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...
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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 she will fix supper.
Only when he sneeringly tells her not to bother with supper does she snap and bludgeon him with the frozen leg of lamb that was to have been their meal. After the initial fit of anger, she comes back to her senses and realizes what she has done. Not wanting to ruin the life of the baby she is expecting, she puts the leg of lamb into the oven and goes to the grocery store to get some vegetables. While there, she makes a point of talking cheerfully with the grocer about fixing her husband’s supper.
Upon returning to their apartment, she screams in horror and makes a great commotion at finding her husband’s body lying on the floor. She then calls the police, and within the hour they are investigating. Agreeing that he was killed by a heavy, blunt object, they begin a search for the murder weapon and are quite puzzled at being unable to find it. After a few hours, Mary comments that she had forgotten to turn the oven off in all the confusion and suggests that the officers might wish to eat the now-cooked leg of lamb. Without a second thought they all set to eating and discussing the case, never realizing that the meat they are avidly devouring is in fact the missing murder weapon. Meanwhile, Mary sits in the living room and giggles softly to herself in amusement at the way in which she has tricked the police.
The ending is particularly striking because it so blatantly violates the expectation of the murder mystery, namely, that the culprit should be caught at the end. Yet at the same time there seems to be a certain justice in Mary’s not being caught, that she was in fact justified in taking the life of a man so loutish as to not only betray his wife by dallying with another woman but also to abandon his wife when in the vulnerable state of pregnancy, thus also abandoning his unborn child.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
First published: 1964
Type of work: Novel
A poor but virtuous boy wins a ticket to tour a wondrous chocolate factory alongside four vice-ridden children.
As a result of having been adapted to the screen not once but twice, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is the best known of Dahl’s works. Although both the cinematic adaptations follow the general story line, each introduces a certain amount of artistic liberty, which has resulted in some confusion as to the actual plot line of the original novel. For instance, in the 1971 adaptation, the squirrels that are the downfall of Veruca Salt are replaced by giant geese that lay golden chocolate eggs and Slugworth is revealed to be an agent of Wonka’s, while in the 2005 adaptation an extensive backstory is created for Wonka. In the first film, the Oompa-Loompas, the midget workers in Wonka’s factory, do not sing the songs from the book, while the second film adapts Dahl’s lyrics.
The story centers around the title character, Charlie Bucket, who lives with his parents and all four grandparents in a tiny house. Although the story is clearly set in the modern world, as television plays an important part in the plot, there is no evidence of modern social welfare services to ameliorate the poverty of the Bucket family’s life, which seems more reminiscent of the Victorian era and Gilded Age. None of Charlie’s grandparents seems to be receiving government assistance, and when Charlie’s father is laid off from his low-paying job as a result of automation, there is no unemployment check to fend off impending starvation.
However, the anachronistic impoverishment only serves to underline Charlie’s love for chocolate and the seeming impossibility of his hopes when he hears reclusive chocolatier Willy Wonka’s announcement that he has placed five golden tickets in bars of chocolate around the world. These tickets will admit the bearer to a tour of Wonka’s famous candy factory, after which each lucky person will be given a lifetime supply of chocolate.
One by one the golden tickets are found by children whose moral failings are palpably obvious to even the youngest readers. Twice Charlie is given a bar of chocolate as a gift, but neither is a winner. Just as all appears to be lost, he finds some money under a storm grate and uses it to buy a bar of chocolate that contains the final golden ticket.
On the appointed day, Charlie and Grandpa Joe join the other four children and their parents at the steps of the Wonka chocolate factory, where they are admitted for the first time to a wonderland of magical confections. One by one, the other four children fall victim to traps laid by their own vices. The gluttonous Augustus Gloop tries to drink from a river of chocolate, only to fall in and be sucked up by an intake piped directly to the fudge-cooking room. Obsessive gum-chewer Violet Beauregarde chews an experimental meal in a stick of gum and is turned into a giant human blueberry. Spoiled rich kid Veruca Salt tries to seize one of Wonka’s nut-sorting squirrels for her own and is dropped down an incinerator chute, although that incinerator was fortunately shut down for maintenance, and she will find not an inferno but a three-day accumulation of garbage to cushion her fall. Obsessive television watcher Mike Teavee tries to teleport himself by Wonka’s chocolate-transporting television system and is reduced to a midget only a few inches high.
With the bad children removed, Charlie’s virtue becomes obvious and Wonka announces that Charlie has won the biggest prize of all. He will become Wonka’s heir and student, and all of his family are invited to move into the chocolate factory with him. In a moment of triumph, Wonka leads Charlie and Grandpa Joe into the Great Glass Elevator, which proves capable not only of moving in every direction within the chocolate factory but also can fly.