Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

by Roald Dahl

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Social Concerns / Themes

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The principal controversy over Charlie and the Chocolate Factory focuses on the Oompa-Loompas, a seemingly cheerful tribe from an ill-defined part of the world called Loompaland. There, they hide in tree houses, afraid of being eaten by hornswogglers, snozzwangers, and whangdoodles. They are half-starved when Willy Wonka finds them and brings them to work in his chocolate factory. They are a cheerful people who seem quite happy on their diet of chocolate, but some critics object to the way they are treated. For instance, in one scene, Oompa-Loompas row a boat on a river of chocolate, as if they were galley slaves. In another scene, Wonka casually explains that he has experimented on Oompa-Loompas, turning some into giant berries. The Oompa-Loompas are cute and childlike, making them appealing to youngsters, but their treatment, especially as objects of experimentation, sometimes seems cruel or callous.

Critics have also expressed the opinion that Dahl's depiction of poverty in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is phony, but this seems a less valid objection. The novel is written like a long fairy tale, and, as is typical of fairy tales, it uses symbolism mixed with whimsy to get its point across. The household of Charlie Bucket is certainly weird, with his four grandparents jammed into one bed for the last twenty years, and his father's job of screwing caps onto tubes of toothpaste is outlandish, but these are elements of fairy tale, not real life.

The point is not that Charlie's father has a silly job but that he has a poorly paying menial job. When he loses his job and the family nearly starves, their poor meals echo those found in other fairy tales, such as "Beauty and the Beast," in which a rich man loses everything to a series of disasters and then must cope with twelve children. Furthermore, the cabbage-and-potato meals of the Buckets may seem ridiculous to well-fed critics, but many real-life poor people have been forced to subsist on less.

When Charlie wins a tour of Wonka's chocolate factory, his poverty stands in marked contrast to the abundance enjoyed by the other contest winners; these children have televisions, toys, and good things to eat. They are hopelessly spoiled but are unaware of how their selfishness harms others or themselves. Charlie, who has almost nothing, enjoys every minute of his tour of the factory, while the other children are too busy demanding to be entertained to enjoy anything. Charlie, who is grateful for what Wonka gives him, is justly rewarded, while each of the self-centered children gets his "just desserts."

Additional Commentary

Over the years, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has been accused of being vulgar, sadistic, subversive, ageist, and racist. Of all these accusations, how ever, the charge of racism is the most serious. The charge, of course, has to do with the portrayal of the Oompa-Loompas as black pygmies from Africa. Dahl has commented that it hadn't occurred to him that his depiction of the Oompa- Loompas was racist. But after critics pointed out that all of the workers were black, he revised the book. Dahl would prefer that people read the revised edition, which is the only edition that is now in print. However, there are countless copies of the original version in circulation.

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