By Jacob M. Held author of Roald Dahl and Philosophy
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Roald Dahl’s classic, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Whether it is the novel, the 1971 movie adaptation, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory starring Gene Wilder, or the 2005 adaptation starring Johnny Depp, since 1964 this story has been a part of so many children’s lives.
What always struck me about Charlie, was how dark it was, and this might’ve been its allure. Charlie is poor, his family is struggling, truly suffering. I mean the whole beginning of the book does nothing but draw out the suffering of the impoverished Buckets as well as any tale by Dickens could. There is no covering over the nature of reality in Dahl’s stories, life is hard, not all people are good, and it won’t always be okay in the end, or rather in the end you’ll need to figure out how to make it okay. In Dahl’s works we get to see the actual suffering many people go through, poverty, loss of parents, abuse, injury…and we get to see virtuous, decent people respond in praiseworthy ways, modeling for us how to react to an unjust world, with determination and integrity. As an adult and a parent this is why I appreciate Dahl, but for children it’s the story that matters, and Charlie is simple, simply brilliant.
The story offers so much food for thought, the idea of people getting their just deserts, from the gluttonous Gloop being done in by his appetite, to the other children and their vices leading to their sticky ends, to Charlie getting what he deserves, happiness. And it’s nice to hope, even if we know the world isn’t this way; there is no Willy Wonka waiting to insure that the wicked will be punished and the good will be rewarded in the end. (If you want to retort with: “What about God?” just remember that you are the one who just compared the omni-competent creator/ruler of all reality to a mad chocolatier, not me.) And then there is Willy Wonka himself. Perhaps eccentric, but what else would you call the music makers and the dreamers of the dreams. I always liked Willy Wonka. He seemed to be a truly self-possessed person, living by his own standards, and able to do so because his standards were so high, and his accomplishments so great, that who could deny him. As a child I longed to be that good. But alas, I live not in a candy factory with an army of little men to serve my every whim, but in the real world. I suppose I could still wear a top hat. But really, what’s the point without an army of little people doing my bidding.
As a philosopher I could, and have, unpacked all of this to find the deeper meaning in it. But as a parent, and as a reader, it always comes back to the story. Dahl creates good characters, not simply interesting, but decent: role models. As we follow them we follow in the footsteps of good people in bad situations, people we could be, responding to troubles, we could, and probably do, have. When you get to the end you’re satisfied, you see how good people can navigate a chaotic world. As a child you don’t need a philosopher to point out the lesson of the book, you know it, you feel it. If you’ve read Dahl, it’s transformed you. (If it didn’t transform you, you missed something.) As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Charlie, I can only hope we’ll continue to share him with our children. In a world where everything is ironic and too many people are privileged, spoiled, and soft we could use Charlie to teach us about decency, honesty, self-control, and empathy, especially since there are no squirrels (or geese) to make sure the bad nuts (or eggs) get tossed.
Jacob M. Held is associate professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at the University of Central Arkansas. He is the editor of Dr. Seuss and Philosophy: Oh, the Thinks You Can Think! R&L 2011.