Roald Dahl’s ‘The Anteater’: The Aristocrats vs. Nature

 

Dirty Beasts, the poetry collection that features 'The Anteater'.

Dirty Beasts, the poetry collection that features ‘The Anteater’.

Of the poems in Roald Dahl’s Dirty Beasts, it is perhaps ‘The Anteater’ that is the most popular, and for good reason.  Though the poem’s rhythm isn’t as carefully crafted as sonnets written by the likes of Donne and Shakespeare, the narrative is a poignant one that details the moral corruption and utter ignorance that is the result of an excessive lifestyle.  With affluent criminals like Ethan Couch and Robert H. Richards IV killing people or raping toddlers without having to serve jail time, and wealthy dentists and billionaire’s sons killing protected or endangered species without consequence, it is clear that the working class and the wealthy class live by a different set of rules.  Dahl’s poem, though seemingly absurd and fantastical, is more than a moral lesson about a spoiled child; it engages in the kind of satire associated with Chaucer, only framed in a manner digestible for children of the 20th century.  The poem addresses, in structural terms, how the apathetic wealthy class ignores both the law and morality, while simultaneously poisoning the environment.

 

AFFLUENT APATHY, EXCESS, AND IGNORANCE

 

Roy, surrounded by his life of excess.

Roy, surrounded by his life of excess.

Dahl sets his target on the wealthy, most notably their apathetic view of the world around them.  When, for instance, the poem’s antagonist, a spoiled boy named Roy, finally receives his pet captive anteater, the anteater informs Roy that he hasn’t eaten and is near death.  With the utter disregard of a psychopath or hedge fund manager (my apologies for the redundancy, I just realized those two terms are synonymous), Roy refuses to give the creature even a crust of bread.  Though Roy is the one who had desired the anteater, he has no regard for the creature, demonstrating how self-interested the wealthy class is, and how little compassion they have for those in need.

 

 

Chaucer

Chaucer

This apathy seems to be a symptom of the excess enjoyed by aristocratic individuals, and in keeping with the spirit of Chaucer, Dahl is sure to employ a descriptive approach to catalog the excess of the wealthy class.  It is noted, for instance, that Roy is ‘plump’, alluding to his excessive and gluttonous diet.  Additionally, Roy not only goes through “two pairs… of brand-new shoes” a week, but also has enough toys to “thrill a million boys”.  With enough to satiate the needs of millions while many are in need, and going through two pairs of shoes a week while others have no shoes at all, Roy’s life of excess seems to be inherently apathetic.   Dahl is careful to describe the ways in which Roy is overindulged, but for those who are unable to pick up on the implications of Dahl’s descriptive approach, he drives home the point  by overtly stating that Roy is “dreadfully spoiled”, asserting the corruption of Roy with the metaphoric ‘spoiled’ to suggest that he has been overindulged to the point of ruin.  In placing these observations at the beginning of the poem and Roy’s apathy later in the work, all within the context of a traditional linear narrative, Dahl encourages the reader to view apathy as the result of excess.

 

 

When juxtaposed with Donald Trump, Roy doesn't seem quite so farcical.

When juxtaposed with Donald Trump, Roy doesn’t seem quite so farcical.

The poem also offers documentation of the aristocracy’s ignorance.  Early in the poem, Roy is referred to as ‘half-witted’, alluding to his ignorance, but the rudeness of Roy is apparent also when he takes possession of the anteater.  He assumes that the only thing anteaters eat is ants, because he has nothing more than a cursory knowledge of the creature.  He also fails to understand that the ecosystem of his own property may not be conducive to sustaining an anteater and offers no sustenance to the creature.  This ignorance is reinforced through Roy’s pronunciation of the word ‘aunt’, which comes out sounding like ‘ant’.  This mispronunciation leads to the death of both Roy and his aunt, demonstrating that the ignorance of the wealthy class can have fatal consequences, and though such an outcome seems farcical, it is consistent with the current views of the wealthy class.  The likes of Donald Trump, for example, mock those who express concerns about climate change, and assert that vaccines cause autism.  Trump is not alone in this, and so the ignorance of the wealthy class, especially those who influence government policy, can be fatal in practice, even when it is as farcical as Dahl’s Roy or Donald Trump.  The ignorance Dahl satirizes is absurd, but tragically real and potentially fatal.

 

THE ENVIRONMENT

 

An actual anteater.

An actual anteater.

Aside from satirizing the wealthy class, ‘The Anteater’ offers a telling portrait of the relationship between the human realm and the natural ream, making the ecocritical component of the poem the most compelling element of the work.  Though the wealthy class’s ignorance of nature is a core issue, their tendency to commoditize nature is an equally concerning problem.  Roy is taught to see animals as objects, a frame of mind that is encouraged by the fact that he is given “Expensive teddy-bears that talked” (like a Teddy Ruxpin reference, or was that Teddy Roxpin?).  In buying children stuffed animals, parents teach children to view actual animals as possessions, instead of sentient beings.  Even Roy’s father sees animals in this way as he buys Roy “animals that walked and squawked”.  When Roy’s father learns that his son wants an anteater, he attempts to buy (not adopt) an anteater, only to learn that they are “not for sale”.  After expressing a willingness to “pay… through the nose”, Roy’s father finally procures an animal, but the financial rhetoric is important here.  Whilst a person who visits the Humane Society to adopt a pet pays an ‘adoption fee’, Roy’s father is buying the animal.  The Humane Society does not sell animals, it allows people to adopt them. This language is devoid of ownership, making it clear that the wealthy class sees animals as commodities to be owned.  Indeed, this belief extends to all elements of the natural realm, as demonstrated by the CEO of Nestle, who claimed that water (an element of nature) is not a human right.  For the wealthy class, nature is something to be profited from, not taken care of, and this view as animals as a commodity, as presented by Dahl, serves to satirize this belief.

 

Cecil the lion.

Cecil the lion.

Nature is also framed as a status symbol.  When Roy announces that he wants a pet anteater, it is not because he has a great affection for anteaters, but rather because he wants “a most peculiar pet… that no one else has got”.  Just as affluent people like Walter Palmer, the dentist who killed Cecil the lion, seek to bring home trophies of the rare animals they killed, Roy likewise wants a unique trophy he can use as a status symbol.  This sentiment is highlighted when Roy’s aunt visits him, and Roy orders the anteater to come to him so that Roy can show off his “most unusual pet” to his aunt.  In this passage, Roy refers to the anteater as “you so and so”, further demonstrating the way in which animals are objectified as the anteater isn’t even given a name.  Though it is often male members of the aristocracy who are associated with the hunting of animals, it is important to note the fur coats are a popular status symbol among members of the aristocracy, and the industry that produces them quite literally skins the animals they use alive.  Though Roy is a preposterously spoiled figure, his employment of animals as a status figure is common among the wealthy class, and so Dahl is aligning such treatment of animals as the act, not of a wealthy class, but rather a spoiled, child class.

 

 

The Anteater, about to eat its first aunt.

The Anteater, about to eat its first aunt.

The crux of the ecocritical reading is that the human realm, who mistreats and is ignorant of the natural realm, meets with fatal consequences.  Downplaying the importance of climate change is a regular talking point for conservative platforms, and in Dahl’s poem, we see how a character who is equally ignorant to the impact he has had on his own ecosystem and the anteater, must face the brutal consequences of both his actions and inaction.  The anteater, who is removed from his own ecosystem and is not provided with sustenance, is introduced to an ecosystem that has no sustenance for him.  Half dead, the animal is presented to Roy’s aunt, or rather ‘ant’, and like an animal whose food source has been depleted by humans, he must find a new food source: Roy’s aunt.  Once he has a taste for human flesh, he turns to Roy.  This is reminiscent of Bengal Tigers, who don’t typically eat human flesh, but now that their habitat has been decimated by humans, and they are forced to prey outside of their natural ecosystem, they will develop a taste for and eventually prefer human flesh.  In the poem, we see that when nature’s power is not respected, and humanity’s impact on it is not considered, the consequences for humans are fatal, and this applies structurally and metaphorically to broader issues like global warming.

 

OBLIGATORY CONCLUSION

 

Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl

Though some might suggest that projecting what may seem like a Marxist or ecocritical reading onto a children’s novel says more about the critic than the work, not giving such a work a critical reading is a disservice to the poem.  Dahl’s others works, like James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, deal with ecocritical and class concerns, and so it is reasonable to assume that such themes would appear in his poetry as well.  Some might suggest that children’ literature isn’t so heavy handed as this kind of reading would suggest, but when one considers that Theodore Geisel, or as he is affectionately known, Dr. Seuss, was a political cartoonist and satirist before writing children’s stories, it becomes obvious that children’s narratives are viewed as fertile ground for politically minded writers because they allow for extended and fantastical metaphors.  Looking strictly at the content of Dahl’s poem, it is evident that he wrote the work with clear intent, and that criticism of the aristocracy are not present on accident, nor is the fact that he chose an element from the natural realm to be exploited.  The work is politically charged; it is a class-conscious work; and it is a work that is sensitive to environmental issues.  None of this takes away from the fanciful, fantastic, visionary, and engaging narrative that is designed to please the imaginative minds of children, nor does it take away from the basic morals of the narrative.  It simply enhances the work, fostering empathy in the hearts of children who read it with the hope that they will maintain that empathy into their adulthood.

 

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Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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