The Roald Not Taken: Teaching the Short Stories

I’ve just finished teaching 58 first-year students the adult short stories of Roald Dahl, the 20th-century English writer better known for children’s books. (Here’s the course outline in PDF.)

From 1944 to 1988 Dahl, who died in 1990, wrote and published stories for adults: beginning with memoirs of his RAF service during the second world war, and covering a range of topics and settings: suburban English and American life; dysfunctional marriages; country pastimes in his rural Buckinghamshire (dog races, pheasant poaching); pick-pocketing, rat-catching, and human taxidermy.

What did we read?

I chose the stories for this course based on a few criteria: their quality, their accessibility to non-majors, their diversity. Together, they introduce readers to the more perverse and thorny writing of a man typically associated with twinkling eyes and verbal gymnastics, with Big Friendly Giants and madcap chocolate-makers.

We read 20 of Dahl’s 58 stories. We began with his own beginning, with stories about his early education (“Lucky Break” and “Galloping Foxley”) and his journalism (“The Mildenhall Treasure”), before taking up his stories about experiences flying for the Royal Air Force in World War Two: “Katina,” “Only This,” and “Death of an Old Old Man.” Then we started reading individual stories, or clusters of stories, that explore Dahl’s various techniques, like characterization (“The Ratcatcher”) and imaginative perspectives (“The Wish”). We explored his rural setting in “The Champion of the World” and “Parson’s Pleasure.” The latter led us into a cluster of stories about trickery and deception: “Taste,” “The Hitch-hiker,” and “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar.” We noticed that Dahl treats most of his female characters as either selfish, inept, or malicious. We read a pair of stories about women named Mary whose victims are their husbands: the murderess in “Lamb to the Slaughter,” and the captor in “William and Mary.” Both husbands deserve it. Then we read three stories about transformations: a baby into a bee-larva (don’t ask, just read it) in “Royal Jelly”; a victimized boy into a swan in “The Swan”; and a piano composer, just possibly, into a cat in “Edward the Conqueror.” Finally we concluded with two stories of people treated as possessions: a taxidermist landlady stuffing her human guests in “The Landlady,” and an art-collector killing an impoverished old man to harvest his priceless tattoo in “Skin.”

Roald’s Empathy Problem

The first thing I’ll say about this course is that the conversations with students revealed things about these 20 stories I never would have noticed on my own. The coincidence of two villains named Mary, for instance. But some of the insights were bigger: like the fact that the pilot’s death in “Only This” might not happen exactly as Dahl describes it.

My impression from these 20 stories is that Dahl was an unpleasant man with an extraordinary imagination. He invents elaborate scenarios of revenge or of trickery; his notebooks (mentioned in “Lucky Break”) were full of these narrative stubs, like the jars of captured dream-wisps lining the Big Friendly Giant’s cave. Some of the stories use B-movie or true-crime plotlines: a man’s brain kept alive in a vat, after he dies; a wife who murders her husband and serves the weapon (a frozen leg of lamb) to the police detectives.

It feels like Dahl poured all of his energy into invention and variety, at the expense of his characters’ psychologies. His imagination is narrative, not empathetic. The only characters with psychological depth in these stories are ones who resemble Dahl himself, at various stages of life: victims of corporal punishment, or fighter pilots, or country people.

But an exception is the unnamed child in “The Wish,” who imagines an ordinary carpet writhing with snakes and lava. It takes five pages to describe a boy traversing a carpet; Dahl is the Henry James of the under–12 imagination. And in stories like this we can see how he was capable of writing so compellingly for children later in his career. But that’s a subject for another day.

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