Friday 3 October 2008

In favour of dilettantism, or, Roald Dahl's racial politics make me uncomfortable

Yesterday, when I was reading Roald Dahl's The BFG, I should have been reading Aphra Behn's Love-Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister. You see, all I have left of my dissertation is the conclusion and for it I am facing the prospect of reading approximately 1700 more pages of others' text to write 7-10 pages of my own.

I have to admit, I'm bridling against reading anything else for a project in which I long ago lost interest and which I just want done with so I can fulfill my real destiny: as an unabashed dilettante savouring the exceptionally wide world of literature.

Reading any more letters or epistolary fiction (which my diss. focuses on) makes me want to tear my hair, gnash my teeth, and rend my cheeks. I'm so repulsed by this final reading push that even though I'm kind of enjoying Behn's lurid, sensational, and almost pornographic novel, I would do almost anything not to have to read it now.

(I can only imagine what it'll be like to read Samuel Richardson's Pamela, which doesn't have any luridness, sensationalism, or soft-core porn to recommend it! My own personal Mephistopheles is recommending that rather than read Pamela I read about it but I will try to resist this demonic temptation.)

Anyway, about The BFG. It was okay. Yes, just okay. Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was crucial to my becoming an inveterate reader as a child but then I didn't see the questionable racial politics in the book; I just noted how world-explodingly good chocolate seemed to taste to Charlie. Now when I think of the Oompa Loompas, I cringe.

The BFG wasn't quite so obviously racially suspect as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory but it has ideological problems that I found hard to dismiss and because of this, my enjoyment of the book was significantly circumscribed.

Spoiler Alert!
All the giants except the big friendly one like to eat human "beans", which in spite of what the giants call them, are definitely not examples of plant-based nutrition. The BFG thinks eating little childers is wrong and so confines himself to eating the most disgusting veggies in the world: snozzcumbers.

The giants' consumption of human flesh would continue unabated except that the BFG teams up with human child Sophie and the Queen of England to capture and trap the flesh-eating giants, all of whom end up in a zoo-like set-up for people to gape at.

Now, way back at the beginning of the book, when Sophie and the BFG first meet, she's trying to comprehend why giants can be so evil as to eat humans. Surprisingly, the BFG points out that humans eat pigs, which like humans don't consent to being eaten. This appears to draw her up short and question the moral superiority she had thus far been attributing to her own species.

But then Dahl completely glosses over? forgets? shits on? this point when Sophie brings the BFG to England where she enjoys, and has the BFG enjoy for the first time, bacon and eggs. This left me scratching my head: why have the BFG make this point at all if it was going to be so completely abandoned? I found this plot hole, if it can be called that, just plain irritating.

More pervasive and infinitely more irritating, however, was the way in which the BFG was drawn as a sort of noble savage who, because so good and simple, is naturally drawn towards serving his superiors (the English) while betraying his racial brethren (who are portrayed as straight up savages sans any natural nobility) to capture by his benevolent new masters.

When I indicated there was a spoiler alert coming, I wasn't kidding - so much for innocent pleasure in kiddie lit! Le sigh.


Anonymous said...

i think there are words missing from the third from the bottom paragraph ... :/

and Dahl's politics are racial definitely iffy. they're evident in his autobiographies as well. still, he was central to my childhood reading too

Bookphilia said...

Thanks for the heads up on the crazy typos. There weren't words missing in the end; they just somehow ended up in the wrong place.

theduckthief said...

I last read the BFG ages ago but I love reading into children's books and finding all sorts of incongruities.

The book is somewhat similar to my problems with "The Little Mermaid" the Disney version. So many issues left unresolved.

LAVA said...

The last time I read the BFG I was not vegetarian... it'll be interesting to read it again and note the hole you're talking about. How weird that Dahl would seem to be making a serious moral statement, and then turn right around and negate it! frustrating. i guess i totally understand why you gave the book an "ok" rating. I'll have to break out my copy again...

Mel u said...

If you have any book loving preteens in your family, the might like "Matilda", both the book and the movie have a lot to commend themselves.