Roald Dahl Dahl, Roald (Vol. 6)

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Dahl, Roald (Vol. 6)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Dahl, Roald 1916–

Dahl, an Englishman born in Wales, is a short story and screen writer (Dahl's wife is the actress Patricia Neal and his screenplays are written for her) and the author of a novel, a play, and several controversial and widely read children's books, "cautionary tales for bad children" (of which Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is the best known). Dahl's special talent as a short story writer is the integration of the pedestrian and the grotesque in tales that have been likened to Charles Addams' cartoons. Most of his stories appear originally in Playboy, Esquire, the New Yorker, and other prestigious periodicals. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Dahl's characteristic story sets up a quick situation, usually within a family, and ends with the nastiest character taking control or with a victim facing a grim future. A woman discovers that her irritating husband is trapped in the elevator of their home, and goes off to vacation in Paris. Another brains her husband with a frozen leg of lamb and then roasts the evidence. A weird husband has himself reduced to a brain and eye floating in a basin, and the story ends with his wife blowing cigarette smoke in the eye and looking forward to a lifetime of tormenting him. A husband feeds his baby and himself on the royal jelly of bees, with apian results….

One of Dahl's subjects is the war between men and women. Another is the threat of the esoteric, the repeated suggestion that special knowledge is dangerous, or that the man with special knowledge is necessarily nutty. This leads him into lectures on reincarnation, Liszt, cerebral biology; the qualities of royal jelly, the butchering of pigs, the characteristics of antique furniture, and—in Switch Bitch—spiders, sexual stimulation and the sense of smell.

The notion of a war between men and women, with many of the fiercest skirmishes fought inside quiet domestic houses, is traditional. The idea that knowledge is dangerous is an ancient one; an age that has developed the hydrogen bomb, gas and germ warfare, and worldwide pollution of earth, air and water can hardly shrug off the notion of the mad scientist. A country so hung up on and about sex as ours can hardly dismiss the struggle between men and women. These are grimly serious contemporary issues.

Why, then, should anyone want to read stories about them? What is the pleasure in a painful subject? There have been many answers, but the most serious ones are irrelevant to Dahl. Our Supreme Master of Wickedness doesn't know enough about the subject. He is not wicked, not even tempting. In three of the four stories of Switch Bitch he's not even titillating, since the villains get their comeuppance. He is no longer willing to leave the reader with a vision of nastiness triumphant. This is reassuring, surely, and perhaps Dahl does what so many authors of thrillers and horror stories do: he substitutes for real and dangerous evil a cartoon version of it, safely incredible or at least safely removed from our everyday lives. We can read about Fu Manchu without fearing Vietnamese tiger cages. We can imagine hostile visitors from flying saucers without fainting when politicians emerge from limousines. And our sense of real human evil is safely numbed when we meet the hero of two of these present stories, Uncle Oswald, who, under various names, has infested gothic literature for centuries (he was a favorite of English playwrights in the 18th century). He is rich, experienced and (therefore) perverse, guaranteed to appear unexpectedly and to disappear predictably, leaving corruption in his wake but no great harm. A scamp, a ne'er-do-well, a rogue, "a celebrated rapscallion," he is in fact a nasty bastard, who "had never in his life been able to confine his attentions to one particular woman for longer than the time it took to conquer her. When that was done, he lost interest and looked around for another victim." This is unpleasant, but Dahl defuses the topic...

(The entire section is 1,410 words.)