A poor young boy. A factory brimming with dangerous machinery and strange creatures. An eccentric candy maker who puts children in peril with no oversight whatsoever.
It’s (amazingly) not a horror story. It’s one of the most beloved children’s classics of all time, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The story of Charlie Bucket and Willy Wonka has inspired films, musicals, theme park rides, and plenty of controversy over the past 60-odd years. At the heart of it all is a sweet story about the magic of imagination and a very special little boy. Let’s talk about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and what we can learn from it.
Read to the end for a special announcement…
The Story of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
If you’ve somehow managed to live to your current age without ever reading the 1964 children’s novel, or seeing either the 1971 adaptation starring Gene Wilder or the 2005 adaptation starring Johny Depp, here’s the gist:
Charlie Bucket is a kind young boy living with his mother, father, and four bedridden grandparents in extreme poverty. His favorite thing in the world is chocolate, but the family can only afford to buy him a bar once a year on his birthday. This is especially painful because Charlie just so happens to live within sniffing-distance of the most wondrous chocolate factory in the world—the great Willy Wonka’s.
One day, Wonka announces that he has hidden five golden tickets inside five ordinary bars of chocolate. The children who find them will be invited to tour the factory and will be sent home with a lifetime supply of chocolate. A mad frenzy ensues, with millions upon millions of bars being snapped up in search of tickets. (Wonka was both a brilliant chocolatier and marketer.)
The first four tickets are found by four repulsive children, but the fifth finds its way to the hands of our own sweet Charlie, who deserves some luck after a short life of hunger and cold. He is allowed to bring one adult with him. Bafflingly, his Grandpa Joe, who has been bedridden for decades, “miraculously” gets up and is able to go with Charlie.
(Grandpa Joe is a grifter and no one can convince me otherwise. He was happy to lay in bed for years while Mr. Bucket struggled to feed six adults and a small child. But when there’s something fun to do, he’s a-ok? Get your ass back in bed, Joe, or get a GD job.)
Upon arrival, the five children and their guardians meet the great man himself and begin their tour through the factory’s wonders. There’s an enormous chocolate river, magical gum, hair toffees (which cause the growth of lustrous locks), hard candies that never disappear, and much more. Along the way, the bad children are picked off from the group one by one, through their own refusal to listen to Mr. Wonka and/or their parents. (They’re not killed, but each leaves dramatically changed from when they arrived.)
In the end, only Charlie and Grandpa Joe remain. At this point, Mr. Wonka explains the real purpose for the contest—to find a successor to follow in his footsteps. He is determined to leave his wonderful factory to a child with the imagination necessary to continue his work. Wonka plans to share all of his secrets and teach him everything he knows. In the end, Charlie wins a delightful future for himself and his family, all by being a good person.
So what are we—or our inner nine-year-olds—supposed to draw from all this punishment and reward?
Bad Children Come from Bad Parenting
In the nature vs. nurture debate, Dahl comes down hard on the side of nurture.
Throughout the book and films, we see all the children (except Charlie) behaving poorly. They’re selfish and rude, ignoring their parents and never punished for it. Again and again, Dahl shifts the blame for this behavior from the kids themselves to bad parenting.
The overindulgent Mr. Salt buys Veruca whatever she wants, and Mrs. Gloop actually encourages Augustus’ bad behavior. . The Teavees barely parent their son Mike at all, instead letting him sit in front of the television all day. And Violet’s mother, while disapproving of Violet’s gum-chewing, implements no consequences for her actions. Each meets an unpleasant fate, which their own parents set in motion through their lack of boundaries and consequences.
What We Desire Most Can Be Our Undoing
Is it poetic justice? Karma? A “be careful what you wish for” allegory?
Whatever you call it, each of the four bad kids is done in by the thing they desire most. For Violet, it’s gum. For Augustus, it’s chocolate. For Mike, it’s television. And for Veruca, it’s greed in general (since what she wants most is whatever she happens to see.)
But Charlie—while he loves chocolate—doesn’t exhibit the same selfish desires. He refuses to take extra food from his family. He offers to share his birthday chocolate with them all. What he wants most is a happy, healthy family. And in the end, because his desires are unselfish, that future becomes possible for him and the rest of the Buckets.
Rewards Should Go to the Most Deserving
Throughout most of Roald Dahl’s books, including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, Matilda, and The BFG, children are rewarded for being good in the face of adversity. Their ability to retain their sweetness and generosity—often in the face of horrible treatment by the adults in their lives—leads them to great rewards.
It’s a complicated lesson. On one hand, there is value in teaching children that kindness and selflessness are important traits in our heroes. Charlie Bucket is certainly a better role model than, say, a billionaire egotist like Tony Stark.
On the other hand, as we grow up we learn that this lesson is unfortunately untrue. Good things do not always happen to good people, and bad people are often rewarded. Is it better to teach children the truth or the lie? This is a question for smarter people than this writer.
There is Magic in Imagination
Even before Charlie visits the factory, the Bucket family gathers around Grandpa Joe every night to hear his stories. This brief half-hour helps Charlie to exercise his imagination and forget his hunger. When he has so little to hold on to, his imagination helps him to cope with the difficulties of his life.
In the 1971 film, Wonka sings:
Come with me
And you’ll be
In a world of pure imagination…
Everything in his magnificent factory has sprung from the great man’s wild imagination. Charlie’s entire reward is the product of Wonka’s dreams. By giving the factory to Charlie, he gives him the tools to make his own imaginings a reality.
How’s Your Imagination Doing?
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