Roald Dahl is one of the most widely read children’s book authors of the twentieth century. Although he wrote several forms of literature, including adult novels and essays, he is most renowned for his children’s books, including popular books like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The BFG. Beyond proving to be accessible and engaging to children, his works reinvigorated this genre by making it more accessible and realistic for children to identify with. His penchant for understanding child psychology and composing a complex, intriguing plot contributed to his renown.
More specifically, one of the defining features of Dahl’s fiction caused by Dahl’s personal childhood is its macabre characterization of several adult characters juxtaposed with good natured characterization of other adult characters.
In Roald Dahl’s literary style, the story is mostly constructed from the point of view of the child protagonist, who is pitted against a few imposing adult personalities. For example, in the book Matilda, the villain is a woman teacher.
She is shown to be quite dangerous – someone who will induce a young reader to be terrified of every female teacher he or she meets. Indeed the depiction of the teacher was so excessive that the book was attacked by critics as being unsuitable for young readers. (Cockburn 41) Further, in Matilda, Dahl provides “a dramatic shift in tone as he moved from character to character—innocent, intelligent Matilda, the caring Miss Honey, and the towering inferno of the headmistress Miss Trunchbull.” (Wolf 73) Generally, Dahl’s characterization of villains is more dramatic and vivid than that of his benign characters.
The sinister-minded owner of the chocolate factory in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Willy Wonka, is another strange character who swings between either too sentimental or too cold. Wonka is “a Michael Jackson type: a lonely, childish despot, complete with high-pitched voice, inability to mix and strained desire to make everything seem just perfect.” (Sawyer 34) Therefore, when he demands Charlie to get away from his family and run the factory, he conveys this demand in a sinister tone. Charlie, on the other hand, maintains his composure throughout the antics of his master. He manages to be good without being prissy, which is quite an achievement in the circumstances. Characters like Wonka are typical of Dahl’s villains – their power and cunning seemingly offers little hope the hero to overcome. And it is in succeeding against such strong adversity that the heroism shines through.
Another feature of Dahl’s portrayal of villains is the recurrent theme of ‘abuse of power’. T his exercise of power with malicious intent is evident in different sorts of relationships, it is most evident in the adult-child relationships in his stories. In other words, in Dahl’s writings we see power in various forms – “whether adults exercising it over children, bigger children over smaller ones, or humans over animals.” (Sharp 521) We witness in Matilda how little girls were persecuted by Mrs. Trunchbull. Likewise, in Dahl’s short stories William and Mary and The Way Up to Heaven, we see even adult characters suffering due to arbitrary use of power by those at a higher station. Dahl succeeds in making this abuse very visceral for the readers as he draws heavily from his own personal childhood experiences of feeling fear and intimidation in his school.
The villains in a Dahl story are usually juxtaposed to benevolent characters. The nastiness and malevolence projected onto the villains in the plot is offered a relief in the form of benign and decent adult individuals. There are some notable loving and warm relationships between children and adults in many stories. Examples that easily come to mind include that of Charlie and Grandfather Joe, Danny and his beloved father, etc. There is also the case of The Witches in which the unnamed narrator is nurtured and cared for by his Norwegian grandmother.
If we are to attempt to understand Dahl’s inclination for including threatening adult characters in his stories, we have to grasp the facts of his own childhood. Dahl had a close and loving relationship with his mother Sofie, but his other encounters with adults were arduous and strained. The chief source of torment for him came from the authorities in the boarding school whom he felt were unduly retributive for minor offences. However Dahl is not conveying a message of hopelessness to his young readers. Even amidst adversity his stories show that there is hope and love. This is best illustrated in The Witches, where the close bond between the boy and his mother survives “the boy being turned into a mouse, for as the narrator says, ‘It doesn’t matter … so long as somebody loves you.’” (Mitchell 27)
There is a type of transcendent quality in the benign relations of the child protagonist to his guardian. This is witnessed in Dahl’s early story such as They Shall Not Grow Old as well as his later work The Minpins (1991) which is full of invocations of magic. Likewise, In The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, for example, Sugar loses his self-centeredness and becomes more spiritual, despite being a surefire winner at cards. This theme recurs throughout Dahl’s writing life. (Sharp 524)