The Haunting of Roald Dahl

Aaron Schnoor
Literally Literary
Published in
7 min readMay 27, 2019

The influence of a dark, tragic past on the renowned children’s author…

Image courtesy of NPR

Roald Dahl was one of Britain’s greatest children’s authors, penning instant classics like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, Matilda, The BFG, and many others. The success of the books is often attributed to the imaginative plots, the descriptive characters, and the slightly macabre endings. But there is something in Dahl’s writing that is so unique, so unexpected, that one cannot read the novels without wondering what stirred the impulse in Dahl’s mind to create such outlandish novels.

The mind of a writer is complex, influenced by the memories of a past that is hidden from readers. In certain writers, like Ernest Hemingway, a mind of despair and desperation surfaces beneath the fiction. In others, like Ray Bradbury, a childhood in rural Illinois is echoed in books like Dandelion Wine. All writers are influenced by the past, and Roald Dahl was no exception.

But the author, who died in November of 1990, had a past that was darker than most.

A bleak passage in Roald Dahl’s book Boy: Tales of Childhood describes the darkness of Dahl’s earliest years. At the age of three and a half, Dahl watched as Astri, his older sister, suddenly died from an appendix infection. Dahl described the effect that the tragedy left on his father:

[Astri’s] sudden death left him literally speechless for days afterwards. He was so overwhelmed with grief that when he himself went down with pneumonia a month or so afterwards, he did not much care whether he lived or died.

Dahl’s mother, who struggled to raise six children on her own, sent the young boy to St. Peter’s boarding school in Weston, England. Dahl was often lonely and miserable, and that unhappiness increased during his teenage years at Repton School. He was frequently bullied and grew to abhor the violent tendencies of his classmates and headmasters.

The incidents of his time at Repton are documented in Dahl’s autobiography. In one section, the author writes:

Four years is a long time to be in prison…It becomes twice as long when it is taken out of your life just when you are at your most bubbly best and the fields are all covered with daffodils and primroses… It seemed…

Aaron Schnoor
Literally Literary

Wealth Management Professional, Occasional Writer