Four-year-old James has a miserable start to life: after a rhinoceros eats his parents, his evil aunts, Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge, take him in. But instead of treating James with kindness and compassion, Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker force James to perform backbreaking manual labor, deny him playtime and the companionship of other children, and even refuse to call him by name. Things only begin to look up when, three years after James moves in with his aunts, the barren peach tree in the garden magically grows a peach as large as a house—and when James ventures into a tunnel in the side of the peach, he comes face to face with human-size garden bugs living inside. But as James and his new bug friends embark on a fantastical journey across the Atlantic from England to New York City, James’s new bug friends—who are all adults—still underestimate him, though without the cruelty his aunts expressed. Through James’s relationships with his aunts and with the adult bugs, it’s possible to read James and the Giant Peach as an exploration of the different ways that adults and children relate to each other. The novel proposes that children are often more mature and deserve more credit than adults are generally willing to give them.
Dahl presents a world in which children’s fears of being underestimated, controlled, and at the mercy of adults around them come to life in horrifying detail. And through James, Dahl implies that, no matter what a child’s situation, it’s normal to feel powerless at times. For the three years James lives with Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge, he is entirely without agency. From the moment his parents die, James has no say in where he goes or what happens to him—as a child, his opinion matters little, if at all. And throughout his years with his aunts, he’s also powerless to push back when they treat him poorly. Instead, James has no choice but to do his chores and sleep on the floorboards of his empty bedroom. The one time he does push back and requests a trip to the seaside, his aunts threaten to beat him and dangle him in their well. While James’s experiences with his aunts may represent an absurd extreme, the novel nevertheless offers a protagonist and framing that many children will identify with on some level: that of the downtrodden, underestimated child who, if he were only allowed a bit of freedom, could amaze adults and children alike with what he can do.
Just because adults in the novel are more powerful than children, however, doesn’t mean that the adults are competent. Indeed, James—a seven-year-old child—is the most competent, observant, and self-possessed character in the novel. This becomes increasingly clear as James ventures into the magical giant peach and meets the oversize garden bugs within. The bugs—Miss Spider, the Centipede, the Ladybug, the Earthworm, the Silkworm, the Glow-worm, and the Old-Green-Grasshopper—are portrayed as adults, but they can’t manage in scary or difficult situations. Instead, without fail, they panic. But when they discover that James is adept at navigating these frightening situations, they come to treat him as their leader and allow him to develop increasingly creative, outlandish solutions to their problems—all of which work. When allowed a degree of power over their lives, the novel shows, children can rise to the occasion and even come up with inventive solutions that the adults around them would never think of. For instance, when sharks attack the peach as it floats in the ocean, the bugs are sure that they’re going to die. And the Earthworm believes that even if the sharks don’t kill them, their lack of food aboard the peach will result in starvation, and then they’ll die. But James points out that the peach itself is enough food to last them for weeks, something that seems obvious to him but that the bugs miss completely. In addition, when faced with the shark attack, James comes up the idea to lift the peach out of the ocean by lassoing seagulls with string. His idea is complex and outlandish—it requires miles and miles of string spun on demand by Miss Spider and the Silkworm, and it requires the Earthworm to act as bait on top of the peach while James lassos individual seagulls that swoop down in search of a snack. But ultimately, James’s idea works—502 lassoed seagulls later, the peach is airborne.
As James and his friends continue to run into dangerous or frightening bumps over the course of their journey, the bugs eventually recognize that as an imaginative child, James is the best one to save them—the Ladybug insists at one point that they need only to ask James how to solve their problems. This implies that children, with their unique and imaginative way of seeing the world, are perhaps better able to make sense of things and can even change the world for the better, if only adults would get out of their way or support children in their ideas. With this, the novel warns adults to not underestimate the power of young people. They will, one day, lead the world—whether it’s as a child, like James, or once those young people become adults themselves.
Children vs. Adults ThemeTracker
Children vs. Adults Quotes in James and the Giant Peach
They were selfish and lazy and cruel, and right from the beginning they started beating poor James for almost no reason at all. They never called him by his real name, but always referred to him as “you disgusting little beast” or “you filthy nuisance” or “you miserable creature,” and they certainly never gave him any toys to play with or any picture books to look at. His room was as bare as a prison cell.
And as time went on, he became sadder and sadder, and more and more lonely, and he used to spend hours every day standing at the bottom of the garden, gazing wistfully at the lovely but forbidden world of woods and fields and ocean that was spread out below him like a magic carpet.
“Oh, Auntie Sponge!” James cried out. “And Auntie Spiker! Couldn’t we all—please—just for once—go down to the seaside on the bus? It isn’t very far—and I feel so hot and awful and lonely...”
“Why, you lazy good-for-nothing brute!” Aunt Spiker shouted.
“Beat him!” cried Aunt Sponge.
“I certainly will!” [...] “I shall beat you later on in the day when I don’t feel so hot,” she said.
“It’s ripe!” she cried. “It’s just perfect! Now see here, Spiker. Why don’t we go and get us a shovel right away and dig out a great big hunk of it for you and me to eat?”
“No,” Aunt Spiker said. “Not yet.”
“Because I say so.”
“But I can’t wait to eat some!” Aunt Sponge cried out. She was watering at the mouth now and thin trickle of spit was running down one side of her chin.
“My dear Sponge,” Aunt Spiker said slowly, winking at her sister and smiling a sly, thin-lipped smile. “There’s a pile of money to be made out of this if only we can handle it right. You wait and see.”
James decided that he rather liked the Centipede. He was obviously a rascal, but what a change it was to hear somebody laughing once in a while. He had never heard Aunt Sponge or Aunt Spiker laughing aloud in all the time he had been with them.
They panicked. They both got in each other’s way. They began pushing and jostling, and each of them was thinking only about saving herself. Aunt Sponge, the fat one, tripped over a box that she’d brought along to keep the money in, and fell flat on her face. Aunt Spiker immediately tripped over Aunt Sponge and came down on top of her. They both lay on the ground, fighting and clawing and yelling and struggling frantically to get up again, but before they could do this, the mighty peach was upon them.
“None of us three girls can swim a single stroke.”
“But you won’t have to swim,” said James calmly. “We are floating beautifully. And sooner or later a ship is bound to come along and pick us up.”
They all stared at him in amazement.
“Are you quite sure that we are not sinking?” the Ladybug asked.
“Of course I’m sure,” answered James.
“You must be crazy! You can’t eat the ship! It’s the only thing that is keeping us up!”
“We shall starve to death if we don’t!” said the Centipede.
“And we shall drown if we do!” cried the Earthworm.
“You can eat all you want,” James answered. It would take us weeks and weeks to make any sort of a dent in this enormous peach. Surely you can see that?”
“Good heavens, he’s right again!” cried the Old-Green-Grasshopper, clapping his hands.
“Is there nothing we can do?” asked the Ladybug, appealing to James. “Surely you can think of a way out of this.”
Suddenly they were all looking at James.
“Think!” begged Miss Spider. “Think, James, think!”
“Come on,” said the Centipede. “Come on, James. There must be something we can do.”
Their eyes waited upon him, tense, anxious, pathetically hopeful.
“Why, it’s absolutely brilliant!” cried the Old-Green-Grasshopper when James had explained his plan.
“The boy’s a genius!” the Centipede announced. “Now I can keep my boots on after all.”
“Oh, I shall be pecked to death!” wailed the poor Earthworm.
“Of course you won’t.”
“I will, I know I will! And I won’t even be able to see them coming at me because I have no eyes!”
James went over and put an arm gently around the Earthworm’s shoulders. “I won’t let them touch you,” he said. “I promise I won’t.”
“Action stations!” James shouted. “Jump to it! There’s not a moment to lose!” He was the captain now, and everyone knew it. They would do whatever he told them.
“That’s it!!” cried the Captain. “It’s a secret weapon! Holy cats! Send a message to the Queen at once! The country must be warned! And give me my telescope.”
There was not a sound anywhere. Traveling upon the peach was not in the least like traveling in an airplane. The airplane comes clattering and roaring through the sky, and whatever might be lurking secretly up there in the great cloud-mountains goes running for cover at its approach. That is why people who travel in airplanes never see anything.
But the peach...ah, yes...the peach was a soft, stealthy traveler, making no noise as it floated along. And several times during that long silent night ride high up over the middle of the ocean in the moonlight, James and his friends saw things that no one had ever seen before.
“Those are skyscrapers! So this must be America! And that, my friends, means that we have crossed the Atlantic Ocean overnight!”
“You don’t mean it!” they cried.
“It’s not possible!”
“It’s incredible! It’s unbelievable!”
“Oh, I’ve always dreamed of going to America!” cried the Centipede. “I had a friend once who—“
“Be quiet!” said the Earthworm. Who cares about your friend? The thing we’ve got to think about now is how on earth are we going to get down to earth?”
“Ask James,” said the Ladybug.
“Don’t be frightened of us, please!” James called out. “We are so glad to be here!”
“What about those others beside you?” shouted the Chief of Police. “Are any of them dangerous?”
“Of course they’re not dangerous!” James answered. “They’re the nicest creatures in the world! Allow me to introduce them to you one by one and then I’m sure you will believe me.”