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brutality in roald dahl’s children’s books

by kim hajeong, photo credits.

It is difficult to pin Roald Dahl down as only one thing. Celebrated writer, certainly – but he was also a flying ace and intelligence officer; the husband of an Academy Award-winning actress, Patricia Neal; a father of five children, for whom his best-known stories were first told; an inventor and doctor who saved the lives of more than three thousand children suffering from hydrocephalus. Even as a writer, the occupation for which he is best known, Roald Dahl is something of an enigma: his hugely popular books were written primarily for children, but were denounced by not a few critics for being “ugly, antisocial, brutish and antifeminist” (Honan, 1990) and sometimes sadistic, violent, greedy and even “disgusting” (Castella, 2011).

Dahl always took these criticisms lightly, saying “I never get any protests from children. All I get are giggles of mirth and squirms of delight. I know what children like.” And for all the controversy that’s surrounded his work in his thirty-four years of writing, it is true that Dahl’s formulaic combination of perversion, greed and sordidly dark humor has yielded him prodigious success as a children’s book writer. Over one hundred million of his books have been sold worldwide, with eight being reworked into movies (The BFG, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Danny, the Champion of the World, Fantastic Mr. Fox, James and the Giant Peach, Matilda, Charlie & the Chocolate Factory, The Witches), and Dahl himself has been named “one of the greatest storytellers for children of the 20th century”.

For all of its success, however, Dahl’s storytelling is modeled on a deceptively simple idea: one that aims to satisfy a child’s appetite for the perverse. In doing this, Dahl regularly employed an archetype that features a protagonist child fighting against the oppressive evil of adults, save one or two to help counteract their villainy. Take Matilda and Miss Honey as they fight against the tyranny of their guardians in Matilda; Sophie and the BFG versus a cantankerous headmistress and man-eating giants in The BFG; James and his insect friends juxtaposed to the ugly cruelty of aunts Spiker and Sponge in James and the Giant Peach. Dahl lingers over the macabre with relish in his stories, frequently describing his villains as grotesquely ugly and deformed, and punishing their greed with a nonchalant violence made comical by unorthodox plot devices—like, say, an enormous peach with which one might run over a wicked aunt. Dahl contended that this conspiring with children against adults was successful because “children love and hate their parents in equal measure” (Castella, 2011) and that “parents and schoolteachers are the enemy… because of the awful process of civilizing this thing that when it is born is an animal with no manners.” (Honan, 1990).

Perhaps this extreme take of Dahl’s on the child’s lust for revenge against civilising influences was borne of his own experiences. Dahl himself had a tumultuous childhood, with his father and sister dying before he was three years old and his being isolated from the rest of his family a few years later in boarding school. Interestingly enough, Dahl proved an exceptionally curious child even in his formative years—one of his best known childhood escapades, dubbed the “Great mouse plot of 1924”, involved seven-year-old Dahl and his friends putting a dead mouse in a jar of sweets belonging to a “witchlike” sweet-shop owner named Mrs. Pratchett. It must also be noted that Dahl had a wealth of wartime experience. Having served as an intelligence officer in World-War II, Dahl had witnessed and done his fair share of killing—something that is speculated to have had an influence on his work. Children’s book critic Amanda Craigs actually muses about this at length in a segment for the Times newspaper, speaking about how “he’s one of the few children’s authors who’s actually killed people.

That is going to have an effect on how you see people and the world.”

Whatever the motivations behind them, Dahl’s darkness and brutality have always appealed for their absoluteness and their simplicity. Dahl’s stories contain no moral ambiguity, no deceptiveness; the bad characters are always ugly and stupid and duly punished; the good, beautiful and intelligent and eventually triumphant. Dahl also ensures that his stories end happily—that the child always triumphs over the tyranny of the adult, of the civilizing influence. This adds another layer to the appeal of Dahl’s customary brutality—not only does it satiate the uncivilized appetite of the child for the perverse, but it also does so in a way that distances the violence from the child himself.

After all, Dahl is not the first to write dark stories—the Brothers Grimm have written sternly cautionary moralistic tales that have inspired fear in children and warned them against greed and wickedness for decades. However, instilling lessons about a moral good is not something that Dahl fussed about at length in his stories, and therefore all of the fearsome violence and brutality enacted against the ugly and stupid adults in Dahl’s tales fades into an abstract backdrop that allows a child explore the gruesome without worrying about any of its moralistic consequences. The question of whether this breed of storytelling from Dahl is an agreeable—or even acceptable—one is still up in the air for critics to argue over for another few decades—but meanwhile, a Roald Dahl book is sold every five seconds; and in formulating an opinion, picking one up seems a good place to start.

References 

Castella, T. D. (September 2011). Roald Dahl and the darkness within. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-14880441 

Dahl, O., Mendes, S. (April 2013). Inside Roald Dahl’s fantasy factory: How did this tiny shed become the birthplace of some of the most inspiring children’s books ever written? Retrieved from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/event/article-2310571/Roald-Dahl-How-did-tiny-shed-birthplace-inspiring-childrens-books-written.html 

Honan, W. (November 1990). Roald Dahl, Writer, 74, is Dead; Best Sellers Enchanted Children. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/1990/11/24/obituaries/roald-dahl-writer-74-is-dead-best-sellers-enchanted-children.html 

Monahan, M. (February 2011). Roald Dahl’s 10 finest hours. Retrieved from 

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/8328574/Roald-Dahls-10-finest-hours.html

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