Skip to content

Roald Dahl and the Ethics of Art

The urge to censor is based on a misunderstanding of what makes literature valuable.

· 12 min read
Roald Dahl and the Ethics of Art
Creative Commons

Two sisters with whom I am closely connected both received generous inheritances from their estranged father after he died. In life, their father had been a violent alcoholic who beat his wife and terrorised his daughters. One of the sisters rejected the legacy on the grounds that she wanted nothing to do with her late father; the other accepted hers and used it to improve her material circumstances. I respect both choices but, like the second sister, I would take the money.

I often think about this when I hear that an artist has been cancelled and her work boycotted on the grounds of moral turpitude. A great artist’s work is a gift to humanity, and, like money, its fundamental worth cannot be altered by the character of the giver; the art enriches us.

As many people have pointed out—perhaps most thoroughly in Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay’s book Cynical Theories—the social justice leftism of today is heavily influenced by postmodernism, but it is a highly selective version of that philosophy. One of the ideas that has been enthusiastically adopted is that the use of language is a way of wielding power and that, therefore, we can cause unwitting harm by using the wrong terminology (here’s one of many examples of this argument) and alleviate wrongs simply by making declarations (land acknowledgements are a good example). This idea has led some critics to view artistic works, especially literary works, primarily as bids for power on the part of their creators—expressions of, say, white supremacy or cisheteronormativity.

Last week we learned that the collected works of Roald Dahl will now be subjected to “hundreds of changes” in order for them to comply with contemporary sensitivities.

These changes (they are listed in full here) are at best clumsy and gratuitous and at worst ludicrous attempts to replace Dahl’s vivid grotesqueries with sanitised language more suited to a corporate diversity and inclusion training course. The terrifying child-murdering witches of Dahl’s 1983 novel of that name, for example, wear wigs to conceal their baldness, making them hard to detect, since, as the protagonist’s grandmother tells him, “you can’t go round pulling the hair of every lady you meet” to see if it’s real. Instead, in the revised version, the grandmother primly tells her grandson, “there are plenty of other reasons why women might wear wigs and there is certainly nothing wrong with that.”

The priggish redaction of literary works has a long history, dating back at least to Henrietta and Thomas Bowdler’s 1807 The Family Shakespeare, which excised around 10 percent of the original text to avoid “profaneness and obscenity” ranging from Ophelia’s suicide to Mercutio’s remark that “the bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick of noon.” The hero of Byron’s Don Juan (1819) reads the Classics in bowdlerised editions, which separate all the rude parts of Catullus and Martial into an appendix—which, the poet points out, just makes them easier to find and “saves, in fact, the trouble of an index.” Dahl himself toned down some of his novels in response to criticism. The Oompa-Loompas of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964) were originally pygmies from “the deepest and darkest part of the African jungle.” In response to protests, the author turned them into fantastical pale-skinned beings.

Dahl is an easy target for censors: a rabid antisemite, often unapologetically crass and with an obsession with the sinister and revolting. Yet here, as always, the urge to censor is based on a profound misunderstanding of the nature of literature and of what makes it valuable.

The urge to censor the work of wicked people is natural to those whose worldview includes the conviction that people are representatives of their groups, and that society is full of power struggles between groups—white and non-white; Western and Eastern; cis and trans; men and women. The relationship between writer and reader or painter and viewer is just one more struggle for dominance, and if the artist is or was an immoral person, we should therefore not allow their work to be celebrated because that would allow them to win.

It’s fairly easy to rebut this argument. Even rapists and murderers can produce exquisite works of art—as we see in everyone from Benvenuto Cellini, who stabbed a fellow artist in a fit of jealous rage, to Paul Gauguin, who had sexual relationships with girls as young as 11, some of whom he probably infected with syphilis. It is even likely that, in many cases, the same elements in the artists’ personalities that led them to commit horrific acts of violence or become enthralled by sinister ideas may have enriched the works of art themselves. The dark fantasies of Roald Dahl and the macabre world of H.P. Lovecraft may have originated in the same impulses that made Lovecraft a racist and Dahl a paranoid antisemite. But this does not mean that we, as readers or viewers, are likely to be seduced into similar beliefs or behaviours, as if the artwork could cause us to retrace the steps that led to its creation. Like a bar of chocolate, the form of an artwork is path-dependent. Melt it down and let it resolidify, and you will not reproduce the same shape or texture. Books like Matilda and James and the Giant Peach enriched my inner world as a child; they did not make me hate Jews.

But what if it is not just the artist who is problematic, but the work itself promotes an evil ideology—fascism, antisemitism, Maoism, homophobia, paedophilia?

First, of course, any work that is simply programmatic, written to further a specific worldview, is unlikely to be great art. Art that truly captivates the imagination tends to focus on the things that continue to fascinate us, and, in general, we are fascinated by things that raise questions rather than provide predictable answers. Great artworks tend to be interpreted and reinterpreted many times precisely because they explore mysteries, puzzles, and ambiguities; they haunt us because they examine perennial questions that resist easy solutions. Art can be political, of course, but great art never has an easy, obvious message. Artistic nuance is incompatible with the moral certainties of devoted ideologues. Fictions written purely to illustrate that, say, the Chinese Communist state is the best form of government or, conversely, that libertarianism is the ideal political philosophy tend to be condescending and dreadfully dull. Writer and critic Ewan Morrison has surveyed the literary genre of utopias and found it “not only miniscule but unimaginative, repetitious and formulaic”—while dystopian visions have created some of our greatest works of art: Brave New World, 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale, Fahrenheit 451. The depiction of things as they should be is boring; “Happy families are all alike,” as Leo Tolstoy puts it at the beginning of Anna Karenina. Conflict, both personal and ideological, is the essence of drama.

But of course, there are creative works in which, despite their artistic qualities, it seems clear that the authors’ intentions are to promote viewpoints that we find heinous—a pro-slavery view, say, or a profoundly misogynistic one—and those viewpoints are so central to the power of the works that we cannot simply ignore them. Even these works need not be abandoned as irredeemably sullied.

There is a more instructive way of viewing art, one that originates with a postmodernist idea that is not popular among the social justice Left: Roland Barthes’s conception of the death of the author. While Barthes’s meaning is more complex and radical than this, his idea inspires a view in which the writer’s (or artist’s) intention may provide a guide to meaning but cannot be viewed as definitive, because one cannot control—or even predict—a reader’s interpretation of a work. A book is just marks on pages until it is brought to life by a reader’s imagination, and the reader’s understanding of the book will always be informed by her own life experiences. This becomes very clear if you reread a childhood favourite as an adult. A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner, for example, are full of astute character analyses delivered with hilarious, understated wit—something of which I was only dimly aware as a child when I would sit wide-eyed but unsmiling through passages like this one:

Pooh always liked a little something at eleven o’clock in the morning, and when Rabbit said, “Honey or condensed milk with your bread?” he was so excited that he said, “Both,” and then, so as not to seem greedy, he added, “But don’t bother about the bread, please.”

In addition, readers are not passive receptacles of the author’s thinking and will resist clumsy attempts to manipulate their sensibilities, as many authors have discovered.

Satan’s determination and ingenuity in Paradise Lost, so eloquently depicted in John Milton’s powerful verse, led the poet William Blake to suspect that Milton was “of the Devil’s party without knowing it.” Whether or not Milton unconsciously empathised with Satan, his intention to write a poem that would “justify the ways of God to men” was undercut by the logic of the narrative itself. Satan is more than just a disgruntled former employee of Jehovah’s corporation: he is Erin Brockovich fighting Pacific Gas and Electric; he is every plucky underdog exiled from home and fighting to regain his inheritance. We admire his fortitude—he has “a mind not to be changed by place or time”—and determination. On being cast into the deepest depths of Hell, he reassures his followers, “Here at least/We shall be free.” This is the kind of figure we root for. The structure of the story casts him in the role of hero.

Samuel Richardson, author of the epic epistolary novel Clarissa (1747–48), also fought a losing battle against readers, who insisted on finding his antihero—the allegorically named Lovelace (pronounced loveless), who abducts and rapes the titular character—more appealing than his heroine. This is not because Richardson’s readers condoned rape any more than Milton’s readers were demons. Lovelace’s ingenious, witty, charismatic flights of fancy, expressed in letters to his best friend, are simply more relatable than the moral scruples and endless self-justifications of the devout Clarissa. He is a more enjoyable character to inhabit, and I take enormous pleasure in his picaresque adventures in the novel—even though, were he a real person, I would want to see him serve a lengthy prison sentence.

There is a vast gulf, then, between sympathising with Lovelace and justifying rape—let alone being a rapist oneself. Sane adults have a robust sense of the difference between imagination and reality. We are fully capable of enjoying things in fiction that we would detest in real life. Critics have been puzzling over why this is since Aristotle proposed the concept of catharsis. Samuel Johnson may have come closest to an answer when he compared the sorrow we feel on watching a tragedy to that of a mother weeping over the healthy infant in her arms at the thought that death might have taken it from her. Perhaps part of the enjoyment stems from the fact that literature allows us to explore vicariously the full range of human experiences—including rape and murder—without having to commit atrocities or undergo real suffering. A man can be thrilled by a good production of Euripides’s Medea without wanting a jealous ex to murder his children. I take enormous delight in Shakespeare’s more bitter, twisted sonnets even though if an actual lover were to send me a poem cryptically proclaiming that “Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds,” I would probably cut him out of my life for fear that he was a psychopath.

Of course, we do not know how autobiographical Shakespeare’s sonnets were, and there are many indications that they were carefully crafted contributions to a literary tradition. The narrator of the sonnets should not be confused with the author. “That time of year thou may’st in me behold/When yellow leaves, or few, or none do hang,” declares the poet’s speaker, for example—despite the fact that most Shakespeare scholars believe that the sonnets were written when the bard was in his early 30s at the latest. But even if the poems were the spontaneous outpourings of Shakespeare’s troubled mind sent to real-life lovers, they would still be literary masterpieces for us who read them today. The perspective of the original reader can differ wildly from those of later readers.

Some authors, of course, deliberately manipulate our sympathies, using their skills in narrative technique to encourage us to empathise even with characters we would otherwise detest. Vladimir Nabokov provides a virtuosic example of this in his portrayal of the paedophile Humbert Humbert, disarming us by letting us know before the character even appears that he is already dead and that he was contrite and stood trial for his crimes; by attributing his sexual proclivities to a personal tragedy (the death of his childhood love, Annabella); and by favourably contrasting the self-aware, witty, inventive, and attractive Humbert with Lolita’s cold and selfish mother and the repulsive pornographer Clare Quilty. (Will Storr has masterfully analysed Nabokov’s techniques in his wonderful book The Science of Storytelling.) And, of course, we feel differently about Humbert’s desire for Lolita than we do about Gauguin’s sexual escapades with underage Tahitians for an obvious reason: Humbert is a fictional character created for our entertainment. No young girls were harmed in the writing of that book.

Though it is not the case with Nabokov, to sympathise with the antihero often requires ignoring the author’s stated wishes and reading against the grain.

Rather than sitting in judgement upon a work for the views it expresses, students of literary criticism can reappropriate that work by showing how the detail of the text itself often undercuts the overriding message that the author meant to send (if we know for certain what message was intended). At its worst, this kind of criticism can result in perverse, far-fetched, arbitrary, and uncharitable readings that are completely divorced from the original text, but at its best, it can be highly illuminating. Great writers, after all, are drawn to nuance and ambiguity—obvious and clear-cut things tend to be simply less interesting. The work, as a result, will often express an ambivalence about even the author’s deepest convictions—an ambivalence that she may not have even intended to convey.

The poet Alexander Pope’s 1743 verse epistle On the Characters of Women provides a good example. Pope begins dismissively, remarking, as if in mid-conversation:

Nothing so true as what you once let fall,
“Most women have no Characters at all.”

After a series of unflattering portrayals of hypocritical, frivolous, slutty, selfish, ignorant, and drunken women, the speaker concludes that “Woman’s at best a Contradiction still.” Yet many readers have found Pope’s depiction of former beauties reduced to a lonely old age of cards and meaningless gossip surprisingly moving:

As hags hold Sabbaths less for joy than spite,
So these their merry miserable night;
Still round and round the Ghosts of Beauty glide,
And haunt the places where their Honour died.
See how the world its veterans rewards!
A youth of frolics, an old age of cards;
Fair to no purpose, artful to no end,
Young without lovers, old without a friend;
A Fop their Passion, but their Prize a Sot,
Alive ridiculous, and dead forgot!

Pope was disabled and chronically ill, as well as a Catholic, at a time when his co-religionists were regarded with suspicion, denied university education, and debarred from careers in law, medicine, and government. Some critics have speculated that he, as someone who was also hovering on the periphery of high society, must have felt empathy with the old maids he depicts here. Or perhaps he was simply too good a writer not to capture the pathos along with the ludicrousness of their situation. In either case, the lines haunted Mary Wollstonecraft, who drew comparisons between Pope’s situation as a satirist (a professional “wit”) and the plight of contemporary women, since “the vain fooleries of wits and beauties to obtain attention, and make conquests, are much upon a par.” Wollstonecraft cites Pope multiple times in her pioneering feminist tract A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792).

“There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book,” Oscar Wilde famously proclaims in the preface to the second edition of his 1891 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. “Books are well written or badly written. That is all.” I’ve never found this fully satisfying. Literature does, after all, call upon us to make moral judgements all the time. Certain works are profoundly ethical: both George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871–72) and Samuel Johnson’s Rambler (1750), for example, are masterclasses in empathy. To reduce their value to mere aesthetics seems perverse. Yet the ethics of an artwork cannot be assessed on the basis of its ostensible moral any more than it can be judged on the basis of its author’s opinions or actions. An encounter with great art changes us in ways that matter and can, I believe, make us better or worse people. But how and when and why it does so remains mysterious and unpredictable. That is why artistic expression must always remain unfettered by the censorship of well-meaning moralisers.

Latest Podcast

Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.


On Instagram @quillette