James & the Giant Peach: Book Analysis

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

This lesson analyzes Roald Dahl's children's novel ''James and the Giant Peach.'' We will learn about how the author plays with the fantasy genre. Then, we will discover the literary devices that Dahl uses to bring James' world to life.

A Magical Adventure

A violin-playing grasshopper? A motherly spider? A wise-cracking centipede? James and the Giant Peach is a children's fantasy novel by Roald Dahl, and it's unlike anything else you will ever read. Dahl's children's books, such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, and Fantastic Mr. Fox, are insanely imaginative.

James and the Giant Peach is the story of an orphan who goes on a magical journey to learn about courage, leadership, friendship, and family. James lives with Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge, wicked women who bring new meaning to the ''evil stepmother'' archetype.

James and the Giant Peach
giant peach

One day, James meets a mysterious old man who gives the boy a magical gift: a bag of crocodile tongues. The old man promises James that the tongues will bring him happiness and adventure. But on his way home, James accidentally spills the bag at the base of the barren tree in the front yard, and the tongues wriggle themselves down into the roots of the tree. A peach begins to grow on the tree, and it grows and grows to become enormous. That night, James notices an opening in the flesh of the peach. Upon further investigation, he discovers that the peach's pit is hollow - and inhabited by giant, talking insects. Grasshopper, Ladybug, Spider, and Centipede are the first of many magical characters that James meets on his adventure.

Genre and Themes

Dahl uses the fantasy genre to great effect. Fantasy stories encourage readers to ignore real world constraints. You are invited into an imaginary space and to explore possibilities and impossibilities. The fantasy genre is unique for the appearance of supernatural creatures, exaggerated events, and larger-than-life consequences. James and the Giant Peach plays on your expectations of the physical world. In James' world, animals can speak, and his giant peaches can fly when tethered to seagulls.

James is in good literary company. Tortured orphans can be found in classic and modern literature: Oliver Twist, The Secret Garden, Anne of Green Gables, Tom Sawyer, and Harry Potter to name a few. Stories about lost and abandoned children deal in adventure and heartbreak, danger and heroism. James and the Giant Peach couples themes of courage and leadership with friendship and family.

Aboard the giant peach, afloat at sea, James and the insects grow a family bond. Miss Spider models motherly behavior that James has been devoid of since the death of his parents. Centipede acts like a grouchy uncle, and Grasshopper becomes a good friend and confidant. In dangerous encounters with sharks and the assailing Cloud Men, James learns how to be a hero while fighting to protect his new family.

Literary Devices

The exaggerated size of the peach, which serves as a home as well as a vehicle for James to travel across the Atlantic Ocean, is mirrored in the engorged size of the insect characters. This type of exaggeration is a literary device called hyperbole. In the novel, it functions to heighten the stakes in James' make-believe world.

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