Why Charlie & the Chocolate Factory is a warning for naughty children

Gene Wilder in the 1971 film version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
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Fairy tales have always been used to show what happens if you don’t behave yourself. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is no different.

In Tim Burton’s 2005 reboot of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, 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 ‘terrible’ children, because their fates – and Charlie’s – are set from page 1.

Cautionary tales for naughty children

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.” (p26)

Yet while Gloop is badly behaved, his sin (craving chocolate) isn’t all that bad considering:

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

Later on, Violet Beauregarde is also described as podgy: “before Mr Wonka could stop her, she shot out a fat hand and grabbed the stuck of gum out of the little drawer …” (p112). Ironically, this ends with Violet temporarily becoming even fatter and rounder.

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 is their downfall.

As the grandparents predict (p39), each child will come to a sticky and deserving end:

  • Augustus wins a Golden Ticket because he eats such a lot of 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 just demands a ticket, so her rich daddy sets his peanut shelling factory workers to finding one. Later, it’s walnut shelling factory workers (the squirrels) who give Violet and her parents a lesson in the importance of setting boundaries.
  • Violet uses her skills as a champion gum chewer to find a Golden Ticket. In the factory, her addiction to gum sees her turned into a blueberry – and 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 cast as villains and 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’ll be laundered spotless, cleansed of their sins, because of their sins. Poetic, no?

Willy Wonka and fatherhood

Magician's playing cards
Credit: Sergi Viladesau on Unsplash

It’s not a big leap to see Wonka as God-like. He’s invisible for much of the book, but is talked of in hushed tones of reverence. 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. (p175)

Not holding much truck with grown-ups of either 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

A rusty bucket on a desk
Credit: pepe nero on Unsplash

Dahl tells us in the book’s preamble that Charlie Bucket is “The hero”. Very soon we also learn that he is also poor (the underdog is often crucial to redemptive fiction). More importantly, he is the deserving poor.

Charlie is a saint. He craves chocolate, but gets only cabbage soup – and doesn’t grumble about it. He won’t take extra rations from his mother even when he’s slowly starving and, when he stumbles across some money in the street, he indulges himself very carefully, with one eye on the needs of his family.

Charlie is gentle and loving and almost without hope. Just like his grandparents, we want him to find a ticket against all the odds. As it turns out, we don’t need to 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 tucked inside a bar of Whipple-Scrumptious Fudgemallow Delight. In fact, the real miracle takes place a chapter earlier, in which Charlie finds 50p buried in the snow: “Several people went hurrying past … None of them was searching for any money.” So the money is just there, waiting for Charlie to claim it – and that sounds pretty miraculous to me.
  • The other children are established as rotten brats. They’re greedy and obnoxious, and – the final nail in the coffin – are 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). In searching for Golden Tickets, they get through thousands of chocolate bars between them. Charlie does it in four. With those odds, clearly he’s on a roll.
  • Each of the children reserve a reward commensurate with their ghastly behaviour. Skinny little 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) are seen shooting up 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, called Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – it was never going to end any other way.

What’s surprising, though, is how far the other children must fall for Charlie to be crowned ‘Champion of the World’. 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” (p94), which is a pretty harsh judgement on a minor. There’s likely no judge in the land who would say on sentencing, that he’d like to chop a child up with knives and boil him with sugar and cream – but all is fair game for the singing Oompas.

This bloodlust is OK, supposedly, because it’s for the good of the child: the parents may have spared the rod, but the Oompa Loompas will rectify such slackness. Compare Violet’s ditty – which tells of how she’s been spared Miss Bigelow’s fate, which was to chew her own tongue off (p119). 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. (p164)

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.


References:

Roald Dahl, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (964). Penguin Random House UK, 2016.

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