Described as “the world’s greatest storyteller”, Roald Dahl is frequently ranked as the best children’s author of all time by teachers, authors and librarians.
However, the new film adaptation of Dahl’s controversial book, The Witches, warrants a fresh look at a recurrent contrast in Dahl’s work: child protection and care on one hand and a preoccupation with child-hatred, including child neglect and abuse, abandonment, and torture on the other.
Dahl himself once admitted he simultaneously admired and envied children. While his stories spotlight children’s vulnerability to trauma, his child protagonists show how childhood can be an isolating but ultimately triumphant experience.
Anti-child or child-centred?
In Dahl’s fiction, children are often described unfavourably: they are “stinkers”, “disgusting little blisters”, “vipers”, “imps”, “spoiled brats”, “greedy little thieves”, “greedy brutes”, “robber-bandits”, “ignorant little twits”, “nauseating little warts”, “witless weeds”, and “moth-eaten maggots”.MANUEL HARLAN/Royal Shakespeare Company/AAP
With the exception of Bruce Bogtrotter, “bad” children are usually unpleasant gluttons who are punished for being spoiled or overweight. Augustus Gloop is ostracised because of his size. After he tumbles into Willy Wonka’s chocolate river and is sucked up the glass pipe, he’s physically transformed. “He used to be fat,” Grandpa Joe marvels. “Now he’s as thin as straw!”
From Miss Trunchbull to the Twits, Aunts Spiker and Sponge, and even Willy Wonka, many of Dahl’s adult characters are merciless figures who enjoy inflicting physical and emotional pain on children.
In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Wonka not only orchestrates the various “accidents” that occur at the factory, but he stands by indifferently as each child suffers.
In Wonka’s determination to make the “rotten ones” pay for their moral failings, he not only humiliates the children (and their parents), but permanently marks the “bad” children through physical disfigurement. When gum-chewing champion Violet Beauregarde turns purple, Wonka is indifferent. “Ah well,” he says. “There’s nothing we can do about that”.
Red-hot sizzling hatred
The Witches is centred around the theme of child-hatred.
“Real witches,” we are told, “hate children with a red-hot sizzing hatred that is more sizzling and red-hot than any hatred you could possibly imagine”. At their hands (or claws), young children are not only mutilated but exterminated.
Indeed, the ultimate goal of The Grand High Witch is filicide: she plans to rid the world of children — “disgusting little carbuncles” — by tricking them into eating chocolate laced with her malevolent Formula 86: Delayed Action Mouse-Maker.
In The Witches, as in many of Dahl’s fictions for children (he also wrote adult erotica), authoritarian figures are revealed as bigoted and hypocritical, or violent and sadistic. Primary caregivers are neglectful or absent.
Authors: Kate Cantrell, Lecturer, Creative Writing & English Literature, University of Southern Queensland