Novel November

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

by Roald Dahl

Reading Review by Michael Channing

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

Pretty much everyone knows this book, having either read it or watched one or both movie adaptations. If you're just now surfacing from the bomb shelter you locked yourself in back in the early sixties, and for some reason this is the first site you happen upon while exploring this magic series of tubes called the internet, then let me first advise you not to ask the magic box anything about the most recent U.S. election, and then let me tell you a little about this book. I hope you can find a copy to take with you back into the bomb shelter after you fail to follow my first piece of advice.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is the story of a poor little boy named Charlie Bucket. He and his parents and two sets of grandparents all live with one bed between them in a house that is full of holes and cold drafts. The bomb shelter you've been living in for the last fifty-something years is probably a nicer abode than the Bucket house. You probably stocked it with better food, too. The one spot of joy in Charlie's life is the Willy Wonka candy factory just down the street. He stops at the locked gate twice a day on his way to and from school to sniff the sweet-flavored air puffing out from the factory. The gates have been locked for as long as Charlie can remember, Willy Wonka having fired all his employees and disappeared from the public eye years ago. But someone is working there. Shipments go out every morning. Who are the tiny figures sometimes seen silhouetted in the windows? Anyway, one day, out of the blue, there's an announcement in the papers that hidden inside five otherwise regular Wonka candy bars are five Golden Tickets granting five lucky children a lifetime supply of candy and a tour of the fantabulous and magicalicious factory by none other than Willy Wonka himself. The world loses its collective mind, much like it did just before you sealed yourself in your underground concrete bunker, and people buy Wonka bars by the boxful, hoping to grab one of the Golden Tickets. One after another, Charlie watches, downhearted, as the Tickets are snatched up by the absolute worst children. We see a gluttonous boy who eats fifty bars a day, a girl who chews gum non-stop and mouths off to her parents, a rich girl who gets everything she wants and wants to have everything, and a boy addicted to TV who lives vicariously through gangsters and cowboys. None of them deserve their Tickets, and the book goes out of its way to highlight their faults and make them as loathsome as possible. The book also does its best to make us root for Charlie, just short of having him perform an actual miracle. He suffers starvation, yet he offers his birthday chocolate bar to the rest of his family. He respects his grandparents and listens attentively to their stories. He's just the best, and you really want him to get one of the Golden Tickets. So of course he does. He finds a dollar bill--a whopping amount of money at the time but hardly worth anything nowadays--buys a couple of chocolate bars for himself (a small bit of selfishness we are willing to forgive), and low and behold there's the golden foil with directions to meet at the gates of the Wonka factory on a certain date.

There is an awful lot of manipulation going on in this book. Some of it quite blatant. The narrator actually calls Charlie "our hero" and describes the gluttonous boy in the most disgusting and hideous manner. More subtly, once the children enter the chocolate factory, Wonka leads them to areas he knows are sure to tempt their specific character traits. The reader probably won't catch on to the fact that Wonka actually wants the children to fail, at least not at first. But eventually you wonder why the tour stopped to view the creation of a single stick of gum, a defective stick of gum at that. Does the gum-chewing girl ignore instructions not to test the gum? Of course she does, and Wonka knew she would. If one of the kids had had a thing for cow-tipping, I'm sure the tour would have included the room for cows that give chocolate milk, and some poor child would have been whimsically crushed by a falling bovine. Since Wonka cherry-picks the wonders to lead the children into temptation, does he have a trap in store for Charlie? Are the rooms we visit and make it out of without losing any of the party meant to entice Charlie over to the naughty side? It doesn't matter since he was predestined from the start to outlast the wretched, selfish brats. See what I'm saying about manipulation? The anticipation of the book lies not in whether or not the kids who aren't Charlie will get their comeuppance, but in how gruesome that retribution will be.

Some may wince at the disregard Wonka has for the children's safety. He greets their possible deaths and dismemberment with outright glee at times. But to the kids reading the book, the horrible "accidents" all make perfect sense. When you're a kid, you just know that bad people all meet terrible fates, and the good boys and girls of the world are rewarded with candy and money and ponies. That's what Charlie and the Chocolate Factory reinforces. Live by the rules, and you reap great rewards; disobey and get sent to your own personal version of Hell. Maybe that's why this book has been so popular all these decades. We read it as kids, and it tells us what we already know, then as adults, surrounded by war and lying politicians and taxes and Bee Gees records, you relive fond memories of a story in which honesty and humility overcome greed and selfishness.

Listen. There was no nuclear war, but a lot of ugly things have happened in the past fifty years. The Augustus Gloops and Veruca Salts of the world have gotten rich off being terrible and self-centered. They've taken over everything. Even the White House. So grab a copy of this book and keep it close to your heart. I can understand you wanting to go back underground, though all your TaB and Twinkies have probably gone stale by now. Just remember, there is a place where the good guys win and bad people get tossed down garbage chutes. The chocolate there is the sweetest you'll ever taste and the hard candies last forever. It may be a land of pure imagination, but you can go there any time you wish.

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