Roald Dahl censorship would be comical if it weren’t so sad

Feb 27, 2023 | Announcements, News & Media, Read

The Australian newspaper ran an opinion piece by the Ramsay Centre’s Academic Consultant, Dr Stephen McInerney, in its Inquirer section on Saturday 25 February. To access the article via The Australian newspaper’s website click here

Stephen McInerney

Once again we have seen debate raging about so-called cancel culture. The furore this time centres on changes to the works of Roald Dahl on the recommendations of “sensitivity readers”.

As well as serving as a warning, the episode serves as a timely ­reminder that the place of literature in our lives has always been contentious.

If Plato could not banish the poets from his ideal republic, one imagines (reading the Republic) he would at least have liked to edit their works to remove all the passages he found disturbing – all the passages, that is, of gods and good men behaving badly, scheming, weeping and doing 100 and more other things Plato regarded as inconsistent with their status as gods and good men.

Plato’s position points to his profound sense of literature’s power, and especially its frightening power to change us. Fear of this can lead in turn to an equally frightening impulse to ban, banish or (in extreme cases) destroy the literature that arouses it.

Our greatest authors have ­always recognised this power.

In Canto 5 of Inferno, Dante depicts Paulo and Francesca damned for the sin of adultery, blown here and there by the winds of passion.

When asked by the poet how they came to fall into sin, Francesca blames the book that they were reading on the night they were murdered, a story of the love affair of Lancelot and Guinevere. The lovers’ reaction to reading about an adulterous affair is to start one themselves, as if to confirm Plato’s point that, as imitative creatures, we are liable to imitate the behaviours we see represented in literature.

Dante, as a poet, is clearly shaken by the realisation of literature’s power over the eternal destiny of souls. It is one of the reasons he faints at the end of the canto.

A similar point is made in a highly amusing way in Cervantes’ masterpiece, Don Quixote, whose eponymous hero runs off to become a knight-errant and undertake feats of derring-do after reading one too many chivalric ­romances.

When the hero returns home battered and bruised after his initial forays, the local priest, among others, gathers-up Don Quixote’s copies of the romances and burns them. Literature has made Don Quixote mad.

Debates about cancelling or rewriting books are therefore nothing new, nor is it a new thing to alter famous works, often in dramatic ways, to make them more palatable to a new generation and to satisfy the expectations of a governing world view, whether Christian, capitalist, communist or whatever.

Playgoers and students of literature who encounter Shakespeare’s King Lear are often surprised to discover that for more than 150 years, between 1681 and 1838, Nahum Tate’s version of the play was the version encountered by most theatregoers in England.

Shakespeare’s ending to King Lear is the high point of tragedy in the Western canon (certainly the highest point since Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides), yet it was thought too tragic for the tastes of audiences of the 18th and early 19th centuries. For theatre companies, it represented a commercial risk compared with Tate’s which – satisfying the expectations of the audience for a happy ending, in which justice was served and the good characters emerged triumphant – was guaranteed to put bums on seats.

Audiences of the period preferred to see Cordelia live to marry Edgar (with Lear secure in retirement) than to see a shattered and enfeebled king holding his dead daughter in his arms. By the end of Tate’s version, good triumphs over evil in a rather obvious way and everyone has had a pretty good time, their middle-class world view safely reinforced. What those audi­ences missed out on, however, was enormous: the moral and psychological workout (Aristotle called it catharsis) that great tragedy provides.

Editing works of literature to make them acceptable to contemporary tastes comes at a great cost. Arguments to remove or replace the “N-word” in Mark Twain’s American classic Adventures of Huckleberry Finn may be understandable, especially when one considers the pain and suffering the word must conjure for black readers. But what is lost? David EE Sloane has referred to “the powerful effect Twain accomplished with the word”. In addition to reflecting the reality of how young white boys spoke at the time, as well as the pervasive racism of the period, it is at least arguable, as Sloane says, that Twain’s excessive use of the N-word is intended “to shame his readers into repulsion at the insidious corrupting power of the problem it represents”.

Replacing it with an in­offensive or less offensive word does violence to the truth and allows readers to avoid the ­difficult questions Twain’s masterpiece raises. Bruno Bettelheim made a similar point about folk fairy tales. If we sanitise them, or don’t read them to children because of their sometimes-dark content, we rob children of one of their main ways of absorbing and coming to terms with the darker and more difficult realities of life.

One might add: we also rob them of an encounter with the ways in which their ancestors negotiated those realities.

The same can be said about the changes made to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Witches and other works by Roald Dahl.

In an effort to be sensitive to contemporary tastes (and the sensitivities of bald women, overweight people, short people, and many others) Dahl’s newest editors are showing incredible insensitivity to a much larger class of people whose thoughts, beliefs, insights and – yes – failings we ignore at our peril: the generations who have gone before us. And by doing so they are betraying the generations to come.

Stephen McInerney teaches at Campion College and is academic consultant at the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation.