Roald Dahl and Sociology 101
Sharon E. Royer
Largely known as the author of James and the Giant Peach (1961) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964), Roald Dahl is also the author of three full-length works for early adolescents. It is of this group of young people that Dahl once said, " 'If my books can help children become readers, then I feel I have accomplished something important' " (West). Dahl's books for adolescents have caught the attention of young people and adults alike. The view of society revealed through his books--his implied criticism of adults and his contempt for social institutions--has made his works popular with adolescents. This same view has brought mixed reactions from critics.
The variety of audiences that Dahl successfully wrote for throughout his career demonstrates his ability to appeal to specific groups of readers. Ironically, Roald Dahl wrote extensively for adults and children before he attempted to write books for young adults. His writing career began when Cecil Scott Forester interviewed him for the Saturday Evening Post and submitted Dahl's fictionalized account of his adventures in the Royal Air Force to the newspaper (Pendergast). In 1943, Dahl wrote his first children's story, The Gremlins, for Walt Disney, who wanted to make it into a film. Although it was never produced, Disney later published the story, complete with Disney's illustrations (West). After The Gremlins, Dahl left the field of children's literature and began writing short stories for adults. Although they were "generally macabre in nature, his stories won praise for their vivid details, carefully constructed plots, and surprise endings" (West). However, when he began to have difficulty coming up with new plots, Dahl decided to return to writing children's books. His first novel was James and the Giant Peach (1961), and his last was The Vicar of Nibbleswicke, published posthumously in 1991 (Bulaong). Dahl emphasized the importance of children's authors having experience with children when he noted, "Had I not had children of my own, I would have never written books for children, nor would I have been capable of doing so" (Howard). Dahl's first attempt at the young adult market was in 1977, with a collection of two autobiographical pieces, one essay, and four short stories, entitled The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six Others. This work was viewed by critics as more appropriate for adults, because only two stories had young characters; therefore, the book was not especially successful (West). Five years later, however, Dahl published the enormously popular The BFG.
Three Novels that Appeal to Young Teens
Dahl's three major works for intermediate readers, The BFG (1982), The Witches (1983), and Matilda (1988) have relatively young protagonists, although the books are written at middle school/junior high reading levels. These books are able to speak to young adolescent readers because the protagonists, in spite of their ages, are at stages in their psychosocial development similar to the readers. Erik Erikson, who studied under Sigmund Freud, said that young people between the ages of 12 to 18 experience the psychosocial crisis of "identity versus role confusion" (Slavin). During this stage, the task of adolescents is to establish themselves as independent and self-reliant individuals (Slavin). This is especially significant for early adolescents because studies show that students' self-esteem is lowest when they are entering middle school/junior high school (Slavin). Each of the protagonists in Dahl's books for intermediate readers illustrates the capacity of young people to accomplish great things, and to exhibit an independent spirit.
The main character in The BFG is Sophie, an eight-year old orphan who is kidnapped by the Big Friendly Giant, or the BFG for short, after she sees him blowing dreams into people's windows. Fortunately for Sophie, the BFG is not interested in eating humans, as are the other nine inhabitants of Giant Country. Outraged by the other giants' disgusting eating habits, Sophie and the BFG develop a plot, which involves the heads of the Army and Air Force as well as the Queen of England, to stop the giants from eating children around the world.
In Dahl's second work, The Witches, the main character is seven years old. His Norwegian grandmother, a retired witchophile, becomes his guardian upon the death of his parents. A short time later, when the two are vacationing in Bournemouth, England, the boy accidentally observes the Annual Meeting of the witches in England, and is turned into a mouse by The Grand High Witch. He manages to escape, and enlists the help of his indomitable grandmother to stop the witches' evil plot to kill all of the children in England in a very creative manner.
The title character in Matilda is a five-year-old child genius whose corrupt parents are practically oblivious to her existence. When she begins to attend school she encounters Miss Honey, her quiet and lovable teacher. She also meets Miss Trunchbull, the headmistress, an ex-Olympic hammer thrower who continues to practice with children. "The Trunchbull" refuses to acknowledge Matilda's genius and promote her, but Matilda finds that she can channel her brainpower to manipulate objects. She then develops a plan to use her power to get rid of Miss Trunchbull for good, and to rectify the wrongs done to Miss Honey. These three books, with their young heroes and heroines, are major contributions to the young adult market, due to the high level of commonality that Roald Dahl's protagonists share with the readers.
Dahl's View of the World- and Its Place in his Books
Several occurrences in Dahl's life can be connected to emerging values seen in his literature for adolescents. From very early in life, he was isolated from society because his mother, who was Norwegian, did not feel comfortable in English society after the death of his father (West). He grew up hearing Norwegian myths and taking annual vacations to Norway, a setting which is significantly reflected in The Witches (Howard). Dahl's mother honored his father's wishes and sent their children to English schools, despite the fact that at that time English schools stressed corporal punishment, of which Dahl's mother did not approve (West). Consequently, Dahl was removed from preparatory school when he was severely beaten with a cane after he played a prank (West). Dahl remembered those times as "days of horrors, of fierce discipline, of not talking in the dormitories, no running in the corridors, no untidiness of any sort, no this or that or the other, just rules, rules and still more rules that had to be obeyed. And the fear of the dreaded cane hung over us like the fear of death all the time" (Pendergast).
Later, Dahl attended Repton, a prestigious English private school, where the headmaster was a clergyman who flogged students without mercy (West). Such schools would later be reflected in Matilda through Miss Trunchbull, who is known for her capability to throw students great distances for offenses such as eating liquorice during scripture lessons (Matilda). The author of an unauthorized biography on Dahl comments further on the effect that Dahl's life had on his writings: "Dahl's moral universe was one in which there could be no question without an answer, no battle without victory, no irresoluble complexity. This was true of his writing, also" (Treglown). Hence, the sum of these experiences developed in Dahl the cynical view of society that is conveyed in his literature. Although most of Dahl's contemporary readers have not had the experiences that Dahl did, through his writing he establishes a common bond with all young people who have been oppressed or unfairly disciplined.
This bond is developed as a result of Dahl's societal view, characterized by the belief that authorities and social institutions, such as government and schools, should not be trusted or accepted. Mark West, after spending a great deal of time interviewing Dahl and researching his works, concludes, "In almost all of Dahl's fiction--whether it be intended for children or for adults--authoritarian figures, social institutions, and societal norms are ridiculed or at least undermined" (x). Even the heads of the armed forces do not escape Dahl's scorn of social institutions. This attitude is seen in The BFG when the Head of the Air Force and the Head of the Army are unable to devise a plan to capture the child-eating giants. Consequently, the BFG states that they become "biffsquiggled" at any small obstacle, and the Queen calls them "rather dim-witted characters". By displaying and ridiculing their incompetence, Dahl communicates the message that heads of social institutions can not be trusted to act intelligently.
Adults, representations of authority to young people, are also dealt with harshly in Dahl's books if they dare to cause trouble for his young heroes or heroines. This treatment can be seen when Miss Trunchbull, the dictatorial headmistress of Matilda's school, becomes the target of Matilda's telepathic powers, and soon after vanishes. This instance, and many others like it, reflect Dahl's attitude that "beastly people must be punished" (in Pendergast). The introduction to the Children's Literature Review (1997) entry on Dahl explains, "The morality of his writings is simple, usually a matter of absolute good versus consummate evil--with no shades of gray--and those who fall into the latter category are sure to meet with a swift and horrible end". The exception to Dahl's portrayal of adult authority figures is "his tendency to see the family as a possible source of happiness and comfort" (West).
In Dahl's books, with the exception of Matilda, family members are willing to support one another, even against the rest of the world. This is evident in the relationship between the main character and his grandmother in The Witches. For example, after the protagonist has been turned into a mouse and shares his plan to eliminate all the witches in England with his grandmother, her immediate reaction is, "We shall check it out immediately!. . .There's not a second to waste!". Therefore, not all adults are portrayed negatively, but any that abuse their authority over young people are severely punished. All of these factors that contribute to Dahl's implied criticism of society have generated contradictory responses.
Dahl's Positive Impact on Adolescent Readers
Many people believe that Roald Dahl's sociology may have a positive effect on readers. His view of society appeals to adolescents because it closely reflects their own perspective. First, as one critic suggests, he appeals to their "gut-punching and slapstick sense of humor" as well as their "crude sense of fun and delight in jokey phrases" (Elkin). Second, young adults often experience feelings of rebellion against the adults trying to socialize them, which is reflected by Dahl's overwhelmingly negative portrayal of adults (Telgen). The tendency of adolescents to increasingly turn away from parents and reject the authority of adults while they seek to establish unique identities is cited by Erik Erikson as characteristic of the social development of adolescents (Slavin).
Another component of Dahl's philosophy that appeals to early adolescents is the belief that good triumphs, and evil is punished or destroyed. For example, when the child-eating giants are captured in The BFG, they are thrown into a pit where they are imprisoned for life, without attempts to befriend them or draft them for some useful purpose (Rees). Belief in the destruction or punishment of evil leads to a fourth aspect of Dahl's sociology that appeals to young people: the presence of physical violence as a means of retribution. Julia Marriage, a reviewer for The School Librarian, notes that while the violence might concern adults, "children are likely to take this in their stride, however regrettable that may be" (Telgen). These elements in Dahl's books reflect many adolescents' perspectives and provide an incentive for young people to read.
Another positive feature of Dahl's works is that they encourage young people through positive presentations of their peers at a time when many are struggling with low self-esteem and looking to peers for their identity. Literary critic Linda Taylor notes that Dahl's main characters are known for their "wit, solitariness, independence, tenacity, intelligence and resourcefulness". This is especially significant for young women, because Dahl's female protagonists, like Matilda and Sophie, are independent and are not intimidated by authority figures (West). For example, Matilda does not allow herself to become a helpless victim by refusing to let her poor home life deny her a sense of self-worth (West). When her parents refuse to buy her books, she finds the public library on her own--at the age of four (Matilda). This independence, characteristic of all Dahl's main characters, allows them to exact revenge against their oppressors (Telgen). Matilda's revenge comes when her parents are going to force her to leave the country with them, but she manages to stay behind with her beloved teacher. However, Dahl also offers the encouragement that these young heroes and heroines--independent and resourceful though they may be--are able to find comfort and support from older allies (West). This is certainly the case in The Witches, when the main character, thinking about his grandmother, comments, "It doesn't matter who you are or what you look like so long as somebody loves you". The results of these positive elements in Dahl's works are books that appeal to and offer encouragement to young adults. Yet, these positive effects are viewed by some to be overshadowed by the possible negative effects of Dahl's view of society on adolescents.
Critics' Objections to Dahl's Books
Many challengers of Dahl's work object to his unrealistic portrayal of life. For example, David Rees, in an article published in Children's Literature in Education (1988), states, "The trouble with Dahl's world is that it is black and white--two-dimensional and unreal". Dahl's portrayal of life can be seen as a result of his overall philosophy of society. Since adults are not to be trusted, they are often portrayed as villains. Yet, Rees explains, "adults enter a child's world in a thousand different moral shapes and sizes". Very rarely does the average child encounter, as Sophie did, adults as evil as the flesh-eating giants, as incompetent as the heads of the armed forces, or as childlike as the BFG. There is much more variety--and many fewer extremes--in the types of adults that children may encounter. Another unrealistic aspect of Dahl's work is the concept that virtue and poverty go together, such as with Miss Honey, Matilda's adored teacher (Telgen). Some find this connection objectionable because it is a view consistent with Marxist philosophy, not one that supports free market capitalism.
Adult readers also object to the unreality of Dahl's books because in life, everything is not fair, and good does not always win. Even when the hero of The Witches is permanently turned into a mouse, the reader is assured by the main character that, "I honestly don't feel especially bad about it. I don't even feel angry. In fact, I feel rather good" (The Witches). This lack of regret is the norm in Dahl's works instead of the exception, as some feel that it ought to be.
Dahl has garnered further criticism for his portrayal of adults, which many challengers believe has a negative effect on his young readership. Throughout his work, authoritarian adults are frequently the victims of vicious revenge. However, what some find most objectionable is that adults are treated harshly even when they are innocent, such as when the main character's parents are killed in a car crash in The Witches (Pendergast). Critics Myra Pollack Sadker and David Miller Sadker have accused Dahl of ageism, and of conveying the message that "the needs and desires and opinions of old people are totally irrelevant and inconsequential". Some believe that presenting adolescents with such a view of adults, at an age when they are experiencing conflicting emotions about adults already, could adversely affect their relationships with older people. Commenting on this attitude, Bruno Bettelheim, author of The Uses of Enchantment , points out its limitations:
There is a widespread refusal to let children know that the source of much that goes wrong in life is due to our very own nature--the propensity of all men for acting aggressively, asocially, selfishly, out of anger and anxiety. Instead, we want our children to believe that, inherently, all men are good. But children know that they are not always good; and often, even when they are, they would prefer not to be (in Hitchens).
It is this inclination to pretend that all people are good that Dahl challenges, and consequently his literature attracts opposition from many adult sources.
The final major concern of critics of Dahl's works is his treatment of important issues, and how that treatment might affect his readers. This concern is especially relevant when considering The Witches, ninth on the list of the most frequently banned books in the 1990s (Foerstel). Dahl has been accused of sexism by feminists in England, and has been criticized for his negative portrayal of witches by witches' societies in the United States. These critics point to statements such as the following in making their case against Dahl: "But the fact remains that all witches are women. There is no such thing as a male witch" (Telgen; The Witches). However, his critics often ignore the statement that follows the first: "On the other hand, a ghoul is always a male" (The Witches). When questioned about this issue, Dahl defended his work by pointing to the " 'lovely grandmother, who is one of the major characters in the story' " (Telgen). The grandmother's character is communicated to the reader early in the book when the main character says, " 'The fact that I am still here and able to speak to you. . .is due entirely to my wonderful grandmother' " (The Witches). Dahl claims that the previous accusations are unfounded because of the courage and wisdom that the grandmother displays, in addition to her encouragement of unorthodoxy (Treglown). He does not concern himself with the possibility that certain groups of adults might be offended, but concentrates on entertaining his readers.
Dahl's treatment of the issue of child neglect has also been criticized. This view is based on the fact that Matilda is treated by her parents, at least from her perspective, "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" (Matilda). One reviewer, Anna A. Flowers, concluded, "Child neglect countered by revenge, however funny and however justified, is just not a nice theme" (in Telgen). However, Matilda could also be used as an avenue for discussion with students about child abuse and neglect. Nevertheless, because it leads to an unrealistic portrayal of life, a negative representation of adults, and a careless treatment of social issues, Dahl's sociology is viewed by many to be more harmful than beneficial to adolescents. Yet, as is often the case, controversy may lead directly to popularity.
The very controversy caused by Roald Dahl's works for early adolescents has drawn millions of teens to his books and, subsequently, encouraged them to enjoy reading. These young people found in Roald Dahl something that they could not find anywhere else: an author with a view of society that was essentially identical to their own--distrustful of authority figures and firm in the belief that good will triumph. Concerning Dahl's popularity, the librarian of one middle school made this comment during the spring of 1997: "Roald Dahl's books are always on our reorder list, for copies of his books circulate so much they are worn in no time! The titles are always checked out and usually on reserve!" (Crawford). Roald Dahl's view of society, his contempt for corrupt authority figures, and his distrust of the system have made his works popular with adolescents. An expression of such values in the disguise of fantasy and humor is a rare find and one that young adolescents should be encouraged to make. Roald Dahl has certainly achieved his goal as an author because his books have provided a way for many young people to become readers.
Sharon Royer is a senior, majoring in education, at Malone College (Canton, Ohio) and is indebted to Dr. Virginia Carroll of Kent State-Stark Campus for her to submit this article for publication. This is Ms. Royer's first publication in The ALAN Review.
Foerstel, Herbert N. "The Most Frequently Banned Books in the 1990s." Banned in the U.S.A.: A Reference Guide to Book Censorship in Schools and Public Libraries. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1994. [Online] Available http://www.cs.cmu.edu/People/spok/most-banned.html, January 27, 1997.
Howard, Kristy. The Roald Dahl Home Page 1996. [Online] Available http://www.roalddahl.org/, January 27, 1997.
Sharon Royer lives in North Canton, Ohio, where she is a student and prospective who enjoys studying young adult literature.
Reference Citation: Royer, Sharon. (1998). "Roald Dahl." The ALAN Review, Volume 26, Number 1.