Friday, November 26, 2010

Willy Wonka as Marie Antoinette: Classism in Children's Classics

"Let them eat cake... er... chocolate!"

I know that, at least per director Sofia Coppola's film Marie Antoinette, the soon-to-be-beheaded French monarch never made that insensitive comment. Telling her hungry subjects to eat cake, I mean. What kind of a monster would do such a thing, after all? Telling hungry people to eat bon-bons when all they want is a good square meal, or better yet, the ability to earn the money to give their family good square meals every day from now on?

Teach a Frenchman to fish, and he learns a trade. Give a Frenchman a fish, and he makes salmon crudites. (or something like that)

But then, what about the beloved Mr. Willy Wonka of Roald Dahl's children's classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? Doesn't he do the same thing as ole Queen Marie A.? Doesn't he tell the poor and hungry to, well, eat chocolate?

I didn't remember the depths of the Bucket family's poverty until I began reading the story aloud to my 6 and 8 year olds recently. Chapter 10: The Family Begins to Starve was tonight's fare, and although both I and my 8year old knew the outcome of the story (as did, really, my 6year old too who kept insisting "Charlie must get the fifth golden ticket. There's only one left and why else would the story be called Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?), all of us had tears in our eyes as I read about the family's hunger. We shivered as the cold drafts swept through the ramshackle Bucket house, we felt that watery cabbage soup slip down our throats, we could see Charlie saving his energy - taking 10 extra minutes on the way to school, resting at recess while the other children played - lest he use up his meager physical resources on anything but dire necessity. When the frail old grandparents - all four piled up in a bed - retold the story of Charlie trying to slip his mother his breakfast, all of our hearts broke. As the adult in the room, I even took it further, imagining the frustration of an elderly grandparent consuming finite family resources while he watches his beloved grandson starve before his eyes. Death, I imagined, would be welcome for Grandpa Joe if it meant that Charlie got an extra 1/2 potato at lunchtime.

Then, a miracle happens. Charlie wins this storybook's version of the lottery. His numbers strike in the form of the fifth golden ticket to Mr. Willy Wonka's magical candy factory - place of dreams and unending chocolate waterfalls. Dahl's writing, like that chocolate waterfall, is delicious and filling - it transports you from the vividness of starvation to that heavenliness of golden possibilities - possibilities that sweep Charlie out of poverty right before serious malnutrition and end-organ damage set in.

But then my observant 6 year old opened my eyes wide to the classism of this narrative:

Daughter (outraged): "Wait a minute, Charlie's family is starving, and all Mr. Wonka will give them is chocolate?"

Me: "Er, maybe he'll give them food too."

Daughter (not buying it, the guy owns a chocolate factory after all, not a Whole Foods): "You know, they'll get brown teeth if they eat all that chocolate."

Me: "Er, maybe they'll brush alot."

Daughter: "I don't know if they have the money to buy toothbrushes. They're very poor, you know."

Me: "Er..."

Daughter: "Now, if Willy Wonka gives them toothbrushes too, that would be fair, because it would be mean to give them so much chocolate and no toothbrushes."

Indeed. It is pretty unfair to hand out chocolate like there is no tomorrow, and not hand out toothbrushes too.  Or that adult version of the toothbruth - dental insurance. Mr. Bucket just lost his job at the toothpaste factory, after all. Without any severance. Or labor protests. Or union safety nets. And definitely no unemployment insurance. Certainly no Medicaid for the old folks. No Child Health Plus for Charlie. No WIC for mommy.

And what about that one, singular lottery ticket anyway? What about all the other Charlies and Charlines who didn't find tickets? And never will?

Dahl's narrative, besides being a thinly disguised portrayal of African slavery in the form of the Oompa-Loompas, also manifests the noble poor narrative made famous by the ever-cheerful Tiny Tim of A Christmas Carol. The 'deserving' poor don't complain, or organize toothpaste factory walk-outs, but soldier on cheerfully, trying to sneak their mums their own breaksfasts as their stomach linings turn in on themselves. And as a reward for such behavior, and such gastric gymnastics, they find golden tickets, and maybe even inherit untold wealth from kooky old uncles (think Dickens' Great Expectations, and remember too that all the other golden tickets winners except Charlie represent greed, avarice, and excessive gum chewing and TV watching).

Be poor, kids, but don't complain, and maybe - just maybe - you'll inherit a chocolate factory staffed by your own unpaid, imprisoned, slave population! Noble (white) poor becomes king/employer/factory owner of kind-of-noble (Black) savages? Eek. Did Dahl really have to go there?

What other children's stories portray poverty and how? All I can think about right now is Dickens, and that poor, dirty faced Oliver wanting extra porridge.

"Please, sir, can I have some more?"

Well, what about showing how Oliver, or Charlie, or Pip, didn't just make it as individuals, but organized their communities? (Does organizing a community of pickpockets make the Artful Dodger some kind of neo-Marxist?) What about teaching a boy to make a chocolate factory, rather than fish in one?


I think that's a chocolate covered (gluten free) eclair over there calling my name.


  1. I remember when I revisited Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when reading to my children and thinking about the colonialism of the novel that I, as a child, couldn't comprehend.

    I also just read The Witches by Dahl for the first time and found it offensive. As it turns out, I am not alone. I think that reading words like bald women are "indecent" would offend anyone who has seen a woman live through the ravages of cancer treatment. And if I had not known there were other women out there who found the book offensive, I probably would have internalized the perception as a personal issue.

    Andersen's fairy tales have children who are not wealthy and The Little House books are another example of children growing up without affluence. I've never read all of the latter but there was a strong sense of community in the first book in spite of the financial struggles everyone faced.

    That's all I can think of off the top of my head at the moment. It is not yet 4:30am and I haven't had my morning coffee.

  2. Thanks Satia! I agree about "The Witches" 100% - I loved it as a child but when I revisited it all I could see was how mysogynist it was! (women who eat children rather than, as they should, bear them)

    You're right - Andersen's "Little Match Girl" - all about noble poverty, but unlike Charlie, she doesn't find a Golden Ticket - for her, it doesn't 'get better.'

    One of the links above is to a post about "Little House" - but to the racism in it, I didn't really think about the money issues (although someone told me recently the real Pa Ingalls had to move all the time because he was in so much debt - The House at Plum Creek was apparently a case of them just squatting on land - I haven't looked up the veracity of that!)

    Thanks for visiting - and hope you're enjoying your coffee!

  3. I'm sitting here at my kitchen table asking my daughter and her friend if they've read any books where the main character is poor...mostly because I'm having a hard time thinking of any. Or at least any with any substance! THey suggest My Side of the Mountain -- where the family isn't completely impoverised, but they have bunches of children and there isn't enough room for them all, so the boy runs away. Interesting... Jane Smiley's series that begins with The Georges and the Jewels is about a poor ranching family... Now I'm going to be on the lookout!

  4. fantastic post, and great blog. i'm finding that re-reading childhood favourites with my daughter has brought about many complex conversations of this sort; sometimes she'll suggest alternate endings/scenarios....:)

    Oh -- Lois Lenski's books protrayed poverty in different US regions.

  5. Hi Olugbemisola - pleased to 'meet' you -- and glad you liked the post. OO, Lois Lenski, yes, thanks for reminding me. Recently did a post on radical children's lit - there's Lenski stuff in those links:

    Thanks for visiting and I hope you continue to do so...Did I recently see a conversation you did with Mitali Perkins? Just interviewed her (prev post to this one)... she's so lovely and generous..

    Kari - I have to go look at My Side of the Mountain again, SOO long since I read it but just saw it on boy's bookshelf. Oh, and you just blogged about Jane Smiley, but go read too!

  6. This was a great post, very interesting to read- funny, albeit a little disconcerting. Good old Roald Dahl, though, what a guy. To be honest, I've never read this book- I read Matilda, the BFG, James and the Giant Peach, but never Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I remember wondering how a lifetime supply of chocolate would help, though. And Willy Wonka never struck me as that great of a person. I'll definitely be looking at the link on the Oompa Loompas! Thanks for this one.

  7. I read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in 6th grade but even than I remember thinking that giving away chocolate like that wasn't meant to feed them, was just a way to get his brand out there. lol

    The secret garden is the only one that comes to mind. The girl was an orphan, even though her uncle was rich, and some of the secondary characters didn't have much I think. None of them were all that poor though. Maybe The Prince and the Pauper? Anne of Green Gables? Which is another orphan story. Now that I think of it all three have a fairy tale aspect to them.

  8. Thanks Chutzpah! Do look up the Phil Nel blog on oompa loompas and more - it's brilliant (there's a link to it on my post about little house)
    Storytreasury - love the idea of a little kid knowing the whole golden ticket thing is just a product placement scheme - hah!
    Good thoughts with Prince and the Pauper and Anne of Green Gables... also the Secret Garden, and I just realized the Little Princess, right? In that one, she's rich, then poor, because they think her dad is dead, but it is a little problematic because we only feel sad that she must act like a maid beause she's 'rightfully' not a maid... hm... but she IS very nice to Becky, the little maid she befriends, still...

  9. Ooh, great post and links -- thank you! Yes, Mitali is really wonderful -- on the page and in person, she just shines. I'm so glad and grateful for her!

  10. Thanks Olugbemisola - I agree she's just fabulous! So glad we 'met' in this space - and looking forward to following your blog, etc. too!

  11. Most of these are pretty matter of fact about poverty--the characters may not have much, but their lack is not necessarily the driving force behind their actions and it's not the dire circumstances of Charlie's family: The Tillerman cycle by Cynthia Voigt, Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls, The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, Cat Royal adventures by Julia Golding, Ashes of Roses by Mary Jane Auch.
    And then there are novels set in poor countries like The Breadwinner, Homeless Bird, Sold, Under My Mother's Feet, etc where poverty is much more of a driving force and constantly present thing.

  12. Thanks de Pizan! wonderful! I can't believe I didn't think of the SE Hinton's novels - I LOVE her. (in fact, the other one, not the outsiders, but Tex is a lot about the two brothers scraping by... even the outsiders is about the rich kids and the poor kids..)