Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s warnings for naughty children

Close-up of teeth with braces chomping on a jelly sweet.

Fairytales offer grim warnings about what happens when you don’t behave yourself. Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is no different.

In Tim Burton’s 2005 film of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, protagonist Charlie Bucket asks something we’ve probably all wondered: “Why would Augustus’s name already be in the Oompa Loompa song?”

The Oompa Loompas have songs ready for all the awful children, because their fates – and Charlie’s – are decided from the start. In fact, this is something the book makes clear all along …

Cautionary tales in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

According to the book’s first page, four of the children in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory are ‘monsters’. Augustus Gloop is greedy, Veruca Salt is a brat. Violet Beauregarde chews gum, and Mike Teavee is an obnoxious telly addict.

As if that weren’t shocking enough, some of these children are fat.

The winner of the first ticket, Augustus Gloop, is: “a nine-year-old boy who was so enormously fat he looked as though he had been blown up with a powerful pump.”

Yet while Gloop is badly behaved, his sin – craving chocolate – can’t be all that bad considering:

  1. So does Charlie (“The one thing he longed for more than anything else was … CHOCOLATE”).
  2. Mr Wonka makes his fortune selling chocolate to children.

Later on, the book describes Violet Beauregarde as podgy, too:

“before Mr Wonka could stop her, she shot out a fat hand and grabbed the stick of gum out of the little drawer …”

Ironically, this ends with Violet becoming even fatter and rounder.

The function of fat-shaming

Being fat in the Wonkaverse is short-hand for greed – for excess and craving – and all the brats have this particular sickness. Greed helps them win their golden tickets, but then hastens their downfall.

As the know-all grandparents predict, each child will come to a sticky and deserving end:

  • Augustus wins a Golden Ticket because he eats so much chocolate. Later, his greed sees him sucked into a pipe – a kind of ‘gastric bypass’ which sees him miss the rest of the tour and leave the factory much thinner.
  • Veruca demands a ticket, so her rich daddy sets his peanut-shelling factory workers to finding one. Later, walnut-shelling factory workers (the squirrels) give Violet and her parents a lesson in the importance of boundaries.
  • Violet uses her skills as a champion gum chewer to find a Golden Ticket. Her addiction to gum later sees her turned into a blueberry, then squashed down to size.
  • We’re not told how Mike Teavee uses his TV-watching talents to win a ticket, but he’s clearly a wrong ‘un.

So the children are rogues – and that’s part of the fun of the book – but these are also cautionary tales that warn children to be good … or else!

Or, as Mr Wonka is fond of saying, it will “all come out in the wash”. In other words, by the end of the book they’re spotless – cleansed of their sins, because of their sins.

This isn’t surprising, really: this story is thick with religious (Christian, Biblical) parallels.

Willy Wonka and fatherhood

It’s not a big leap to see Wonka as God-like. He’s invisible for much of the book, while the others talk about him in hushed, reverent tones. He is a master magician and creator. His chocolate factory looks like paradise. He punishes sins and rewards goodness. And, one day, he makes a child for himself out of nothing.

Who say what now?

At the end of the book, Wonka confesses that he can’t go on for ever – and that he needs someone to take over the factory:

“I don’t want a grown-up person at all. A grown-up won’t listen to me; he won’t learn. He will try to do things his own way and not mine. So I have to have a child.”

Not holding much truck with grown-ups of any gender, Wonka decides to cut out the middle woman (and the waiting) and just win a boy in a stacked lottery. And that would be Charlie.

Charlie Bucket, the hero

The book’s preamble tells us Charlie Bucket is “The hero”. We soon learn he’s also poor. More importantly, he is the deserving poor.

Charlie is saintly. He craves chocolate but gets only cabbage soup – and doesn’t grumble about it. He won’t take extra rations even when he’s starving. And when he finds some money in the street he wants to share it with his family.

Charlie is gentle, loving and almost without hope. Just like his grandparents, we want him to find a ticket. As it turns out, we needn’t worry – because Charlie was always going to win a golden ticket (and the factory).

  • Chapter 11 is titled “The Miracle” because, in it, Charlie finds a Golden Ticket inside a bar of Whipple-Scrumptious Fudgemallow Delight. The real miracle takes place a chapter earlier, when he finds 50p in the snow: “Several people went hurrying past … None of them was searching for any money.” The money is just there, waiting for Charlie to claim it – and that sounds pretty miraculous to me.
  • The other children are rotten brats and rich enough as it is (and we know how hard the rich man will find it to get into heaven, i.e., Wonka’s factory). They get through thousands of chocolate bars looking for a golden ticket. Charlie does it in four. With those odds, he’s clearly special.
  • Each child gets a reward commensurate with their ghastly behaviour. Skinny Charlie is meek and gentle … and the meek shall inherit the Earth. At the end of the book, Charlie (and Mr Wonka and Grandpa Joe) shoot through the factory roof, heaven- and glory-bound.

Last but not least, when Wonka crowns Charlie the winner, it’s exactly what he was expecting:

“‘You mean to tell me you’re the only one left?’ Mr Wonka said, pretending to be surprised.”

Indeed, there are no surprises here.

A one-way ticket

The book is, after all, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – it was never going to end any other way.

But what’s surprising is how far the other children must fall for Charlie to be crowned ‘Champion of the World’ (like Danny in another Dahl classic).

Not only are they shown the errors of their [parents’] ways, the Oompa Loompas delight in how miserable the children must be.

Augustus Gloop, for instance, is a useless pig; a boy who would “never give / Even the smallest bit of fun / Or happiness to anyone”, which is a pretty harsh judgement of a minor.

In the real world, few judges would say they’d like to chop a child up with knives and boil him with sugar and cream, yet all is fair game for the singing Oompas. This bloodlust is supposedly OK because it’s for the good of the child.

As for Mike Teavee:

“We very much regret that we
Shall simply have to wait and see
If we can get him back his height.
But if we can’t – it serves him right.”

As with the Bible, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory contains easy lessons for those willing to learn. Be modest and moderate. Don’t spare the rod and spoil your child. And, above all else, read.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, by Roald Dahl (1964)

Quoted edition published by Penguin Random House UK, 2016

What to read or watch next
  • Earthlings (NOT a children’s book, but a very dark take of children and fairytales)

Picture credit: Enci Mousavi