5 Golden Themes "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" Teaches Children to Treasure
Every writer has a handful of books that hold a special place on their bookshelf. More than just our favorites or those we turn to for reference, these books are cherished for being the ones we read or had read to us when we were children.
They took us to unique and sometimes magical places and gave us permission to laugh, imagine, and dream. They felt like they were written to us as much as they were written about us; and they were some of the first stories that inspired us to tell stories of our own.
Of course, few books hold as celebrated a place on my own childhood bookshelf as Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
There are many reasons why Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has become such an everlasting gobstopper of children’s literature.
A simple and sometimes bizarre morality play with iconic characters and a colorful, candy-filled world, Roald Dahl’s writing has always blended the familiar and the fantastic like the ingredients in Willy Wonka’s own chocolate waterfall.
And yet, what should never be lost beneath the bubbling chocolate rivers, great glass elevators, and eccentricity of the great Willy Wonka are the simple themes and character traits of goodness, kindness, and generosity that make Charlie Bucket stand out from his fellow Golden Ticket holders.
In a time when so many things in society seem to be unraveling all around us, it might be worth our time to once again unwrap and savor several of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s most treasured themes.
Here, then are five themes Charlie and the Chocolate Factory teaches us to treasure.
Family is More Precious Than All the Golden Tickets in the World
Despite their differences, one thing that every adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has in common with the book is the relationship Charlie Bucket shares with his family.
Without this connection, the heart of this story is lost, and the colorful, candy-filled world of Wonka’s chocolate factory becomes nothing more than spectacle… sweet as it may be.
The family is the bedrock of any healthy civilization, and when the family is no longer valued or is intentionally disrupted, we are walking down the road to our own demise.
From the very beginning of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, we see just how much Charlie loves and treasures his family, in the same way they love and treasure him. His parents and four grandparents mean everything to him, and he would not trade any of them for all the money or chocolate in the world.
Roald Dahl certainly goes out of his way to remind us how dire the Buckets’ financial situation is, but Dahl works just as hard to highlight the bond that has held the Bucket family together through good times and, as we see, a whole lot of bad.
It doesn’t take a literary scholar to identify the theme of contrasted wealth that runs deeply through many of Dahl’s stories. I’m sure most would agree, including the Buckets, that a change in circumstances for this humble family would be wonderful.
However, even though a miracle and supernatural extension of grace do arrive for the Buckets in the form of the Golden Ticket, the material (or lack thereof) does not define or inform the Bucket family.
For the Buckets, love and happiness as a family are independent from the material; and in many ways, they even supersede it.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Augustus Gloop, Veruca Salt, Violet Beauregard, and Mike Teavea, who are rude, ungrateful, impatient, and disrespectful children, who see their parents as nothing more than a means to an end.
But as we know, no amount of chocolate, bubble gum, magic squirrels, or television will ever satisfy an unhappy, greedy child.
The parents, of course, bear the brunt of the blame for their child’s behavior because they’ve given them everything except boundaries, values, and discipline that lead to good character. As the Oompa Loompas sing, following Veruca Salt’s drop down the garbage chute, “a girl can’t spoil herself you know.”
In contrast, Charlie Bucket is kind, honest, grateful, and selfless. He loves his parents and respects his grandparents; and he’s willing to give up what he wants for his family's needs.
Though Charlie does eventually inherit the chocolate factory, he’d happily give it up to be with his family or make sure they can share in his joy, affirming another important life epiphany:
“Happiness only real when shared.” -Christopher McCandless (Into the Wild)
A Little Generosity Goes a Long Way
Speaking of sharing, a key character trait that helps Charlie capture the hearts of his readers early on is his innate sense of gratitude and generosity.
Where the other Golden Ticket winners have everything in the world and appreciate nothing, Charlie has very little but is grateful for everything. Beyond being quietly content, Charlie is also generous with what little he has.
For example, on his birthday he offers some of his only birthday present, the one Wonka bar he receives each year, to every member of his family.
In the 1971 film adaptation, Charlie offers some of his first paycheck to help his grandfather buy tobacco for his pipe.
In the 2005 adaptation, Charlie even offers to sell his Golden Ticket to help his family buy groceries and keep a roof over their head.
The problem with the other children is not that they come from families with means, it’s that they’ve been spoiled to the point that they lack all sense of gratitude, compassion, self-control, and generosity.
Charlie, however, has been raised very differently, and it shows.
As it is written in the Proverbs of Solomon, “a generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed.” (Proverbs 11:25)
Likewise, Charlie Bucket proves that those who are faithful with little are often entrusted with more, in the same way those who are generous with little are more inclined to be generous when they have more.
It’s not a question of means; it’s a matter of the heart, which Charlie has in “Buckets”.
Stories Rejuvenate the Soul
Though perennially down on their luck, the Buckets, particularly Charlie and Grandpa Joe find moments of happiness in the stories they share with each other.
Dahl writes, “for perhaps half an hour every night, this room would become a happy place, and the whole family would forget that it was hungry and poor.”
Is this not what good stories shared with those we love provide? A moment of reprieve from the troubles of the day and an infusion of hope for the days to come?
For Charlie, Grandpa Joe’s stories of the past and his wondrous descriptions of the chocolate factory are the best part of his day. For Grandpa Joe, getting to spend time with Charlie and share wonderful stories with his grandson rejuvenate his soul and make an old man as “eager and excited as a young boy.”
Both characters are captivated by the mysteries of the factory and delighted by the secrets of Wonka’s chocolate-making process. These stories, conversations, and quest for a Golden Ticket give them something to talk about, dream about, and hope for together.
As the apostle Paul wrote, “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." (Philippians 4:8)
Like tiny bites of chocolate they rarely get to enjoy, simple conversations, memories, dreams, and stories are the sweet moments of life worth savoring.
Opportunity Amplifies Character… or the Lack Thereof
Unlike Charlie, the other children who enter the chocolate factory have everything and appreciate nothing. Finding a Golden Ticket does nothing to improve their character. If anything, these opportunities expose and even amplify what is already there.
The tour of the factory reveals what is rotten about each of these children as a tale of caution for all to observe. In many ways, each child is undone by his or her own vice.
Augustus Gloop is greedy and gluttonous, “deaf to everything except the call of his stomach.” In the end, he is “consumed” by the very thing he once consumed.
Violet Beauregard is obnoxious, self-indulgent, and brash. She swells to the size of her own ego and must be rolled away.
Veruca Salt is entitled, spoiled, and impatient. She is rotten from the inside out and tossed down the garbage chute as a “bad nut”, along with her father.
Mike Teavea is obsessed with modern media and captivated by violence on television. His body shrinks to the size of his empty, vapid brain.
The candy of Wonka's factory is sweet and wonderful, but even good things can become a personal pitfall when corrupted, polluted, or consumed in excess. It’s a reason why Wonka despises the “artificial” so much.
It’s worth noting that once Charlie enters the chocolate factory, he doesn’t experience as much of a growth arc as we might expect. In many ways, he doesn’t have to. Like his Grandpa Joe, he’s just happy to even be in the factory, taking in every tasty wonder he encounters.
Unlike the others, Charlie doesn’t go through as much of a personal transformation. Rather, his goodness and kindness are recognized and rewarded. And though his character doesn’t dramatically change, his existing character, coupled with opportunity, are what help change his circumstances.
Celebrate the Unexpected Blessings of Life
As Willy Wonka treasures his precious chocolate, he cherishes seeing others enjoy it just as much. Herein lies one of the greatest themes of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and hope for today.
Charlie is chosen to run the factory because he is sensible, kind, teachable, and generous, in contrast to the other children. However, he also understands that the good things in life, however infrequent they may be, should be savored but also shared.
In the end, when Charlie, Grandpa Joe, and Willy Wonka arrive in the great glass elevator to retrieve Charlie’s family and whisk them away to the factory, Charlie’s parents and grandparents are initially hesitant to leave. They’ve lived in squalor for so long that they’ve almost forgotten what it’s like to have a full belly and solid roof over their heads; and in some ways, they’re afraid to step out in faith to actually enjoy a better life. It’s uncomfortable because it’s unfamiliar.
Thankfully, Charlie and Grandpa Joe have witnessed the wonders of the chocolate factory that they cannot keep it to themselves. It may take a bit of a push getting the family there, but Charlie has experienced something so wonderful that he has to share it with those he loves, and he won’t stop until they get to experience it for themselves.
Ironically, sometimes we too need a reminder to actually accept grace and the unexpected blessings of life, not squander the gifts and opportunities we’ve been given.
We cannot control when or if we find life’s Golden Tickets, but in the end, our kindness, goodness, generosity, gratitude, and especially family are worth more than all the Golden Tickets and chocolate bars of this world. They are worth celebrating and savoring.
It may not be easy in the times we are living in, but in the wise words of Willy Wonka:
“you mustn’t despair… for nothing is impossible! You watch!”
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