“Big Brother is watching you” has haunted the dreams of millions since it first appeared as a slogan in the phenomenal 1984. In reality, there are people who pry into the lives of others for the sake of mere curiosity. But sometimes, this inquisitiveness turns into obsession, and challenges the limits of morality. In The Landlady, P. K. Page employs vivid imagery, careful diction, and tonal shifts to convey the complexity of this nightmare come to life: villain and victim, an excluded stalker trying to assimilate herself into the surrounding community, a pitiful yet pathetic woman craving love.
The visual imagery of “sepia air” (Line 1) conveys a mystic and suspenseful sense. It also implies that the air is tainted, foreshadowing the abnormal and unhealthy relationship between the landlady and her tenants. The narrator draws attention to individual parts of the landlady’s body, thus giving her a mechanical air and emphasizing her inhumane side as an inspector. For example, “camera eye” (Line 4) gives a sense of her eyes following the lodgers all around like a camera, capturing intimate and otherwise secretive moments. Moreover, it sheds light on the reason behind the boarders’ apathy towards her. “Click[ing] doors like shutters” (Line 4) introduces a reaction to her probing glance and “craving silence.” Such attentive watch borders on crime, and is sure to elicit a protective and fearful response. The contrast between her craving for attention and others’ deliberate avoidance of her underlines the unhealthy relationship about to unfold in the following stanza.
In the second stanza, she elaborates on the boarders’ meditated designs to protect themselves from the landlady’s eyes. They are indeed like clever mice always escaping the paw of a giant cat by inches. In fact, the narrator describes the movement of the landlady’s ears— “advance and fall back stunned—” which seem more like those of an attentive animal that is greatly disappointed by her smart prey. The poet even singled out the landlady’s flesh in Line 13, presenting her as composed of multiple curious parts instead of a holistic being.
In the third stanza, the enjambment “they hold the walls /about them as they weep or laugh” underscores the boarders’ relentless efforts to avoid the landlady, while another run-on sentence “she peers /stippled with curious flesh” indicates her nonstop curiosity to spy on others’ life. The contrast here suggests that it is the landlady’s abnormal behavior that impels the boarders to keep their distance.
In later stanzas, the diction adds to the complexity of the landlady. Lines 14-16 all begin with a charged active verb that depicts the thrill of peeping, the urge to finger the artifacts of the lives of others, the satisfaction of piecing together others’ lifestyle, and the irritation of unpredicted moves. The next stanza juxtaposes the landlady’s mentality with the actions of her lodgers: she “jumps when they move,” and trembles from the pressing need to know what they are thinking about. From an omniscient and omnipresent observer of her tenants and a vicious bloodsucker or, she has turned into a nervous and pathetic leech who depends on the knowledge of things that happen to others. Her moods and whims are controlled by their every action.
In the sixth stanza, the narrator adopts asyndeton to list the personal objects of the landlady’s victims. Such diction fools the audience and landlady alike into thinking that she possesses first-hand knowledge of each and every detail of the boarders’ lives; yet it also underlines the pettiness of all the stuff, and raises doubt on whether it is possible for one to know all about another being simply by piling together all the tidbits that represent parts of the person’s life.
Diction and enjambment aside, the tones fluctuate a lot between stanzas as well. For example, the first stanza seems like a silent film, imposing a creepy ambience upon the audience, overwhelming them with the hunger for control and supreme knowledge of the landlady suffocating the air. Then, in the second stanza, the poet somehow ridicules the landlady by placing her ears under the magnifying glass to emphasize her disappointment. From stanza four to five, the pace accelerates due to shortened sentence fragments. A touch of despair and paranoia is added and casts the heroine in a more frantic and humanistic light. “[…] knows them better than their closest friends” sounds pathetically proud, and the tone emphasizes the woman’s possessiveness. But in the next stanza, the protagonist suddenly turns into something more like a mother figure: although she still devotes her efforts to knowing more and more about others, she is focusing on cozier subjects like “what they like to eat” and “their curvature of health.” This raises doubts like where we should draw the line between concern and care that should be welcomed and sick curiosity that is sure to be shunned, and why she fell into this quirky habit of keeping an eye on others. However, the next stanza again portrays her as a patient if somehow unsuccessful hunter and abominable person who seeks to know more even if her previous knowledge of the human mind has been convoluted and dark. The speaker compares the landlady to “a lover” in a satiric tone: her boarders do not love her; instead, they despise her. In this way, the poet criticizes the people landlady represents: those who always feel insecure and cross the boundaries in hope that they could get attention.
The speaker does not merely establish the personality of the landlady; she also implies the reason behind her abnormal behavior. The first stanza sets up the paradox of the impersonality of the landlady’s tenants and her desire to connect with them. They “click” their doors as she approaches, “pass silently” ignoring her “craving silence.” Her desire for recognition is stymied by their hostile indifference. She feels slighted by their silent passage through her house, as if she were the outside threat. But much— if not all— of this conflict between the landlady and her tenants is created by her own paranoia. Her “hoping for the worst” is how she attempts to rationalize her undue fixation on. She wants to find “it,” some answer to the “dreadful riddle of their skulls,” some dreadful secret that proves all her efforts were worth it, that her invasion of their lives isn’t due to the complete absence of her own, but rather because she knew, all along, that there was something foul to discover in them. The passage shows how destructive people’s obsessive thinking and self-imposed isolation can be. The landlady’s obsessions were self-created. Her behavior is what fuelled the very issues she was paranoid about. She is too hungry for love, so instead of building connections in a proper way, she satisfies her insatiable desire by spying, which in turn makes her even less desirable.
In a nutshell, the narrator presents the landlady as both sinister and mysterious. Although most of us are fortunate enough to not have to identify with her or be capable of sympathizing with her, we cannot help pondering the reasons behind her monstrous desire to probe. What is more, we may not be as shrewd as the lodgers that often outsmart her. The thought that our privacy might be at constant risk gives us the chills.