Although the main setting of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a magical confectionery, it begins in a contemporary industrial area known simply as "a great town." Because Dahl never mentions the city's name or location, he gives a sense of universality to the story. It could be taking place in practically any large city in England or America. The city, however, has one distinguishing characteristic: it is the home of Wonka's factory.
From the outside, Wonka's Factory looks much like any other factory, but the interior is fantastic. The city's residents are unaware that most of the factory lies underground, consisting of winding tunnels and various chambers. The Chocolate Room, for example, resembles an outdoor park complete with a beautiful waterfall; but the cascading liquid is actually melted chocolate. Another chamber is called the Inventing Room. Crammed with pipes, pots, and odd machines, it is a center of activity. Although each chamber is different, a sensual quality pervades the entire factory. It's a place where practically everything tastes, smells, and looks good.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is an allegorical fantasy; that is, its characters are symbolic and the action takes place in an imaginary world. There is not much of a plot; the action moves from one moral point to the next, and the only suspense is anticipating how each bad child will be rewarded. The novel's appeal is primarily in its fantasy. Jean Russell notes that Dahl has "an inventive imagination that is totally child-centered." Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is an example of his child-centered imagination at work. The appealing elements are: a good, intelligent child for a hero; candy as a special pleasure; a fun and sympathetic grandfather; and a childlike Willy Wonka, who makes the best candy in the world. These elements are united by the imaginative world in which they are placed.
In Dahl's fantasy world, anything can happen. The factory itself is a wonderland devoted to making foods that will make people happy, with a chocolate river, a candy boat, and seemingly endless rooms filled with wonders scattered through long tunnels and corridors. The success of the story depends on the wonders being fully satisfying, and this they are. Each chapter rewards readers with a new and interesting idea, creature, or invention.
Among adults, there is no general agreement as to the book's literary merits. Some opponents of the book consider it one of the most tasteless books ever written for children. Others, however, argue that the book should be read as a modern fairy tale, within a tradition in which the characters are stereotypes and violence and ruthless punishments are taken for granted.
Dahl does, in fact, draw on that tradition. He not only borrows the forms of violence that run through many fairy tales, but he uses the types of characters found in these tales. As Bruno Bettelheim points out in The Uses of Enchantment, fairy tale characters are "either good or bad, nothing in between."
It may be hard to separate discussion of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory from the old controversy generated in 1972 by Eleanor Cameron's attack on it, but the novel offers much more for discussion than just a rehashing of old complaints. If a discussion group is interested in investigating Cameron's accusations, a place to start would be comparing the present-day edition, with the supposedly offensive parts revised, with the original edition. The origin and traits of the Oompa-Loompas was somewhat modified. Were these modifications necessary? Were they successful in removing the objectionable parts of the novel? Which version of the novel makes better reading? A danger, here, is that a discussion could shift its focus from the novel to what is or is not offensive in literature, which with just a little push could result in a free-for-all in which objectivity is lost and group members end up lost in an argument over who has better taste in reading.
A discussion leader, if there is one, would do well to lead the group into matters of theme, style, and structure. As a modern fairy tale, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory may be seen as an expression of its audience's desires. Just as medieval folk tales told of warm beds, plenty of food, and comfortable homes (often castles), for an audience that yearned for these things, so too might Charlie and the Chocolate Factory address its young audience's desires for moral certitude, compassion, and sweets. Its style is representative of the kind of free-association often found in fairy tales and with the qualities of dreams — bedridden for twenty years, an elderly man gets up and starts walking around just fine, thank you; people have jobs screwing on toothpaste-tube caps (well, somebody has to do it!); and candy factories can be wonderlands devoted to the mysteries and challenges of being young. Its structure rambles; the fun is in being there, inside the world's most mysterious candy factory, and experiencing the wonders it holds. Hours of discussion could be devoted to the novel's symbolism, to its moralistic tone, and to its sometimes gentle, sometimes outrageous humor (there goes another bad nut, down the hole)!
1. A striking aspect of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is its moralizing. Children in general recognize the morals and understand their meaning, but why would they love a book that moralizes at them page after page? The novel could be no more than a particularly annoying adult wagging his or her finger at the children and shouting, "Don't be a pig! Leave some for others! Don't chew gum while you speak! Don't watch TV all the time! Other people have rights, too!" Indeed, Wonka and the Oompa-Loompas spend much of the book telling children what they should and should not do. Yet, children love this book. In many bookstores children's books can be divided into two groups. Some are meant for children to buy for themselves, others are...
1. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has been called a modern fairy tale. What characteristics does it have in common with traditional fairy tales?
2. Throughout the book, Dahl coins words and employs puns. Why does he do this? Does this type of word play enhance the story?
3. In some ways, Dahl is following in the footsteps of Lewis Carroll (1832- 1898) and Edward Lear (1812-1888). Compare Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to Carroll's Alice books or Lear's nonsense poetry. What similarities and differences do you see?
4. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has a sensual quality to it. How does Dahl work the five senses into the story? Which of the senses does he refer to most...
C. S. Lewis argued that in fairy tales justice should be sure and clear, and that violence is appropriate even in fairy tales for children. Dahl seems to agree with this view. Although he kills no one — and even the bad children seem much improved by their experiences — the children meet with sudden and sometimes violent punishments for their misbehavior — Augustus is sucked through pipes, and Veruca is dropped into a garbage hole. This is one sign that Dahl is writing in the fairy tale tradition. The other signs are not quite as obvious. By setting the story in the present, in a factory town, Dahl modernizes the fairy tale form. Willy Wonka plays the role of a magical figure — a fairy queen, a magician, an elf — who...
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was made into a film which was released in 1971. The film is called Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and it stars Gene Wilder as Wonka. Dahl wrote the screenplay, and it is quite true to the book. In the film, however, Charlie plays a more active role than he does in the book.
In 1972 Dahl published a sequel to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory entitled Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. This factory features Charlie, his family, and Willy Wonka, but most of the story takes place in outer space rather than in the chocolate factory. Unlike the first Charlie book, the sequel does not have a strong plot. This gives it an episodic quality that becomes...
Bouchard, Lois Kalb. "A New Look at Old Favorites: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." In The Black American in Books For Children, edited by Donnarae MacCann and Gloria Woodard. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1972. Bouchard explains why she feels the first version of the book is racist.
Cameron, Eleanor. "McLuhan, Youth and Literature." Horn Book 48 (October 1972): 433-440. This article contains Cameron's first attack on the book.
"A Question of Taste." Children's Literature in Education (Summer 1976): 59-63. Cameron argues that the book is tasteless.
Campbell, Alasdair. "Children's Writers: Roald Dahl." The School Librarian (June 1981): 108-114. Campbell...