What Children’s Literature Teaches Us About Money: Roald Dahl’s ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

Welcome to another week of What Children’s Literature Teaches Us About Money. This week, I am going to prove that everything kids are supposed to learn from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is WRONG.

Usually I start these pieces with “here’s what I remember from reading this book as a child,” but the truth is that I know Charlie and the Chocolate Factory pretty well. (I’ve read the book and seen the 1971 movie version a ridiculous amount of times, even as an adult; back when I was more involved in the theater scene, I directed it for a children’s theater company.)

Or, at least, I thought I knew this book—until I re-read it this weekend.

Here’s what kids are supposed to take away from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: Greedy, bratty little kids (who are middle class or rich) annoy everyone around them and eventually get trapped in candy-related torture devices. Kind, obedient, good children (who are nobly poor) charm adults into giving them factories.

Or, the simplified version: goodness gets rewarded and greed gets punished.

But do you know what—and I want to put this in capital letters because DO YOU KNOW WHAT???

The only reason Charlie even goes to the Chocolate Factory is because he is greedy.

For serious. Read it yourself. Charlie’s seven-person family is literally starving. Dahl spends an entire chapter describing the process of starvation, helpfully titled “The Family Begins to Starve.”

Then Charlie finds a dollar in the street. I’m not sure how much a dollar could buy in 1964 (when this book was initially published), but I do know that Claudia and Jamie Kincaid are running around New York during roughly the same time period and they’re getting full Automat meals for 50 cents a pop. So this isn’t an insignificant amount of money.

And yes, Charlie—who we know is starving because Dahl wrote a whole chapter describing it in detail—immediately goes and spends a dime on a Wonka bar just so he can get some food in his stomach.

We can forgive Charlie that. He was hungry and he bought the first food product he saw.

But here’s what happens next:

Charlie went on wolfing the candy. He couldn’t stop. And in less than half a minute, the whole thing had disappeared down his throat. He was quite out of breath, but he felt marvelously, extraordinarily happy. He reached out a hand to take the change. Then he paused. His eyes were just above the level of the counter. They were staring at the little silver coins lying there. The coins were all dimes. There were nine of them altogether. Surely it wouldn’t matter if he spent just one more…

Charlie buys a second candy bar. He planned to bring that money back to his family so they could all eat, but he chooses to feed himself—and on a product that’s hugely overpriced compared to what he could have bought, food-wise.

Charlie’s greed gets him that Golden Ticket.

Compare Charlie to A Little Princess’s Sara Crewe, another child in the classic “if you are good and nobly poor instead of bratty like your wealthy peers, a mysterious stranger with a racially problematic employee will give you a factory” genre. When Sara finds her rando cash in the street, she buys the cheapest foodstuff she can and gives nearly all of it to a beggar child who is “hungrier than she is,” famously keeping just one bun for herself.

Not Charlie. He diverts what could have been family resources towards his own desires, and benefits from it. (I could make the argument that Charlie claiming 20 percent of that dollar is the small-scale equivalent of Mr. Salt stopping production at his factory so that his workers could unwrap candy bars for Veruca, but that seems to be taking it a bit too far. Also, why are there so many factories and diamond mines in these books?)

So yeah, kids: greed wins. Self-centeredness wins. Firing all of your employees and replacing them with Oompa-Loompas who live on your property and accept chocolate in lieu of payment wins.

On the subject of the Oompa-Loompas; you are aware that the original edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory portrayed the Oompa-Loompas as tribal Africans, right? As in “this white man went to Africa, found a tribe, brought them to his factory, gave them a silly name, and paid them in chocolate—but hey, it’s better than living in Africa?”

Those chapters got revised for later editions. The chapter where the Indian stereotype “Prince Pondicherry” demands a palace made of chocolate did not. The chapter where Augustus Gloop is described primarily in terms of his weight is not—and yes, he’s supposed to be greedy, but his greed is secondary to his “great flabby folds of fat.” When Charlie eats two candy bars in a row, it’s okay because he’s skinny and nobly poor. When Augustus eats candy, he’s “repulsive.”

This book really is hard to re-read, when it comes down to it; Augustus is constantly fat-shamed, for starters, and it’s pretty clear that Veruca’s behavior is as much her parents’ problem as it is her own. Violet can be read as a person who uses stimming behaviors to manage anxiety—“To tell you the honest truth, I simply wouldn’t feel comfortable if I didn’t have that little wedge of gum to chew on every moment of the day, I really wouldn’t”—and, if you read Violet as a young girl with undiagnosed autism spectrum disorder (and I’m not the only person who considered that reading, you can look it up) her loud and occasionally socially inappropriate talking takes on an entirely new context.

That leaves Mike Teavee, whom we first see telling off a group of reporters for barging in to his house while he’s watching television, and who can blame him? What I mean to say is that you can read these four children as greedy little brat-monsters, or you can read them as people—and I’m not sure we encourage children to make the latter choice.

We also don’t encourage children to consider just how much greed and self-centeredness our heroes exhibit: Charlie buying that second candy bar, Wonka firing his employees because he’s found Oompa-Loompas to exploit, even Grandpa Joe getting to go to the Chocolate Factory because he hid his mobility from the family until revealing it would allow him to do something fun. It’s fair to read Grandpa Joe as a person with only partial or limited mobility—he can spend one day walking around a Chocolate Factory but has to take three days to recover, etc.—but it’s also fair to ask whether Grandpa Joe could have taken on a portion of the caretaking role at home, enabling Mrs. Bucket to leave the house and bring in a second income. For more on this topic, I suggest you read the brilliant Mallory Ortberg:

The Willy Wonka Sequel That Charlie’s Mother Deserves

In summary: we tell children that this story is about why you should be good; how greed is punished and selflessness is rewarded. (With a factory.)

Now that I’ve re-read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I don’t agree with that interpretation at all. This story is all about rewarding greed. I can’t read it any other way.

Next week: Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game.


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