fall. He becomes dizzy and blacks out.
Not knowing precisely what happened to him as he fell, Williamson slowly comes back to consciousness. Dahl describes every sensory experience as Williamson gradually returns to himself and deduces that he is now lying in a hospital bed. He recalls his wound and feels his right leg, discovering it has been amputated above the knee. Just then, a nurse enters his room. She tells Williamson that he is in Brighton, a city on the Channel coast of England, and that he parachuted into the woods just above the beach. He has been in the hospital for two days. They briefly discuss his amputation, and she tries to reassure him, telling him that he will be fitted with an artificial leg in due course. An hour later, the doctor comes in and tells him that some of his comrades from his squadron have been asking about him. They will be allowed to visit him in a few days, the doctor says, as his convalescence (recovery period) allows.
Left alone again, Williamson hears the noise of aircraft engines through his window. He recognizes their distinctive sound as belonging to the German Junkers bomber, the JU-88 (most of Dahl’s own five confirmed kills as an RAF pilot were on this type of aircraft). He is certain that he is not mistaking the sound of their Jumo engines, since he heard their distinctive engine noise ‘‘every day during the Battle.’’ This refers to the Battle of Britain, when the Germans tried to gain air superiority over southern England to threaten an invasion of the island; it took place in the summer and early fall of 1940. This helps to date the story to sometime after October 1940, since Williamson looks back on it as a past event. Williamson thinks it is odd to hear the JU-88s (German bombers), since the Germans are no longer making daylight air raids against Britain, and it is odder still not to hear air raid sirens and antiaircraft artillery firing at them. Perplexed, Williamson does the only thing he can do and calls for the nurse to ask her about the anomalous situation. She reassures him that he must have heard Lancasters or Flying Fortresses returning from missions against targets on the continent (thus making the story no earlier than 1942, when America joined the war, since Flying Fortresses are American aircraft). She agrees that German bombers ‘‘never come over in daylight any longer’’ and dismisses Williamson’s concerns. He changes the subject and asks for a cigarette. The nurse gives him a pack of a wellknown British brand.
Toward evening, Williamson hears another aircraft engine that he cannot identify at all. He begins to wonder whether he is perhaps ‘‘imagining things’’ or is ‘‘a little delirious.’’ When the nurse returns, she jokes with him: ‘‘I hope you don’t still think that we’re being bombed.’’ She proceeds to give him a sponge bath, being careful not to let him see the stump of his leg, and tells him that her brother is also in the RAF, on a bomber crew. Williamson mentions that he went to school in Brighton, the city where the hospital is located. As she proceeds to wash him, she mentions that it is difficult to get the soap to lather, both because the quality of soap has declined since the diversion of civilian resources toward the war effort and because the water in Brighton is so hard (that is, full of mineral salts). Williamson remembers from his school days in Brighton that he particularly enjoyed his baths because of the rich lather promoted by the soft water there. He starts to mention this contradiction to the nurse, but then thinks better of it.
After the nurse leaves, Williamson keeps himself awake worrying about the contradictions he has discovered: the water is hard when he knows it ought to be soft, and he is sure JU-88s are flying around unmolested where it makes no sense for them to be. He wonders whether he is crazy and decides to prove to himself he is not by making a speech to himself, ‘‘something complicated and intellectual,’’ on the topic of ‘‘what to do with Germany after the war.’’ This is perhaps an ironic comment on the British public’s absolute faith in its eventual complete victory, even in the darkest days of war. This thought promptly puts him to sleep. When he awakens before dawn, his mind returns to the same contradictions and he begins to doubt. What precisely he doubts, the story does not yet say, but because of this doubt, everything that he perceives seems different from before: ‘‘The room was bare. It was no longer warm or friendly. It was not even comfortable. It was cold and empty and very quiet.’’ He decides that he must do something to find out whether what he fears is true or not. With some difficulty, because of his lost leg, he manages to crawl over to the window of his hospital room. Looking out the window, he does not see anything very important except for a sign posted on a hedge that serves as the garden wall of a private house across the street. Because of the distance and the light, he can barely see what is written on it, but he reads, Garde au chien ,’’ the French for ‘Beware of the dog.’ Williamson concludes from this new anomaly, on top of the JU-88s and the hard water, that he is in fact in France, a country occupied by the Nazis.
When the nurse returns later in the morning, Williamson sees her in an entirely new light: She tells Williamson that he will shortly be visited by Wing Commander Roberts to debrief him. This makes Williamson think of an early briefing he had from an RAF intelligence officer, telling him to give only his name, rank, and number (his serial number, or service number) if he were ever captured by the enemy. Roberts duly arrives and starts to ask questions for the incident report on the mission during which Williamson was shot. He asks for Williamson’s squadron number, and Williamson instead responds with his name, rank, and number. The story ends there, implying that Williamson will give only these answers, believing himself to be a captive of the enemy.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 31, Roald Dahl, Published by Gale Group, 2010