Recently I began teaching my students English using Roald Dahl books. He’s the author who did Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, James and the Giant Peach, and The Fantastic Mr. Fox. Dahl is quite an interesting author, not only because almost all of his characters are written in a vein of wacky zaniness that is hard to find done well anywhere else. He also has the ability to make really horrible characters into heroes. Most of them are either morally corrupt (Mr. Fox), do horrible things, (Muggle Wump in the Twits), or are a blend of both (Willy Wonka). The amazing thing is, by the end of every story, Dahl has convinced you as a reader that the horrible things these characters did was right and justified.
How in the world does he do it? Well, as I’ve spent a good six months reading Mr. Fox, The Twits, and The Enormous Crocodile over and over again in class, I have a few ideas. First of all, Dahl makes all of his bad characters vile. Not just personality, but physically. In Mr. Fox, the three farmers (Boggis, Bunce, and Bean) are three different types of bad. One’s grossly gluttonous, one’s short and fat, and one’s too thin and an alcoholic. You get a detailed explanation of them almost before anything else in the story. Not only do you learn that they’re physically repulsive, they have horrible eating habits. It takes only those two things for Dahl to convince you that you should hate the three farmers and like Mr. Fox.
And what is there to like about Mr. Fox? Well, for one thing, he’s a family man. And, despite the fact that he lives in a burrow and is continually digging tunnels, he wears a fancy jacket. My boss (who is Korean and was not raised up on such stories) actually asked me, “Why did they make this fox so handsome?” I suspect it was because Dahl wanted to ensure people really understood how morally upright and good Mr. Fox was based on his looks and family habits. Because based on his actions, Mr. Fox is not an especially great guy. He’s a thief, and not only is he a thief, at the end of the book, he proposes to steal food for the whole neighborhood every day. And what happens next? Boggis, Bunce, and Bean get what’s coming to them, all their food is stolen and they spend eternity waiting to kill Mr. Fox. Meanwhile, Mr. Fox and his friends live happily ever after.
I made my kids write morals for the story because I was really curious what they would manage to make of the mess of morality on those pages. Most of them wrote something about being nice to animals, but one of them wrote what I think is a pretty realistic take on the story. He said, “Be smarter than other people.” Perhaps he should have added, “And target those who are physically less attractive than you.”
What of Mr. and Mrs. Twit? The front half of the book is dedicated to how horrible they are. Mr. Twit doesn’t wash. Mrs. Twit has a glass eyeball. They play tricks on each other and do horrible things to everyone around them. The book is not that long, but it can be broken down into Part 1 where Mr. and Mrs. Twit are clearly described and shown to be mean spirited, bad people. And Part 2, where Muggle Wump the monkey and a band of birds join forces to “turn Mr. and Mrs. Twit upside down”. Basically, they glue all their furniture onto the ceiling and put glue on Mr. and Mrs. Twit’s heads so that when they turn over to try to make themselves right side up they end up glued to the floor. If this was a short-term situation, it might be considered just revenge. But Dahl pushed it farther. He tells, in detail, the process of Mr. and Mrs. Twit’s bodies slowly collapsing in on themselves until they disappear into nothing. He refers to the process as ‘The Shrinks’. The important thing is that Muggle Wump and his band of birds kill Mr. and Mrs. Twit. You’re not given any illusions about what happened to the horrible old couple, you’re told point blank that they disappear into themselves and that everyone is happy about it.
Now, I have a theory about this story. If you read it, you’ll find the first and second half to be rather disjointed and written in almost a completely different style. I suspect that Dahl turned the second half over to an editor and the poor guy threw up his spaghetti and called Dahl back and said, “You can’t just kill off two people.” Dahl, being the ultimate story writer, laughed and replied, “Watch me,” and then added the first half to the story to make sure that everyone would be on board when he murdered Mr. and Mrs. Twit.
The reality is, if you had to invite Dahl’s characters over to dinner, his heroes and heroines might be worse company than his villains. They would likely rob, kill, or torture you all while convincing the rest of the world that you had it coming. Possibly more than any other writer before or after him, Dahl managed to make really horrible characters into the heroes of his stories. Why did he do it? I have no idea. But I can help with the how. He spends most of his writing time on the opposition. He makes them out to be obvious monsters that have it coming.
Why did I waste all this time telling you this? Am I somehow saying that Roald Dahl books are bad? Absolutely not. Dahl has a clear understanding of the human brain and how alliances work. I know this is true because I find myself on Muggle Wump and Mr. Fox’s team every time I read those books. This is despite the fact that I’m a grown up and know that killing people by gluing their heads to the floor is wrong. When I read about how horrible Mr. and Mrs. Twit are, I find myself rooting for Muggle Wump as he premeditates and then incites a gang to help him carry out murder.
I suspect that you do, too. Dahl sold a whole lot of books, after all. If I were the only one caught up in his magic, this would certainly not be true. But the reality is, what he does works on a variety of ages, genders, and cultures. His stories tap into the very essence of how we make our decisions about the world around us. We use feelings about people’s appearance and flaws to guide our decisions about what is right and wrong.
Think about the phrase, “He had it coming.” The interesting thing about this statement is that you can hear it on the playground and in the teacher’s lounge. We have an underlying belief as people, that if you do XYZ then the results are your own fault. Is this logical? In some cases, yes. When a little boy hits a dog with a stick and the poor animal turns and bites him, yes. If the reason we feel it is acceptable to rob a man is because he likes to eat donuts stuffed with ground up goose and happens to be short and fat (Mr. Fox), probably no.
The most important thing is, we must be aware that this feeling sits in us and makes us bad at making real judgments. And we need to be aware that in the world of adults, just because a person has a few bad traits or had a bad mistake in their past, they may not deserve to be thrown up into the sun (The Enormous Crocodile). People are not one dimensional and we all have good and bad sides. And we need to be sure that when we listen to narratives about criminals and heroes, we listen to the actual facts. And then remember that every single person in the world has gross habits and a history of bad choices. Because getting caught up in feelings is great when you’re falling in love, but the facts themselves make a better companion when you’re looking for justice.