The following paper was written by Caryn Liles for an English class in April 1999. She was kind enough to allow me to post it for visitors to this website to enjoy. Please DO NOT copy any part of it and claim it as your own. That would be ILLEGAL and both she and I would be very angry. If you’d like to contact her to comment or ask questions, her email address is [email protected].
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“Boy Going Solo”
Sometimes it’s difficult to find the connections between the patterns in an artist’s life and his work. But with Roald Dahl, the connections are quite clear. It is known that there were many tragedies in Roald Dahl’s life and he had to overcome these somehow, whether he gave up and moved on, or fought against them and found victory. All of Dahl’s works reflect at least one aspect of his personal life, whether it be his childhood, his marriage, his children, his experiences, or himself. It is quite apparent that after all the hardships he survived, he managed to turn such experiences into creative stories for children. He wrote about small aspects of his life and magnified them, and made them amusing for children, and even adults. One theme that is apparent in almost all of Dahl’s works the use of violence and cruelty by authority figures on the weak, and once again, he seems to turn this around to be more of a positive, amusing aspect, rather than a negative, traumatizing one.
There are many patterns that are apparent in Dahl’s life and works, which include tragedy in the family, negativity towards figures of authority, and lastly, orphans and absent parental figures.
There was a great deal of 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. Roald’s father, Harald Dahl, quickly deteriorated and died of pneumonia a few months later. Pneumonia was treatable, but only if the patient is willing and will fight to stay healthy and alive. Harald refused to fight, therefore the disease took its toll and he died. Most people believe he died of a broken heart.
Roald married actress Patricia Neal, and had three daughters and a son: Olivia Twenty, Tessa Sophia, Theo Matthew Roald, and Ophelia Magdalena. On July 30th, 1960, Theo Matthew Roald’s baby carriage was hit by a taxicab in New York City, causing massive head injuries. On November 17th 1962, their eldest daughter Olivia Twenty died of measles encephalitis. On February 17th 1965, Patricia Neal suffered three massive strokes. On November 17th 1967, Roald’s mother Sofie died. On November 17th 1983, Roald and Patricia Neal divorced, and he married Felicity Crosland. From reading Going Solo, the sequel to his autobiography Boy, we learned of his own tragic times in the Royal Air Force and the war, where he was shot down over Libya, and suffered many serious injuries. These injuries later on affected him, and got him sent home early from war. All of these tragic incidents are enough to send one into a downward spiral, but Roald Dahl overcame them and moved on with his life, refusing to be pessimistic, only learning from such experiences.
Dahl often questioned authority in his books, as he seemed to in his own life. In Matilda, the nasty headmistress, Miss Trunchbull is no doubt a composite of his own headmistress and a couple of headmasters that he had to deal with in his school years, as recounted in Boy.
“She was above all a most formidable female. She had once been a famous athlete, and even now the muscles were still clearly in evidence. You could see them in the bull-neck, in the big shoulders, in the thick arms, in the sinewy wrists and in the powerful legs. Looking at her, you got the feeling that this was someone who could bend iron bars and tear telephone directories in half. Her face, I’m afraid, was neither a thing of beauty nor a joy forever. She had an obstinate chin, a cruel mouth and small arrogant eyes. And as for her clothes… they were, to say the least, extremely odd. She always had on a brown cotton smock, which was pinched in around the waist with a wide leather belt. The belt was fastened in front with an enormous silver buckle. The massive thighs which emerged from out of the smock were encased in a pair of extraordinary breeches, bottle-green in colour and made of coarse twill. The breeches reached to just below the knees and from there on down she sported greet stockings with turn-up tops, which displayed her calf muscles to perfection. On her feet she wore flat-heeled brown brogues with leather flaps. She looked, in short, more like a rather eccentric and bloodthirsty follower of the stag-hounds than the headmistress of a nice school for children.” (Matilda, pg. 82)
In the story, he makes it clear that he felt schools in his day were more concerned with controlling and bullying their students than with educating them.
Despite his loving family, Roald Dahl never had a male figure to look up to while he was growing up, which no doubt accounts for the orphaned or rejected children in his stories. In Matilda, the main character is a child genius that is rejected by her parents. In James and the Giant Peach, James was an orphaned child who was also rejected by his two aunts. In The BFG, Sophie was an orphaned child as well. Dahl wrote as though he was cheated out of a father. I’m sure this feeling was stronger because his father, Harald, had given up on life after his favorite daughter died. Roald may have felt doubly rejected because his father didn’t see his only son as worth fighting for. The death of Dahl’s father may have also helped to shape his belief that everyone can overcome adversity.
“Occasionally one comes across parents who take the opposite line, who show no interest at all in their children, and these of course are far worse than the doting ones. Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood were two such parents. They had a son called Michael and a daughter called Matilda, and the parents looked upon Matilda in particular as nothing more than a scab. A scab is something you have to put up with until the time comes when you can pick it off and flick it away. Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood looked forward enormously to the time when they could pick their daughter off and flick her away, preferably into the next county or even further than that.” (Matilda, pg.10)
Roald seemed to decide that he, unlike his father, would not give up when tragedy occurred. When Roald’s own son, Theo, was hit by a taxicab, he channeled his sadness into making a valve that would help his son and others. When his beloved daughter Olivia died, he researched susceptibility factors for the rare measles until a cure became available in England. When his wife was struck with strokes that many people thought would leave her in a vegetative state, he refused the notion and through hard work and tenacious dedication developed a program that brought her back both personally and professionally. (The program he developed, The Patricia Neal Therapy Extension Program is still in use at several stroke centers around the world.) Dahl didn’t write another book for several years because Patricia Neal suffered three successive strokes, while pregnant with their fifth child, on February 17, 1965. Dahl spent most of the rest of the sixties helping to rehabilitate his wife. As a result, his writing was restricted to a couple of short stories that he had started beforehand and a few articles about his family for several magazines. To bring in needed money during this time, he wrote the script for the James Bond film, You Only Live Twice, and wrote the screenplay for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, adapted from an Ian Fleming story.
A key theme in Dahl’s novels is the use of violence and cruelty by authority figures on the weak. Dahl generally depicts at least one authority in each story as incredibly cruel, sadistic and bigoted. This is a direct reflection of his experiences as a child attending boarding schools in England. However, very important to note is that Dahl loved and respected the key authority figure in his life, his mother. This is also reflected quite often in a loving and caring authority who helps the child “victim” to triumph.
Growing up, Dahl encountered many authority figures that were cruel to him. The first would have to be Mrs. Pratchett, the owner of the sweet shop.
“She was a small skinny old hag with a moustache on her upper lip and a mouth as sour as a green gooseberry. She never smiled. She never welcomed us when we went in, and the only times she spoke were when she said things like, ‘I’m watchin’ you so keep yer thievin’ fingers off them chocolates!’ or ‘I don’t want you in ‘ere just to look around! Either you forks out or you gets out!'” (Boy, 1984)
Dahl, being sneaky like the four boys he was close to, decided to get revenge on Mrs. Pratchett, so they slipped a dead mouse into the Gobstoppers jar when she was turned around. Needless to say, Dahl and his four friends got quite a beating for this from the headmaster, who was the next cruel figure in his life. From having headmasters who beat him, to Matrons who terrorized him, he used these experiences to an advantage, and wrote scrumptious stories which included characters like himself and the dreaded authority figures. Despite all of this nonsense, in each story, there was the contrasting role of a “rescuer”, an adult who helps the child to triumph, for example, in Matilda, Miss Honey rescues Matilda from Miss Trunchbull and her own family. Dahl repeatedly used this theme because when he was away at boarding school, where he couldn’t have his rescuer (his mother), he would fantasize about it and often wished he were with her.
The key to his success, Dahl frequently said, was to conspire with children against adults. “It’s the path to their affections,” he said in an interview. “It may be simplistic, but it is the way. Parents and schoolteachers are the enemy. The adult is the enemy of the child because of the awful process of civilizing this thing that when it is born is an animal with no manners, no moral sense at all.” In conclusion, Roald Dahl wanted to make children happy and wanted people to appreciate our families and the experiences we have with them and use them to our advantage the way he did. He wanted people to realize that in life there are some things you never outgrow. He knew what children loved and gave it to them – Giggles of mirth and squirms of delight.