Sean Alexander takes a deeper look at Roald Dahl’s antisemitism.
There is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity, maybe it’s a kind of generosity towards non-Jews. I mean, there’s always a reason why anti-anything crops up anywhere; even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason. I mean, if you and I were in a line moving towards what we knew were gas chambers, I’d rather have a go at taking one of the guards with me; but they (the Jews) were always submissive.Roald Dahl
You could be forgiven for not recognising the source of the above quote from one of the most beloved children’s authors in the history of literary fiction. For many, Roald Dahl was the cuddly uncle figure who gave generations of children the sugar-coated delights of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the gentle giant of The B.F.G. However, several interviews given by the author (principally in 1983 and shortly before his death in 1990) have long since cast a very different pallor over both his children’s and adult fiction. As John Walsh wrote in The Independent in 2010, when reviewing a Dahl biography by Donald Sturrock, ‘The creator of Willy Wonka, the Twits and Fantastic Mr Fox was often less than fantastic as a human being. He was an anti-Semite, a chronically unfaithful husband and a raging bully to business associates, teachers and friends.’
Further debate about Dahl’s questionable legacy not so much as a writer but as a human being was raised this weekend by the Sunday Times. Highlighting a well-buried ‘apology’ for Dahl’s frequently objectionable statements on the writer’s official website, a family statement acknowledged that Dahl had made ‘prejudiced remarks’ causing ‘lasting and understandable hurt’ over the course of his life in various interviews. However, the statement (all ten lines of it) mentions neither Jews nor Israel: topics for which Dahl was well recorded to have his strongest and most prejudiced beliefs. Quite why the estate of Roald Dahl had waited some thirty years after the author’s death to make any sort of acknowledgment and issue any statement (however brief and lacking in accountability) is itself a mystery. The most recent example of Dahl ‘scandal’ came just this October, centred on the star of the recent adaptation of The Witches, Anne Hathaway, issuing an apology for its use of limb impairments as ‘code’ for witches and witchery. Nevertheless, such stereotyping of different or ‘other’ people as evil and ritualistic now seems equally objectionable given the reminded context of Dahl’s own views.
Dahl himself was no stranger to multiculturalism, being the son of Norwegian parents and born and raised in Wales. During World War II, he was a feted pilot, flying for the RAF over both Libya and Greece. His first writing credit in 1942 was called ‘Shot down over Libya’. Indeed, his experiences then seemed to inform his opinions later. Writing about the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Dahl commented that this moment marked when ‘we all started hating the Israelis.’ Further adding, ‘Must Israel, like Germany, be brought to her knees before she learns how to behave in this world?’ Another Dahl biographer, Jeremy Treglown, quotes a letter the author wrote to his friend Charles Marsh, which was full of ‘savagely violent jokes about Jews and Zionism, prompted by a request for support he had received while helping to run a charitable foundation of Marsh’s.’ As Treglown notes, these comments came ‘in 1947, between the Nuremberg Trials and the founding of the state of Israel, and it goes way beyond the casual anti-Semitism common among certain kinds of English (and Americans) at the time.’
But what about Dahl’s feted writing, both for adults and children? Reviewing Jeremy Treglown’s 1994 biography of Dahl, David Galef noted how ‘the reading public always fantasizes that the writer’s personality and work are congruent, a naïve wish to anyone in the business. Nice people may write nasty books and vice versa.’ Another reviewer, Kathryn Hughes, noted that ‘When it comes to Dahl’s adult fiction, that darkness often tipped over into the distasteful […] It’s for this reason that the short stories he wrote with the New Yorker in mind during the late 1950s often ended up in Playboy, a publication that valued good, taut prose but didn’t balk at an added dash of sexual sadism.’ Tempering this, John Walsh in The Independent wrote that ‘One can dismiss as ludicrous the accusations of racial prejudice that greeted the publication of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in 1965 (in) the United States; the fact that the factory workers were Oompah-Loompahs, African pygmies “from the very deepest and darkest parts of the jungle, where no white man had ever been before,” outraged the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People.’ Such colonial views nevertheless cannot help but be viewed retrospectively as representative of a man with deep-seated, white privileged ideas of other races and cultures.
Dahl’s other children’s books don’t escape punishment either. Danny the Champion of the World depicts ‘a real old gipsy wagon with big wheels and fine patterns painted all over it in yellow and red and blue.’ (Yellow, red and blue all having significant value in Jewish culture.) Likewise, The B.F.G. features ‘a gigantic, scruffy old man [who] appears by night at a young girl’s bedroom window and carries her away to a dark cave full of sinister equipment […] The giant assures the little girl that he means her no harm, but some of his habits are obnoxious and his talk is confused and racist.’ His ‘huge ears’, and the fact he reads and is a would-be writer are other aspects that code the character as Jewish. Dahl’s casting of the BFG as a sexual deviant with a preponderance for children would only be echoed when he wrote the screenplay for Ian Fleming’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and its own nefarious child-snatcher.
The Twits, ‘with its mutual destructiveness between a bearded old man – “Things cling to hairs, especially food […] If you looked closer (hold your noses ladies and gentlemen)…” and his ill-favoured wife (“Dirty old hags like her always have itchy tummies …”, plays to readers’ nastiest responses,’ noted Jeremy Treglown. While for Hephzibah Anderson urged readers to ‘take a closer look at Dahl’s writing for children, and you’ll find something to offend almost everyone. If he was a bigot, he was an equal-opportunities bigot. Teachers tend to be villainous, and even when benign, fail to impart any real wisdom. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s Oompa Loompas were originally depicted as small black pygmies with warlike cries.’ As Anderson goes on, ‘In the decades since its publication, James and the Giant Peach has been lambasted for its racism […], profanity […], references to drugs and drink […], and sexual innuendo.’ Meanwhile, the titular Matilda ‘was born wicked and she stayed wicked no matter how hard her parents tried to make her good. She was without any doubt the most wicked child in the world.’ The fact that Matilda was also ‘prone to using her magical powers to nobble, or rig, horse races’ doesn’t exactly distance her from any Jewish mystical stereotyping, either.
Undoubtedly this reminder of Dahl’s character will have little impact on the sales of his books, nor the lucrative film and television rights that continue to be optioned on them. But perhaps the estate’s own recalcitrance in providing such a belated and half-hearted redress to both the man and his words will fuel greater demand for his work to be held accountable. Or maybe not. If Jewish filmmaker Steven Spielberg, who brought The BFG to screen-life in 2016, is willing to focus on the fiction over the facts, then it will fall to cultural commentators and campaigners against racism to do the job instead. Either way, Roald Dahl’s fictive and non-fictive legacy provides sobering thought in the modern era of historical accountability and cancel culture.
Art by Sheree Fadil