“‘Oh, don’t worry about them!’ cried Mr. Wonka. ‘They’re always laughing! They think everything’s a colossal joke’” (Dahl 81).
When you think about the story line of Roald Dahl’s famous children’s book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory it may seem a little off-putting. It is essentially the story of five kids who visit a chocolate factory where all of the works are slaves and four of the five children only narrowly escape death. In truth, the infamous Willy Wonka comes across as more villain than hero. Yet, since its first publication in 1964, the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has gone through multiple editions and has been the subject of two widely successful move adaptions. How is it that such a story can come across as, not only palatable, but widely endearing? The success of the book lies in no small part with Dahl’s use of humor.
In the essay “Humor and the Body in Children’s Literature,” Roderick McGillis explores a number of different forms of humor that are often found in children’s literature, and Dahl makes use of almost all of them. From funny names and strange words to playing with size and strange foods, there seems to be humor embedded into each twist and turn through Wonka’s elaborately whimsical factory. Perhaps, however, the type of humor that is most true to Dahl’s work lies in the idea exaggeration and fantasy (McGillis 267). Certainly in, a factory that makes jawbreakers that never get smaller, ice-cream that never melts, and gum that can take the place of an entire meal whatever happens exists outside of the realm of reality and believability. It is from this place of suspended reality that we are able to find humor in the torture of children.
Indeed, the idea of grotesque and unpleasant humor seems to be a reoccurring theme throughout the novel. One of the earliest examples of this is when one of the children, Augustus Gloop, falls into a chocolate river and gets sucked into a pipe that leads to the fudge room. While his parents are clearly distraught by what is happening to their child, the reader cannot help but to laugh as the Oompa-Loompas sing about the possible market success of “Augustus-favored chocolate-coated Gloop” (76). This occurs time and time again as Violet turns into a blueberry, swelling and turning purple, before being rolled out of the room with her parents close behind, Veruca and her parents get pushed down a pipe to the furnace (which luckily for them only gets lit every other day) and Mike Teavee is zapped into a million pieces before popping back up small enough to be carried out in his mother’s hand. The children are removed from the factory tour one by one with no knowledge of what will happen to them. When we seem then again leaving the factory at the end of the story, they appear to be unharmed yet not unscathed. The pressure of the tube has thinned Augustus, Violet is back to her original size but not her original color, Veruca is covered in trash but it must have been a day when the furnace is not lit, and Mike has been stretched out so that he towers over even the adults and is as thin as a pencil (Dahl 148). Sure, these kids have been tortured, but at least the reader can get a good laugh out of it.
As evident in some of the examples above, size is a large contributor to the humor of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Even before Augustus gets sucked into a tube, he is the subject of the reader’s laughter due to the fact that he is significantly overweight. In fact, the illustrations show him almost as round as blueberry Violet. Augustus’ weight is the subject of many jokes and remarks such as when the rest of the children each take one blade of edible grass and Augustus grabs a handful. The reader laughs again as Violet grows in size and once more when Mike shrinks. While not depicted on the page, the reader cannot help but to laugh as well at the idea of Mike being stretched by a gum machine or Violet being juiced. In these moments, and many other in the story, the manipulation of the body becomes a source of humor.
Yet, it is not just the children that are subject to bodily humor. Perhaps the most obvious examples of characters in the story that are designed strictly for humor are the Oompa-Loompas. Putting aside the overt racism of having a tribe of people living and working inside of a chocolate factory while wearing leaves and furs, one cannot help but to find humor in Wonka’s work force. With their strange names and small stature, standing as tall as an average adult’s knee, the Oompa-Loompas come across as just another element of the whimsical chocolate factory. The Oompa-Loompas are also directly responsible for much of the humor surrounding the fates of the children through the songs that they sing whenever one of the rejected children is carted out of the room.
Ultimately, it must be said that the Wonka Factory is home to humor in many forms, and it is because of this humor that Dahl has secured a place in the tradition of children’s literature.