The Story: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory focuses on the simple, humble Charlie Bucket who lives in a dilapidated house with his mother, father, and grandparents. Yet Charlie’s town isn’t exactly ordinary as it’s home to Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, the most famous candy-making business in the world. But that’s nowhere half as interesting as its owner, Mr. Willy Wonka, an eccentric man with a big heart. After sealing his factory’s doors for what was assumed to be forever, the factory is now in full operation and Wonka decides to invite five lucky finders of five golden tickets, tucked away inside his famous chocolate bars, to come for a grand tour. Charlie would love a chance to see the factory his Grandpa Joe has always told him about, but luck has never been on Charlie’s side. Until a random chance lands Charlie in a place of sweet candy and even sweeter dreams.
My Take: Honestly, if you hate Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, you have no heart or even a soul. It’s sweet without being saccharine, powerful without being preachy, cheeky without being crass, and the world Dahl creates is compelling and full of pure innovation (as well as imagination!).
Character-wise, this novel has a fairly large cast considering its size, but it’s easy to keep track of everyone because most of the characters have very distinct personalities. Charlie, on whom the novel focuses almost exclusively, is a champion for underdogs everywhere. While he may not have many negative traits, his lack of self-confidence actually serves as his fatal flaw. Charlie doesn’t think he’s as good as the other children who receive trips inside the factory but he also doesn’t believe he’s worthless. He’s a good mix of humility and low personal expectations, so he’s a nicely balanced, and very human, protagonist.
Granted, the other child characters are tropes and aren’t developed beyond this basic scope. Augustus Gloop is greedy, Veruca Salt is a spoiled brat, Violet Beauregarde is egotistical, and Mike Teavee is obsessive and lazy. But Dahl purposely uses them as foils to make a point. Rather than employing straight exposition to condemn said vices, Dahl allows these detestable kids to do the work for him. We’re not supposed to like them and they’re not supposed to be redeemed, so the fact that they stay static is okay. After all, this novel was written with kids in mind and the point is to detract them from the vices of greed, materialism, egoism, and mindless entertainment, and one good way to do that is to create characters who manifest these vices and not allow said characters to change so their bad behaviors and attitudes are aptly criticized and punished.
The world-building inside of Willy Wonka’s factory is sheer magnificence. I think if such a place existed, it would be flooded with curious on-lookers every day because who wouldn’t want to sneak a peek inside of such an awesome-sounding place! The factory is a world in and of itself with various levels to navigate and rooms to explore, not to mention the unique sweet treats that are created here. From lickable wallpaper, to ice cream that never melts, to even a three-course meal-flavored chewing gum, Wonka’s wonders never cease. It’s like a world within a world and part of what makes this novel fun to read is exploring the factory’s world, which unfolds slowly like a flower rather than explored in one giant infodump.
But the different types of candy aside, Wonka, for me, becomes my favorite character (alongside Charlie, of course). When reading the novel, it’s hard not to visualize him as either Gene Wilder or Johnny Depp, but if I’m being honest here, I’d have to say that I think Depp better captures Wonka’s eccentricities (as well as his fashion sense). (I know, I know – this is probably not going to be the popular opinion.) In any case, I tend to view Willy Wonka (his novel form) as a loose symbol for God and how he views his creation and the world. While he’s not a perfect metaphor, Willy Wonka is, first and foremost, a creator who loves his creation, pronounces it as “good,” and wants to share it with others. He is kind to his workers, the Oompa Loompas, and actually improves their lot in life by giving them a place to sleep and work as well as pay them in chocolate, which they love.
More importantly perhaps, Wonka possesses a child-like wonder at the world and exudes a spirit of joy yet he’s neither naive nor foolish. He has no tolerance for tomfoolery, rule-breaking, or rudeness. Hence, each of the bad children are punished as is fitting their crimes and Wonka doesn’t gloss over their parents’ terrible influence either. In his eyes, both parties – the child and the parents – are at fault for the child’s bad behavior. Thus, in a way, Wonka tries to teach the other children and their parents the consequences of their sins. In the end, it’s Charlie, the good soul, who wins the ultimate prize. Therefore, it’s the boy who retains a childlike heart and a love for Wonka’s world (and, by proxy, Wonka himself) who gets to enter into the kingdom, so to speak.
Now, I’ve read my share of kids books that were so sickeningly sweet they were hard to mentally digest. Honestly, such books should be kept on hand as first aid devices to induce vomiting. But all kidding aside, children’s books (at least for kids who are old enough to read on their own and/or have moved on from picture books) shouldn’t be 100% safe where characters never have anything bad happen to them or never contend with negative situations. While I’m against adding adult-level content or deeply serious situations into books for younger readers, there can be a good balance of upbeat, positive characters and events while not avoiding life’s darker moments though that might not (and perhaps shouldn’t) be the story’s focus.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, ironically enough, avoids the trap of being an overly sweet, goody-goody kids book. Dahl, to his credit, doesn’t insult his audiences here. The book is entertaining and challenging enough for young minds thanks to the innovative world of Wonka’s factory, and it can effectively hold the attention of adults due to its witty humor. Likewise, Dahl doesn’t downplay sad or serious situations yet manages to look on the bright side while inflicting justice upon evil-doers (or at least as evil as antagonists can get in a Dahl novel). In this book, Charlie’s home life is clearly sobering and Dahl pulls no punches when it comes to showing how the Buckets try to survive on a day-by-day basis and even face starvation, but they don’t wallow in despair and, in the end, are given a means of escape.
On the flip side of the coin, Dahl shows us that while the other children might be more secure financially and have easy access to food, treats, and anything else their hearts desire, that doesn’t make them morally good. Readers are compelled to root for Charlie because we want him to overcome his environment as well as serve as a morality lesson that good manners and wisdom win out over rudeness and bad attitudes. Thus, the ending is edifying without being cloying as virtue is praised and vice receives its just desserts.
Language – One or two PG-level profanities and some name-calling/backtalk from the naughty kids. But since their actions are never depicted as admirable and are openly condemned, young readers won’t be encouraged to imitate them.
Violence – There are some scenes of minor peril when some of the children get what they deserve (such as Augustus being sucked up into a pipe and Violet turning into a giant blueberry). But these are lesson moments for kids as they are depicted with humor, not maliciousness, and are far too bizarre to be realistic. Elsewhere, Mike brags about the violent shows he watches (but avoids graphic details) and wears toy guns (but never uses them).
Sexual Material – None. Some illustrations depict Augustus’ mother as a bosomy woman (though she’s covered up) but it’s nothing graphic.
Thematic Material – Charlie and his family live in poverty and, as a result, sometimes are shown going without meals just to stretch their resources. While this isn’t the book’s sole focus as the story eventually moves past it, some of the early chapters unabashedly depict the Buckets’ desperate circumstances.
This novel is for all ages and most readers will gobble it up in a single sitting. I love this story because it has a happy ending that isn’t syrupy sweet and its characters are both heart-warming and hilarious, depending whether they’re behaving rightly or rightfully bratty. It’s short, smart, funny, and touching without being too much of a good thing. The only downside? It just might make you hungry for something sweet!