Thu
Jan 3 2013 3:00pm
A Fantasy of Chocolate: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

A Fantasy of Chocolate: Charlie and the Chocolate FactoryThe success of James and the Giant Peach encouraged Roald Dahl to write another children’s book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Filled with Dahl’s fury at multiple aspects of contemporary life (including, not at random, industrial competition, wealthy factory owners, and television), the book is both funny and vicious, a deeply imaginative work combining elements of fantasy (nearly everything to do with chocolate) and science fiction (the bits about television and the glass elevator.)

Thanks to the two films based on the book, most readers are probably already vaguely familiar with the basic plot. Mysterious, secretive chocolate maker Willy Wonka finally agrees to allow five very lucky children—those who find a mysterious Golden Ticket in their chocolate bars—to enter his factory. For four of the kids—all greedy in one way or another—the tour, while magical, does not go at all well. For the fifth, the young Charlie Bucket, near starvation at the beginning of the tour, the trip proves wondrous indeed.

But readers may have forgotten, as I had, just how long (comparatively) the book takes to get going. Dahl starts by introducing the Bucket family—four grandparents, two parents, and Charlie living on the near brink of starvation, since only one of them—Mr. Bucket—is employed, and his job at the local toothpaste factory is not exactly lucrative, even leaving aside the need to feed four elderly grandparents, all of whom share the same bed. (Minds OUT of the gutter, readers; unlike the Johnny Depp movie version, this book has none of THOSE kinds of suggestive moments.) After this, we hear various stories about Willy Wonka—his previous chocolate factory, the chocolate palace, complete with hot and cold running chocolate (this is pretty awesome) and the many mysteries that surround his current factory. No one ever goes in, and only chocolate ever comes out. Like, also, awesome. The Golden Tickets that will allow five lucky children to enter come next, followed by descriptions of four of the lucky winners, and then still more tragedy for Charlie’s family, as he sinks to near starvation.

What this means is that we are nearly halfway through the book before Charlie actually gets into the chocolate factory, and since it’s a pretty short book (155 pages, with illustrations, in the little American edition I got from the library), this means that the actual factory tour takes place at breathtaking speed, only heightened by Mr. Wonka’s repeated exhortations that everyone must hurry hurry hurry or they will NEVER GET THROUGH. Well, maybe if everyone had gone a bit faster at the beginning of the book they could have had time to enjoy the tour. Geesh. Anyway, it’s in this second half that things simultaneously get brilliant and cruel, as bad child after bad child comes to some terrifying fate.

I should probably point out at this point that my reading of this book has always been colored by my tragic experience of viewing the Gene Wilder movie adaptation starring Gene Wilder back when I was a small, small child, as a special treat for being Unusually Good. Alas, my little mind had not quite grasped the difference between reality and television. I thought everything in the movie was really truly happening, right then and there, and as the movie progressed, with children falling into chocolate and nearly drowning and then getting sucked up into tubes my excitement turned into pure terror. Worse was to come when a little girl TURNED INTO A GIANT BLUEBERRY right before my little eyes JUST BECAUSE SHE CHEWED GUM and THEN was ROLLED AWAY by people who were SINGING ABOUT IT. I freaked out. Making matters worse at this point the television was firmly turned off and I was put into bed with assurances that yes, yes, the blueberry girl was going to be just fine and now we were going to listen to a nice story about my teddy bear, weren’t we?

This was all very soothing, but since I never did see the girl transform back into a girl, I wasn’t quite convinced—and to this day I remain secretly convinced that if I chew gum I too will turn into a blueberry and be rolled away. It was the last part that was the real terror—that I would not be able to save myself, and would be completely under the control of other people who could roll me wherever I wanted.

I digress at length about this because, by what is probably not a complete coincidence, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory the book contains a long rant, in rhyme, no less, about the evils of watching television, begging parents to throw the TV sets away and install bookshelves on the wall instead, although the rhyme fails to mention the dangers of getting rolled away. As a now-successful children’s author who had not exactly had the same success in Hollywood, this might—just might—have stemmed from a touch of bias, but as my experience shows, perhaps not.

Anyway. Reading the book now, I think that film and I picked up the same thing: the book’s perhaps unintentional central theme: powerlessness.

Nearly everyone in the book, including Willy Wonka, lacks power of one sort or another. The four Bucket grandparents are mostly bedridden, unable—with one exception—to get food to their beloved grandson. (Grandpa Joe does manage to spend his tiny savings of a single coin on one more chocolate bar for Charlie, but that pretty much ends the helpfulness.) Mr. Bucket is unable to keep his job or find another one; Charlie can do nothing to help his parents or grandparents. Things don’t improve once everyone is inside the factory: although the bad kids certainly instigate their own punishments by disobeying orders thanks to greed or, in one case, an obsession with television, they are also powerless to save themselves. More critically, their terrified parents are powerless to save them. And all four children (with the arguable exception of the wealthy Veruca Salt) emerge physically changed, in at least two cases with permanent damage.

And while I realize that the gum chewing Violet and the television obsessed Mike are not exactly the world’s nicest children, it does seem a little harsh on Violet to have to spend the rest of her life purple merely thanks to an obsession with gum, and I don’t even want to think about the ongoing medical problems that are going to be facing Mike after his stretching excitement.

Even Mr. Wonka, that powerful chocolatier who is able to make magic and things that nobody else has even thought of, finds himself oddly powerless to stop any of the children from doing things that can and do harm his factory operations. I think we are meant to assume, for instance, that much of that frothy, waterfall mixed chocolate had to be tossed out post the Augustus Gloop incident, at a great cost to the factory, not to mention that he has most certainly opened himself up to a series of major lawsuits that are not going to go well for him. Bad things happen, and even the supposedly powerful adults cannot stop them from happening.

Even Charlie is essentially rescued by nothing but chance: I’d forgotten, but it takes him four chocolate bars to find the Golden Ticket. He is able to buy the last two chocolate bars only through the luck of finding some dropped money in the street. And even there, the scene makes it clear that he only bought the second chocolate bar because near starvation has made it almost impossible for him to think clearly. He knows he should be spending money on food for everyone else in the household, but gives in to his hunger. (Incidentally, this is a rare case in children’s literature of a child getting rewarded for giving into a desire for sweets, although this can be explained off partly by Charlie’s hunger, partly by Dahl’s own admitted love for chocolate.)

Contrast, just for a second, the situation in James and the Giant Peach: sure, James initially suffers by chance (the loss of his parents via rhinoceros) and his fortunes improve by chance (getting the magic seeds). But afterwards, he and his friends are active: they free the peach, they capture the seagulls, they fight back against the Cloud-Men. At the end of that book, every character is happy, gainfully employed and successful, or dead.

At the end of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the four children (with the arguable exceptions of Augustus Gloop and Veruca Salt) are heading into lives of misery; their parents are upset; and most of the Bucket family is in deep shock and distress. On the bright side, I suppose, no one is dead. On the less bright side, the Buckets are given no choice: Charlie, Grandpa Joe and Mr. Wonka shove them into the great glass elevator, just emphasizing the theme of powerlessness.

This powerlessness is matched with an almost excess of parental love. If Dahl had earlier suggested, in James and the Giant Peach, that a lack of love was the problem, in this book, he argues the opposite. The parents of the four naughty children love their kids very much indeed. Their panic and upset when something happens to their children is clear, and they have overindulged their kids, Dahl suggests, not out of neglect or out of deliberately bad parenting (although they are bad parents), but out of love. Even the parents of the incredibly spoiled Veruca Salt seem to have acted, at least at first, out of adoration for their daughter, even if by the time they reach the factory they seem to be promising to give Veruca things just to keep the kid quiet. (Apparently the entire group, even the other bad children, sympathize with this thought.) And yet, for all of their love and concern, they are unable to protect or save their children.

This was a truth Roald Dahl had already learned too well. By all accounts Dahl loved his children very deeply, but shortly before writing Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, he lost one child to illness, and watched a second struggle to recover from major injuries inflicted from a car accident. He later reportedly had major clashes with his children. If James and the Giant Peach dealt with the terror of living without parents, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory focused on learning that even parental love might not be enough.

Something else is going on as well. The situation of the Buckets makes it clear that local work is extremely scarce and poorly paid. When the literate Mr. Bucket loses his poorly paid job at the local toothpaste factory, finding another job is an impossibility—factories are closing everywhere. The four elderly grandparents have only managed to save up a couple of cents in their long lives. Charlie, living in a western country with healthy, willing to work parents, is close to starving. And yet Willy Wonka, who has enough money to create an enormous underground complex and above ground factory large enough to contain a chocolate river, waterfall, and pink sugar boat, keeps his doors tightly closed to local employment. It’s every anti-immigrant, labor fear gone mad, possibly reflecting some of Dahl’s observations of British and American labor practices.

I can’t leave this post without talking at least briefly about the Oompa-Loompas. In the original text, the Oompa-Loompas were explicitly black, explicitly from Africa, and explicitly brought to Wonka’s factory to work as, for all intents and purposes, slaves. Yes, Wonka feeds them on cacao nuts, but that’s about it: for all their hard work and ingenuity and ability to rhyme, they receive no salary or other benefits, and are essentially prisoners in Wonka’s factory. They seem happy enough, but then again, we only see them at a distance, or hear their sarcastic songs. And, of course, the idea of merrily singing slaves was not exactly new to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, or to American culture.

To their credit, however, Dahl’s American publishers immediately noted the problem, and Dahl, whose racism was generally of the unthinking type, agreed to change the text. The Oompa-Loompas are still, for all intents and purposes, slaves, and still wear leaves and deerskins, but they are more obviously not exactly human (Dahl makes them no higher than knee height) and the black and white illustrations show them with white skin. Other issues (including, rumor has it, a character named “Herpes,”) were removed by British and American publishers alike. The current edition should be safe, if cruel and powerless, for most readers.


Mari Ness is now considering installing taps for hot and cold running chocolate in her kitchen.

22 comments
Kate Nepveu
1. katenepveu
I listened to this a couple years ago narrated by Eric Idle (who did a decent job but needed to manage his volume better). The minor thing I noticed then was that, at least in this version, Charlie finds a dollar bill--a commenter suggested that this was a revision from a British coin, though they couldn't say with certainty. What about your edition, and was this supposed to be set in the UK and silly American publishers messed with it?

(Also that listening was pre-children, and though I noted the cruelty then you've found new angles on it. *shudder* )
David Goldfarb
2. David_Goldfarb
Oh, wow. I had just the same reaction to that movie when I was very young -- I was three years old when it came out. What's more, I had my meltdown at just the same place.
Boquaz
3. boquaz
These books were my introduction to SF, fantasy and reading in general. I still think the sequel is a better, stranger book. If you've never read it, you really should. There are aliens and space hotels.

These books led me to reading my first "real" book: Dahl's autobiography "Boy" which was stranger and more gruesome to me at the time than any of his fiction.
mbg1968
4. mbg1968
Does anyone else ever get Charlie's glass elevator mixed up in their minds with Ender's (Andrew Wiggin's) in either Xenocide or Children of the Mind (I can't remember which).

I always felt like Orson Scott Card 'borrowed' the idea from Dahl.
mbg1968
5. Angiportus
Someone please fill us in on which Card book that was--I am a sucker for transparent elevators. Agree entirely on the grotesquerie of the spoiled children and their fates, and the perhaps not that exaggerated horrors of poverty.
I await the review of the sequel.
mbg1968
6. XenaCatolica
My college Classics teacher thought the movie particularly was a mashup of a Christian morality play with a Greek tragic chorus. And basically, he was right--it can't quite decide to be a comedy or tragedy.

The grotesquerie never esp. struck me, but I read the Grimm fairy tales as a child. If you can get hold of some old nursery rhymes (1940-1950s) they are full of violence. When I was a kid in the 1970s, plenty of Dickens, H.B. Stowe, and Twain were considered perfectly okay for kids under 10--Twain in 4th grade, Dickens in 5th grade. As opposed to debtors' prison, giant spiders spinning webs on naughty girls, tar & feathering, murderous drunken father, etc., the giant blueberry scene wasn't so bad.
mbg1968
7. a1ay
Does anyone else ever get Charlie's glass elevator mixed up in their minds with Ender's

"Remember," said Ender. "The enemy's nougat is down."
mbg1968
8. Kvon
I'm glad to hear I wasn't the only one scared as a child of this movie. I have a vague memory of hanging out in the theater lobby after being upset at Gloop getting sucked away. And now I may know why that scene bothered me so much.
mbg1968
9. Shanna Swendson
I'm another one who was traumatized by the blueberry scene. That was the only movie in which I ever had to be taken out of the theater, and the blueberry girl being rolled away was what did it. I didn't see the rest of the movie until I was in college, though I read the book in fourth grade.
Pamela Adams
10. Pam Adams
I was old enough to survive the Gene Wilder version intact. My younger sister had to be taken out of Silent Running- it was the death of the bunnies that got her.
mbg1968
11. Bell-Snickle
Interesting post, I'll have to dig my copy out and re-read it and see if it holds up for me as well now that I'm an adult. IIRC, my childhood copy has the African Oopma Loompas, I think it originally belonged to my older brother so was probably bought in the late 60s.

And did not know about the character named Herpes! Found a little info on him here: http://www.roalddahlmuseum.org/uploads/charlie%20and%20the%20chocolate%20fact.pdf

Also discovered that a deleted chapter "Spotty Powder” about a girl named Miranda Piker, has surfaced in the past few years: http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/arts/books/article2453871.ece
mbg1968
12. Tansy
My daughter saw some of the Gene Wilder movie at a friend's house at the age of about 4, freaked out at the blueberry scene, and spent the next two years having panic attacks at the idea of anything puffing up or otherwise growing unnaturally large.

She actually worked through it by making me tell her the story, over and over, of the whole book without the Violet Beauregarde bits in it, and eventually returning them.
mbg1968
13. Naberius
I re-read this book as part of a "Dahl-a-thon" for my personal reading (yes, I just wanted to completely indulge myself). I have a very old edition of the book, and had remembered the Oompa-Loompas as pygmies, but I have a friend who had absolutely no idea, so it was fun to show her the original illustrations.

I was never freaked out as a kid after watching the infamous Violet--> blueberry scene, although the part that scared the ____ out of me was the one with the boat going through the tunnel. What's with the centipedes crawling on the guy's face?

It's interesting to read this post, and think about all the things I noticed in the book when I read it as an adult, compared to what I found in it as a child. Thanks!
Beccy Higman
14. Jazzlet
I haven't read it since I was a child, but I assumed it happened in America, and I'm British. I wouldn't have known it then, but while we had (have) our exploitative employers chocolate manufacturing was very much dominated by Quakers who believed in treating their workers well (if in a rather paternalistic manner).
Mari Ness
15. MariCats
@katenepveu -- In the American edition I just read, Charlie finds a dollar. I believe in the British edition I read originally (which was a later edition where the Ooompa-Loompas were not pygmies) he finds a guinea, because I had to ask what that was, but I may be confusing that with one of the Famous Five books where they were always finding hidden guineas.

Interestingly enough, I think Charlie and the Chocolate Factory could be set in either Great Britain or the U.S. -- I got a distinctly British vibe from it, but other readers got a distinctly American vibe, and in the sequel the characters are talking to the U.S. president. Dahl was living in both countries before and while writing this book, which may account for that dual feel.

@David Goldfarb -- It really is a terrifying bit, isn't it?

@boquaz -- Assuming the library delivers the book on time, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator is scheduled for this reread, though I may have to read it out of publication order. If the Orange County library is any indication, this is still a very popular book -- there were four holds on it when I ordered it, not true for any other Dahl book.

@mbg1968 -- Um, I'm not the biggest Orson Scott Card fan, so, no for me, but possibly other readers have noted that?

@Angiportus -- The post for Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, assuming the library isn't lying to me, should be up next Thursday. If not, I'll be doing another fast out of publication order switch and reviewing Danny the Champion of the World this upcoming week and Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator after that. Sorry about this -- I hadn't realized that Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator would be that popular. It's been a six week wait for the book.

@XenaCatholica -- I think it might be a question of age. I, too, read the original and less censored Grimm's fairy tales when I was five and Dickens when I was eight, and you're right, there's stuff in there that makes the blueberry scene look like nothing.

However, I was only three years old when I watched the blueberry scene, and hadn't fully grasped the difference between television and reality.

@Kvon -- Based on these comments, clearly not!

@Shanna -- I still haven't seen the entire Gene Wilder movie, although Tor.com has requested me to try again. It honestly was the getting rolled away that got to me.

@Pam Adams -- I can see that!

@Bell-snickle -- Thanks very much for those helpful links!

@Tansy -- I don't think I ever freaked out about suddenly puffing up/becoming unnaturally large, but I did freak out over gum.

@Naberius -- I think this is definitely a book that reads very differently for adults -- I missed almost everything I notice now when I first read it.

@Jazzlet -- I'm not that familiar with the labor history of chocolate factories in the U.S. I know that Hershey is located in Pennsylvania in a Pennsylvania Dutch/Quaker area, but I don't know the religious affiliations of any of the founders/owners/managers, and I believe that they have had labor disputes -- not sure if they had any in the 1960s/1970s thought. If Wikipedia is to believed the other large American chocolate company, Mars, is still family owned and still operates in secrecy.
Beccy Higman
16. Jazzlet
@ MariCats
hmmmn ... that's me struggling to remember my social history, I think one of the reasons the Quakers ended up dominating the chocolate industry was to do with their reservations about so many other industries that they viewed as socially harmful, armaments were out as were intoxicants ... and I think in the UK at least because of their restricted access to universities they would have had no access to any employment that wanted Oxbridge graduates. All somewhat of a tangent to the book :-)
mbg1968
17. BA
I loved the Gene Wilder movie when I was a kid and had no such freakout. The only time I had to leave a movie theater was when I was 7 (or 8?) and my parents took me and my younger sister to see Leviathan. I had to leave briefly because I got a little sick and scared but managed to stick out the rest of the movie. The only movie I refused to watch out right was Night of the Living Dead when I was seven. My sister was 5 and insisted on watching the whole thing; she had nightmares for years and to this day she refuses to walk on top of graves at graveyards.
Chris Nelly
18. Aeryl
Hell, I was an adult and couldn't finish the (Gene Wilder)movie. And I've watched The Descent. It's that fucked up.
mbg1968
20. Rancho Unicorno
A bit late to the party, but I just figured I'd throw in my comments here (and thus avoid reading AMoL spoilers).

I disagree with the assessment that the trouble in CCF is too much love from the parents. Of all the families in the book, only the Buckets demonstrate the trait. The other non-Wonka adults seem to conflate catering with loving. Their actions cater to the wants and desires of the children, but fail to show any parenting. The angle I see is that to love your children is to parent them. I think that's where the Depp movie lost its way - rather than being a parent to his factory, he was a kid that wanted what he wanted. Of course, losing your way is easy. I seem to have done that in this paragraph.

On the topic of Oompa Loompa slavery, I also disagree there. It's been a little while since my last reread, but I remember that Wonka didn't coerce or kidnap them. Rather, he made an offer to the leader of the tribe to save them from the various wild beasts of Loompaland, which all of the members of the tribe accepted - that they could come and work for him. I recall nothing to suggest that dissenting OL were made to come work or that OL were forbidden to leave and return to LL, should they desire (no different than a visa, although some questions would remain as to how they were able to immigrate legally if they are unknown to all outsiders).

I see plenty more to agree and disagree with, but I'm already droning on a little.
Mari Ness
21. MariCats
@Rancho Unicorno --

Oh, most of the parents in this book are TERRIBLE parents and are failing to show any parenting. You'll get no argument from me there. But where I think we disagree is that loving your children is to parent them -- I wish that were true, but I don't think it's always true.

The parents in the book (the movies are different) adore their kids and think they are wonderful. The parents are all genuinely and legitimately traumatized when something happens to a kid -- I don't think they would react that way if they didn't love their kids. And as proof, I'll note that Charlie and Grandpa Joe, who don't love the horrible kids at all, are mildly horrified at what happens, but not upset, screaming or traumatized -- they even agree to live with Willy Wonka after this.

And sure, the Oompa Loompas go with Willy Wonka willingly enough. But, and this is important, once they arrive in his factory, they can't leave. They aren't paid. And yes, they are forbidden to leave -- until the day of the Golden Tickets, EVERYONE is forbidden to leave or enter the factory. And in this book, we don't see the extensive areas below the factory -- that was thrown into the sequel in part to answer criticisms of this very point.

How exactly is this situation different from real life situations where people (usually but not always women) are offered the promise of a better, brighter world free from the terrors/deprivations at home, only to find themselves working in sweatshops or as underpaid house servants or prostitutes? Sure, they came willingly, but once IN the situation, it's generally been recognized as slavery or forced labor or forced prostitution.
mbg1968
22. Rancho Unicorno
Sorry about the delayed response. Been reading AMoL.

On the loving their children - I'm rereading my comment and I noticed that I didn't make myself clear. I'm didn't mean to say that loving is parenting. Rather, I think that the idea is these parents (who do love their children) seem to believe that they can show their love through catering to the children. Of course their underlying love for the child causes them to be horrified. But, before that point, what they showered on the children wasn't parental guidance, but whatever material wish the child had.

Only in the case of the Buckets do we see that love isn't expressed through material goods. Certainly, we could say that their is material affection - with so little money, chocolate could be seen as a frivolity. But, even that moment is shows the hand of guidance when Charlie shares the moment with the family - he sees the gift as something for the family to share, not for him to have.

My sense is that Dahl is arguing that a "good parent" is going to demonstrate love through guiding, teaching and rearing the child in positive principles, while a "bad parent" is going to demonstrate love through giving the kid what they want. As I put on my old man hat, I would suggest that we see that coming out in greater force today. How many parents do we see simply catering to their kids? There is no effort to teach the child about delayed gratification, savoring the moment, working to achieve, etc. Rather, parents indulge the child with everything and anything the child wants, all in an effort to keep the child satiated. The good parents punish a child who acts outside of social reasonable behavior. The bad parents justify that their snowflake is just expressing himself by standing on the chair and screaming in the restaurant while drawing on the linens.

On the topic of the OL. I don't remember them being unable to leave. I thought that nobody ever goes in, nobody ever comes out, was the saying, but just as nobody saw the OL arrive, I don't see why they would see one or two OL leave. However, if they are flatly Forbidden from leaving, then yes, I am fully in your camp there.

Anyway, I see you have Elevator posted. I'm off to read that post.
mbg1968
24. Ragnarsworld
Very late to the party, but one paragraph really stood out to me.

"Even Mr. Wonka, that powerful chocolatier who is able to make magic and things that nobody else has even thought of, finds himself oddly powerless to stop any of the children from doing things that can and do harm his factory operations."

I always thought that Wonka purposely set the conditions for the bad children to act as they did. It blatantly obvious that each situation was tailor-made for the children, leading to the only conclusion that Wonka set it all up.

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