Friday, September 15, 2017

Looking Back: Charlie & the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

By Elisa Gall

“Nostalgia for childhood favorites is not evidence that a children’s book is not racist.” 
A photo of the tattered paperback of Charlie and the
Chocolate Factory
I read as a child.
Dr. Sarah Park Dahlen, Assistant Professor of Library and Information Science at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, MN, recently shared this quote from her syllabus for her Dismantling Racism: Social Justice and Children’s Literature class. It was a fitting quote for me to see, because I saw it right when I started to reread Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, hands-down my favorite book from childhood. It’s the first chapter book I remember reading independently (and then rereading again and again and again). When my class studied it in second grade, my teacher (who, BTW, had one of those pillow-filled bathtubs one could lounge and read in) snuck handmade golden tickets into a few of the chocolate bars that she later gave to us. I was one of the lucky students to find one, and my prize was not having to ask permission to get a drink from the water fountain for a whole day. In the years that followed, I’d speak to my preference of Joseph Schindelman’s illustrations over Sir Quentin Blake’s, and to the 1971 film adaptation over the Johnny Depp version. I saw the book-inspired musical in London and trekked to Great Missenden to visit Dahl’s hometown and the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre. The list of ways that this story has influenced my life could go on and on - it’s probably safe to say that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is what sparked my love of reading and children’s literature that I still have today. And it is also safe to say that the book is seeping with racism, as well as other -isms. That’s part of its influence too.

I remember becoming aware of Dahl’s reputation as a bigot as I grew older, a reputation built on things he said and wrote (such as the line in James and the Giant Peach that reads, "I'd rather be fried alive and eaten by a Mexican!"). In high school a teacher shared that the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory I grew up reading was an edited version in which “African pygmies” had been changed to bearded, troll-like Oompa-Loompas. (I later learned through Philip Nel that Schindelman had created illustrations for the original, and it took almost a decade for the edit. The 1964 text copyright remains.) In rereading the book this month, what struck me as strengths are the innovative mix of text and image (especially at the beginning when characters are introduced) and the light, whimsical, direct voice with lots of CAPITALIZATION and exclamations! It’s all very theatrical, with exciting pacing and dare-I-say delicious descriptions of Wonka’s inventions and sweets. But appreciation of those strengths can only happen if you aren’t distracted by the sizeism, colonialism, ageism, and racism also reflected in the book’s pages. Augustus Gloop is greedy. Being fat is described as “repulsive” and a moral failure. India is exotified as a place where Prince Pondicherry, a generic, turban-wearing “Indian Prince,” will not listen to Wonka’s wisdom and builds a palace made of 100% chocolate that melts in the burning sun. Charlie’s 90-something grandparents are bedridden and helpless, “shriveled as prunes, and as bony as skeletons...with nothing to do.” And the Oompa-Loompas, members of a “tribe” Wonka “imported” to live and “work” at his factory, perpetuate the myth of “happy slaves.” Wonka did them a favor, the thinking goes, because he got them out of a bad situation (he shipped them to his factory in humorously drawn boxes “with holes in them”). He is paying them, but let’s not forget it is in cacao beans, which the Oompa-Loompas are addicted to thanks to Wonka’s influence. Oompa-Loompas give “whoops” of joy and are described as wonderful workers who love dancing and music. They wear leaves, bang drums as they chant their songs, and arrive for service at three clicks of Wonka’s fingers. They are also test subjects for Wonka’s experiments, and he doesn’t show much remorse when those experiments go wrong. This Oompa-Loompa narrative normalizes enslavement and reinforces racial stereotypes as well as colonial mentalitythat these Oompa-Loompas are “better off” under the care (and control) of Wonka. I am reminded of a post by Daniel José Older in which he shares:

Frederick Douglass never allowed himself to be photographed smiling so as not to
perpetuate the myth of the “happy slave.” He also warned against being “told of the
contentment of the slaves, and...entertained with vivid pictures of their happiness.” He was astonished to encounter northerners who believed the slaves’ song was proof of their happiness: “It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears."

I also can’t stop thinking about the messaging around Charlie, the poor, White, innocent “hero,” who stays silent and follows the rules while evil works around him (and benefits from that evil in the end); to me, Charlie exemplifies many of the faults with a “non-racist” versus “anti-racist” ideology.

It’s not that I didn’t remember these issues until my recent reread. It is that every time that critical voice or bubble of discomfort arose, I chose not to pay attention to it. It was selective memory, because I did not want to let this book go. I have to call that what it really is: White fragility (and other kinds of fragility, considering the myriad ways this book is problematic). I can’t help but wonder now if my love for this book wasn’t caused by Dahl’s craft at all, but by the joy of remembering reading the book all by myself, or the kickass teacher who made her class immersive and fun (let’s not forget the bathtub). Still, it's worth noting that criticisms of this book are not new. As long as there have been children's books, there have been people working against racism in children's books. My teacher was awesome in a lot of ways, but she did put time and effort into a celebration of THAT title. What if we had read something else? Or what if we had read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory critically?

This book has played a huge role in my life and I can’t and won’t deny that; but, I can no longer defend this book or its author, nor can I stay silent during kidlit gush-fests where both would otherwise go uninterrogated. I’m going to keep my brittle paperback, just as I will continue to work to acknowledge and unlearn the influence of this story and others on my own socialization (which still plays out in my thoughts and actions today). But I don’t have to KEEP loving this book, singing its praises, or perpetuating the cycles and systems of oppression it supports. I can find different booksBETTER booksand experience new memories with all of the readers for whom stories are created and shared. From here, there’s only forward.


Moyrid said...

This is really insightful. Thanks for posting. I, like you, have Roald Dahl to thank for me becoming a reader. Not with this book, which I never liked, but I'm sure the issues in his writing are not limited to this book. I struggled as a reader. I couldn't quite get a handle on it, and his books made it fun. And part of the allure was he was naughty. He wasn't proper. This post doesn't surprise me. I've known this about his work, even if I didn't want to admit it. But I think we let ourselves off the hook when we think we loved his work because they were the first books we read, or because a teacher made them so cool, or because they were popular. That, too, is our white fragility. I think we can be honest that we didn't see the "isms", and that we should have. That we can learn from this, that we can do better, and that we can teach our kids better. And I love that you end your post with that sentiment, we can acknowledge that Roald Dahl helped teach us to become readers, but he maybe also taught us something unpleasant about ourselves and others. And now we're moving on because we want something better for ourselves and our kids.

Moyrid said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
k said...

Thank you for all the work you do writing these essays, I've been following for a while. It's one thing to read and be aware or try to learn awareness but totally different thing to put the work in and take the risks of sharing your experiences and insights online of all places.
This is the second Charlie / Roald Dahl related thing I've read recently. I found the reporting of the following 'revelation'fascinating and wished there had been more investigation and explanation :
It's too bad that some things were edited / manipulated while others were left or delayed that could have radically changed the books we had when growing up.

Carol Simon Levin said...

Yes, I heard something similar on NPR yesterday. Both the NYT and the NPR articles examine the question of Dahl's views on anti-semitism as well. Interesting reads.

On a related note, NPR today ran a story that looked at the complicated racial biases in the "Little House" books: