The Adult Lessons That Roald Dahl Taught Us As Children

Just because a story features children, or tells a tale from the viewpoint of a child, or even has a conventionally happy ending, doesn’t exactly mean that this story is a kid’s story. However, it can mean that it is for children. 

Such is the case with famed, beloved, and sometimes controversial Roald Dahl. The British author has penned some of the most acclaimed children’s stories ever, with such tales adapted for stage and screen, and passed down through generations.

They are—among other things—dark, disturbing, and grotesque. And perfect for children. 

Where Dahl triumphed was telling stories about children by rightfully expecting more from his readers, and challenging them. He propelled them to be more mature, more thoughtful, and with a better ability to hold opposing thoughts in their heads. What’s more, he prepared them for adulthood in a variety of ways, mainly by exposing them to realities, good and bad, and limitations that are arbitrarily placed and which can be broken. Some of his lessons aren’t even intentional.

That some adults were given pause by how his stories unfold makes a pretty good reason for children to read them. Here are the adult lessons Dahl taught to children. 

Gluttony is Evil

Dahl sharply attacks gluttony and excess throughout his stories, especially in two of his most notable. In both Matilda and The Witches, two characters are obsessed with food, particularly chocolate, and their fates are not pleasant ones. They are embarrassed and exploited, and while they may be on the side of the heroine, they suffer at the hands of the villains.

Then, of course, there is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the majority of which condemns children who are obsessed: with TV, food, chewing gum, and mainly themselves. They too meet unfortunate ends, serving as gruesome and uncomfortable lessons for those who never look beyond their own desires. Anytime the author wants to paint a character as an antagonist, he often describes them as being obese. Dahl loathes selfishness. And sugar, it seems.

Age is Irrelevant

For Dahl, someone’s age brings with it no assumptions—good or bad—of maturity, capability, wisdom, or morality. In his tales, it’s not simply one age group against another, as would be such an easy crux upon which to rest. Dahl penned tales more complex than that, with children, adults, and the elderly that were a mix of heroic and villainous, imaginative and dull, selfless and greedy. 

Charlie has one particularly loving grandparent and others who are not so much. The boy’s caring grandmother in The Witches imparts folktales upon him, a loving nod by Dahl to his mother who did the same and inspired him. Then there is the grandmother in George’s Marvellous Medicine, who grew underappreciated and annoyed, then stubbornly drank a potion and disappeared. There was much rejoicing.

As a corollary, your size and species are also irrelevant: some giants are friendly while some are irksome, and the same goes for bugs.

Question Authority

Similar to the challenges Dahl offered against assumptions with age, his stories are rife with children being defiant in the face of authority. Mainly because those in such positions aren’t always the ideal role models, and certainly shouldn’t just be assumed to be the paragons they’re supposed to be. Dahl spent lots of time at boarding schools, developing an insubordinate inclination; understandable, given that his memoirs reveal the punishment that would take place. 

So parents, the elderly, and teachers—roles that children are conditioned to blindly revere—may not have anyone else’s interests at heart. Some kids in Dahl’s stories disregard parents’ requests while others blatantly leave them out of their decisionmaking. Many are caught up with their own lives and ignore children, while others simply lack imagination. Dahl seems to also suggest that just because you have a bed and a home, doesn’t mean you need to stay there. 

Stay Open-Minded

The heroes of Dahl’s tales, old and young alike, are curious, open-minded, and imaginative. They share stories of the mythical and fantastical; they are transported to magical and colourful worlds; they take trips without a safety net, going on far-away adventures. Our heroes aren’t phased by strange creatures; our villains are.

What’s more, they do things that are scary and uncertain. George mixes potions; Matilda faces down a vile headmaster; Sofia befriends a giant; James runs away on a giant piece of fruit navigated by sentient bugs. Dahl doesn’t seem to care for parents that go to every length to protect and coddle children.

Death Exists 

Perhaps some parents want to shield children from the realities and hardships of life, but Dahl tackles this head on. Death is prominent in his stories in part because it was prominent in his life, and from a very early age. When he was just three years old, his sister died at the age of seven from appendicitis. Weeks later, pneumonia befell his father and took the man’s life. Tragedy continued: Dahl’s daughter Olivia died at the age of seven. Trauma and illness would befall his son and wife.

So, death finds its way into his stories, rather matter of factly. The seven-year-old boy in The Witches goes to live with his grandmother after his parents die. James’ parents are killed by an escaped rhinoceros (and not long after, his evil aunts are ‘accidentally’ trampled). Similarly, some characters are orphans as stories begin; their parents simply don’t exist in these worlds. 

Most jarring, perhaps, is the case of the boy in The Witches, who at the end opts to stay a mouse instead of transform back to a human. That’s because as a mouse, he and his grandmother will die at relatively the same time, for he does not want to live a life without her.

Nothing Is Sacred 

One may fall in love with Dahl’s characters and stories, admiring the author for sharing such magical, inventive tales. However, Dahl isn’t perfect, and neither are his works. That is, close inspection raises some eyebrows, and inadvertently we all learn that our idols may not be as pure as we want them to be.

There are questions of potential racism in James, problematic depictions of women in The Witches, and then of course there are the comments Dahl made about Hitler. He cheated on his wife, and after being shot down during World War II while serving in the Royal Air Force, he worked as a spy. You can scour writings from a young Dahl that contain racist, sexist commentary. Maybe Matilda wasn’t originally as pro-female as it was thought; maybe Dahl just wanted to make money. Then again, maybe his faults were a product of times and hardship; maybe his works are super feminist.

Either way, his characters aren’t perfect, either. Our heroes lie and deceive in order to save the day; sometimes their guardians are ignored, and sometimes they are killed. Sometimes adventure and freedom leaves a wake of destruction. And sometimes the world just sucks. Such is life.

Anthony Marcusa
Anthony Marcusa is a Toronto-based freelance journalist whose writing dabbles in film, TV, music, sports, and relationships – though not necessarily in that order. He’s simultaneously youthfully idealistic and curmudgeonly cynical. But he’s always curious.