Roald Dahl’s double edged sword: forged out of pure fiction and realism
by Jason Qin
Roald Dahl liked to use realism and surrealism as techniques to help deliver the story. Dahl is known to use realism to create empathy in his children’s books and unrealistic ideas in his adult short stories to keep his audience thinking.
One example of this is the scenes of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory before Charlie Bucket takes the tour of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. The level of poverty Charlie’s family is going through is realistic, even though it may have some hyperbole involved. One reason why I think that Dahl does this is to have the children that are reading this root for Charlie and not the other kids who are depicted as disgusting and undeserving.
An example of Dahl’s surrealism in his adult short stories is “The Swan.” In the story, “The Swan,” the recklessness of Ernie and Raymond towards Peter is unrealistic. First, they throw him onto a train track because he might have been on* them, as the text says
“‘What’s this?’ he snapped. ‘Who you spyin’ on?’
‘Don’t lie, Watson. Them things is used for spyin’! I’ll bet you was spyin’on us! That’s right, ain’t it? Confess it!’”
Since he didn’t die, they made him fetch their catch after they illegally hunted in a bird sanctuary. Then they shoot him in the leg. No one would do that to make someone jump off a tree and try to fly. One quote in the story says, “Blimey! You got a ruddy nerve, ain’t you? I’m telling you for the last time, if you don’t stick ‘em up I’ll pull the trigger!” This quote shows the extremism of Ernie. One reason why I think that Dahl does this is to address a message to the adult readers. Even though this seems nearly impossible, Dahl wanted to tell the world that bullying can go very far One connection I can make between Dahl’s children’s books and his adult short stories is that he likes to use hyperbole to help deliver the story. Another example of Dahl’s surrealism in his adult short stories was the skill of the hitchhiker. It is nearly impossible to find someone who can be that great of a pickpocket, or “fingersmith” as the hitchhiker likes to call himself. That skill would only come with supernatural abilities. Like when he stole the belt, the shoelace, the ring, the books that the policeman had, and a bunch of other possessions of the driver: these examples of the hitchhiker’s skill show that unbelievable things still can be possible (maybe). They are called supernatural because they are out of the normal understanding of the world. Dahl used a made-up character to help the protagonist avoid getting fined for speeding, and that creates an anti-police aura. Dahl made this story to convey the idea that power can be abused.
However, the opposite may be true as well. In the book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, there are many unrealistic concepts, like the Oompa Loompas. The Oompa Loompas are tinier than dwarves, and come from this fictional place, Loompa Land, where they live on caterpillars and starve, and they had a craving for cocoa beans even though they have never tasted one. Then, Willy Wonka found them to work at his chocolate factory. This contrasts with the stark realism of the beginning of the book, where Charlie and his family subsist on cabbage soup, and where Mr. Bucket is the only breadwinner, working tirelessly in the realistic, if almost absurd job of screwing on toothpaste caps onto toothpaste tubes.
In the story “Parson’s Pleasure,” Mr. Boggis is an antique furniture expert. Mr. Boggis finds a Chippendale commode inside of the house of Bert and Claud, and their nosy neighbor, Rummins. The Chippendale commodes are these antique drawers, but they’re worth a lot of money. “He knew, as does every other dealer in Europe and America, that among the most celebrated and coveted examples of eighteenth‑century English furniture in existence are the three Chippendale commodes”. At the end of the story, Bert, Claud, and Rummins saw the legs off because Mr. Boggis said that he needed the legs, even though he wanted the whole thing. “Parson’s Pleasure” is a realistic fiction story, as the Chippendale commodes are real.
Dahl has figured out how to combine these two techniques: realistic ideas and surrealism, and have them blend instead of clashing. This ability allows him to create the stories he has created within his lifetime.
In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, he used realism to brew empathy between the reader and Charlie, and used the opposite to describe the other children. Augustus Gloop, a rich, gluttonous slob who only cares about eating, his taste buds, and filling that tummy. Veruca Salt, a spoiled rich snob who has conned her parents into an endless loop of giving her what she wants, leading her to her loss of possibly inheriting Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Violet Beauregarde and Mike Teavee live lives that revolve around an inanimate object, which they practically worship: gum and TV respectively. Then you have Charlie, a kid living in extreme poverty, and yet he is the closest one of them to a normal person. As Grampa Joe said, “I can’t wait to hear about which undeserving kid is going to be picked next.” Augustus, Veruca, Violet, and Mike all have the same fatal flaw: their greed. Everyone in the world of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory seems to be greedy, except for Charlie and his family, Willy Wonka, and the shopkeeper, who sold Charlie the chocolate bar with a golden ticket.
In the story “The Hitchhiker,” Dahl uses surrealism to create the character, the hitchhiker. The hitchhiker’s supernatural ability is the main focus of the story, as he saved the narrator from a hefty fine, as a quote says, “‘That’s impossible,’ I said. ‘You’d have had to undo the buckle and slide the whole thing out through the loops all the way round. I’d have seen you doing it.’” The realism in this story is the cop. Thuggish and mean, the idea behind the cop’s traits is very realistic, as some people easily view cops as power-hungry and power-abusing men who have no problem with bullying and terrifying people. “Like an executioner approaching his victim, the cop came strolling slowly toward us,” as the narrator puts it. Dahl also uses the cop to symbolize a lot of other people with the same traits. This story puts surrealism vs. realism to create a worthwhile conflict. Dahl took a surreal concept to battle against a real problem. Through this analysis, I have realized that Dahl likes to stretch these boundaries. This surrealism vs. realism technique has also appeared in Matilda, which is about a girl with telekinesis struggling against her unaccepting parents and her bully of a principal aptly named Mrs. Trunchbull.
I can conclude that Roald Dahl knows how to use realism and surrealism. In his children’s books, realism gives a foundation to the wackiness; for his adult stories, surrealism conveys how wild our experience can be and what a variety of extremes there are to find.