Sunday, November 13, 2005

Roald Dahl's Critics

This summer saw the release of another adaptation of Roald Dahl's classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The first was the classic Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, released in 1971. The new movie is also in the long line of movies based on Dahl's works, among them The BFG, The Witches, Mathilda, and James and the Giant Peach. Given Dahl's continued popularity with children and adults alike, it may not seem remarkable that so many of his works have made their way to the big screen. What does make it remarkable is that Dahl is perhaps the most controversial children's writer of all time. His works are certainly politically incorrect. Indeed, Dahl has more than his fair share of his critics.

Perhaps no work Dahl ever wrote is as controversial as his best known book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. There are many who see a nasty streak throughout the work in the comeuppances dished out to the naughty children. Augustus Gloop gets sucked into a tube for extracting chocolate. After chewing Wonka's latest experimental gun Violet Beauregard is turned into a giant blueberry. Veruca Salt (perhaps the most unpleasant of the lot) is deemed a "bad nut" by Wonka's squirrels and tossed in the garbage. Mike Teavee gets broadcast over television and shrunk. While the children do make it out of Wonka's factory none the worse for wear, many adults find these comeuppances to be very objectionable. Indeed, the fact that Wonka takes a bit of enjoyment out of the children's predicaments makes the book all the more objectionable for many grown ups. While Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is perhaps Dahl's tour de force when it comes to dishing out punishments to unpleasant people, it is not the only book in which he does so. In James and the Giant Peach Aunt Spoker and Aunt Sponge wind up smashed by the peach of the title. After torturing various birds and monkeys, Mr. and Mrs. Twit find themselves glued upside down by the very animals they mistreated in The Twits. Similar comeuppances are dealt out to vile individuals in Mathilda, The Witches, and many, perhaps most of, Dahl's works.

Personally, I have always found the objections to the retribution Dahl inflicts on bad people in his books to be without merit. The way I see it, Dahl's books are essentially modern day fairy tales, albeit somewhat twisted ones. His world is one which is black and white, where the good characters (Uncle Joe, Miss Honey, the grandma in The Witches, and so on) are truly good and the bad characters (Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge, Trunchbull, and so on) are truly bad. It is also a world where the just, no matter how oppressed they may be for a time, will eventually get their reward, while the evil will suffer the consequences of their actions. It is indeed a fairy tale world. And it is a world where the comeuppances which the wicked suffer are often not so severe as those faced by the wicked in fairy tales.

Of course, here I must point out another one of the appeal of the comeuppances in Dahl's books. Often the comeuppances are dealt out to adults who mistreat children. Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge, the Trunchbull, Mr. and Mrs. Twit, and the Witches are all adults who abuse children. Much of the appeal for children in Dahl's books may be in seeing such unpleasant adults get their just rewards. In a sense, then, Dahl is a champion for children against those who would mistreat them.

This brings us to another accusation levelled at Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In a 1972 issue of The Horn Book children's author Eleanor Cameron launched an open attack on the book. Not only did she feel that it was about candy, but that it was essentially candy for the brain. While the book is highly critical of television, she felt that it delivered the same kind of vicarious thrills with its fast pace and shock filled plot. No less than sci-fi author Ursula LeGuin agreed with her. She thought that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory provided "a genuine escape experience, a tiny psychological fugue, very like that provided in comic books."

As both a fan of comic books and Roald Dahl's works, I have to disagree with both Cameron and LeGuin. It is true that nearly all of his works are written in a brisk, almost conversational tone. It is true that in many of his works the thrills come fast and fuious. That having been said, this does not mean that they are mere escapism or that they are empty of merit. In fact, not only can Dahl's works be seen as modern day fairy tales, but as modern day morality tales as well. As I pointed out above, in his works the good are rewarded and the wicked are punished. Perhaps this does not always reflect reality, but I feel it is still a good message for children to read nonetheless. In showing children that good can triumph, Dahl effectively encourages them to be good. Quite simply, he wants them to be Charlie Bucket and not Veruca Salt.

Another accusation hurled at Dahl is that his works are sexist. Many feminists have pointed to the portrayal of the aunts in James and the Giant Peach, his portrayal of the Trunchbull in Mathilda, and his statement in The Witches that witches are always female as signs that Dahl was a misogynist. Of all the accusations hurled at Dahl, I feel this one to be the most unwarranted and, indeed, even unjust. Many feminists ignore the fact that while Dahl tells us all witches are female in The Witches, he adds that all ghouls are male. Here Dahl is not espousing sexism, but rather creating his own mythology in which there are demonic beings of both sexes. As to the aunts in James and the Giant Peach and the Trunchbull in Mathilda, it must be pointed out that there are probably as many unpleasant men in Dahl's works as there are unpleasant women (maybe more). Mr. Twit in The Twits enjoys torturing animals. Mathilda's father in the book of the same name is a particulary despicable character. Speaking of Mathilda, I guess I should point out that one in of the good adults that book is a woman--gentle and caring Miss Honey. Miss Honey is not an anomaly in Dahl's works either. The grandmother in The Witches and Charlie's mother and grandmothers in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory are other examples of postive portrayals of women in Dahl's works. Indeed, it must be pointed out that in both Mathilda and The BFG, the heroes are little girls. If Dahl was a sexist and misogynist, his misogyny would certainly extend to little girls as well as adult women.

So far I have dismissed (or at least disgreed with) most of the criticism levelled at Dahl. There is one, howevever, that I cannot really argue with--the thought that the original portrayal of the OompaLoompas in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was essentially racist. In the original edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the OompaLoompas were pygmies taken from the deepest, darkest jungles of Africa. Curiously, no one noticed anything racist about this until Cameron's article was published in The Horn Book in 1972. Among the many attacks Cameron made on the book was that the portrayal of the OompaLoompas was essentialy racist. The bitter irony is that while she only mentioned this in passing, it is the one thing in Dahl's work that has generated the most controversy in the past 23 years.

Quite frankly, I have to agree that the earlier portrayal of the OompaLoompas is essentially racist. In the original work, the OompaLoompas can be seen as the very stereotype of an African native. Indeed, they live in a very uncivlised fashion, surviving on a diet of beetles, catepillars, eucalyptus leaves, and the bark of the bong-bong tree. It takes Willy Wonka, the white colonial imperialist, to save them from this wretched life by employing them in his factory. To me there is a subtext that European culture is essentially superior to others--at the very least to that of the OompaLoompas. Dahl himself eventually decided that his portrayal of the Oompa-Loompas was racist, and in the 1973 edition they were revised so that they had pink skin, golden hair, and came from Loompaland rather than Africa. While I love Dahl's works dearly and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory most of all, I cannot deny that I find his original portrayal of the OompaLoompas somewhat repugnant. I must not be the only one. Even before Cameron published her attack on Charlie and the Chocolate Facotry, the movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory changed them from African pygmies to orange skinned, fantasy creatures.

Ultimately, whether Roald Dahl's works can truly be considered objectoinable can only be answered by the question of whether they harm children or not. As someone who grew up on his works, I have to say that I do not believe they do. I do not think that I am sexist or racist. And I have yet to crush any adults I don't like under a giant peach or chuck spoiled brats into a garbabe chute. A whole generation has grown up with Dahl's children books (James and the Giant Peach being published in 1961) and yet we have not seen a dramatic increase in crime or juvenile deliquency in that time. While many may object to Dahl's works, ultimately I do not think they are harmful to children. Indeed, using myself as an example, they encouraged me to read more and hence to learn more. Certainly, Roald Dahl is one of the those writers who can be credited with making me a writer as well.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Let's not forget the villains of Fantastic Mr. Fox. Boggis, Bunce, and Bean, who represent the epitome of greed and selfishness in the book, are more examples of Roald Dahl's fair treatment of the sexes.