James Henry Trotter lives a happy, idyllic life. He and his parents live by the sea, where James spends his days playing with other children. But one day when James is four years old, his parents go to London and a rhinoceros eats them. While this experience is unpleasant for James’s parents, it’s even worse for James. The world is big and unfriendly to a small boy. People sell James’s parents’ home and James moves in with his aunts, Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge. James’s aunts are awful, selfish, and cruel. They beat James for no reason, call him names, and give him nothing and no one to play with.
One of the things that makes James’s early childhood so idyllic is that he lives in close proximity to the ocean—that is, to the natural world. His parents also allow him to spend lots of time in nature with kids his own age, which gives James the opportunity to learn how to play and interact with others. Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge, however, don’t see the benefit of this. By depriving James of any friends or stimulation, they condemn him to a sad, boring life.
Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker live in a house at the top of a hill. From the house, James can see for miles—and on clear days, he can see his parents’ home and the sea. His aunts forbid him to leave, however. They believe he’s going to get in trouble if they allow him to leave their garden, and they threaten to lock him in the cellar for a week if he sneaks out. The yard of their home is big, but desolate. There are some laurels and an old peach tree that never produces any fruit. No children ever visit. James becomes increasingly sad and lonely. He spends hours standing at the fence, looking out into the nearby woods and fields.
Throughout the novel, Dahl equates the natural world with the realm of children—so the aunts’ desolate garden places them in opposition to anything having to do with children. In a sense, then, living with his aunts means that James has to grow up and adapt to a boring life in the adult world well before he’s ready to do so.