This September the 13th marks Roald Dahl Day. On the anniversary of his birth, to celebrate the works of such a prolific children’s author, schools across the world will dress up, read his works and raise money for charity.
Recently though, there have been discussions and debates about re-releasing edited versions of Roald Dahl’s books to make them more politically correct and culturally sensitive. Roald Dahl’s works, such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Witches, and others, have faced criticism for containing elements that are considered racially insensitive or offensive by contemporary standards.
The literary world is a tapestry woven with the threads of history, culture, and imagination. Classic works of fiction are a testament to the human experience, reflecting the values, beliefs, and attitudes of their times. Should they be revised and redacted for the sake of being ‘up to date’?
Some advocates of this idea argue that revising the content of Dahl’s books could make them more suitable for modern readers, particularly children, and align them with current social norms and values.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
One example often cited is the portrayal of racial and cultural differences in some of Dahl’s characters. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the original depiction of the Oompa-Loompas has been criticised for perpetuating stereotypes, as they were initially described as African pygmies from “the very deepest and darkest part of the African jungle.” Some argue that revising this portrayal to remove any racial undertones and instead portraying the Oompa-Loompas as a diverse group of skilled workers from a fictional land could be more appropriate for modern readers.
In later editions of the book, Roald Dahl himself revised the origin of the Oompa-Loompas to a fictional land called Loompaland, thus attempting to distance them from any specific real-world racial connotations. This change was likely made in response to criticism and changing societal perspectives.
Another instance is found in Dahl’s book The Witches, where the witches are described as having certain physical features that resemble common stereotypes about people with disabilities. Some readers have pointed out that revising these descriptions to avoid perpetuating harmful stereotypes and focusing more on the witches’ magical abilities could make the story more inclusive and respectful.
Additionally, Dahl’s use of language that might be considered offensive or derogatory today has raised concerns. For instance, the term “midget,” which appears in several of his works, is now viewed as insensitive and disrespectful toward people with dwarfism. Replacing such terms with more neutral language would reflect an awareness of the potential harm caused by outdated terminology.
While the intentions behind such endeavours may be well-meaning, they risk setting a dangerous precedent that threatens the very essence of artistic expression, historical authenticity, and the freedom to engage with ideas that might challenge our perspectives.
There are a number of reasons to caution the censorship of Dahl’s work:
Classic works of literature provide valuable insights into the cultural, social, and political landscapes of the eras in which they were written. They serve as windows to the past, allowing us to better understand the prevailing attitudes, beliefs, and prejudices of their times.
Altering the content of these works to make them more palatable to contemporary readers risks erasing crucial aspects of history. The original text acts as a mirror reflecting the complexities of human experience, and altering it deprives readers of the opportunity to engage with and learn from the past, both its triumphs and its failures.
Deciding what content to edit or omit from classic literature can be a subjective process, influenced by prevailing ideologies and sensitivities. This subjectivity can lead to a slippery slope where every piece of fiction is subject to potential alteration, leading to an erasure of diversity in literary expression.
What might be deemed offensive by one group could be viewed as historically significant or thought-provoking by another. By catering to one particular viewpoint, we risk marginalising others and promoting a singular narrative that may not accurately reflect the complexity of human experiences.
In other words, if we start with Dahl, where do we draw the line? Fleming’s Bond novels are certainly a product of their time, portraying James Bond as sexist, homophobic and racist on multiple occasions.
Classic literature is a valuable educational tool that exposes readers, particularly students, to a wide range of ideas, perspectives, and historical contexts. By editing these works, we diminish their educational value by shielding students from the opportunity to critically analyse and discuss challenging content.
Education is about learning from the past, grappling with difficult concepts, and developing the skills to engage in respectful debates. Edited versions of classic works deprive students of the chance to navigate complex narratives and form their own opinions based on a deep understanding of the context.
The art of storytelling is a reflection of its time, and classic works provide a unique lens through which we can explore history, culture, and human nature. Altering these narratives to meet current standards erases the very essence of these works and robs readers of the opportunity to engage with the complexity of the past.
For more on Roald Dahl Day and an overview of his work, you can read an article on our OOL site’s blog page, here.