Academic journal article PSYART

Understanding the Significance and Purpose of Violence in the Short Stories of Roald Dahl

Academic journal article PSYART

Understanding the Significance and Purpose of Violence in the Short Stories of Roald Dahl

Article excerpt

2. Introduction

a) Dahl's Short Stories: The Critical Reception

Roald Dahl's most successful short stories are a savage, sophisticated fusion of stylistic, formal and thematic elements derived from the American short fiction of Edgar Allen Poe, O. Henry and Ernest Hemingway. Such stories combine taut economy with a vivid eye for detail, an elegance of writing and a real virtuosity in plotting. They are also eminently imitable because they characteristically brandish an unexpected, remarkable and quite unforgettable conclusion. For this reason, these stories are introduced to students of creative writing across Great Britain as master-works of the form, or as models to be aspired to. Dahl's short story has long enjoyed such success and influence, for at their height in the late 1940s and 1950s his collections Someone Like You, Kiss, Kiss and Switch Bitch were remarkable for being best-sellers in a market dominated by novels and autobiographies. His stories seem to have sold all over the world in a number of different languages and they seem to have made Dahl into something of a celebrity (Howard 2004). Some of them were even translated onto the small-screen by Alfred Hitchcock, where they went out to a world-wide audience in the form of Tales of the Unexpected. The stories were clearly influential and Philip Howard describes them as "trendsetters of the fashionable 1960s genre of black comedy" (Howard 2004). Their mark may be discerned in other important works of the period such as Ernest Bloch's Psycho, which resembles Dahl's short story 'The Landlady' to a remarkable degree and also incorporates the type of unexpected ending Dahl most favoured. The critical reception Dahl's work purchased in this period seems almost unanimously in his favour. He received three prestigious Writers of America's Edgar Allen Poe Awards for the stories and newspapers saw in his work a great achievement. An unsigned reviewer in Books and Booksmen described Dahl as "a master of horror" (Warren 1988: 19) and James Kelly acclaimed him in The New York Times as "the complete short story writer" (Kelly 1953: VII, 5).

It has now been almost seventy years since the short stories achieved for Dahl "immense popularity as well as critical acclaim" (West 1992: 20). Today, although Dahl is best known for his children's books and "there is considerable disagreement about the overall quality of Dahl's short fiction and the duration of his most successful literary period" (Grigsby 1994: 41), Dahl continues to enjoy popularity and critical standing for his adult short stories. The entire collection has recently been republished as a 'World Classic' in the prestigious Everyman's library as a reflection of the ongoing attention that the work receives and in a recent review of the reissued collection, Dennis Drabelle writes that Dahl has "a magician's touch unsurpassed in 20th-century fiction" (Drabelle 2006). Indeed, the stories in Someone Like You and Kiss, Kiss have been used to support the claim that Dahl "merits canonical-writer status in literary history" (Grigsby 1994: 44). Alan Warren has similarly written that the stories

have earned (Dahl) an enviable niche, not only in the genre of mystery/suspense fiction, but among the great short story writers of the twentieth century, including James Joyce, Frank O'Connor, Saki, John Collier, Katherine Mansfield, John Cheever and Ernest Hemingway, among others (Warren 1988: 9).

Jeremy Treglown echoes this in his biography of Dahl, writing that a "handful of his stories for adults are among the most memorable written by a British author since the beginning of the Second World War" (Treglown 1994: 8). A quotation from a review of The Times on the back cover of Dahl's Collected Short Stories claims that he is "(o)ne of the most widely read and influential writers of our generation" and similarly, the Observer calls him nothing less than "(t)he absolute master of the twist-in-the-tale".

Yet, for all the praise lavished upon Dahl, for all the astonishment and excitement at his excellence, for all his influence, in reading his most successful collections Someone Like You, Kiss, Kiss and Switch Bitch there has been an element of sheer incomprehension. …

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