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."
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 invites some ordinary people into his magical fairyland. In the fairyland, magic abounds. People can be turned into grapes or shrunk into tiny beings. Magical figures are everywhere. The Oompa-Loompas are like elves, the magical people who...
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