The Bucket family—the hero of the story, Charlie Bucket; his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Bucket; and his four grandparents, Grandpa Joe, Grandma Josephine, Grandpa George, and Grandma Georgina—is a loving but poor family. They live in a small house with only one bed, which the four grandparents share. Charlie and his parents sleep on mattresses on the floor. Mr. Bucket works in a toothpaste factory and barely earns enough money to feed his family. They are forced to subsist on bread and margarine for breakfast, boiled potatoes and cabbage for lunch, and cabbage soup for supper. Charlie longs for more filling foods, especially chocolate, which he receives only once a year on his birthday. On that day he gets one bar of Wonka chocolate, which he savors for months and months. Charlie’s house sits on the outskirts of a large town that is famous for the Wonka chocolate factory. Charlie must pass by the Wonka chocolate factory every day on his way to and from school. Each day as he walks by the factory’s colossal iron gates, Charlie inhales deeply and prays that someday he will get to venture inside the factory.
Every night after dinner, Charlie goes into his grandparents’ room. Just the sight of Charlie enlivens his grandparents. Grandpa Joe tells stories to amuse Charlie, and the others listen in rapture. One evening Charlie asks his grandparents about the Wonka chocolate factory, and Grandpa Joe tells Charlie the story of Mr. Wonka. He begins by saying Mr. Wonka is the greatest chocolate maker in the whole world and his factory is the biggest in the whole world. Grandpa Joe recounts many of Mr. Wonka’s amazing feats, including his more than two hundred varieties of candy bars, which are eaten by kings and presidents across the world. Grandpa Joe also regales Charlie with tales of impossible Wonka inventions, such as ice cream that stays frozen in the sun, marshmallows that taste like flowers, and chewing gum that never loses its flavor. During the storytelling, Mr. and Mrs. Bucket stand in the doorway and share in the listening enjoyment.
The opening chapters of the story create a stark dichotomy between what Charlie has and what he does not have, which demonstrates Charlie’s infinitely patient and humble character. Charlie’s four grandparents—all of whom are over ninety—require constant care from his mother, and his father’s meager wages barely buy enough food for their family. The physical differences between Charlie’s home and the chocolate factory further reinforce this dichotomy: Charlie lives in small wooden house on the outskirts of town. The chocolate factory is gigantic, indomitable, and the guardian of untold treasures. Indeed, Charlie’s mattress lies within the shadow of the factory, and he is constantly bombarded with the sight of overabundance while he himself is nearly starving to death. Grandpa Joe’s stories about the wondrous creations lying within the Wonka vault further magnify the difference between what Charlie has and what others have.
Dahl employs an overly familiar writing style, in which he talks to his reader as if telling the story out loud to an audience. He does this in order to point out to the reader important details, such as with whom to sympathize. Dahl makes Charlie a universally loveable character by having him courteously address the reader—“How d’you do? And how d’you do? And how d’you do, again? I’m pleased to meet you.” —and by almost overemphasizing the hardships in Charlie’s life, like the torture of seeing other kids indulge in chocolate while he goes hungry. Dahl accentuates these hardships through the use of italicizing and further through the use of exclamation points.