Roald Dahl Roald Dahl World Literature Analysis

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Roald Dahl World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Although Dahl’s career began with realistic pieces, such as his fictionalized account of his experience escaping from a wrecked airplane, he soon became known for tales of strange and extreme human behavior. His short stories for adults were often dark and brooding, sometimes involving characters making desperate gambles for extremely high stakes or responding to emotional stresses with sudden outbursts of violence. For instance, in “A Man from the South,” the protagonist becomes involved in a gamble in which he will have a finger cut off should he lose his bet.

In his novels for children, he expanded upon this fascination for the macabre, adding fantastical elements. In addition, he drew even deeper upon his childhood experiences of bullies and of abusers of authority to create worlds in which such individuals come to bad ends of the sort that not only perfectly suit their failings and cruelties but often include an element of grotesque humor. Although occasionally an innocent character is harmed, this generally happens “off-camera,” often as part of the backstory of the protagonist.

For instance, in James and the Giant Peach (1961), which was inspired when Dahl noted that the peaches in his orchard grew to a certain size before stopping and wondered what would happen if one of them did not stop growing, the title character’s parents are killed by a rampaging rhinoceros in a freak accident at the zoo. However, this incident is only told in summary narration as the readers are introduced to James, and it is never actually shown. By contrast, James’s wicked aunts, who enjoy tormenting the boy while they have him in their guardianship, are squashed when the giant peach falls from its branch.

Similarly, in The Magic Finger (1966), the protagonist uses her gift to transform a pair of nasty neighbors who refuse to stop hunting the local wildlife. Their transformation, spectacular in its poetic justice, is a surprise which would have been given away had Dahl not yielded to his editor’s insistence that he change the original title, The Almost Ducks. In The Twits (1980), the vile and cruel Mr. and Mrs. Twit enjoy tormenting a troop of monkeys by forcing them to stand on their heads. The monkeys have their revenge by tricking the Twits into standing on their heads and promptly stick them there with a powerful glue that Mr. Twit had previously used to capture birds that Mrs. Twit then cooked for supper.

Because of the sheer frequency with which the antagonists of Dahl’s stories for children come to grotesque bad ends, Dahl’s works have consistently appeared high on the American Library Association’s list of most frequently challenged books. However, not every adult in Dahl’s books comes to a horrible end. In fact, several of the books feature close bonds between children and adult mentors. In The Witches (1983), the protagonist is aided by his grandmother in defeating the witches’ plot to murder all the world’s children. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964, 1973), Charlie chooses Grandpa Joe rather than one of his parents as his adult companion on the tour of the Wonka factory.

Lamb to the Slaughter

First published: 1953 (collected in Someone Like You, 1953)

Type of work: Short story

An abused young wife murders her husband and tricks the investigating detectives into eating the murder weapon.

In “Lamb to the Slaughter,” Dahl shows his mastery of short-form psychological horror, in which the very absence of overtly fantastical elements only accentuates the building atmosphere of horror. The entire story takes place within the apartment of one Mary Maloney, pregnant wife of a loutish and incompetent police detective. Hers has been a steadfastly domestic existence, and she has ignored her husband’s misbehavior until one night, when he comes home late after yet another round of drinking and informs her that he is going to leave her for another woman. Still she clings to her illusion of happy domesticity, telling him...

(The entire section is 1,670 words.)