Roald Dahl Psychobiography

This is an essay published in the journal Biography in, I believe, 1998.  It was titled, in a seizure of alliteration, “Finding Fate’s Father.”  It focuses on Roald Dahl’s history of loss and the writing of the book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.


Roald Dahl thought quite a lot of chocolate. Growing up, he lived near a plant whose emissions he happily sniffed. An otherwise dreary English Public School experience was at intervals partially redeemed by the nearby Cadbury Company: Dahl and his lucky classmates sometimes got to taste-test experimental chocolates. They rated them and wrote out their reactions. Dahl liked to imagine himself “working in one of [those] labs and suddenly I would come up with something so absolutely unbearably delicious that I would grab it in my hand and go rushing along the corridor and right into the office of the great Mr. Cadbury himself”—who would then leap from his chair crying, “You got it! We’ll sweep the world with this one!” (1984, p. 148-149). Foreshadowings of Willy Wonka’s wonderful chocolate factory appear even in Dahl’s first major book for children, James and the Giant Peach, when the impossibly massive fruit runs over just such an establishment on its way to thrilling adventures at sea.

Of course, Dahl eventually got around to writing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and there his fascination with everything chocolate found its fullest expression. The book was a great success, inspiring a film for which Dahl wrote the screenplay along with uncredited others (Treglown, 1994). Dahl himself traces the novel’s origin to the Cadbury experience, retrospectively concluding that “I have no doubt at all that, thirty-five years later, when I was looking for a plot for my second book for children, I remembered those little cardboard boxes and the newly-invented chocolates inside them, and I began to write a book called Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (p. 149). But what else might have motivated him? For instance, what accounts for the superlative charisma–and menace–of Willy Wonka, or for the unhappy, almost grisly accidents that befall so many of the children, with the exception of Charlie? It is to those questions that this paper is addressed. But first, a brief summary of the book seems in order, especially since the film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, so familiar by now to so many parents, departs in important respects from the text that inspired it. (Just two such differences: the book contains no bewilderingly lurking Slugworth figure; and in the book, but not the movie, Charlie has a father, albeit a rather feckless and irrelevant one).

The book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a meditation on what Artaud called the “marginality of fate,” and in Charlie’s case, the almost providential intervention of chance. Our hero, Charlie Bucket, is the only child of a desperately poor family. His father works long hours screwing caps on tubes of toothpaste (until he loses his job and resorts to shoveling snow). The father’s wages support not only Charlie and his mother, but also both sets of invalid grandparents. The house isn’t large enough for so many people, and there isn’t enough money to buy proper food for them all. They eat “bread and margarine for breakfast, boiled potatoes and cabbage for lunch, and cabbage soup for supper” (p. 7). Sundays are better because then everyone is allowed a second helping. The family goes “from morning till night with a horrible empty feeling in their tummies” (p. 7), and Charlie’s bones bristle beneath the skin of his face. Adding insult to injury, there stands within sight of Charlie’s home an enormous chocolate factory—the biggest in the world, run by the cleverest chocolate maker in the world. The factory scents the air, for half a mile in every direction, with the “heavy rich smell of melting chocolate” (p. 9). That factory bewitches the family; it seems both nemesis and temptation, a symbol of everything dreaded and desired. Grandpa Joe in particular spends many an evening sharing his associations to the factory with Charlie–how its founder Willy Wonka (always described in superlatives) invented ice cream that doesn’t run in the sun and gum that never loses its taste, how the building (bricks, cement, and all) was constructed of light and dark chocolate, how nobody seems ever to go in and nobody seems ever to go out, and how the workers, known only by the shadows appearing behind windows at night, are no taller than Grandpa Joe’s knee.

Then one day, Charlie’s wish—to go inside this most edible of factories and see what it is like—becomes at least remotely possible. Wonka inexplicably decides to admit five children for a visit. These lucky five will be selected by Fate: Wonka has hidden five golden tickets inside the wrapping of five ordinary bars of chocolate. Charlie figures there isn’t much hope; he gets just one bar a year, for his birthday. The family contents itself with following the drama in the papers. Four slightly despicable children find tickets, Charlie’s birthday passes disappointingly when his wrapping reveals no gold, and the family continues to starve. But one day, Charlie discovers a dollar in the gutter, and buys two chocolate bars from a fat shopkeeper. The first bar he eats; the second, a Whipple-Scrumptious Fudgemallow Delight, explodes in a brilliant flash of gold. In an instant, Charlie is lucky ticket holder number five, feeling a “peculiar floating sensation coming over him, . . . his heart thumping away loudly somewhere in his throat” (p. 51).

The big day arrives. The other four children bring both their mother and father to the factory with them; Charlie brings Grandpa Joe. The factory doesn’t disappoint; it’s even more spectacular than imagined, and so is Wonka, a kind of troll-like figure with mixed motives. “Please don’t wander off by yourselves,” he says. “I shouldn’t like to lose any of you at this stage of the proceedings! Oh, dear me, no” (p. 64). But as the tour proceeds, children do get “lost.” Gluttonous Augustus Gloop falls into a chocolate river. Violet Beauregarde eats gum she shouldn’t and swells up like a blueberry. Spoiled Veruca Salt gets identified as a “bad nut” and is taken away by squirrels to the garbage chute. Mike Teavee, whose very name reveals his vice, is reduced to a tiny TV image. Only Charlie escapes doom, and consequently wins what had been a sort of survival contest all along. As Wonka explains, “I decided to invite five children to the factory, and the one I liked best at the end of the day would be the winner.” He stresses: “I have to have a child. I want a good sensible loving child, one to whom I can tell all my most precious candy-making secrets—while I am still alive.” So Charlie inherits the chocolate factory. Wonka invites his whole family to move in at once. At first the grandparents refuse to go, but Charlie and Wonka won’t take no for an answer. “Please don’t be frightened,” Charlie says. “It’s quite safe. And we’re going to the most wonderful place in the world!” (p. 161).

So, in a broad sense, the book reads like a morality fable: Charlie, the good child, wins the prize just by being himself, and the bad children meet with terrible ends which seem strangely prefigured. Their “accidents” hardly appear accidental, however; Fate functions like a kind of externalized superego handing down fiats. Even when the bad kids do weirdly re-emerge in the end, they don’t remain dead or dematerialized, but carry with them enduring stigmata (Violet gets de-juiced but she’s still purple in the face; shrunken Mike Teavee is overstretched, “ten feet tall and thin as a wire”). But on close examination, other aspects of the text seem less easily interpretable. For instance, what has Charlie really won? Only the factory, or something more, though less material? And what about the accident theme? Why does Dahl see fit to “kill off” the undeserving children rather than simply humiliating them, or otherwise rejecting their vices? Finally, another as-yet-unmentioned detail deserves special attention too: the factory’s basically claustral architecture. The reader is repeatedly introduced to various tubes, corridors, enclosures, and passageways which the visitors must push and shove through (the word “push” is used three different times and in three separate contexts between pages 64-68). In what follows, I suggest answers to these three questions which derive both from Dahl’s life-history, and from his extra-literary preoccupations at the time he wrote the book.

What Does Charlie Win?

In some ways that question may seem unnecessarily obscure. After all, we know full well what Charlie wins: the chocolate factory and everything else that goes with it, including, one assumes, fame and fortune and comfort for his heretofore dirt-poor, starving family. I think more is at play, though. Charlie’s gain may be psychological and emotional, not just material.

The expression of sincere, honest emotion apparently was not one of Dahl’s strengths, either in his life or in his work (see Treglown, 1994). When such emotional expression appears in his fiction, therefore, it comes as something of a surprise, the reader being much more prepared for sarcasm or nonsense. Emotional expression in Dahl suggests unique information, then, in reference to Alexander’s (1988) “indicators of saliency”—a set of textual markers indicative of psychologically important material. In Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, the Chocolate Factory’s slightly belated (and in my view, far less satisfying) sequel, one passage does leap out, so to speak. The Bucket family finds itself riding in Wonka’s elevator/spacecraft, and anticipating an increase in altitude (since, as Wonka puts it, “we must go up before we can come down,” p. 4). The grandparents aren’t sure they like that idea, nor are they sure they like Wonka much either. So Charlie leans over and whispers to the doubting matriarchs: “Please, don’t spoil everything. Mr. Wonka is a fantastic man. He’s my friend. I love him” (p. 4). The intensity of feeling conveyed by the last three words is startling in context. Wonka had warmed to Charlie towards the end of the first book, but there his warmth seemed qualified by the fact that he wanted, most of all, to find an heir. So although the sentence “I love him” may not be terribly consistent considering what we know about Charlie and Wonka, the depth of devotion does ring true if seen as coming from Dahl himself. My sense is that with Wonka, Charlie–and Dahl–win a father.

In fact, Dahl’s real-life father, Harald Dahl, died of pneumonia when Dahl was three, just two months after the death of Dahl’s seven-year old sister, Astri, from appendicitis. According to Dahl, Harald “did not care much whether he lived or died” and, apparently wanting to join Astri in heaven, refused to fight the illness (1984, p. 20). Dahl concluded, somewhat tersely: “So he died. He was fifty-seven years old.” It’s hard not to be struck by the incompleteness of Dahl’s account, which occurs in the first installment of his autobiography, a book called Boy. He spends just two paragraphs on this most catastrophic of events, and then moves matter-of-factly on to lighter fare. Considering how Dahl “had always found it impossible to talk to anyone about his feelings,” and tended, in difficult times, to say “nothing of what he was going through” (Treglown, 1994, p. 147), perhaps it isn’t at all surprising that in Boy he ends up avoiding discussion of the psychological effects—short and long term—of his father’s (and sister’s) death. Still, the effects may be evident elsewhere. For example, although he doesn’t push the point (and isn’t prone towards psychobiography), Dahl’s biographer, Treglown, refers to a subsequent searching out of “surrogate fathers,” including Charles Marsh, a self-made multimillionaire oil tycoon and art collector (Treglown, 1994, p. 6).

Treglown sees, not Harald, but Roald Dahl in Wonka—citing both a similarity “between Dahl’s third-person narrative voice and Mr. Wonka’s own hectic, exaggerated way of talking,” and Wonka’s Dahl-like way with dismissive criticism (p. 155). One might also note how Dahl dreamed of being an inventor (and in fact was one; see below), and “longed to be powerful enough to be able to conquer illness” (Treglown, 1994, p. 136): In Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, Wonka actually brings Charlie’s grandparents back from the dead, a talent Dahl might have put to excellent use, considering the many losses he endured. Holding that Wonka is Dahl seems reasonable so far as it goes (although Treglown himself labels such a facile conclusion “naive”). But if one looks beyond the superficial characteristics, a different, more compelling role for Wonka begins to suggest itself: fictional father.

Charlie’s father serves essentially no function in the world of either book; he is very nearly irrelevant (the film version drops the character altogether, at no expense to the story). He almost never utters a line of dialogue (except to read verbatim newspaper descriptions of each new lucky winner). He decides not to accompany Charlie to the factory (figuring Grandpa Joe to be more “deserving”), and he winds up unemployed and unable to support the family. When Charlie finds the money and later wins the golden ticket, he tells his mother, not his father, about it. I have already noted the fact that all the ticket winners except for Charlie arrive on the big day accompanied by bothparents. Charlie of course has only Grandpa Joe, and although Joe doubtlessly does deserve the honor—considering how nightly he regaled Charlie with stories of Wonka’s factory—the absence of mom and dad makes Charlie out to be something of an orphan; the effect is to mark him as parentless in a metaphoric sense. Wonka therefore responds to Charlie differently, not only because he is the one good kid, but because he lacks (figuratively) a father, and because Wonka’s “real purpose [is] to find an heir,” or son (Treglown, 1994, p. 151). Or, as Wonka himself explains, “I have to have a child” (p. 157).

In a certain way of reading the situation, Wonka really can’t give the factory to any of the other children, since to do so would amount to making their visible parents (and guardians) the beneficiaries. And while he tends with relish to demean the other children and their escorts on occasion, Wonka singles Charlie out for paternal concern. At one point, for example, while the group floats along in the same chocolate river that took Augustus Gloop, Wonka dips a large mug in the water and hands it, full, to Charlie. “Drink this,” he [says]. “It’ll do you good! You look starved to death!. . . Hasn’t there been anything to eat in your house lately?” (p. 88). Charlie brings the mug to his lips, “and as the rich warm creamy chocolate ran down his throat and into his empty tummy, his whole body from head to toe began to tingle with pleasure, and a feeling of intense happiness spread over him” (much like the “peculiar floating sensation” he got upon finding the golden ticket; p. 89). This may be Wonka’s single expression of unironic kindness and thoughtfulness in the entire book; and Charlie’s deeply satisfying response marks it as especially meaningful psychologically.

In the end, Charlie alone survives the war of attrition. Wonka first feigns surprise (in fact, he “had a hunch, right from the beginning,” that Charlie would win), but that quickly gives way to rejoicing: “I’m absolutely delighted! It couldn’t be better! How wonderful this is!” (p. 149). He goes on revealingly to explain: “I’m an old man. I’m much older than you think. I can’t go on forever. I’ve got no children of my own, no family at all. . . I decided to invite five children to the factory, and the one I liked best at the end of the day would be the winner” (p. 157). Notice how this cancels the conceit of chance (a fact I consider in more detail later.) Wonka chose Charlie from the start, and the “accidents” weren’t accidents at all, but disappearances of a sort. So Wonka picks an “orphan” heir who becomes the child he needs; and Charlie finds a fabulous father, as (in fantasy) does the truly fatherless Dahl. But there’s more: immediately after Wonka tells Charlie what he’s won, he takes Charlie and Grandpa Joe into the great glass elevator, which travels, shudderingly, through a thin corridor, then explodes like a rocket through the factory’s glass ceiling—“We’re through! We’re out!” shouts Wonka. The craft hangs in mid-air, sunshine pours in, and the town lies spread out below like a picture postcard. Now the message, intentional or not, seems unmistakeable. Charlie has been reborn, at least psychologically. Just after being introduced to the kind of father he needs, he finds himself transported into a different realm, with a different perspective, bathed in light. One half-expects Charlie to be slapped on the bottom.

This interpretation isn’t necessarily at odds with Treglown’s suggestion that Wonka is Dahl. In Wonka, Dahl may have managed to blend his ideal self—inventor, orchestrator of chance, master of life and death, imp extraordinaire—with a wonderfully amusing, occasionally even maternal, father-image. And Wonka’s ability to resurrect the dead, which we learn of in the second book, provides some additional corroboration, considering that loss plagued Dahl throughout his life. Conjuring up a character who, Orpheus-like, enters the underworld and zaps the unliving back to their original form seems like the best sort of wish-fulfillment. Although it’s unclear how much of the Wonka screenplay was actually written by Dahl, especially given the film world’s penchant for script-doctoring and audience-driven filming, one isolated line brings things into a kind of focus. In a very peripheral little subplot, a minor character whose wealthy husband has been kidnapped urges investigators, “All I want is to have Harald back!” Dahl may have felt much the same. It’s impossible to imagine him writing such a line without thinking of his father.

The Fiction of Accident

Dahl’s life was incredibly accident-beset (the back cover of the paperback edition of the Treglown biography refers to a surfeit of “shocking personal tragedy”). One wonders how he even survived, physically and psychologically, let alone how he prospered in the face of repeated, often devastating, trauma. As if to underscore the importance of the theme, Boy begins with an accident that occurred even before Dahl was born: when Harald was 14 he fell off a roof, broke his left arm, then lost that arm due to medical incompetence. (In the event, his father claimed to have suffered just one inconvenience: he found it impossible to cut the top off a boiled egg [1984, p. 12]). When Dahl was nine, his older sister took the family on a car ride which proved much more eventful than anyone had anticipated: she crashed the car into a hedge, causing Dahl’s nose to be “cut almost clean off [his] face, . . . hanging on only by a single small thread of skin” (1984, p. 103). Many years later, in Fall of 1939, RAF fighter-pilot Dahl made a forced landing in the North African desert; the plane struck a boulder, Dahl’s skull got fractured, and his nose, already having been singled out for punishment, was driven back into his face. He crawled from the cockpit, rolled out of danger, and was “picked up, bleeding profusely, by British soldiers patrolling nearby” (Treglown, 1994, p. 43). In perhaps the most important disaster of all, for present purposes at least, Dahl’s four-month-old son, Theo—“to whom Dahl was unambiguously devoted”—got hit by a cab as a nanny pushed his carriage across a street. The child’s skull was broken in several places, and doctors did not expect him to live (he did, although with lasting neurological impairments; see Treglown, 1994, p. 137-138). The accident occurred at the same time Dahl was working on the first Charlie book, and Dahl in fact dedicates Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to Theo.

Maybe not unexpectedly, then, accidents of different kinds play an enduring part in Dahl’s fiction—from the very first page of his first major work, James and the Giant Peach, in which James’ parents get eaten (rather randomly) by a rhino, of all things, to his penultimate book for children, The Witches, where the little hero’s parents die in an icy, Christmas-time car crash. The first sentence of Danny the Champion of the World informs us that mom died when Danny was only four months old. Because this theme recurs with such frequency, in life and fiction alike, it warrants extra attention. Accident becomes something of a leitmotif, in other words. Although an entire essay might be devoted to this theme alone, tracing its appearance throughout Dahl’s ouvre, I focus here on what has to be the most accident-perfused book of all, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Why did accidents figure so prominently in that story, and what psychological function may they have served?

First there’s the matter of the children’s “disappearances,” and their mock gruesome nature. That particular plot detail raised immediate controversy. Dahl’s editor at Knopf, Virginia Fowler, had her doubts, calling Veruca Salt’s disposal down a garbage shaft especially “crude” and “revolting,” too much on the “adult level” (Treglown, 1994). But then, Dahl’s obvious point is a moral one, and his tendency always is to increase discomfort, to provoke and disarm his young readers. Besides which, the kids’ departures are not merely gratuitous or unnecessary in context. Indeed, Dahl seems to want, among other things, to write a cautionary tale. The kids are done in by their own vileness, their respective fates metaphorically apt. Augustus Gloop “drowns” in chocolate, Mike Teavee becomes a TV image, et cetera. But there’s something beyond just this, something a bit more oblique at work. For apart from whatever social comment Dahl may have intended, the book’s tone at times betrays a kind of pervading menace. Something like vengeance lurks behind Wonka’s pleasure over each demise, a motive Gene Wilder as Wonka exploits in the film version of the book. Repeatedly Wilder/Wonka stands by indifferently while children exit in ways that would be easily preventable. Why doesn’t Wonka/Dahl see to it that the kids stay safe? Why aren’t the parents actively punished instead? Should children really be forced to pay for their moral failings?

My aim is not to raise issue with the book’s plot, least of all to pass judgment on Dahl’s authorial choices, which I tend to find entertainingly ribald, in fact (as do most of his readers, apparently, judging from his sales success). Rather, I want to ask a different question. Why did Dahl make these children pay so excessively? What did he get out of it?

One answer lies in his history of loss. Dahl had been forced to watch good children meet with undeserved catastrophe–his sister died at age seven, his infant son suffered brain damage. (Later, when Charlie had long been completed, Dahl’s own daughter died at the same age as did his sister, and left him almost mad with grief). In Charlie, Dahl exacts his revenge on fate. He corrects the waywardness of chance. If Dahl did in fact identify with Wonka (as Treglown suggests), and if, simultaneously, Wonka played the part of surrogate father to him, then Wonka’s orchestration of “death,” and his utter mastery over it in the sequel, allow Dahl imaginatively to turn the tables on loss—to dictate its caprice rather than be dictated to by it. True, Dahl’s heroes do repeatedly lose their parents, and so he did replay that theme in part to discharge his own grief, most likely, surrounding the loss of Harald Dahl. But apart from that, when he actively discards characters, as he does in Charlie with the children, he becomes judge, invents his own just world, an alternate reality where only bad kids meet with disaster, and good kids, kids who have done nothing wrong, triumph.

To the extent that Wonka is a father, Dahl would have to be Charlie too, the boy who “desperately wanted something more filling and satisfying” out of life, who longed “more than anything else” for chocolate—chocolate signifying Wonka/Father. In this network of identifications, the way every author has of inserting bits and pieces of his own self into his characters, Wonka provides Dahl with an even headier power: as all artists ultimately do, Dahl becomes god of his imaginary world. It is he, not dumb reality, who decides which children prosper, and which perish. He defines the world he prefers, one in which bad kids, not good ones, meet with bad ends.

And so the departures of Augustus Gloop and his ilk, so gruesome, so bizarre, so easily preventable, serve as Dahl’s effort to impose justice. Any anger, resentment, or sense of injustice Dahl may have felt in response to the various losses he endured—again his tendency was not to talk directly about his feelings—found expression in the fashion with which he punished his readers’ imagined peers. Augustus Gloop is a “repulsive boy,” his mother a “revolting woman”; Veruca, “even worse than the fat boy,” is in need of “a real good spanking”; Violet is “despicable” and “beastly”; and what if Mike Teavee can’t be stretched back to his original size? “It serves him right.” Clearly, such kids don’t deserve justice. Their behavior hardly merits even mercy. In Wonka’s just world, they simply get their just desserts, the poetic sort Wonka decrees; this in utter contrast to the real world, where loss bluntly arrives, leaving survivors no option but to wonder why? why him/her? why not someone else, someone more deserving of death? Unless, of course, survivors happen to possess a gift for constructing worlds. Unless, in other words, the survivor is an artist, like Dahl.

The disappearance of children is not unique to Charlie. In The Witches, too, Dahl begins with a strikingly similar scenario. Five kids, including, interestingly enough, a “Harald” (spelled just like Dahl’s father’s name), either disappear or get transformed (like Violet or Mike Teevea), all because of nefarious actions undertaken by local witches. It so happens that witches particularly enjoy turning a child into some creature all grownups hate–a slug, which the grownups unknowingly smash; a flea which gets powdered; or a pheasant who is shot from the sky, then plucked and roasted and eaten for supper. In fact, witches often make grownups eat their own children–by turning them into hot dogs.

Eventually Dahl introduces the book’s chief story line concerning a vast consortium of witches plotting to transform all the children of England–whom they uniformly despise–into mice. How? By lacing chocolate with a special formula—the “Delayed-Action Mouse-Maker.” The witches will open sweets shops from which they plan to dispense the doctored candies, aided by a scheme resembling Wonka’s, no less: on a certain day they are to announce in the windows of their shops a “Great Gala Opening with free sweets and chocs to every child” (p. 78). The orphaned hero and his cigar-smoking, witch-savvy grandmother get wind of the plan, and work to undermine it.

The grandmother character is an especially interesting sort of hybrid, part Wonka, as it turns out, and part Harald Dahl. Wonka carries a “gold-topped walking cane” (p. 61); Grandmother thumps around the house with her “gold-topped cane” (p. 46). Grandmother’s eyes are “bright as two stars” (p. 123); Wonka’s eyes are “marvelously bright. . . sparkling and twinkling at you all the time,” rather like stars (p. 61). Grandmother gets through life with a missing thumb (we never learn which one); Harald Dahl lost his left arm. At one point Grandmother comes down with pneumonia; Harald Dahl died of pneumonia. Such convergences serve to underscore the saliency of Dahl’s identifications. Harald, Wonka, and Grandmother seem to spring from deep, and deeply felt, roots. The repetitions over a large span of years reveal how Dahl continued, whether consciously or not, to rework the same psychological material, apparently trying to make metaphorical sense of it.

In the book’s most poignant passage (which Dahl sets off with italics), our hero, who has since been turned into a mouse himself, wonders why his transformation doesn’t depress him. “What’s so wonderful about being a little boy anyway?” he asks. “I know that mice get hunted and they sometimes get poisoned or caught in traps. But little boys sometimes get killed, too. Little boys can be run over by motorcars [just like Theo] or they can die of some awful illness” (p. 112)—just like Dahl’s daughter, sister, and father did. In her review of The Witches, Erica Jong calls the book “a parable about the fear of death as separation and a child’s mourning for the loss of his parents. . . It’s a curious sort of tale but an honest one, which deals with matters of crucial importance to children: smallness, the existence of evil in the world. . .” (p. 45).

In another paper I identified what I called an “Orpheus Complex” in writers stricken by loss, a personality dynamic which had serendipitous effects on creativity (Schultz, 1996). In at least one detail Dahl seems to conform to that prototype: he “rewrote” trauma in the service of psychological needs, both to discharge lingering grief and to repair fate’s damage. Charlie‘s controlled “accidents” no doubt made for a much more habitable world, however imaginary it may have been. Unfortunately, and inevitably, creation’s pleasures would not last. A matter of days after he sent off a revised draft of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Dahl’s seven year-old daughter Olivia died of measles. Cruelly enough, just when Dahl seemingly had beaten back reality by dropping a different world into its place, reality returned with a vengeance of its own. Fate seems to have been Dahl’s nemesis.

In the language of script theorist Silvan Tomkins, the unforeseen trauma motif may well represent one of Dahl’s “nuclear” scripts, insofar as Dahl evinced an “unwillingness to renounce or mourn,” along with an “inability to recover what [had] become lost,” or to purify or integrate what had grown intolerably conflicted (Tomkins, 1987, p. 197). In Tomkins’ system, we are all self-dramatizers engaged in a constant dramaturgical process of constructing personal worlds from the earliest weeks of life. One tends repeatedly to edit life’s most salient “happenings” into one or more core scripts. Nuclear scripts, few in number and especially complex, are marked by the following features: something good turns bad; negative affect predominates; efforts are made to reverse, rehearse, avoid, undo, or repair the damage; and a process of psychological magnification ensues in which affect-laden scenes are interconnected as one half-consciously perceives similarities between what seem to be different experiences. The nuclearity of a script is established by its constellating power, in other words, and its persistence as a potent, hauntingly recurrent problem. It isn’t only repeatedly expressed, but grows in scope and form, proliferates much like a cancer metastasizes (see, for these and additional criteria of nuclear scripts, Carlson 1988 & 1981). The losses of his sister and father might have served, for Dahl, as originating events. Something good—an intact family—became suddenly bad, and Dahl, as an adult writer of fiction, recurrently scripted and organized the damage via imaginative retellings. His heroes grapple with loss, and manage, in variously idealized ways, to triumph, either by finding a substitute parent more potent than the original, or by becoming the architects of their own fate.


One final feature of Charlie’s marvellous universe deserves attention, this being the frequent depiction of what personologist Henry Murray called “claustral” spaces (enclosed, womb-resembling): tunnels, corridors, valves, tubes, pipes, and the like, through which the characters continuously get pushed and pulled. References of this sort are so plentiful, in fact, that it isn’t possible to do them justice without becoming tedious, but by way of a greatly truncated summary: Crowds at the gate push to get in. Wonka ushers the children through, promising that “it’s nice and warm inside” (p. 64). They reach the first of many corridors, “so wide that a car could easily have been driven along it,” its walls “pale pink,” the lighting “soft and pleasant” (p. 65). “How lovely and warm,” whispers Charlie. It turns out that all the passages slope downward, leading to rooms larger than football fields, deep beneath the surface. “But down here,” Wonka explains, “underneath the ground, I’ve got all the space I want. There’s no limit–so long as I hollow it out” (p. 67).

A great deal of “pushing and shoving” ensues as the group hustles and bustles along towards the “nerve center,” where “enormous pipes” dangle down from the ceiling and drain into the chocolate river. Augustus, of course, gets stuck in a pipe (“It’s a wonder to me,” says Mr. Gloop, “how that pipe is big enough for him to go through it”): “The watchers below could see the chocolate swishing around the boy, and they could see it building up behind him in a solid mass, pushing against the blockage. The pressure was terrific. Something had to give. Something did give, and that something was Augustus” (p. 80). Wonka drolly explains: “Augustus has gone on a little journey, that’s all. A most interesting little journey” (p. 80). The group boards a boat of a glistening pink color, made of pink glass. The boat leads to “some kind of a dark tunnel” which turns out to be a “gigantic pipe,” the boat “rocketing along at a furious pace” (p. 91). They disbark at the “Inventing Room”—where Wonka’s ideas are born—with pipes running all over the ceilings and walls. Wonka takes no small pride in introducing the gum machine, which rumbles, and steams, and shakes most frighteningly, then emits “a monstrous mighty groan, and at the same moment a tiny drawer popped out of the side of the machine, and in the drawer there lay something so small and thin and grey that everyone thought it must be a mistake” (p. 98-99)–as some children apparently are. Shortly thereafter, Violet disappears down a garbage chute. “Endless pink corridors” follow (p. 110), and the claustral imagery continues up until the great glass elevator—with a button reading “UP AND OUT”—announces Charlie’s psychological rebirth. Even the famous Oompa-Loompas who inhabit this vast claustral enclosure seem like fetuses or young children. “They are very small, . . . tiny people, people no taller than my knee,” Grandpa Joe explains (p. 22).

In charting the path taken, it seems that the group proceeds downward at an ever-increasing slope, reaches what Dahl calls the nerve center, the heart of the entire factory—the great chocolate room with a chocolate river—until, at last, Charlie explodes into a great light. The resemblance to the birth-process couldn’t be more obvious (although, in certain respects, the factory sounds a bit like the unconscious, as well). Even lowly Augustus gets reborn. But the chief impulse represented throughout Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has less to do with birth, it appears, than with the effort to seek enclosure, to return to the womb, in other words. Characters are constantly pushing and shoving, squeezing into smaller and smaller spaces, seeking that warmly pink, pleasant containment.

James and the Giant Peach, written just prior to the Charlie book, provides continuity of theme. There orphaned James crawls into a hole in the side of a peach which turns out, on further exploration, to be not only a hole, but a tunnel: “The tunnel was damp and murky, and all around him there was the curious bittersweet smell of fresh peach. . . The walls were wet and sticky, and the peach juice was dripping from the ceiling” (p. 25). James rides this mobile womb en route to strange adventures at sea and elsewhere.

As with other elements already discussed, Dahl’s fictional world here has a counterpart in life. Like Wonka, Dahl sought out womb-like spaces and objects. His home’s garden shed became a writing hut, where he kept, among other fetishes, a heavy ball made out of the wrappings of chocolate bars. As Treglown describes it, “For much of his life, he was to spend several hours of every morning and afternoon. . . snugly wrapped in a sleeping bag, sitting in an old arm chair, his feet on a trunk which was filled with blocks of wood and tied to the leg of the chair, to prevent it from slipping. Here he transported himself back to his earliest infancy. Even beyond” (p. 111). Dahl speaks of his “secret side, which comes out. . . only after [I have] closed the door of [my] workroom and [am] completely alone. It is then that [I] slip into another world altogether, a world where [my] imagination takes over and [I] find myself [in] a kind of trance” (Dahl, 1977, p. 196). “It’s small and tight and dark and the curtains are always drawn and it’s a kind of womb–you go up here and you disappear and get lost,” Dahl ventures (quoted in Treglown, p. 111). Following Theo’s accident in America, Dahl insists the family return to England, “where he could escape into the security of his shed” (Treglown, p. 141). It is in that shed, that womb, that Dahl wrote much of the Charliestory. The book’s claustral imagery, then, can be seen as a kind of recapitulation of his working environment. He writes from a womb of the womb.

Murray described various claustral complexes, the first of which—the simple claustral complex—is “constellated about the wish to reinstate the conditions similar to those prevailing before birth,” and is “organized by an unconscious desire to re-experience the state of being that existed before birth” (p. 363). Claustral spaces are typically small, warm, dark, secluded, safe, private or concealing. As illustrations Murray mentions, among other possibilities, a hut, a sound-proof den, and tunnels (he even quotes one subject declaring, “I loved to build tunnels” [p. 366]). In terms that directly recall Dahl’s writing hut, Murray describes how “a subject with this complex is attracted to, seeks, or if not found, builds such objects, and is inclined to enter them and remain in them for some time, secluded from others. . . The subject gets a fixation on his habitation or sanctuary and hates to leave it or to move to another house” (p. 364). Dahl had adapted his “marvelous, isolated, quiet” shed to write in; he rarely was disturbed there. Treglown notes how, under the sway of a similar impulse, Dahl as a child used to hide up a tree in order to write his diary; at Repton, his English Pulic School, he had sought isolation in a photography darkroom (Treglown, 1994, p. 111). Claustral complexes also express themselves, Murray found, through the “cathection” (i.e., the strong attraction) of both death and the past—topics to which Dahl devoted much of his writing. Treglown depicts Dahl employing the shed in order to “commemorate, and fantasize about, his past” (p. 111). On a side table he accumulated shards of himself—his father’s paper knife, souvenirs from North Africa, his own femur and fragments of his spine, saved from operations. As described above, Dahl valued the hut because it allowed him the chance to “disappear” and “get lost,” and when he wrote, he felt himself slipping into another world, entering a kind of trancelike state. Similarly, those who seek claustra desire to lose individual identity by merging with the infinite, and by separating from others–a motive Murray termed the “cathection of Nirvana.”

So it appears a good case can be made for rooting the Charlie book’s profusion of womb metaphors in features of Dahl’s personality, in his tendency, perhaps born of trauma, to seek succorance, avoid harm, and effectively lose himself in claustral spaces like the writing hut. In the act of creation, the metaphor of the womb encircled his imagination, while the hut enclosed him physically, entranced him. That aside, another, more immediate variable may also have directed his attention towards tubes, valves, tunnels, and the like. Although it is difficult to pinpoint the dates with much precision, Dahl sent a revised draft of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory off to Knopf over two years after Theo’s accident, which occurred in Fall, 1960. Towards the end of August, 1960—according to Treglown’s dates—Dahl had finished the first draft of a story called “Charlie’s Chocolate Boy,” on which available biographical materials shed very little light (although judging from the title alone, it must have differed significantly from the book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). All things considered, we don’t know precisely how much of the specific content of the Charlie book took form after—as opposed to before—the accident to Dahl’s son. We are, nonetheless, safe in asserting that Dahl worked on a significant portion of the Charlie book after the accident.

And so, the question arises: How might Theo’s accident have prefigured Dahl’s use of claustral imagery?

One result of Theo’s injuries was that he developed hydrocephalus. In order to drain the build-up of cerebrospinal fluid, surgeons ran a thin tube with a one-way valve from his head into a vein, where the fluid got dispersed into the bloodstream (see Treglown, 1994, p. 138). But maddeningly, and at great threat to Theo’s life, this tube constantly clogged; each time that happened, another operation was required to change the tube and valve. Dahl “studied the problem incessantly,” according to Treglown, and eventually, in cooperation with a neurosurgical consultant named Kenneth Till, he designed a prototype device. Free experiments were carried out by engineering firms with which a friend of Dahl’s had connections, and in June 1962—several months before Dahl delivered his revised draft of Charlie—the Dahl-Till Valve was inserted into a child’s head. As Treglown notes, “Some people still have it in their heads today” (p. 144).

Considering that Theo’s clogged valve became a source of extreme anxiety for Dahl, his one son’s life partly dependent on a solution to its problem, it seems unsurprising that valves, tubes, tunnels and passageways—not to mention glorious inventions and inventing rooms—made for a large portion of Wonka’s world. Dahl had dreamed of being an inventor, and at the most propitious time imaginable both became one and invented one, in the figure of Wonka. And as for the claustral imagery, all the tight spaces and clogged passageways–those details take on new meaning in light of Dahl’s activities at the time. Even Augustus Gloop’s predicament seems weirdly poignant in context. “He’s blocked the whole pipe,” Grandpa Joe exclaims; “Smash the pipe,” implores Mrs. Gloop. Such utterances might have been Dahl’s own, given his fixation on the blockage, and his frustration with the original valve. Claustral themes, therefore, seem perfectly expectable for two very different reasons: one deeply unconscious and personological, and the other immediate and situational and, to a greater degree, conscious. The womb provided great relief, as constellating nuclear script, and as a palliative for presently felt fear.

Final Remarks

From a psychobiographical perspective, Charlie may represent Dahl’s exemplary work. It provides a kind of allegorical summary of many of the topics Dahl returned to throughout the history of his life in writing–the search for a father replacement, the effort to master fate, and the need to find succorance and avoid harm through the pursuit of claustral spaces. Each of these themes might deserve to be called nuclear scripts, although thoroughly demonstrating that fact would require a paper all its own. In any case, as T.S. Eliot put it in his dissertation, “No really ‘vital’ character in fiction is altogether a conscious construction of the author: On the contrary, it may be a sort of parasitic growth upon the author’s personality, developed by internal necessity” (quoted in Albright, 1994, p. 33). “To raise a crop you fight the bugs, shoo the birds, and pull the weeds,” poet Gary Snyder writes; but the wild keeps “flying, creeping, burrowing in. . . Yet wild nature cannot be called unproductive, and no plant in the almost endless mosaics of micro and macro communities is ever out of place” (p. 79). Internal necessity certainly seems to have played no small part in Dahl’s constructions, and wildness had its way of burrowing in–not unproductively. Dahl must have felt compelled, whether he knew it or not, to revisit the same territory over and over again, either for the sake of simple repetition–that is to say neurotically, to no benefit–or else in an unconsciously-rooted effort at mastery of turbulent emotions, a reparation of psychological damage. The fact that Dahl returned to Wonka in order to write a sequel–something he did not do for any other book, despite monetary incentive–suggests that he may have had unfinished business to attend to. That being so, it would be hard to make an argument on behalf of Charlie’s successfully restitutive effect.

Freud apparently told H.D. that dreams sometimes revealed a “corner,” a point of convergence between vectors (Lohser & Newton, 1996). Of course, to Freud, writing represented a kind of day-dreaming, and the written work a dream, condensed and displaced. In Charlie Dahl dreamed a father who made a world that was fair and wonderful. Wonka’s fervid inventiveness rendered loss unimaginable, or at least easily overcome. For once, reality made sense; chance only masqueraded as chance, and accidents were all well rehearsed. The disappearances–“shocking” as they are–point not towards a world unrestrained so much as a kind of just universe watchfully maintained. In the end, predictability reigns supreme, not inscrutability. Beyond the normal ordering intrinsic to any fiction, Dahl inserts a sort of authorial double–Wonka–who scripts events that Dahl invents. Chance, therefore, doesn’t stand a chance, pulverized both by a fictional author, and by an author of a fictional author–Dahl. If ever Dahl lost control, then Wonka would not–and vice versa. It’s hard to imagine a less capricious universe.


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Snyder, G. (1990). The Practice of the Wild. San Francisco: North Point Press.

Treglown, J. (1994). Roald Dahl: A Biography. San Diego: Harcourt Brace.

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