In at #81 The Twits tells the tale of two decidedly unpleasant people who meet a sticky – but poetically just – end. It’s another one of Dahl’s nasty morality tales, the Victorian tradition updated. In this case, the Twits are smelly, cruel to animals and each other, and deserve what they get. The book is brutish and short – I remember disliking it as a child, personally, but there’s nothing in it worse than a Tom and Jerry cartoon.
A page in the back of the edition I read mentioned that The Twits started life as a note from Dahl to himself reading ‘do something against beards’. Apparently, he didn’t like beards and certainly his author photo is clean-shaven. The beginning of The Twits includes a diatribe against beards – bearded people, it seems, are necessarily dirty and therefore unpleasant and smelly.
These might be good traits for a villain – and the Twits are villainous indeed, although hampered by lack of imagination – but aren’t good traits in a parent, and many parents have beards. In fact, despite Dahl’s assertions, it seems entirely possible to have a beard and keep it clean, neat and pleasant, making the rant odd and rendering the whole book a bit suspect, I thought, as the narrator has clearly proved himself unreliable early on.
Dahl’s villains are always clearly marked, and it’s interesting to see how he does this. In The Twits, he explains that Mrs Twit started out fairly pleasant looking, but years of thinking ugly thoughts made her ugly. While this is intended, I imagine, to encourage children to think and act appropriately, tempting them with the carrot/stick of beauty/ugliness, I do wonder if it would make kids assume that ugly old people are villains? It’s a logical conclusion, and one reinforced by so many popular tropes, but hardly accurate.
Marking villains physically is problematic if you think about it, but there are so many caricatures and stereotypes that it’s easy to do. Dahl does it in most of his books – the children in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the farmers in Fantastic Mr Fox… In Matilda the Trunchbull, evil headmistress, is marked as a villain by her height, muscle and unfeminine hairstyle and clothes. She’s so unfeminine, it seems, that the recent musical version cast a man in the role. (Which, incidentally, I think is a crying shame: there are few enough parts for women who don’t fit the delicate-and-pretty-heroine model as it is and the Trunchbull is a great part.)
I didn’t much care for The Twits, but it was a quick read and I can see why it might appeal to some people. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not a fan of grotesque literature, and this is grotesque. The book is short, and the illustrations are lovely – and I did enjoy the escape of Mugwump the monkey and his family – so your mileage may vary.