The corpulence of Augustus Gloop was central to the lessons imparted by Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. His portrayal should not be softened to please an overly-sensitive minority.
I was in the middle of writing two other pieces for my blog when I got wind of the controversy surrounding the new editions of Roald Dahl’s children’s classics. It caused me to halt my other work and let my feelings be known on this latest assault on literature.
“Puffin’s really hit the culture wars sweet spot this time” crowed some. “It’s like 1984 come true”, others despaired. “We are just trying to be more inclusive and kinder to sensitive readers” sniffed the people on the other side of the argument.
My God, even Salman Rushdie — who is still recovering from a brutal knife attack — was wading into the fray. He called the changes in the latest editions of books such as “The Twits” “absurd censorship”. Something which Rushdie — whose book “The Satanic Verses” landed him in some very hot water with those who don’t think much of free speech — knows all about.
The discussion had even become a high-level political matter. Rishi Sunak, the current Prime Minister of the UK let his thoughts about the amendments be known via his spokesman. “When it comes to our rich and varied literary heritage the Prime Minister agrees with the BFG that we shouldn’t gobblefunk* around with words. It is important that works of literature, works of fiction, are preserved and not airbrushed”.
Accustomed to woke hysteria
In the past few years, I’ve grown accustomed to great works of literature becoming the target of woke hysteria. One time, I read that a UK university was going to add a trigger warning to Jane Eyre. What about the ultra-miserable works of Thomas Hardy, one might ask? They could send the jolliest of souls spiralling into a depression on the spot! Surely that is more deserving of a trigger warning than the romantic tale of Jane and Mr. Rochester?
Another time, I saw that some people were uptight because Harper Lee’s masterpiece “To Kill a Mockingbird” contains the word “nigger”. Duh — that’s the whole point of the book!
At some point, I just started ignoring the madness. It’s just a few disproportionately loud snowflakes creating clickbait for a sensation-hungry press, I thought. The whole issue snowballs and seems much larger than it actually is.
Back off, Puffin
However, having been a devoted Roald Dahl fan since the age of 6, I felt I had to look into this brouhaha more closely.
And quickly came to the conclusion that many of these changes do go too far. While some (amending “cloud men” to “cloud people”) seem quite reasonable, others are clearly unacceptable.
With the input of Inclusive Minds, an organisation aiming to ensure greater diversity and inclusivity in children’s literature, Puffin Books has altered descriptions of characters’ appearances. It has even expunged references to authors thought controversial for their personal views.
A case in point: Augustus Gloop, one of the five children who gain entry into Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”. In the new editions, Augustus is no longer described as “enormously fat”, but simply “enormous”. Presumably to spare the blushes of one or other overweight child in the real world (or their parents).
Augustus Gloop must be “fat” for the story to do its job
Sorry, snowflakes, but Augustus Gloop must remain “enormously fat”, no matter how many FAT kids and adults that offends.
Storytelling has performed a key role in society (and specifically in the education of children) for thousands of years. Its function is to impart the morals and principles of that society in a way which may be easily imbibed and remembered by young minds.
Where else does Dahl’s formidable reputation as a children’s author spring from than his flawless mastery of this skill? His stories are fantastical, funny, shocking, brutal and sometimes quite disgusting . But they effectively communicate important values and morals to the children that read them. While, at the same time, making them laugh and squirm with delight at joyously farting giants or nasty grandmas getting their comeuppance.
Characters as moral compasses
Those 5 children in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory** were moral compasses. Each of them were conceived and carefully drawn to symbolise ways and characteristics that children should or shouldn’t aspire to. Dahl made it very clear which child would do well in life: Charlie, who was neither spoilt, nor selfish, but was modest and loved his family. He was how a child should be. A good child, that is.
On the other hand, Augustus Gloop was created by Dahl to be unappealing. He was greedy, ate all the time, had no control over his impulses — and his weak-willed parents failed to intervene or discipline him. He was therefore FAT — and his obsession with food inevitably caused his demise. Dahl’s message: being fat is a bad thing and must be discouraged, especially in children.
Tell me — what part of that message is irrelevant today? There are more fat children around than ever, and they are at risk of all the attendant health problems that go with being overweight. I was at a spa at the weekend and saw plenty of them wobbling around there! Reading the truths set out in Dahl’s book may cause brief upset to these kids. But it might just flick some them onto a better, healthier path in life.
We must allow the story to perform its central task: to teach and to warn. The use of the word “fat”, with its negative, judgmental connotations, is central to the performance of that task. For goodness’ sake, leave it where it is!
They’ve messed with my favourite paragraph!
However ridiculous it was to smooth off the spiky edges of Dahl’s wonderful characters in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Witches and The Twits, I think my greatest ire was saved for the alteration of a key passage in Matilda. Matilda, a precocious child who is misunderstood and ridiculed at home for her talents by silly and unloving parents, seeks solace in the local library. There, despite her young age, she reads one great work of literature after the next.
Impressing on his young readers the value of reading, Dahl tells us:
“The books transported her into new worlds and introduced her to amazing people who lived exciting lives. She went on olden-day sailing ships with Joseph Conrad. She went to Africa with Ernest Hemingway and to India with Rudyard Kipling. She travelled all over the world while sitting in her little room in an English village.”
The new versions see Conrad’s sailing ships and Kipling’s India expunged in favour of Jane Austen’s 19th century estates and John Steinbeck’s California. How ridiculous for Kipling to fail the censor’s cut for loving the British Empire, while Hemingway — a drunk and a chauvinist — gets to stay!
Let kids read
The passage should also stay exactly as it is. Not simply because it is absurd to mess around with literature because it does not quite satisfy modern sensibilities — thus depriving us of enriching conversations about the times and circumstances in which it was written. This passage has a key meaning in my own life which moves me to defend it all the more vociferously.
I read Matilda for the first time when I was 7. The idea encapsulated in that sentence that books open up a whole new world without you ever having to move a millimetre, enchanted me. It did exactly what Dahl intended it to do when he wrote it: it encouraged me to carry on reading. To pick up one book after the next in search of new thoughts, new places, new ideas. It set me up for a lifetime of reading pretty much anything that came into my hands.
And 35 years of voraciously reading have taught me this: that every book is an enrichment — even if you don’t like it. Even if it appals you. Let children read, let them think, let them ask questions and they will turn into intelligent, inquiring, thinking adults. Do not sacrifice that golden opportunity to kow-tow to a handful of loud, overly sensitive people.
*A word used by the eponymous Big Friendly Giant in the book meaning to play around with words
** Charlie Bucket, Veruca Salt, Violet Beauregarde, Mike Teavee & Augustus Gloop
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