The Fordham Ram

Dahl and the Dangerous Deletions

The+word+choice+in+Roald+Dahl%E2%80%99s+novels+should+be+preserved.+%28Courtesy+of+Instagram%29

The word choice in Roald Dahl’s novels should be preserved. (Courtesy of Instagram)

Think of all the current problems in the world related to literature and the sharing of words. From the hate speech running rampant on social media platforms, to the heavy-handed and unnecessary banning of books in schools and public libraries. Does it comfort you, then, that publishers are focused on censoring adjectives in children’s literature?

Earlier this month, the UK division of Puffin Books announced that they were making changes to Roald Dahl’s books, especially in regards to word choice. They took out adjectives like “fat” and “ugly,” and changed “James and the Giant Peach”’s cloud men to “cloud people.” CNN reports that “language relating to gender, race, weight, mental health and violence had been cut or rewritten… as well as descriptions using the colors black and white.”

It’s no secret that Dahl made some hateful comments and openly named himself an anti-Semite, yet such alterations to his books are unnecessary at best and dangerous at worst. Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America, an organization that strives to protect free speech and safeguard works from censorship, says, “Those who might cheer specific edits to Dahl’s work should consider how the power to rewrite books might be used in the hands of those who do not share their values and sensibilities.” 

The rhetorical changes were made with the best of intentions, I’m sure, but they set a horrible precedent that classic works of literature can be changed at whim to align with modern values, with whatever social wave is crashing on the shore. Currently, that inclination is appreciation for inclusivity and diversity, however this could change in a few years, one could even argue that this change is occurring now. 

Furthermore, while one can understand, if not agree, with words being altered to be more sensitive to contemporary values and perspectives, the changes made to Dahl’s book are very surface level and seem to have no connection to the harmful statements he made in real life. With the knowledge of the explicitly anti-Semitic language that Dahl used in his own personal life, adjectives like “fat” and “ugly” are not even drops in the bucket, for those words are not even “bad” — there is nothing wrong with being fat or ugly, they just carry a certain connotation because of our society’s obsession with beauty norms. It raises the question of why even make the changes at all? The change from “cloud men” to “cloud people” is especially puzzling. Do publishers really believe that a child’s perception of the patriarchy begins with them being shown that only men could be clouds? As if they won’t learn in schools that there has never been a female president of one of the world’s most powerful nations, or even see it at play in their own school, as men are more likely to hold positions of power in school districts than women. 

And like… there can be cloud men. That is a fictional world. In the real world, getting inclusivity for cloud women is not at the forefront of the fight for gender equality.

This headline from the New York Times highlights this disconnect best: “Roald Dahl’s Books Are Rewritten to Cut Potentially Offensive Language.” I’m a woman, and when I read “James and the Giant Peach” as a kid, I wasn’t offended that there were cloud men and not cloud women. Now I’m an adult reflecting on the book, and, you know what, I’m still not offended. Don’t cut language based on presumptive offense.

The language that was changed by Puffin is relatively inconsequential and has seemingly very little to do with the real life terrible comments Dahl made, so these changes seem unnecessary. And, in light of other classic works of children’s literature, Dahl’s use of socially inappropriate adjectives does not even seem that bad. For example, the barely concealed themes of sexism, racism and antisemitism present in giant literary and film franchises such as “The Chronicles of Narnia,” “The Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter” series are much more damaging than Miss Trunchbull being called ugly. 

Bringing up J. K. Rowling’s work also highlights another issue that seems to be underlying the censorship of Dahl’s work: can we separate the art from the artist? I think we can, but it depends on the circumstances. When it comes to Rowling, I do not think we can separate her from her beloved series because she is still actively tarnishing the legacy of “Harry Potter.” Dahl, on the other hand, has been dead for thirty years, and I think the enormity of his books have surpassed the awfulness of his character in the minds of readers. The inconsequential linguistic changes made to Dahl’s books seems to be an elaborate apology for the words the author said in real life. Instead of changing Dahl’s words, Puffin should have added a disclaimer to new printings, similar to Disney’s, that alerts readers that some of the language might be insensitive.

That said, Puffin did announce that they would be adding a note on the copypage of each newly printed Dahl book, not a disclaimer of Dahl, but rather their own actions: “Words matter. The wonderful words of Roald Dahl can transport you to different worlds and introduce you to the most marvelous characters. This book was written many years ago and so we regularly review the language to ensure that it can continue to be enjoyed by all today.”

Words do matter. When we change language to make it more generic, we nullify its meaning. In sanitizing language that might not even offend, we take away children’s ability to see language as rich, evocative, biting and, yes, sometimes mean. How are kids supposed to learn that words have power, for better or for worse, if we eradicate them all? In erasing adjectives, are we not just moving one step closer to the “good” and “ungood” of George Orwell’s “1984” Newspeak?

While Dahl is not someone to be idealized, the decision to alter the language in his classic children’s books is unnecessary and dangerous. The publishing industry and all those who care about literature at-large should be focused on fighting literary censorship, not leading the charge.

Nicole Braun, FCRH ’24, is an English major from Saddle River, N.J.

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Nicole Braun, Opinion Editor

Nicole Braun is a senior from Saddle River, N.J. and she is thrilled to be a member of Volume 105! Her love for writing and editing led her to begin writing...

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Dahl and the Dangerous Deletions