Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is probably one of the most influential British children’s novels ever written. It’s a story that has had homage after homage in popular culture, and pretty much everybody has heard of the character, Willy Wonka. Though I never read the book as a child, I do enjoy Roald Dahl’s work, and it was one of those books that I felt I should try.
At the start, I loved it. Chocolate is delicious, and so much of the first half of the book is dedicated to how great chocolate is, and it talks about all kinds of delicious Willy Wonka inventions. Reading it, it’s easy to see that Roald Dahl must have loved chocolate himself. There’s a description of simply eating a chocolate bar at one point, and gosh, it makes me want to eat a chocolate bar. There’s also a chocolate river.
The second half, I enjoyed less so. It’s darkly funny throughout, but it has a preaching moralising aspect to it. The book’s protagonist, Charlie, goes on a tour of the chocolate factory along with a bunch of other kids. These other kids, while perhaps a little rude, all meet with a horrible fate as seemingly some kind of karmic retribution for their flaws… except their flaws are things like, they enjoy watching TV, or, they like to chew gum. Fortunately, none of them die, but gosh, it sure does feel a lot like Roald Dahl is just up on his soap box moaning about certain behaviours that frustrate him. It hasn’t really aged well at all and I just felt sad for the kids a lot of the time – even anxious for them.
The most uncomfortable thing is the Oompa Loompas. They survive in our popular culture and are thought of as these whimsical fantasy creatures… Unfortunately, their portrayal in the novel reads very much like colonialist exploitation, or even slavery. Indeed, I understand that Roald Dahl made changes to the book, because the first edition was even more problematic (even for it’s time), but even in this version, it’s hard for a progressive-minded adult not to feel weird about this.
There is a lot that I admire about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – the descriptions of food are great, and the factory itself is a wonderful and enchanting setting that really captures that childhood feeling of the world potentially containing endless possibilities. Plus it’s genuinely funny, even for adults and literary fans will enjoy seeing the origins of things like the golden ticket. The problem is that Roald Dahl pushes his belief too much, and those beliefs are pretty dodgy, so it does spoil the book quite a bit.