Sticking Points: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, 1964, by Roald Dahl.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, 1971, Directed by Mel Stuart; Starring Gene Wilder.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, 2005, Directed by Tim Burton; Starring Johnny Depp.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: Pop-Up Book, by Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake, 2011.

When I was six years old, I had a babysitter who read us Roald Dahl each time she spent bedtime with us.  We started with The BFG and moved on to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  I remember clearly that when we finished the book, she rented the movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and brought a bar of Hershey’s chocolate to share. I was greedy with the chocolate—I remember thinking, or maybe even saying, only one bar?  It seemed so paltry compared to the wonders coming alive on the screen, but I now think I may have been missing the point.

Now a regular babysitter myself, I’ve started reading The BFG with one family, and with a two-year-old, yesterday, I had the chance to read aloud the pop-up version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  A condensed version of Dahl’s story, it simplified the complex and, at times, dark narrative for me and got me re-thinking the story as a parable about sins, and since the issue at hand is chocolate and candy, it appeared further that this book could be read as a fable about how to treat sugar and sweets.

My own six-year-old enjoyment of this story demonstrates the way it encapsulates the magic and excitement of sweets in the childhood imagination, and I think our sustained love and recent remaking of the movie suggests the larger cultural imagination in which it resonates.  Oh, to be let loose in Wonka’s chocolate waterfall room, madly picking sugary grasses and flowers!  Even the adult chaperones love it: this is evidence enough of how none of us are exempt from the allure of pure sweetness.  Where would you run first?  What would you eat?  The Golden-ticket winners, apart from Charlie, are much like many Americans and their children, as well as other Western dieters, reaching for sweets constantly, and without much reverence or self-control.  I think Charlie, and perhaps Willy Wonka himself, offer an alternative to this widespread model, in their relationship to the chocolate: for Charlie, a bar of chocolate is a truly rare, special, rich and filling treat, and for Wonka, it is a pure artistic creation, holding great power, danger, and magic.

As we pass through the factory gates with Golden Ticket in hand, taking in the mouth-wateringly chocolatey aroma, we may crave an indulgence of sweets of Gloopian proportions, the second we are given the chance.  Yet upon further reflection, the story provoked quite a different response in me.  In fact, I wonder whether children are ever afraid to eat sweets after seeing/reading it, with Veruca tossed out as a bad nut (and in the first movie, as a spoiled rotten egg), Augustus swallowed by the chocolate river and sucked up a tube, Mike, miniscule, diminished by television, and Violet rolled away as a blueberry to have the juice squeezed out of her.  I met an Italian man in Spain that reminded me so much of Gene Wilder’s Wonka that I had to tell him, and he wasn’t pleased: “that movie scared me as a child,” he said.  I remember the dark mood of certain scenes very vividly, as well, and though the second version is milder in some ways, Johnny Depp’s interpretation of his character was, to me, even creepier.  These dark corners of the bright factory are laden with what I now think has much to say to adults making food choices for themselves and their kids.

The Golden Ticket-winning children that succumb to the factory’s hazardous temptations can be likened to several of the Seven Deadly Sins.  It’s easy to see that Augustus Gloop embodies gluttony, and Mike Teavee sloth, as they do nothing but eat and watch TV, respectively.  The spoiled Veruca Salt clearly represents greed, and although she’s undeniably awful as well, it was hard for me to pinpoint which of the seven I’d assign to Violet Beauregarde.  Once I made this connection, it was easy to find other book/movie reviewers that had already developed the idea, and one of them, Mark Stokes,* thought Violet=pride.  Ah, yes, with her incessant talk about herself and her even more incessant gum-chewing.  An anonymous commenter on his blog, with whom I don’t quite agree, said that Charlie could be compared to the sin of envy, because he is so poor and wants more for himself.  Even when the other children win the tickets, Charlie and his family recognize and comment on how awful they are, rather than simply envying them, and find that in many of the cases, (such as Veruca’s father setting his factory workers to shelling candy bars in search of a ticket), their means of winning are corrupt and not admirable at all; there’s even one that turns out to be a fraud, opening the door for Charlie to find the last, true ticket.  It’s not that Charlie wants their tickets, but wants to find his own, in his own way, as he eventually does.

In his austere life, in poverty, up until the end of the story, I think Charlie is the virtuous counterpoint to the other children, modeling the Christian virtues (i.e. charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility), in his patient and humble obtainment of the ticket in to the factory (he finds a fifty-pence piece on the ground, buys one chocolate bar, and, at least at first, vows to give the rest to his mother.)  Stokes even says the chocolate plays “a sacramental role,” for Charlie, particularly in the scene where he shares his one birthday bar with his parents and four grandparents, though he himself “clearly deserves” it.  Not all of the deadly sins and heavenly virtues are relevant to this story (i.e. temperance, chastity, lust, and wrath—though how far from wrathful are Wonka and the Oompa Loompas? and how far from lust is the children’s approach to candy?), but that’s because it’s a children’s story.  It illustrates so fully how sweets are the vices we designate to children, (helping them practice craving and habituation), and the problematic ways their parents contribute to forming bad habits with these seemingly innocuous drugs.  Not to mention the illustrations of the idea that they actually can come to harm if they have access to them too much, with each of the horrible children meeting equally horrible fates, in their feverish pursuits of Wonka’s wonders, though they all make it home safely in the end.  Stokes says that Depp’s Wonka “can be seen as a God-like figure who opposes (and punishes) the proud, but gives grace to the humble (James 4:6).”  If we accepted that, I wonder if Charlie can be seen as the predestined owner of the factory, embodying the Protestant work ethic and other virtues as a visible sign of grace.

The factory and its resplendent wonders is bestowed to Charlie because he is able to regard its candy treats with true reverence.  He appreciates them, he isn’t greedy, prideful, or gluttonous with what Willy Wonka offers to him, refusing to capitalize on his trip inside factory for his own gain, (the anonymous commenter about envy says he finds his redemption when he gives back the gobstopper—in the movie—this subplot isn’t in the book, rather than reveal its secrets to Wonka’s competitors).  It’s pure poetic justice when the Bucket family moves to the factory forever, after living so near to it and smelling its delicious chocolate without being able to eat any, day after day, year after year.  Charlie eats his vegetables: his cabbage and cabbage soup for all those days and years, and so, when he wins the factory, it reads like a long-awaited, well-earned dessert.

I give Dahl a lot of credit for the way he fed the child imagination, and my babysitter, Margaret, a lot of credit for handing me the Golden Ticket into his world.  Stokes reminds me that Roald Dahl was a Catholic school boy, a taste-tester for Cadbury, and later an atheist.  Re-visiting this book raises further questions for me about the connections between eating, the Protestant work ethic, and morality in our collective regard, like what it means to consider gluttony sinful; what the designation of good and “bad for you,” foods has done for our relationship to sugar, and mine in particular.  And although this story still entices me with the power of chocolate, it kind of leaves me wanting some cabbage soup, saving the candy for those rare moments when I am truly able to appreciate it.

*“Reviews by Mark Stokes,” blog link: (http://hollywoodjesus.com/comments/stokes/2005/07/charlie-and-chocolate-factory.html)

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