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Every Era Gets the Wonka it DeservesRoald Dahl

March 8th, 2016

The Chocolate Factory

BY Christian Ford

One of the benefits of raising children is constant rediscovery.  Take, for instance, what were once your favorite books.  Even if they still lurk on your shelf, the chances of revisiting one are slim unless you have someone to go there with.  But since I do, I recently rediscovered a book I read many, many times, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, by Roald Dahl.

In an ironic but very real sense, Dahl was my first “food writer.”  It’s not because food features in the titles of two of his most famous books (Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach) but because Dahl, who didn’t begin writing for children until he was in his fifth decade, never forgot the way that food inhabits the senses of a child.  The chocolate, the peach, the pheasants from Danny, Champion of the World, all are described with a kind of near-erotic intensity which captures a child’s experience of edible bliss.

But on this most recent read-through, memory and present day experience diverged as a vague unease crept in underneath the words I was reading aloud.  To refresh your memory, the secretive mastermind of the factory, Mr. Wonka, had at some point replaced his entire workforce with mysterious and unknown workers.  These are eventually revealed to be Oompa-Loompas, diminutive people from a far-off land, whom Wonka has rescued from a subsistence diet of mashed caterpillars and brought to work in his factory.

We hear a lot about them before finally encountering them, and as we paged forward, I became queasy with the certainty that it would eventually be revealed that our white, industrialist, billionaire hero had appropriated an entire race of tiny black people to toil forever in his factory.  Imagine my relief when the Oompa Loompas were finally revealed as having “rosy-white” skin and “golden-brown hair.”

Still, it was strange because I’d been so certain, as though I’d remembered it from my own reading, years ago.  And the thing was, I had.   If you open a first edition from the depths of the 1960s, you’ll find a picture of the Oompa Loompas, full-on black-skinned pygmies, and identified as such in the text.

This was changed by the second edition, and Dahl himself seems to have initiated the change.  In truth, there’s nothing in his work as a whole to imply a racially prejudiced sensibility and early drafts demonstrate that Wonka was initially imagined as rescuing a starving tribe whose land had been stolen by colonial planters — an echo of things Dahl had witnessed in Africa when he was young.

So, kinda alarming, but I suppose we should expect to find 1960s art reflecting that decade’s shifts in racial justice (or at least the effort in that direction.)   But if we get past the racial echoes of the Oompa Loompas, there are more ghosts.

I’ve always found that the stories we tell to children are a sort of elephant in the room.  As every child’s horizon expands beyond the confines of family and school and town, curiosity ignites, a fundamental wonderment about what is out there, who is out there, and how it all works.  There’s a window, a gap of mere years, where that curiosity is so all-consuming and the armor of experience has not yet hardened, during which children’s stories, largely unexamined, often dismissed, lay much of the cognitive infrastructure for the future generation’s fundamental perception of the world.

It’s pretty damn stealthy, partly because we’re all such tabulae rasae then, and even more  because we tend to forget where we ever got those ideas.  They set up shop in our subconscious as the baseline, simply “the ways things are.”  It’s remarkably powerful, and if one’s goal was to purposefully shape a worldview, I’d wager that this, more than anything, is the way.  Many things can fit into that niche, from bible study to first person shooter games, but it’s my suspicion that reading — especially in the years just before middle school — has a singular power.

“The way things are” shaped Dahl, too.   For instance, he was a teenager in a town where there were two actual chocolate factories, if you can imagine such a thing.  What’s more, the factories would occasionally test out new confections on the local populace.  I suspect there’s more memoir than fiction in Dahl’s conjuring of the thrumming factory under its cloud of chocolate scent, so close and so far behind its walls.  This was part of his discovery of the world, that it could contain factories which made not locomotives or furniture, but exquisite treats and he would have been a fool never to use this in his stories.

I’ve got no proof, but my travels in England strongly suggest that Dahl’s childhood would also include berry bushes on the side of the path, heavy with sun-hot fruit, something one could never get enough of.   But a factory is something else entirely.  Here, the industrial promise of control and constancy is yoked not to the making of bullets and automobiles but to a seductive experience, and what’s more, to an experience which is inevitably fleeting.  Chocolate is forever melting away, vanishing even as it intoxicates.  But inherent to the notion of a chocolate factory is that here is a way of always making more, and fast enough to keep ahead of any appetite, real or imagined.

Dahl was born one hundred years ago, in 1916, a citizen of the British Empire.  Far from Dahl’s cradle, the First World War was mortally wounding the Empire, but no one understood that then.  What they knew, and what the stories of Dahl’s childhood assured him of, was that he was growing up in the center of the world, a place from which all the inventions, culture, and power flowed outward, while the money and other fruits of empire — including chocolate — flowed in.  These were the ruling assumptions of his childhood and they unsurprisingly set up shop in his imagination, including the notion of what a lone Brit could accomplish out there in a world ripe for the picking.

Willy Wonka — diminutive industrialist in a top hat, a kind of confectionary Carnegie — is presented as a figure of pure agency.  He is the unchallenged master of his factory-domain, almost omnipotent in his powers which include the gravity-defying Great Glass Elevator.  He is the great white father to his Oompa Loompas, regardless of their skin color, the one who carried off their entire civilization and installed it inside the walls of his factory.  He also seems to be above the law — or perhaps a law unto himself — capriciously controlling the fates of the four wicked and one good child whom he has admitted to his Empire of Chocolate.

The cruelty visited upon children — by both fate and those in power — is one of Dahl’s primary themes.  His childhood had a big helping of tragedy, vicious children, and adult bullies and he never forgot it.  It was Dahl’s genius to take the awful stuff of childhood, which all of us at least glimpse, and revel in its horribleness.  The grotesqueries are always presented with a kind of matter-of-fact glee, an embrace of just how awful someone or something can possibly be.  It’s perfectly suited to the childhood imagination, filled with black-and-white archetypes, monsters and fairy-godmothers competing for their share of the psyche.  Here, after the hundred year gap since the Brothers Grimm parked their pens, was an author who understood the way emotional absolutes run riot in the childhood imagination and the proof is that the book is still in print, fifty years and twenty million copies later.

Wonka is a creature of overwhelming power, but unlike many of Dahl’s other almighty characters, Wonka’s power is on the side of the good and, what’s more, in the service of making sweets.  He’s a trickster bully, nemesis of those who heartily deserve it, and he is wickedly and enduringly fun.

Still, from my perch overlooking the ruination we’ve achieved in the effort to feed ourselves (and get rich doing it,) Charlie and the Chocolate Factory looks ominous.  For one thing, it’s nearly impossible to avoid seeing it as a tale lionizing industrial food and the captains of industry who conjure this “magic.”   The character dynamics, too, can be alarming.  On one hand, you have Wonka, all power, cleverness and wealth, a benevolent dictator with a sweet tooth and a moral streak.  On the other, you have our hero, Charlie, representative of the common folk and our ostensible point of identification.  But who is it we’re being asked to identify with?  Someone who is penniless, passive, and compliant — and whose single act of will is to purchase some of Wonka’s product.  You’d be hard-pressed to find a more ideal representation of the perfect consumer, from a corporate point of view.

So, what to do?  Slip the book back onto the shelf, and push it back where it won’t be found?  Ruin all the fun by deconstructing the tale’s hidden assumptions for my grade-school reading partner?  Or just do nothing and accept that the story is simply a tale of wishes come true, extravagantly imagined.  A good child, oppressed by fate and poverty, is plucked from obscurity to become the heir apparent of a kingdom of sweets, and gets to bring all his loved ones with him, too.

That would probably be enough, right there, but Dahl takes it a step further.    The title may include the word “factory,” but what Dahl created is nothing of the sort.  He tips his hand in the first room he unveils, the Chocolate Room, the “nerve center” of the factory.  In a stroke of imagination that imprints permanently on any child who encounters it, the Chocolate Room is a titanic chamber framing a green valley, cut by a river of flowing chocolate, which is mixed to froth by a waterfall of chocolate.  Really.  Two of childhood’s fundamental wonders, happening together.  And if that’s not enough, everything in the room, the fields and hills and shrubs and trees, down to each blade of grass, is edible and sweet.  There’s really only one thing that’s missing, and that’s machinery.  It’s because Wonka’s “factory” is actually anti-industrial, with toffee-apple trees, a fudge mountain, rock candy hidden beneath the ground, cows that give whipped cream, and the nut room, where nuts are sorted by scrupulous squirrels.

It’s a child’s imagining of what a chocolate factory should be, not a place of human and mechanical labor, but a place where the things you most desire miraculously appear in unimaginable abundance.   It seems, more or less, like magic… but a magic that seems, somehow, intrinsically right.   It’s enough to make me wonder if maybe there’s something more than imagination here, that maybe in the magical thinking that we all had when we were small, there’s a kernel of memory, too, one that goes all the way back, to when the seas overflowed with fish, and the forests rained nuts, and the strawberries grew so thickly on the ground that passing horses were painted red up to their fetlocks with juice.   No one alive know has experience of any of those things, but they were all true and it really was like that.

Once upon a time.


Wonka Mug by Synne Rustad
Roald Dahl by Sally