BORN: 1916, Llandaff, South Wales
DIED: 1990, Oxford, England
GENRE: Novels, short stories
Over to You: Ten Stories of Flyers and Flying (1946)
James and the Giant Peach (1961)
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964)
The BFG (1982)
A writer of both children's fiction and short stories for adults, Roald Dahl (1916–1990) is best known as the author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Dahl's works for children have been praised as skillfully crafted, with fast-paced plots, captivating detail, and onomatopoetic words that lend themselves to being read aloud. His adult-oriented short stories are noted for their dark humor, surprise endings, and subtle horror. Whether writing for juveniles or an adult audience, Dahl has been described as a master of story construction with a remarkable ability to weave a tale.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Boarding School: Source of Darkness Dahl was born in Llandaff, South Wales, to Norwegian parents and spent his childhood summers visiting his grandparents in Oslo, Norway. After his father died when Dahl was four, his mother honored her late husband's wish that Dahl be sent to English schools. Dahl subsequently attended Llandaff Cathedral School, where he began a series of academic misadventures. After he and several other students were severely beaten by the headmaster for placing a dead mouse in a cruel storekeeper's candy jar, Dahl's mother moved him to St. Peter's Boarding School and later to Repton, a renowned private school.
Later, Dahl recalled in his short autobiographical story “Lucky Break” that the “beatings at Repton were more fierce and more frequent than anything I had yet experienced.” Standing six feet, six inches tall, Dahl played soccer and served as the captain of the squash and handball teams but did not excel in academics. One teacher commented on the fourteen-year-old boy's English composition work: “I have never met a boy who so persistently writes the exact opposite of what he means. He seems incapable of marshaling his thoughts on paper.” One year later, another comment on an English composition of Dahl's read: “A persistent muddler. Vocabulary negligible, sentences mal-constructed. He reminds me of a camel.” Dahl would later describe his school years as “days of horrors” that inspired much of his macabre fiction.
Plane Crash: An Unusual Beginning Dahl was flying over the African desert for the Royal Air Force during World War II when he was forced to make an emergency landing. He was rescued by another pilot and transported to a hospital in Alexandria, Egypt. His skull was fractured and plastic surgery was necessary to repair the damage to his nose. Six months later, he had recuperated to the point that he could fly a Hurricane fighter with his squadron in Greece against the Germans. Dahl shot down four enemy planes, and his own plane was one of the four out of the thirty Hurricanes in that campaign to survive. Then, as Dahl's old injuries began to cause dangerous blackouts when he flew, he returned to England. At a club one night, he met the undersecretary of state for Air, Harold Balfour, and Balfour gave Dahl his next post as an assistant air attaché in Washington, D.C.
While it took Dahl six months to recover—and he would live with the recurrent pain of his injuries for the rest of his life—Dahl's crash landing set him on a course
that led him to his career as a writer. Wanting to write about Dahl's most exciting war experience for a Saturday Evening Post article, reporter C. S. Forester interviewed Dahl over lunch one day in Washington. Because Forester could not eat and take notes at the same time, Dahl offered to write some notes later for the journalist. Those notes became the story “A Piece of Cake,” the first of Dahl's work to bring him money and recognition. Dahl went on to write a number of stories for adults about being a fighter pilot.
In Dahl's first book for children, he did not stray far from the fighter-pilot stories he had created for adults. The Gremlins tells the story of evil little men who caused war planes to crash. After these beings are discovered, they are convinced to work for the pilots instead of against them. The Gremlins was a popular success. After First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt read the book to her children, she invited Dahl to dinner at the White House. Walt Disney was so taken with the story that he planned to transform it into a motion picture. In the New York Herald Tribune Weekly Book Review, May Lamberton Becker advised her readers to preserve The Gremlins “as a firsthand source book on the origin of a genuine addition to folklore. That is, preserve it if the children in the family don't read it to bits ….”
Father and Storyteller The births of Dahl's children provided him an opportunity to tell the children bedtime stories, a practice that allowed the author to develop his understanding of the kind of stories children enjoyed. In an article for The Writer, Dahl observed that children love suspense, action, magic, “new inventions,” “secret information,” and “seeing the villain meet a grisly death.” According to Dahl, children “hate descriptive passages and flowery prose,” and “can spot a clumsy sentence.” As Dahl's children grew older, he wrote both Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the story of a poor boy who is selected to be the new owner of a world-famous chocolate factory, and James and the Giant Peach, which recounts the fantastic tale of a young boy who travels thousands of miles in a house-sized peach with as bizarre an assemblage of companions as can be found in a children's book.
Works in Literary Context
Revenge and Violence One way that Dahl delights his readers is by exacting often vicious revenge on cruel adults who harm children. In Matilda, the Amazonian headmistress Miss Trunchbull, who deals with unruly children by grabbing them by the hair and tossing them out windows, is finally banished by the brilliant Matilda. The Witches, released as a movie in 1990, finds the heroic young character, who has been turned into a mouse, thwarting the hideous and diabolical witches' plans to kill all the children of England. But even innocent adults receive rough treatment. In James and the Giant Peach, parents are eaten by a rhinoceros, and aunts are flattened by the eponymous giant peach. In The Witches, parents are killed in car crashes, and pleasant fathers are murdered in Matilda.
However, Dahl explained in the New York Times Book Review that the children who wrote to him “invariably pick out the most gruesome events as the favorite parts of the books…. They don't relate it to life. They enjoy the fantasy. And my nastiness is never gratuitous. It's retribution. Beastly people must be punished.”
Dahl's Writings for Adults Over to You: Ten Stories of Flyers and Flying is a collection of Dahl's early stories. One tale especially, “They Shall Not Grow Old,” is a much more polished story than one would expect from a relatively inexperienced writer. A notable aspect of this piece, also seen in several of the other stories in the book, is the clear influence of Ernest Hemingway on the young writer's style.
Critics have compared much of Dahl's adult-oriented fiction to the works of Guy de Maupassant, O. Henry, and Saki. Praised by commentators as well crafted and suspenseful, Dahl's stories employ surprise endings and shrewd characters who are rarely what they seem to be. Dahl also experimented with comic themes in his novel My Uncle Oswald. The title character, Oswald Hendryks Cornelius, is a charming man of the world who embarks upon a business venture to collect and preserve semen samples from geniuses and royalty, hoping wealthy women who desire superior offspring will want to be his clients. Like Dahl's short stories, My Uncle Oswald features duplicitous characters, and some critics have
observed that it shares a common theme with much of his short fiction: a depiction of the superficial nature of modern civilization.
Works in Critical Context
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is Dahl's most popular and most controversial children's story. Many critics have censured this work for its alleged stereotyping and inhumanity, and have accused Dahl of racism for his portrayal of the Oompa-Loompas. In the original version of the story, the Oompa-Loompas are described as black pygmies from deepest Africa who sing and dance and work for nearly nothing. In a revised edition, Dahl changed their appearance and gave them a mythical homeland. Still, claims of prejudice persist. In Now Upon a Time: A Contemporary View of Children's Literature, Myra Pollack Sadker and David Miller Sadker criticized Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for its “ageism”: “The message with which we close the book is that the needs and desires and opinions of old people are totally irrelevant and inconsequential.”
The publication and popularity of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory evoked criticism from experts in children's literature who thought that the violence, insensitivity, or supposed racism in the text was offensive or inappropriate for children. Many critics have objected to the rough treatment of adults. Eleanor Cameron, for example, in Children's Literature in Education, found that “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.” “It is difficult to avoid the feeling that Dahl … enjoys writing about violence, while at the same time condemning it,” remarked David Rees in Children's Literature in Education, adding: “Dahl … parades his own irritations—television addiction … overindulgence in sweets, gum-chewing, shooting foxes, beards, ugly faces, fat bodies, cranky old people, spoiled children—and presents them as moral objections.” Dahl's supporters have argued that in Charlie, as in his other children's books, Dahl follows the traditional fairy tale style, which includes extreme exaggeration and the swift and horrible destruction of evildoers; they contend that children are not harmed by this approach. Critic Alas-dair Campbell, writing in School Librarian, argued that “normal children are bound to take some interest in the darker side of human nature, and books for them should be judged not by picking out separate elements but rather on the basis of their overall balance and effect.”
If critics disagreed about the suitability of some of Dahl's books for children, most agreed that Dahl was a talented writer. According to Michael Wood of New Society, “Dahl is at his best when he reveals the horrible thinness of much of our respectability; at his worst and most tiresome when he nudges us towards the contemplation of mere naughtiness … what is striking about Dahl's work, both for children and adults, is its carefully pitched appeal to its different audiences …. He has tact, timing, a clean, economic style, an abundance of ingenuity … above all he knows how to manipulate his readers.”
Responses to Literature
- Read one of Dahl's children's books and read one of his short stories written for an adult audience. What are some of the key differences between the “voices” of these texts? (Consider the words Dahl uses, the themes the works focus on, and the action within the texts.)
- Read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Consider why Willy Wonka decides to give the chocolate factory to Charlie? If you were Willy Wonka, would you have chosen Charlie? What would have happened to the factory if Willy Wonka had chosen another child?
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Dahl's famous contemporaries include:
Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962): First Lady of the United States from 1933 to 1945, Eleanor Roosevelt was a key figure in Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal policy, which helped the United States survive the Great Depression.
C. S. Lewis (1898–1963): Lewis is best known for The Chronicles of Narnia (1965), which present the adventures of children who play central roles in the unfolding history of the fictional realm of Narnia, a place where animals talk, magic is common, and good battles evil.
Pablo Picasso (1881–1973): This Spanish artist worked in a variety of media, including paint and ceramics, and he is often associated with the cubist art movement.
Carpenter, Humphrey, and Mari Prichard. The Oxford Companion to Children's Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.
Georgiou, Constantine. Children and Their Literature. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969.
McCann, Donnarae, and Gloria Woodard, eds. The Black American in Books for Children: Readings in Racism. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow, 1972.
Mote, Dave, ed. Contemporary Popular Writers. Detroit: St. James Press, 1997.
Parker, Peter, ed. A Reader's Guide to Twentieth-Century Writers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
Silvey, Anita, ed. Children's Books and Their Creators. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1995.
Warren, Alan. Roald Dahl. Mercer Island, Wash.: Starmont, 1988.
West, Mark T., interview with Roald Dahl. Trust Your Children: Voices against Censorship in Children's Books. New York: Neal-Schuman, 1988, pp. 71–76.
Wintle, Justin, and Emma Fisher. The Pied Pipers: Interviews with the Influential Creators of Children's Literature. London: Paddington Press, 1975.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Roald Dahl suffered a terrifying crash while a member of the Royal Air Force during World War II. Much of his adult-oriented literature deals with war and its effects on human beings. Following is a list of other texts that focus on the mental and emotional toll of war:
“I Will Fight No More Forever” (1877), by Chief Joseph. This famous speech was given by Nez Percé chief Joseph upon his surrender to the U.S. Army.
“Dulce Et Decorum Est” (1920), by Wilfred Owen. Owen, a soldier in World War I, wrote this poetic rebuttal to a line from Horace that claimed it is “sweet and appropriate” that a young man should die in war for his country.
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), a film directed by William Wyler. This Academy Award–winning film tells the story of three servicemen and the complications and struggles they face upon returning home after World War II.
In the Lake of the Woods (1994), by Tim O'Brien. In this novel, the protagonist, John Wade, is a Vietnam veteran who continues to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, which causes him to experiences bouts of rage, perhaps resulting in the murder of his wife.
Nationality: British. Born: Llandaff, Glamorgan, Wales, 13 September 1916. Education: Repton School, Yorkshire. Military Service: Served in the Royal Air Force, 1939-45; served for Royal Air Force in Nairobi and Habbanyah, 1939-40; manned a fighter squadron in the Western Desert, 1940 (wounded); manned a fighter squadron in Greece and Syria, 1941; assistant air attaché, Washington, D.C., 1942-43; wing commander, 1943; with British Security Co-ordination, North America, 1943-45. Family: Married 1) the actress Patricia Neal in 1953 (divorced 1983), one son and four daughters (one deceased); 2) Felicity Ann Crosland in 1983. Career: Writer. Member of Public Schools Exploring Society expedition to Newfoundland, 1934; Eastern staff, Shell Company, London, 1933-37 and Shell Company of East Africa, Dar-es-Salaam, 1937-39. Awards: Mystery Writers of America Edgar Allan Poe award, 1953, 1959, 1980; Federation of Children's Book Groups award, 1983; Whitbread award, 1983; World Fantasy Convention award, 1983; Federation of Children's Book Groups award, 1989. D.Litt.: University of Keele, Staffordshire, 1988. Died: 23 November 1990.
The Collected Short Stories of Roald Dahl. 1992.
The Roald Dahl Treasury. 1997.
Over to You: 10 Stories of Flyers and Flying. 1946.
Someone Like You. 1953; revised edition, 1961.
Kiss, Kiss. 1960.
Twenty-Nine Kisses from Roald Dahl. 1969.
Selected Stories. 1970.
Penguin Modern Stories 12, with others. 1972.
Switch Bitch. 1974.
The Best of Dahl. 1978.
Tales of the Unexpected. 1979.
More Tales of the Unexpected. 1980; as Further Tales of the Unexpected, 1981.
A Dahl Selection: Nine Short Stories, edited by Roy Blatchford. 1980.
Two Fables. 1986.
A Second Dahl Selection: Eight Short Stories, edited by HélèneFawcett. 1987.
Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life, illustrated by John Lawrence. 1990.
Lamb to the Slaughter and Other Stories. 1995.
The Umbrella Man and Other Stories (for teenagers). 1998.
Sometime Never: A Fable for Supermen. 1948.
My Uncle Oswald. 1979.
Fiction (for children)
The Gremlins, illustrated by Walt Disney Studio. 1943.
James and the Giant Peach, illustrated by Nancy Ekholm Burkert. 1961.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, illustrated by JosephSchindelman. 1964.
The Magic Finger, illustrated by William Pène du Bois. 1966.
Fantastic Mr. Fox, illustrated by Donald Chaffin. 1970.
Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, illustrated by JosephSchindelman. 1972.
Danny, The Champion of the World, illustrated by Jill Bennett. 1975.
The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More. 1977; as The Wonderful World of Henry Sugar. 1977.
The Complete Adventures of Charlie and Mr. Willy Wonka (omnibus), illustrated by Faith Jaques. 1978.
The Enormous Crocodile, illustrated by Quentin Blake. 1978.
The Twits, illustrated by Quentin Blake. 1980.
George's Marvellous Medicine, illustrated by Quentin Blake. 1981.
The BFG, illustrated by Quentin Blake. 1982.
The Witches, illustrated by Quentin Blake. 1983.
The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me, illustrated by Quentin Blake. 1985.
Matilda, illustrated by Quentin Blake. 1988.
Esio Trot, illustrated by Quentin Blake. 1990.
The Vicar of Nibbleswicke, illustrated by Quentin Blake. 1991.
The Honeys (produced New York, 1955).
You Only Live Twice, with Harry Jack Bloom, 1967;Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang, with Ken Hughes, 1968; The Night-Digger, 1970; The Lightning Bug, 1971; Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, 1971.
Lamb to the Slaughter (Alfred Hitchcock Presents series), 1955.
Poetry (for children)
Revolting Rhymes, illustrated by Quentin Blake. 1982.
Dirty Beasts, illustrated by Rosemary Fawcett. 1983.
Rhyme Stew, illustrated by Quentin Blake. 1989.
Boy: Tales of Childhood (autobiography; for children). 1984.
Going Solo (autobiography; for children). 1986.
My Year. 1993.
Roald Dahl's Revolting Recipes (recipe book for children). 1994.
The Roald Dahl Diary 1997. 1996.
Editor, Dahl's Book of Ghost Stories. 1983.*
Dahl by Chris Powling, 1983; Dahl by Alan Warren, 1988; Roald Dahl: From the Gremlins to the Chocolate Factory by Alan Warren, 1994; Roald Dahl: The Champion Storyteller by Andrea Shavick, 1997.* * *
After being severely wounded in World War II, and then resuming his career as a fighter pilot, Roald Dahl was sent to Washington as an assistant air attaché in 1942. It was in Washington that he began writing the short stories for American magazines about his wartime experience that were later collected as Over to You. Although Dahl later wrote more for children, his adult short fiction is included in a whole series of collections—Someone Like You, Kiss Kiss, Twenty-Nine Kisses from Roald Dahl, Switch Bitch, and Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life. Some of these stories were dramatized for television and published in the two anthologies Tales of the Unexpected and More Tales of the Unexpected. Dahl's current reputation is, however, still largely dependent on his writing for children, and in 1983 he was awarded the Whitbread prize for The Witches. Although the more urbane short fiction was plainly written for adults, its foreshortened psychological and emotional perspectives, as well as other techniques, often bear the hallmark of a writer whose imagination is attuned to that of children.
The short story suits Dahl's imaginative purposes for a variety of reasons. It allows forceful moral points to be made without lengthy psychological analysis or emotional profundity. It permits a reliance on conversational exchange that promotes vividness and allows swift and effective caricature to be substituted for depth of characterization. Above all, it allows Dahl's point to be made in a single episode, anecdote, or escapade, often with his characteristic type of ending. He has been described as "the absolute master of the twist in the tale." Sometimes vicious twists at the end of the stories teasingly challenge the reader's generic expectations, generated by the register and language of the foregoing narration. The need for psychological complexity is replaced by a punchy story line, incidentally making the texts ideal for dramatization.
The literary techniques nevertheless are effective for being relatively unsophisticated. First-person narration is purposefully used to achieve real immediacy. In "Bitch" Dahl even introduces a mirror-system of first-person narrators in Uncle Oswald's diaries and the nephew who introduces them. The absurdity of the plot keeps the reader at a distance, while the mode of narration engages the reader's sympathies. Much the same might be said of "Pig," where the pretended literary form adds a further mine of irony. Dahl purports to be writing a fairy tale:
Once upon a time, in the City of New York, a beautiful baby boy was born into this world, and the joyful parents named him Lexington.
The alliterative "b" sounds, banal adjectives, the child's name, the upper case for "City," and the opening four words all converge to announce a register of amused irony. Lexington is referred to throughout the story as "our hero," portrayed as being sweetly innocent, with blond hair and blue eyes, writing a vegetarian cookbook, and living in the country where he looks after his elderly Aunt Glosspan. When she dies he buries her in the garden and goes to New York, where he is conned by a lawyer and eventually killed in an abattoir. The humor is macabre. The vegetarian not only eats meat, but becomes meat, falling into the boiling water with the other pigs. Writing about how to cook, he becomes cooked. The narrative is straight-faced, with "our hero" used in the last sentence. The fairy story pretense and faintly adolescent humor are deployed in a piece of short fiction dependent on subtle and adult ironies.
The boyishness of Dahl's humor remains conspicuous, locked into the grim period when his imagination was formed, between his famous account of being caned at his prep school (by a future archbishop of Canterbury) and his life as a beer-swilling young officer. He is fascinated by scrapes and how to get out of them, uses obsolete upper middle-class schoolboy slang, with words like "tough" and nicknames like "Stinker," and often uses pastiche of the boys' adventure story as a literary form.
The humor is bizarre, mischievous, sometimes ghoulish. In "Lamb to the Slaughter" a woman kills her husband with a joint of lamb from the freezer. With a dead husband and a frozen leg of lamb as his stage properties, Dahl sends her shopping and unfreezes the meat. The police are called as the murder weapon is roasting, and are prevailed on to eat it. Mary Moloney feels genuine grief, but cannot help sharing the reader's wry giggle as the police, thinking that the murder weapon "is probably right under our very noses," set about consuming it. That sort of humor, based on escapades and japes, runs right through Dahl's work, especially what he wrote for children.
In "The Twits" Mrs. Twit cooks "spaghetti" for her husband. In fact it is a plate of worms. Dahl is playing on what, until the quite recent past, was the average British child's unfamiliarity with pasta, and the xenophobic distaste for it. Mr. Twit invents a disease in revenge. He goes to great pains to convince Mrs. Twit that she has contracted "the dreaded shrinks," and that she is on the point of shrinking into oblivion. Once again children are always being warned against illnesses of which their age-group has no direct experience. The childish impishness of the children's stories is actually often distilled from the adult humor of more ambitious short fiction, like the resonant, alliterated names (Mr. Botibol, Mr. Buggage, Tibbs the butler, and Mrs. Tottle the secretary), or the schoolboy larks of trapping pheasants with raisins (in "The Champion of the World" from Kiss Kiss, which was in fact later reworked into a children's story, Danny, The Champion of the World).
"Vengeance Is Mine" hinges on a similar schoolboy sense of fantasy and justice. Two broke young men set up a business of wreaking revenge on gossip columnists on behalf of the rich people they have insulted in their columns. In less than a week they earn enough to retire. Only adults can know that adult values are so warped that rich people mostly like appearing in gossip columns, and that is Dahl's comment.
Not all the short fiction uses the same stereotype. "Katina" deals with the experiences of a soldier, implicitly Dahl himself, and the horrors that he witnessed in Greece. Simply and unsentimentally, the narrator remembers, but the small orphaned girl of the title is used to imply a sharp accusation against the soldiers who remain unable to consider the actual consequences of their killings. At the end, when Katina is killed, the narrator stands unthinking for several hours. The implication is that at this moment he turned against war. Dahl touches on emotional profundity, but without psychological complexity.
Dahl wrote unpretentiously, and laid no claim to the moral high ground. He wanted to entertain, and wrote with great skill and wonderful directness. But it is the sharp moral focus behind the vision that elevates the entertainment into literature.
See the essay on "Georgy Porgy."
Born: September 13, 1916
Llandaff, South Wales
Died: November 23, 1990
A writer of both children's fiction and short stories for adults, Roald Dahl is best known as the author of the 1964 children's book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (he also wrote the script for the 1971 movie version). Dahl has been described as a master of story construction with a remarkable ability to weave a tale.
A young troublemaker
Roald Dahl was born September 13, 1916, in Llandaff, South Wales, United Kingdom, to Norwegian parents. He spent his childhood summers visiting his grandparents in Oslo, Norway. He was a mischievous child, full of energy, and from an early age he proved himself skilled at finding trouble. His earliest memory was of pedaling to school at a very fast speed on his tricycle, with his two sisters struggling to keep up as he whizzed around curves on two wheels.
After his father died when Dahl was four, his mother followed her late husband's wish that Dahl be sent to English schools. Dahl first attended Llandaff Cathedral School, where he began a series of unfortunate adventures in school. After he and several other students were severely beaten by the principal for placing a dead mouse in a storekeeper's candy jar, Dahl's mother moved him to St. Peter's Boarding School and later to Repton, an excellent private school. Dahl would later describe his school years as "days of horrors" filled with "rules, rules and still more rules that had to be obeyed," which inspired much of his gruesome fiction. Though not a good student, his mother nevertheless offered him the option of attending Oxford or Cambridge University when he finished school. His reply, recorded in his book about his childhood called Boy: Tales of Childhood, was, "No, thank you. I want to go straight from school to work for a company that will send me to wonderful faraway places like Africa or China."
The birth of a writer
After graduating from Repton, Dahl took a position with the Shell Oil Company in Tanganyika (now Tanzania), Africa. In 1939 he joined a Royal Air Force training squadron in Nairobi, Kenya, serving as a fighter pilot in the Mediterranean during World War II (1939–45). Dahl suffered severe head injuries in a plane crash near Alexandria, Egypt. Upon recovering he was sent to Washington, D.C., to be an assistant air attache (a technical expert who advises government representatives). There Dahl began his writing career, publishing a short story in the Saturday Evening Post. Soon his stories appeared in many other magazines. Dahl told Willa Petschek in a New York Times Book Review profile that "as I went on, the stories became less and less realistic and more fantastic. But becoming a writer was pure fluke. Without being asked to, I doubt if I'd ever have thought of it."
In 1943 Dahl wrote his first children's story, The Gremlins, and invented a new term in the process. Gremlins were small creatures that lived on fighter planes and bombers and were responsible for all crashes. Through the 1940s and into the 1950s Dahl continued as a short story writer for adults, establishing his reputation as a writer of deathly tales with unexpected twists. His stories earned him three Edgar Allan Poe Awards from the Mystery Writers of America.
Inspired by his children
In 1953 Dahl married Hollywood actress Patricia Neal, star of such movies as The Fountainhead and, later, Hud, for which she won an Academy Award. Although the marriage did not survive, it produced five children. As soon as the children were old enough, Dahl began making up stories for them each night before they went to bed. These stories became the basis for his career as a children's writer, which began seriously with the publication of James and the Giant Peach in 1961. It tells the fantastic tale of a young boy who travels thousands of miles in a house-sized peach with as strange a group of companions as can be found in a children's book. Dahl insisted that having to invent stories night after night was perfect practice for his trade, telling the New York Times Book Review : "Children are … highly critical. And they lose interest so quickly. You have to keep things ticking along. And if you think a child is getting bored, you must think up something that jolts it back. Something that tickles. You have to know what children like."
One way that Dahl delighted his readers was to take often vicious revenge on cruel adults who had harmed children, as in Matilda (1988). But even some innocent adults received rough treatment, such as the parents killed in a car crash in The Witches (1983). Many critics have objected to the rough treatment of adults. However, Dahl explained in the New York Times Book Review that the children who wrote to him always "pick out the most gruesome events as the favorite parts of the books.… They don't relate it to life. They enjoy the fantasy." He also said that his "nastiness" was payback. "Beastly people must be punished."
In Trust Your Children: Voices Against Censorship in Children's Literature, Dahl said that adults may be disturbed by his books "because they are not quite as aware as I am that children are different from adults. Children are much more vulgar than grownups. They have a coarser sense of humor. They are basically more cruel." Dahl often commented that the key to his success with children was that he joined with them against adults.
"The writer for children must be a jokey sort of a fellow," Dahl once told Writer. "He must like simple tricks and jokes and riddles and other childish things. He must be … inventive. He must have a really first-class plot."
Why a writer?
Dahl's children's fiction is known for its sudden turns into the fantastic, its fast-moving pace, and its decidedly harsh treatment of any adults foolish enough to cause trouble for the young heroes and heroines. Similarly, his adult fiction often relied on a sudden twist that threw light on what had been happening in the story.
Looking back on his years as a writer in Boy: Tales of Childhood, Dahl contended that "two hours of writing fiction leaves this particular writer absolutely drained. For those two hours he has been miles away, he has been somewhere else, in a different place with totally different people, and the effort of swimming back into normal surroundings is very great. It is almost a shock.… A person is a fool to become a writer. His only [reward] is absolute freedom. He has no master except his own soul, and that, I am sure, is why he does it."
Roald Dahl died in Oxford, England, on November 23, 1990.
For More Information
Dahl, Roald. Boy: Tales of Childhood. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1984.
Dahl, Roald. Going Solo. New York: Farrar, Straus, 1986.
Dahl, Roald. The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More. New York: Knopf, 1977.
A writer of both children's fiction and short stories for adults, Roald Dahl (1916-1990) is best known as the author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the story of a poor boy who because of his honesty is selected by Willy Wonka to be the new owner of his world-famous chocolate factory. Dahl has been described as a master of story construction with a remarkable ability to weave a tale.
Dahl was born in Llandaff, South Wales, to Norwegian parents, and spent his childhood summers visiting his grandparents in Oslo, Norway. After his father died when Dahl was four, his mother abided by her late husband's wish that Dahl be sent to English schools. Dahl subsequently attended Llandaff Cathedral School, where he began a series of academic misadventures. After he and several other students were severely beaten by the headmaster for placing a dead mouse in a cruel store-keeper's candy jar, Dahl's mother moved him to St. Peter's Boarding School and later to Repton, a renowned private school. Dahl would later describe his school years as "days of horrors" which inspired much of his macabre fiction. After graduating from Repton, Dahl took a position with the Shell Oil Company in Tanganyika (now Tanzania), Africa. In 1939 he joined a Royal Air Force training squadron in Nairobi, Kenya, serving as a fighter pilot in the Mediterranean. Dahl suffered severe head injuries in a plane crash near Alexandria, Egypt; upon recovering he was transferred to Washington, D.C., as an assistant air attache. There Dahl began his writing career, publishing a short story in the Saturday Evening Post. In 1961, he published his first work for children, James and the Giant Peach, and for the remainder of his life continued to write for both children and adults. He died in 1990.
Critical response to Dahl's children's books has varied from praising him as a genius to declaring his works racist and harmful. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is his most popular and most controversial children's story. Many critics have censured this work for its alleged stereotyping and inhumanity, and have accused Dahl of racism for his portrayal of the Oompa-Loompas: in the original version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, they are described as black pygmies from deepest Africa who sing and dance and work for nearly nothing. In a revised edition, Dahl changed their appearance and gave them a mythical homeland. Dahl's supporters have argued that in Charlie, as in his other children's books, Dahl follows the traditional fairy tale style, which includes extreme exaggeration and the swift and horrible destruction of evildoers; they contend that children are not harmed by this approach.
Critics have compared Dahl's adult-oriented fiction to the works of Guy de Maupassant, O. Henry, and Saki. Praised by commentators as well crafted and suspenseful, Dahl's stories employ surprise endings and shrewd characters who are rarely what they seem to be. Of Dahl's work, Michael Wood has commented, "His stories are not only unfailingly clever, they are, many of them, about cleverness." Dahl also experimented with comic themes in his novel My Uncle Oswald. The title character, Oswald Hendryks Cornelius, is a charming man of the world who embarks upon a business venture to collect and preserve semen samples from geniuses and royalty, hoping to attract as clients wealthy women who desire superior offspring. Like Dahl's short stories, My Uncle Oswald features duplicitous characters, and some critics have observed that it shares a common theme with much of his short fiction: a depiction of the superficial nature of modern civilization.
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