Reading Dahl

I’ve had an interesting experience recently.  I went back and read a childhood favorite- the author Roald Dahl.  He is perhaps most well known for writing Charlie and the Chocolate factory but also James and the Giant Peach, Matilda, Witches and Fantastic Mr.  Fox (and many others).  He also has two memoirs entitled Boy and Going Solo.

I have nothing but pleasant memories of reading his books as a little girl.  In fact, they were one of the few fantasy-like books that I enjoyed, preferring usually to read books like Little Women or Little House on the Prairie about more normal girls.    I was definitely sensitive to dark or scary stories and didn’t enjoy being spooked.  I even thought the end of Sleeping Beauty or The Wizard of Oz were a little tense.

That’s why it’s interesting as an adult reading Roald Dahl I have had such a different experience.  I remember lightness, magic, humor and fun.  As an adult they come across as quite mean spirited and dark.  They do all have a happy ending but the joy is so brief it feels unsatisfying to me.

Recently I just finished Matilda and everyone is so hateful to this sweet little girl that she rebels and moves chalk and glasses with her brain.  The story in James and the Giant Peach is the same.  A boy is treated as a slave by his wicked Aunts and beaten to the point that a life with giant bugs is far preferable to life at home.  There are similar themes  in almost all of Dahl’s stories.

The other interesting thing is that all of this maltreatment is done at the hands of women.  The Aunts in James and the Giant Peach, Trunchbill in Matilda, the Witches in Witches, etc.  What strange and ghastly relationships must Dahl have had with the women in his life to create such horribly abusive women?  Come to think of it most of the villains in fairytales are women, either witches or evil queens.  Funny hah?

Perhaps I’m overthinking it but what does it tell our little girls when they are presented time and again with terrible, gristly, mean-spirited, abusive women?  And why are children clearly attracted to these stories?  I can’t be the only one who was blissfully unaware of these women as a child?

Its funny how you notice things completely differently at different ages.  They might as well be different books.  It makes recommending books to children a challenging thing.  Do I think back to the way I felt at 8 or 10? Do I try to read through the mind of a child?  Is that even possible? Maybe if you spend hours with children that age you might but a child gentile like me would only be guessing.

I had the same contrasting experience when I read Dahl’s memoirs.  What was hilarious to me as a child seemed dark and sad as an adult.  I was shocked at how many floggings there were.  It seemed like 80% of the book, with a few humorous incidents in to break up the mood. One of the most vicious canings was performed by a headmaster who later became the Archbishop of Canterbury, which no doubt explains Dahl’s skepticism of religion!

It is clear that Dahl raised himself a lot of the time, his father dying while he was a young boy and then being sent off to boarding school. You can certainly see this independent streak in many of his characters, especially Matilda (no doubt the main attraction for me in the stories as a child).  Characters that are too needy or pushy are given quite grisly rewards, as we see in all the other children at the chocolate factory. While the independent, forceful willed children are inevitably the heroes and save the day. I have no doubt this is part of his appeal, that pluck, determination and a good heart will always win out over selfishness, greed and bossy behavior.

From everything he writes his mother was a lovely woman and most of his incidents in school discipline were from men, so I’m not sure where the female anger came into place? Who knows?

Still, it still kind of puzzles me to have such a massively different reading experience.  It honestly wasn’t very pleasant reading his books as an adult.  My only pleasure came in remembering how much pleasure I received years ago.

Have you ever had this experience? What do you make of it? What do you think of my adult analysis of Dahl’s works and how do you recommend books for children as an adult? Its tough!

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