Charlie, Chocolate, and Class

I was recently re-reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and I was struck again by the interesting class dynamics in the narrative.

I think the racial dynamics are already pretty well established. The Oompa-Loompas are a racist caricature of the most appalling order. There’s the whole ‘savage’ narrative, where we are informed that the Nice White Guy came and rescued them from a horrible life of deprivation and misery. And, how generous of him! He invited them all back to his nice factory where they could get all the cacao beans they wanted and work forever! Gee gosh golly! Let’s not forget:

They are wonderful workers. They all speak English now. They love dancing and music. They are always making up songs. I expect you will hear a great deal of singing today from time to time. I must warn you, though, that they are rather mischievous. They like jokes. They still wear the same kind of clothes they wore in the jungle. They insist on that.

Uhm, yeah, Roald Dahl. This in the very same scene where another character refers to them like collectible objects instead of people. I have to say, this is one of the more revolting parts of Charlie and it is something that has always irritated the ever-living fuck out of me, every time I read this book. It’s something that gets repeated in every film and musical version of the book, too; evidently people think that the Oompa-Loompas are so integral to the story exactly as they are that it’s ok to keep repeating the trope, even though, well. There are ways that the story could be reworked.

So, established: Race in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory sucks. You are not going to see me disputing that or even attempting to defend the book, or Dahl[1. Don’t you tell me it was ‘just the times.’ This book was published in 1964. The Civil Rights movement was a thing. Anticolonialism was a thing. This is just, purely and simply, racism. There were great books being written about racial issues at the time (and even before!), there was great thinking on race, there was criticism of issues like slavery and human trafficking. I’m going to go ahead and call Dahl fully accountable, here, for the shortcomings of this book.].

Now, let’s talk about class, because there are some very intriguing things happening here that I would like to tease out. I first read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when I was a little kid, and we were poor. Very poor. So, I really identified with the main character. Who was a child who was poor like me. And here was an author who got poverty. Those scenes where Dahl talks about the ‘small changes’ Charlie makes, like leaving for school early so that he can walk slowly to save energy. Talking about what the family eats. How much small things matter. Those resonate with real experiences.

Dahl in general does a lot of good stuff with poverty, I think. He doesn’t make it into a narrative of terrible suffering and deprivation. He highlights some of the aspects of living and growing up poor, and perhaps sometimes his narratives stray a bit too far in the other direction, I’m thinking particularly of Danny the Champion of the World where poverty becomes almost a fun adventure. That’s another book that really appealed to me because of the character’s relationship with his father, but I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable with some of the glamourisation of poverty that happened in it, even reading it as a child. In general, I would say that on class issues, Dahl can sometimes be pretty right on[2. This is something I see paralleled in modern activism in general, British folks tend to be more aware of and writing better stuff on class than us USians.].

Charlie’s family is an interesting one that might be unfamiliar to many people living in an era where older adults are warehoused in long term ‘care’ facilities and ignored. His mother, father, and biological grandparents all live together, and in the books, his father is the sole breadwinner. When he loses his job, things get hard. Really hard. This is when the narrative swoops in to rescue our hero and provide him with chocolate for life, but it’s interesting to look at Charlie’s life pre-factory.

In the recent film version, part of the backstory is that Grandpa Joe used to work for the factory, until Willy Wonka closed it. In the books, this wasn’t part of the story, but the factory closure and subsequent unemployment do bear discussing. Here we have this narrative where the factory, a major employer in the community, is closed. No matter which narrative you are going on, whether or not Grandpa Joe was personally affected, people suffered as a result, seeking work desperately wherever they could. Wonka imports slave labour. No one thinks this is odd? The Oompa-Loompas are a topic of fascination and curiosity? As opposed to, well, misplaced anger[3. An unfortunately common response to slave/low wage labour is to hate the labourers, not the system.] or horror?

It’s odd to me that Dahl could so clearly pinpoint what happens when factories close and people struggle for work, while making the architect of that closure the hero, instead of the villain. Oh, sure, he tries to villanise the other chocolate manufacturers who spied on Willy Wonka, but, ultimately, Wonka is the one who made the choice to close the factory. To deny jobs to the community. To import labourers from somewhere else and keep them as slaves.

There’s that scene where Dahl describes the factory reopening and everyone rushing back for their jobs to find the gates closed. He writes matter of factly about how people look up and see the Oompa-Loompas silhouetted in the windows, but doesn’t seem to suggest that the workers have any right to be upset. It’s something that we see playing out a lot, now, with class tensions between different groups of workers in the midst of factory closures and deprivation, with employers acting like bringing in outside labour because it’s cheaper just ‘needs’ to happen. I think it’s worth asking why Dahl’s indictment of class issues fell so woefully short here, that instead of challenging narratives about ‘outsiders’ or questioning the use of slave labour, he decided to just kind of elide a lot of issues in this book.

Guess maybe Dahl’s not so great on class after all, eh?