Portrayal of the Elderly in Roald Dahl's Books for Children

Low Guek Siang, Jesslyn

English Language Honours AE, NIE, 2002


It is generally believed that the images of the elderly projected in children's literature can shape children's ideas about old people. However, past research on the portrayal of elderly people in children's literature has not investigated this link, and studies on children's attitudes towards the elderly were conducted without considering any specific source of influence. Furthermore, previous studies only analysed the books without examining the readers' views of the portrayal. This research is a preliminary study in this direction on Roald Dahl's books for children. It examines the portrayal of elderly characters in his books by analysing the text and illustrations. It also investigates child readers' impressions of the elderly characters, their views of Dahl's portrayal of the elderly, and their own perceptions and attitudes towards aging and the elderly in general. This task was undertaken through a questionnaire survey on a small group of Primary Six Singaporean children and an interview with four of them.

The findings indicate that there are both positive and negative portrayals of the elderly in Dahl's stories. While his writings do convey stereotypic and negative images of old people, his portrayal of them is generally exaggerated and unrealistic but this seems to be his way of creating humorous effects. The children's impressions of the elderly characters depend on how these were portrayed. Of the selected final sample of 27 children, 14 considered Dahl's portrayal of the elderly fair, 12 considered it unfair, and only one responded neutrally. However, most of these children obtained positive ideas about old people from reading his books. It was also found that the children generally have negative and stereotypical ideas about aging and the elderly in general. The study concludes by providing some pedagogical implications for educators and parents in the light of the research findings.