Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: A Capitalist Children’s Novel?

 

Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl

There are few in the West who have gone through childhood without reading Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or seeing one it it’s film adaptations (sorry Tim and Johnny, the Gene Wilder version was SO much better), but in engaging with the work with younger eyes, it is often easy to miss the more nuanced elements of the novel.  Some have suggested that the novel has capitalist overtones, but at a close look, what seems like a joyous and inventive expedition into an imaginative world to a child, becomes a cautionary tale about the evils of capitalism and critical analysis of colonialism.  The narrative demonstrates the disparity that exists between the working class and America’s 1% and the desperate nature of life for the destitute.  To offset the flaws of human constructs like capitalism and colonialism, Dahl incorporates ecocritical elements into the narrative, though other elements of the novel do undermine an ecocritical reading.  Charlie and the Chocolate Factory remains a great novel for young minds with simple moral messages about overconsumption, be it in terms of food or media, but when read with more mature eyes, the narrative becomes a dark tale worthy of close analysis.

 

 

COLONIALISM

 

The 'slave gallery' of Oompa-Loompa's from the 2005 film adaptation of the novel.

The ‘slave gallery’ of Oompa-Loompa’s from the 2005 film adaptation of the novel.

Perhaps the most nefarious aspect of the novel is the relationship between factory owner Willy Wonka and the Oompa-Loompas, the indigenous people of Loompaland, as the relationship serves as a template for colonial oppression.  The Oompa-Loompas can be analogous with a number of different incarnations of imperialist oppression.  In one scene, there a boat propelled by “One hundred Oompa-Loompas” who “pushed the boat away from the bank and began to row swiftly down river” by pumping the oars (81).  This means of propulsion is reminiscent of galley slaves, who were often deemed ‘prisoners of war’, though they might have been more aptly named ‘prisoners of imperialism’ as Grecian city states would often enslave citizens of the regions they conquered.  This was perhaps most famously portrayed in the film Ben-Hur, and though slaves were actually seldom used as oarsmen, the narrative still draws on this widely accepted history.  The relationship between Wanker Wonka and the Oompa-Loompas also bears a startling resemblance to the relationship between European settlers imperialists and the Natives of North and South American.  When Wonka visits Loompaland, Wonka goes to their leader and offers a deal: “Look here, if you and all your people will come back to my country and live in my factory, you can have all the cacao beans you want… I’ll even pay your wages in cacao beans if you wish” (70).  This lopsided deal whereby the Oompa-Loompas leave their native region and agree to work in exchange for cacao beans is reminiscent of the fraudulent deals colonist made with the aboriginal peoples of the Americas, exchanging worthless trinkets for land with peoples who had no concept of property.  In treating Oompa-Loompas like galley slaves and making duplicitous deals with them like European colonists did with aboriginal people, Wonka is framed as the worst kind of imperialist.

 

 

Actress Julia Winter as Veruca Salt int he 2005 film adaptation.

Actress Julia Winter as Veruca Salt int he 2005 film adaptation.

The deal Wonka sets up with the Oompa-Loompa’s makes them little different than indentured servants, but the rhetoric employed by Wonka suggests that it is worse even than that, aligning Oompa-Loompas with Africans forced into slavery in the Americas.  When Wonka first speaks of them, he refers to them as ‘my workers’ (60), using a possessive pronouns.  Though people may often use a possessive pronoun in such instances without intending to imply ownership, Wonka’s rhetoric suggests this was the intent as he states that the Oompa-Loompas were “Imported direct from Lommpaland” (68).  If Wonka were speaking of people he saw as autonomous, it would have been appropriate to state that they had emigrated to America to work at his factory, but he instead opts to use the word ‘imported’, suggesting not that they traveled, but that they were shipped as though they were property.  This view of the Oompa-Loompas as property is reinforced by Vercua Salt (not to be confused with Veruca Salt), one of the children that tours Wonka’s chocolate factory, states that she wants an Oompa-Loompa (71).  One might assume that the appropriate response would be to tell Veruca that the Oompa-Loompas are people and cannot be bought and sold.  However, Wonka does not deny this as a viable option, though he does later refuse to sell her a squirrel (111).  Wonka clearly sees the Oompa-Loompas as property, through both his rhetoric, and the absence of opposition to the proposition of selling them, reinforcing the notion that Wonka’s relationship with the Oompa-Loompas is analogous to a relationship between colonizer and colonized, or perhaps more appropriately, slave driver and slave.

 

Gene Wilder and a cast of Oompa-Loompas from the 1971 film adaptation of the novel.

Gene Wilder and a cast of Oompa-Loompas from the 1971 film adaptation of the novel.

This link between slavery and the Oompa-Loompas is reinforced through some curious instances of dialogue.  In one scene, Wonka mentions that he has a room of whips.  When Veruca asks what the purpose of the whips is, Dahl allows young readers to find humour in a play on words, suggesting that whips are for whipping whip cream (86).  For adult readers who are aware of the historical uses of whips, this scene is much darker.  The only people on whom whips could be used in the factory are the Ooompa-Loompas, and given that their only role is as workers, the only reason for whipping them would be to make them work harder.  The only logical reason for the presence of the whips, then, is to use them to abuse Oompa-Loompa, which further reinforces the link between the Ooompa-Loompas and the Africans who were forced into slavery in the Americas and were frequently whipped into submission.  Unless somebody were to read the novel as metaphorical erotica, with Wonka adopting the role of a prototypical Christian Grey, it seems clear that the whips are used as a means of oppression and abuse.  The theft of Africans from their home land is called upon when Wonka offers an analogy to the ‘whip’ word play, suggesting that “a poached egg isn’t a poached egg unless it’s been stolen from the woods in the dead of night” (86), drawing on the idea theft and unlawfully taking something.  The link with Africa is further underpinned with Wonka’s description of Loompaland, which he describes as “a terrible country” that is “Nothing but thick jungles” (69).   This calls upon the rhetoric of the ‘dark continent’ and the negative stereotypes projected by the West onto Africa.  Though many may be tempted to resist such a reading due to the nostalgia attached to the novel, it seems clear that Dahl made a concerted effort to make the link between Wonka and colonial and imperialist powers as overt as possible for adult readers.

 

CAPITALISTS

 

Johnny Depp, as captain of industry Wily Wonka.

Johnny Depp, as captain of industry Wily Wonka.

As central to Dahl’s attack on colonialism, is his attack on capitalism, which is best exemplified by the disparity between America’s destitute working class and well-to-do captains of industry and upper-middle class.  This disparity is perhaps most noticeable in the contrast between Augustus Gloop and the titular character.  Charlie is described as a “skinny little shrimp” throughout the novel (45, 56), and it is noted that “Charlie… went about from morning till night with a horrible empty feeling in” his stomach and that “although his father and mother often went without their own share of lunch or supper so that they could give it to him, it still wasn’t nearly enough for a growing boy” (5-6).  This sits in sharp contrast with the obese Augustus who is described as “so enormously fat [that] he looked as though he had been blown up with a powerful pump”” and had “Great flabby folds of fat” bulging “from every part of his body” and a face that looked “like a monstrous ball of dough” (21).  To see such an unhealthy degree of excess in the face of such extreme poverty is disturbing, to say the least, but becomes even more so when Charlie is juxtaposed with the owner of a candy shop, who like Augustus is described as obese: “The man behind the counter looked fat and well fed.  He had big lips and fat cheeks and a very fat neck” (43).  The fact that so many live in excess with others living in poverty, demonstrates the stark degree of the wealth gap, a gap that has tragically increased since the time of the novel’s publication in 1964.

 

Helena Bonham Carter, star of the 2005 film adaption of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Helena Bonham Carter, star of the 2005 film adaption of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

It is not only dietary needs that see such a great discrepancy between the working and ruling classes as Charlie’s wardrobe seems to be lacking as well.  When waiting to enter Wonka’s sweet sweat shop, it is noted that Charlie is not wearing a jacket “in… cold weather” and that Veruca Salt is wearing an expensive “silver mink coat” (56).  Though one does not need mink to keep warm, Veruca’s parents spent an excessive amount of money to buy their daughter a mink coat, the cost of which could have put warm jackets on a score of children like Charlie.  The divergence between the two groups is also manifest in terms of opportunity. Though Charlie’s grandmother holds onto the myth that Charlie has “as much chance as anybody else” (21), this is not the case.  Veruca’s father buys half a million chocolate bars to secure a golden ticket to Wonka’s sweat shop, and Augustus eats scores of chocolate bars each day, while Charlie only had two chocolate bars and was only able to buy the chocolate bar with the winning golden ticket because he was lucky enough to find a dollar bill.  This discrepancy in opportunity is analogous with the lack of opportunity offered to the working classes.  Where the wealthy have the capital to buy any number of opportunities (get confirmation on this from George ‘Dubya’ Bush, Mitt Romney and Donald Trump), the impoverished must rely on good fortune, like the lottery, to obtain any form of security.  This lack of opportunity extends to other peoples as well as even though the contest Wonka held claimed that anybody from “any country in the world” could win (20), all the winners are English speaking Caucasians.  The fact that only one of the five children who won are members of the working class, despite the fact that the working class makes up the overwhelming majority of the nation’s population, mirrors stats that suggest that the highest grossing 20% of America’s population owns more than 80% of the country’s wealth.

 

 

JackAlbertson

Jack Albertson, who played Charlie’s Grandpa Joe in the 1971 film adaptation.

Aside from the wealth gap, the laisesez-faire approach to economics praised by capitalists serves to create dangerous workplaces.  Throughout the novel, there are a number of workplace accidents, including a near drowning (73), skin discoloration and severe bloating, (98), the near incineration of a child and her parents (113-116), and the shrinking of a youth (134).  Appropriate safety guards and protocol would have prevented all of the accidents, but Wonka’s factory has no government oversight.  Likewise, when he is in an elevator with several people, he expresses concern about potential accidents: “I only hope no one’s using the other elevator at this moment… The one that goes the opposite way on the same track as this one.”  One of the passengers questions Wonka about this: “You mean we might have a collision?”  His response is that he’s “always been lucky so far” (123), demonstrating that he is aware of the safety hazard, but would rather rely on luck than implement preventative measures.  Wonka takes this approach outside of the factory, taking his flying elevator out of the building and crashing it into Charlie’s house, promoting Charlie’s grandmother to ask “Who is this crazy man” and noting that Wonka “could have killed [them] all” (154).  Without government oversight, Wonka is able to run a sweat shop with no safety protocols, leading to any number of injuries and near misses but facing no consequences.

 

Gene Wilder, as Willy Wonka.

Gene Wilder, as Willy Wonka.

Wonka is also the prototypical businessman in that he often relies on bad science and misinformation to avoid accountability for his dangerous products, paralleling the manner in which tobacco and oil companies have lied about their products.  In one scene, Wonka notes that chewing gum is disgusting, to which Mike Teavee, one of the children, responds with a question: “If you think gum is so disgusting… why do you make it in your factory?”  Rather than explain his overt hypocrisy, Wonka feigns a lack of understanding, telling Mike that he wishes the youth “wouldn’t mumble” (103).  Wonka’s approach to gum sounds like a tobacconist who tells his daughter not to smoke, but is more than happy to push the product on those he doesn’t know.  Wonka repeats this approach after explaining the ‘science’ behind his ‘television’ chocolate bar.  Mike notes that Wonka’s explanation of television isn’t accurate, much like Clair Cameron Patterson argued that the science indicated lead in gasoline was poisonous, despite the fact that the likes of Robert A. Kehoe misrepresented the science to support the people who paid for his funding.  Wonka, rather than addressing the science question, opts to tell Mike that though a nice boy, he talks too much (126-7), refusing to address the actual science of the issue, much like oil companies.  Wonka takes the same approach when questioned about the ‘snozzberries’ he’s included in a recipe, and like a company hoping to evade the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), he responds only by telling Mike to stop mumbling.  Wonka seems like the companies who don’t want to include their sugar content of their products, or companies that want to misguide consumers about their content, or vitamin companies who aren’t forthcoming about their products’ content.  And the fact that Wonka tests his ‘food’ on Oompa-Loompa suggests that he is the most ruthless of capitalists, willing to test his potentially dangerous products on human consumers, like medical companies who push pills on people without properly testing them, sometimes with inhumane results.  Dahl’s construction of Wonka, though perhaps endearing to children who do not understand the implications of his business practices, is clearly a construction of all that is wrong with capitalism and is emblematic of why regulations are needed.

 

ECOCRITICISM

 

Deep Roy, who plays ALL of the Ommpa-Loompas in the 2005 film adaptation.

Deep Roy, who plays ALL of the Ommpa-Loompas in the 2005 film adaptation.

Wonka’s saving grace his is ecocritical approach to business.  Wonka’s ‘factory’, is the antithesis of a traditional factory.  Most manufacturing facilities are defined by their cold and mechanical design, filled with metal and machines.  Wonka, though, notes that he “can’t abide ugliness in factories” (63), and so creates a factory that rejects the confines of traditional factories. In place of robots and machines, he has “Graceful trees and bushes… growing along… riverbanks” (64).  Dahl ensures that the reader notes the contrast in this, having Wonka ask his visitors about his design: “And my lovely bushes?  Don’t you think they look pretty?  I told you I hated ugliness” (66).  The factory is even immersed in the earth, dug deep into the ground, rather than simply sitting on top.  This makes the factory even more immersive with nature.  The omniscient narrator reinforces this link through ecological metaphor, noting that the factory “was like a gigantic rabbit warren” (62), encouraging the reader to view the factory as a place that mirrors and works in concert with the natural realm.  Wonka even takes lessons from nature, creating a chocolate water fall that the process through which nature cleans water might be used to improve the quality of his chocolate.  This ecocritical approach also comes through in Wonka’s rhetoric.  Wonka, for instance, uses ecological metaphor to enhance his language and facilitate understanding.  In one such instance, he says that “The children are disappearing like rabbits” (118), comparing the human world with the natural world.  Wonka’s eco-inspired building design seems like forward thinking on the surface (or rather below the surface), but his other business practices, coupled with the fact that his business model is rooted in excessive consumption, undermines any potential progressive component of Wonka’s practices.

 

OBLIGATORY CONCLUSION

 

charlieandthechocolatefactoryThere are some who are resistant to anything more than a surface reading, most especially when it comes to what they perceive as a sacred piece of nostalgia like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  Some do not wish to believe that the reading they’ve held of such a work for literally decades, might not be complete.  But as is the case with many creative minds who write children’s fiction, most works have something deeper than a surface reading.  Theodore Giesel (affectionately known as Dr. Seuss) incorporated conversation about the Cold War in works like The Butter Battle Book, whilst Hans Augusto and Margaret Rey created a narrative analogous to a slave narrative with their classic Curious George series.  Dahl is no less talented a mind than his contemporaries.  Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a layered work that employs a childlike imagination to create a fascinating world and narrative that delivers an obvious moral lessons about excess that any child can pull out of the book, but there is more to it than that.  Dahl offers striking and precise criticism about colonialism and imperialism, whilst demonstrating how oppression of both are linked with the flaws of the capitalist systems.  Dahl’s ecocritical undertones, though not as prevalent as his commentary on colonialism and capitalism, serves to enhance the work despite the fact that they are undermined by Wonka’s covert sinister nature.  The book is a template of what children’s literature should aim to be: something that encourages children to embrace their imagination, whilst serving to challenge adult readers to deal with their political and economic realities.

 

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Works Cited:

Dahl, Roald.  Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  Puffin Books. New York.  1964.

 

 

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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