Novels, short stories
(1916 – 1990)
Roald Dahl was writer of both children’s fiction and short stories for adults, Roald Dahl (1916–1990) is best known as the author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Dahl’s works for children have been praised as skillfully crafted, with fast-paced plots, captivating detail, and onomatopoetic words that lend themselves to being read aloud. His adult-oriented short stories are noted for their dark humor, surprise endings, and subtle horror. Whether writing for juveniles or an adult audience, Dahl has been described as a master of story construction with a remarkable ability to weave a tale.
Roald Dahl was born in Llandaff, South Wales, to Norwegian parents and spent his childhood summers visiting his grandparents in Oslo, Norway. After his father died when Roald Dahl was four, his mother honored her late husband’s wish that Dahl be sent to English schools. Dahl subsequently attended Llandaff Cathedral School, where he began a series of academic misadventures. After he and several other students were severely beaten by the headmaster for placing a dead mouse in a cruel storekeeper’s candy jar, Dahl’s mother moved him to St. Peter’s Boarding School and later to Repton, a renowned private school. Later, Dahl recalled in his short autobiographical story ‘‘Lucky Break’’ that the ‘‘beatings at Repton were more fierce and more frequent than anything I had yet experienced.’’
Standing six feet, six inches tall, Roald Dahl played soccer and served as the captain of the squash and handball teams but did not excel in academics. One teacher commented on the fourteen-year-old boy’s English composition work: ‘‘I have never met a boy who so persistently writes the exact opposite of what he means. He seems incapable of marshaling his thoughts on paper.’’ One year later, another comment on an English composition of Dahl’s read: ‘‘A persistent muddler. Vocabulary negligible, sentences mal-constructed. He reminds me of a camel.’’ Dahl would later describe his school years as ‘‘days of horrors’’ that inspired much of his macabre fiction.
Roald Dahl was flying over the African desert for the Royal Air Force during World War II when he was forced to make an emergency landing. He was rescued by another pilot and transported to a hospital in Alexandria, Egypt. His skull was fractured and plastic surgery was necessary to repair the damage to his nose. Six months later, he had recuperated to the point that he could fly a Hurricane fighter with his squadron in Greece against the Germans. Roald Dahl shot down four enemy planes, and his own plane was one of the four out of the thirty Hurricanes in that campaign to survive.
Then, as Dahl’s old injuries began to cause dangerous blackouts when he flew, he returned to England. At a club one night, he met the undersecretary of state for Air, Harold Balfour, and Balfour gave Dahl his next post as an assistant air attache´ in Washington, D.C. While it took Dahl six months to recover—and he would live with the recurrent pain of his injuries for the rest of his life Dahl’s crash landing set him on a course that led him to his career as a writer. Wanting to write about Dahl’s most exciting war experience for a Saturday Evening Post article, reporter C. S. Forester interviewed Dahl over lunch one day in Washington. Because Forester could not eat and take notes at the same time, Dahl offered to write some notes later for the journalist.
Those notes became the story ‘‘A Piece of Cake,’’ the first of Dahl’s work to bring him money and recognition. Dahl went on to write a number of stories for adults about being a fighter pilot. In Dahl’s first book for children, he did not stray far from the fighter-pilot stories he had created for adults. The Gremlins tells the story of evil little men who caused war planes to crash. After these beings are discovered, they are convinced to work for the pilots instead of against them. The Gremlins was a popular success. After First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt read the book to her children, she invited Dahl to dinner at the White House. Walt Disney was so taken with the story that he planned to transform it into a motion picture. In the New York Herald Tribune Weekly Book Review, May Lamberton Becker advised her readers to preserve The Gremlins ‘‘as a firsthand source book on the origin of a genuine addition to folklore. That is, preserve it if the children in the family don’t read it to bits . . . .’’
The births of Dahl’s children provided him an opportunity to tell the children bedtime stories, a practice that allowed the author to develop his understanding of the kind of stories children enjoyed. In an article for The Writer, Roald Dahl observed that children love suspense, action, magic, ‘‘new inventions,’’ ‘‘secret information,’’ and ‘‘seeing the villain meet a grisly death.’’ According to Dahl, children ‘‘hate descriptive passages and flowery prose,’’ and ‘‘can spot a clumsy sentence.’’ As Dahl’s children grew older, he wrote both Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the story of a poor boy who is selected to be the new owner of a world-famous chocolate factory, and James and the Giant Peach, which recounts the fantastic tale of a young boy who travels thousands of miles in a house-sized peach with as bizarre an assemblage of companions as can be found in a children’s book.
One way that Roald Dahl delights his readers is by exacting often vicious revenge on cruel adults who harm children. In Matilda, the Amazonian headmistress Miss Trunchbull, who deals with unruly children by grabbing them by the hair and tossing them out windows, is finally banished by the brilliant Matilda. The Witches, released as a movie in 1990, finds the heroic young character, who has been turned into amouse, thwarting the hideous and diabolical witches’ plans to kill all the children of England. But even innocent adults receive rough treatment. In James and the Giant Peach, parents are eaten by a rhinoceros, and aunts are flattened by the eponymous giant peach. In The Witches, parents are killed in car crashes, and pleasant fathers are murdered in Matilda. However, Dahl explained in the New York Times Book Review that the children who wrote to him ‘‘invariably pick out the most gruesome events as the favorite parts of the books. . . .They don’t relate it to life. They enjoy the fantasy. And my nastiness is never gratuitous. It’s retribution. Beastly people must be punished.’’ Read the rest of this entry