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Boy is a fascinating study in contrasts. On the one hand, Dahl writes with a conversational tone that lulls the reader into a feeling of safety. On the other hand, he describes with utter frankness rather horrifying procedures and experiences. He is a feeling man reminiscing about his life as a sensitive child, but the book retains an aura of carefree noninvolvement.

The title, never explicated in the text, seems to come from Dahl’s own boyhood self-appellation, as evidenced by his pictured letters to his mother. It is an apt title, for the tales are all about boyhood, about the many things that boys everywhere (and many girls as well) know and do and fear and learn. The young Dahl and his friends were devilish boys who loved candy and nasty pranks, and a devilish delight in their exploits survives in the mature narrator. Both the anecdotes and the relish with which they are recounted serve to charm readers of all ages, who either understand or recall such devilishness. Dahl’s understanding of childhood, evident in so much of his fiction, is not lacking in his autobiography.

Woven into that whimsical, devious world, however, is a real world of death and pain. Throughout Boy, Dahl describes grotesque events in graphic terms. These incidents include the accident resulting in the amputation of his father’s arm, the motoring accident in which he nearly lost his nose, the unanesthetized removal of his adenoids, the lancing of his schoolmate Ellis’ large boil, and the repeated, excruciatingly painful canings at the hands of ruthless schoolmasters. Such incidents are not cushioned or foreshadowed; Dahl narrates them simply in the natural course of events. Aware that his realism might be discomforting, Dahl writes:By now I am sure you will be wondering why I lay so much emphasis upon school beatings in these pages. The answer is that I cannot help it. All through my school life I was appalled by the fact that masters and senior boys were allowed literally to wound other boys, and sometimes quite severely. I couldn’t get over it.

Dahl seems to be insisting on the absence of any particular intention beyond the telling of true tales: If they have a disturbing effect, then so be it, for he himself was disturbed by the events when they originally happened. Similarly, he makes no effort to shy away from the scatological details of his memories, which are not few—Norwegian outhouses, pranks involving goat droppings, and the thankless task of warming an older schoolboy’s toilet seat in mid-winter are given their due. Dahl’s remembered boyhood world is a very real and visceral world.

By treating such passages with detachment and casualness, Dahl leaves room for his dark humor. The gritty events of life become points of departure for a characteristic understatement, an ironic smirk that reveals both self-deprecation and an affirmation of survival. The intimate conversational tone sometimes seems ready to indulge in nostalgia, but the voice is firmly planted in the authorial present. Dahl constantly reminds the reader of the passage of time since these reminiscences—of links with his later life, of intergenerational connections among his family, or of the immense changes in technology, medicine, and life-style that the twentieth century brought.

Such comments are aimed at youthful readers, giving them a sense of the passage of time. While Boy has the sophistication of an adult collection, its vocabulary, liveliness, and subject matter make it delightful, and at times moving, reading for students as well. They will gain an appreciation for life in a simpler and less-connected world, glimpses into the mind of an author whose work they have enjoyed, and insights into the story of their own unfolding childhood.

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Critical Context