James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
James Henry Trotter was a happy four year-old boy when a most unfortunate disaster changed his life: the death of his parents. After which, their house was sold, and he was sent to live with his aunts who were cruel to him beyond measure. Just like that, he found himself “alone and frightened in a vast and unfriendly world. ” Such was the beginning of Roald Dahl’s 1961 children’s story James and the Giant Peach. It can be understood, even at the very start, that this story can be approached in two ways: by studying its intertextuality and by using psychoanalysis.
However, before we venture into literary theory, the story’s value as children’s literature must first be established. At first, we recognize that the author did not provide any other information about James’ past except that he lived in a beautiful house with plenty of children to play with, and was fond of sandy beaches and the ocean (p. 1). But children’s literature does not require exhaustive description; children are drawn to simpler plots (Norton, 2003, p. 77). Also, the character of James has been sufficiently introduced by the illustration in relation with the verse.
The two subsequent portraits of James—first as happy four year old, then vacant and bemused seven year old—allows this dramatic change on his character to register in the child reader’s mind by showing the significant difference in James’ disposition and appearance. What David Saylor says about picture-books is true in this story’s illustrations: it “enlarges, expands, sharpens, and reinforces an author’s work” (cited in Norton, 2003, p. 131). And, one might add, that this lack of description of James’ past does not weigh down the story. In fact, it propels it forward.
Tragic as the story’s beginning is, it still is considered inviting to child readers since, according to Jane Yolen, children find it easy to identify with characters that are “lost, unlikely, unrecognized and powerless” (cited in Norton, 2003, p. 275). This was the central conflict of the story. James, orphaned at a very early age, is in need of care and attention, both of which he did not find in the hostile environment he had been thrown in—apparently, Aunts Sponge and Spiker’s idea of rearing a child is isolating him from society and employing forced labor.
Setting functions to enforce mood in this story; the sense of isolation and abandonment can be sensed in the “ramshackle house on the top of a high hill,” and a “large and desolate” garden with only one barren peach tree. In the story, when James was already seven year old, an old man briskly handed him a bag of green crystals which, when placed on a large jug of water and mixed with ten human hairs, and then drank in one gulp, promises “marvelous…fabulous, unbelievable things” to happen. We can see here how Dahl tries to suspend the reader’s disbelief—“the greatest requirement for modern fantasy” (Norton, 2003, p.
273) Like in Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit, the narrator in James and the Giant Peach also interjects in the flow of the story like in these comments which are stated before the events recounted above: For now, there came a morning when something rather peculiar happened to him. And this thing, which I say was only rather peculiar, soon cause a second thing to happen which was very peculiar. And then the very peculiar thing, in its own turn, caused a really fantastically peculiar thing to occur (p. 5) These remarks act as if to anticipate the reader’s doubt or disbelief, thereby averting it.
But this is only one of the ways with which the story is successful in suspending disbelief. The progression of James’ journey has its reason for being believable. We are first presented with a reality we are familiar with, one with no magic. Then gradually, with the help of interjections from the narrator, we are drawn into situations that contain almost no limits. But the shift from one reality to the other is smooth, so we are inclined to believe it. Beginning with reality as we know it is considered significant in the success of such a transition (Norton, 2003, p.
273) since we recognize a context to which we also belong. And also because even though the story incorporates fantastical occurrences, it follows what Patricia Wrightson considers the general rule for modern fantasies of its kind; it does not abandon the “logic of reality” (Norton, 2003, p. 273). For example, in the middle of the story, where the overgrown peach is hovering over the Atlantic through the help of five hundred two seagulls, the narrator provides a sober moment from the point of view of a ship Captain peering at the flying peach through a telescope: “There’s birds everywhere!
” he cried. “The whole sky is teeming with birds! What in the world are they doing? And wait! Wait a second! There are people on it! I can see them moving! There’s a—a—do I have this darned thing focused right? ” (p. 74) In this way, what literary theorists call “the reader’s horizon of expectations” (Culler, 1997, p. 63) is satisfied: a giant peach flying over an ocean is bound to be spotted by a ship travelling beneath it, and is bound to look horrific to its passengers. When it comes to children, nevertheless, these exaggerated situations are dearly loved (Norton, 2003, p.
290). The narrative also does not become unreliable since it is focalized through one character: James. We can only be sure of James’ feelings about things, but not of the other characters whose attitudes are only disclosed through their dialogues, and descriptions of the gestures they make. However a story can only work if it is consistent in this, and James and the Giant Peach is. A novel that employed a similar technique is Henry James’ What Maisie Knew, where the narrator tells the story through the consciousness of a child (cited in Culler, 1997, p. 89).
Going into literary theory, perhaps part of the source of the story’s effectiveness is its “intertextuality,” or the story’s reference to prior works which it also tries to “take up, challenge, and transform” (Culler, 1997, p. 34). Surely, a story about an orphaned child isolated and enslaved is familiar. James and the Giant Peach is, in some ways, a recreation of Cinderella, only there are no fairy godmothers or lost slippers, and the main character is a boy. The bristly old man that appeared so suddenly from the bushes seems to be a version of the archetypal “fairy godmother.
” The giant peach and the pumpkin-turned-into-coach are similar in the sense that they both provided the main character a means of departure from their dismal lives. But, unlike in Cinderella, there is no “midnight curfew;” James leaves his wicked relatives completely. Interestingly, some parts of the story resemble other familiar tales as well. The bag of green crystals is almost like the magic beans of Jack and the Beanstalk, and not surprisingly, it allowed things to grow to gigantic sizes.
And not to mention, the story even mentioned a chocolate factory which can possibly be an allusion to another of Roald Dahl’s work, particularly Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In fact, James and the Giant Peach is one of the many twentieth century novels that have borrowed the fairy tale formula. Speaking animals—in this case, insects—is also a popular fairy tale motif (Jones, 2002, p. 42). Theorists call this the self-reflexivity, the notion that new literature is always an implicit recreation and reflection of previous works (Culler, 1997, p. 35).
James’ journey is similar to the usual young protagonists who “overcomes their fears and foes,” (Jones, 2002, p. 42) but then unlike those usual protagonists, James did not return home like, say, Wendy in Peter Pan, or Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. One reason is that in the first place, James did not have any home to return to. Psychoanalysis will tell us that James will supposedly have a “transitional object,” a thing to hold on to when separate from what one loves (Bowler & Trowell, 1995, p. 19). Reading from the text, James’ transitional object is not an object at all.
A moment in the first part of the book shows James looking back on his previous life, remembering most particularly the seaside. In psychoanalytic theory, the sea is a significant symbolism, most especially when it comes to children. In this context, it relates to the primordial, amniotic sea of infanthood (Ruitenbeek, 1966, p. 178). James, Mark West suggests desires unconsciously “to return to the womb” (West & Rollin, 1999, p. 18). The sea, therefore, is his vision of safety. The transitional object is the individual’s way of developing his “capacity to be alone” (Bowler & Trowell, 1995, p.
19). Proceeding with this thought, the internal dilemma that compelled James to “to cry and cry” after his reverie is the absence of security, his longing for regression. Without an object to hold on to, James would have to resort to another coping mechanism. But since he’s a character in a story, he doesn’t have to; he is granted a means to overcome his loneliness. Melanie Klein explains the tendency of children to free associate—in adults, this is the continuous speaking about anything that comes first into their minds (Bowler & Trowell, 1995, p.
17). Unlike with adults, however, the internal conflicts of children can be distinguished not through what they say, but in their fantasy life which is their mechanism for “dealing with unbearable feelings” (p. 17). In some way, then, James’ fantastical adventure is meant for a positive effect on the child reader; the character’s relief is the child’s relief. When we based the conclusion on the inferences of the foregoing analysis, we can consider James and the Giant Peach as a fine literature for children.
Literature is always a practice of renewal (Culler, 1997, p. 35), and Roald Dahl, in his effort to recreate the conventions of fairy tale, achieved a story that is accessible, surprises and amuses; that gives the child reader a character to identify with, allowing him or her, through the utilization of psychoanalysis, the ability to triumph—even if only vicariously—over experience.
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