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Willy Wonka: A Lesson in Consumerism

Malu Rocha on how Charlie and the Chocolate Factory reflects growing consumer behaviour

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Image Credit: Penguin

Fifty-odd titles added to Netflix every month, new bestselling novels hitting the shelves at Waterstones every day,more than 500,000 active podcasts at my disposal and yet here I am re-reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for the billionth time. My excuse this time? Roald Dahl Day has just passed and I could not let it go by unnoticed.

Arguably Dahl’s most popular novel,Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has sprung two films, a musical, and countless Halloween costumes. However, I am not here to argue that Tim Burton’s version is too cartoonish or that Gene Wilder was a better Willy Wonka than Johnny Depp. I am here to say that Charlie’s story, in all of its formats, not only accurately reflects today’s society and some of its perils, but also teaches us some invaluable moral lessons about ruthless consumerism along the way.

But let’s start at the beginning. Before Wonka even makes his grand appearance, we are introduced to his peculiar and exquisite personality through the allure of a kick-ass marketing campaign where he invites five lucky children to his factory. I would be lying to my 10 year old self if I said I never opened a chocolate bar pretending there was a Golden Ticket inside and hoping that a magic chocolatier wearing a purple blazer would somersault out of thin air and greet me with open arms; a perfect illustration of Wonka’s mysteriously charming character.

According to his biographer Donald Sturrock, as Road Dahl was in the process of creating Wonka’s character back in the 1960s,his two children fell very ill. He explains that Dahl seemed to pour himself into Wonka, creating in him a character that with a ‘sense of magic’ and a dominant personality could overcome anything. Sturrock claims that the more you know about Dahl’s back story and the circumstances in his life surrounding the creation of Willy Wonka’s character, ‘the more sympathetic and extraordinary Wonka becomes.’

But in a world full of Oompa Loompas, chocolate waterfalls, baffling boat rides and magic elevators,it’s undeniable that a couple of aspects surrounding Mr. Willy Wonka himself remain dubious.Because of his equivocal personality, he can sometimes be misinterpreted as controlling or creepy with his many riddles being somewhat annoying. Some even claim that he orchestrated the whole factory tour before hand and that every child’s disappearance was planned well in advance, despite him nonchalantly acting as if they were mere accidents.

Considering that this novel contains some questionable plot holes, and that Willy Wonka himself is a bit wacky, you might be wondering why on earth I am telling you to take his anti-consumerism advice as a life lesson. Ultimately it all comes down to this;Willy Wonka teaches us that good things happen to good people, and Charlie is a good person. Why? Because he knows how to appreciate the small things in life without constantly demanding more. And even though good and bad are arbitrary standards, Charlie’s pure intentions outweigh all the other children's that were invited to the factory. Willy Wonka acknowledges that, and so should we.

It’s no coincidence that the four other children who find a Golden Ticket represent a parade of characters who cannot help but fall into temptation that has risen from their own character flaws. Augustus Gloop is a gluttonous chocoholic whose addiction is encouraged by his parents; Mike Teavee is a lazy television buff who falls victim to his own obsession;Violet Beauregard is a demanding punk, to put it simply; and Veruca Salt is a spoiled brat who perfectly embodies greed at its worse.

Firstly, hats off to Dahl for gifting us with these marvellous character names. And secondly, the reason all of these children inevitably met their terrible fate is partly because they failed to resist temptation and partly because they were accompanied by overindulgent parents. The worst thing is, when they were being eliminated one by one inside Wonka’s chocolate factory, their parents immediately turned to Willy Wonka asking him to bend the rules and save their child, when in fact, they should have been saved a long time ago.

Sadly, this scenario is not exclusive to fictional stories. Children often become the product of a greedy society because their parents blindly support and sometimes even unknowingly encourage inappropriate behaviour, not least inappropriate consumer behaviour. As the Oompa Loompas said it best, “Blaming the kid is a lie and a shame / You know exactly who to blame”.

Although some parents might pride themselves in having some hint of self control and not behaving exactly like the over the top characters in the novel,others might blush at the number of times they have succumbed to insane wishes and can’t help but recognise the similarities between themselves and the characters when it comes to fulfilling their children’s consumerist driven demands.

Unfortunately, the encouragement of consumerist behaviour among children is a pattern that is coming up more and more often in modern children’s literature. In a thesis published by the University of Vermont, Rachel Franz analysed over 30 picture books and concluded that a vast majority contained pro consumer messages.

Whether that be through an image of a smiling kid surrounded by dozens of dolls,or a plot driven by a puppy desperate for a new bone toy, most children’s books nowadays encourage consumer behaviour. Exposing children to messages praising materialism will only ever increase consumer culture and encourage young children to wrongly think that material goods equate to happiness.

No wonder we’re becoming a pervasive consumerist society; the numbers confirm it. According to recent figures released by the Office for National Statistics, consumer spending in the UK is now the highest it has been since 2005,reaching a mark of over £1.34 trillion last year. That’s a lot of money spent on piles upon piles of ‘stuff ’.

There is no one better to embody this mentality than the one and only Veruca Salt.The Oompa Loompas, ever so wise, refer to her as “the little brute”. A walking and talking impersonation of greed, Veruca wants everything. Now.

When Wonka’s campaign was announced,finding a Golden Ticket became her latest obsession and she demanded buying every chocolate bar in the world until she found what she wanted. Her father gave in to her dictatorial power and mobilised every worker in his factory to grant her that wish even though, in plain terms, it was completely insane.

When the ticket was finally presented to her, she looked at it with sparkling eyes for a few moments, before turning to her father with a straight face and saying, “Daddy, I want another pony.” In a consumerist world, happiness is brief. This is a perfect illustration of the central paradox of consumption, and Veruca holds up a mirror to society making us question our own habits.

While her parents encourage her consumerist behaviour, Willy Wonka condemns it. When the factory tour reaches the Nut Sorting Room, Veruca instantly decides that she wants a cute little squirrel as a pet. In turn, the squirrels all gang up on her and classify her as a ‘bad nut’, sending her down the rubbish chute. This is Willy Wonka’s not so subtle way of teaching us that greed is in fact a deadly sin and should be punished.

Willy Wonka shows us how the world can be twisted in some pretty dark ways,but it’s not all doom and gloom because he then presents us with a way out; be humble and grateful like Charlie and you will be rewarded. Charlie never crossed the line, never disobeyed an order, and always maintained a respectful posture; he was guided by good intentions and good morals.

Few novels have been so revolutionary in portraying anxieties about consumer culture and its potential to corrupt young children as Road Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The fact that a children’s book has enough narrative depth to captivate young children,cynical adults, and academics alike speaks for itself. And the most magical thing of all if you ask me: the lessons it teaches us are applicable to everyone.

At its core, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a classic rags-to-riches story about a humble boy who becomes the owner of a marvellous chocolate factory not by giving in to consumer culture and being greedy, but simply by being a good person. And at the end of the day, I believe that all Roald Dahl is trying to teach us is that being nice will get you much further in life than any material goods ever will. And if that’s not a life lesson to live by, I don’t know what is.

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