When The Staple Singers sing “I’ll Take You There”, they are talking about Heaven. The videographer uses many pictures of people who are abjected because of poverty, racism, and tragedy. The message is that there is no safe haven on earth, and they will have to seek salvation and refuge in Heaven. James, too, lives in a terrible situation with two horrible aunts. He is an outsider, he doesn’t fit in, he is verbally and emotionally abused, he is unloved, and he needs to find a way out. He needs to find his own safe harbour and a better way of life.
Roald Dahl, author of James and the Giant Peach (1961), felt like an outsider as well. Although he was born in Wales, his mother maintained strong ties with her Norwegian homeland by speaking the language and taking the family home for annual holidays. The family lived in the English countryside but, while “Dahl was proud to be British and though he craved recognition and acceptance from English society, for most of his life he preferred to live outside its boundaries, making his own rules and his own judgements” (Sturrock 19). Biographer Donald Sturrock felt that “Roald was always an outsider, the child of Norwegian immigrants, whose native land would become for their son an imaginative refuge, a secret world he could always call his own” (Sturrock 20). When Roald was only three, his seven-year old sister Astri (his father’s favourite) died; then his father came down with pneumonia, lost interest in living, and died a month later. Interestingly, many of the central characters in his books have lost one or both parents, which Dahl at first denied as being true but then declared as being a “‘trick to get the reader’s sympathy’” (Sturrock 16). Dahl began his writing career by telling stories to his children. He had the uncanny ability “to mesmerize almost every child who crossed his path….[and] to recreate and understand the child’s point of view” (Sturrock 40).
Dahl certainly understands the child’s point of view in James and the Giant Peach. James journeys across the Atlantic to the United States with his fellow outcasts, without a plan and without a map. Perhaps the author thinks if his characters don’t have a map, then his readers shouldn’t have one. Perhaps he thinks that it is a well-travelled route, and we all know our way. Perhaps the route cannot be plotted. Well, my intrepid cartographer KLEW thinks differently; therefore, since she is coming with us on this adventure, here is her map to accompany us on the literary voyage.
Interview with the Cartographer
Nancy: Tell me about your map. Why did you draw the Empire State Building and not the USA?
KLEW: That is the main point of the story.
Nancy: What are the key features of your map?
KLEW: You’ll notice the two flags–they signify where James started and finished his journey. The Empire State is red and England is blue. Also, there is no water in the map because James and his insect companions flew over the water for much of the journey. I put the peach on top of the Empire State building because that was what happened in the book. Spot on!
Nancy: Why do you think the author didn’t include a map?
KLEW: Because everyone knows the route and where the travellers are going: England to New York.
Well, as KLEW said, everyone knows–except James and his insect shipmates. They don’t necessarily know where they are going, but anywhere is better than where they have been. The British Empire and its citizens have not been supportive of James. No Children’s Agency has stepped in to remove him from his abusive home. He has had a horrid life with Auntie Sponge and Auntie Spiker. The insects agree that “nothing could be worse than [his] desolate hilltop and those two repulsive aunts” (Dahl 44). James is an abject human being. In the Powers of Horror, Julia Kristeva says, “The abject refers to the human reaction (horror, vomit) to a threatened breakdown in meaning caused by the loss of the distinction between subject and object or between self and other” (Powers as cited in Felluga 1). Kristeva uses the concept of death to demonstrate her idea:
A wound with blood and pus, or the sickly, acrid smell of sweat, of decay, does not signify death. In the presence of signified death—a flat encephalograph, for instance—I would understand, react, or accept. No, in true theatre, without makeup or masks, refuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live. These body fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands, hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death. There, I am at the border of my condition as a living being. (Powers 3 as cited in Felluga’s Introduction).
In other words, Auntie Sponge and Auntie Spiker revile their nephew James and refer to him as a “‘disgusting little beast’ or …[a] ‘filthy nuisance’ or… ‘miserable creature’” (Dahl 2). Aunt Spiker orders James to “get out of my sight, you disgusting little worm” (Dahl 9). However, they also want to keep James in their odd little family to do chores for them and to be an outlet for their wrath. Felluga explains this need to keep the abject close as an inescapable pull: “[W]e are, despite everything, continually and repetitively drawn to the abject” (Powers 29 as cited by Felluga 2). Despite the Aunties’ sickening need, James escapes.
Inside the giant peach pit, James finds a community of insects who are also abject creatures; and he is horrified. Just as his aunties reviled him, so he recoils in disgust from them. These insects are not normal-sized; they are “as large as a large dog” (Dahl 33). He meets an “Old-Green-Grasshopper”, “an enormous Spider”, “a giant Ladybug”, a Centipede and an Earthworm “reclining comfortably in curled-up positions”, and “something thick and white”—a Silkworm; and they are all “absolutely terrifying to behold” (Dahl 33-34). All of these abjected beings form a community. Although they all begin the journey with very poor opinions of themselves and they continually insult each other, they soon learn to find each other’s strengths. Together, they overcome obstacles on the journey. They each contribute to the group and learn to work together. In New York (the Empire State), the Empire State Building welcomes them by stretching its pinnacle up and embracing their peach craft. They arrive to great fanfare, and each claims happiness. In this re-imagined New World, their individual weaknesses are recognized as strengths. For example, although Earthworm is blind, is a “slitherer”, and a “slimy beast” (Dahl 37), New Yorkers praise him for his “lovely pink skin”, and he becomes a spokesperson for a women’s cosmetic company (Dahl 143). Change occurs because each creature is “recognized and loved by others” (Humphreys Lecture May 24). Dahl’s message is that change must begin inside each of us, but it is possible. Each of us must recognize and celebrate the good in ourselves. In doing so, we renegotiate our selves. By sharing, James and friends “create a new, re-imagined community” (Humphreys Lecture July 19). They look for and find their “Promised Land” (Dahl 57).
So, how do you draw a map of the journey to the Promised Land? Everyone has a different idea of his or her promised land. Every journey is different. The destination can be an imaginary place or concept, or it can be a real place on a map. In Genesis, God gave land to the Israelites and this land was called the Promised Land; the Mormons thought their Promised Land was the United States. Each of us are looking for the Promised Land, in one form or another. Some of us are looking to better ourselves, some are looking for a life of ease, and some want to leave lives of extreme hardship and difficulty and immigrate to a new land. Now, here is some Bruce Springsteen to take us home to…The Promised Land.