March 24, 2023

The Problem with Censoring Roald Dahl’s Classic Stories

By: Brittany Hunter

Author Roald Dahl was once called “one of the greatest storytellers for children of the 20th century.” Indeed, since the 1940s, children all around the globe have gotten lost in the fictional worlds Dahl so perfectly painted for them in each of his books.

Whether daydreaming about visiting a grand chocolate factory where gooses lay golden eggs and a fizzy drink can make you fly or feeling the triumph of a small girl using her mysterious powers to take down a monster of a school principal, our childhoods were shaped by Dahl’s 21 children’s books.

While he died in 1990, his memory lives on with the 300 million copies of his books sold worldwide. 

Yet, posthumously Dahl has recently found himself at the center of a censorship war.

Censoring The Past

Earlier this year a British publisher came under fire after it was discovered that some of the language in Dahl’s classic books was altered to protect modern readers from passages that could be seen  as offensive–particularly, references made to race, gender, weight, and mental health.

The publishers worked with a group called Inclusive Minds, which describes itself as “an organization that works with the children’s book world to support them in authentic representation …”

In regards to the Dahl matter, they have stated that they “do not write, edit, or rewrite texts, but provide book creators with valuable insight from people with the relevant lived experience that they can take into consideration in the wider process of writing and editing.”

This insight was relied on heavily by those who did, in fact, rewrite and edit texts. Hundreds of changes have been made as a result. 

One change was done in the name of “bringing down the patriarchy.”

The book Witches described some female characters as working as cashiers and secretaries, this has since been changed to business owners and scientists. 

Witches underwent other changes perceived as misogynistic. 

An original passage read, “You can’t go round pulling the hair of every lady you meet, even if she is wearing gloves. Just you try it and see what happens.” 

It now reads,“Besides, there are plenty of other reasons why women might wear wigs and there is certainly nothing wrong with that.”

Mentions of alleged violence have also been taken out. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s where the cowboy-loving child, Mike Teavee mentions his 18 toy pistols has been removed because they argued it promotes gun violence.

These edits are a reflection of the “woke” culture that seeks to find offense in pretty much everything and then call for changes that will protect people from being offended. 

Censoring classic stories is just the latest casualty in this war. But it comes at a great expense to readers.

Learn from The Mistakes of The Past

Books are not merely fictional stories for entertainment, they are pieces of history that tell us of the world that existed in the author’s time.

When Witches was written in 1983, women were on the cusp of entering high powered positions, but that was not necessarily the norm. Many women probably were cashiers and secretaries, and that is perfectly okay. Today, there are still many women who are cashiers and secretaries and there is dignity in all work. Rewriting history does no one any favors, and children would most likely never even notice these small details since the book’s plot isn’t focused on a woman being a cashier. 

But it tells of the world Dahl wrote in, and for modern readers serves as a reminder of how far women have come since the book was written.

Another edit comes from Charlie and the Chocolate factory where the character Augustus Gloop was once described as “enormously fat,” He is now described as just “enormous” … which doesn’t seem any better than the original description.

There have been claims of racist comments as well. 

Racism is abhorrent and against individualism since it sees people only in terms of the collective. The unfortunate reality is that this is the way the world used to be. Dahl was a flawed human living in a flawed world. History teaches us how to correct the errors of the past, in this case viewing everyone as equals. 

Pretending this egregious era of history never existed again, does no one any favors. Why not let it spark a conversation between readers and adults about the way the world used to be and how it has changed for the better. 

The Bigger Picture

While these edits may seem small, there is a larger problem at play: Censorship is a dangerous road.

It is important to note that the publisher is a private entity and free to make these changes, though it does seem questionable with Dahl not able to speak for himself. But that doesn’t make it right. Classic works should not be censored to shield readers from offense. Readers, or their parents in this instance, can make those decisions on their own.

And on a larger scale, allowing censorship to creep in, however slowly, paves the way for more censorship until eventually, the past has been erased and authors’ words altered to fit a social narrative crafted by those who played no part in the creation of the stories.