Roald Dahl's "The Umbrella Man"

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Roald Dahl's The Umbrella Man

Roald Dahl, a much-celebrated author of many children’s books and stories, had an eye for the unusual. His stories describe oddities and outcasts across many spectrums, and don’t hesitate to make use of magic. He wrote many novels and a huge number of short stories. Many are collected in anthologies and continue to be enjoyed by children of all ages, even today. I chose to make my playlist about a character in one of my favorite Roald Dahl stories, The Umbrella Man. One interesting aspect of this story is that the characters aren’t given names. The narrator is a twelve-year-old girl who has gone with her mother into the city for a dentist appointment. My playlist represents the girl’s mother throughout the story (I’ll just call her “mom” to make it less confusing!)

Full text of the story

A shorter summary of the story

I would suggest reading the whole thing- it’s only about three pages long. Roald Dahl is the master of the surprise ending, and the comical twist at the end of The Umbrella Man makes the story.

“No Sunlight”- Death Cab for Cutie

Death Cab for Cutie - Narrow Stairs - No Sunlight

The story begins on a rainy day in London. Caught without proper rain gear, mother and daughter try to wait out the storm in a café. Eventually, they realize the rain’s not going away anytime soon. The daughter wants to stay (she enjoyed a great banana split and wouldn’t mind another) but Mom disagrees and thinks they'd better get home.

“More clouds appeared
'Til the sky went black, and there was

No sunlight
No sunlight
And there was

No sunlight
No sunlight

And it disappeared at the same speed
As the idealistic things I believed
The optimist died inside of me”

The music video for this song, though mostly rain-free, reflects the basic setting of the story- on the street, surrounded by tons of people. The random interactions of strangers is an important theme in this story.

This song fits the tone and mood of the beginning of the story. Though the lyrics are rather somber and dark, they are set to cheerful, upbeat music. The electric guitar and simple but dominant piano add to this effect, as do a couple more synthetic sounds. Even the bass line of the song, though constant and driving, is upbeat- it's also more exciting than a simple backbeat, as it has its own "melody" that acts as a great backdrop for the other instruments. The mother and daughter are feeling pretty relaxed and carefree after spending a day in the city, so the music fits perfectly. The lyrics, to me, perfectly convey the feeling of rain on a cold London day. The paragraph at the end highlights the difference in opinion between Mom and her daughter- her daughter is optimistic and not all that concerned with the weather- she just wants another banana split, and will think about the rain later. Mom, older and wiser, knows the storm isn’t stopping and dreads stepping out into the downpour.

“Watch What You Say to Me”- T.I.

T.I. - T.I. Vs. T.I.P. (Deluxe Edition) - Watch What You Say to Me (feat. Jay-Z)

Accepting their fate and heading into the storm, the pair begins to get soaked. Suddenly, though, they are approached by an elderly, distinguished-looking gentleman carrying a very expensive silk umbrella. He has ventured too far on his daily walk, he says, and needs money for a cab ride home. Since he is such a polite gentleman, he would never dream of asking for money- he will give the pair his nice umbrella in exchange for only a pound note. Mom is a naturally suspicious character. She doesn’t trust this man coming up to her on the street, and considers it very improper. She is very standoffish at first.

“Better watch what you say to me,
‘cause I’m known to make mountains out of molehills.
You don’t want to get your folk killed?
Well, watch what you say to me”

The angry-sounding lyrics of this song match perfectly with the anger and indignation Mom feels as the gentleman approaches her. She’s also feeling a little nervous and suspicious, which may be part of what’s causing all her anger. The music has an angry tone which only increases in its intensity. T.I. conveys emotion through his voice well, and the repetition throughout the song emphasizes this. Like most rap music the song has a very strong and prevalent bass. The constant thumping almost seemed like that of an angry or nervous person's heart beat. Though she won’t actually kill anyone, Mom will definitely react in a way to protect herself and her daughter from danger- even if the danger is only in breaking typical social norms.

“You Might Die Trying”- Dave Matthews Band

Dave Matthews Band - Live At Piedmont Park - You Might Die Trying

The gentleman explains himself, after which Mom melts like ice. She becomes friendly and kind, offering generously to give him the money without taking his umbrella, though he insists she take it. Her entire personality changes in one second, and she begins to not only feel relief, but also to take great pride in herself. After all, she helped an old man home, a very selfless act, in her opinion. She’s also proud she was able to procure the lavish umbrella at such a low cost.

“To change the world,
Start with one step.
However small,
The first step is hardest of all.

Once you get your gate,
You will walk in tall.
You said you never did,
‘Cause you might die trying,
‘Cause you might die trying…

If you give, you, you begin to live.
If you give, you begin to live.
You get the world, you get the world.”

This song reflects Mom’s rather sudden change of heart. It seems, almost, that her entire outlook on life has changed. Once she gave him a chance, the old man turned out to be good- she takes as a lesson from this that people can surprise you. This discovery makes her lighthearted and ready to do more. This song reflects this attitude. The lyrics reflect Mom’s thought process perfectly- she finds it very hard to give of herself at first, even fearing social “death”, but once she is able to force herself, she feels as though she’s gotten a whole “new” world in her changed outlook on life. The music starts out slow, grows a little more driving when violins and trumpets combine in the first chorus, and eventually becomes slightly calmer and almost jazzy, even leaning a bit towards happy and light- a perfect mirror of the emotions described in the lyrics.

“Bullet and A Target” Citizen Cope

Citizen Cope - Every Waking Moment - Bullet and a Target

The story's not over yet, however. Dahl chooses this point in the story to throw in one of the surprise twists he's famous for. Mom's happiness doesn’t last long. While Mom is praising herself on how kind and generous she’s become, her daughter, now a little sharper, continues watching the old man- who suddenly doesn’t look so old and weak as he darts away through the rain. The mom has to decide whether or not to go against her new trust in humanity by following him- she’s between a rock and a hard place on the matter.

“But what you've done here
Is put yourself between a bullet and a target
And it won't be long before
You're pulling yourself away”

The song reflects her position very well. It acknowledges in its lyrics that one can’t stay in such a tough position for long, but must eventually decide. It’s tougher than it seems- she has to decide, basically, whether or not to abandon her new lease on life, which just minutes before gave her such joy. I liked the way this song has an almost “bouncy” feel to it: it seems, almost, to be poking fun at Mom and her inner conflict. The artist has a very steady, monotonous voice that fits well with the prominent drum beat. The combination is a good musical representation of Mom’s mind, with the idea and argument swirling around in her head endlessly. Though not all the lyrics in this song are an exact match to The Umbrella Man, the overall tone, I think, fits in very well.

“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”- The Rolling Stones

The Rolling Stones - Out of Our Heads - (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction

Mom finally makes up her mind- though she enjoyed her brief awakening to the intrinsic goodness of human nature, she’s too curious to resist, and at once the pair set off, hot on their gentleman’s trail. This reflects a theme in her personality throughout the story. Though she is the more “stable” character, at least compared to her daughter, Mom can be very flighty. To me this reflects another important theme of the story. Roald Dahl wrote for children; however, there was never any sugarcoating. Bad things happened to good people- fingers were cut off to honor a bet, magical potions turned aunts into chickens, and a boy was banished to a painting for life. Though there were many instances of magic and fantasy in his works, there was also almost always a grain of truth, some sort of lesson to take away from the story. Here, Dahl shows the fallibility of the mother, and adults in general. Often, children grow up idolizing their parents- after all, they seem to know the answer or solution to almost everything. Dahl here attempts to demonstrate to his readers that parents are human, with foibles and problems like everyone else.

“I can't get no satisfaction
I can't get no satisfaction
'Cause I try and I try and I try and I try
I can't get no, I can't get no…”

This song reflects Mom’s state of mind at this point in the story. Once she’s decided to go after the not-so-elderly-and-tired “gentleman,” her curiosity is piqued. The hard-driving guitar and persistent drums add to the anxious feeling of this song. Repetition of lyrics also adds to this effect.

This video shows the Rolling Stones performing the song live. Their angry countenances and harsh, almost screaming vocals, help reflect Mom’s burning curiosity that just HAS to be satisfied.

“Eyes Wide Open”- The Goo Goo Dolls

The Goo Goo Dolls - A Boy Named Goo - Eyes Wide Open

Finally, Mom and daughter succeed in their goal- they find their man, in a crowded and dark pub. A little shocked but also a little amused, they watch as he spends his "cab fare" pound on a treble whiskey. Mother and daughter both agree that drink cost more than it was worth, because not only did the man have to find a pound to get it, but he also had to give up his silk umbrella. They figure out his game, however, when they see him pause by the door. In an almost imperceptible motion, he grabs an umbrella already standing by the door, leaves, and takes off in the opposite direction. Though one would initially think that this would greatly anger Mom, she is more amused than upset. She, after all, tried to do the right thing, and benefitted from his scam by getting a free umbrella. She learns that people can indeed surprise you- so much so, in fact, that it can be in a completely different way than expected. She finds herself impressed with the man's ingenuity, though she doesn't necessarily approve of it. This is another sign of her newly opened mind. Though she doesn't stay in her initial mindset, of everyone's being good, her horizons have been broadened at least a small bit by the experience.

"I'm a fortunate son of a fortunate son
Living large on the wrong side of town
Too many friends and the fun never ends
Drinkin' and hangin' around

I wanna rule the world, wanna swallow it whole
At least I could kick it all down
I wanna kick it all down

Eyes wide open, I can't see
Eyes wide open, what you mean
Eyes wide open, I can't seem to be
My eyes wide open, I can't see
Eyes wide open, what you mean
Eyes wide open, I can't seem to be

I don't take the bus and I never walk too far
The furthest I got was my own backyard
With a fist full of cash that somebody else earned
Send me some more when it all got burned"

This song was interesting to me because it very closely describes the man's activities throughout the story. We're never told what he's thinking or given his point of view, but these lyrics seem like a good guess. The third stanza, the chorus, describes what Mom and her daughter mean to the man- he probably won't remember them, but they will certainly remember him. He'll never realize that they figured out his ploy- he will be bound to them by this shared secret forever. The chorus also reflects Mom's point of view. She can't see exactly what the umbrella man has meant to her. She only benefits from an expanded mind. The music in this song fits the almost frenzied pace of mother and daughter's chase, as well as the feverish way in which the man drinks his treble whiskey in one long swallow.

"Some People Change"- Montgomery Gentry

Montgomery Gentry - Some People Change - Single - Some People Change

At the end of the story, the mother and daughter are satisfied- they've got a new umbrella, and have figured out the mystery of the umbrella man. Mom even takes a humorous approach to the whole situation when she observes in the story's final line, "I'll bet he prays like mad for rainy days." This ability to have a sense of humor in the face of adversity is yet another signal of her new outlook on life. Without her realizing it, this chance encounter has had a profound effect upon Mom, enabling her to feel almost optimistic about the man's future. The implication is that her daughter will learn from the experience as well. This is another theme of the story, that chance interactions and situations- meetings with random people- can have a big effect on our lives.

"Don't give up hope-some people change
Against all odds, against the grain
Love finds a way-some people change

She was born with her mother's habit
Guess you could say it's in her blood
She hates it that she's got to have it
As she fills her glass up, she'd love to kill that bottle
But all she can think about is a better life, a second chance,
and everyone she's lettin down-she throws that bottle down..."

The lyrics of course fit with Mom's newfound optimism, and with the feeling Roald Dahl, I think, wants to leave readers with. The soothing country vocals, backed by non-intrusive, calming guitar and lap harp, make the story hit close to home, almost like a bedtime story or a piece of wisdom spouted off by a grandfather.

This music video, of famous Jazz musicians Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong, is of a song called “The Umbrella Man.” It is interesting because the character described in this song has many differences to the mysterious Umbrella Man of Roald Dahl’s work- but, surprisingly enough, a few similarities as well. It is interesting to wonder- did Roald Dahl know about this song? Was any of his characterization an intentional reflection of this knowledge? The lyrics can be found here.

Daniel Anderson's picture

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Good Story

I'm glad you suggested just reading the whole thing because I liked it a lot! Your playlist looks really good, too. I like how you included the video of "The Umbrella Man" at the end--that's interesting.

Just wondering...

I'm wondering whether you know. Did the song come first? Did the book? I have a song in my playlist that was inspired by the book, but it is certainly not perfect in my characterization, though it is interesting to note some things that can relate.


Thanks so much! I actually had never heard of that song, but found it when I was researching the story online and thought it was interesting how well the lyrics corresponded. I'm glad you liked the story too! :)

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