Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: A Capitalist Dystopia
No story excites children quite like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. First published in 1964 by English author, Roald Dahl, the story continues to capture imaginations. 1 The premise is simple, a usually unlucky boy is one of five winners of a worldwide competition. The prize is a once in a lifetime opportunity to tour a world famous chocolate factory. As an added bonus, the winning children are given a lifetime supply of sweet treats. There is scarcely a child who would not want that.
The children are guided through the factory tour by the colourful Mr. Willy Wonka. However, it becomes clear that, unbeknown to them, the kids are being tested. As they progress, they are picked off one by one. Giving in to greed and unnecessary wants, each child is painfully removed from the tour. That is until only one boy is left: Charlie Bucket. In a surprising twist, for being the last man standing, Charlie wins the entire factory. Mr. Wonka bequeaths his company and associated fortune to the youngest Bucket. He admits that this was the point of his competition all along.
This beloved story is sprinkled with ample colour and features that ought to amaze; a chocolate river, gum that feeds you a three-course meal, and everlasting gobstoppers!
But for all of the awe and wonderment of this story, Dahl’s book is surprisingly dark. As this article will explore, several aspects of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory imply that the story takes place within a capitalist dystopia. This fictional universe might read like a sugar-frenzied utopia, but several facets of the story world suggest the opposite. Moving beyond mere fiction though, parallels can be drawn between many of the darkest aspects of this story and real-world examples of injustice. Thus, under the guise of a fun children’s tale, Dahl’s text can be interpreted as a reflection of some of humans’ greatest injustices. The book is subtly and cleverly political, so as not to compromise the enjoyment of its intended audience.
Though there have been two film adaptations of this text, both of which approach the story in different ways, this article does not delve into them. The focus of this article is solely on Dahl’s original book.
Wonka the Fat Cat
The story of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is arguably best known for the character of Willy Wonka. He’s an odd and wonderful man who often finds himself the subject of speculation. He is the exact kind of caricature that children’s literature demands. Despite this, rather than a charismatic and quirky chocolate connoisseur, Dahl’s Wonka is akin to a money-hungry CEO of a transnational corporation.
Looming large within a residential area is Wonka’s expansive chocolate factory — the “smoke belching from its chimneys” a symbol for the pollution its very existence is responsible for. This factory is the biggest factory in the entire world, fifty times larger than any other. The chocolate that is churned out by Wonka is sent to “all the four corners of the earth.” The wacky businessman appears fixated on one idea: changing the world. He aims to conquer with his sweet inventions.
Wonka’s business is so successful, and his products so sought after, that he finds himself the victim of corporate espionage. Several employees turn out to be spies from competing chocolate companies. “I shall be ruined!” is Wonka’s response to learning of this, for nothing would be so bad than him losing out on profit.
Mr. Wonka is undeniably greedy. Fabulously wealthy and idolised by all, this does not seem to be enough for the quirky businessman. Hence, the Golden Ticket competition is created. Hidden within five of Willy Wonka’s chocolate bars is a golden ticket. The children that find these tickets are given the sought after prize of touring Wonka’s factory. The family of the titular character, Charlie Bucket, respond to this news as such:
“‘He’s brilliant!…He’s a magician! Just imagine what will happen now! The whole world will be searching for those Golden Tickets! Everyone will be buying Wonka’s chocolate bars in the hope of finding one! He’ll sell more than ever before! Oh, how exciting it would be to find one!’”
The Buckets can see this scheme for what it really is — a shameless cash-grab. Yet, they remain unperturbed. Within this fictional dystopia, Wonka’s wealth is not perceived as unfairly disproportionate. He does not receive criticism for hoarding great wealth; instead, he is admired. Wonka’s affluence is perceived by the lower classes as an ideal and something to aspire to. They have been brainwashed by their society’s ever-growing consumer culture.
Willy Wonka’s greedy, yet guilt-free, existence is true to the real-world. The richest members of society are often looked upon with admiration, rather than disdain. Blinded by charisma and glamour, the richest people are often forgiven for their unnecessary wealth. This is the same dynamic presented in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Characters and readers alike fail to see past the majesty of Wonka to the unfair hoarding of wealth that he is responsible for. The unfairness of Wonka is felt most, yet remains unacknowledged, by those who work for him.
The Working Poor
Throughout Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, a spotlight is placed on the socioeconomic status of the titular character. The first twelve chapters, comprising almost half of the book, detail the struggles faced by little Charlie Bucket and his family. Mr. Bucket is the only working member of the family. He works in a factory. His role is minor, yet vital; he screws caps onto toothpaste containers. While he is not an employee of Wonka’s factory, his working conditions would resemble those of the workers employed by Mr. Wonka. Thus, parallels can be drawn between the two.
This factory job is never enough to ensure that the Bucket family has access to their basic human needs. Adequate food, shelter, and healthcare must all be forgone by the family. The narrator notes:
“However hard he worked, and however fast he screwed on the caps, was never able to make enough to buy one half of the things that so large a family needed.”
The family’s living arrangement is a significant complication. Charlie, his two parents, and four grandparents all live together in the same small house comprising of only two rooms and one bed. All four grandparents share the bed, whilst Charlie and his parents sleep on mattresses on the floor. This is an acceptable arrangement in summer, but during snowy winters the family truly suffer.
The family can also only afford the smallest, plainest meals. Much of the family border on malnourishment. Their diets consist almost entirely of cabbage, and they spend whole days “with a horrible empty feeling in their tummies.” One chapter of Dahl’s book is titled ‘The Family Begins to Starve.’ Within this chapter, it is stated that Charlie grows so thin that he begins to resemble a skeleton. He had to make changes, like walking slowly to school or sitting inside during playtime, to simply avoid exhaustion.
The family are also unable to provide sufficient healthcare for their grandparents. On the other hand, the family can barely afford to provide care to the four elders themselves. Thus, any quality of life for the grandparents is lost. They are forced to spend every hour of every day crammed in bed.
Comparing the lavish lifestyle of Wonka and the impoverished living conditions of the Buckets creates an uncomfortable juxtaposition. These two lives, unfolding within the same neighbourhood, demonstrate how dramatic the pay divide is. Despite the wealth of Wonka, and other factory owners, their workers receive relatively little pay. In the case of the Buckets, this pay is life-threateningly scant. The hardest workers, like Mr. Bucket, are those that lose out most in this capitalist world run by people like Wonka.
Minimal pay is not the only problem here, though. Within this short book, readers witness two accounts of job precariousness. Due to the previously mentioned corporate spies, Wonka fires his entire crew. Similarly, Mr. Bucket’s factory is forced to close and he is unable to find another job. Without care, potentially hundreds of people are forced into economic uncertainty by the actions of the wealthy. In this fictional universe, the richest people care very little for those who are keeping them in their positions of wealth.
This is contextually relevant within Britain in the 1960s. Despite the growing belief that inequality was decreasing, by 1960, 18% of UK households were in poverty. 2 Close to half of those in poverty relied solely upon earnings for day-to-day expenses. Large family sizes were determined to be a significant cause for this situation. 3 The portrayal of Charlie’s family aligns with these statistics. Thus, poverty within Dahl’s story-world befits both a fictional dystopia and the real world.
If dangerously underpaying workers was not bad enough, Wonka is also guilty of a practice far worse. The Oompa-Loompas who work in the chocolate factory resemble indentured labourers. These characters appear just another quirk of Dahl’s zany story-world, however, reading how Wonka recruits them is rather alarming.
Mr. Wonka’s solution to the spy problem is to fire all of his staff, and bring foreign workers into the country to work for him. The Oompa-Loompas, according to Wonka, are “imported direct from Loompaland.” During a visit to this country, Mr. Wonka observes the struggles of its citizens. Thus, he propositions the Oompa-Loompas, and makes the following offer:
“Look here, if you and all your people will come back to my country and live in my factory, you can have all the cacao beans you want! I’ve got mountains of them in my storehouses! You can have cacao beans for every meal! You can gorge yourselves silly on them! I’ll even pay your wages in cacao beans if you wish!”
Here, one can deduce meaning from details that are omitted. The fact that they will work for him is never explicitly mentioned in this exchange. Despite this, the Oompa-Loompas agree and Willy Wonka ships their entire tribe to his factory. In fact, he smuggles them into the country.
Present within this interaction is the historically common Western narrative that those from non-Western countries need saving. Loompaland is described by supposed-saviour Wonka as “terrible” and full of dangerous jungles. Moreover, the Oompa-Loompas are depicted as exotic and different to the country they have been brought to: “the women wear leaves, and the children wear nothing at all.” They are treated as inherently inferior to Wonka — and not just in the way that there exists a natural hierarchy between employer and employees. Like an animal, to get an Oompa-Loompa’s attention, Wonka “clicked his fingers sharply, click, click, click, three times.” The worker appeared at his side immediately.
If this were not bad enough, Wonka appears responsible for the cultural imperialism of the Oompa-Loompa tribe. Despite Wonka speaking their language when he initially visits Loompaland, when they are brought to live in the factory they are forced to learn English. This is expressed nonchalantly by Wonka, who states “they all speak English now” in passing. It seems Wonka has deliberately replaced their native language with his own.
Much of this seems remarkably similar to a period of Britain’s history. After the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act was passed in Britain in 1807, the country ‘reworked’ the practice of slavery — indentured labour was the result. Initially, labourers were sourced from India. They were sent to various British colonies to work predominantly on sugar plantations. They were bound by five year contracts, of which many were unable to read. Many workers were coerced into such an agreement. These workers were paid considerably less than British labourers. 4 A similar practice occurred in the British Colony of Queensland (pre-Federation Australia). Men from the South Sea Islands were kidnapped or coerced into labour on sugar plantations. These men were treated akin to slaves, often succumbing to malnutrition and various European diseases. 5
The treatment of the Oompa-Loompas is definitely less severe, but, there are several similarities. Like indentured labourers, the Oompa-Loompas were not necessarily fully informed of what they were agreeing to. In that initial conversation, Wonka does not mention the word ‘work.’ The Oompa-Loompas are also not paid appropriately — rather than an acceptable working wage, they are paid in cacao beans. Finally, one might assume that the Oompa-Loompas are unable to leave. They have only ever lived inside the sheltered environment of the factory and know nothing else of the country they now live in. Psychologically, they are bound to Mr. Wonka.
Interpreting the Oompa-Loompas as undertaking a form of indentured servitude further establishes Dahl’s story-world as a capitalist dystopia. Wonka, a man with power, readily exploits humans, solely for profit. Worse still, the visitors to his factory remain unperturbed by this exploitation. This signals an acceptance of Wonka’s behaviour, implying that this injustice is normal.
Disproportionate Wealth: A Vicious Cycle
Moving away from the misdeeds of Mr. Willy Wonka, Dahl’s book is fraught with money-hungry characters shamelessly flaunting their moral ambiguity. Every child and parent who enters the factory with Charlie is depicted harshly by Dahl.
Amongst the greedy children is Augustus Gloop, a boy who eats numerous bars of chocolate a day. In fact, it is stated that eating is his main hobby. His mother enables him by claiming that he would not eat as much as he did “unless he needed nourishment.”
Another child is Veruca Salt, a young girl who can get anything she wants simply by telling her wealthy father she wants it. In order to secure her a golden ticket, Mr. Salt bought thousands of Wonka bars and forced his factory workers to spend days tearing them open. Until a chocolate bar was uncovered, young Veruca “would lie for hours on the floor, kicking and yelling in the most disturbing way.” To this day, this character is often synonymous with childish greed.
If this behaviour were not already odious to the reader, the Buckets, who are increasingly depicted as the novel’s moral compass, pass astute judgements on these people. One child is described as “beastly” while another is labelled a “brat.” Personal distaste aside, the elderly Buckets also observe an inherent flaw in the consumer culture they live in:
“‘The kids who are going to find the Golden Tickets are the ones who can afford to buy bars of chocolate every day. Our Charlie gets only one a year. There isn’t a hope.’”
Put simply, the rich get richer. The Buckets, or others in their position, could benefit from the tour and the lifetime supply of food, more so than any of the other winners. Yet, it is people like the Buckets who are least enabled to access such a benefit. Part of this fictional dystopia is the need for rampant consumerism — a vicious circle that continues to reward the wealthy.
Adding to this greed though is extreme wastage, and this extends further than just the small circle of competition winners. At one point, Mr. Wonka is commissioned to build an entire palace out of chocolate. The structure is truly decadent:
“It had one hundred rooms, and everything was made of either dark or light chocolate! The bricks were chocolate, and the cement holding them together was chocolate, and the windows were chocolate, and all the walls and ceilings were made of chocolate, so were the carpets and the pictures and the furniture and the beds; and when you turned on the taps in the bathroom, hot chocolate came pouring out.”
The Prince who is gifted this bizarre new home refuses to eat it, despite being told it will melt. Naturally, after hot weather “the whole palace began to melt, and then it sank slowly to the ground.” The unfairness is staggering; The Buckets cannot afford a single bar of chocolate, yet a single man is able to afford an entire palace made of chocolate, and does not care that it is wasteful.
Looking to the present day, food wastage is a significant global problem. Despite the fact that enough food is produced to feed the whole world, one in nine people do not have access to enough food. This is due to wastage, as one third of all food produced globally is lost or thrown out. 6 This is another point in which an alarming facet of this fictional dystopia aligns with the real-world.
Looking, again, to the Buckets, nobody cares that they are struggling, despite many having the means to help. In fact, Charlie is bullied and called a “shrimp” for being malnourished. Thus, the idea that this fictional world is a dystopia is solidified through highlighting the cruelty of society’s upper echelons. Wealth and greed are synonymous, and ignoring those in need helps to propel this. The dichotomy that the author has created between rich and poor is unmistakeable.
Children are the Future
The world depicted in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is certainly bleak. This capitalist dystopia is not devoid of hope, though. The world is not improved within the confines of the story, but a brighter future is hinted at for these fictional beings. The harbinger of such hope are the same people who this book is targeted to: children.
In a world where the adults have created this capitalist dystopia, children are offered as the solution to these problems. At the book’s conclusion, Wonka’s plan is revealed. In getting children to tour his factory, he was seeking the next owner. He tells Charlie:
“There are thousands of clever men who would give anything for the chance to come in and take over from me, but I don’t want that sort of person. I don’t want a grown-up person at all. A grown-up won’t listen to me; he won’t learn. He will try to do things his own way and not mine. So I have to have a child. I want a good sensible loving child, one to whom I can tell all my most precious sweet-making secrets – while I am still alive.”
Charlie is the ideal winner as he is well-behaved and generous. He is the antithesis to the darkest aspects of this story universe. He is best equipped to run this business most amicably. Rather than show greed, he shares his one chocolate bar a year with his family. When touring the factory, he follows the rules and does not ask for anything excessive, unlike every other child. He shows concern by offering his food to his mother, even when he needs the sustenance just as much.
The well known, kid-friendly lesson embedded in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, good children are rewarded and bad children are punished, fits neatly within this dystopia. However, when looking at the text closer, these so-called good children are also presented as saviours within this unhappy fictional universe.
Children’s media is often constructed cleverly, allowing adults to find separate meaning underneath the child-friendly aspects of a story. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is no exception. For the adult reader, the injustices present within this story are unmissable. From dire poverty to labour exploitation, Dahl’s text can be interpreted as a dystopian story.
The inherent charisma of Willy Wonka or his Oompa-Loompas appeals to children, so much so that the story is still popular after fifty years. For the reader who enjoyed this story as a child, returning to it as an adult can be surprising. The unabashed depiction of an unjust world, fuelled by capitalist ideals, would be equally as fitting within a story targeted to adults. Whether the reflection of a real-world society, or a purely fictional construction, the story world of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory can be interpreted as a capitalist dystopia. Most concerning about Dahl’s book, however, is the extent to which this dystopia resembles the real world.
- Dahl, R 2016, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Penguin UK, London. Print. ↩
- Thane, P 2018, ‘Poverty in the Divided Kingdom’, History & Policy [webpage], http://www.historyandpolicy.org/policy-papers/papers/poverty-in-the-divided-kingdom. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Gregoire, P 2018, ‘Indentured Labour in the British Empire: Slavery Reworked’, Sydney Criminal Lawyers [webpage], https://www.sydneycriminallawyers.com.au/blog/indentured-labour-in-the-british-empire-slavery-reworked/. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Oz Harvest 2020, ‘Food Waste Facts’, Oz Harvest [webpage], https://www.ozharvest.org/what-we-do/environment-facts/. ↩
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