Exploitation of factory workers? Making profit from chocoholics? It can only be …
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
by Roald Dahl
1964 in the USA; 1967 in the UK.
Who’s it for?
Ages unlimited, but mainly sweet-toothed readers of 6-10 years old.
Not suitable for?
People on diets. Readers who dislike fantasies.
Who was Roald Dahl?
Roald Dahl was born in 1916 in Wales to Norwegian parents. His father, a prosperous co-owner of a ship-broking firm, died when Roald was just four years old. His mother was left to raise two stepchildren (from her husband’s first marriage) and her own four children. Fortunately the family was financially secure. Roald was nicknamed by his sisters as ‘the apple’ because as his mother’s only son, he was the apple of her eye. He always remained close to his mother. Dahl’s autobiography, Boy, describes his childhood and schooldays.
At 18 he went to East Africa, working for Shell as a salesman. Soon after the outbreak of World War II he enlisted in the RAF and trained as a fighter-pilot and in 1940 his orders came through to join 80 Squadron. This part of his life, described in his book, Going Solo, was to have a deep and long-lasting effect on Dahl as a writer. It was after a serious crash over the Libyan desert, which resulted in severe injuries, that he started writing. After the war he lived in Washington DC where, encouraged by the novelist C S Forester, he wrote several short stories for newspapers and magazines. His first book, The Gremlins, published in 1943 launched Dahl as an author.
In 1960 he and his wife, actress Patricia Neal, moved to Great Missenden in Buckinghamshire with their young family. Deep personal tragedies followed when their baby son Theo (to whom Charlie is dedicated) was seriously ill after an accident and when their eldest daughter died, just 7 years old.
From his famous garden hut at Great Missenden, Dahl continued to write for children and went on to become one of the world’s most popular authors. His first commercial success, James and the Giant Peach, was followed by Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the book which gave him the greatest fame. These, and subsequent much-loved novels have sold all over the world in their millions.
In 1983 Roald married his second wife, Felicity (Liccy), with whom he lived until his death in 1990 at the age of 74.
Charlie Bucket, who lives with his parents and his elderly grandparents in a tiny wooden house on the edge of town. They are very poor, sometimes starving. Nearby is the biggest chocolate factory in the world, owned by the great inventor, Willy Wonka. Charlie passes by the magnificent building on his way to school each day. He dreams of having chocolate whenever he fancies, instead of just once a year on his birthday.
Then one day there is an exciting announcement in the newspaper. Mr Willy Wonka will give five lucky Golden Ticket winners (the tickets are hidden in the chocolate bars) a guided tour of his factory, and enough sweets for the rest of their lives.
After several raisings and dashings of hopes, Charlie’s dream comes true when he finds the last of the winning tickets. The other winners are the enormously fat and greedy Augustus Gloop, spoilt Veruca Salt, chewing-gum addict Violet Beauregarde and gangster-TV obsessed Mike Teavee. During the tour of the never-ending underground world of chocolate flowing rivers and tunnels, and rooms full of amazing sweets produced by the Oompa-Loompas, Willy Wonka makes sure each beastly child gets his or her just desserts. As they and their ghastly parents each come to a sticky end, Charlie and Grandpa Joe are declared the final winners. It transpires that in setting the competition, Willy Wonka had been looking for a good child to take over the factory one day, and that deserved winner is Charlie. Charlie is appointed heir apparent and Willy Wonka insists that they all live in the factory for ever more.
What makes Charlie so popular with children?
The story is essentially fun, yet at the same time it introduces serious themes that young readers relate to – snobbery and unkindness, for example. Roald Dahl put ‘laughter’ above all else as an essential ingredient in his work, followed by ‘exaggeration’. In terms of wish fulfilment, Charlie can also be seen as the hungry but deserving child who is specially chosen to have as much chocolate as he wants – for ever. Meanwhile the selfish and unpleasant children suffer satisfyingly terrible fates:
Veruca Salt, the little brute,
Has just gone down the rubbish chute …
We’ve polished off her parents, too.
These factors combine to make this modern cautionary tale a sure-fire winner.
They are the tiny little men imported by Willy Wonka direct from Loompaland to work in his factory (after he’d sacked all his regular workers for betraying his trade secrets). Mr Wonka explains that where the Oompas had lived, there was nothing to eat but caterpillars, and what the little people really crave more than anything else is the cacao bean from which chocolate is made. So he invited them to live and work in his chocolate factory, where they could eat as many beans as they wanted for the rest of their lives. Happy in their work (and probably high on cacao beans) the Oompa-Loompas love to sing. Their songs tell the sticky fate of each of the obnoxious children on Willy Wonka’s guided tour and contain the moral messages of the book.
Dahl’s highly readable style speaks directly to children, and its strong subject matter has made Charlie an all-time favourite since its first publication. The clearly defined characters are each distinct and memorable, as is the satisfyingly rough treatment Augustus Gloop, Veruca Salt and the others receive. The book also has an uncomplicated, highly original storyline, a distinctive third person narrative voice, and an opening which leads straight into the story.
No. The ‘importing’ of the Oompa-Loompas or ‘miniature pygmies’, who were depicted in the original illustrations (not by Quentin Blake) as Black, was considered highly offensive when the book was first published 30 years ago. In later illustrations they were redrawn as white. The name Oompa-Loompa was also considered to make fun of African language sounds. The Oompa-Loompas are treated kindly, but in a very patronising way – Willy Wonka clicks his fingers sharply when he wants a worker to appear; they also have to test various kinds of sweets, sometimes with unfortunate effects. Of course, the white children suffer a variety of dreadful fates but they are individualised in a way the Oompa-Loompas are not. None of the childlike Oompa-Loompas is considered a possible candidate to take over the factory.
Willy Wonka is a kindly magician but with bullying tactics and a rather selfish disregard for other people’s feelings. He forces Charlie’s grandparents into the flying lift to rehouse them, against their will, in his chocolate emporium. Hasn’t he heard of rights for Wrinklies?
Dahl wrote the screen play for the film version which was released in 1971 and increased his fame still further. Recent successful screenings of James and the Giant Peach and Matilda have made Dahl a household name.
Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator.
Helen Levene works in publishing.
The illustrations are from the Viking edition illustrated by Quentin Blake.