A writer of both children's fiction and short stories for adults, Roald Dahl (1916-1990) is best known as the author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the story of a poor boy who because of his honesty is selected by Willy Wonka to be the new owner of his world-famous chocolate factory. Dahl has been described as a master of story construction with a remarkable ability to weave a tale.
Dahl was born in Llandaff, South Wales, to Norwegian parents, and spent his childhood summers visiting his grandparents in Oslo, Norway. After his father died when Dahl was four, his mother abided by her late husband's wish that Dahl be sent to English schools. Dahl subsequently attended Llandaff Cathedral School, where he began a series of academic misadventures. After he and several other students were severely beaten by the headmaster for placing a dead mouse in a cruel store-keeper's candy jar, Dahl's mother moved him to St. Peter's Boarding School and later to Repton, a renowned private school. Dahl would later describe his school years as "days of horrors" which inspired much of his macabre fiction. After graduating from Repton, Dahl took a position with the Shell Oil Company in Tanganyika (now Tanzania), Africa. In 1939 he joined a Royal Air Force training squadron in Nairobi, Kenya, serving as a fighter pilot in the Mediterranean. Dahl suffered severe head injuries in a plane crash near Alexandria, Egypt; upon recovering he was transferred to Washington, D.C., as an assistant air attache. There Dahl began his writing career, publishing a short story in the Saturday Evening Post. In 1961, he published his first work for children, James and the Giant Peach, and for the remainder of his life continued to write for both children and adults. He died in 1990.
Critical response to Dahl's children's books has varied from praising him as a genius to declaring his works racist and harmful. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is his most popular and most controversial children's story. Many critics have censured this work for its alleged stereotyping and inhumanity, and have accused Dahl of racism for his portrayal of the Oompa-Loompas: in the original version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, they are described as black pygmies from deepest Africa who sing and dance and work for nearly nothing. In a revised edition, Dahl changed their appearance and gave them a mythical homeland. Dahl's supporters have argued that in Charlie, as in his other children's books, Dahl follows the traditional fairy tale style, which includes extreme exaggeration and the swift and horrible destruction of evildoers; they contend that children are not harmed by this approach.
Critics have compared Dahl's adult-oriented fiction to the works of Guy de Maupassant, O. Henry, and Saki. Praised by commentators as well crafted and suspenseful, Dahl's stories employ surprise endings and shrewd characters who are rarely what they seem to be. Of Dahl's work, Michael Wood has commented, "His stories are not only unfailingly clever, they are, many of them, about cleverness." Dahl also experimented with comic themes in his novel My Uncle Oswald. The title character, Oswald Hendryks Cornelius, is a charming man of the world who embarks upon a business venture to collect and preserve semen samples from geniuses and royalty, hoping to attract as clients wealthy women who desire superior offspring. Like Dahl's short stories, My Uncle Oswald features duplicitous characters, and some critics have observed that it shares a common theme with much of his short fiction: a depiction of the superficial nature of modern civilization.
Further Reading on Roald Dahl
Children's Literature Review, Gale, Volume 1, 1976, Volume 7, 1984.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale, Volume 1, 1973, Volume 6, 1976, Volume 18, 1981.
Dahl, Roald, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More, Knopf, 1977.
Dahl, Roald, Boy: Tales of Childhood, Farrar, Straus, 1984.
Dahl, Roald, Going Solo, Farrar, Straus, 1986.
Farrell, Barry, Pat and Roald, Random House, 1969.
McCann, Donnarae, and Gloria Woodard, editors, The Black American in Books for Children: Readings in Racism, Scare-crow, 1972.