Two days ago, my son and I began to read Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at bedtime. It was the first full-length book I ever read, and I ended up reading it many times throughout my childhood. Now I am getting to share the book with my own son. I have decided to blog at regular intervals about what we both experience as we share the book together.
It seems important before anything else to say something about my own relationship to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. What I say shall, I suspect, help explain why sharing it with my own son is so significant to me.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was my favorite book as a child. The reasons why are a little hard to explain. I was a rather odd child. At least I felt odd. All children are probably odd, when you get right down to it, although more often than not we are made to feel like we shouldn’t have been. My oddity was that I was unabashedly morbid. From a very early age death felt like a clear and present reality to me. I felt like all around shadows of the dead lurked, shadows with stories they could tell if they wanted but never would. I felt surrounded by secrets that only the dead knew for sure. So when other children began to dream of what they would be when they grew up, they had dreams of becoming firefighters or policemen or the like. The first thing I ever wanted to be was a mortician. How else would I ever get to spend time with the dead? How else would they teach me what I needed to know? Certainly the world of bright colors and happy endings wasn’t the whole story.
I learned to read early, and I always loved reading. When I was seven or eight years old, my Aunt Sue gave me Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as a Christmas gift. It was the first long book I ever read. I remember being drawn into it with a sense of increasing recognition. The book is clearly for kids, if only because the protagonist is a profoundly sympathetic boy, and the goings-on are magical, sometimes whimsical. But, like just about everything Roald Dahl ever wrote, it is also dark, sarcastic, threatening, and occasionally violent. The book has a happy ending, for virtuous Charlie, at least, but there are many sticky endings for the other characters in the book: kids end up attacked by squirrels, juiced like blueberries, exploded into clouds of electrons.
Then there is the character of Willy Wonka himself, the crackpot brujo pulling all of the strings. Ostensibly, Willy Wonka is a force for good in the universe. Not only does he make candy, which is good in itself, but his entire Golden Ticket promotion turns out to be an exercise in rewarding virtue and punishing vice. No wonder parents let their kids read this book! The moral of the story seems to be clear: Don’t chew too much gum or be a brat or watch too much TV, and you will be OK. It would all be so wholesome and didactic, except that Wonka, the guarantor of moral order, is himself juvenile, vindictive, capricious, exploitative– hardly an ideal role model. Even his light-hearted whimsy carries an undercurrent of barely concealed malice, a hatred for just the sort of sugar-overloaded children who are his best customers. If Wonka is wielding his considerable power and cleverness to secure the triumph of virtue, it is for no other reason than that he found virtue more amusing that week.
(The malicious undercurrent of Wonka’s glee is why, among film portrayals of this story, I tend to prefer Johnny Depp’s portrayal in Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to Gene Wilder’s in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Wilder’s Wonka is a great character with occasional flashes of sarcasm– as the Condescending Wonka Meme indicates– but he is a bit too genial. Depp’s Wonka captures the essential maliciousness of Wonka. Pity, though, that Burton felt pressure to mitigate the impact of it by appending a spurious psychologizing backstory onto Wonka to explain “how he got that way.” Apparently the movies are not ready for a character who represents sui generis mischief.)
For all of its seeming moralism, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a story about how being a good little boy only pays off, if it does, because the reward system put in place by grownups is utterly and completely arbitrary. I can hardly think of a more subversive message– and a more relevant one in these days of “creative destruction” and forced labor precarity under late capitalism. When I read the book as a child, I of course had no way of articulating any of that. But I, the boy who dwelled on mortality and the limits of what my world contained, felt like that book was telling me the truth. It wasn’t about death, but it seemed to be telling a lot of truths about life and not trying to hide them from me.
My son is odd too. I am sure I do not yet understand the half of his oddness. But I am still odd too, and now that I am supposed to be on the supply side of virtue and order, it doesn’t feel much less arbitrary. In some ways, it feels more arbitrary, not less. I think I look forward to sharing this book with my son because, among other things, I want him to know that, through all of life’s cant and hypocrisy and superficiality, I am here with him, working to see the truth and make sense of it too.
So far, we have read the first seven chapters. Wonka has announced his unprecedented Golden Ticket promotion, and two rather unpleasant children, Augustus Gloop and Veruca Salt, have found the first of the coveted tickets. Chapter 7, “Charlie’s Birthday,” greets us with high hopes, as impoverished Charlie receives his annual birthday chocolate– a bar of “WONKA’S WHIPPLE-SCRUMPTIOUS FUDGEMALLOW DELIGHT.”
The natural expectation, especially for those of us who have watched too many movies with plot shortcuts, is to expect that Charlie’s birthday bar will contain ticket number three. Certainly this was The Boy’s expectation. As we began the chapter, his eyes lit up with delight, and he said “Ooh, Charlie is going to get a Golden Ticket!!!” He clearly is genuinely invested in Charlie.
We read the chapter together, The Boy with barely disguised excitement. The suspense builds and builds as Charlie slowly opens the bar in his grandparents’ bed. And, of course, his bar doesn’t contain the ticket, and his parents and grandparents console him. Interestingly, though, The Boy didn’t take the story’s word for it when it said that the bar didn’t contain a Golden Ticket. It says, very clearly, “There was no sign of a Golden Ticket anywhere,” but as I finished reading the chapter to him, he said “Wait a minute! The Golden Ticket is in the wrapper and he didn’t see it!”
As the chapter finished with Charlie’s mother summoning him to school– “‘Come on, or you’ll be late'”– I had to tell The Boy, “No, he didn’t get a Golden Ticket in his candy bar.” This made him sad and confused. His brow furrowed, and he began thinking. “I bet he gets a Golden Ticket some other way! I bet he gets another candy bar!” My prosaic side thinks that he understands storytelling well enough to understand that there is a lot of book left, and Charlie, the main character, has to get in that factory somehow, or else the rest of the book makes no sense.
I wonder, though, if it isn’t that he just doesn’t feel a raw sense of compassion for Charlie. Moralism aside, it is next to impossible to read the opening chapters of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and not feel a deep sense that Charlie deserves good things. He is so poor, yet he genuinely loves being around his grandparents and listening to their stories. He is also generous; the part where Charlie, crestfallen about not getting the Golden Ticket in his birthday Wonka bar, wants to share his chocolate with everyone in the room, moves me to tears every time.
That is where our reading ended for the night, and, after The Boy speculated about Charlie’s eventual good fortune for a while, he still seemed sad. I asked him, “Do you feel sad for Charlie?”
“Yeah,” he said.
“Because he didn’t get a Golden Ticket?”
“Yeah. And he is so poor.”
“He is. But he is rich in other ways,” I said.
“Yes. He has lots of people in his life who love him. His parents and his grandparents.”
The Boy had no response to that. I wonder if he saw himself in that description. He is also very fortunate in that respect, I think. His material circumstances are comfortable enough, but he also has lots of people in his life who love him and want to spend time with him.
Tonight we will read some more and see what the story has in store for us both.