A Fantasy of Chocolate: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

The 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.


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