Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Good Things Come in Small Packages
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a novel in which things are either good or bad, and one way Dahl attributes goodness to something is to make it small. Charlie, for one, is small and undernourished. When he stands outside the factory, the crowd pities Charlie for his small size and frailty. Mr. Wonka is also small: the initial description of Mr. Wonka focuses on his small stature. Finally, chocolate bars are small. Small things can easily be underestimated by those who do not take the time to notice them. Charlie, Mr. Wonka, and chocolate bars all have the potential to carry much more weight than one might assume. Charlie’s pitiful appearance belies his inner strength and ability to outlast the other children and eventually take control of the entire chocolate factory. Mr. Wonka’s small size disguises his intense energy and amazing power. He has the power to determine children’s fates and grant wishes. A single chocolate bar contains all of Charlie’s hopes and dreams. When Charlie opens it and finds the golden ticket, he realizes just how powerful something small—like he himself—can be.
Poverty vs. Wealth
The classic distinction between those who have money and those who do not pervades Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Furthermore, it helps form the background for the morality of the story. Money is dangerous, especially when it is used unscrupulously. Veruca’s father embodies all the negative aspects of wealth when he uses his financial resources to secure Veruca a golden ticket. Even Charlie, who almost never speaks ill of anyone, says he disagrees with Mr. Salt’s method. In contrast, poverty can often lead to good things. Charlie is extremely poor; he rarely has enough to eat, and he sleeps on the floor with his parents. But the dignity with which Charlie handles his poverty makes him a beloved character. He does not yearn for extraordinary wealth—he only wants enough to get by. Yet he is eventually rewarded with riches beyond his wildest dreams. Veruca is punished for her wealth, which accompanied by her parents’ ineptitude, causes her to be such a brat.
What Goes Around Comes Around
After it has been established which characters are good and which are bad, each of the characters is punished or rewarded in accordance with his personality. The bad children—Veruca, Violet, Mike, and Augustus—receive punishments. Augustus, who overeats as a hobby, gets himself stuck in a chocolate pump that eventually flattens him out. Veruca, for her bratty behavior, is denied the squirrel that she desires. Furthermore, the other squirrels deem her a “bad nut” and send her down the garbage chute. Violet, unable to resist gum, chews herself into a giant blueberry. Mike, who is obsessed with television, is permanently altered by it. In all of these cases, the children undergo painful punishments that ultimately make them better people. As the good child, Charlie receives only rewards.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
In the moral world of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, there is no ambiguity: children are either bad or good. Charlie is good precisely because he has no discernable vices. The bad children are easy to spot because they are the embodiment of their vices. Augustus is greedy, Veruca is bratty, Violet is an obsessive gum chewer, and Mike is obsessed with television. By creating vices for each of the children, Dahl makes it clear from the outset that these children are bad. In doing so, he makes Charlie all the more obvious as the hero of his story.
Punishment is used to underscore the moral code in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Good children are dutiful and respectful, whereas bad children are the opposite. It is not a bad child’s fault that he is bad—his parents are largely to blame. However, bad children must be reformed through whatever means necessary. Indeed, the necessary means take the form of wild and sometimes violent punishments. Punishments are necessary to create good out of bad, which is a moral imperative within this story. In this story, the proper punishment is the only thing that can transform a bad child into a good one.
Dahl regularly employs absurd language and ideas. Some of these absurdities are hair-growing candy for children, square candies that look ’round, and edible pillows. All of these demand a suspension of disbelief from the reader. In the story, the children who cannot suspend their disbelief fall into disfavor with Mr. Wonka. By being able to suspend disbelief, the reader can align himself with Mr. Wonka and Charlie. A reader might agree with Mike Teavee that children do not need to worry about going bald. But the same reader can enjoy watching Mr. Wonka dismiss Mike and champion Charlie. These absurdities also entertain young readers and push their intellectual capacities.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The chocolate factory is the physical embodiment of the difference between poverty and wealth. Charlie’s poverty-stricken home stands in the shadow of the behemoth chocolate factory, which is filled with untold riches. The chocolate factory also represents the idea that things cannot be fairly judged from an outside perspective. It seems enormous from the outside, but its true glories lie below ground, where they cannot be seen without a closer look.
Like the chocolate factory, the golden ticket is a physical manifestation of the difference between poverty and wealth. Finding the golden ticket allows Charlie to live his dream. As its name indicates, the golden ticket is made entirely of gold. It is the most valuable thing Charlie has ever touched. But it also represents a leveling of the playing field between the rich and the poor. Charlie has just as much chance as anyone else to find a ticket. The ticket represents hope.
For Charlie, the great glass elevator represents his future. The elevator allows Charlie to see the world laid out before him. But before Charlie can reach that point of clarity, he must trust the elevator and remain willing to ride on through all of the turbulence and frightening times. Once Charlie can accept uncertainty as part of his future, the elevator takes him to the place where his future is at hand. Once there, Charlie must be brave enough to stand on uncertain ground and seize his own fortune.
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