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  • Roald Dahl and Philosophy: A Little Nonsense Now and Then ed. by Jacob M. Held
  • Joli Barham McClelland (bio)
Roald Dahl and Philosophy: A Little Nonsense Now and Then. Edited by Jacob M. Held. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.

The title of this book, akin to that of Held’s edited collection Dr. Seuss and Philosophy: Oh, the Thinks You Can Think (2011), seeks to bring far-reaching philosophical ideas into the mainstream consciousness through their application to popular children’s literature. Dahl, a veritable giant in the realm of children’s literature, offers a lighthearted touch on numerous challenging themes—concepts of hunger, horror, punishment, friendship, and even existence itself—within his books. And it is to these difficult themes that the authors of Roald Dahl [End Page 210] and Philosophy turn in their examination of the interplay between Dahl’s works and a wide range of philosophical ideas.

Given Dahl’s lighthearted yet occasionally morbid touch, it is only slightly jarring when, in his introduction to the volume, Held begins with the subject of suicide. Dahl’s works, as Held notes, are well known for their “love of life and a celebration of childhood,” and it is from this perspective, as a means of questioning what makes life worth living, that Held launches the volume (1). Praising Dahl for presenting children with such real-world scenarios as hunger, poverty, and cruelty, Held underlines the ways in which stories such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, and Matilda model useful coping skills for children in a world that is often unfair and unjust. Going so far as to malign what he considers bad children’s writing for its promotion of “flawed ideals and false hope,” which “creates a generation of delusional, spoiled children incapable of coping with life as they will experience it,” Held provides a strong opening argument for this book with his assertion that Dahl’s works offer a more practical and philosophical model for children living in a world that rarely ends with “happily ever after” (6).

Dahl’s delectable story Charlie and the Chocolate Factory features in the majority of the essays here, deftly considered from the perspective of the varied philosophical underpinnings of Epicurus, Immanuel Kant, Michel Foucault, Plato, Martin Heidegger, Aristotle, Jean-Paul Sartre, John Rawls, David Hume, Jean-Baptiste Dubos, and others. Whether examining the roots of desire and Epicurean living in Wonka’s world, questioning the notion of social normality through Wonka himself, breaking down the bonds of imperial colonialism that hold captive the Oompa-Loompas, or shattering the glass elevator through an examination of social order, the different essays that confront Charlie Bucket’s adventures within this volume undoubtedly cover a large swatch of ideological space. But given that such ground is traversed with insight and ingenuity, both Dahl scholars and newcomers to his work are in for an immensely captivating read.

Alongside Charlie and his flavorful friends, many of Dahl’s other beloved characters feature prominently. Elizabeth Butterfield chronicles the travails, and ultimate triumph, of Matilda over her deprecating parents and the Trunchbull against an existentialist background based on the writings of Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche. As Matilda rebels against her parents and an oppressive school system, eventually harnessing her own intellectual power in a physical form, Butterfield concludes that she embodies the highest levels of existentialist morality, becoming Nietzsche’s “super-human” (43). John Karavitis, extending the examination of Matilda with a stronger focus on the role of schooling in the story, delves accordingly into the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John T. Gatto, and other educational theorists to explore the meaning behind education as a whole. Investigating not only traditional methods of schooling, as portrayed horrifically through Crunchem Hall, [End Page 211] but homeschooling and “unschool-ing” as well, Karavitis strategically concludes that Matilda, who partakes of all three types of education over the course of the story, is a very smart girl indeed (103).

Broadening the view from education to larger issues, including hunger and hardship in general, Janelle Potzsch and Tanya Jeffcoat both reintroduce Dahl’s George and his marvelous medicine in light of a wide...


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pp. 210-212
Launched on MUSE
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