Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

by Roald Dahl

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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 meant for grownups to buy for children: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is one of those books children choose for themselves. Why? What makes its moralizing appealing?

2. Comparisons with the motion picture version of the novel can be illuminating of how fiction works and how it contrasts with a dramatic medium. The morals of the novel are pointedly present in the motion picture, with the Oompa-Loompas singing summaries of what each episode of the story is supposed to teach. The motion picture has a better organized plot than the novel. Is this necessary for the successful transfer of fiction to film? Why is it that fiction can succeed...

(This entire section contains 1190 words.)

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without much of a plot? What does the contrast suggest about the possibilities for fiction? Can fiction do what other literary media cannot?

3. The characterization of Wonka is a puzzler. One moment he is a remonstrative parent, the next a kindly candy maker, and the next a magician of frightening power. This fits in well with the dreamlike aspects of the narrative, but offers difficult challenges for analysis. Is Willy Wonka a well-fleshed character? Is he one-dimensional? Or is he something else, altogether?

4. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is packed with symbolism. What symbols in the book do children respond to? Are there any that children would miss? What makes the symbols (include here the factory itself) attractive to readers? No one should read the novel to be educated; it is for fun. So how do the symbols entertain? Are symbols not supposed to be the dull stuff of old textbooks?

5. How would you characterize the humor in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? Does it victimize any characters and through the characters any social groups? Or is the humor carefree?

6. Identify the fairy tale elements of Dahl's narrative. You might find it helpful to compare the novel to specific fairy tales. For instance, "Beauty and the Beast" shares symbols and themes in common with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The enchanted castle parallels the factory, full of amazing sights and lessons to be learned; the beast parallels Willy Wonka, magical characters both, whose domains reflect their wild, romantic natures, and who need the love of others; and Beauty parallels Charlie, each the readers surrogate, trapped in a strange world filled with mystery and danger. Other good fairy tales for comparison would include "Sleeping Beauty" and "Goldilocks and the Three Bears."

7. Adults may well be irritated by the novel's loose structure. Such a structure suits Dahl's purpose for writing a magical adventure in which sights, sounds, and sensations are more important than conflict. Are children similarly bothered by the structure? Is it just an annoyance to be put up with while enjoying the good aspects of the story, or might it be a reflection of what Jean Russell perceives as "an inventive imagination that is totally child-centered"? Does Dahl write in a style in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory that better suited to children than adults?

8. Is the novel good literature? That is, does it feature good characterization, well-developed themes, and in some way reflect the universal human condition? Are any of us Charlies, or Violet Beauregardes, or Veruca Salts, or one of the other characters? Are the difficulties they face universal ones?

9. When discussing a magical figure dealing with outsiders he has brought into his magical realm, it hard to avoid mentioning the ultimate such tale, that of Shakespeare's The Tempest. What plot elements do the novel and play have in common? Why does Prospero bring the people he does into his personal realm of mystery? Why does Wonka bring the people he does into his own realm of mystery? What does each figure hope to gain? What does each stand to loose? And what of Caleban and Ariel on the one hand and the Oompa-Loompas on the other? What do they share in common? The Tempest is a masterful depiction of forgiveness and reconciliation; is this what the motion picture version of Dahl's novel was reaching for with its climax? Does the novel do this, too?

10. Is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory an offensive, mean gathering of cliched tripe? Is it more complex than that? Is it something else, altogether?

Kirk H. Beetz


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