Masaryk University Faculty of Arts Department of English and American Studies



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3.2 Adulthood

Personal tragedies which considerably influenced further writings of Roald Dahl continued in his adulthood as well. First of all, during World War II, pilot Roald Dahl survived a bad plane crash in the middle of the Western Desert of Libya when he was about to join his Eighty Squadron. When refuelling the second time in Fouka he was given wrong information about the position of the Squadron. As he himself claimed in the autobiography Going Solo, “it was revealed at an enquiry into my crash held later that the CO at Fouka had given me totally wrong information. Eighty Squadron had never been in the position I was sent to” (Dahl 299-300). He was badly injured – his scull was fractured and the nose pushed into his face. Moreover, his spine was injured as well, he was blind for a while and his body was burnt. After the escape from the burning plane Gladiator he was found by the British soldiers and transferred to the hospital in Alexandria. Later on, during Dahl’s career as a writer, it was believed that “Dahl's fascination with the macabre derived from his war injuries, received when he was shot down over Libya during the war” (“Roald Dahl,” The Guardian).

Tragedies in Dahl’s life continued after the war when he was married to actress Patricia Neal. In 1960 Dahl’s son Theo sitting in his baby pram was hit by a taxi cab in New York City. The crash caused Dahl’s four-month-old son massive head injuries which damaged his brain. Two years later, in 1962, Dahl’s oldest daughter Olivia died of measles encephalitis. Roald Dahl saw his daughter dying in the hospital and he never got over it. Patricia Neal, mother of Olivia, stated for the People Magazine that “I found that talking about Olivia helped immeasurably. Roald couldn't say a word. It was locked inside him” (qtd. in Howard).

Another misfortune in Dahl’s family life arrived in the year 1965. Patricia suffered three strokes when pregnant with their fifth child Lucy. She could not move and speak but Dahl did not surrender and he nursed his wife and ran the whole family. The energetic way of life which was significant of Dahl is an evidence that he would not like to act as his father did and did not want to leave his family without father and without a person who could take care of them all. His acting also proved that in childhood, during his school years, he could not have done anything about the sadistic beating and bullying but during his adulthood he accepted the role of the person who could act against the wrong and help to mitigate it. For instance, after the car accident that injured his son, Dahl worked on a valve which could help his son and others as well. The valve named Wade-Dahl-Till (WDT valve) was a cerebral shunt designed for treating hydrocefalus. Thanks to Dahl’s invention his son recovered and could live without the valve. When Dahl’s daughter Olivia died “he researched susceptibility factors for the rare measles until a cure became available in England” (Liles). Moreover, he developed the Patricia Neal Therapy Extension Program, which is “still in use at several stroke centres around the world” (Liles).

However, after 30 years of marriage Dahl divorced Neal and revealed his lasting relationship with Felicity Crosland. During Dahl’s life with Felicity the very last tragedy occurred. It was the death of his stepdaughter Lorin (one of Felicity Crosland’s daughters) of brain tumor a few months before Dahl died himself.

The many personal tragedies widely influenced not only Dahl’s life but mainly his writings for children. Generally, “experience seems to be intrinsically valuable to the creative process” (Round). Thus Dahl’s writings are “affected in terms of plot, character and motifs, choice of genre and implied reader, original inspiration, attitude and tone, both consciously and unconsciously” (Round) by his experiences. It is also suggested in a paper written by Caryn Liles:

All of Dahl’s works reflect at least one aspect of his personal life, whether it be

his childhood, his marriage, his children, his experiences, or himself. It is quite

apparent that after all the hardship he survived, he managed to turn such

experiences into creative stories for children. (Liles)

So when a reader brings into consideration Dahl’s personal life it is obvious that the author was considerably influenced by his own misfortune and the source of unpleasant pictures was inexhaustible. That is a reason why the theme of morbidity is often one of the most significant aspects of his writings which are widely discussed among critics mainly because of their morbid character.

4. Definition of Morbidity

The term morbidity is not so easy to define as it seemed to be. The difficulty lies in its acceptance by the society. Morbidity is not classified as a mental disorder but its origin and development has been influenced by the factors which contribute to the rise of mental disorders. The classification, or rather non-classification, of morbidity probably arose from the general attitude of society as a whole which does not feel to be endangered by those individuals who suffer from this kind of mental deviation. So the classification of morbidity is not ranked among those which would be widely discussed by psychiatrists and psychologists.

According to Klein’s Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language the adjective morbid is derived from the Latin word morbidus which means ‘sickly’ and from morbus with the meaning of ‘sickness, disease’, which probably stands for *mor-bhos, or mr-bhos, literally translated as “that which consumes”, from the Indo-European base mer- which means ‘to rub, pound, wear away, consume, exhaust, worry; to be consumed’, whence also from Greek μαραίνειν which means ‘to consume; exhaust’ and from the word μαρασμός with the meaning of ‘consumption’ (“Morbid” def.).

When speaking about somebody’s mind or ideas the adjective morbid could be defined as “having or showing an interest in sad or unpleasant things, esp. disease or death: a morbid imagination/obsession/fascination/curiosity” (“Morbid” def. Entry 1). It is obvious that the morbid mind is somehow the sick mind which deals with gloomy aspects of one’s life. Then the word morbidity itself could be defined as “a morbid state or quality” (“Morbidity” def. 1). Generally, from these definitions we can derive a way of thinking of the individual who tends to perceive the world from the morbid point of view. Such an individual can be treated as a kind of consumer of macabre experiences that happened in his own life (such as death of a beloved family member, bullying at school and corporal punishments). Once these experiences are consumed and stocked in his mind, the morbid thinking starts to develop. This development is similar to the development of real mental disorders (such as psychopaty and oligophrenia). According to MUDr. Marcela Němcová all mental disorders and deviations are developed on the basis of internal and external causation which is asserted in different intensity. Among external causes there are infectious diseases – typhus, influenza and some intoxication – such as alcohol and carbon disulphide intoxication, head injuries, disfunction of endocrines, cardio-vascular diseases and long-lasting physical diseases. Social and environmental influences which burden the nervous system of an individual are also included in the group of external causation of mental diseases and disorders. They are represented for example by non-solvable conflict situations, mental distress, personal and family tragedies, commotions and injuries which cannot be normally coped with by the nervous system of an individual. Similar conditions can be also caused by minor traumatic events, persistent mental tension, uncertainty and minor lasting conflicts. These strong and weak impulses can alternate and blend. In this category there is a situation when the individual finds himself between a desire and an opportunity, when there are affairs in which he cannot manage. A change of the everyday stereotype of the individual and a sudden turn of the whole situation when an individual has to accommodate to a new situation can have a similar effect. However, all of these impulses mentioned above do not cause the development of mental disease or deviation. It depends on the type of the higher nervous function of the individual and his personal attitude towards these unfavourable situations. The significant factors are the psychic and physical conditions of the individual when strong mental impulses take effect. An individual weakened by a physical disease, tired and exhausted may fall ill more easily than an individual full of energy (trans. from Němcová 49).

When dealing with the term morbidity from the point of view of ethics, morbidity can be considered as a kind of moral deviation. Each society has its own unwritten moral rules which usually consist of several taboos (such as death, diseases and decay). These topics are often not discussed openly because they offend people and cause unpleasant feelings in a listener or a reader. When one speaks about them directly without any euphemisms, one is considered to be morbid.

To define morbidity according to everyday experience of the individual there are an amount of external factors and situations which make the individual mock bad and clearly wrong behaviour of other members of society which he cannot prevent. Thus the morbid thinking is a sort of mockery of external situations based on the powerlessness of the individual who is not able to reduce unpleasant features of society as a whole.


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