“William and Mary”

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  • Original title:
    • “Abide with Me” (as per Treglown’s biography p. 122)
  • Connections:
    • The two main characters’ names are William and Mary, which are the same as the names of the white mice in The Witches

Plot Description

This is another of Dahl’s most famous short stories, and it’s been dramatized a number of times. Jeremy Treglown notes in his biography that Dahl did a great deal of neurosurgical research to make sure that experiment described would be as realistic as possible. Another interesting note: the names of the main characters, William and Mary, are the same as the two white mice in The Witches.

Spoiler warning! Mary Pearl’s husband William has passed away one week ago, and after the lawyer reads the Will, he gives her a letter from her dead husband. She returns home to read it, smoking a cigarette and admiring her new television set. She wonders what her demanding husband could possibly have to say to her. Maybe he’s finally decided to thank her for thirty years of dedication and service. Instead, she is shocked to discover twenty pages about a scientific experiment that an Oxford colleague convinced him to volunteer for. After his death from cancer, William’s brain was hooked up to an artificial heart machine and removed from his skull. It now resides in a basin of cerebrospinal fluid and only exists because the machines keep pumping it full of oxygenated blood. The doctor, Landy, has even managed to save one of William’s eyes, which is connected to his brain by the optic nerve and floats on top of the fluid in a plastic case. William urges her to put aside her revulsion and to come visit him to see how the experiment turned out. In a postscript he reminds her not to “drink cocktails… waste money… smoke cigarettes… buy a television apparatus.” Mary is appalled that a part of her husband is still alive and dictating commands to her. Her automatic sense of duty kicks in, though, and she heads to the laboratory to meet with Landy. He shows her William’s brain, conscious and alive in its basin, and she is surprised to feel a sort of affection for him in this state. “He looks so helpless and silent lying there,” she says. She announces to the doctor that she wants to take her husband home. He is astounded and tries to talk her out of her plan, but she is adamant. As he tries to get her to leave the lab, she leans down over the eye to say goodbye. She takes a puff of her cigarette and is delighted to see the pupil contract into a “minute black pinpoint of absolute fury.” The tables have turned and now Mary is in control. “Don’t look so cross, William,” she says. “It isn’t any good looking cross… Not anymore it isn’t. Because from now on, my pet, you’re going to do just exactly what Mary tells you.” Landy finally pulls her from the room as she exclaims, “Isn’t he sweet? Isn’t he darling? I just can’t wait to get him home.”


Criticism and Analysis