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Charlie and the Chocolate Factory | Study Guide

Roald Dahl

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Charlie and the Chocolate Factory | Context


A Refreshing Change

In 1964, when Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was first published, many schoolchildren were still using the Dick and Jane books to learn how to read. These bland and stereotypical storybooks showed white children, Dick and Jane, in middle-class settings while their father went off to work every day and their mother stayed home. At this time, the genre of children's literature was characterized by such books that supported largely Victorian ideals about how children were supposed to behave.

In accordance with these strict moral social standards, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory's first editor at Knopf Books, Virginie Fowler, thought that sections were adult-like in subject and quite frankly revolting. She thought, for example, that stinking fish heads and cabbage might belong in an adult treatise on the ills of the modern world but not in a chocolate factory intended for children. She told Dahl, "This world of children's books has its own set of rules; ignoring these rules does cause unnecessary difficulties for a book." Later, she would be fired for turning down another book by Dahl.

In ignoring these rules, Dahl produced a book in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory that served as a bridge between the old and the new. While the characters come from a Victorian mind-set, Dahl exposes the cruelty of human nature to the delight of young readers and to the chagrin of some adult readers. The novel is not a book that instructs the young on how to act. Rather, it is a text that relishes the naughty and petulant side of childhood in all its many forms while rewarding basic goodness.

In contrast to Fowler, publisher Alfred Knopf thought the book was "miraculous" and was certain adults would learn to love it as much as children. Knopf's instinct was right. The book became an immediate success when it was published. The New York Times reviewer said Dahl had succeeded "gloriously" and had created a "lovely book." Another newspaper, Tulsa World, predicted, "It will be read not once, but over and over again." Thus, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory changed the landscape of children's literature forever by reflecting the different facets of childhood—both positive and negative—rather than fighting against them.

Early Criticism

Dahl was blindsided by the reaction to the book from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which protested the book's racism. Though in an earlier draft Dahl had planned to make Charlie black, it had never occurred to him anyone might be troubled by the notion of black "African pygmies" being shipped overseas in packing crates to work in a factory for no pay. He was, he said, "flabbergasted to learn how much unwitting offense I had given to some people." The Oompa-Loompa sections were re-written to make the characters white, though the packing crates stayed in the book.

Another damaging blow to Dahl's ego came in the form of a review by Eleanor Cameron in a 1972 issue of The Horn Book, an influential magazine about children's publishing: "The book is like candy," she wrote, "delectable and soothing while we are undergoing the brief sensory pleasure it affords, but leaves us poorly nourished with our taste dulled for better fare." Cameron lambasted the book's "phony humor, which is based on punishment with overtones of sadism." She was also distressed by Dahl's presentation of the Oompa-Loompas. In response, Dahl fired off a furious letter to The Horn Book: "[Mrs. Cameron] is completely out of touch with reality ... I like to think that all my storytelling has contributed a little bit to [the] happiness [of my children]. The story they like best of all is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Mrs. Cameron will stop them reading it only over my dead body."

More than 50 years after its publication, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory continues to sell copies. In 2012 a British survey discovered that among today's British adults it's one of the most commonly read books in childhood, right behind Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. Another sign of the book's continued popularity is that some of the language in the book has filtered into common usage. An eccentric inventor is sometimes called a "Willy Wonka," and "Golden Ticket" is an idiom for "getting full access" to something. There's even an American rock group named Veruca Salt.

Chocolate Espionage

Charlie learns that Mr. Wonka replaced his human workers with Oompa-Loompas—"Because of spies." The real-life practice of chocolate espionage, or plans to steal the secrets of a business competitor, permeates the world of candy companies for one important reason: it is difficult to get a patent or legal claim from the government for a recipe. If chocolate, butter, condensed milk, and vanilla produce the expected result of fudge, for example, are the varying amounts of ingredients something new that a company can own?

The British candy companies of Cadbury and Rowntree were infamous during Dahl's childhood for hiring spies to infiltrate the opposing company and detectives to watch employees. Recipe secrets were available to workers on a need-to-know basis only, and vendors had to sign confidentiality agreements or wear blindfolds when visiting factories. Nonetheless, candy recipes were stolen. For example, the American candy bar Mounds is sold in Great Britain as Bounty as the result of just such a theft.

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