My son and I are reading 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. The first post in the series is here.
GUILDENSTERN (quietly): Where we went wrong was getting on a boat. We can move, of course, change direction, rattle about, but our movement is contained within a larger one that carries us along as inexorably as the wind and current…
ROSENCRANTZ: They had it in for us, didn’t they? Right from the beginning. Who’d have thought that we were so important?
GUILDENSTERN: But why? Was it all for this? Who are we that so much should converge on our little deaths? (In anguish to the PLAYER:) Who are we?
PLAYER: You are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. That’s enough.
GUILDENSTERN: No– it is not enough. To be told so little– to such an end– and still, finally, to be denied an explanation—-
PLAYER: In our experience, most things end in death.
–Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Act Three
Our reading of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory continues. One of the features of co-parenting is that The Boy and I don’t get to read the book together every night. My ex-wife and I read different books with him at bedtime at our respective houses. It means that we are working our way through the book slowly, but that is just fine. The Boy has a pretty good memory for the details of a good story, so he is always ready to pick back up right where we leave off.
Last night we finished the part where Augustus Gloop, the gluttonous first recipient of a Golden Ticket, exits the story by falling into Wonka’s river of frothy mixed chocolate and getting shot up a great tall glass tube towards the “strawberry-flavored chocolate-coated fudge room.” It is a pretty frightening scene, really, if you aren’t already inured to it (as I am) from years of re-reading and from years of seeing it on film. After Augustus gets shot up towards whatever destiny awaits him, “like a bullet in the barrel of a gun,” Wonka has a lengthy argument of sorts with Mrs. Gloop, Augustus’s mother. It is a rather long exchange. Mrs. Gloop becomes steadily more upset, shrieking and yelling, while Wonka, who is delightfully amused by the whole affair, can barely stifle his gleeful laughter. Mr. Gloop is almost a nonentity, offering matter-of-fact interjections but otherwise leaving the outrage and panic up to his wife. It is, truth be told, almost too stereotypically gendered a scene: the shrill, emotional mother, the detached father. It is not the only stereotyped moment in the book, either.
When I read to The Boy, I try to dramatize as best I can. I even try to do different voices, although my repertoire is limited. My Wonka is a high singsongy affair, and my Mrs. Gloop is just me acting as agitated as I can without deafening us both and bothering the neighbors. This scene really called on my inner thespian. The Boy seems to like that.
We read the following chapter, in which the remainder of the company floats down the chocolate river on Wonka’s boat, before stopping for the night. We usually spend a minute or two talking about the story after we stop. B immediately came back to the fate of poor Augustus. He understood Wonka’s optimism regarding Augustus’s safety, but he clearly didn’t trust it. “What happens to Augustus?” he asked me. He knows I have read the book before. “Is he OK?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“Really? Where is he? Does he come back?”
“Well, no, we never see him in the story again. They just keep on going without him.”
His brow furrowed. He found this upsetting. He had expected that the story would return to Augustus somewhere along the line. “Oh” was all that he said. He was already sleepy, so he drifted off to sleep after that.
B is learning an important thing about the kinds of stories that last: they don’t answer all of the questions they raise. He loves the book, but he is still uneasy about the ultimate fate of Augustus. Wonka reassures us that he ends well, or well enough, but even my six-year-old understands that someone who would giggle with delight at the prospect of a boy trapped in a fudge boiler is perhaps not trustworthy. The Oompa-Loompas suggest in no uncertain terms that Augustus will die a rather gruesome death. Wonka is quick to point out that they are joking, that they love to tell jokes– but is this one of them? Or is the operative love of cruel jokes here Wonka’s own?
More tellingly, Augustus simply exits the stage here for good– whether alive or dead– as something less than an actual character. He never develops or changes or learns. He never gets to be anything more than a naughty boy, the subject of a terrifying Oompa-Loompa morality song, the butt of several fatphobic jokes. He is, from the perspective of the story, a question that is answered as soon as it is asked, and answered with a facile moral lesson.
It almost makes me want to see someone do for Augustus what Tom Stoppard did for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: that is, give him, and us, a shot at seeing Augustus as a human being with his own story. I fear, though, that the lesson would end up being about the same for Augustus as for those two. Augustus may have been his own person, the subject of his own life, but the story in which he takes part had no need of him in that capacity, just as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern end up dying the same way regardless, shuffling around in apparent freedom while the boat insensibly carries them where it will.
This lingering unease about the fate of Augustus, and about that of the other children, is part of the genius of this book. In my first post, I stated my conviction that beneath Dahl’s prima facie moralism, this book harbors difficult and subversive truths. Kids are smart; kids get things. My son is no exception. He gets the tensions left behind by a story in which powerful grownups are not particularly concerned whether a kid lives or dies, and in which the story itself means what it means regardless. It bothers him.
And it should.