Masaryk University Faculty of Arts Department of English and American Studies

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Masaryk University

Faculty of Arts
Department of English
and American Studies

English Language and Literature

Zuzana Lacová

The Theme of Morbidity in Children’s Writings of Roald Dahl

Bachelor’s Diploma Thesis

Supervisor: prof. Mgr. Milada Franková, CSc., M.A.

I declare that I have worked on this thesis independently,
using only the primary and secondary sources listed in the bibliography.


Author’s signature

I would like to thank my supervisor, prof. Mgr. Milada Franková, CSc., M.A., for her professional advice, support and encouragement.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction 4

2. Biography 7

2.1. Life of Roald Dahl 7

2.2. Roald Dahl as a writer 9

3. Influential Events 11

3.1. School Years 11

3.2 Adulthood 15

4. Definition of Morbidity 18

5. Searching for Morbidity 21

5.1 The Witches 21

5.2 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory 28

6. Conclusion 41

7. English Resume 43

8. Slovak Resume 44

9. Bibliography 45

1. Introduction

The theme of morbidity is one of the main aspects in Roald Dahl’s writings. It is usually derived from the early school experiences of the author who was a victim of violent caning and bullying when living at English boarding schools. Moreover, Dahl experienced personal tragedies for all his life which influenced his writings to a great extent. Later on he drew on his experiences and incorporated them into his writings in which the theme of morbidity is dominant. It is especially integrated in Dahl’s writings for children in which perception of morbidity differs in dependence on a reader’s inclination and understanding. Therefore, an adult reader is able to recognize morbidity hidden in the description of the main characters or main acts in the books for children because there are external factors which influence the thinking of an experienced person. On the other hand there are child readers who do not perceive the world in terms of morbidity or sadism. They accept the fantastic world invented by Roald Dahl, him who offers readers to enter his own imagination which is based on the real experiences of the author himself. Those experiences are considered to be the external factors which put pressure on the individual. There are usually events which cause mental distresses to an individual who is forced to deal with difficult situations that make the impact on an individual’s nervous system. Mental distresses usually lead to a development of mental deviations and disorders. According to the explanation of the rise and development of those deviations and disorders provided by MUDr. Marcela Němcová, morbidity could be ranked among mental deviations developed on the basis of external causation which has a great impact on the nervous system of an individual.

The first part of my Bachelor’s Diploma Thesis summarises the life, personal experience and literary work of Roald Dahl. There is a biography of Dahl in the first chapter. Then the biographical account of the author’s life is supplemented by a chapter entitled “Influential Events” which consists of Dahl’s main experiences influencing his further life, thinking and imagination as well as his writings, especially for children. The chapter is divided into two parts – the first one draws on the author’s childhood and the second one depicts the life and personal tragedies of adult Roald Dahl which belong to the main motivations leading to the morbid depiction of reality. An account of Dahl’s widely read writings follows. The first part of my Bachelor’s Diploma Thesis is concluded by the definition of morbidity derived from the description of the main factors influencing the rise and development of mental deviations and disorders. Moreover, the term morbidity is defined in accordance with entries in English monolingual dictionaries.

The second part of the Bachelor’s Diploma Thesis focuses on the analysis of two of Dahl’s books written for children. The most influential events in Dahl’s life are applied in the analysis. The two analysed books - Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964) and The Witches (1983) rank among the most controversial writings by Roald Dahl which were put down to the list of banned books. The analysis of those examples of Dahl’s imagination full of morbid pictures presented in the stories is predominantly based on the author’s experiences from his childhood and adulthood described in the biographical account. Moreover, a reader is provided with a background of the analysed stories.

2. Biography

2.1. Life of Roald Dahl

The Times described Roald Dahl as “one of the most widely read and influential writers of our generation” (Dahl 1). He was born in Llandaff, Glamorgan, Wales on September 13th in 1916 to Norwegian parents - tremendous diary-writer Harald Dahl and his second wife Sofie Magdalene Hesselberg. He was the second child of their marriage and the only son. After the death of his older sister Astri and his father, Roald’s mother was left to rise two stepchildren and her own four children (Alfhild, Roald, Else, Asta).

Roald Dahl’s school years were unhappy. From the age of seven to nine he attended Llandaff Cathedral School (Preparatory School for boys). In years 1925-1929 Roald was a pupil of the boarding school at St. Peter’s prep school in Weston-Super-Mare where he suffered from an acute homesickness. At St. Peter’s he got to the habit to write his mother once a week. The habit persisted until her death. He was thirteen years old when he started to attend Repton, the public school in Derbyshire. Excellent at sports, partially heavyweight boxing and squash, he did not do well as a student. According to his English teacher he was “a boy who so persistently writes the exact opposite of what he means. He seems incapable of marshalling his thoughts on paper” (Dahl 126).

When Roald was eighteen instead of going to the university he decided to join the Public Schools Exploring Society’s expedition to Newfoundland. Then he worked for Shell as a salesman in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. When the World War II broke out Roald Dahl was only 23. He signed up with the Royal Air Force in Nairobi and as a pilot officer he was trained on the birdplane Gladiator fighters in Iraq. He had a crash accident in Western Desert of Libya when flying to join his squadron there. Finally, after sustaining injuries and surviving a direct hit during the Battle of Athens he was sent home as an invalid. However in 1942 he was transferred to Washington, USA as an air attaché where “one of his first duties was to get close to as many well–placed people as possible. Another duty was to help create a kind of British propaganda to keep America interested in the war and sympathetic to Britain's effort” (Howard).

Dahl was married twice. He met his first wife Patricia Neal, the Broadway and Hollywood actress, at Hellman’s dinner party in New York. Their five children (Tessa, Theo, Ophelia, Lucy and Olivia) have considerably influenced Dahl’s writings for children. As he stated himself: “Had I not had children of my own, I would have never written books for children, nor would I have been capable of doing so” (Howard). After 30-year marriage he divorced Patricia Neal and in 1983 he married the set designer Felicity Crosland who was also divorced and lived with her three daughters. Their marriage which lasted for seven years was finished by Roald Dahl’s death. It was officially announced that “in 1990 Roald was diagnosed with a rare blood disorder, Myelo-displastic anaemia” and “he died on November 23rd 1990 at the age of 74” (“Roald Dahl”).

The message of Roald Dahl to all children and adults is hidden in his remarkable writings. Furthermore, he is still alive in the name of Roald Dahl Foundation, “a grant-giving charity that aims to help children in the areas of literacy, neurology and haematology” (Day), run by his second wife Felicity Dahl.

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