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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 478

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Roald Dahl wrote much of James and the Giant Peach in verse, which is one source of the book’s humor. At one point, Centipede breaks into song about the glories of the foods he has tasted, including scrambled dregs, noodles made of poodles, and mice with rice. It is inevitable that his final stanza compares all these rare epicurean delights with the most marvelous food in the world—their home—the giant peach.

Dahl’s sharp wit and caricatures evoke laughter on a variety of levels, providing enjoyment for both adults and children. As Spiker and Sponge argue the merits of their respective beauty, younger children are reminded of the wicked stepmother’s “Mirror, mirror on the wall” rhyme in “Snow White.” For more sophisticated readers, the references to Hollywood and to film stars provide a totally different perspective based on the prior knowledge that Dahl was married to Patricia Neal, an Oscar-winning actress.

As in many of Dahl’s other books, such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964), the protagonist is a gentle child who has done nothing to deserve his difficult life. This idea gives rise to the book’s dominant theme—that effort eventually transcends hardship, that good overcomes evil. When the peach returns to land, James is surrounded by love and friendship, which is all he ever wanted. He is free to play and enjoy childhood, having been transformed from the saddest and loneliest child in the world to one of the most popular.

Some of Dahl’s other works have been criticized for including vulgarity and witchcraft, but James and the Giant Peach avoids controversial issues. Instead, Dahl employs one of his prevalent themes: revenge. The wicked aunts, who have tortured James and changed his world into a prison, receive their just punishment when they are flattened by the peach. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that the aunts’ fate was precipitated by more than their treatment of James. Miss Spider relates how Spiker and Sponge caught and gleefully dispensed with several of her relatives. All the insects, as well as James, rejoice that justice has been served with the elimination of Sponge and Spiker.

Cruelty and violence, other objectionable attributes in Dahl’s works, are downplayed in the aunts’ deaths, as well as in the incidents with the Cloud-Men. Just as the cruel sisters deserve their fate, so too does Centipede merit punishment for taunting the giant hail-makers. The other incidents of death and destruction—James’ parents being eaten by an angry rhinoceros and the plunge of the rainbow-painter—are related quickly and forgotten. By ensuring that no one else is killed by the peach as it whirls to the sea, Dahl avoids gratuitous violence. The juggernaut precipitates a stampede, causes a flood of chocolate, and even skins a woman’s nose, but not one animal or person is injured.


Critical Context