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  • The Grotesque and the Taboo in Roald Dahl's Humorous Writings for Children
  • Mark I. West (bio)

When Jacob, my godson, had his fourth birthday, I gave him a copy of Roald Dahl's The Twits. I usually mail him his present because we live in different states, but this time I gave it to him in person. The morning after his birthday, Jacob asked me to read the book to him. I agreed, and after breakfast Jacob, his mother, and I went into the living room where I began reading. The story begins with a humorous tirade against beards, especially Mr. Twit's beard. At the end of this tirade, Dahl describes some of the food particles caught in Mr. Twit's whiskers. "If you peered deep into the moustachy bristles sticking out over his upper lip," Dahl writes, "you would probably see . . . things that had been there for months and months, like a piece of maggoty green cheese or a moldy old cornflake or even the slimy tail of a tinned sardine" (7). Upon hearing this passage, Jacob's mother groaned, pronounced the book disgusting, and left the room. Jacob and I, however, were laughing so hard that we hardly noticed her departure. We spent the next several minutes searching through my beard and pretending to find all sorts of revolting things.

This incident came to mind while I was reading David Rees's attack on Dahl in the fall 1988 issue of Children's Literature in Education. Rees condemns nearly all of Dahl's children's books, but he singles out The Twits as one of the worst. According to Rees, the book teaches children that "bearded people are dirty and are trying to hide their real appearance" (146). He goes on to say that the book leads children "to think that all ugly people are evil" (147). Adult readers, Rees argues, would not take Dahl's statements about beards seriously, but he maintains that young children probably would. In recalling Jacob's reaction to The Twits, I cannot help but question Rees's line of reasoning. Jacob certainly did not take Dahl's attack on beards seriously, and I never got the impression that he thought of me as evil because I have a beard.

As I see it, the person who may be taking the book too seriously is Rees, but his reaction is not especially surprising. Adults often deplore as tasteless many of the stories, situations, and jokes that children find humorous. This conflict, however, involves more than taste; it also involves differences in the psychology of children and adults. These differences help explain why Dahl's books are so popular with children and so disliked by Rees and other similarly minded adults.

An aspect of The Twits that appeals more strongly to children than to adults is the disgustful nature of Mr. and Mrs. Twit. These horrid people not only look disgusting, but they do some pretty disgusting things to each other. On one occasion, Mrs. Twit puts her glass eye in Mr. Twit's beer mug, and he nearly swallows it. Another time she pours spaghetti sauce over a plateful of live worms and serves it to her unsuspecting husband. Mr. Twit is just as bad. He, for example, sticks a slimy frog in Mrs. Twit's bed and then fools her into thinking that the frog is a deadly monster. The gross pranks that the Twits play on each other generally seem funny to children, but to Rees such pranks are truly revolting.

In an attempt to explain why children often laugh at that which adults may find disgusting, Paul E. McGhee, a child psychologist and author of Humor: Its Origin and Development, finds it helpful to examine the psychological dynamics associated with toilet training. As he points out, the idea that certain things or actions are disgusting is usually absorbed while children are experiencing bladder and bowel training. "Parents," he writes, "seem to be very concerned about just when and where these acts occur, and become very upset when they occur at the wrong place or the wrong time. Even the most easy-going parents may be embarrassed or angered...