Revising Roald Dahl Tests Limits Of ‘Political Correctness’
By Vikas Datta
The decision to replace several words, chiefly related to characters’ appearances or attributes, in some Roald Dahl books, sparked off a spirited debate, with many stridently opposing the measure as “political correctness” while many others welcomed it for making the works “more inclusive”. But, before dealing with whether this is justified or not, the practice and some startling examples must be examined.
Whatever may be the reason, such changes are, in essence, a form of censorship. Termed expurgation, or bowdlerization, they entail removing or changing anything deemed offensive, especially in relation to violence or sex or cursing, from an artistic work, including books. The “beneficiaries” are largely, but not exclusively, meant to be children.
In fact, bowdlerization, which has some pejorative connotations, was meant for children. Early 19th-century British physician Thomas Bowdler, who, in 1818, brought out an edition of William Shakespeare’s plays, reworked in ways by him – and his sister Henrietta Maria Bowdler (but that became known only much later – that they felt were more suitable for women and children.
One example was changing the suicide by drowning of Ophelia (in “Hamlet”) to an accident.
Then, Lady Macbeth’s “Out, damned spot!” became “Out, crimson spot!”, all exclamations of “God!” became “Heavens!”, and in “Romeo & Juliet”, Mercutio’s “the bawdy hand of the dial is now upon the prick of noon” was changed to “the hand of the dial is now upon the point of noon”.
To be fair to Bowdler, his “Family Shakespeare” versions, which removed around 10 per cent of original content, were a useful way to introduce the bard’s plays to audiences who would otherwise be barred from them because of the language and content, and actively encourage readers to seek out the originals.
Then, the Brothers Grimm, in the early 19th century, considerably toned down the original violence, sex and sadism of the fairy tales they collected, and some other changes like converting evil mothers to wicked stepmothers in subsequent editions after complaints they were not suitable for children.
In the modern day, the changes continued.
While a Harvard Press edition of Montaigne’s essays in 1925 completely cut out all the essays pertaining to sex, there were moves by a significant section in Prohibition-era US to edit the Bible to remove all references to alcohol. This would even make Jesus turn water into grape juice!
However, one of the most bowdlerized books that we do not realize has undergone the treatment is Jonathan Swift’s “Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, first a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships” (1726), or “Gulliver’s Travels”, as we know it.
Deemed a children’s classic – insofar, comprising a considerably sanitized version of his first two adventures – with the nation of Lilliputians, which he towers over, and the Brobdingnagians, where the situation is reversed, the irrepressible Dean Swift crafted a no-holds-barred and savage satire of contemporary society and politics, and frequently could get very indelicate and explicit – eg, Gulliver’s use as a sex toy by Brobdinagian women!
That – and many other things – never made it to versions we read!
It is also interesting to note that an edition of D.H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” (c.1928-29), that was true to the author’s original manuscript, was not published in his homeland till the 1960s.
Sex and indulgence apart, race relations also lead to change in older works, especially those written during the period of colonialism.
Various editions of Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” (1884), Joseph Conrad’s “Nigger of the Narcissus” (1897), and Rudyard Kipling’s “How the Leopard Got His Spots” in “Just So Stories” (1902) have various replacements for the word “nigger”.
Then, Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle series contains several passages and plot points that have been called out as racist, and new editions, with the approval of Lofting’s son Christopher, changed the language in these cases.
The Hardy Boys mysteries, which began in 1927 and were written by a syndicate under the common name of Franklin W. Dixon, were extensively revised in 1959 at the insistence of publishers, after feedback from some readers about prevalence of racial stereotypes in the books, especially of Black and non-US characters.
Dahl had earlier also faced changes with the Oompa-Loompas, described in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (1964) as a tribe of pygmies from “the very deepest and darkest part of the African jungle where no white man had been before”, transformed in the 1970s to rosy, white-skinned natives of (the fictional) Loompaland.
Some changes are not explicable.
Modern reprints of Enid Blyton’s classic “The Faraway Tree” series rename characters Dick and Fanny to Rick and Frannie because of the “sexual nature” of their names and Jo becomes Joe because of the “ambiguity” in his name. The villainous schoolteacher Dame Slap, so named for the punishment she dishes out to students, is renamed “Dame Snap” and now punishes students by loudly reprimanding them instead of spanking them.
In the “Book of Brownies”, the spanking is also changed to “scolding”, with the Spanker renamed “the Ogre”, leading to a puzzling section in the book where the brownies get scolded one by one!
Then, the Golliwogs disappear from the modern Blyton corpus, from somewhere in the 1980s or so.
Opinion may be divided on these changes, or the most recent ones as in Dahl, where “sensitivity readers” changed “fat” to “enormous”, a character described as “ugly and beastly” is simply “beastly”, “a weird African language” is no longer weird, while words “crazy” and “mad” have also been removed because of an emphasis on mental health, as per media reports.
While the likes of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, Salman Rushdie, and Philip Pullman criticized the changes, there were those who said that they were due.
Opinions may be divided on the issue, but let’s see the impact of some previous changes.
In “Huckleberry Finn”, where “nigger” has been changed with various words, including “slave” – even when the character is a free black man, Twain’s intention of using frequent racial slurs in natural speech to highlight the racism and prejudice endemic to the pre-Civil War South (US) is lost. Then, in the Hardy Boys, the removal of stereotypes led to removal of non-white characters altogether, making the brothers hometown Baytown “ethnically cleansed”, as one critic said. It was only in the 1970s, that the series began to re-introduce black characters.
And in the revised Dolittle series, there were still complaints that its underlying colonialist ideology persisted.
You can’t please everybody.