Essay on Roald Dahl - Understanding His Work

It takes great skill for a writer to be able to channel and evoke emotions out of words while simultaneously painting such a vivid picture in the mind of a reader. While there are writers who excel in a specific genre, be it screenplays or novels, some of the strongest writers of aour time have grown because of their ability to be so versatile. Even through various types of writing, the writer’s ultimate style is always clear. Their style is an evolution of their own history amalgamated with their perspectives on society and how they want their remarks to be recorded. Roald Dahl is one such writer who is a master of his craft. Dahl wrote short stories, novels, and screenplays for both children and adults. Throughout all of his pieces, including his own autobiography, his voice and style is always prominent. Through examination of Dahl’s writing approach by looking at his overall style, his skill with literary devices, and how he elicits a response from the reader through analysis of his short stories including Lamb to the Slaughter, Skin, and The Wish, it will be demonstrated that Dahl has developed his own craft in writing.

Understanding Dahl’s life intensifies the understanding that readers are presented with about his work. Notably known for his contribution to children’s literature with stories such as Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, his work with short stories is also significant. The common link between all of his pieces is the slightly horrific aspect he manages to incorporate. Dahl had a vendetta against adults in a position of authority after being relegated to the British schooling system. He has even claimed, “Parents and schoolteachers are the enemy. The adult is the enemy of the child because of the awful process of civilizing this thing when it is born it is an animal with no manners, no moral sense at all,” (http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/rdahl.htm). He was beaten constantly by Headmasters, one of the reasons that adults are painted in a harsher light in his children’s novels. His work in children’s fiction have the pretense of being juvenile, yet they consist of deeper themes surrounding greed, self indulgence, and the divide between adults and children. However, the effect that this torture had on him growing up is more apparent in his darker short stories, geared towards an adult audience.

One of Dahl’s most popular short stories is Lamb to the Slaughter. This piece truly emphasizes the economy of writing, as Dahl’s skill is evident in roughly 3000 words. Dahl’s distinct black humour element is evident throughout this piece. He writes in a very straightforward manner with an undertone of eeriness, one that allows the reader to understand from the very beginning that there is no happy ending. Dahl’s first sentence is enough to provide the reader with the strain that becomes evident between the Maloney couple. “The room was warm and clean, the curtains drawn, the two table lamps alight – hers and the one by the empty chair opposite,” (Page22) emphasizes the domesticity in the house by trying to be “warm” and allowing light to brighten the room. However, Dahl’s inclusion of how the empty chair was facing Mrs. Maloney accentuates the divide in her relationship with her husband. He continues this idea in the beginning of the piece, “On the sideboard behind her, two tall glasses, soda water, whiskey. Fresh ice cubes in the Thermos bucket,” (Page22). It is evident that everything has been set out for a couple to enjoy, together, yet Mrs. Maloney remains alone after having prepared everything like a doting wife.

Dahl’s buildup to a macabre twist is so carefully written that it leaves readers questioning while providing them with enough information to understand what is going on. Following a spare, yet awkward conversation between the Maloneys, Mr. Maloney does not remain passive and tells something that, “is going to be a bit of a shock,” (page25). Dahl does not detail the entire conversation between the Maloneys, merely providing readers with Mrs. Maloney’s feelings. “And he told her. It didn’t take long, four of give minutes at most, and she sat very still through it all, watching him with a kind of dazed horror,” (page25) allow readers to feel Mrs. Maloney’s daze as Dahl humanizes the situation. Dahl maintains his straightforward manner, ensuring that the readers are provided with the situation without outlandish metaphors that would ultimately be a distraction.

The black humour within this piece is found in its conclusion. Mrs. Maloney kills her husband without thinking, yet her entire focus from that moment is how she will get away with the murder. Mrs. Maloney comes up with an elaborate scheme to ensure that she would not be implicated in her husband’s death in anyway. Dahl’s twist is the way the police officers fall so easily into her trap and even aid her by eating the murder weapon, a leg of lamb. “’Probably right under our very noses. What you think, Jack?’ And in the other room, Mary Maloney began to giggle,” was Dahl’s clever ending to the piece. He showcases the irony in how the police are confident in the murder weapon and its location, yet they’ve consumed it in their own greed. The final image that Dahl leaves the readers with is chilling, a pregnant murderer who has tricked the police and is quietly giggling to herself as her plan comes to fruition.

Skin is another piece by Dahl where he has truly earned his “Master of the Macabre” title. His approach to writing is again exemplified, as Dahl slowly builds up the plot, offering enough background to set the scene first and increase tension before presenting readers with the crux of the conflict. In Skin, Dahl provides readers with everything Drioli remembers from the night he got his tattoo. By seeing the struggle that was necessary to achieve that work of art, the audience is able to appreciate the tattoo even more.

Dahl’s style is evident once again in the comment he makes on human nature. He conveys the greedy, deceitful qualities that many people exhibit at some points in their lives, but takes it to a new extreme when making the life of one who has suffered the price to pay to satisfy the greed. The way Dahl ends the piece is similar to the way that he ended Lamb to the Slaughter, very dark in nature. However, the differences lie in the way Dahl leaves readers with more questions than answers. Dahl’s skill in ending a short story is exemplified with the narrator’s final thoughts on Drioli’s situation. “That – and the fact that there is no hotel in Cannes called Bristol – causes one to wonder a little, and to pray for the old man’s health, and to hope fervently that wherever he may be at this moment, there is a plump attractive girl to manicure the nails of his fingers,” (page21) is how Dahl plays on the reader’s connection to Drioli. Dahl leads readers through a journey with Drioli, understanding the struggle to receive the tattoo, the misfortune he faced, and the hope that he felt at being promised a sum of money for his death. With this ending, he pulls the readers involvement to the forefront, acknowledging their reaction through the eyes of the narrator. Readers are left with questions from this ending, knowing that it alludes to Drioli’s death, yet retaining the speck of hope that would mean that he would be alive, enjoying all he was promised. The dark humour is how the audience will try to imagine scenarios where this would actually happen, knowing how unlikely it is.

Dahl’s, The Wish is written in a style that is more similar to Skin than Lamb to the Slaughter. This is a significantly shorter story, yet it incorporates Dahl’s common themes and its ending leaves readers with a multitude of questions. Dahl makes use of an anti-climax in The Wish. Throughout this entire story, the focus is upon a little boy and his adventure to the front door. The boy struggles through his own fears of snakes and burning, yet his sheer determination and imagination help him to complete his journey. However, by the end of his journey, readers are so firmly rooted in the tale that they want the boy to overcome his battle with the carpet, they want to know if it ends with him as the victor. Yet, the boy falls and must place his hand in the black area with all the “snakes” with a piercing cry. Rather than ending the story there, Dahl adds one more, extremely short paragraph, “Outside in the sunshine, far away behind the house, the mother was looking for her son,” (Page 95). The introduction of this character involves the readers to a greater degree as more questions appear. Personally, some of the questions I was left with after reading this piece included, “Why is the mother outside?” “Why did she not see her son on the steps?” and “Why is she searching, did he run away?”

Dahl’s style is also evident in The Wish as he maintains his straightforward method of writing. This is accentuated in this piece as the third person perspective he writes from mimics the child’s. From the beginning of the story itself, the audience realizes that the child they are going to follow is one who welcomes all challenges and does not back down. “A scab was always a fascinating thing; it presented a special challenge he was never able to resist,” (page90) is Dahl’s way of ensuring there is no question that this child is fond of anything out of the ordinary with the ability of finding challenges in every day life.

Dahl’s skill as a writer is also evident in the way he uses literary devices throughout his works. In his short stories, his characters are the foundation. Dahl tends to refrain from overarching metaphors and similes in his writing, yet relies on the characters to carry the ideas he wishes to present. For example, in Lamb to the Slaughter, the entire story is based around Mary Maloney. If her introduction to readers was changed, her actions would become less believable. Dahl writes, “Mary Maloney was waiting for her husband to come home from work,” to explicitly tell readers that she is a woman who spends her entire life waiting both on and for her husband. Everything about Mrs. Maloney’s character was so connected to her husband. In the beginning, whenever Dahl mentions Mrs. Maloney, she is waiting for, serving, looking at, or thinking about her husband. This continues even after his death as she tries to deceive the police for the sake of their child. It is clear that Dahl intends for Mrs. Maloney to be extremely unsettling as he ensures that she never wavers from this characterization. “Alright, she told herself. So I’ve killed him,” (Page27) strengthens her character because it is a reaction that is in tandem with her personality. Dahl’s creation of Mrs. Maloney is not a person who reacts in a loud way, additionally proven in the way she handled Mr. Maloney saying he wanted to break up with her. At the end of the story, when she does let out that final giggle, it does not appear to be out of character. After all that she had undergone in that one day, the giggle seems perfectly eerily natural because it is clear that she is not sane. Dahl’s construction of Mrs. Maloney also adds to his ultimate writing style as he emphasizes that it is human nature to fight and protect what we want, even willing to murder and deceive without thought.

In Skin, Dahl creates Drioli to teach readers where greed can lead a person. However, he does so by creating a three-dimensional character that readers completely sympathize with. “The old man who was called Drioli shuffled painfully along the sidewalk of the rue de Rivoli. He was cold and miserable,” (Page1) is meant to immediately evoke sympathy from readers as they imagine this pitiful, impoverished man who is suffering from a cold winter. Dahl easily makes the readers feel the same pains of hunger that Drioli feels stating, “the faint whiff of roasting chicken brought a pain of yearning to the top of his stomach,” (page1). Dahl places Drioli in a very precarious situation, as he is left with nothing but must realize what extents he is willing to go to in order to live a life free from poverty. Drioli is wary at first, questioning the man willing to buy a painting off his back. Yet, he soon falls under the promises of wealth and luxuries and agrees to go with the man without understanding the implications of essentially selling his body to another. Dahl truly develops Drioli in a way that he changes to the audience from this content man, living a life with his wife, friend, and work to a pitiful man willing to sell his body for splendour. The true irony in Drioli’s character is found when Dahl provides enough information for the readers to understand that Drioli was swindled.

In The Wish, the little boy that Dahl creates is extremely three-dimensional. The boy is one that readers can easily relate too, remembering their own make-believe adventures. The boy appears to be very simple-minded with the attention he places upon a scab, but it is in seeing everything presented to him as a challenge that Dahl’s writing skills shine. The little boy is extremely brave, but this courage comes only from understanding the fear that lies ahead of him. In truth, the little boy is actually wise beyond his years. “This was not a journey to be undertaken lightly; the risks were far to great for that...The mere thought of snakes sent a fine electricity of fear running like pins down the backs of his legs and under the soles of his feet,” (page91) is how Dahl writes the little boy viewing the challenge before him. Readers are reminded by the innocence of the child when he reacts harshly to the snakes he is picturing in the black carpet. Dahl is careful not to give any indication of how this phrase is said, “I’m not touching you! You mustn’t bite me! You know I’m not touching you!” (Page93) yet based on the boy’s deep fear of snakes, it is no surprise to imagine him at the point of hysterics. The boy’s innocence is key in understanding the terrors he faces is a product of his own doing, his own imagination in this instance. However, this reflects how Dahl typically inserts comments about human nature into his piece, as many people fall into traps that result from their own doing.

Another literary device that Dahl employs in his writing is the way in which he manipulates tone to set the mood of the piece. Throughout his short stories in general, Dahl maintains a very dark mood. For example, in Lamb to the Slaughter, the mood between the Maloneys is very separated. Dahl’s writing accentuates this with phrases such as, “…watching him with a kind of dazed horror as he went further and further away from her with each word,” (page25) for he not only talks of the physical space between the two, but the wedge that is being driven into their marriage. The gruesome tone that Dahl has set throughout the story is emphasized even in the way that the policemen eat the lamb, “thick and sloppy because their mouths were full of meat,” (page33). Dahl has created a very picturesque setting in the Maloney household, a product of Mrs. Maloney’s domesticity, one that remained even during the murder. However, it is in banishing the murder weapon that the repulsive nature of the crime truly comes to light.

Dahl’s dark mood is evident in Skin as well. He sets the tone of the story with the first sentence, making use of pathetic fallacy, “That year – 1946 – winter was a long time going. Although it was April, a freezing wind blew through the streets of the city, and overhead the snow clouds moved across the sky,” (Page1). The foreboding tone is additionally emphasized with Drioli’s return to Paris. “In desperation he had made his way back to Paris, hoping vaguely that things would be better in the big city. But they were not,” (Page 14) not only foreshadows Drioli’s failure in the tattoo industry, but ultimately how he would find a fate worse than unemployment in his hasty decision to return to Paris. Another aspect that Dahl pushes in this piece is impulse. It is because of impulse that Drioli finds himself in this predicament to begin with. Drioli was tattooed on an impulse and subsequently made his way into the gallery on an impulse. The impulsive tone that Dahl sets is one that is relatable to the audience, something that all feel at some point in their lives. However, Dahl’s foreboding tone that is paired with this impulse makes one pause and weigh the consequences of their actions, be it getting a tattoo or merely walking into a store.

Dahl sets a hopefully yet menacing tone in The Wish. The entire premise of reading a story about a young boy who is having an adventure in a hallway is so deceptively juvenile that it is difficult to see what Dahl is truly saying. Throughout this innocent game, readers are assaulted with images of red-hot coal and poisonous snakes. Readers feel the fear radiating from the little boy as Dahl cleverly writes, “The mere thought of snakes sent a fine electricity of fear running like pins down the backs of his legs and under the soles of his feet,” (Page91). The tone of the piece is set as readers imagine their own irrational fears and the instinctive reaction they have towards them. The tone is subtly hinted at in the beginning itself, as the little boy is picking at a scab. It is a small display of masochism as he is enthralled by the way the scab feels coming off of his skin. The overall dark tone of the piece is reinstated at the end as the boy’s mother is looking for her son, arousing thoughts of him being kidnapped or missing.

Dahl’s skill in writing is further emphasized by the way he elicits a reaction from the reader throughout his various stories. In Lamb to the Slaughter, readers are caught off-guard by the supposedly pleasant Mrs. Maloney killing her husband in the moment. Personally, I was shocked the first time I read this story, not believing that quiet, passive, Mary Maloney would be capable of such atrocities. Upon further reflection, I realized that Dahl did leave enough clues before the murder that should alert a careful reader that she was going to have a bad reaction to whatever news he had for her. Mrs. Maloney’s absolute dedication to her husband and their marriage should have been enough of a clue that she would not take his wish for separation so passively. Additionally, when I remembered that she was pregnant, it was easier for me to believe her instinctive reaction as she was not only fearing for the security of her child, but her body was physically undergoing a strain and her hormone levels would not have been normal.

Reading Lamb to the Slaughter I felt pity and could not honestly condemn Mary Maloney for her actions. The way Dahl portrayed her, I felt that she had given her life to her husband and he walked away from her. Although I can understand that his love for her may have faded, the way that Dahl wrote Patrick, I felt that he should have tried to fight for her, for their marriage, rather than letting it dissipate and walking away from her for someone else. I believe that making the audience sympathize with Mrs. Maloney was part of Dahl’s intent. Mr. Maloney was dissatisfied with his relationship and was greedy for something else. If his crime was leaving Mrs. Maloney, a pregnant wife who was devoted to him, Dahl’s punishment for him was death. One of my favourite lines in this piece is, “All of the old love and longing for him welled up inside her, and she ran over to him, knelt down beside him, and began to cry her heart out. It was easy. No acting was necessary,” (Page29) because I can see all the pain that Mrs. Maloney is suffering. All her pretenses for the day are gone as her true self remains, grieving over Mr. Maloney’s body, the part of her that is the doting wife.

Reading Skin, I found myself shocked at the plot ideas that Dahl was able to create. While I sympathized with the characters, I found it appalling that the story ended with the skin from someone’s back being cut off and sold. The chilling ending left me with many questions but in a way that made me content. I was free to imagine my own paths that would have lead Drioli to his demise. I enjoyed the way that Dahl involved the reader in this aspect, because he provides us with the final ending, yet allows the reader to exercise their own thinking to determine how Drioli would have found out the truth about who the buyer was. Personally, I feel the strongest part of the story was when an onlooker questioned how much would have to be paid to see Drioli kill himself on the spot. This line is poetic, because essentially, it was with the offer of riches that Drioli did end up killing himself. Additionally, I believe it was where Dahl’s comment on society was the most poignant, claiming that the lengths people would go to for money are absolutely ridiculous.

Though The Wish was a notably shorter piece, I found myself captivated by it. It was easy for me to put myself in the little boy’s shoes, having played similar games growing up. I felt that the little boy was supposed to be a mirror of the audience in a way. The courage the little boy used to face his fears, after first acknowledging what they were, made me feel like I should be able to do the same. Although my own fears are different than the snakes I may imagine on the carpet, it is the absolute terror that he feels that I can empathize with, feeling terror and needing to overcome it. I also found the ending peculiar, because it made me wonder why exactly the mother was searching for her son outside. However, upon a closer read, I realized that the boy never described the house as his, just “a house”. This made me wonder whether or not the boy was in his own house and I entertained the possibility of him being kidnapped. In The Wish, Dahl’s economy in writing is successful as he builds a character with such vivaciousness and a plot, yet one that leaves the reader wanting more.

By reading Lamb to the Slaughter, Skin, and the Wish and analyzing Dahl’s style, his technique with character and tone, in addition to my personal responses as a critical reader, it has been proven that Roald Dahl is truly skilled in the craft of writing as master of the macabre. On the surface, Dahl seems to be a writer of juvenile fiction that promotes silliness. However, even throughout his children’s fiction as well as adult fiction, it is evident that he is so skilled in his craft to make a piece seem innocent to the naive reader, yet provide a careful one with a multitude of dimensional characters and morbid questions. Dahl has truly earned his place as one of the best fiction writers of our time, understanding how to manipulate writing to elicit the best reaction from his readers.