The Problem With Mr Dahl

by Dr Meg Roughley, NSC, University of York

 

There are very good reasons for giving the books of Roald Dahl to children to read, alone or in the classroom.  For a start, he always gives ‘good story’ in that, like Shakespeare, he gives what we expect of the successful narrative.  The essential classical elements—an imperfect or undeveloped hero/heroine; proper villains; reversal of fortune or an incipient condition of loss or lack; mistaken identity or misrepresentation of the truth; subsequent revelation of that truth and catharsis of pity/fear—are all in place and functioning, and the narrative path adheres to the Aristotelian arc—a unified plot consisting of an exposition, followed by rising action leading to a catastrophe/climax and then by falling action ending in a revelatory denouement, which in Dahl-land is always a happy, ‘comedic’ ending.  As a story-engineer, it is hard to fault him.

It’s also hard to fault him as a wordsmith:  he gives ‘good story’ and he also gives ‘good language’.  His paronomasian, neologistic gobblefunk practices are very like the creations of children learning to express themselves through a linguistic system of which they don’t yet know all the rules.  There is something quite liberating in that.  Not knowing the ‘proper’ way of saying needn’t inhibit your saying at all.  And, this is language ‘play’:  it is meant to be, and is, creative fun as well as liberating.

For me, however, the real strength of his writing for children is the on-going critique of the hegemonic relationship between ‘child’ and ‘adult’.  In Dahl’s fictional universe, power is wielded by the ‘evil’ nasty, brutish, bullying… Click To Tweet

For me, however, the real strength of his writing for children is the on-going critique of the hegemonic relationship between ‘child’ and ‘adult’.  In Dahl’s fictional universe, power is wielded by the ‘evil’ nasty, brutish, bullying adult over the child.  This power is only ever slightly mitigated by any ‘good’ adults present (Miss Honey, the grandparents in Charlie & the Chocolate Factory and The Witches, for example) who are weak, disenfranchised and ultimately unable to help the child-hero.  In the political economy of Dahl’s world, children are the oppressed, but Dahl is, if nothing else, a late Romantic.  The child may be oppressed in this fallen world, but is constituted by that original innocence and imagination which gives it a ‘natural’ moral and intellectual superiority to its oppressors.  More than merely ‘good’, the individual child has a ‘natural’ ability to confront and overcome the ‘evil’ that adult human beings do.  The message is one of possible justice and hope that an oppressive regime can be revolutionised by the innate ‘genius’ and agency of the oppressed.  Could this be why children really like Matilda and Danny, Champion of the World?

The textual world of Roald Dahl is as ‘white’ as the class, education, and culture from which he emerged and into which he re-submerged himself, in a suburban garden. One might have hoped that his wartime experiences in North African… Click To Tweet

It is a real shame, then, that such ‘liberating’, Romantic, storying should be so ambivalent about colonialism and imperial supremacy.  The textual world of Roald Dahl is as ‘white’ as the class, education, and culture from which he emerged and into which he re-submerged himself, in a suburban garden. One might have hoped that his wartime experiences in North African and the Middle East might have broadened his scope, but it would seem that, not unusually perhaps, he retained the racial prejudices of the time and of his class.  As much as he would rail against the injustices of the British public school and military systems, he remained inured to the injustices of colonial systems.

The most obvious, blinking neon-orange, sign of his ambivalence to colonialism, and in fact, racism, is the creation of the Oompa-Loompas in Charlie & the Chocolate Factory. These are the only significant people of colour in Dahl’s childverse.  Willy Wonka’s workforce, he tells us, comes from “a terrible country …. thick jungles infested by the most dangerous beasts in the world” where he found them living “in tree houses to escape from the whangdoodles and the hornswogglers” and starving on a diet of “mashed up green caterpillars”.  Wonka has saved them from this savage, primeval environment:

“I smuggled them over in large packing cases with holes in them, and they all got here safely.  They are wonderful workers.  They all speak English now.  They love dancing and music.  They are always making up songs…. They like jokes.  They still wear the same kind of clothes they wore in the jungle.”

Shipped like animals from their “infested” homeland, saved by the white man and imported to work his ‘plantation’ for nothing more than the cacao bean that “they longed for more than any other” food, dancing, singing, joking, happily semi-naked: this is all so unhappily familiar. That they willingly go with Wonka (at least, according to Wonka) is worrisome.  Who would so gladly resign their independence, their sovereignity, for cacao beans?  Who but a natural slave, the very opposite of the naturally superior child?  Swapping freedom for food is something the white children in C&TCFare punished for, after all.

And to where have the Oompa-Loompas been shipped?  To a paradise, “a lovely valley” with “green meadows” with a river of chocolate and edible trees, bushes and grass.  But, it is a subterranean paradise, an artificial Eden, part of a factory, one of Blake’s “satanic mills”.  It reminds me in some way of Lucifer’s building of the marvelous city of Hell in Milton’s Paradise Lost:  there is something truly demonic about the construction underground of fields of temptation serviced by a ‘race’ of the happily enslaved.

I’m not entirely certain what Dahl is doing here.  I find Willy Wonka a very ambivalent character/creator and Dahl an equally ambivalent author/creator.  I wish he had implied, at least, some sort of critique of the hegemonic master/slave relationship or of colonialism on offer here, but he hasn’t.  The question arises, then, how we, as book-dealers to children, justify hooking them on such ambivalent text?

What would be marvelous is if some young writer of colour would take on the task of doing what Jean Rhys did to Jane Eyre with her The Wide Sargasso Seaor Chinua Achebe did to Heart of Darknesswith his Things Fall Apart and re-write the chocolate factory from the Oompa-Loompa point of view.  Until that happens though, perhaps the best strategy would be to encourage children to realise and to use the critical strategies that Dahl gives us to question his own texts.  Let’s let Matilda read The Chocolate Factory.  Then let’s let Zanib Mian’s Omar read it, and let Nadia Shireen’s Billy read it.  And, let’s get together with them and have a right critical gobblefunking go at the ambivalence of it all.

 

 

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