Roald Dahl was born on September 13, 1916, in Llandaff, Wales. By the age of five, Dahl had witnessed the premature death of his oldest sister, Astrid, and his father, Harald. Harald insisted that his children be educated in the English school system, as he believed English schools were the best, but his son’s experience did not fit with this. Young Roald experienced savage beatings by educators and administrators, as well as intense hazing from the older boys. He distracted himself from the chaos around him by participating in sports and reading adventure novels, especially those by Rudyard Kipling and G. A. Henty. Though Dahl did not excel academically, he did cull material for his future novels from his experiences in school, including the abusive behaviors perpetrated on children by adults. One bright spot for Dahl during his school days was chocolate: he and his classmates often served as chocolate bar tasters for Cadbury Chocolate. In time, the chocolate bars became the theme of Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
After graduating, Dahl sought adventure, which he found while working for the Shell Company in East Africa. At one point, he reported a woman’s miraculous escape from a lion, which later served as the basis of his first published work. In 1939, Dahl signed up for further adventure by joining the British Royal Air Force. During World War II, Dahl’s first mission resulted in a crash landing, which nearly killed him. While recovering from this crash he had strange dreams that inspired his first short stories. It was nearly two years before Dahl returned to the skies. He fought valiantly for Britain until his previous injuries forced him to prematurely retire from active duty. Dahl continued to support the war effort by traveling to America where he began writing war propaganda. His propaganda was very popular among American audiences, and his popularity gained him much notoriety as an author. In 1945, Dahl returned to England to be near his mother. There he met and subsequently married the well-known and wealthy actress Patricia Neal in 1953. Shortly after Olivia, the oldest of the couple’s five children, was born, Dahl began composing short stories to tell her at bedtime. These stories piqued Dahl’s interest in children’s literature. Still more tragedy befell Dahl during this period of his life. Olivia died of measles at age eight and his wife experienced both a brain hemorrhage and a stroke. Dahl’s marriage broke up in 1983 due to stress from these tragic events. Dahl soon married Felicity Crossland and continued writing. He produced numerous children’s books including Matilda, The BFG, and The Witches, as well as many works for adults, such as My Uncle Oswald and Sometime Never. He died on November 23, 1990, in Oxford, England.
Dahl’s writing continues to receive praise for its readability and its positive representations of young people. Dahl’s protagonists are simultaneously independent and willing to accept help from family and friends. Additionally, the villains in Dahl’s work always receive punishment, which appeals to young people’s sense of morality. Furthermore, Dahl’s use of nonsense, word games, and puns is directed at children’s intellectual faculties. He respects children’s ability to think around absurdities. However, the rigidity of Dahl’s fictional worlds, and the intensely physical nature of the violence in his books, can be brutal for young readers. According to some critics, Dahl’s work reveals anti-Semitism and misogynistic proclivities. It has been suggested, for example, that the menacing image of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory hints at the Holocaust. In fact, Willy Wonka’s chief competitor is Fickelgruber, a name close to Hitler’s birth name, Schickelgruber. Misogynistic themes throughout Dahl’s work may be even harder to deny. A beautiful woman is really an ugly witch in Witches, and a small boy is tortured by his grandmother, a “filthy old woman” who has “a small, puckered-up mouth like a dog’s bottom,” in George’s Marvellous Medicine. These are just a small sampling of his evil female characters. Despite a consistency of bizarre atmospheres and unexpected demises of small children, though, Dahl’s literature continues to delight both children and adults to this present day.