Considering the plot of ‘James and the Giant Peach’, which revolves around four-year-old James and his wicked aunts, one could straightaway point out a traditional Dahl theme—the lonely child at the mercy of cruel adults. As the story progresses, another Dahl theme—a child taking revenge against adults becomes visible. With the help of some unlikely friends like a centipede, earthworm and grasshopper, James crushes the aunts with the peach and soars away.
Grotesque, meaning comically or repulsively ugly or distorted, is also a major component of Dahl’s works. It could be seen in Mrs Twit who replaces worms for her husband’s spaghetti (The Twits), to child-eating giants in ‘The BFG’, and the hero of ‘Danny the Champion of the World’ who drugs pheasants so that he can poach them easily. Greed, one of the seven deadly sins, and the results of it are also a regular theme in many of Dahl’s works. Whether it’s Violet Beauregarde who swells up into a blueberry in ‘Charlie and The Chocolate Factory’ or the child in ‘Matilda’ who is forced to eat a whole chocolate cake, all are representations of greed and its punishment.
In conversation with a leading British news agency, Amanda Craig, British critic and journalist, mentioned that there is a “streak of rather unpleasant misogyny” prevalent in Dahl’s books. Craig notes that in the Freudian sense, female characters are either kind and affectionate like the “supportive, luscious peach” or wicked like the aunts. It is a simple duality that children are used to, and Dahl experiments with the same. In discussion with the same agency, Michael Rosen, English children’s author also points out something along the same lines as of Amanda Craig. He believes that fairy tales often have a dark character like the witch in ‘Hansel and Gretel’. However, Dahl took things beyond masochism to sadism. Rosen says “In Hansel and Gretel the father is poor and only gets rid of the children against his better wishes. But in Dahl, the parents are often sadists like in Matilda. There is a persistent nastiness and brutality in Dahl and he lingers over their horrible appearances and habits.”
This gloom in Dahl’s works originated from his own life. His father and sister died when he was three years old and a few years later he was sent to boarding school, which wasn’t a nice experience for him. According to Donald Sturrock, Dahl’s biographer and the artistic director of Roald Dahl Foundation, he had a confusing relationship with children. Sturrock argues that Dahl loved them but accepts he lost interest when they grew up. He goes on to say “Once his own kids turned adolescent he switched off and packed them off to boarding school.”
Whatever might be the reason behind Dahl’s sadism or darkness, his works were successful because they understood the psyche of children and what they do and don’t consider as dark. Moreover, his works had a happy ending, which somewhere indicated that the innocence of children always triumphs over the corrupt adult world. As if it was Dahl’s own way of restoring the faith of the postwar world in humanity and innocence.