Let us begin with the Oompa-Loompas. If you were a child sometime in the last quarter of the twentieth century, you know them: the menacing, orange candy-making minions who sing and dance through the 1971 Gene Wilder film version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. As a kid, I once caught maybe fifteen minutes of the movie on TV—we lived in the mountains and the signal went in and out with the weather. Those fifteen minutes were plenty. I watched in abject horror as a stout Bavarian kid named Augustus Gloop drank from the chocolate river of the eponymous chocolate factory, fell in, and was sucked up a pipe for processing. The Oompa-Loompas, busy shoveling sugar into the river, made no effort to extract him. Instead they broke into a kind of gnostic work song about how Augustus deserved what he got:
Ooompa-Loompa doompadee doo, I’ve got a perfect puzzle for you.
Oompa-Loompa doompedee dee,
if you are wise, you’ll listen to me.
What do you get when you guzzle down sweets?
Eating as much as an elephant eats.
What are you at, getting terribly fat?
What do you think will come of that?
Even to kid-me, this song seemed unnecessarily cruel. I felt personally indicted: What would the Oompa-Loompas think of me? Was I greedy? Was I fat? What was it that I deserved? I would’ve turned the movie off then if the weather hadn’t turned it off for me. The Oompas, though, and their nasty little chant stayed with me for every fun-sized candy bar and Pixy Stix ever after.
Augustus’s demise was enough to keep me away from Roald Dahl’s novel my entire childhood, but the other sugar-starved kids at my hippie elementary school loved it. I remember my friend Emily, the daughter of body-obsessed cyclists and Boulder health nuts of the highest order, reading it with the slavering expression of an addict jonesing for a fix. Eventually I saw the rest of the movie, as well as the equally, if differently, grotesque Johnny Depp remake. But I never did read the book, until now.
The good news: The novel’s Oompas are not spray-tanned a ghoulish, presidential orange. The bad news: This is because they’re “rosy-white,” a pointed revision from Dahl’s original description of them as African tribesmen lured to the factory by the promise of meals of chocolate instead of the caterpillars they eat in the jungle. The NAACP objected. The wording was changed. And the book, with its many aggressions, judgments, and intolerable takes on gender and race and class, persisted. In fact, it’s become a classic.
The plot in brief: Charlie, desperately poor and starving, lives with his parents and grandparents in a hovel on the edge of some fictive, British town. Just down the road sits the factory of Willy Wonka, eccentric candymaker and recluse, whose legend looms large in the mind of Charlie’s Grandpa Joe. It’s been an especially grisly winter. Charlie’s dad has been laid off from the toothpaste factory, where he screws on caps. The family eats nothing but cabbage water. (Charlie is celebrated for refusing his mother’s portion, as if this isn’t the only possible ethical response as the mortal coil grows close.) All the grandparents share one lowly bed. This goes on for the first fifty pages of the book, a whole third of the story, lest any doubt be left in your mind that Charlie’s life sucks.
While stumbling through the snow one day, Charlie chances upon a dollar bill and takes it to the candy shop to buy Wonka chocolates. Around his candy bar sparkles a Golden Ticket, one of five invitations Willy Wonka has issued for a tour of his factory and a lifetime supply of candy. Charlie’s family is ecstatic at the news, most of all sweet Grandpa Joe, who is elected to join Charlie on the tour the very next day.
The factory, we’re told, has long been shrouded in mystery. No one is ever seen going in or out. This is a pleasurable riddle of modern workplace labor regulation in the minds of Grandpa and Charlie, as well as a convenient scrim for the factory’s questionable sovereignty over the Oompa-Loompas, to say nothing of its patently dangerous confectionary experiments, in the mind of this reader. But even faint moral consideration must be abandoned if you want to be taken along on Wonka’s magic ride. The book finds this kind of scrutiny offensive. Asking too many questions is usually the first misstep of Charlie’s ill-fated tour companions. Wonka wants them instead to simply suspend disbelief—a funny quality to champion in a book so eager to make appraisements.
The four other kids who join Charlie on the tour are all damned by flaws that could be much worse. Veruca Salt is demanding and entitled. Mike Teavee is a glutton for toy pistols and network television. Violet Beauregarde has been chewing the same piece of gum for three months. And you know about poor Augustus’s helplessness before the siren song of molten chocolate. One by one, they are offed, Ten Little Indians—style, by mishaps begat by poor impulse control and submission to their vices. You’ve seen the movie—I don’t need to tell you about Violet Beauregarde inflating into an enormous, buoyant human blueberry, or the weirdly sexy Veruca Salt being set upon by a hundred squirrels and pushed down a garbage chute. (The Gene Wilder version of the movie diverges from the novel and the Johnny Depp film on this last point; in the earlier movie, Veruca is sent out with the trash for demanding a golden egg, but the purist in me clings to her beset by rodents.) Would you want to babysit any of these children? No. Do they deserve to be incinerated or minced into cooling fudge? My answer is no. I’m less sure about the author’s.
The only invitees who survive Wonka’s inquisition-via-workplace-accidents are Charlie and Grandpa Joe, whose chief virtue is wide-eyed awe at everything Wonka has to show them. I like Grandpa Joe’s spirit, his lack of bitterness; it’s a testament to Grandpa Joe’s humility that he takes the truckloads of candy that Charlie wins as a stroke of luck, and not as a literal invitation to the poor to eat cake. I was grateful, too, for the few passing moments when Charlie expresses concern over the fates of the other children. But that’s as deep as these heroic characterizations run.
In a recent interview, Dahl’s widow confessed that the author had originally imagined Charlie to be black. When asked about a revision of the book that would restore this choice, she mused, “It would be wonderful, wouldn’t it?” Well, maybe. It’s wonderful to envision a canon of children’s books in which black characters more regularly play leading roles. It’s significantly less wonderful to think of a narrative in which blackness is treated as an expression of everything that’s already pitiful about Charlie, when it’s not just one more card in the deck stacked against him but the author’s ultimate signal to us that the kid has it bad. I want Charlie, whatever race, to be kind and daring and clever, not a Dickensian martyr. Maybe Dahl would’ve given us a better black Charlie than this, but the origin story of the Oompa-Loompas doesn’t make me hopeful.
To be a kid is to be powerless, in so many ways. You are subject to the tyrannies of adults and the cruelties of other kids; your actions are policed; and, as Dahl sees it, your imagination and spirit are perceived as a threat. I had a great childhood, Gene Wilder et al. aside, and I still spent most of elementary school feeling vulnerable and anxious and full of doubt. Imagine if I had grown up like Charlie. So I get it: Charlie fulfills wishes for a different order—Bullies young and old get their comeuppance! Candy is unlimited! Kids make the rules! Believe in the impossible and you can make it real! If there’s one redeeming attitude for me in Dahl’s books, it’s this unflagging faith in imagination. Dahl tells us that it’s worth braving the outrageous odds to chase a ticket to Wonka’s magic factory, and that it’s wonderful to be wonderstruck rather than cynical or jaded or even just plain realistic. Dahl wants, through Charlie, to give us a taste of what might be out there beyond the grim and brutish and cruel of the everyday.
And yet that’s just the problem: beneath the Everlasting Gobstoppers and fountains of fudge and pillows made of marshmallows, Dahl’s vision of reality is fundamentally cynical. The best we seem to be able to hope for is escape.
In the book’s last scenes, Wonka reveals the end game of his long con as he and Charlie hurtle through the roof of the factory in a magical glass elevator (I don’t know—you tell me why). It’s all been a test to pick the new owner of the factory, and lucky Charlie has won. But I want more for Charlie than to rocket off into space, the world below as ugly and sour as ever. I want Violet and Mike and Veruca and dear, hapless Augustus back unharmed. I want justice wrought in such a way that stealing a stick of gum doesn’t get you cracked open like a walnut by a squirrel. I want a little compassion. And I want for Charlie a world in which candy isn’t about judgment, but possibility, pleasure, fun—everything in life that’s sweet.
Emma Komlos Hrobsky has written for Guernica, Conjunctions, Bookforum, and Hunger Mountain. Her candy of choice: Crunch Bars.