It’s easy to see that the author had fun writing The BFG. From The BFG’s language to the giants’ world to the characters like the butler, the Queen, and the Heads of the Army and Air Force, much of the story is either deeply imaginative or downright funny.
Throughout the book, Dahl narrates a bit of extra info to make readers smile, like, “The Queen, who was used to the tantrums of her senior officials, ignored him completely.” (21.47) He could have simply said that the Queen ignored the Army General, but he wants readers to know they have tantrums all the time. Why? Because it’s more fun when you imagine a serious, important official having a tantrum.
This book is, without a doubt, meant for children. The main character is a girl who is treated badly by the adult in charge of her orphanage before discovering a new fantasy world and a happy ending. The other major character, the BFG, though large, has a childlike way of speaking and is tossed around by the other, bigger, giants.
This book is for the underdog, the little guy. The only good adult is the Queen, who is also kind of a larger-than-life, fairy tale type of character. Which is exactly how a monarch should be.
Being for children, The BFG is full of child-friendly humor, from the BFG’s funny language to the, ahem, whizzpoppers. (What kid doesn’t love a fart joke?) But while the language is straightforward, the ideas in the book are not simple. The BFG’s different way of thinking makes Sophie question things she’d previously accepted about her society, big things like war and the morality of killing animals. These are issues adults grapple with just as much as children.
So The BFG doesn’t write down to children. It respects them enough to know that they can grapple with these issues, as long as they’re served with a side of fart jokes.
The BFG is a pretty obvious title for this book. The only other obvious option might’ve been to name the book after the main character, Sophie, or at least give them dual credit with a “Sophie and The BFG” kinda thing.
But rest assured Dahl has a reason for this. Sophie leads a perfectly normal (if a little sad) life before she meets the BFG. The BFG changes everything, not only about her situation, but about how she sees the world.
Plus, he’s pretty amazing in general, what with his dream-catching and his ability to hear things we can’t. He deserves the title. And he seems even more deserving of it when we find out at the end that he is the “real” author.
The ending of The BFG is the happily-ever-after type. The killer giants are put in a pit where they can’t eat humans anymore, and Sophie and the BFG get a sweet setup in neighboring houses. Plus a lot of gifts. But the ending also comes with an added twist: we find out that The BFG is (supposedly) the author of the book.
There’s no way we could have guessed this ahead of time. The narration has referred to the BFG in third person, and in dialogue, the BFG speaks his own brand of English. Or as he would call it, “wigglish.” So the ending is definitely a surprise.
Why the twist? The better question might be: why not? The twist is straight-up proof that the BFG has definitely improved his language. So there’s that.
But don’t worry, there’s more to it than that. It’s a fair guess that Dahl went with that ending to add yet another fun layer of magic to the story. The BFG has already surprised and impressed us with its inventive magic about a giant who understands music and hears dreams. The fact that he secretly wrote us his own story is like icing on the mystical cake.
We don’t know when, exactly, The BFG is set. The book was published in 1982, and the Queen could be Queen Elizabeth II, but her name is never mentioned. In the story, Sophie lives in an orphanage, but there weren’t orphanages in 1982. But she has tasted Coke and Pepsi. How do you put a date on that?
So basically, the book is set in generic England, in an unspecific past, with elements of contemporary and history tied up together with a neat fantasy bow. This way, instead of feeling tied to one particular decade, the story feels timeless, like it could have either happened yesterday or decades ago. Dahl knew what he was doing.
We can’t talk about the setting without bringing up the place that is outside the known world: Giant Country. It’s first described when the BFG is running across it with Sophie in his pocket:
“Soon he was galloping over a desolate wasteland that was not quite of this earth. The ground was flat and pale yellow. Great lumps of blue rock were scattered around and dead trees stood everywhere like skeletons.” (4.3)
Not exactly postcard material. The blue rocks remind us that this is a different world, while the pale, flat land and dead trees reflect the giants who live there. It’s a bare, scary place.
But it does contain elements of magic. There are the blue rocks, and the inside of the BFG’s cave is filled with shelves full of bottles of dreams. The BFG also takes Sophie to nearby Dream Country, a land of swirly mist and (duh) dreams.
Most of the BFG’s magic comes from what he hears, not what he sees. This keeps Giant Country a dangerous place to escape from, instead of a mystical fantasyland where you’d want to go on vacation.
In the end, the humans don’t move into Giant Country. Instead, all the giants move into the human world (or are taken by force in the case of the people-eating ones). The story is about escaping Giant Country and all the dangerous things it stands for. Even though it brings some of those dangerous things (the giants) into the real world. All in the name of not being eaten.
Roald Dahl isn’t out to confuse you. Because The BFG was written for children as well as adults, it’s narrated in short, brief sentences. But there is a difference between this book and everything else by Dahl: the language of the BFG himself. It bumped our rating from 1 to 3, but not higher: the BFG’s not-quite-right words usually rhyme with, and are surrounded by, normal English words. This makes it pretty easy for readers to understand what the BFG is trying to say.
What’s the best way to narrate larger-than-life events and characters? Act like they’re nbd. The narration in this book is very simple, reading like, “Sophie was on the table-top. The enormous partly-eaten snozzcumber was lying near her. She ducked behind it.” (9.3)
This makes the story understandable to readers of all ages. No matter how much they get caught up in the fantasy, the narration doesn’t pull focus away from the characters or the wonders of their world.
But the dialogue is clever, especially when the BFG is talking. For every sentence the BFG speaks, the author invents or distorts words, making them rhyme or sound similar to what he means. If there weren’t at least that shred of resemblance, the BFG would not be understandable.
So, when the BFG says, “How absolutely squiffling! I is all of a stutter” (9.51). We know that he means: “How absolutely spiffing! I am all aflutter.” And even if we don’t know what those British phrases mean, exactly, it’s not too hard to figure out that he likes something, a lot. Plus, it’s funny and it’s great wordplay.
The BFG begins during the Witching Hour, a time in the middle of the night when humans are supposed to be asleep. That’s the time when “all the dark things came out from hiding and had the world to themselves.” (1.9)
That makes Sophie sort of a trespasser, peeking outside during a time that’s not supposed to belong to her. That’s how she catches sight of the BFG blowing a dream into the bedroom window of the children across the street.
From the moment you open The BFG, sleep and dreams are front and center. From then on, they’re everywhere. Like cell phones, but more natural (although the BFG can create them by putting a trumpet by people’s ears). Plus, even when Sophie and the BFG are talking about other things, the BFG’s bottles of dreams are in the scene, sitting on the shelves surrounding them.
Also, sleep separates the giant world from the human world. Giants catch their z’s for only a couple hours a day, but (as you may know) it’s different for humans. The BFG points out:
“The human bean who says he is fifty has been fast asleep for twenty years and is not even knowing where he is! Not even doing anything! Not even thinking!” (13.3)
Something we spend that much time on must be important, after all.
Human sleep gives giants their power over humans. It allows the people-eating giants to easily catch humans and gobble them up without being spotted. And it allows the BFG to do something nice for humans by giving them dreams.
Onto the symbol part. Out of all the powers Roald Dahl could have given the BFG, why did he choose the power to catch good dreams and grant them to other people?
Dreams are unexplainable. The BFG tries to tell Sophie as much:
“It’s all a bit beyond me,” Sophie said.
“Dreams is full of mystery and magic,” the BFG said. “Do not try to understand them.” (16.17-18)
See how he uses the word “magic” to describe them? The BFG keeps trying to tell Sophie that there’s so much more to the world than what she can see. Dreams are another reminder of the world’s many mysteries. And the BFG’s knowledge about the unexplainable phenomenon makes him something more than giant who spouts silly words: it makes him seem wise. In a hippie, earth-mother sort of way.
In the end, Sophie and the BFG take back the giants’ power by capturing them in their sleep. Now that’s karma.
In The BFG, food is used as either a prize or a punishment.
The major problem the BFG has (besides his dismay that his fellow giants eat people) is that he has nothing good to eat. On top of being a vegetarian, he doesn’t believe in stealing. That means the only plant he can eat is the one that grows in Giant Country: snozzcumbers, which are compared to the taste of “frogskins,” (8.38) “rotting fish,” (8.38) “clockcoaches and slime-wranglers” (8.39). Only some of those things exist, but they all sound pretty gruesome. The BFG has been alive possibly since the earth began, and he somehow still hasn’t gotten used to them—that’s how bad they taste.
He is clever enough to use the snozzcumber as a tool to drive the Bloodbottler out of his cave, but only when he and Sophie enact their plan to tell the Queen about the giants is he rewarded with the prize of good food: a ridiculous amount of eggs, bacon, sausages, and fried potatoes. (Apparently even though he has trouble with human meat, bacon and sausages are okay). He also eats sponge cake, and doughnuts “ten at a time, like peas” (20.95).
Not a bad prize.
The giants, of course, are the opposite. They start out eating humans, who, to the giants, have many different, delicious tastes. In the end, they are punished with bad food. That’s how snozzcumbers save the day. Unless you’re one of the giants. Then it ruins the day.
You can’t have a story about giants without size gags. Readers need to imagine what it looks like when a person and a giant become friends, and boy, does Roald Dahl deliver. During her time in Giant Country, Sophie…
Once the BFG visits the Queen, the opposite happens—people try to entertain a too-large giant. Mr. Tibbs, the butler, keeps coming across new obstacles:
“At this point, Mr. Tibbs suddenly realized that in order to serve the BFG at his twelve-foot-high grandfather-clock table, he would have to climb to the top of one of the tall stepladders.” (20.37)
Mr. Tibbs figures it out on the job, but he’s not having the best morning.
These moments add humor to the story, but some of the early moments where Sophie is in danger are less funny. They’re more about how the odds are stacked against her. She’s so small compared to the giants that she could be crushed like an ant.
This focus on size raises the question of how she’s going to survive, and keeps that question at the forefront of our minds in case we’re getting too distracted by an interesting BFG/Sophie discussion. That makes size in this book a big deal. (Heh heh…)
Pay attention to the clothes in this book. They aren’t just for decoration.
Clothes in The BFG tell you something about each character, usually about their status or class. Take the giants, for example. All of them, except our Big Friendly Giant, wear nothing except for “sort of a short skirt around their waists” (6.21). Their outfits are sort of caveman-ish, and that reflects their lives and attitudes, which are…well, primitive.
Compare that with the BFG’s outfit. Funny as it is, at least the BFG wears pants. He even managed to make himself sandals. Plus, he has a travelling cloak, which comes in handy when he presents himself to the Queen:
“Twenty-four feet tall, wearing his black cloak with the grace of a nobleman, still carrying his long trumpet in one hand, he strode magnificently across the Palace lawn towards the window.” (19.126)
Notice that word, nobleman? Not a word you’d use to describe the rest of the giants. Similar to the other giants, the BFG’s outfit reflects his spirit.
But what about Sophie? She’s got a wonderful spirit, but she’s stuck in her nightie for most of the book, since she was taken in the middle of the night. So for her, it’s important to pay attention to the moment when she finally gets to change—into a princess dress, no less. (Head over to the “Appearances” theme for more on this.)
Don’t worry—we aren’t going to forget the sapphire brooch. The Queen gives Sophie the brooch to wear, and she uses it to puncture the Fleshlumpeater’s foot in a very desperate moment. Not only does she have some nice jewelry to go with her change in status; she also changes the fate of everyone in Giant Country. It’s at the end of the book, and Sophie, smart as ever, has also become resourceful and unafraid.
Clothes that also function as weapons: that’s our kind of symbol.
For almost the entire book, the narrator follows Sophie. The BFG does not appear until Sophie sees him, and when the BFG hides while the Queen has her dream, the story shows Sophie waiting, not the BFG.
But the narrator seems to know about the BFG too, and will comment on his actions from time to time. Like when the BFG has to open the Queen’s window:
“The BFG was an expert on windows. He had opened thousands of them over the years to blow dreams into children’s bedrooms. Some windows got stuck. Some were wobbly. He was pleased to find that the Queen’s window pushed upward like silk.” (18.35)
The BFG isn’t telling Sophie that information. The narrator simply knows it about the BFG’s past. And in the final chapter, we find out why. Spoiler alert: The narrator is the BFG, after he’s learned a bit about language. Good twist, Roald Dahl.
We don’t get much of the initial situation: the conflict in this book happens almost immediately. Mostly, we hear about Sophie’s prior life through her dialogue, when she’s already hanging out with the BFG. She lived in an orphanage (or “a norphanage,” in BFG-speak) with nine other girls. The place was ruled by a woman named Mrs. Clonkers who locked them in the basement when they were bad.
Sounds rough, but that’s all we really hear about it before it’s off to Giant Country. Sophie’s a practical girl, and doesn’t seem all that scarred by the experience. So when the BFG carts her off to a new world, the norphanage situation fades into the background as we discover a whole new existence.
You want conflict? Try being stuck in Giant Country with terrible food for the rest of your life. Now add the threat of being eaten if you get discovered by other giants. Even a Big Friendly Giant doesn’t cancel out the bad parts of that situation. Sophie knows she can’t stay in Giant Country forever, but it takes knowing that the other giants are eating children every night to push her to act.
There are two major climaxes in this story: the moment when the BFG and Sophie try the first part of their plan (convincing the Queen), and then when they’re in the middle of capturing the giants and have to defeat the Fleshlumpeater to succeed in their plan of saving the world’s children from hungry giants. Plenty of suspense is placed on the first part, when Sophie waits for the Queen on her windowsill, wondering if their crazy plan will work. In the second part, they have to act quickly, or the giants could eat all the Queen’s men and them, too. Luckily, they figure out how to work together.
Even after you capture giants, there’s still work to be done. You have to run through countries of shocked villagers towing a pack of tied-up giants. You have to lower the giants into a deep hole, and then there’s the business of untying their hands and feet. You have to figure out what to feed them. But the BFG manages to do all that with ease, impressing the Queen by thinking of everything.
This book’s version of living happily ever after involves the BFG and Sophie getting good food, homes next door to each other, and the BFG getting an education. Our reformed giant learns to speak so properly and read so well that he starts to become an author. This allows for a fun final twist for readers—one that, because of the BFG’s kooky language for most of the book, they never would have guessed. One ginormous author, coming right up.