Roald Dahl’s life was almost as fantastic as his books. Dahl’s patterns in his life are much like the patterns in his novels. He made a clear connection with the tragedies that his characters are faced with. One theme that is apparent in most of Dahl’s work is the use of cruelty by authority figures on the weak and powerless. Dahl with humor turns this cruelty to be more of a positive, amusing aspect, rather than a negative traumatizing one that he himself was forced to overcome. Tragedy in the family, negativity towards figures of authority, orphans, and absent parental figures are among many of the intertwined themes in his novels. Whether positive or negative, at least one character in each of his novels mimics one person who had an effect on his life.
There was a great deal tragedy that occurred in Dahl’s family while he was growing up, and while he was a parent as well. It all began when his sister Astri died of appendicitis in 1920. A few months later, his father, Harald Dahl, quickly deteriorated and died of pneumonia. Pneumonia was treatable, but only if the patient was willing to fight to stay alive. Roald felt that his father’s death was due to the lack of love he felt for his life, and in effect, a lack of love for his only son. However the sudden death of his daughter left him “speechless for days afterwards” (Boy, 20). Most people believed that Harald died of a broken heart (Boy Going Solo, 1). While in school, he suffered much cruelty from authority figures and older kids in his school. His school career began in Llandaff Cathedral School, then on to St. Peters, and finally ended up at Repton. Dahl generally depicts at least one authority figure in each story as incredibly cruel, sadistic, and bigoted (“Boy Going Solo, 3).
This was a direct reflection of his experiences as a child attending the above boarding schools in England. However, Dahl loved and respected one important key authority figures in his life, mainly his mother. This is also reflected in his stories with the loving and caring authority who helps the “victim” to triumph (“Boy Going Solo”, 3). During his marriage to Patricia Neal, his son’s, Theo Mathew, baby carriage was hit by a taxicab in New York City, causing massive head injuries. Two years later, his eldest daughter Olivia died of measles encephalitis. Then, his wife suffered from three massive strokes, and only shortly after, his adored mother died. From having headmasters who beat him, to matrons who terrorized him, he used these experiences to an advantage, and wrote stories, which included characters like himself and authority figures. Through his writing, he attempts to escape the broken childhood that he once had.
In Roald Dahl’s, Matilda, the main character, Matilda, is a child genius that is rejected by his parents. As perfect as she may be, her parents can’t seem to see that, and may as well have been an orphan. “…And the parents looked upon Matilda in particular as nothing more than a scab” (Matilda, 10). In Matilda, Mrs.Trunchbull was the headmistress whom the children all feared. She can be compared to Dahl’s headmaster who beat his friends and himself. During his childhood, Dahl and his friends were mischievious in their own way to rebel against the people that made them miserable. The local sweet shop was even a place that was tainted by an unwelcoming authority figure, Mrs. Prachett, who was “a small skinny old hag with a moustache on her upper lip and…filth [seemed to cling] around her” (Boy, 33). In retaliation to her unwelcoming remarks, Dahl and his fellow peers put a dead mouse in one of the gobstopper jars, which he calls, “The Great Mouse Plot” (Boy, 35). Dahl doesn’t forget to include this prank, which he is clearly proud of, in Matilda, when she retaliates against Mrs. Trunchbull and puts a newt in her drinking water.
This made the Trunchbull “let out a yell and [leap] off her chair as though a firecracker had gone off underneath her” (Matilda, 160). The Trunchbull is described as having muscles that could be seen “in the bull-neck, in the big shoulders, in the thick arms, …and in the powerful legs,” much like a man, as his headmaster was (83). The Trunchbull can be compared to Captain Hardcastle, Dahl’s own headmaster. Hardcastle would tell Roald things like, ‘I always knew you were a liar! And a cheat as well!’ (Boy, 115). Matilda had a similar experience when she was accused of putting the newt into the Trunchbull’s drinking glass and is called a”…filthy little maggot!” and a “…vile, repulsive, repellent, malicious little brute” (Matilda, 161-162).
Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood, Matilda’s parents, were much like Dahl’s authority figures, in that, being blinded by their own corruption and laziness, never realized their child’s genius abilities. Mr. Wormwood was a crook, who used deceitful tactics in selling secondhand cars. “All I do is mix a lot of saw dust with oil in the gear-box and it runs as sweet as a nut…long enough for the buyer to get a good distance,” he would remark. When Matilda was confronting her father about his dirty money, he responds, “who the heck do you think you are…the Archbishop of Canterbury or something, preaching to me about honesty” (Matilda, 25). In Dahl’s experience as a child, the Archbishop of Canterbury was “the man who used to deliver the most vicious beatings to the boys under his care” (Boy, 144). Dahl uses goes as far as pointing out that the Archbishop of Canterbury, being a dishonest person, couldn’t even preach honesty to Mr. Wormwood.
Unlike, Matilda, Dahl never had a rescuer. Miss Honey was the only teacher that “possessed that rare gift for being adored by every small child under her care” (Matilda, 67). This was the one thing that would have eased his trouble in school. When away at boarding school, he needed his own rescuer, his mother. He “would fantasize about it and often wished he were with [his mother]” (Boy Going Solo”).
Dahl’s characters are endowed with special abilities that assist them in their triumph against wrongdoers. Both Matilda and the Girl in The Magic finger have different abilities, but come about them the same way. Matilda describes her experience as “her eyeballs beginning to get hot…flashes of lightning…[and] little waves of energy,” while the Girl “[sees] red…[gets] very, very hot all over…a sort of flash comes out of [her] forefinger…a quick flash, like something electric” (Matilda, 165 & The Magic Finger, 14). Even though their Matilda uses her brainpower and the Girl uses her magic forefinger, both can manipulate objects around them in revenge toward those who make them feel unworthy. In Matilda, it was the Wormwoods and the Trunchbull, and in The Magic Finger, it was the Greggs–both being authority figures in the main characters’ lives.
Young Dahl had fantasies of inventing chocolates that would sweep the world by the millions. So, “when [he] was looking for a plot for [his] second book for children, [he] remembered those little cardboard boxes and the newly-invented chocolates inside them, and began to write a book called Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (Boy, 149). While going to school at Repton, Dahl would receive “a plain grey cardboard box [that] was dished out to each boy in [their] house…a present from the great chocolate manufacturers, Canterbury” (Boy, 147). Charlie Bucket in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory would, like Dahl, “walk very, very slowly, and he would hold his nose high in the air and take long deep sniffs of the gorgeous chocolatey smell all around him…he wished he could go inside the factory and see what it was like” (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, 7). Unfortunately, unlike Charlie Bucket, Dahl’s fantasy never became a reality and through Charlie, Dahl lives it out.
Dahl displays Charlie’s devotion to his mother as he did to his own. Young Dahl would be “devastatingly homesick” and would fain acute appendicitis to be able to see her (Boy, 93). When Charlie finds the golden ticket, he “burst through the front door, shouting, ‘Mother! Mother! Mother!’ (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, 46). Schultz points to this as a very significant–“he tells his mother, not his father” and “although the other ticket winners arrive on the big day accompanied by both parents, Charlie’s father, unemployed and unable to support the family, agrees that Grandpa Joe is more ‘deserving’ (3). Schultz, finds significance in Wonka’s choice pointing out that “Wonka responds to Charlie differently, not only because he is the one good kid, but because he lacks-figuratively-a father, and because Wonka’s ‘real purpose is to find an heir,’ or son” (3).
Schultz also points out that “in Wonka, Dahl-as well as Charlie-finds a father” (3). Charlie achieves his dream from being a young boy who ate sparingly to the proud, new owner of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Willy Wonka tells Charlie, “As soon as you are old enough to run it, the entire factory will become yours” (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, 151). Dahl as a young boy, feeling “doubly rejected because his father didn’t see his only son worth fighting for”; the death of his father lead him to believe that “everyone can overcome adversity” (Boy Going Solo, 2). In the end of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlie and his family overcome their hardships.
In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Dahl provides an outlet for his anger through the other four children who have found their golden tickets, “in response to the various losses he had endured” (Schultz, 5). Dahl, a man who did not directly talk about his feelings, expressed them through the harsh and unusual punishments he assigns to each of the naughty children. Augustus Gloop is a “repulsive boy,” and his mother a “revolting woman,” he is doomed. Veruca Salt, the spoiled rich girl was “even worse than” Augustus and “in need of a real good spanking.” Violet ends up getting what she deserved, and if Mike Teavee couldn’t be stretched back into his original size, “it serves him right” (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, 149). In the end, only the bad kids meet with disaster and the good kids, who haven’t done anything wrong, prevail.
In James and the Giant Peach, James is an orphan who is left to be raised by his two aunts, Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker. Like Matilda, James was rejected by his aunts, and similarly as Dahl was rejected by his father. Dahl exaggerates when his story depicts James’ parents being eaten by a rhinoceros that escaped from the London Zoo, and similarly may have used the Boazers’ “power of life and death” that he experienced and exaggerated it with the power that James’ aunts had over him. James uses the peach as a way to escape the cruel treatment of his aunts just as Dahl uses the characters in his stories to mend his horrible childhood.
Perhaps it is the richness of his life and experience that has enabled him to create such richly imaginative stories. “You start with a germ of an idea,” Dahl once said, “…a tiny germ…a chocolate factory?…a peach, a peach that goes on growing…( Author Bio: Roald Dahl, 2). Dahl makes it sound that the ideas for his stories may have no real rhyme or reason, and maybe he really believes that they do, there are so many relationships between his works and his childhood experiences, that it must come out of somewhere. Certainly it must be true that his unhappy school days were at least partly responsible for some of the rude tales he wrote many years later. Stories in which oppressed kids triumph over tyrannical adults and underdogs always come out on top.
In some ways, Dahl uses his stories to tell of his own experiences, both negative and rarely positive, and in other ways, his main characters triumph over the predicaments they find themselves. The independence of Dahl’s characters like Matilda and James allows them to exact revenge against their oppressors. Even though these stories try to mend what he went through, the anguish must have been so overwhelming that he couldn’t escape and as a result, there are many biographies that label him mean because one can only attempt to escape the past, but sometimes the past will continue to be haunting. And unlike Dahl’s main characters, he is never able to triumph.
Courtney from Study Moose
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