Dahl, Roald 1916-1990
English novelist, short-story writer, nonfiction writer, playwright, screenwriter, editor, and author of picture books, juvenile fiction, and children's verse.
The following entry presents an overview of Dahl's career through 2004. For further information on his life and career, see CLR, Volumes 1, 7, and 41.
One of the most popular children's authors of the past century, Dahl has developed a fervent and loving reading audience with his series of deviously subversive novels and picture books, in which a child is routinely cast as the presumed hero and eventual victor over an antagonistic adult world. Dahl's tales for children rely heavily on fantasy and magic to offset otherwise forbidding settings, featuring remarkable heroes and heroines whom overcome their dark circumstances to emerge into lifelong happiness. Often featuring cartoonish violence and good-naturedly grotesque humor, Dahl has emerged as a divisive figure in children's literature—beloved by children, though vocally disliked by some more conservative critics, who argue that Dahl's works are too dark and anarchic for young readers. Nevertheless, nearly every one of Dahl's books remains in print, and he continues to be one of the best-selling children's authors of all time, having sold over thirty million books since the 1960s. Several of Dahl's most famous works have also been adapted as motion pictures, including James and the Giant Peach (1961), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964), and Matilda (1988).
Dahl was born in Llandaff, Wales, on September 13, 1916. His father, Harald, was Norwegian by birth and immigrated to England in 1900 after his first wife died in childbirth, leaving Harald with two daughters, Astri and Alfhild. Harald later remarried Sophie Magdalene Hasselberg, with whom he had three additional children, Roald (pronounced Roo-aal), Else, and Asta. When Dahl was three years old, his sister Astri died of appendicitis, and his father passed soon after due to pneumonia. Widowed with three children and pregnant with Asta, Sophie honored her late husband's wish that their children be educated within the English boarding school system, selling her family's jewelry to pay for tuition. At age seven, Dahl was first placed at the Llandaff Cathedral School and, from 1925 to 1929, he attended the St. James Preparatory School in Weston-Super-Mare. When he was thirteen, Dahl moved to the prestigious Repton School, where he excelled at sports. In his autobiography, Boy: Tales of Childhood (1984), Dahl stated that many of the inspirations for his later works would come from his boarding school days—a Matron at St. Peter's became the model for Mrs. Trunchbull in Matilda, and Repton's proximity to the Cadbury candy factory inspired Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Upon his graduation, Dahl's mother offered him the chance to continue his education, despite his relatively weak grades at Repton. Dahl, however, chose to join the Public Schools Exploring Society's expedition to Newfoundland. After this extended hiking excursion, Dahl began working for the Shell Oil Company as a salesman, eventually traveling to Dar es Salaam in East Africa to oversee Shell's operations in Tanzania. When he was twenty-three, World War II commenced, and Dahl joined England's Royal Air Force (RAF) in Nairobi. Dahl details his wartime exploits in the autobiography Going Solo (1986), which included crashing into the Egyptian desert and shooting down enemy aircraft over Greece. Due to his injuries sustained during combat, Dahl was eventually reassigned as an Assistant Air Attaché for the RAF in Washington, D.C. While stationed in Washington in 1942, he was interviewed by noted columnist C. S. Forester for the Saturday Evening Post. When Dahl wrote down his own account of crash-landing his aircraft in Libya, Forester submitted Dahl's story to the Post, which was published in August 1942 under the title "Shot Down Over Libya." Dahl's job for the RAF required him to spend time among Washington's elite, and he soon became well known as an animated and gifted storyteller. One of his stories, "Gremlin Lore" (a word Dahl coined to describe the mythical fairies that were rumored to sabotage British planes), fell into the hands of Walt Disney, who commissioned the tale for a movie which was never made. Nonetheless, Dahl published the story as The Gremlins (1943) in picture book form—illustrated by Disney animators—and his writing career began in earnest.
After the publication of The Gremlins, Dahl gained a literary agent and saw several of his short stories featured in such publications as Ladies' Home Journal, Atlantic Monthly, and Harper's. He returned to England in 1945, releasing collections of short stories and his first novel, Sometime Never: A Fable for Supermen (1948). In 1953 he married American actress Patricia Neal, with whom he would have five children. The couple eventually settled in New York City. Professionally, Dahl was becoming more well-known for his writing, penning a number of stage plays and short stories—he received the Edgar Allen Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America three times for his crime and mystery tales. Mean-while, Dahl was also developing a reputation as a noted screenwriter, authoring the scripts for the James Bond film You Only Live Twice (1967) and the children's movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968). Dahl began his illustrious children's book career with the release of James and the Giant Peach in 1961, a story based on the tales he told his daughters Olivia and Tessa at bedtime every night. However, Dahl was also faced with several personal tragedies during this period; his son Theo suffered major neurological damage after an accident, causing the Dahls to move back to England, and his oldest daughter Olivia died of measles encephalitis in 1962. Despite this series of personal crises, Dahl released Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in 1964, which he dedicated to the strengthening Theo. Over the course of his career, Dahl would publish over twenty more children's books, among them The BFG (The Big Friendly Giant) (1982), The Witches (1983), and Matilda. In 1983 Dahl and Patricia were divorced, and he was soon remarried to Felicity Crosland, a family friend. Now in his late sixties, Dahl's health began to decline, in part due to the many injuries he suffered during World War II. Afflicted with spinal problems and forced to undergo hip replacement surgery, he was in great discomfort and had difficulty moving. Despite his ailments, Dahl continued to write, releasing a pair of autobiographies, a dozen collections of short stories, and several final children's books, including the posthumous The Minpins (1991). Dahl was diagnosed with leukemia and passed away from an infection associated with the disease on November 23, 1990 in his longtime home at Great Missenden, England. In 2005 the Roald Dahl Museum was opened in Great Missenden to honor his memory while another tribute—the Roald Dahl Children's Gallery—was established in nearby Aylesbury. Further, Dahl began a charitable foundation that continues to fund research in the fields of hematology and neurology and offer grants for literacy groups.
Dahl once commented that, "Parents and schoolteachers are the enemy. The adult is the enemy of the child because of the awful process of civilizing this thing that when it is born is an animal with no manners, no moral sense at all." Bearing that message, Dahl's varied works come into sharper thematic focus. Dahl often saw himself as a sort of advocate for children whom understood the world as they did. In the Dahl universe, children are the oppressed, subjugated citizens of a world they don't quite understand and in which they have no discernible power. To rectify this, Dahl paints his books with a broad hand, portraying youthful heroes in abject surroundings whom triumph over circumstance. Through a liberal helping of fantastical elements, his protagonists emerge against long odds—thanks to their innate goodness and strength of will—to find that which has been missing in their lives, while administering a measure of well-deserved justice to their adult repressors. It is this latter theme that garners the bulk of the critical opposition to Dahl's works, as the author inflicts the cartoonishly violent, child's-eye vision of justice to his litany of adult figures. Dahl's first major children's book, James and the Giant Peach, recounts the fantastic tale of a young boy who travels thousands of miles in a house-sized peach with a bizarre assemblage of animal companions. After a massive peach crushes James' neglectful aunts, the boy hero crawls into the peach through a worm hole, making friends with a centipede, a silkworm, a spider, a ladybug, and a flock of seagulls that lifts the peach into the air and carries it across the ocean to Central Park. The book enjoyed a modest success in the United States when published there in 1961, but Dahl could not find a British publisher for James until 1967. Indeed, the book includes many of the elements that drew disapproval from parents, teachers, librarians, and critics of children's literature, especially in England, for years to come: child abuse, violence (including the messy demise of several adults), unspeakable practices (such as eating "earwigs cooked in slime"), and the apparent promulgation of the philosophy that it is a wise child who regards adults with suspicion until they have proved that they are trustworthy.
In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Dahl's next work, all of the characters except for Charlie and his parents are grotesques, even Willy Wonka. Of the five children who win the coveted visit to Willy Wonka's chocolate factory, all except Charlie come to gruesome ends, and even though Willy resurrects them at the end, Dahl's delighted readers have no way of knowing that while they read. However, Charlie also represents one of Dahl's least morally ambiguous works; nasty character traits (selfishness, greed, addiction to television, and laziness) are punished, and admirable ones (honesty and devotion to family) are rewarded. After two shorter children's books, The Magic Finger (1966) and Fantastic Mr. Fox (1970), Dahl wrote Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator (1972), a sequel to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The second book is considerably more complex than the first. The first work had to do with seeing that Charlie got one of the five magic tickets to visit the chocolate factory and that he was the eventual winner of Willy Wonka's special prize. The sequel involves Charlie saving the Earth from invasion by the Vermicious Knids (shapeshifters from the planet Vermes, "the most brutal, vindictive, venomous, murderous beasts in the entire universe") and rescuing a Commuter Capsule that travels between Earth and a Space Hotel. Dahl released Danny the Champion of the World as a children's book in 1975, though the tale is actually an expansion of an earlier short story titled "The Champion of the World" that Dahl published some fifteen years earlier in The New Yorker and later in his prose collection Kiss Kiss (1960). The original version was definitely intended for an adult audience—there is no Danny or any other young principal in the first version—but the book, though definitely a juvenile, differs greatly from the other children's books published by the author. It is a much gentler story, featuring adults who are neither freaks nor monsters, centering on a loving relationship between father and son. The father is portrayed in a positive way, and the doctor, the policeman, and most of the townspeople are shown as characters the juvenile readers should love and respect. Only the nasty Mr. Hazell and his henchmen are depicted with the vitriol used for most adults in Dahl's other children's books.
The Enormous Crocodile (1978) brought Dahl together with illustrator Quentin Blake for the beginning of a long and successful collaboration. It is another of Dahl's scary tales that makes young readers squirm with delighted horror as the wicked reptile zeroes in on his choice of edible prey: children. Dahl partnered with Blake again for The Twits (1980), a story that features no sympathetic human characters—the only Dahl book about which that can be said—the "heroes" being the monkey family imprisoned by the Twits and their savior, the Roly-Poly bird. The only humans are Mr. and Mrs. Twit, people with no redeeming characteristics to offset their revolting personalities and behavior. While the protagonist of George's Marvellous Medicine (1981) is similarly nasty, the hero of The BFG is decidedly more child-friendly. As the story opens, there are ten giants in Giant Country: nine bad giants who gobble up human "beans" every night, and the Big Friendly Giant (BFG) who provides humans with dreams. A little girl named Sophie wakes up in the middle of the night and sees the BFG, who eventually becomes her best friend and helps Sophie enlist the Queen of England to capture the nine bad giants. The BFG is notable for Dahl's usage of made-up language—such as whiffsy, disgusterous, rotsome, and sickable—as well as puns, malapropisms, onomatopoeia, and spoonerisms to entertain young readers. In Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes (1982), Dahl reimagines classic fairy tales that in some respects form the literary an-tecedent to his own works. In his revision of "Cinderella," the Handsome Prince travels to Cinderella's home to confront her Wicked Step-Sisters, and in a gruesome dispensation of his own crude justice, lops off their heads. Cinderella, like much of Dahl's literary canon, is given the ability to recognize reality amidst the fantasy and is horrified. Her prince is not the shining paragon of virtue she had imagined, and she asks her fairy godmother for an alternate ending where her future is not in the hands of the homicidal prince. Instead, she finds intelligent and real happiness in the form of a marmalade-maker who provides the prerequisite "happy ever after."
One of Dahl's best-known works, The Witches, begins with a convention of witches held at the Bournemouth hotel where the young hero and his convalescent grandmother are staying. The lad inadvertently overhears their plan to wipe out the world's children after turning them into mice by means of "Formula 86 Delayed Action Mouse-Maker." The witches catch the boy and turn him into a mouse. He escapes, purloins a vial of Formula 86, pours it into their banquet soup, and turns the witches into mice. In a departure from his usual all-problem-solving finish, Dahl reveals that the hero's conversion into a mouse is irreversible but makes good use of the opportunity to inject a heartfelt moral. "My darling, are you sure you don't mind being a mouse for the rest of your life?" his grandmother asks. "I don't mind at all," the boy replies. "It doesn't matter who you are or what you look like so long as somebody loves you." The coda shows the boy and his indefatigable grandmother planning to travel the world, turning witches into mice and then exterminating them. Though several of Dahl's works were released posthumously, Matilda was one of the author's last books published during his lifetime and went on to become one of his most popular. Matilda is a precocious child with insipid parents. Matilda's first teacher, Miss Honey, only twenty-three, struggles to challenge her pupil. When she attempts to help Matilda's parents and evil headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, recognize the girl's gifts, she is ridiculed. Miss Honey, it turns out, is also an orphan. Trunchbull is the aunt who raised her, abused her, and, so it seems, killed her father. Trunchbull bullies Miss Honey out of her inheritance and wages, forcing Miss Honey to live in a shack and eat almost nothing. However, Matilda discovers that she is blessed with magical telekinetic powers, which she uses to restore her teacher's rightful inheritance and rid the town of the beastly Trunchbull. Matilda's parents, petty criminals, flee England on the lam, giving Miss Honey permission to adopt Matilda. Though he is best known for his children's works, Dahl has also published several adult-themed novels, short stories, and volumes of autobiographies—these memoirs, in particular, shed light on many of the specific memories and events from Dahl's childhood that became the basis for his best-selling juvenile works.
Over his storied career, Dahl has been portrayed as both a revered storyteller of incredible talent as well as a vilified panderer whose books demonstrate a threat to children's education. The former image is demonstrated by his selection as England's favorite children's author over such luminaries as A. A. Milne and Lewis Carroll in a poll by the BBC's Bookworm program in 1997, whereas the latter image is personified by his perennial inclusion on the American Library Association's annual list of the most challenged authors. Dahl's The Witches was even included on the ALA's top ten list of most frequently censored books between the years 1982 and 1994. The rationale for such censorship runs the gamut; the most common is reflected in Stafford County, Virginia's removal of Dahl's books from its libraries for "encouraging children to disobey their parents." Other primary sources of challenge have involved issues of language (his retelling of "Cinderella" in Revolting Rhymes uses the word "slut"), the presence of magic and other supernatural elements as a source of goodness, and his judicious usage of violence, vulgarity, and perceived incentive to act out in a negative way. These complaints are typified by a review of Matilda by Ann A. Flowers in which she has contended that, "Child neglect countered by revenge, however funny and however justified, is just not a nice theme." Other critics have worried about Dahl's possibly unintentional negative influence on his readers. Eleanor Cameron, for example, has wondered whether, "Dahl caters to the streak of sadism in children which they don't even realize is there because they are not fully self-aware and are not experienced enough to understand what sadism is." However, while Dahl's critics have been vocal and persistent, sparking controversy against him for almost the entire duration of his career, they have only represented a small voice within the larger community of children's literature. Indeed, most have cited Dahl's rebellious style as one of his greatest strengths. Lisa Hermine Makman has asserted that Dahl's "inveterate dissatisfaction with himself and with others is echoed in the critical attitudes toward social institutions and traditional au-thorities expressed in his works. The timeliness and popularity of his writings, to an extent, depend on their irreverence and perversity." David Furness has agreed, writing that, "Far more than simply entertaining his youthful audience, Dahl writes to their fierce intelligence and passion: their wish to save the world, their unhesitating belief they can." In designating Dahl's ultimate place in the pantheon of children's literature, Catriona Nicholson has written that, "Dahl's ability to combine within each story his distinctive brand of humour, fantastic adventure and strong measures of adult ridicule or exposure is a winning formula. His books offer children (and many adults) a unique reading experience for through the exuberant optimism, extravagant literary devices, and the child-centered gratification of common desires, Dahl establishes a binding rapport with his readers."
Dahl has received numerous awards and accolades throughout his career, including the New England Round Table of Children's Librarians Award and the Surrey School Award for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; the Surrey School Award and Nene Award for Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator; the Surrey School Award and California Young Reader Medal for Danny the Champion of the World; the Federation of Children's Book Groups Award for The BFG; the New York Times Outstanding Books Award, the Whitbread Award, and the West Australian Award for The Witches; the Boston Globe/Horn Book nonfiction honor citation for Boy: Tales of Childhood; and the Smarties Award for Esio Trot (1990), among many others. In addition, The BFG, The Twits, Matilda, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory were all voted "one of the nation's 100 best-loved novels" by the British public as part of the BBC's The Big Read in 2003.
The Gremlins: From the Walt Disney Production. A Royal Air Force Story by Flight Lieutenant Roald Dahl [illustrations by Walt Disney Productions] (picture book) 1943
∗James and the Giant Peach [illustrations by Nancy Ekholm Burkert] (juvenile fiction) 1961
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory [illustrations by Joseph Schindelman] (juvenile fiction) 1964; revised edition, illustrations by Faith Jaques, 1967; revised edition, illustrations by Quentin Blake, 1998
The Magic Finger [illustrations by William Pène du Bois] (juvenile fiction) 1966; revised edition, illustrations by Quentin Blake, 1997
Fantastic Mr. Fox [illustrations by Donald Chaffin] (juvenile fiction) 1970; revised edition, illustrations by Quentin Blake, 1998
Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator: The Further Adventures of Charlie Bucket and Willy Wonka, Chocolate-Maker Extraordinary [illustrations by Joseph Schindelman] (juvenile fiction) 1972; revised edition, illustrations by Faith Jaques, 1973; revised edition, illustrations by Quentin Blake, 1998
Danny the Champion of the World [illustrations by Jill Bennett] (juvenile fiction) 1975
The Enormous Crocodile [illustrations by Quentin Blake] (juvenile fiction) 1978
The Twits [illustrations by Quentin Blake] (juvenile fiction) 1980
George's Marvellous Medicine [illustrations by Quentin Blake] (juvenile fiction) 1981
The BFG [illustrations by Quentin Blake] (juvenile fiction) 1982
Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes [illustrations by Quentin Blake] (children's verse) 1982
Roald Dahl's Dirty Beasts [illustrations by Rosemary Fawcett] (children's verse) 1983; revised edition, illustrations by Quentin Blake, 1984
The Witches [illustrations by Quentin Blake] (juvenile fiction) 1983
Boy: Tales of Childhood [illustrations by Quentin Blake] (autobiography) 1984
The Giraffe and Pelly and Me [illustrations by Quentin Blake] (juvenile fiction) 1985
Matilda [illustrations by Quentin Blake] (juvenile fiction) 1988
Rhyme Stew [illustrations by Quentin Blake] (children's verse) 1989
Esio Trot [illustrations by Quentin Blake] (juvenile fiction) 1990
The Minpins [illustrations by Patrick Benson] (juvenile fiction) 1991
The Vicar of Nibbleswicke [illustrations by Quentin Blake] (juvenile fiction) 1991
My Year [illustrations by Quentin Blake] (juvenile fiction) 1993
Roald Dahl's Revolting Recipes [illustrations by Quentin Blake] (children's verse) 1994
The Mildenhall Treasure [illustrations by Ralph Steadman] (children's nonfiction) 1999
Over to You: Ten Stories of Flyers and Flying (short stories) 1946
Sometime Never: A Fable for Supermen (novel) 1948
Someone Like You (short stories) 1953
The Honeys (play) 1955
Kiss Kiss (short stories) 1960
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang [with Ken Hughes; based on the novel by Ian Fleming] (screenplay) 1968
Twenty-Nine Kisses from Roald Dahl (short stories) 1969
Switch Bitch (short stories) 1974
The Wonderful World of Henry Sugar and Six More (short stories) 1977
My Uncle Oswald (novel) 1979
Roald Dahl's Tales of the Unexpected (short stories) 1979
Roald Dahl's Book of Ghost Stories [editor] (short stories) 1983
Going Solo (autobiography) 1986
Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life [illustrations by John Lawrence] (short stories) 1989
The Collected Short Stories of Roald Dahl (short stories) 1991
The Umbrella Man and Other Stories (short stories) 1998
Skin and Other Stories (short stories) 2000
∗James and the Giant Peach has appeared in several additions with revised artwork from such illustrators as Michel Simeon (1967), Lane Smith (1996), and Quentin Blake (2001).
Eileen Donaldson (essay date 2004)
SOURCE: Donaldson, Eileen. "Spell-Binding Dahl: Considering Roald Dahl's Fantasy." In Change and Renewal in Children's Literature, edited by Thomas van der Walt, pp. 131-40. Westport, Conn.: Praeger Publishers, 2004.
[In the following essay, Donaldson suggests that Dahl's version of children's fantasy subverts typical stereotypes by offering a backdrop of reality in which the fantasy and magic are inserted.]
Literature of the fantastic has been claimed as "transcending reality," escaping the human condition and constructing superior alternate worlds. From W. H. Auden, C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, this notion of fantasy literature as fulfilling a desire for a better, more complete, unified reality has come to dominate readings of the fantastic.
(Jackson 1981: 2)
Roald Dahl's literature for children lends itself particularly well to the kind of reading that Jackson suggests has become popular in readings of fantasy; he enables his readers to transcend their respective realities through the use of the fantastic mechanisms that he writes into his books. In this way, Dahl's readers may embrace, at the very least, the illusion of a unified world. Roald Dahl concentrates on the dynamic of the dysfunctional family and the child who is at the mercy of this particular societal vice. The worlds in which he places his young characters are lonely, frightening, and often operate through relationships that have cruelty at their base. Dahl does not, however, leaves his characters stranded. He injects magic into their worlds and it is inevitably through this spell weaving that Dahl binds the children into new, loving familial relationships. This is most obviously at work in the lives of the children in Matilda (1988), James and the Giant Peach (1995), The BFG (1982), and The Witches (1983).
I would suggest that it is because of this—Dahl's emphasis on the reintegration of his characters into loving, normal familial setups and hence into healthy society—that he challenges Jackson's (1981) ultimate conclusion that all fantasy is merely escapist and, hence, bad. Because Dahl concentrates on the possibilities that fantasy can bring to the "real" world, his fantasy does not necessarily encourage escapism but rather that satisfaction of the "desire for a better, more complete, unified reality" (Jackson 1981: 2).
The fact that Dahl explores this particular relationship (i.e., the relationship between parent and child) is interesting for two reasons: Dahl's own family history and the psychological stage of development of his readers. Dahl is able to write with insight into the orphaned child because of the personal experience of confusion and loss that marked the history of his own family life. Rosemary Jackson writes that,
Like any other text, a literary fantasy is produced within, and determined by, its social context. Though it might struggle against the limits of this context, often being articulated upon that very struggle, it cannot be understood in isolation from it. The forms taken by any fantastic text are determined by a number of forces, which intersect and interact in different ways in each individual work. Recognition of these forces involves placing authors in relation to historical, social, economic, political and sexual determinants.
(Jackson 1981: 3)
Dahl's literary fantasies were created within the social context in which Dahl found himself having to survive; there is a very obvious intrusion of personal experiences into his writing of literature for children. Dahl's fantasy cannot be separated from the struggle that precipitated its inception; his struggle has formed the crux of his fantasy and we must, therefore, pay particular attention to that world that created both Dahl and, later, his stories.
Roald Dahl was born to Harald and Sophie Dahl in 1916, a child of his father's second marriage. When he was four, his elder sister, Astri, died of pneumonia and within the space of a month, his father followed suit. Dahl describes this event in simple terms:
Astri was far and away my father's favourite. He adored her and her sudden death left him literally speechless for days afterwards. He was so overwhelmed with grief that when he himself went down with pneumonia a month or so afterwards, he did not much care whether he lived or died. My father refused to fight. He was thinking, I am quite sure, of his beloved daughter and was wanting to join her in heaven. So he died.
(Dahl 1984: 20)
The effect this must have had on a young Dahl is great; merely the change in the familial dynamic would have been enough to instill a fear of change in the child, as well as an acknowledgment of death and the instability of the world around him. Kristine Howard (2000), however, further suggests that Dahl suffered from feelings of parental rejection, having had his father choose to die to be with the favored child rather than considering his young son. This is a provocative statement that ties in with Dahl's young characters, who are certainly victims of rejection by their caregivers.
Added to this emotional aspect, the practical circumstances with which the Dahl family had to cope after the death of the father were not easy, and would also have had serious repercussions on Dahl's formation. Dahl writes in Boy: Tales of Childhood (1984: 21) that,
My mother had now lost a daughter and a husband all in the space of a few weeks. Heaven knows what it must have felt like to be hit with a double catastrophe like this. Here she was, a young Norwegian in a foreign land, suddenly having to face all alone the very gravest problems and responsibilities. She had five children to look after, three of her own and two by her husband's first wife, and, to make matters worse, she herself was expecting another baby in two months' time.
Needless to say, Roald Dahl, although he seems to have worshipped his mother, and she him, could not have had the attention required by a child of that age. He certainly could not have had enough to allay the fears of abandonment prevalent in children at that age, and that would have been exacerbated in Dahl's case by the early death of his father.
As well as this, circumstances at the time necessitated Dahl's being sent away to school from the age of six. He suffered terribly from homesickness. This, too, only strengthened Dahl's recognition of the instability of the family unit; we begin to see why this theme pervades most of his writing. Dahl's experiences at school did, however, introduce a new dimension to his comprehension of the unstable family unit: in the place of his loving mother, Dahl now had grotesque authoritarian figures as his primary caregivers. Howard (2002: 1) writes,
A key theme in Dahl's novels is the use of violence and cruelty by authority figures on the weak. Dahl generally depicts at least one authority in each story as incredibly cruel, sadistic and bigoted. This is a direct reflection of his experiences as a child attending boarding schools in England.
Julia Round (2002: 2) has also commented on this point. She writes,
It has often been observed that Dahl's authoritarian characters (are) inspired by his school days at Llandaff Cathedral School and Repton. Dahl often suffered systematic caning and fascistic discipline: one notable figure would be his headmaster at Repton, who administered "the most vicious beatings to the boys under his care" (Dahl 1984: 29) and yet later became Archbishop of Canterbury. Dahl saw something deeply wrong with this authority, where sheer cruelty was hidden behind a mask of Christian virtues.
Examples of these cruel characters abound in Dahl's fiction: Miss Trunchbull in Matilda (1988) and Aunts Spiker and Sponge in James and the Giant Peach (1995), as well as the witches in The Witches (1983).
I do not intend to pose the argument that Roald Dahl was a traumatized child. However, I do believe that his experiences as a child engendered in him an understanding of the unspoken fears of childhood: the fear of abandonment or rejection by the primary caregiver and the helpless dependency on adults for care and the satisfaction of practical needs. Jackson says that, "Fantasy characteristically attempts to compensate for that which is experienced as absence and loss" (Jackson 1981: 3). Dahl's fantasy does this. Dahl explores that which he himself experienced as loss and absence, and this is a lack to which many of his readers can relate.
The bulk of Dahl's readers are between the ages of 6 and 12, within the developmental stage of middle childhood; this is important to Dahl's exploration of the dysfunctional family. Dahl presents families in which the children are rejected or mistreated (James and the Giant Peach, Matilda ) or in which the parents are completely absent (The Witches, The BFG ). These situations represent the most profound fear of middle childhood: the fear of the death of a parent.
The parent plays a pivotal role during this stage of a child's development; the child now begins to enter the larger social world around him or her and, depending on the relationship with the parent, the child will approach the world in varying manners. If the parent is either abusive or absent, the child will experience extreme difficulty in social relationships and in the development of self-esteem. This invariably causes problems well into adulthood. It is thus imperative that the child has some warm, caring, and stable relationship with an adult through whom he or she is guided into the world at large.
In his writing for children, Dahl may create a situation in which the child is the victim of a pathological relationship, but he does not leave this as the ultimate destiny of any of his characters. The child is never left at the mercy of cruelty, but finds a place where he or she is loved. This is obviously gratifying for the children who read Dahl's books. Dahl's stories are also particularly seductive in this stage of childhood for another reason. Because the children in this stage recognize their dependency on the adults in their lives, and thus the ease with which they become the victims of these adults' whims, there is a desperate need to gain some control of their own worlds. This is physically impossible in the real world in which the readers live, but for Dahl's characters, there is the means by which they are able to take control of their lives. Dahl places in the paths of each of his characters some form of magic that they, as children, are able to wield successfully and thus use to improve their situations. Dahl, therefore, both manifests the fears of his young readers and enables them to resolve their fears, vicariously, through the self-willed actions of the fictional characters.
The fact that Dahl uses magic through which to empower his readers to dissolve the shadows around them is a stroke of sorcerous genius. Dahl does not create completely fantastic worlds into which his readers can escape, the likes of Wonderland or Narnia. Instead, he roots his stories very firmly in the real worlds of the middle to lower classes, which his young readers have experienced and can easily recognize. When he then introduces his quirky brand of spell weaving into this otherwise mundane setting, Dahl makes it seem all the more possible. Magic becomes a viable option in the real world in which his readers live, and this lends his optimistic message even more power. Readers can take this "real" magic with them and make it a part of the world with which they interact, so that life is not as ordinary as it was beforehand.
As Rosemary Jackson (1981: 1) writes, "Fantasy is not to do with inventing another non-human world: it is not transcendental. It has to do with inverting the elements of this world, re-combining its constitutive features in new relations to produce something strange, unfamiliar and apparently new." Because Dahl does this, the fantasy that he creates is potent because it is seductively "real" and possible. Although each of the novels discussed below is unique, they do share the same exploration of the dysfunctional family and miraculous healing through magic.
In James and the Giant Peach (1995: 1), Dahl tells us that "until he was four years old, James Henry Trotter had a happy life. He lived peacefully with his mother and father"; this was before his parents were eaten by a marauding rhinoceros. It is interesting to note that the children in Dahl's novels are very young, much the same age as Dahl was when he lost his own father. After the loss of his parents, James finds himself alone and frightened in a vast, unfriendly world (Dahl 1995: 1). He is sent to live with replacement caregivers, his Aunts Spiker and Sponge, who commit all manner of atrocities against our small protagonist: "right from the beginning [they beat] poor James for no reason at all" (2) and they never called him by his real name, but always referred to him as "you disgusting little beast" or "you filthy nuisance" (2). James is given no toys, and no other children are allowed to play with him.
Dahl describes the deprivation that James suffers in terms of things to which young readers will be able to relate. Dahl has no qualms about likening James's new existence to that of a "prison cell" (1995: 8) and his emotive description of James's state of mind leaves the reader with no option but to align themselves with the sad protagonist. Dahl writes, "as time went on, [James] became sadder and sadder, and more and more lonely, and he used to spend hours every day standing at the bottom of the garden gazing wistfully at the lovely but forbidden world" (10-11).
Dahl takes care to juxtapose the worlds of Spiker and Sponge and the magic to come. His vivid descriptions of the Aunts and their actions also serve to align the readers unequivocally with James and there can be no argument that this is a dysfunctional familial setup: "Aunt Sponge had small piggy eyes, a sunken mouth and one of those flabby white faces that looked exactly as though it had been boiled. She was like a great white soggy overboiled cabbage. Aunt Spiker was lean and tall and bony. She had a screeching voice and long wet narrow lips. And there they sat, those two ghastly hags, sipping their drinks and every now and again screaming at James to chop faster and faster" (12). James works away as the Aunts primp and preen and he thinks about what other luckier children might be doing and "great tears [begin] oozing out of [his] eyes and rolling down his cheeks" (12). When his Aunts notice that James is crying, they do not offer him comfort or stop to help him; instead, they yell, "Stop that immediately and get on with your work, you nasty little beast!" (15). James effectively has no family; he is despised and, being young, is utterly defenseless.
There is no way to remedy this situation but to introduce magic; even those who are firm believers in the good of social workers must admit that a little magic is infinitely preferable and would be far more effective in any situation of this kind. Directly after Aunt Spiker's last nasty comment, James hides at the bottom of the garden where he encounters a strange little man. The man approaches James and offers a bag to him, "'Take a look, my dear,' he said, opening the bag and tilting it towards James" (17). This is the first time in the book that James is spoken to in a relatively tender tone. The magic infiltrates James's world.
Inside [the bag] James could see a mass of tiny green things that looked like little stones or crystals, each one about the size of a grain of rice. They were extraordinarily beautiful, and there was a strange brightness about them, a sort of luminous quality that made them glow and sparkle in the most wonderful way.
This description already smacks of heady magic but, for those children not yet able to read the signs, Dahl tells us exactly what these strange seeds of James's new life are:
Crocodile tongues! One thousand long slimy crocodile tongues boiled up in the skull of a witch for twenty days and nights with the eyeballs of a lizard! Add the fingers of a young monkey, the gizzard of a pig, the beak of a green parrot, the juice of a porcupine and three spoonfulls of sugar. Stew for a week and let the moon do the rest!
The little man tells James that "marvellous things will start to happen to [him], fabulous, unbelievable things" and "[he] will never be miserable again in [his] life" (19).
James spills the crocodile tongues, which duly worm their way into the ground, into the roots of the dead peach tree in the Aunts' garden, and finally result in the phenomenal peach. James is, in the ensuing excitement, shouted at, abused, and kicked out of the house at night with no supper. In the garden, he discovers a hole in the peach and tunnels his way up into the now enormous fruit. When the Aunts discover he is missing, they are relieved because they reason that he may be missing due to an accidental death on his part. Dahl, never one to let this kind of malice go unpunished, squashes the Aunts to death when the peach falls from the tree.
Although the evil caregivers are vanquished through the power of the magical fruit, Dahl is not merely satisfied to leave James free of them. He realizes the importance of positive familial relationships. Therefore, in the peach, James discovers new friends and a loving family composed of huge insects. Through the magic that Dahl weaves into his life, James finds a home and friends who care for him; "James Henry Trotter, who once, if you remember, had been the saddest and loneliest little boy that you could find, now had all the friends and playmates in the world" (156). In addition, Dahl invites his readers to join James; James has a little house (made from the huge peach pit) in Central Park and he invites those who have read his story to pop in and visit him. Dahl offers what he has given to James to his readers, a home. This is characteristic of Dahl, who brings fantasy into the real world for his readers, and once again refutes Jackson's declaration that fantasy can only lead to the alienation of the reader from the real world.
Unlike James, in The BFG (1982) we encounter Sophie, a little girl who has never had parents. She lives in an orphanage and is kidnapped by the BFG: the Big Friendly Giant. The magical reconstruction of Sophie's family unit comes about because she is a child, and therefore able to believe in the BFG and the magic he wields. Dahl uses dreams as magic in this novel. Jackson (1981: 8) writes that, "like dreams, with which they have many similarities, literary fantasies are made up of many elements combined, and are inevitably determined by the range of those constitutive elements available to the author/dreamer." Thus, dreams in this novel become the means through which Sophie and the BFG transform their worlds; they literally recombine the elements of different dreams in order to create a new entity and, through it, a new way of living together as a family.
Dahl, as the author, is also involved in this process of recombining mundane elements to create the fantasy through which he heals Sophie's world. In this story, Sophie befriends the BFG and they decide that it is their task to rid the earth of the scourge of man-eating giants who raid various countries around the world every night. The two protagonists work together and convince the Queen of England to aid them in their plight; she does and then allows Sophie and the BFG to live in a castle adjacent to Windsor Castle.
The Witches (1983) operates in much the same way as does The BFG (1982). In both of these stories, the expression of fantastic desire is predominantly one of expulsion rather than manifestation. Jackson (1981: 3-4) posits that fantasy, being the literature of desire, necessarily deals with the expression of desire. In some forms, we desire the manifestation of our longings; in James and the Giant Peach (1995), James longs for a family who will love him and this manifests in time. In other forms, we desire the expulsion of threat; in The BFG, Sophie and the BFG desire the expulsion of the threatening giants from society. The reconstruction of the family unit seems almost a by-product of the main dynamic of the novel, which is to expel the evil. The same is true of The Witches ; the main plot deals with the vanquishing of the witches of the world who seek to destroy children the world over. However, the family unit receives some interesting reconstruction along the way.
In The Witches, Dahl does not present us with a child who is deprived of a loving caregiver. Although the little boy's parents are dead—he was present when they were killed in a car accident and he tells us that "[he] still gets shivers when [he] thinks about it" (Dahl 1983: 13)—he has a very close relationship with his grandmother. She, however, is very old and the threat of death is real.
This book seems to be the closest to Dahl's own life in that he spins much of the anxiety and the growing up of his own younger years into it; the grandmother is very old and when she catches pneumonia, there is the panic of memory tacked onto it. In Boy, Dahl describes his own grandmother's bout of pneumonia and the echoes in The Witches are remarkable. (Perhaps it is also interesting that this particular character does not have a name of his own; he could just as easily be named Roald.) In The Witches, the boy says,
The doctor explained to me that pneumonia is not normally a dangerous illness nowadays because of penicillin, but when a person is more than eighty years old, as my grandmother was, then it is very dangerous indeed. He said he didn't even dare to move her to the hospital in her condition, so she stayed in her bedroom and I hung about outside the door while oxygen cylinders and all sorts of frightening things were taken in to her.
The little boy is made vividly aware of the fact that his grandmother does not have much time left. This situation seems more reminiscent of the dysfunction with which Dahl himself had to live than those of the other families encountered in his other books.
When the grandmother takes a holiday to recuperate, she and her grandson encounter the witches. He is able to recognize them and mask his presence through his refraining from the act of bathing, but this does not save him and he is turned into a mouse through the Grand High Witch's Delayed Action Mouse Maker. This is the magic Dahl employs in this case: "proper" spell weaving by real witches.
Through the convenience of his new mouse body, however, the grandson is able to dose all the witches with a potion and rid England of all her witches. The expulsion of evil occurs. However, in view of the reconstruction of a healthy family unit through magic, there is an interesting repercussion of the boy's mouse body. He is no longer in any danger of outliving his grandmother. The threat of death and loneliness in the future has been neutralized.
"How long does a mouse-person live, Grandmamma?"
"A mouse person will almost certainly live for about three times as long as any ordinary mouse," my grandmother said. "About nine years."
"Good!" I cried. "That's great! It's the best news I've ever had!"
"Why do you say that?" she asked, surprised.
"Because I would never want to live longer than you," I said. "I couldn't stand being looked after by anybody else."
There was a short silence. She had a way of fondling me behind the ears with the tip of one finger.
It felt lovely.
"How old are you, Grandmamma?" I asked.
"I'm eighty-six," she said.
"Will you live another eight or nine years?"
"I might," she said. "With a bit of luck."
"You've got to," I said. "Because by then I'll be a very old mouse and you'll be a very old grandmother and soon after that, we'll both die together."
"That would be perfect," she said.
In the book Matilda (1988), a return to the dynamic of James and the Giant Peach (1995) is seen. Matilda's family is very obviously dysfunctional.
Occasionally one comes across parents who show no interest at all in their children. Mr and Mrs Wormwood were two such parents. They had a son called Michael and a daughter called Matilda, and the parents looked upon Matilda in particular as nothing more than a scab. A scab is something you have to put up with until the time comes when you can pick it off and flick it away. Mr and Mrs Wormwood looked forward enormously to the time when they could pick their little daughter off and flick her away, preferably into the next country or even further than that.
(Dahl 1988: 10)
Dahl writes Matilda into a family who dislikes her and will never be able to give her the care she desperately needs. Her father is dishonest, arrogant, and stupid and brushes his daughter aside with little thought; he constantly tells her she is stupid and insignificant, "'You're an ignorant little twit,' the father said. His speech was never very delicate and Matilda was used to it" (22). Matilda's mother is a useless, powdery, greasy housewife who fawns over her husband to the detriment of her children. Matilda is also the first of Dahl's characters who encounters the authoritarian figures of the English school system, in the figure of Miss Trunchbull. Matilda thus has two fronts on which she is under attack, school and home. Dahl must allow her some form of self-defense.
Dahl gives Matilda a potent form of magic; her intellectual capacity is so great that she finds she can wield it as a physical force. Matilda becomes adept at telekinesis. She uses this gift to trap the dishonest Miss Trunchbull, which results in the restoration of Miss Honey's home to her (Miss Honey being Matilda's first form teacher). This, in turn, means that when the Wormwoods are forced to flee the country, Miss Honey is able to offer to adopt Matilda. Her parents' reaction is: "I'm in a hurry," the father said. "I've got a plane to catch. If she wants to stay, let her stay. It's fine with me" (239).
Matilda's parents don't care whether they see her again or not. At this stage, however, Dahl has transplanted Matilda so firmly into the affections of Miss Honey that this cold rejection by Matilda's parents is sought after by the reader. Like James, Matilda finds her real home through the intervention of the extraordinary into her life.
Dahl uses different forms of magic in each of the pathological familial situations in which his characters find themselves; he understands the shadow world in which most children live and, because of this, he understands that the only way in which to combat shadow is to use a means as intangible as shadow to fight it. Magic in Dahl's writing can be anything from a bizarre potion cooked in the skull of a witch to the harnessing of brain power. Because he allows his readers to equate magic with powers as diverse as these, he whispers the possibility that there might be many more kinds out there waiting to be discovered by the child who looks hard enough. One has only to take the time to look under the ordinary stones to find the magic grubs wriggling, hidden in the dirt. Dahl does not try to transcend reality; he instead offers something to his readers that will enable them to cope with the alienation and rejection they may feel in the real world in which they live. Because of this, he is a master of real magic and a true friend to the children who carry his books to school, scouts, and wherever else they may be bound.
Dahl, R. 1982. The BFG. London: Puffin.
Dahl, R. 1983. The Witches. London: Puffin.
Dahl, R. 1984. Boy: Tales of Childhood. London: Puffin.
Dahl, R. 1988. Matilda. London: Puffin.
Dahl, R. 1995. James and the Giant Peach. London: Puffin.
Howard, K. 2002. Available at: http://www.roalddahlfans.com. Accessed 28 December 2001.
Jackson, R. 1981. Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion. London: Methuen.
Round, J. 2002. "Roald Dahl and the Creative Process: Writing from Experience." Available at: http://www.roalddahlfans.com. Accessed 28 December 2001.
JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH (1961)
Mark I. West (essay date winter 1985)
SOURCE: West, Mark I. "Regression and Fragmentation of the Self in James and the Giant Peach." Children's Literature in Education 16, no. 4 (winter 1985): 219-25.
[In the following essay, West examines how Dahl's James and the Giant Peach highlights the juvenile desire to "regress psychologically," asserting that James' insect companions serve as aspects of his fragmented personality.]
Roald Dahl's fantasies for children have always been popular with young readers, but they have not always been given a warm reception by the critics. Instead of winning awards, his fantasies have tended to arouse controversy. His books have been accused of being vulgar, excessively violent, and disrespectful toward adults. Recently, however, Dahl's critical standing has improved. During the 1983 World Fantasy Convention, Dahl was given the organization's annual Life Achievement Award. BFG and The Witches, his most recent fantasies, have received a number of highly favorable reviews in such mainstream periodicals as Horn Book and the New York Times Book Review.1 Dahl's fantasies have even begun to attract scholarly attention. In a recent article published in Signal, Charles Sarland suggests that many of the criticisms of Dahl's fantasies are based on superficial readings. Dahl's writing, he argues, "is a good deal more complex than many commentators would have had us believe." Although Sarland focuses his article on The Twits, his argument can also be applied to Dahl's first children's book, James and the Giant Peach. A psychoanalytic interpretation of this book indicates that it is considerably more than an exciting, transatlantic adventure story.
Since its original publication in 1961, James and the Giant Peach has never been out of print.2 Part of its long-standing appeal is undoubtedly its ingenious and fast-moving plot. However, one need not scratch very far beneath the surface of the story to discover another reason for its popularity among children. In an unobtrusive way, Dahl's tale deals with a common theme of children's fantasies—the urge to regress psychologically. Dahl recognizes this urge and provides children with a framework to work through their own fantasies about regression.
As Anna Freud, Melanie Klein, and others have pointed out, children often engage in regressive fantasies when faced with ego threatening problems and anxieties. Such is clearly the case with the hero of James and the Giant Peach. James is a seven-year-old orphan who lives with two cruel aunts. He feels abused, unwanted, and unloved, and he strongly dislikes his aunts. On the day that his adventure begins, he begs his aunts to permit him to stop working and take him to the seaside. They, of course, refuse, threaten to beat him, and call him a "disgusting little worm" (p. 7). James flees from his aunts and begins crying over his unfortunate lot in life. Recognizing that a real-life James would be likely to begin fantasizing at this point, Dahl chooses this scene to interject the first fantasy element into the story.
While James is crying, he meets a peculiar but fatherly old man who gives James a bag full of "thousands of little green things" that were "slowly stirring about and moving over each other as though they were alive" (p. 9). When James asks what these spermlike things are, he is told that they are magic crocodile tongues. James accidentally spills the bag near a scrawny peach tree, and the crocodile tongues quickly wriggle their way into the earth. Soon after this symbolic portrayal of fertilization, the tree sprouts a magical peach.
The peach grows to enormous proportions. While this miraculous phenomenon amazes the aunts, they are oblivious to the peach's beauty. They are primarily interested in exploiting the peach in order to make "a pile of money" (p. 20). The aunts begin selling tickets to the curious for the privilege of seeing the awesome fruit. After their first day of business, the aunts send James out into the night to pick up the litter left by the onlookers. James is hungry, lonesome, and afraid of the night. He longs to run away to someplace safe and warm. He longs to escape his problems and start over again. He subconsciously longs, Dahl suggests, to return to the womb.
Dahl fulfills James's wish in a most creative way. Toward the bottom of the peach, James discovers a tunnel leading toward the fruit's center, and he promptly enters it. What follows is a scene that closely resembles a reversal of the birthing process:
The tunnel was damp and murky, and all around him was the curious bittersweet smell of fresh peach. The floor was soggy under his knees, the walls were wet and sticky, and peach juice was dripping from the ceiling. James opened his mouth and caught some of it on his tongue. It tasted delicious.
He was crawling uphill now, as though the tunnel were leading straight toward the very center of the gigantic fruit.
Upon reaching the peach stone, James finds a door which he uses to enter the stone. Once inside he encounters a menagerie of gigantic insects. They warmly welcome James, and one of them says to him, "You are one of us now" (p. 28). Although there are seven insects, only four—the Ladybug, the Old-Green-Grasshopper, the Centipede, and the Earthworm—are central characters in the story. When viewed from a psychological perspective, these four bugs can be seen as separate aspects of James's own psychological makeup.
The fragmentation of the personality is actually a fairly common phenomenon during periods of regression. In the 1940s, Melanie Klein used the word "splitting" to describe this process. Although there is some disagreement over the definition of splitting, the word has entered the lexicon of psychologists and psychiatrists. As it is generally used, splitting occurs when an individual begins to regard various aspects of his or her personality as separate entities rather than as features of a unified whole. These divisions are usually products of introjection or projection. When introjection comes into play, the individual draws upon memories of another person, usually a parent, to create an internalized representation of that person (also known as an introject). When projection comes into play, the individual attempts to externalize certain parts of his or her personality by projecting these qualities onto another being.3 Dahl makes use of both of these mechanisms in James and the Giant Peach.
The Ladybug and the Old-Green-Grasshopper both appear to be introjects. Dahl portrays them as kindly parents. They look after James, praise him when he does well, and share their knowledge with him. Unlike the cruel aunts, they provide James with the love that he so desperately needs. Although James's original parents died when he was four, Dahl suggests that they live on, at least in James's mind, in the form of these two insects. The Centipede and the Earthworm are projections of James's id and can be seen as competing phallic symbols. The Centipede proudly proclaims himself to be a pest. He boasts, makes trouble, sings risqué songs, and indulges in wild dances. He corresponds, in some ways, to Freud's notion of Eros. The Earthworm, on the other hand, is an impotent figure. He is powerless, whining, and defeated, and he constantly criticizes the Centipede. The Earthworm can be seen as being similar to Freud's conception of Thanatos or the self-destructive instinct. Important tensions within James's psyche are played out through the antics of these adversaries.
Soon after entering the peach, James and the Centipede form a close but lopsided relationship. The Centipede immediately begins ordering James about, and James attempts to obey the Centipede's every command. For example, before James and the insects retire for the night, the Centipede insists that James remove the Centipede's twenty-one pairs of boots. James, in other words, allows himself to be controlled by his id. In the morning, the Centipede continues to play a dominant role. He climbs out of the peach and chews through the stem that anchors the giant peach to the tree. Since the peach is resting on a steep slope, it starts rolling downhill.
The first objects that the peach rolls over are the cruel aunts, leaving them "as flat and thin and lifeless as a couple of paper dolls cut out of a picture book" (p. 40). The death of the aunts plays a pivotal role in the story, for it represents the surfacing of James's murderous feelings toward his caretakers. As soon as these feelings are unleashed, James's safe peach stone turns into a chaotic pit. While the peach tumbles down the hill, James and his companions are violently tossed about. Frightened by the turn of events, James switches his allegiance from the Centipede to the Earthworm. When the peach finally comes to rest in the Atlantic Ocean, James and the Earthworm are wrapped around each other. Through these scenes, Dahl implies that James fears his own aggressive impulses and seeks to deny these impulses by embracing the impotent Earthworm. Dahl, however, does not allow James to remain in this defeated position.
Once the peach is floating peacefully in the ocean, James begins to rebuild his personality. He breaks his bond with the Earthworm and ventures out of the peach stone. Although he remains on top of the peach, he no longer seems to need the security of the womb. James is immediately confronted with numerous problems, but he bravely and cleverly solves each one. When the insects fear that they will starve, he explains that they can eat the peach. When sharks be-gin attacking the peach, James manages to turn the peach into an airship by tying hundreds of seagulls to the stem of the peach. Each time he solves a problem, the Ladybug and the Old-Green-Grasshopper congratulate him. Their praise helps James gain a sense of self-respect that he never had while he was living with the aunts.
As James begins to take control over his life, his relationship with the Centipede starts changing. Rather than feeling threatened by the Centipede, James grows to enjoy the Centipede's jokes and sardonic songs. Dahl underscores this change in a dramatic scene that follows one of the Centipede's wild singing sprees. The Centipede gets so carried away with his singing and dancing that he falls off the peach and lands in the ocean far below. Much to the Earthworm's disappointment, James immediately sets out to rescue the Centipede. After attaching himself to a strand of string, James dives into the ocean and swims around until he finds the floundering Centipede. The other insects then hoist the two of them back up to the peach. Through this symbolic acceptance of his id, James indicates that he can cope with his inner tensions. He has learned that he need not renounce his id in order to control it.
Night falls soon after the rescue of the Centipede, and James and his companions have several more adventures before the sun reappears. Throughout these adventures, James demonstrates that he is able to deal with a variety of problems. By the morning, he is ready to reenter society. He is no longer the miserable, guilt-ridden, withdrawn character that he was in the beginning of the book. He has become, instead, a cheerful and capable boy who desires the company of other children.
The book reaches its climax with James's rebirth, an event that takes place over New York City. James is drifting over the city when an airplane flies through the strings that attach the peach to the seagulls. Like a newborn infant who has been detached from the umbilical cord, James makes a sudden entrance into society. The peach plunges to earth, and James fears he will die when it hits the ground. His life is spared, though, because the peach falls on the Empire State Building and becomes impaled on the building's spire. Thus, James owes his life to a symbolic representation of sexual intercourse, just as a newborn infant's life stems from the sexual union of his or her parents.
After his adventure, James successfully recovers from his period of regression. Although he occasionally visits with the Ladybug, the Old-Green-Grasshopper, and the Centipede, he generally succeeds in reintegrating his fragmented personality. He allows the children of New York City to eat the peach, but he does not give away the peach stone. He has it moved to Central Park where he converts it into a snug house. Although James views the stone as his permanent home, he frequently ventures out of it and willingly allows other children to enter it. Thus, he uses the stone, not as a place to withdraw from society, but as a foundation upon which to build a social life. The peach stone seems to provide him with the type of security often associated with maternal love. Because he has this security, he is able to make friends and sustain his self-confidence. In short, he learns how to cope with the demands of both his internal world and the external environment.
Dahl is certainly not alone in suggesting that regression can be a positive experience. Ernst Kris and Heinz Hartmann, two prominent psychological theorists, argue that the suspension of ego control can sometimes help people deal with anxieties, and Anna Freud maintains that temporary ego regressions are a normal aspect of child development. Of course, no psychologist or psychiatrist would suggest that regression is always positive. In an attempt to distinguish healthy regression from pathological forms of regression, Michael J. Miller writes that "regression in the service of the ego … has a definite beginning and end, is completely reversible, and is a function of successful adaption to stress or change." James's regression meets all of these criteria, and this partially explains why many children find the story so satisfying.
1. Review of BFG, in the Horn Book, 1983, 59, 165; and Erica Jong, "The Boy Who Became a Mouse," review of The Witches, in the New York Times Book Review, 13 Nov. 1983, p. 45.
2. Published by Alfred A. Knopf. Page citations in the text refer to this edition.
3. For more information about splitting, see Melanie Klein, Contributions to Psychoanalysis, 1921–1945 (London: Hogarth Press, 1948); Paul W. Pruyser, "What Splits in Splitting? A Scrutiny of the Concept of Splitting in Psychoanalysis and Psychiatry," Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic, 1975, 39, 1-46; and Otto Kernberg, "Structural Derivations of Object Relationships," International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 1966, 47, 236-253.
Freud, Anna, "Regression as a Principle in Mental Development," Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic, 1963, 27, 126-139.
Hartmann, Heinz, Essays on Ego Psychology: Selected Problems in Psychoanalytic Theory. New York: International Universities Press, 1964.
Kris, Ernst, Psychoanalytic Explorations in Art. New York: Schocken Books, 1964.
Miller, Michael J., "The Rorschach: Psychoanalytic Theoretical Implications," Directions in Psychiatry, 1984, 4(5), 1-7.
Sarland, Charles, "The Secret Seven vs The Twits: Cultural Clash or Cosy Combination?" Signal, 1983, 42, 155-171.
CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY (1964)
William Todd Schultz (essay date fall 1998)
SOURCE: Schultz, William Todd. "Finding Fate's Father: Some Life History Influences on Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." Biography: An Interdisciplinary Approach 21, no. 4 (fall 1998): 463-81.
[In the following essay, Schultz charts the parallels between Dahl's own life and the themes, events, and characters that inhabit Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.]
Necessity and chance
Approach not me, and what I will is Fate.
—Milton, Paradise Lost VII: 1.172-73
Roald Dahl thought quite a lot of chocolate. At age nine, Dahl attended school near a sweets shop whose emissions he happily sniffed. An adolescence spent in an otherwise dreary English Public School was at intervals partially redeemed by the nearby Cadbury Company. Dahl and his lucky classmates sometimes got to taste test experimental chocolates, rating them and writing out their reactions. Dahl liked to imagine himself working there, "and suddenly I would come up with something so absolutely unbearably delicious that I would grab it in my hand and go rushing along the corridor and right into the office of the great Mr. Cadbury himself," who after tasting Dahl's discovery would then leap from his chair crying, "'You got it! We'll sweep the world with this one!'" (Boy: Tales of Childhood 148-49). Foreshadowings of Willy Wonka's factory appear even in Dahl's first major book for children, James and the Giant Peach, when the impossibly massive fruit runs over just such an establishment on its way to thrilling adventures at sea.
When, however, Dahl eventually got around to writing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, there his fascination with everything chocolate found its fullest expression. Dahl himself traces the novel's origin to the Cadbury experience: "I have no doubt at all that, thirty-five years later, when I was looking for a plot for my second book for children, I remembered those little cardboard boxes and the newly-invented chocolates inside them, and I began to write a book called Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" (Boy 149). But what else might have motivated him? What might account for the charisma—and menace—of Willy Wonka, or for the unhappy, almost grisly accidents that befall so many of the children, with the exception of Charlie?
Before suggesting answers to these questions, a brief summary of the book might be helpful, especially since the film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, so familiar to so many parents, departs in important respects from the highly successful text that inspired it.1 Two such differences seem particularly significant: the book contains no bewilderingly lurking Slugworth figure, but it does give Charlie a father, albeit a rather feckless and irrelevant one. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a meditation on what Artaud called the "marginality of fate," and on the almost providential intervention of chance. Charlie Bucket is the only child of a desperately poor family. His father works long hours screwing caps on tubes of toothpaste, until he loses his job and resorts to shoveling snow. The father's miserable wages must support not only Charlie and his mother, but also both sets of invalid grandparents. As a result, their house isn't large enough and there isn't enough money to buy proper food, forcing them to eat "bread and margarine for breakfast, boiled potatoes and cabbage for lunch, and cabbage soup for supper," with Sundays a special day because everyone gets a second helping. The family therefore goes "from morning till night with a horrible empty feeling in their tummies," and Charlie's bones bristle beneath the skin of his face (7).
Standing within sight of Charlie's home is an enormous chocolate factory—the biggest in the world, and run by the cleverest chocolate maker in the world. For half a mile in every direction, the factory scents the air with the "heavy rich smell of melting chocolate" (9). The family is bewitched. The factory seems both nemesis and temptation, a symbol of everything dreaded and desired. Grandpa Joe spends many an evening telling Charlie about the factory: How its founder Willy Wonka—always described in superlatives—invented ice cream that doesn't run in the sun, and gum that never loses its taste. How the building—bricks, cement, and all—was constructed of light and dark chocolate. How nobody ever seemed to go in and nobody ever seemed to go out, and how the workers, known only by the shadows appearing in the windows at night, are no taller than Grandpa Joe's knee.
One day, Charlie's wish to go inside this most edible of factories becomes at least remotely possible. Inexplicably Wonka decides to admit five children for a visit. These lucky five will be selected by Fate: Wonka has hidden golden tickets inside the wrappings of five ordinary bars of chocolate. For Charlie there isn't much hope, since he gets just one bar a year, for his birthday, and so the family contents itself with following the drama in the papers. Four slightly despicable children find tickets, the wrapping for Charlie's birthday bar reveals no gold, and the family continues to starve. But one day, Charlie discovers a dollar in the gutter, and buys two chocolate bars from a fat shopkeeper. The first bar he eats. The second, a Whipple-Scrumptious Fudgemallow Delight, explodes in a brilliant flash of gold. In an instant, Charlie is lucky ticket holder number five, and feels a "peculiar floating sensation coming over him … his heart thumping away loudly somewhere in his throat" (51).
The big day arrives. While the other four children bring both their mothers and fathers to the factory, Charlie brings Grandpa Joe. Even more spectacular than imagined, the factory doesn't disappoint, and neither does Wonka, a kind of troll-like figure with mixed motives. "Please don't wander off by yourselves," he says, "I shouldn't like to lose any of you at this stage of the proceedings!" (64). But children do get "lost." Gluttonous Augustus Gloop falls into a chocolate river. Violet Beauregarde eats gum she shouldn't and swells up like a blueberry. Identified as a "bad nut," spoiled Veruca Salt is taken away by squirrels to the garbage chute. Mike Teavee, whose name reveals his vice, is reduced to a tiny video image. Only Charlie escapes doom, thus winning what has been a survival contest all along, for as Wonka explains, "I decided to invite children to the factory, and the one I liked best at the end of the day would be the winner." He stresses: "I have to have a child. I want a good sensible loving child, one to whom I can tell all my most precious candy-making secrets—while I am still alive." Charlie thus becomes heir to the chocolate factory, and Wonka invites his whole family to move in at once. The grandparents refuse at first, but Charlie and Wonka won't take no for an answer. "Please don't be frightened," Charlie says. "It's quite safe. And we're going to the most wonderful place in the world!" (161).
The book reads like a morality fable: Charlie, the good child, wins the prize just by being himself, while the bad children meet with terrible ends. Their "accidents" hardly seem "accidental," however, as Fate functions like an externalized superego, meting out appropriate punishments. Even when the bad kids do reemerge in the end, they carry with them enduring stigmata. Though dejuiced, Violet is still purple in the face, while shrunken Mike Teavee is restored but overstretched, "ten feet tall and thin as a wire." On closer examination, however, the text seems far less straightforward. What has Charlie really won? Only the factory, or something more as well? And what about the accident theme? Why does Dahl permanently mark the undeserving children rather than simply humiliating them or condemning their vices in some other way? Finally, the factory's claustral architecture deserves special attention, too. Throughout the book, visitors struggle and shove their way through various tubes, corridors, enclosures, and passageways—the word "push" alone is used three different times between pages 64 and 68. In what follows, I try to answer these questions by examining not only Dahl's life history, but his extra-literary pre-occupations at the time he wrote the book.
What Does Charlie Win?
We know full well what Charlie wins: the chocolate factory and everything else that goes with it, including presumably fame and fortune, and comfort for his dirt-poor, starving family. But even a cursory look at the life of Roald Dahl suggests that Charlie's gain may be more than just material.
Neither in Dahl's life nor his work did expressing sincere, honest emotion come easy. Since his readers are far more accustomed to sarcasm or nonsense, when such emotional expressions appear in his fiction, they come as something of a surprise, and may even represent what Irving Alexander has called "indicators of saliency"—textual markers indicative of psychologically important material. To take an obvious incident, in Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, the Chocolate Factory 's far less satisfying se-quel, the Bucket family finds itself ascending in Wonka's elevator/spacecraft. Charlie's grandparents aren't sure they like the idea, or Wonka himself for that matter. But Charlie leans over and whispers, "Please, don't spoil everything. Mr. Wonka is a fantastic man. He's my friend. I love him" (4). The last three words are startling in context. Though Wonka had warmed to Charlie towards the end of the first book, his affection was qualified by his overriding desire for an heir. And yet, while the unexpected "I love him" may not quite fit given what we know about Charlie and Wonka, the depth of devotion still rings true: in Wonka, Dahl—as well as Charlie—finds a father.
Harald Dahl died of pneumonia when Roald was three, just two months after the death by appendicitis of Roald's seven-year old sister, Astri. Harald refused to fight the illness. Apparently wishing to join Astri in heaven, he "did not care much whether he lived or died." "So he died," Dahl concludes somewhat tersely, "He was fifty-seven years old" (Boy 20). It's hard not to be struck by the incompleteness of this account, which appears in the first volume of Dahl's autobiography. After spending just two paragraphs on this most catastrophic of events, Dahl moves matter-of-factly on, at greater length, to lighter fare. Since Dahl "had always found it impossible to talk to anyone about his feelings," and during difficult times tended to say "nothing of what he was going through" (Treglown 147), it should not be surprising that Boy avoids discussing the psychological effects—short- and long-term—of Harald's and Astri's deaths. But those effects may appear elsewhere, and although he is not inclined towards psychobiography, Dahl's biographer Jeremy Treglown does speak of Dahl's search for "surrogate fathers," including Charles Marsh, a self-made multimillionaire oil tycoon and art collector (6).
Treglown, however, sees not Harald, but Roald Dahl in Wonka, citing both a similarity "between Dahl's third-person narrative voice and Mr. Wonka's own hectic, exaggerated way of talking," and Wonka's Dahl-like way with dismissive criticism (155). Roald Dahl certainly dreamed of being an inventor—and in fact was one, as I will discuss. He also "longed to be powerful enough to be able to conquer illness" (Treglown 136), and in Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator actually has Wonka bring Charlie's grandparents back from the dead, a feat which Dahl himself might have envied, given the many losses he endured. And yet, though Wonka does resemble Roald Dahl to a degree, Treglown labels such an identification "naive," and if we look beyond the superficial characteristics mentioned, a different, more compelling role for Wonka begins to suggest itself: fictional father.
Though Charlie's actual father appears in both books, he is very nearly irrelevant (the film version drops the character altogether, at no expense to the story). In the Chocolate Factory he opens his mouth only to read verbatim newspaper descriptions of each new lucky winner.2 When Charlie finds the money and later wins the golden ticket, he tells his mother, not his father. And although all the other ticket winners arrive on the big day accompanied by both parents, Charlie's father, unemployed and unable to support the family, agrees that Grandpa Joe is more "deserving." Considering how Joe nightly regaled Charlie with stories of Wonka's factory, he doubtlessly does deserve the honor, but the absence of parents not only makes Charlie out to be something of an orphan, it also seems to mark him as parentless in a metaphoric sense. Wonka therefore responds to Charlie differently, not only because he is the one good kid, but because he lacks—figuratively—a father, and because Wonka's "real purpose is to find an heir," or son (Treglown 151). Wonka in fact really can't give the factory to any of the other children, since to do so would presumably make their very present parents the beneficiaries. While relishing the failures and humiliations of the other children and their escorts, then, Wonka treats Charlie with what seems like paternal concern. As they float along the same chocolate river that took Augustus Gloop, for example, Wonka dips a large mug into it and passes it to Charlie. "Drink this," Wonka commands, "It'll do you good! You look starved to death!… Hasn't there been anything to eat in your house lately?" (88). This may be Wonka's single expression of unironic kindness and thoughtfulness in the entire book, and Charlie's deeply satisfying response marks the moment as especially important psychologically: "as the rich warm creamy chocolate ran down his throat and into his empty tummy, his whole body from head to toe began to tingle with pleasure, and a feeling of intense happiness spread over him" (89).
When Charlie alone survives the war of attrition, Wonka, who "had a hunch, right from the beginning" that Charlie would win, is ecstatic: "I'm absolutely delighted! It couldn't be better! How wonderful this is!" (149). For as Wonka goes on to explain, the real contest was to secure his affection: "I'm an old man. I'm much older than you think. I can't go on forever. I've got no children of my own, no family at all…. I decided to invite five children to the factory, and the one I liked best at the end of the day would be the winner" (157). Notice how this cancels the conceit of "chance." Wonka chose Charlie (most likely from the very start), and the "accidents" weren't accidents at all, but disqualifications of those children Wonka did not like. The convenient result is that when Wonka picks an "orphan" heir to become the child he needs, Charlie finds a fabulous father—and so too perhaps does Dahl.3
But there's more. Immediately after Charlie learns what he's won, Wonka takes Charlie and Grandpa Joe into the great glass elevator, which rises, shudderingly, through a thin corridor, then explodes like a rocket through the factory's glass ceiling. "We're through! We're out!" shouts Wonka. The craft hangs in midair, sunshine pours in, and the town lies spread out below like a picture postcard. Intentional or not, the implications seem unmistakable. Just after being introduced to the kind of father he needs, Charlie is reborn, at least psychologically. He finds himself transported into a different realm, with a different perspective, bathed in light. One half-expects Charlie to be slapped on the bottom.
This interpretation isn't necessarily at odds with Treglown's suggestion that Wonka is Dahl, since Dahl's ideal self—inventor, orchestrator of chance, master of life and death, imp extraordinaire—could coexist with this wonderfully amusing, occasionally even maternal, father image. Above all, Wonka's ability to resurrect the dead, which we learn about in the second book, certainly represents a wish that the loss-plagued Dahl would find compelling. Conjuring up a character who, Orpheus-like, enters the underworld and zaps the unliving back to their original form seems like the best sort of wish-fulfillment. Such speculations, however, remain rather general. Linking Dahl himself to the fortunes of his characters requires a closer look at specific events, since Dahl's life course was directly impacted by a remarkable accumulation of accidents.
The Fiction of Accident
Roald Dahl's life was so accident-beset that the back cover of the paperback edition of the Treglown biography refers to a surfeit of "shocking personal tragedy." As if to underscore the importance of the theme, Dahl's own account of his life begins with an accident that occurred even before he was born. At the age of fourteen, his father Harald fell off a roof, broke his left arm, and then lost that arm, thanks to medical incompetence. When Dahl himself was nine, his older sister took the family on a car ride which proved to be much more eventful than anyone had anticipated: she crashed the car into a hedge, causing Dahl's nose to be "cut almost clean off my face … hanging on only by a single thread of skin" (Boy 103). As a young RAF fighter pilot, in the fall of 1939 Dahl made a forced landing in the North African desert. When the plane struck a boulder, Dahl's skull was fractured, and his nose, having already been singled out for punishment, was driven back into his face. Crawling from the cockpit, he rolled out of danger, and was "picked up, bleeding profusely, by British soldiers patrolling nearby" (Treglown 43). And in perhaps the most significant disaster of all, his four-month-old son Theo—"to whom Dahl was unambiguously devoted"—was hit by a cab as his nanny pushed his carriage across a street. The child's skull was broken in several places. Doctors did not expect him to live, and though he did, it was with lasting neurological impairments (Treglown 137-38). This accident occurred while Dahl was working on the first Charlie book; in fact, Dahl dedicates it to Theo.
Not surprisingly, then, accidents recur in Dahl's fiction. On the very first page of James and the Giant Peach (1961), Dahl's first major work, James's parents get eaten, rather randomly, by a rhino. The first sentence of Danny the Champion of the World (1975) informs us that Danny's mother died when he was only four months old, and in The Witches (1983), the little hero's parents die in an icy, Christmas-time car crash. Although an entire essay might be devoted to the accident as leitmotif in Dahl's work, I would like to focus here on what has to be his most accident-perfused book of all, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Why do accidents figure so prominently in this story, and what psychological function might they serve?
First, there's the matter of the children's mock gruesome "disappearances." That particular plot detail caused immediate controversy. Dahl's editor at Knopf, Virginia Fowler, had her doubts, calling Veruca Salt's disposal down a garbage shaft especially "crude" and "revolting"—too much on the "adult level" (Treglown 154). But the children's departures are not merely gratuitous or unnecessary in context, because Dahl seems, among other things, to be writing a cautionary tale. These children are done in by their own vileness. Their respective fates are not only metaphorically apt, but also display Dahl's moral tendency to increase discomfort as a means for disarming and provoking his young readers. Augustus Gloop "drowns" in chocolate, Mike Teavee becomes a TV image, and so on. But something more oblique, and undeniably more menacing, is also at work. For apart from whatever social comment Dahl may have intended, the book's tone at times betrays a kind of pervading menace. As Gene Wilder's performance as Wonka in the film version makes clear, something like vengeance lurks behind Wonka's pleasure over each demise. Repeatedly Wilder/Wonka stands by indifferently while each child exits in a way that would have been easily preventable. Although most readers I think would agree that these episodes are among the most entertaining and distinctive in Dahl's book, why are the children, rather than their parents punished? Why does Wonka/Dahl seem so determined to make the children pay, and so excessively, for their moral failings? What did he get out of it?
One answer lies in Dahl's history of loss. He had been forced to watch good children meet with undeserved catastrophe—his sister, dead at age seven; his infant son, suffering brain damage.4 If as Treglown suggests, Dahl did in fact identify with Wonka, then the candy maker's orchestration of "death" in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and his utter mastery over it in Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator allow Dahl vicariously to turn the tables on loss—to dictate its caprice, rather than be dictated to by it. Dahl's heroes admittedly do lose their parents, thus returning him to the site of his own grief surrounding the loss of his father Harald. But when Roald Dahl actively discards characters, as in the Chocolate Factory, he becomes judge and executioner within a created alternate reality in which only bad kids meet with disaster and good kids, who have done nothing wrong, triumph.
But in such a world, Dahl clearly identifies not only with Wonka but with Charlie as well, that boy who "desperately wanted something more filling and satisfying" out of life, who longed "more than anything else" for chocolate—chocolate signifying Wonka/Father. Functioning as both Wonka and Charlie grants Dahl an even headier power, the power to create a just world conforming to his will, and naturally he defines the world he prefers, a world in which he, not dumb reality, decides which children triumph, and which meet with bad ends.
And so the departures of Augustus Gloop and his ilk—so gruesome, so bizarre, so easily preventable—thereby provide an outlet for Dahl's anger, resentment, and sense of injustice in response to the various losses he had endured. A man who did not talk directly about his feelings thus could express them through the harsh and unusual punishments he metes out to his characters. Because Augustus Gloop is a "repulsive boy," and his mother a "revolting woman," he is doomed. Veruca Salt is "even worse than the fat boy," and in need of "a real good spanking." The "despicable" and "beastly" Violet gets what she deserves, and if Mike Teavee can't be stretched back to his original size, Dahl simply notes, "It serves him right." Such nasty children merit no mercy, and in Wonka's world, they get their just desserts, of the poetic sort he decrees. When loss arrives in reality, survivors are left no option but to wonder why. Why that person, why not someone else, someone more deserving of death? As an artist, Dahl creates a world in which such questions do not arise.
The battle for Roald Dahl then is not over the elimination of horrible accidents or unforeseen disasters, but rather over who gets to control them. The most detailed account of this struggle appears in The Witches, in which five children—including a "Harald"—also disappear or get transformed, but in this case at the hands of nefarious local witches. These powerful creatures despise children, and particularly enjoy turning kids into creatures all grownups hate and therefore destroy—a slug gets smashed, a flea gets powdered, a pheasant gets shot from the sky, plucked and roasted, and eaten for supper. In fact, the witches take special delight in making grownups eat their own offspring—by turning them into hot dogs. The ultimate plan is to change all the children of England into mice by tricking them into eating chocolate laced with a special formula, the "Delayed-Action Mouse-Maker." The witches' strategy for transforming the children actually resembles Willy Wonka's scheme. After opening sweets shops from which to dispense the doctored candies, on a certain day the witches will announce in their shop windows a "Great Gala Opening with free sweets and chocs to every child" (78).
The orphaned hero and his cigar-smoking, witch-savvy grandmother get wind of the plan, and work to undermine it. The grandmother is an especially interesting hybrid of Willy Wonka and Harald Dahl. Like Wonka, Grandmother thumps around the house with a "gold-topped cane" (46).5 Her eyes, as "bright as two stars" (123), resemble Wonka's "marvelously bright" eyes "sparkling and twinkling at you all the time" (Chocolate Factory 61). But Grandmother also goes through life with a missing thumb, much as Harald Dahl did without his left arm, and while Grandmother only comes down with pneumonia, Harald Dahl died from it. Harald, Wonka, and Grand-mother thus seem to spring from shared and deep roots, and their distribution over many years suggests that Dahl continually reworked the same material, consciously or not, in an attempt to make metaphorical sense of it.
Equally present in The Witches is Dahl's preoccupation with horrific accidents and the trauma they induce in survivors. In the book's most poignant passage (which Dahl sets off with italics), the hero, transformed into a mouse, meditates on his own lack of despair over the change. "What's so wonderful about being a little boy anyway?" he asks, "I know that mice get hunted and they sometimes get poisoned or caught in traps. But little boys sometimes get killed, too. Little boys can be run over by motorcars or they can die of some awful illness" (112). As already noted, even a short list of unfortunate ends contains the injury and/or death of Dahl's son, daughter, sister, and father. In another paper, I have discussed what I called the "Orpheus Complex," a personality dynamic in which writers stricken by loss also eventually respond to that loss with the creation of literature. In at least one detail Dahl conforms to that prototype, for he too "rewrote" trauma in attempting to discharge lingering grief and to repair fate's damage. Charlie 's controlled "accidents" no doubt made for a much more habitable world, however imaginary it may have been. In a review of The Witches, Erica Jong insightfully describes the book as "a parable about the fear of death as separation and a child's mourning for the loss of his parents," and goes on to note the book's psychologically beneficial effect: "It's a curious sort of tale but an honest one, which deals with matters of crucial importance to children: smallness, the existence of evil in the world…."
As we have seen, these "matters" were also crucially important to Dahl himself. To borrow the language of script theorist Silvan Tomkins, the unforeseen trauma motif found in Dahl's writing may be one of his "nuclear" scripts, expressing his "unwillingness to renounce or mourn," an "inability to recover what has become lost," and a disinclination to purify or integrate what had grown intolerably conflicted (197). According to Tomkins's system, we are all self-dramatizers engaged from the earliest weeks of life in a constant dramaturgical process of constructing personal worlds. Certain salient "happenings" get repeatedly edited into one or more core scripts. Apparently few in number and especially complex, these nuclear scripts emerge in the following way: something good turns bad, and negative affects predominate. When the individual tries to reverse, rehearse, avoid, undo, or repair the damage, a process of psychological magnification ensues, in which affect-laden scenes become interconnected as the person half-consciously perceives similarities between seemingly different experiences. The constellating power of the script makes it "nuclear"; it persists as a potent, vexingly recurrent problem, one not only repeatedly expressed, but also growing in scope and form, proliferating much like a cancer metastasizes.6
According to Rae Carlson—who has championed script theory perhaps more than any other practicing personologist—to be afflicted with a nuclear script is to be driven by a "demanding psychic agenda." In thrall to problems that can't be solved or let alone, in pursuit of the "ideal" scene, such people resort to "celebrating experiences in memory and imagination, fantasizing punishment of the oppressor, escaping their own sense of punishment, and imagining perfect endings" ("Personology" 5).
For Dahl, the losses of his sister and father could be originating events. Something good—an intact family—had suddenly turned bad, and as an adult writer of fiction, Dahl recurrently scripted and organized the damage via imaginative retellings. Just as he did, his heroes grapple with loss, managing in variously idealized ways to triumph, either by finding substitute parents more potent than the original ones, or by becoming the architects of their own fate. In the process, Dahl exacts revenge upon imagined oppressors, and in so doing concocts relatively perfect endings. But in addition to tending toward over-generalization, nuclear scripts also afflict their author, envelop him, and demand his constant attention. Much like Freud's war veteran, dreaming ceaselessly of the same bloody battle, Dahl repeatedly turns to the same theme of loss and its repercussions, underscoring the "nuclear" nature of each of these efforts.
Of course, the form of return most liable to end the repetition once and for all would be a return to a time before birth, before emergence into narrative, and Dahl's universe is certainly filled with spaces which personologist Henry Murray has called "claustral"—enclosed, womb-resembling. To take only one of the more extreme examples, in the early James and the Giant Peach, the orphaned hero crawls into a hole in the side of the fruit, which upon further explanation proves to be a "damp and murky" tunnel: "and all around him there was the curious bittersweet smell of fresh peach…. The walls were wet and sticky, and the peach juice was dripping from the ceiling" (25). In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, references to tunnels, corridors, valves, tubes, pipes, and the like, through which the characters continuously get pushed and pulled, are so plentiful that it seems more economical to represent them through a summary rather than a catalog. Though crowds at the gate push to get in, Wonka ushers only the children through, promising that "it's nice and warm inside" (64). The first of many corridors is "so wide that a car could easily have been driven along it." Its walls are "pale pink," the lighting "soft and pleasant" (65). "How lovely and warm," whispers Charlie. All the passages slope downward, deep beneath the surface, leading to rooms larger than football fields. As Wonka explains, "underneath the ground, I've got all the space I want. There's no limit—so long as I hollow it out" (67).
The group hustles and bustles along towards the "nerve center," accompanied by a great deal of pushing and shoving. "Enormous pipes" dangle down from the center's ceiling, draining into the chocolate river. Here Augustus gets stuck in a pipe, and while his father wonders "how that pipe is big enough for him to go through it," the people "could see the chocolate swishing around the boy, and they could see it building up behind him in a solid mass, pushing against the blockage." The terrific pressure meant that "something had to give," and in this case "that something was Augustus" (80). Or as Wonka drolly explains: "Augustus has gone on a little journey, that's all. A most interesting little journey" (80).
The group boards a boat made of glistening pink glass, and sails to "some kind of dark tunnel," which turns out to be a "gigantic pipe." After "rocketing along at a furious pace," the group disembarks at the "Inventing Room," where Wonka's ideas are born. Pipes run all over the ceiling and walls. Wonka proudly introduces the gum machine, which rumbles and steams and shakes most frighteningly, then emits "a monstrous mighty groan, and at the same moment a tiny drawer popped out of the side of the machine, and in the drawer there lay something so small and thin and gray that everyone thought it must be a mistake" (98-99). Exit Violet Beauregarde. Shortly thereafter, Veruca Salt disappears down a garbage chute. "Endless pink corridors" follow (110), the claustral imagery building up until the great glass elevator—with its button reading UP AND OUT—signals Charlie's psychological rebirth.
And yet, the overall effect of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory appeals less to the themes of birth or rebirth than to an effort to seek enclosure, to return to the womb. Characters are constantly pushing and shoving into smaller and smaller spaces, seeking that warmly pink, pleasant containment. As it turns out, the claustral imagery of Dahl's fictional world had a counterpart in life—the garden shed which served as his writing hut. "For much of his life," as Treglown notes, Dahl spent several hours each day "snugly wrapped in a sleeping bag, sitting in an old arm chair, his feet on a trunk which was filled with blocks of wood and tied to the leg of the chair, to prevent it from slipping. Here he transported himself back to his earliest infancy. Even beyond" (111). Dahl agreed with this interpretation of his shed: "It's small and tight and dark and the curtains are always drawn and it's a kind of womb—you go up here and you disappear and get lost" (qtd. in Treglown 111). In fact, Dahl elevates the imagery of the shed into the necessary condition for a writer of fiction, for that "secret side" of the artist, "which comes out in him only after he has closed the door of his workroom and is completely alone. It is then that he slips into another world altogether, a world where his imagination takes over and he finds himself actually living in the places he is writing about at that moment. I myself, if you want to know, fall into a kind of trance, and everyone around me disappears" ("Lucky" 196). When confronted with tragedy, Dahl turned to the shed as a place of refuge. Following Theo's accident in America, Dahl insisted that the family return to England, "where he could escape into the security of his shed" (Treglown 141). In that shed, that womb, "after nine months of hard work," Dahl wrote much of the Charlie story (Charlie's Secret Chocolate Book 3). The book's claustral imagery, then, can be seen as a kind of recapitulation of Dahl's working environment. He writes of the womb from a womb.
Murray described various claustral complexes. The simple claustral complex, for instance, is "constellated about the wish to reinstate the conditions similar to those prevailing before birth," and is "organized by an unconscious desire to re-experience the state of being that existed before birth" (363). Typically small, warm, dark, secluded, safe, private, or concealing, claustral spaces, according to Murray, are often huts, soundproof dens, or even tunnels—one of his subjects declares "I loved to build tunnels" (366). As a child Dahl used to hide in a tree to write his diary, and when he went to Repton, his English Public School, he found isolation in a photography darkroom (Treglown 111). Murray's description of desirable locations seems to echo Dahl's description of his shed: "a subject with this complex is attracted to, seeks, or if not found, builds such objects, and is inclined to enter them and remain in them for some time, secluded from others" (366). Once fixated on such "habitation or sanctuary," the subject "hates to leave it or to move to another house" (364). Dahl had adapted his "marvelous, isolated, quiet" shed to write in; he was rarely disturbed there, and returned to it in times of particular stress.
Murray notes that claustral complexes also express themselves through the cathection—the strong attraction—of both death and the past, prominent topics in much of Dahl's writing. Dahl certainly used his shed in order to "commemorate, and fantasize about, his past" (Treglown 111), assembling on a side table his father's paper knife, souvenirs from North Africa, a heavy ball made out of wrappings of chocolate bars, and even shards of himself—his own femur and fragments of his spine, saved from operations. Dahl valued the hut because it afforded him the chance to "disappear" and "get lost," to slip into another world, leading to the trancelike state of the writer's "secret side" and beyond, for those who seek claustra often desire to lose individual identity by separating from others and merging with the infinite—what Murray terms the "cathection of Nirvana."
I believe, therefore, that a good case can be made for rooting the Charlie books' profusion of womb metaphors in features of Dahl's personality: his tendency, perhaps born of trauma, to seek succor, to avoid harm, and effectively to lose himself in claustral spaces like the writing hut. Just as in the act of creation, the metaphor of the womb encircled his imagination, so too did the hut enclose him physically, entrancing him. But another, still more immediate variable may also have focused his attention upon tubes, valves, tunnels, and the like. Dating the composition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a difficult task, but according to Treglown's estimates, Dahl had finished the first draft of a story called "Charlie's Chocolate Boy" toward the end of August 1960. Available biographical materials shed very little light on this work, although judging from the title alone, it must have differed significantly from the eventual book. We do know that Dahl sent a revised draft of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory off to Knopf more than two years after Theo's accident, which occurred in the Fall of 1960. Therefore, although we don't know how much of the specific content of the Charlie book took form after the accident to Dahl's son, we are safe in asserting that Dahl worked on a significant portion of the book after the traumatic incident occurred. And so the question arises: How might Theo's misfortune have influenced Dahl's use of claustral imagery?
One result of Theo's injuries was that he developed hydrocephalus. To drain the buildup of cerebrospinal fluid, surgeons ran a thin tube with a one-way valve from his head into a vein, from which the fluid got dispersed into the bloodstream (Treglown 138). But this tube constantly clogged, each time at great threat to Theo's life, and each time requiring another operation to change the tube and valve. According to Treglown, Dahl "studied the problem incessantly," and eventually, in cooperation with Kenneth Till, a neurosurgical consultant, designed a prototype device. An engineering firm with which a friend of Dahl's had connections carried out free experiments, and in June 1962—several months before Dahl delivered his revised draft of Charlie —a Dahl-Till Valve was inserted into a child's head. As Treglown notes, "Some people still have it in their heads today" (144).
Theo's clogged valve therefore became a source of extreme anxiety for Dahl, and it pushed him into finding a solution for the problem—a solution which required constant thought about valves, tubes, tunnels, and passageways. For much of his life, Dahl had dreamed of being an inventor, and of glorious inventions and inventing rooms. At the most propitious time imaginable, then, Dahl both became an inventor and invented one, in the figure of Willy Wonka. Given Theo's condition, all the claustral imagery, all the tight spaces and clogged passageways, take on a new meaning. Even Augustus Gloop's predicament seems weirdly poignant in context. "He's blocked the whole pipe," Grandpa Joe exclaims; "Smash the pipe," implores Mrs. Gloop. Claustral themes, therefore, seem perfectly appropriate for two very different reasons—one deeply unconscious and personological, and the other immediate, situational, and to a greater degree conscious. The womb offered relief, as a constellating nuclear script, a palliative for presently felt fear, and a source of study for making things better.
From a psychobiographical perspective, then, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a kind of allegorical summary of many of the topics Dahl returned to throughout his writing life—the search for a father replacement, the effort to master fate, and the need to find succor and avoid harm through the pursuit of claustral spaces (perhaps nuclear scripts all). Whether he knew it or not, Dahl must have felt compelled to revisit the same territory over and over again, at times for the sake of simple repetition—that is, neurotically, to no benefit—at other times as part of an unconsciously rooted effort to master turbulent emotions or repair psychological damage. The fact that Dahl wrote a sequel to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory —something he did not do for any other book, despite various financial incentives—suggests that he may have had unfinished business to attend to.
Freud apparently told H. D. that dreams sometimes revealed a "corner," a point of convergence between vectors (Lohser and Newton 43), and of course, for Freud, writing was a kind of day-dreaming and the written work a dream, condensed and displaced. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Dahl dreamed of a father who made a world that was fair and wonderful. Wonka's fervid inventiveness rendered loss unimaginable, or at least easily overcome. For once, reality made sense; chance only masqueraded as chance, and accidents were all well rehearsed. "Shocking" as they are, the disappearances point not towards a world unrestrained, but towards a just universe watchfully maintained. Predictability, not inscrutability, thus ultimately reigns supreme. Because Dahl creates in Wonka an authorial double who scripts events that Dahl invents, chance doesn't stand a chance, pulverized by both a fictional author and by an author of a fictional author. If Dahl ever lost control, then Wonka would not, and vice versa.
It's hard to imagine a less capricious universe.
Author's Note: Thanks to the Winter 1997 Psychobiography Seminar at Pacific University, before which many of these ideas found their initial form; to Selene Crompton, for the long conversation; and to Rae Carlson, for supplying me with additional material on nuclear scripts. And as always, I am grateful for Alan Elms' predictably judicious reading of an early draft.
1. The departures are all the more significant because Dahl himself wrote the screenplay, apparently along with much rewriting by uncredited others (Treglown 188-90).
2. Dahl seems aware of Mr. Bucket's meager role. In the Glass Elevator, after Mr. Bucket asks a question of no one in particular, Dahl-as-author intrudes to note that Mr. Bucket is speaking for the first time.
3. Another father connection might have sneaked into the screenplay of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. In a peripheral subplot, a minor character whose wealthy husband has been kidnapped, urges investigators, "All I want is to have Harold back!" It's impossible to imagine Dahl writing such a line without thinking of his father.
4. Later, only days after Dahl had sent off a revised draft of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, his daughter Olivia died of measles, leaving him almost mad with grief. She was seven, the same age his sister Astri had been when she died.
5. That he puts canes in the hands of such deeply loved characters is worth noting, for both in Boy and "Lucky Break," his story of how he came to be a writer, Dahl goes on at great length about his and his friends' canings at the hands of assorted Headmasters. "The fear of the dreaded cane hung over us like the fear of death all the time," he explains, "That cruel cane ruled our lives." Absorbing the cane into the characters of Wonka and Grandmother would appear to strip it of some of its fearsomeness.
6. For detailed discussion of these and additional criteria of nuclear scripts, see Carlson "Exemplary" and "Studies."
Alexander, Irving E. "Personality, Psychological Assessment, and Psychobiography." Journal of Personality 56.1 (Mar. 1988): 265-94.
Carlson, Rae. "Exemplary Lives: The Use of Psychobiography for Theory Development." Journal of Personality 56.1 (Mar. 1988): 105-38.
――――――. "Studies in Script Theory: I. Adult Analogs of a Childhood Nuclear Scene." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 40.3 (Mar. 1981): 501-10.
Dahl Roald. Boy. New York: Penguin, 1984.
――――――. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. 1964. New York: Puffin, 1988.
――――――. Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. 1972. New York: Puffin, 1988.
――――――. Charlie's Secret Chocolate Book. New York: Puffin, 1997.
――――――. Danny the Champion of the World. New York: Knopf, 1975.
――――――. James and the Giant Peach. 1961. New York: Puffin, 1988.
――――――. "Lucky Break." The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More. 1977. New York: Puffin, 1988. 172-205.
――――――. The Witches. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1983.
Jong, Erica. "The Boy Who Became a Mouse." New York Times Book Review 13 Nov. 1983: 45.
Lohser, Beate, and Peter M. Newton. Unorthodox Freud: The View from the Couch. New York: Guilford, 1996.
Murray, Henry A. Explorations in Personality: A Clinical and Experimental Study of Fifty Men of College Age. 1938. New York: Oxford UP, 1953.
Schultz, William Todd. "An 'Orpheus Complex' in Two Writers-of-Loss." Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly 19.4 (Fall 1996): 371-93.
Tomkins, Silvan. "Script Theory." The Emergence of Personality. Ed. Joel Aronoff, Albert I. Rabin, and Robert A. Zucker. New York: Springer, 1987. 147-216.
Treglown, Jeremy. Roald Dahl: A Biography. San Diego: Harcourt, Brace, 1994.
FANTASTIC MR. FOX (1970)
Margaret Mary Kimmel (review date 1983)
SOURCE: Kimmel, Margaret Mary. Review of Fantastic Mr. Fox, by Roald Dahl, illustrated by Donald Chaffin. In For Reading Out Loud!: A Guide to Sharing Books with Children, pp. 90-1. New York, N.Y.: Delacorte Press, 1983.
Take three rich, greedy, and disgusting villains, pit them against a charming, clever fellow whose only crime is trying to feed his engaging family, and you have a story [Fantastic Mr. Fox ] certain to appeal to primary-grade children—and their big sisters and brothers. Dahl's pell-mell plot in which the three farmers Boggis, Bunce, and Bean destroy the countryside in their attempt to exterminate the fox family will capture children's attention immediately. The complete triumph of the fantastic Mr. Fox will leave them cheering.
Adults should be forewarned of Dahl's crude vulgarity. The villains pick their noses with filthy fingers, call each other rude names, and generally serve to set off by contrast the loving and mannerly hero.
This is flamboyant entertainment in the "Perils of Pauline" tradition, and Dahl is a master of it. The eighteen chapters are very short. Plan to read several in each session. Total reading time is under two hours.
DANNY THE CHAMPION OF THE WORLD (1975)
Zohar Shavit (essay date 1986)
SOURCE: Shavit, Zohar. "The Self-Image of Children's Literature: A Test Case: Roald Dahl's Danny the Champion of the World." In Poetics of Children's Literature, pp. 43-59. Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1986.
[In the following essay, Shavit explores how Dahl addresses his audience by contrasting two versions of the same story: Dahl's adult-oriented "The Champion of the World" and his more child-themed Danny the Champion of the World.]
The Text and the Implied Reader
Writers' descriptions of their work and their attitudes toward it can serve as a very good source for analyzing their self-image, but cannot serve as the ultimate evidence for manifestations of the self-image on the text. Once the question of the text arises, the texts themselves must be studied to inquire into their specific addressee. The structure of the specific addressee is, of course, best revealed when compared to that of the adult as implied reader. One can see the virtue of comparative analysis of texts transferred from the adult to the children's system (Gulliver's Travels and Robinson Crusoe, for instance), where the systematic constraints of the implied reader are responsible to a large extend for the transfer procedure. But comparison as such demands the elimination of other issues involved with the translation procedure before the question of the implied reader can be discussed (especially when a text is not only "translated" from adult to children's system, but also from one national literary system to another). Hence the best possible example for illustrating the point is a text that was written by the same writer for children and then for adults and exists at the same time within the literary polysystem.
This text, despite being a rare phenomenon, can serve as a good example to reveal the writer's constraints (regarding the child as an implied reader) because all the methodological eliminations required for such a comparative study preceded the text processing. In such a case, it is undoubtedly the writer's recognition of different implied readers that is responsible for the text's differences, and not the differences between two literary polysystems and their norms or different poetics of different writers. The trouble is, of course, the rarity of such cases. First of all, not many writers write for both children and adults. Secondly, if they do, as a result of being aware of the differences between the two readers, they write very different "stories."
Such a unique case does exist in Roald Dahl's "The Champion of the World," a story originally written for adults and published in his book Kiss Kiss (Dahl  1980). Later, Dahl rewrote the story as a novel for children entitled Danny the Champion of the World (Dahl  1977). Another good reason for choosing this text as a test case lies in its nonconventionality. In terms of the children's system, the text is not a standard text at all. Both its subject (poaching) and the relations described between father ("thief") and son are exceptional (In a private conversation with Mrs. Kay Webb, a former editor of Puffin Books, I was told that she questioned whether the book should be published at all, due to its "inappropriate" subject). Yet, this is exactly why Dahl's texts are interesting; when the non-conventional children's text is compared to the adult text, fundamental differences, which are undoubtedly the result of different implied readers, are revealed.
It is true that at first glance the two texts might seem very similar: both tell the story of fantastic poaching of pheasants and fantastic tricks that make the hero the champion of the world in poaching. Moreover, both are narrated in the first person. When analyzed, however, the two texts turn out to be quite distinct because one is much more complicated than the other. By saying that a text for adults is more complicated than one for children, I refer both to the organization of the various levels of the text, as well as to the interlevel relations. Hence in the text for adults, various levels are not organized according to the simplest (or most immediate) principle. For instance, the distribution of material is not chronological but is organized by the narrator's consciousness. On the other hand, the interlevel relations of the adult text are aimed at carrying more functions by fewer elements (for instance, the relations between the order of information and the narrator carry both the function of irony, the characterization of main characters, evaluation of poaching, and more).
The most obvious differences between the adult and children's versions are in the following aspects: genre (short story versus novel); characters and characterization (two friends versus father and son); attitudes (ambiguous attitudes versus unequivocal attitudes); and endings ("open" ending versus "happy" ending). These differences cannot be simply explained as the result of differences between the main characters, nor can they be accounted for simply as a difference between a short story and a novel. Both decisions concerning genre and characters (and consequently, attitudes and endings) were directly related to Dahl's original decision to "translate" the adult short story into a text for children. As a famous writer, Dahl could afford to write on "inappropriate" subjects and describe unusual relations between father and son. If he still wished to ensure the acceptance of the text by the children's system, however, he had to offer compensation for violating the rules by adapting both subject and characters to the children's code. Therefore, a certain change in direction was not a matter of free will but was imposed on the text due to its transfer to the children's system.
The most obvious step Dahl had to take was to "neutralize" the subject by legitimizing both the subject and the attitudes presented in the text. To do so, he had to enlarge the text to permit a different presentation. Therefore the first decision—that of a generic change—was made because of the need to have much more scope than the ambiguous and undetermined attitudes the adult short story required. Of course, the decision to turn it into a novel might have had commercial ground as well—novels sell better. But even if this were not the case, Dahl would still have had to make it into a novel if he desired to integrate different attitudes into the text. This point can be best illustrated by analyzing the narrator and the structure of the narration, the attitudes toward poaching, and the endings of each of the texts.
The Narrator and the Structure of Narration
Despite the fact that the two texts are narrated in the first person (and thus can be described as formally having the same point of view), they are totally different in the nature of the narrator, in his tone and attitude toward the story related, and in the distribution of material and order of information.
In both texts, almost the same information is related. Yet, the distribution of the information and its interpretation vary, aiming to achieve a different characterization of the narrator and to determine different value judgments. Hence, in the children's version, the narration is motivated by a realistic model, whereas in the adult version, the motivation is the narrator's own consciousness. Of course, both texts are reconstructions of events that happened to the narrator, or in Perry's words: "The narrating 'I' transmits the information to the reader 'now,' while following the sequence in which it had 'once' come to his knowledge as the experiencing 'I'" (1981, 38). Still, the adult version tries to mask the reconstruction (as opposed to the children's version, which emphasizes it) because it contributes to the retrospective judgment of the narrator. The narrator of the children's version tries to reconstruct his understanding as a child—not in order to question it—but rather to reinforce and justify it. In spite of the many years that have passed, he still identifies with the child's attitude toward his father. He still admires him and hardly criticizes him at all:
Because what I am trying to tell you …
What I have been trying so hard to tell you all along is simply that my father, without the slightest doubt, was the most marvelous and exciting father any boy ever had.
(Danny the Champion, 173)
The adult version, in attempting to mask the reconstruction, emphasizes the limited consciousness of the narrator by creating the impression that the information is given in the very same order it occurred, without judging it in retrospect. This is done by opening "in medias res," by motivating the order of information purely on the narrator's consciousness and by emphasizing the narrator's lack of information. Thus, the story opens just before the two friends are about to leave for their night adventure: "All day, in between serving customers, we had been crouching over the table in the office of the filling station, preparing the raisins" (Kiss Kiss, 206). From this point on, the night's events unfold, as seen through the eyes of one of the two friends—Gordon. The children's version, on the other hand, opens in the earliest possible point of time, mainly in order to create an all-knowing narrator: "When I was four months old, my mother died suddenly and my father was left to look after me all by himself" (Danny the Champion, 7). The narrator of the children's version possesses all the information and the ability to understand and evaluate not only the story told, but also the behavior of the world. He is not only authoritative, but patronizing as well. When he is not sure his reader can follow him, he bothers to explain what life is all about, as indicated in the following examples:
So watch out, I say, when someone smiles at you with his mouth but his eyes stay the same. It's sure to be a phony.
(Danny the Champion, 13)
Most of the really exciting things we do in our lives scare us to death. They wouldn't be exciting if they didn't.
(Danny the Champion, 51)
In the adult version, however, the narrator sometimes lacks the information and sometimes even the ability to comprehend it. Frequently, the text emphasizes his lack of information by leaving events unexplained, at least until the narrator comes to understand them. For instance, Gordon knows that Claud comes back empty-handed and that the next day there will be something like pheasant to eat. Only very late does he understand the connection between the two (poaching pheasants and fooling the keepers), and only later is this mystery solved in the text: "He seldom came back until very late, and never, absolutely never, did he bring any of the spoils with him personally on his return. But the following afternoon—and I couldn't imagine how he did it—there would always be a pheasant or a hare or a brace of partridges hanging up in the shed behind the filling station for us to eat" (Kiss Kiss, 208-9).
The authoritative narrator of the children's version never reveals such ignorance. He never leaves events unexplained only to have them explained later. Almost everything is explained, and usually in unequivocal terms. Moreover, the narrator always puts himself in position to rightfully judge whatever is told. This characterization of the narrator might have contradicted the other effect the text creates, that of reconstructing the child's point of view. In quite a few places, the text stresses the narrator's understanding as a child. For instance, when Danny first finds out about poaching, the text reconstructs his astonishment at the time: "I was shocked. My own father a thief! This gentle, lovely man! I couldn't believe he would go creeping into the woods at night to pinch valuable birds belonging to somebody else" (Danny the Champion, 30). Another example is his fear when he does not find his father at home:
I looked in the office. I went around and searched behind the office and behind the workshop.
I ran down the field to the lavatory. It was empty.
"Dad!" I shouted into the darkness. "Dad! Where are you?"…
I stood in the dark caravan and for the first time in my life I felt a touch of panic.
(Danny the Champion, 27-28)
However, this potential contradiction is not used by the text for creating complex attitudes because the adult narrator practically accepts all of the child's view. The whole idea of introducing two points of view was not aimed at creating clashes; on the contrary, it was brought up for the sake of reinforcing and justifying the narrator's attitude toward his father. In the whole text there is not even a single phrase where the distance in time is used to illuminate a different view that he held as a child, nor even to contradict an earlier view. The distance in time between the narrator and the narrated story only emphasizes the fact that time has not changed his attitude toward whatever happened. Only when it is compared to the adult version does the function of the distance in time become clear. In the latter, it is of a different nature: the narrator does not identify with the story told, and the clash of attitudes between Gordon and Claud creates the ironical tone of the text.
Hence, what constitutes the basis for any literary work—the reconstruction of events—is used by both adult and children's versions to achieve different evaluations of the narration and consequently different tones. This is best reflected in an examination of the handling of the main issue, poaching, in both texts.
Attitudes toward Poaching
In the adult version the two friends do not share the same attitude toward poaching. While Claud is very enthusiastic about poaching and regards it as a prime symbol of wit and cleverness, Gordon is, at best, indifferent. Thus, for instance, Claud is very proud of his methods of poaching, while Gordon does not hesitate to remark that he suspects their originality and effectiveness (remarks which Claud ignores either because he is too dumb to understand or because he deliberately wishes to avoid them):
"You pay out the line about fifty yards and you lie there on your stomach in the bushes waiting till you get a bite. Then you haul him in."
"I don't think your father invented that one."
"It's very popular with fishermen," he said, choosing not to hear me.
"What is Method Number Three?" I asked.
"Ah," he said. "Number Three's a real beauty. It was the last one my dad ever invented before he passed away."
"His final great work?"
(Kiss Kiss, 212)
The clashes between the two friends—Gordon understands ironically, or he is, at least, very skeptical of that which Claud takes seriously—contributes to the ironical tone of the text (which is also the result of the distance between the narrator and the narrated story). Such an ambiguous attitude is inconceivable in terms of the children's system, which assumes that children cannot comprehend such complex relations and therefore require unequivocal ones. Hence, in the children's version, Danny and his father share a single attitude—both are excited and enthusiastic. When they leave for poaching, his father asks:
"How do you feel, Danny?"
"Terrific," I said. And I meant it. For although the snakes were still wiggling in my stomach, I wouldn't have swapped places with the King of Arabia at that moment.
Moreover, Danny remarks on his father as follows: "I could see my father becoming more and more twitchy as the excitement began to build up in him" (Danny the Champion, 111-12). The need to determine unequivocal attitudes on the one hand and to set father on the "good side," to present him in positive terms on the other, leads to a long series of legitimations of poaching in the children's version. While the adult version encourages ambiguous values and evaluates poaching ambiguously, the children's version presents it unequivocally in black and white. The opposition between good and bad (particularly in the evaluation of poaching), deliberately blurred in the adult version, becomes delineated in the children's version.
In the adult version, poaching moves along on an axis that has two poles—from crime to sport. At first the information presented by the narrator creates the impression that the two friends, Gordon and Claud, are about to do something sinister, very close to crime. But nothing is really determined yet. If the reader builds the hints scattered in the text into a definite structure, he might as well have expected a gun. But, surprisingly enough these hints end up dissolving in the relatively harmless sequence of "poaching with the help of raisins." However, this quite harmless structure appears in the text as a better organizing structure only after the "criminal" option is built into the text:
"What's under there?" I asked.
… "To carry the stuff," he said darkly.
"Let's go," he said.
"I still think we ought to take the car."
"It's too risky. They'll see it parked."
"But it's three miles up the wood."
"Yes," he said. "And I suppose you realize we can get six months in the clink if they catch us."
(Kiss Kiss, 207, my italics)
By the time the reader eventually finds out that it is nothing really criminal and that the story refers to poaching only, the sense of something criminal has already been built into the text, and despite its negation, it still attributes a negative value to poaching.
In the children's version, the very device of constructing options to be cancelled later is impossible, because the text, by its very nature, cannot permit multifaceted opinions. Yet, it should be noted that the option to consider poaching in terms of a crime is not avoided; on the contrary, it is presented in the text mainly in order to reject it and to give way to the other ultimate option, namely, the legitimation of poaching. At first the text does not avoid the possibility that poaching constitutes stealing, and Danny is even shocked by the discovery about his father:
"You mean stealing them?" I said, aghast.
"We don't look at it that way," my father said.
"Poaching is an art."
(Danny the Champion, 30)
However, quite soon after, Danny accepts his father's view in the same way he accepts anything else: "Yes, I believe you" (Danny the Champion, 32). This acceptance becomes possible thanks to the buildup of Danny's father, as well as to the order of the narration.
The story does not begin with the mysterious preparations for poaching as does the adult version; rather, the first chapters give a very positive buildup of the father. He is portrayed as an honest man, universally liked and adored by his son as the best possible father, even when his son examines him in retrospect:
During my early years, I never had a moment's unhappiness or illness.
(Danny the Champion, 8)
My father without the slightest doubt was the most marvelous and exciting father any boy ever had.
He was a marvelous story teller.
My father was a fine mechanic. People who lived miles away used to bring their cars to him for repair rather than take them to the nearest garage.
It was impossible to be bored in my father's company.
So you can see that being eight years old and living with my father was a lot of fun!
Only after the best possible buildup of the father is fabricated does the narrator bring up the subject of poaching as his father's "deep dark secret." But the option to regard it as "dark" and criminal is almost immediately rejected, because such a wonderful father could not possibly be involved in something dark or criminal. From this point on, until the end of the story, poaching is justified in various ways. Hence, once the alternative of viewing poaching as stealing is rejected, the other option is accepted; this, of course, stands in contrast to the adult version in which an ambiguous evaluation of poaching, either as a game or as stealing, is maintained continuously and simultaneously.
How is the legitimation of poaching achieved? Undoubtedly, Dahl's decision to legitimize poaching meant that he had to strive for a sound justification of poaching in order to alter its normal reputation, which usually is very close to crime. This can perhaps explain why he chose to justify poaching on the basis of at least three alternative and mutually reinforcing value systems. Poaching is presented in the children's version both as a local game that has its own code of conduct as well as an act of social justice. And, if that is not enough, it is also motivated by the legitimate desire for revenge by the father. Dahl's efforts to justify poaching in all possible ways is made clear when compared to the attitudes toward poaching in the adult version. Here, poaching has almost no justification and is presented as a sort of obsession: "He was more purposeful about it now, more tightlipped and intense than before, and I had the impression that this was not so much a game any longer as a crusade, a sort of private war that Claud was waging single-handed against an invisible and hated enemy" (Kiss Kiss, 209). Its possible social justification is only hinted at, but this option (as with any other option in the adult version) is not developed. For example, Claud remarks in one passage: "I had heard it said that the cost of rearing and keeping each pheasant up to the time when it was ready to be shot was well over five pounds (which is approximately the price of two hundred loaves of bread)" (Kiss Kiss, 216). The possibility of regarding poaching as a local game is limited to Claud's point of view and is not reinforced by anyone else. In fact, Claud does claim that everybody is involved with poaching, thus encouraging the idea of poaching as a game. Nevertheless, even his best friend, Gordon, is involved only for the first time, and the only one proven to have been involved was Claud's good-for-nothing father, a fact that only reinforces Gordon's skeptical view, who remarks:
"I thought you said your dad was a drunk."
"Maybe he was. But he was also a great poacher, Gordon. Possibly the greatest there's ever been in the history of England. My dad studied poaching like a scientist."
"Is that so?"
"I mean it. I really mean it."
(Kiss Kiss, 210-11)
In the children's version, all three justifications—social justice, revenge, and local game, which were only hinted at in the adult version—become definite and terminal. The element of social justice appears in the following sequence: when explaining to Danny what poaching is all about, his father claims that historically poaching was the way hungry people managed to feed their families and hence was socially justified. Poaching is thus represented as part of a conflict between social classes: "'Let me tell you about this phony pheasant-shooting business,' he said. 'First of all, it is practiced only by the rich. Only the very rich can afford to rear pheasants just for the fun of shooting them down when they grow up. These wealthy idiots spend huge sums of money every year buying baby pheasants from pheasant farms and rearing them in pens until they are big enough to be put out into the woods" (Danny the Champion, 32-33). Poaching also represents the only honorable way for poor people to feed their families:
Mind you, in those days, just about every man in our village was out in the woods at night poaching pheasants. And they did it not only because they loved the sport but because they needed food for their families. When I was a boy, times were bad for a lot of people in England. There was very little work to be had anywhere, and some families were literally starving. Yet a few miles away in the rich man's wood, thousands of pheasants were being fed like kings twice a day.
(Danny the Champion, 30-31)
The element of revenge also surfaces in the children's text. But unlike the obsessive Claud of the adult version whose crusade is not really justified by the text, both father and son are enthusiastic (but not obsessively so) and seem to have good reason for their crusade. Danny's father declares war on Mr. Hazel (spelled Hazel in the adult text and Hazell in the children's) only after Mr. Hazel breaks the code of the game and humiliates Danny's father by making him fall into the pit, which was "the kind of trap hunters in Africa dig to catch wild animals" (Danny the Champion, 61). After the father manages to escape from the pit, Mr. Hazel continues to humiliate him daily:
"You know what makes me so hopping mad," he said to me all of a sudden. "I get up in the mornings feeling pretty good. Then around nine o'clock every single day of the week, that huge silver Rolls-Royce comes swishing past the filling station and I see the great big bloated face of Mr. Victor Hazell behind the wheel. I always see it. I can't help it. And as he passes by, he always turns his head in my direction and looks at me. But it's the way he looks at me that is so infuriating. There is a sneer under his nose and a smug little smirk around his mouth, and although I only see him for three seconds, it makes me madder than mackerel."
(Danny the Champion, 78-79)
The desire for revenge is strengthened both by the negative characterization of Mr. Hazel and by other people's disgust at Hazel's attempt to break the rules of the game. Thus, it is not only Danny's father who regards Mr. Hazel's pit as wrong; indeed, it is the respected doctor who describes it as "diabolical": "It's worse than that, William! It's diabolical! Do you know what this means? It means that decent folk like you and me can't even go out and have a little fun at night without risking a broken leg or arm" (Danny the Champion, 72). Even if Mr. Hazel had not broken the traditional rules of the game, he would have deserved revenge. The black-and-white characterization of the text leaves no doubt as to where he belongs. It is true that, in both texts, Mr. Hazel is characterized as snobbish and the worst kind of "nouveau riche." But, the source for this description in the adult version is the limited consciousness of the narrator, while the children's version deliberately reinforces the narrator's view of Mr. Hazel by other respectable views, such as the doctor's. There is no doubt that Mr. Hazel is nasty to everybody, boys and dogs included:
"No," my father said, "I do not like Mr. Victor Hazell one little bit. I haven't forgotten the way he spoke to you last year when he came in for a fill-up."
I hadn't forgotten it either…. "Fill her up and look sharp about it…. And keep your filthy little hands to yourself…."
"… If you make any dirty fingermarks on my paintwork," he said, "I'll step right out of this car and give you a good hiding."
(Danny the Champion, 42)
Moreover, Mr. Hazel was also nasty to the doctor's dog: "I saw him get out, and I also saw my old dog Bertie dozing on the doorstep. And do you know what this loathsome Victor Hazell did? Instead of stepping over old Bertie, he actually kicked him out of the way with his riding boot" (Danny the Champion, 72-73). Apparently, he did not hesitate to cause troubles and make life difficult for Danny and his father: "There was little doubt, my father said, that the long and powerful arm of Mr. Hazell was reaching out behind the scenes and trying to run us off our land" (Danny the Champion, 44).
Furthermore, Mr. Hazel did not hesitate to break the traditional game, which had risks, rewards, and rigid rules known to all the village people (whose view the text ultimately adopts). Unlike the adult version, in the children's version practically everybody participates in poaching and therefore approves of it. Dahl is careful to pick up representatives of different classes so that no one (except for the "nouveau riche" Hazel) escapes poaching, not the doctor, not the vicar's wife, nor even the school headmaster. The following passage reveals the wide spread of "culpability," even of respected figures:
"Dad," I said, "What on earth are you going to do with all these pheasants?"
"Share them out among our friends," my father said. "There's a dozen of them for Charlie [the driver] here to start with…."
"Then there'll be a dozen for Doc Spencer. And another dozen for Enoch Samways—"
"You don't mean Sergeant Samways?" I gasped….
Sergeant Enoch Samways, as I knew very well, was the village policeman.
(Danny the Champion, 138)
Hence, even the respected representative of the law—Sergeant Samways—is involved. To Danny's even greater astonishment, the vicar's wife also participates in the village activity:
"Mrs. Clipstone delivers everyone's pheasants," my father said. "Haven't I told you that?"
"No, Dad, you haven't," I said, aghast. I was now more stunned than ever.
(Danny the Champion, 139)
In fact, he ultimately spurns the possibility that poaching be regarded as a crime. Moreover, Mrs. Clipstone's involvement almost makes it into a social must. Again, what has been only hinted at in the adult version—the option of regarding poaching as a local game with its own code—becomes in the children's version definite and terminal.
Attitudes toward poaching are at the core of both texts, though in each they are used for different purposes. In the adult version, they illustrate the relationship between two friends—one stupid and obsessive, and the other one (from whose point of view the narration takes place) smart and ironical. In the children's version, attitudes toward poaching are used to expose unusual relations between father and son. However, the children's version strives to legitimize whatever the father does and endeavors to leave no open questions—hence, the multiple motivations and justifications of poaching in the children's version. This opposition between a text with strongly justified motivations and a text without such is best illustrated when the two endings are compared.
The Two Endings
At first glance, the ending of the children's version might look unconventional—it is not the traditional "good ending" of a children's story. Perhaps Bashevis-Singer's words best reflect that traditional approach: "I try to give a happy ending to a story for a child because I know how sensitive a child is. If you tell a child that a murderer or a thief was never punished or never caught, the child feels that there is no justice in the world altogether" (1977, 12-13). In the children's version, Dahl's ending appears to break with conventional endings as the father's beneficent plans are not fully accomplished. Thus, a whole year's supply of pheasants is lost as Danny's and his father's methods fail—the sleeping pills dissolve and Mrs. Clipstone's poor baby is beaten terribly by the awakening pheasants, a scene which is both comic and frightening at the same time.
Danny's father is also mocked for the first time at the story's end, his "ingenious" idea to carry the pheasants during the daytime through the village turns out to be a catastrophe:
"There's only one way of delivering pheasants safely," he said, "and that's under a baby…."
"Fantastic!" the doctor said….
"It's brilliant," Doc Spencer said. "Only a brilliant mind could think of a thing like that."…
"There's more than one hundred pheasants under that little nipper," my father said happily.
(Danny the Champion, 147)
"He'll be having a very comfortable ride today, young Christopher," my father said.
"She seems in an awful hurry, Dad," I said. "She's sort of half running."…
"Perhaps she doesn't want to be caught in the rain," he said. "I'll bet that's exactly what it is."…
"She could put the hood up," I said.
He didn't answer this….
My father stood very still, staring at her….
"What's up, Dad?"
He didn't reply.
My father let out a cry of horror….
"Great Scott!" Doc Spencer said. I know what's happened!
It's the sleeping pills! They're wearing off!"
My father didn't say a word.
"They nearly pecked him to pieces!" she was crying, clasping the screaming baby to her bosom.
While the ending might appear unconventional in terms of the children's system, when compared to the adult version, it is clear that Dahl deliberately tried to transform it into a "good" ending. The constraints of the implied reader in the children's version are particularly evident as opposed to the open endings of the adult version. In the former, the narrator pulls together all the threads; poetic justice is done, no issue remains open. In the adult version, however, the story opens and ends "in medias res." It ends when the two friends, with a bitter sense of failure, close the filling station and leave the place, only hinting that Mr. Hazel's shooting party was ruined. But except for that subtle suggestion, they get nothing. They do not have a chance to see that their revenge was successful, nor do they even get any pheasants to eat. In contrast stands the children's version, in which the shooting party was ruined with "all those fancy folk … driving in from miles around in their big shiny cars and there won't be a blinking bird anywhere for them to shoot" (Danny the Champion, 138). In addition, Mr. Hazel is publicly mocked and his precious car is damaged. The justice of revenge is thus fully accomplished:
They were all over the roof and the bonnet, sliding and slithering and trying to keep a grip on that beautifully polished surface. I could hear their sharp claws scraping into the paintwork as they struggled to hang on, and already they were depositing their dirty droppings all over the roof….
In less than a minute, the Rolls was literally festooned with pheasants, all scratching and scrabbling and making their disgusting runny messes over the shiny silver paint. What is more, I saw at least a dozen of them fly right inside the car through the open door by the driver's seat. Whether or not Sergeant Samways had cunningly steered them in there himself, I didn't know.
(Danny the Champion, 160-61)
It also seems that Dahl did not wish to leave the beloved characters with the slightest sense of failure, only to laugh at them a little. Hence, unlike the adult version, where the ingenious device totally fails and all the pheasants fly away, in the children's version, Dahl finds a way to leave some pheasants for a good feast. The dear doctor manages to find a way to hide some and everybody gets his share: "'Two for you, Grace, to keep the vicar in a good mood,' Doc Spencer said. 'Two for Enoch for all the fine work he did this morning. And two for William and Danny, who deserve them most of all.'" (Danny the Champion, 167). Moreover, Dahl ends the adult version with an ominous phrase:
"You go on home, Bessie," Claud said, white in the face.
"Lock up," I said. "Put out the sign. We've gone for the day."
(Kiss Kiss, 233)
But the narrator of the children's version concludes the story as follows: "What I have been trying so hard to tell you all along is simply that my father, without the slightest doubt, was the most marvelous and exciting father any boy ever had" (Danny the Champion, 173).
The differences described above between the two versions result from Dahl's preliminary assumptions about different implied readers in each of the texts. These assumptions led to the most fundamental differentiation between the two—the generic. The decision to adapt the short story into a novel was imposed on the text because of the need to present poaching in the children's version as a well-justified and properly motivated activity. This decision resulted in both central and peripheral structural differences between the adult and the children's versions, which were all rooted in the assumptions about a different potential realization of the text. This difference in potential realization encouraged each text to differentiate in the following aspects: the narrator (limited and ironical versus authoritative and identifying); and the structure of narration (different distribution of material resulting in different structuring of the texts; complex process of filling gaps versus a simple one). The need to change the value judgment of the adult version was another outcome of Dahl's assumptions about potential realization. Dahl could not afford to leave the ambiguous values and characterizations present in the adult version; such a presentation would be inconceivable in terms of the children's system, as children are supposed to understand only unequivocal attitudes. Hence, the text for children offers a clear opposition between "bad" and "good," and the characterization is of a black-and-white nature.
The analysis of Dahl's texts was presented in order to illustrate how assumptions about the formal addressee impose constraints on a text, even when the text is not conventional within the children's system. No doubt these constraints, so powerful and demanding, are the prime reasons for the reluctance of writers to admit to being children's writers and thus contribute, in large measure, to the reinforcement of the poor self-image of the children's system.
Dahl, Roald.  1980. "The Champion of the World." In Kiss Kiss. London: Penguin, 206-33.
――――――.  1977. Danny the Champion of the World. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Puffin Book.
ROALD DAHL'S REVOLTING RHYMES (1982)
David Furniss (essay date 2002)
SOURCE: Furniss, David. "Keeping Their Parents Happy: Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes." In Censored Books II: Critical Viewpoints, 1985–2000, edited by Nicholas J. Karolides, pp. 351-56. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2002.
[In the following essay, Furniss defends Dahl's Revolting Rhymes against critics, noting while that Dahl's humorously grotesque stories are meant to entertain, they still offer positive elements for those willing to look past their seemingly subversive aspects.]
I guess you think you know this story.
You don't. The real one's much more gory.
The phoney one, the one you know,
Was cooked up years and years ago,
And made to sound all soft and sappy
Just to keep the children happy.
So begins Roald Dahl's "revolting" retelling of "Cinderella," but in fact, I'd say that these lines are an appropriate introduction to all of Revolting Rhymes, Dahl's satiric take on six classic stories for children: "Cinderella," "Jack and the Beanstalk," "Snow White," "Goldilocks and the Three Bears," "Little Red Riding Hood," and "The Three Little Pigs." While not all of the tales are as "gory" as the first one, in which the Prince chops off the heads of Cinderella's two stepsisters, all echo the sentiment expressed in the six lines above: there's more to these stories than the little-kid versions will tell us. As I will argue later, I believe that Dahl had in mind an audience in the later primary grades and above, still young but ready to move beyond simple and "safe" nursery rhymes and Disney-treated fairy tales, readers discovering the delights of irony and parody, of poking fun. And while the clear intent of the book is to entertain, the tales portray courageous and resourceful young people, not victims of wolves or evil witches.
We know, of course, that nursery rhymes and fairy tales are not really "safe"; at least earlier versions of them would not have earned the Disney seal of approval. In the Grimm telling of "Cinderella," for example, the evil stepsisters chop off their toes in order to slip into Cinderella's glass slippers, and later, birds pick out their eyes as they ride to Cinderella's wedding. A child in the eighteenth century might have heard about a girl in red who meets a wolf in the woods and then encounters him again at her grandmother's house, dressed in Grandmother's clothing. The climax is more "gory" and suggestive than in later retellings, including Dahl's: the girl removes her clothes at the wolf's request, whereupon the wolf eats her up. The French writer Charles Perrault is often credited or blamed for revising the Red Riding Hood story, along with other familiar tales such as "Cinderella" and "Sleeping Beauty," at the end of the seventeenth century. Disney's Cinderella drew on Perrault and gave us safe magic in the phrase "Bibbidy-bobbidy-boo."
While I doubt anyone would be troubled by Disney's fairy godmother, many have been outraged by Dahl's Witches, which was one of the ten most censored books between 1982 and 1994, according to the People For the American Way. While Witches is clearly the most controversial of Dahl's books, a quick look at the American Library Association's 1999 Banned Books Resource Guide shows several others have also been attacked: The BFG [Big Friendly Giant], Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Enormous Crocodile, George's Marvelous Machine, James and the Giant Peach, Matilda, The Minipins, Rhyme Stew, and of course, Revolting Rhymes. Dahl has been the particular target of censors in Stafford County, Virginia, who have repeatedly cited the author's work for "encouraging children to disobey their parents."
In the 1990s, Revolting Rhymes was attacked three times, according to the guide to banned books I cited above. Objections were raised to violence in the tales, the presence of witches, and the word "slut" in "Cinderella." A parent in Massachusetts claimed that the book was "offensive and inappropriate for children," which led to its removal in that community's elementary schools. The objectors in Stafford County apparently found no incitements to disobedience in this particular case, but still attacked the Revolting Rhymes for "spoofing" nursery rhymes.
Of course, the six tales in Revolting Rhymes are not nursery rhymes at all, nor are they the sort of stories that would appeal to the very young audience that reads nursery rhymes. As a matter of fact, children don't usually read nursery rhymes. To the charge that Revolting Rhymes are "spoofs," however, they must stand guilty: Dahl's purpose is quite obviously to satirize these folk tales. Each of them has one or more humorous twists on the familiar story. For example, Cinderella in the beginning is spoiled and demanding, not sweet and innocent. To the fairy she cries,
I want a dress! I want a coach!
And earrings and a diamond brooch!
And silver slippers, two of those!
And lovely nylon panty-hose!
Done up like that I'll guarantee
The handsome prince will fall for me!
Her ugly, evil stepsisters find her glass slipper on a case of beer after the ball and manage to switch one of their oversized shoes for it before the Prince comes along. When the Prince sees whom the shoe fits, he chops off her head and also that of the other stepsister. Cinderella experiences a change of heart: "How could I marry anyone who does that sort of thing for fun?" She asks the fairy to find her a "decent man," and is awarded a "lovely feller" who makes marmalade. The ending of this tale is familiar, not twisted: "Their house was filled with smiles and laughter. And they were happy ever after."
The twist in the Goldilocks story is that Goldilocks is the villain. Dahl tweaks both the tale and protective parents in the opening lines:
This famous wicked little tale
Should never have been put on sale.
It is a mystery to me
Why loving parents cannot see
That this is actually a book
About a brazen little crook.
Had I the chance I wouldn't fail
To clap young Goldilocks in jail.
After devouring the three bears' breakfast, breaking Baby Bear's chair (a precious antique), and soiling the sheets of their beds, Goldilocks gets hers:
"… go upstairs," the Big Bear said,
"Your porridge is upon the bed.
But as it's inside mademoiselle,
You'll have to eat her up as well."
In the Snow White story, the dwarfs are really ex-jockeys who have "one shocking vice": betting on horses. Snow White steals the magic mirror and asks it to reveal a secret, not who is fairest, but which horse will win the steeplechase. The mirror makes Snow White and the dwarfs rich:
Thereafter, every single day,
The mirror made the bookies pay.
Each Dwarf and Snow White got a share,
And each was soon a millionaire,
Which shows that gambling's not a sin
Provided that you always win.
It's perhaps surprising that no one has objected to the message in the last two lines, but then older readers may have to admit that Dahl has a point there.
Red Riding Hood appears in two of the tales. In the story that bears her name, she remains fully clothed, and rather than being eaten, she coolly shoots the wolf herself, changing her hood for a wolfskin coat. In the next tale, she receives a phone call for help from one of the Little Pigs, whose brothers have been eaten by a second big bad wolf. She obligingly shoots this one as well, but the story doesn't end there.
Ah, Piglet, you must never trust
Young ladies from the upper crust.
For now, Miss Riding Hood, one notes,
Not only has two wolfskin coats,
But when she goes from place to place,
She has a PIGSKIN TRAVELING CASE.
As for the story of Jack and his beanstalk, Jack's mean and abusive mother is the first to climb it. The Giant uses his nose to locate her (he smells the blood of an English mum, I suppose) and quickly gobbles her up. This doesn't sadden Jack particularly, but it does demonstrate to him the virtues of bathing.
"By Christopher!" Jack cried. "By gum!
The Giant's eaten up my mum!
He smelled her out! She's in his belly!
I had a hunch that she was smelly."
Fully scrubbed, he avoids detection and steals the Giant's treasure. "'A bath,' he said, 'does seem to pay. I'm to have one every day.'"
I described these tales and quoted from them in some detail to do more than show the clever ways Dahl twists and "spoofs" these six children's stories. I also hoped to give a sampling of the sophisticated language in the poems. All are written in the same, sing-song rhythm that echoes "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" and so many other children's rhymes. Yet, as I stated earlier, the reader he has in mind is not a small child. These tales are designed to appeal to older children raised on the other stories, but who now want to see themselves as more than children. Dahl's language speaks to them, as when he replaces "Once upon a time" with "The animal I really dig / Above all others is the pig," calls Goldilocks "that little toad, that nosey thieving little louse," or reflects on the evil queen eating a beef heart she thinks is Snow White's: "I only hope she cooked it well. Boiled heart can be as tough as hell." The objectors in Virginia may be right in assuming that some three-year-olds wouldn't appreciate someone tinkering with Mary and her lamb, but Dahl wants to tell his readers that they're smart and sophisticated. We can hear this when he takes on the protective parent role, winking all the while, in quoting his evil Goldilocks:
She bellows, "What a lousy chair!"
And uses one disgusting word
That luckily you've never heard.
(I dare not write it, even hint it.
Nobody would ever print it.)
Dahl also reaches out to these older young readers in the way he portrays his young protagonists. The young people in these tales are much stronger, not to mention more interesting, than their counterparts in the traditional stories. The only main character who isn't admirable in some ways is Dahl's uncivilized Goldilocks, who is truly a bad kid. The others are quite different. Snow White is not a victim awaiting rescue. Cinderella is at first a spoiled brat, and Dahl's readers certainly would see this and also recognize that in the end, she's no longer greedy or grasping, and thus more deserving of her happy-ever-after life. As for Red Riding Hood, she is in control from the start. One of my daughters was so delighted with the way Red turns the tables on everyone that she memorized the poem and recited it during her school's Poetry Week. It would be far too much of a stretch, of course, to say that these characters "empower" young readers. The stories are mainly in the service of fun. But I think it's important to note that, while occasionally violent (in the way cartoons have been for decades), the young people in Dahl's tales are not the victims of violence, as is so often the case in the traditional tales. I might even suggest, with perhaps a bit of exaggeration, that these young characters choose Hamlet's second option when faced with adversity: they "take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them."
There remains the matter of language, specifically, the occasional vulgarism in Revolting Rhymes. When I began working on this piece, I asked my daughters, now teenagers who still return to Dahl from time to time, to reread Revolting Rhymes and consider what parts or features of them might be objectionable to parents. As I said, both have been fans of Dahl's books for years: the oldest estimates she has read Matilda twenty times and considers Matilda one of her childhood heroes. They may have been surprised at first to learn that Revolting Rhymes had raised parental objections, since they had read Dahl without hearing any objections from anyone. However, after reading the book again, they noted the word "slut" in the Cinderella story—the word that led to a challenge in Iowa—and also a number of places where "hell" appears, including the line from "Snow White" I quoted earlier.
Troublesome words can indeed leap off of a page, especially if one is looking for them. Because "crude" appears as a descriptor of Dahl's language several times in the guide to banned books, I surmise that his pages are often trolled for offensive words. It's certainly true that one can hardly fail to miss "slut" in "Cinderella," as it appears at the end of a line and is uttered by none other than the less-than-charming Prince: "The Prince cried, 'Who's this dirty slut? Off with her nut! Off with her nut.'" It's also true that "slut" is a vulgar word, the most vulgar word in the book. I think the question to ask is, does Dahl use it gratuitously, simply for shock value? I would argue that he doesn't. Dahl wants the word to strike his readers, yes, and it may well surprise many of them to find it in a book. I would note first of all that the word is presented in a very broad sense; I can see no suggestions that it's meant to characterize Cinderella as sexually promiscuous. But the key point is that it is spoken by the Prince, the putative ideal match for our Cinderella, and this effectively lifts the tale from the realm of convention with one strong yank.
It would be naive to think that Revolting Rhymes would likely be the first place a fifth or sixth grader might come across that word, not when "sucks" has replaced "stinks" in the hallways. This may not convince every parent that Revolting Rhymes is appropriate for children, and I have stated before that the book is not aimed at children of all ages. I don't imagine children younger than 10 or 11 would see the humor in the book, any more than they would be able to decipher a word like "mademoiselle" when it's applied to Goldilocks. This is for children who don't just want to be told they're no longer "little kids"; they want someone to talk to them as Dahl does: as people who have been around the block a few times, as readers who can go beyond fairy-tale endings and "bibbidy-bobbidy-boo" to find delight in an author's insouciance, and yes, irreverence. And now that they know how to read and choose books on their own, I believe they also want to read poetry and stories written skillfully and full of surprises, written in their language, poems and stories that they might want to memorize and share with others, that they might even imagine themselves writing.
Dahl, Roald. Revolting Rhymes. New York: Penguin Books, 1982.
THE WITCHES (1983)
Amanda Bergson-Shilcock (essay date 2002)
SOURCE: Bergson-Shilcock, Amanda. "The Subversive Quality of Respect: In Defense of The Witches." In Censored Books II: Critical Viewpoints, 1985–2000, edited by Nicholas J. Karolides, pp. 446-51. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2002.
[In the following essay, Bergson-Shilcock argues that Dahl's unhesitating desire to treat children as mature readers, with a higher understanding of adult matters than they are normally given credit for, is part of the reason his books are regularly challenged, citing The Witches as a prime example.]
There is no shortage of reasons that Roald Dahl's The Witches came in at #9 on a list of most frequently challenged books of the 1990s (Forstel). Would-be censors have objected to the book's tone, its characters, its plot, and its supposed values. Feminists object to the book's contention that all witches are women. Wiccans object to the witches' evil natures. Others object to the book's irreverent tone, bathroom humor, incompetent adult characters, and so-called bad influence.
Yet Witches remains vastly popular, selling thousands of copies and remaining internationally in print nearly two decades after its original publication. No doubt its staying power is spiced by the aura of prohibition, but what else—besides Dahl's generally high status among young readers—prompts such endurance?
Ironically, the book's fundamental appeal is every bit as seductive as adults fear, but in a manner they have yet to perceive. Witches is beloved, and dangerous, for one simple reason: It takes children seriously.
A late offering from Dahl, the book was published years after Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, his best-known work. Written for eight- to twelve-year-olds, Witches concerns the adventures of a small boy, orphaned by a car accident, who is being raised by his Norwegian grandmother. A self-proclaimed expert on the topic of witches, she provides her grandson with the tools to recognize and protect himself from the malevolent creatures, who disguise themselves as ordinary women.
Although society scoffs at the notion of witches, the enormously fat, cigar-smoking Grandmamma is intent on preparing her charge for the day when he might be faced with a member of this horrifying, child-hating sorority. And well she might worry: at the tender age of eight, he will be confronted with not one witch, but the entire annual gathering of two hundred English witches—and they will turn him into a mouse.
Witches has some familiar Dahl themes—the youthful protagonist benefits from the love and care of an elder figure; there is an obnoxious little boy (this one named Bruno Jenkins) who gets what's coming to him. There are autobiographical echoes of Dahl's unhappy war experiences in the boy's litany of reasons that it is better to be a mouse than a man.
Most characteristic of all, there is a trademark, yet deliciously fresh, conspiracy of children against evil. Like nearly every classic fantasy, the book sets up a dichotomy and leaves its hero almost alone against the dark side. With only the eighty-six-year-old Grandmamma as an ally, Dahl's nameless boy must face a world that is by turns indifferent and cruel. Yet, although sobering, the challenges he faces are not unique. Indeed, his youth and inexperience render him a natural heir to the long folk tradition of unlikely saviors.
Dahl's sure-handed storytelling carries the plot along at such a clip that it's easy to overlook the trust he is placing in the reader. Far more than simply entertaining his youthful audience, Dahl writes to their fierce intelligence and passion: their wish to save the world, their unhesitating belief that they can.
In this light, Witches' silly, posturing adults are merely a backdrop of annoying static that interferes with the meaningful characters and action at the forefront. The boy's cheerful first-person narrative is at once endearing and intriguing: how will he manage to get out of this situation? Certainly there is an element of wish fulfillment. With Grandmamma's ever-present support, he engages in gleeful subversion of most forms of authority, such as outwitting the hotel maid intent on drowning his (forbidden) pet mice. Even when they do obey the doctor and journey to the seaside for her health, the decision is portrayed as their magnanimous agreement.
Yet the fantasy is not complete. Like children everywhere, Dahl's boy and his grandmother are prey to the uncaring whims of fate and the establishment: legal requirements of the boy's guardianship mean that they must move from Norway to England. Still, they cope marvelously. Whether charming their waiter at the seaside resort, or fast-talking her way out of a tight situation with the Grand High Witch of All the World, Grandmamma is an endless source of practical creativity. There is no problem she cannot solve, and yet she gives her grandson the ultimate form of respect: she asks for his opinions, she listens to his suggestions, she uses his ideas.
This is fairly radical behavior for an adult in a children's book. Intriguingly, however, it is not what has energized opponents of Witches. Rather, objections to the book center on the relatively narrow categories outlined above: that it is sexist; that it propagates harmful stereotypes about witches; that it is vulgar; that is unrealistic; and that it is a bad influence that, among other concerns, encourages children to be disrespectful and bathe infrequently.
The "Dahl is antiwoman" arguments are based primarily on selective quotation. The line in question reads: "A witch is always a woman" (9). Because Dahl's witches are so thoroughly savage, this line has been interpreted as evidence of his supposed bias against women generally. However, it is important to note that immediately following it is the statement "On the other hand, a ghoul is always a male" (9). In fact, many of the protesters don't mention this inconvenient fact. As a result, those who haven't read the text themselves may not know that Dahl's offensiveness is evenhanded.
Further, the suggestion that Witches is antifemale flies utterly in the face of the story's center of gravity: the strong and redeeming bond between the boy and his grandmother. Grandmamma is a powerful, reassuring anchor in his eventful world. Her unstinting affection and his absolute reciprocation are essential elements of the story. Indeed, without such a plausible ally, the boy's quest would be far lonelier and much less appealing.
The second class of objections is slightly more complex. Some readers who hold Wiccan beliefs (often called witches or white witches) wrote to Dahl complaining about his portrayal of witches. And indeed, they might have legitimate grounds for protest. Witches' witches are irredeemably evil; there is no suggestion that they can be otherwise. Yet although the question of prejudice is a valid one, it's hard to imagine that the deliberately exaggerated, outrageous Witches could really affect ordinary perceptions of Wiccans. In reality, Dahl's bald, toeless witches—blue saliva and all—no more defame Wiccans than the evil Siamese duo from Disney's Lady and the Tramp defame cats.
On the question of vulgarity, Witches is undoubtedly guilty of bathroom humor. This is hardly accidental; Dahl himself noted that "children regard bodily functions as being both mysterious and funny" (quoted in West, 84). Whether Dahl's canny recognition of his audience's amusement threshold is grounds for condemning the entire book is debatable.
Additional charges accuse the book of being cruel and unrealistic. Indeed, the boy's parents are killed early in the story, via an offstage car crash. However, this is little more than a plot device that allows the elder and younger generations to team up. Dahl's brief, distant handling of the event speaks more to a desire to continue storytelling than a hatred for parents. And although not dwelled upon, the event is hardly depicted as fun or funny.
The final group of objections combines a host of complaints under a single umbrella that might best be named "bad influence." There is no misquotation or selective interpretation in this case. It is perfectly true that Dahl's boy hero is opposed to bathing. Grandmamma is in full agreement, as (she explains) witches find it harder to detect children when their natural scent is masked by a good layer of dirt. While this attitude may be gratifyingly amusing to any child who dreads bathtime, it's hard to imagine intelligent parents having difficulty drawing a line between the mores of Witches and those of their own household.
The question of disrespect is more complicated. It is certainly true that Witches encourages the questioning of authority. But it invariably does so from a stacked deck. The authority in question is never wise, and often not even well-intentioned. Thus, instead of fostering knee-jerk rebellion among his youthful readers, Dahl seems to be endorsing something more like a healthy skepticism.
Grandmamma and her grandson are not portrayed as mini-anarchists, running rampant over social convention for the sheer thrill of it. Rather, they are courageous visionaries who are endangered as much as elevated by their actions, as when Grandmamma boldly lowers the boy off the hotel balcony in a half-knit sock, then calmly bluffs her way through the unexpectedly early return of the Grand High Witch. Later, the two conspirators create a daring plot to slip mouse-maker potion into the witches' food, a plot that can work only if both boy and elder carry out their tasks with split-second timing. To this end, Witches is dangerous in that it ridicules blind obedience and glorifies independent thinking. Parents' fear of the book's so-called bad influence may simply reflect their own discomfort with a story that pulls no punches in illustrating the foibles, failures, and plain human frailty of its adult characters.
Erica Jong, reviewing the book for the New York Times when it was initially released, called Witches "a curious sort of tale, but an honest one, which deals with matters of crucial importance to children: smallness, the existence of evil in the world, mourning, separation, death" (45). Yes, it's fantasy, but quite a tempered one. The insane risks taken by its protagonist nearly always result in disaster—not just when his disobedience results in being trapped in the witches' meeting and turned into a mouse, but also later when he is dashing through the hotel kitchen and has half his tail sliced off. Most movingly, at the end of the book there is a frank discussion of how long both he and his grandmother are likely to live—a child's natural question, honored with a straightforward, believable answer.
And contrary to protesters' charges of unreality, the wild, ludicrous dream of a story is constantly punctured by the reality of mundane consequences. Dahl is practical enough to know that if fancy is allowed to spiral upward endlessly, even the dreamiest reader will eventually tire of the giddiness. To sustain the delicate tightrope of fantasy, the writer must allow it to bend and dip, and he does: veering from campy ridicule (Bruno's parents are so pathetically dreadful as to almost be unfunny) to blithe acceptance (so you're a mouse, big deal) to businesslike planning: how can a newly minted mouse and an aging granny facing a three-hour deadline get hold of some Formula 86 Delayed-Action Mouse Maker potion?
Censoring Witches on account of vulgarity is, ironically, Dahl's own argument in a different cloak. Where some parents want to shield their children from coarse language and scary images, the nurturers in Dahl's work want to protect their charges from the more serious threats of physical harm and death.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to protect children from having to cope with more than they're ready to handle, and a great deal to be gained from teaching them to read with a skeptical eye. But to remove Witches on grounds of vulgarity and defamation misses the point: it is a rollicking adventure story with a not-inconsequential message. True, it can't resist gleefully thumbing its nose at the mainstream, but Dahl is generally an equal-opportunity offender. For every hysterical, carelessly cruel Mrs. Jenkins, there is a silly, witless Mr. Jenkins.
The marvelous irony is that for all of the battles being waged against it, Witches isn't being censored for its genuinely revolutionary position. Indeed, its radical respect for young people does not even register with protesters, as evidenced by their claims that the book is "derogatory toward children" (Schulerbooks).
Thus, attempts to ban Witches are more about the medium than the message, and perhaps about adults' unease with a world that refuses to grant automatic respect on the basis of sheer longevity and instead gives superior status to a precocious boy-mouse and his cigar-chomping grandmother.
Buried one thin layer beneath the surface sass is a very potent philosophy: that children are every bit as thoughtful, creative, and brave as the best adults around them, and that things go wrong when their intelligence and humanity aren't respected. In that light, The Witches isn't an attack or a diatribe. It's a manifesto.
Dahl, Roald. The Witches. New York: Puffin Books, 1985.
Forstel, Herbert. "The Most Frequently Banned Books in the 1990s." In Banned in the U.S.A.: A Reference Guide to Book Censorship in Schools and Public Libraries. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1994. Online. Internet. 2 January 2001. Citation available at: http://www.cs.cmu.edu/People/spok/mostbanned.html.
Jong, Erica. "The Boy Who Became a Mouse." New York Times. (13 November 1983): Sec. 7, 45.
Schulerbooks.com includes the "Derogatory toward children" citation in its section on banned books. Online. Internet. 16 April 2001. Citation available at: http://www.schulerbooks.com/homepage/bannedbooks.titles.html.
West, Mark I. Roald Dahl. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1992.
Erica Bauermeister and Holly Smith (review date 1997)
SOURCE: Bauermeister, Erica, and Holly Smith. Review of Matilda, by Roald Dahl, illustrated by Quentin Blake. In Let's Hear It for the Girls: 375 Great Books for Readers 2-14, pp. 100-01. New York, N.Y.: Penguin Books, 1997.
[In Matilda, ] Matilda Wormwood is a brilliant little girl cursed with the stupidest, crassest parents in England. Her father wears a cheap toupee and sells used cars; her mother is addicted to television. The only person who seems to realize the range of Matilda's intelligence is her teacher, Miss Honey, but Miss Honey is ruled over by the principal, Miss Trunchbull. If Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood are disgusting, Miss Trunchbull is terrifying—a huge, hulking woman who slings children about by their hair and has her teachers cowering. Matilda's triumph over "the Trunchbull" raises cheers from readers and Matilda's fellow students. Some grown-ups may wince at the completely incorrect behavior of parents and principal, but children relish this world of good and evil, where the lines are clear, good is young, and success is certain.
Bird, Anne-Marie. "Women Behaving Badly: Dahl's Witches Meet the Women of the Eighties." Children's Literature in Education 29, no. 3 (September 1998): 119-29.
Examines alleged claims of misogyny in Dahl's The Witches.
Brittain, Bill. "Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach." In Censored Books II: Critical Viewpoints, 1985–2000, edited by Nicholas J. Karolides, pp. 264-68. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2002.
Refutes the arguments made against James and the Giant Peach's suitability for children.
Nicholson, Catriona. "Dahl, The Marvelous Boy." In A Necessary Fantasy?: The Heroic Figure on Children's Popular Culture, edited by Dudley Jones and Tony Watkins, pp. 309-26. New York, N.Y.: Garland Publishing, 2000.
Critical examination of Dahl's autobiography Boy: Tales of Childhood.
Petzold, Dieter. "Wish Fulfillment and Subversion: Roald Dahl's Dickensian Fantasy Matilda." Children's Literature in Education 23, no. 4 (December 1992): 185-93.
Attempts to deflect criticism of Dahl's supposed subversiveness by demonstrating an underlying theme of didacticism in Matilda.
Sarland, Charles. "The Secret Seven versus The Twits: Cultural Clash or Cosy Combination?" Signal, no. 42 (September 1983): 155-71.
Compares Enid Blyton's Shock for the Secret Seven with Dahl's The Twits.
Tal, Eve. "Deconstructing the Peach: James and the Giant Peach as Post-Modern Fairy Tale." Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 14, no. 2 (2003): 265-76.
Views James and the Giant Peach as a form of contemporary fairy tale.
Additional coverage of Dahl's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 15; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 1; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vol. 5; British Writers Supplement, Vol. 4; Children's Literature Review, Vols. 1, 7, 41; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 6, 32, 37, 62; Contemporary Authors—Obituary, Vol. 133; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 6, 18, 79; Contemporary Popular Writers; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 139, 255; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors; Novelists; Popular Fiction and Genre Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Junior DISCovering Authors; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Eds. 1, 2; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Major 21st-Century Writers, Ed. 2005; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost, & Gothic Writers; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; Short Stories for Students, Vol. 4; Something about the Author, Vols. 1, 26, 73; Something about the Author—Obituary, Vol. 65; and Twayne's English Authors.