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“William and Mary” by Roald Dahl

2 August 2009

I just read a short story called “William and Mary” by Roald Dahl. It was in the book Tales of the Unexpected, which is a collection of short stories Dahl wrote, all with unexpected endings. I actually just finished the whole book, and recommend it. Rather than nonhuman characters and unlikely scenarios, Dahl writes about real, personable characters in scenarios we might find ourselves in one day, and adds a twist to each of them.

In the story “William and Mary,” a scientist removed the brain from the body of someone who had just died. He kept the brain alive by hooking it to a machine that provided oxygenated blood to the arteries and veins. They monitored the brain’s activity to see if it still worked, and it did! They also kept one eye attached to the brain–so the brain was sitting in a basin with fluid around it, and the eye, attached to the brain, floated on top of the fluid. When they held things up in front of the eye, the monitors showed activity in the areas of the brain associated with sight.

I wonder if this is really possible. For all I know, there is some major detail that Dahl left out that would make it impossible to do this in real life, but from his description, it sounds like it could actually be done. If it can, it  seems to follow that someone’s brain could be removed from their body (say, if they were about to die) and put into another body. (No, I don’t know where the new body would come from. Maybe from someone who had incurable brain damage, but the rest of their body was still healthy?) I don’t know if it would be possible to connect all the nerves and other bits to the brain, but if the veins and arteries could be connected to a machine, they could probably be connected to a body as well.

I’m fascinated by this idea that one doesn’t have to die with their body. The scientist’s idea in the story was that the brain is a self-supporting object, creating its own fluid and managing to come up with these things we call thought and memory, and that it’s a shame it has to die when the body dies. The only reason it does die with the body is because the body supplies it with blood and oxygen. He thought people should keep living–at least, their brains, which is really what makes up one’s personality–should keep living after their bodies have died. I like this idea. It’s obviously not practical in our world; what would we do with a bunch of human brains in basins? How would they interact? What quality of life is that? To sit in a basin and only see what someone puts in front of your eye for the rest of your life (which could be forever!) would not be a good quality of life, especially not being able to communicate with anyone or do anything but think all day. But with a bit of thought and adjustment, it’s an idea that could eventually become plausible.

Just something for you to think about. (Go and buy the book, or borrow it from a library! It’s a good read!)

4 Comments leave one →
  1. 3 August 2009 06:13

    An excellent read indeed!!!

    Have you ever seen the TV show “Dollhouse”? It’s along the same lines, but with a different theory of the brain/personality relationship. Later episodes from last season (the first season) are on hulu.

    • Mallery permalink*
      3 August 2009 16:39

      I didn’t know you liked Roald Dahl! Does he have any other adult books? I haven’t seen “Dollhouse,” but I’ve heard of a movie by that name. I wonder if it’s related… How’ve you been? What have you been up to since we talked last? I miss you terribly!

  2. Sandy permalink
    11 September 2009 00:32

    I was very interesting to read this book

  3. 29 April 2011 11:30

    This story was read to my sixth grade class, and I later sought out Roald Dahl’s anthology “Kiss, Kiss” to re-read the story. While “William and Mary” is easily the highlight of the book, there are many other good stories in it.

    If you want to read a fictional treatment of a brain moved to another body, try Robert A. Heinlein’s I Will Fear No Evil. It’s not one of Heinlein’s easier books to read, but I liked it very much and have re-read the novel moe than once.

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