By Ayesha Siddiqui
The holiday season is upon us. Normally, I would supplement this declaration with cozy and escapist descriptions of the most wonderful time of the year as a precursor to the rest of my article. Except I’m not feeling particularly cozy in the midst of finals season where sleep is a mere luxury, and there is little I wouldn’t give to truly escape the horrors of dreaded university… In fact, as I passed Loblaws on my daily walk to campus this morning, I found myself astonishingly bitter at the sight of the Christmas tree in the window. I felt like it was taunting me with the false allure of the joys of December—joys that I had, as of late, found to be quite absent. I’m not usually this much of a cynic, I promise. I’m just severely sleep-deprived and haunted by the looming deadlines that threaten to wreck my GPA. Typical U of T student things, you know?
Anyways, where was I? While the Loblaws Christmas tree did evoke some kind of visceral dismay in me, it was fleeting. It was incomparable to the duller, yet more enduring kind of despair the establishment of Loblaws evokes on a more general, everyday level. Don’t get me wrong—Loblaws is a delight. Stepping into a grocery store has never felt so regal. It feels perfectly manicured and pristine but with a splash of comfort; gleaming and bountiful, and all for your convenience. And such is the capitalist tragedy. I am reminded of it every time I wander in for a handful of essentials and am met with a bill that makes me avert my gaze in shame. Alas, it is also the only store that lies within a minute of my apartment. Often, the very act of spending is, in itself, a university student’s greatest sorrow. In fact, I’d argue that capitalism is the Achilles’ heel of our very existence. Because seriously, in this economy?
And on that note, I’ll leave you with an excerpt from an essay I wrote in high school about my favourite piece of capitalist propaganda: Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Anyone who tells you it’s a children’s novel is lying.
To What Extent Does Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Reflect the Modern Failings of Capitalism?
The most obvious reading of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is that of a morality tale. Four of the four children have a flaw that ultimately leads to their demise; Augustus eats too much, representing gluttony and excess consumerism. Violet does little else but chew gum all day, an act that is ultimately fruitless and a motif that perhaps represents the emptiness that stems from unbridled capitalism. Susan Honeyman, author of Gingerbread Wishes and Candy(land) Dreams: The Lure of Food in Cautionary Tales of Consumption, develops this stance by tackling the inevitable futility derived from excessive indulgence in wealth:
“Violet’s temptation with the newly invented gum is also a comment on capital. Why is Violet’s passion for bubble gum any worse than Charlie’s aesthetic, albeit remote, appreciation of chocolate? She chews but doesn’t work for or need substance—a point well made with gum, which one does not ingest or digest, mimicking an entire meal (which reminds us that Charlie and his family do need substance, something other than cabbage-and-water soup). Charlie, however, is looking for work and willing to support his family. Like Hansel and Gretel, he’ll bring home the goods. His winning the factory signifies a reward at once tempting and well-earned. It is both exemplary of consumerism and an exception to the passifying rule” (Honeyman, 2007).
Violet chews for nothing, highlighting the superficial, aimless, and idle lives of the upper class, who, after wallowing in extravagance, have little else to work for or obtain contentment from, while there are people who have no choice but to work to simply make ends meet. It is the symbol of conspicuous and empty consumption under capitalism. The rich are empty, one-dimensional, and ignorant simply because they can be.
Veruca desires everything money can (and cannot) buy, representing the exploitation of privilege, at the base of which lies entitlement. A prime instance of this is highlighted when, after being told that the squirrels were not for sale and that she could not have one, Veruca indignantly shouts “Who says I can’t!” (Dahl, p.141), and proceeds to claim a squirrel for herself. Her utter disregard for laws to quench her own wants illustrates her individualistic and self-centered behaviour at the expense of morality and rationality. Moreover, Veruca’s father, Mr. Salt, is an integral addition to her character and its semiotic value; his exploitation of his wealth to buy “all the Wonka bars [he] could lay [his] hands on” because his “little girl told [him] she simply had to have one of those Golden Tickets” (Dahl, p. 40) symbolizes the overconsumption by the rich under capitalism and the massive divide between the rich and the poor, corruption, and the notion that because he can afford to, he is entitled to. Once more, such behaviour is only found in societies where money is seen as the dominant force that imminently decides our fates, i.e. capitalist societies: a society nurturing the notion that money is an unmatched power that can buy anything and everything one is compelled to use it for, which tend to be all sorts of personal gain.
The commonalities between Veruca and her father depict the intergenerational embrace of individualism, greed, and other selfish behaviours cultivated in a capitalist society, as well as the way the rich and privileged are not held accountable for their actions. The ethical implications of their actions are not considered, just like ethics of consumption are not considered under capitalism. Returning to the capitalist argument that anyone can become successful, Veruca’s ability to do this highlights the obvious advantage the rich and privileged have over the working classes. Theoretically, anyone can become successful, but those born into wealth have an inherent and obvious advantage that propels them forward from the beginning. As a result, they can use this already existent wealth in unfair means which not only further fuels their success but also decreases others’ chances.
Mike Teavee is obsessed with television, an asset which, in the mid-1960s and during the time this book is set, was still considered a luxury. As a result, he is ignorant, arrogant, and dismissive of the world, yelling “angrily” at the reporters, saying “Can’t you fools see I’m watching television?” (Dahl, p. 49). He has little regard for anything else and indulges in his privilege, like Violet, without having to do anything of substance. He is a slave to his television and appears to be the antithesis of wonder and creativity, or any such emotion or trait that may suggest he is even slightly excited to receive a once-in-a-lifetime tour to a chocolate factory. His sheer lack of enthusiasm for life is, firstly, very unlike a young child, and secondly, suggests the bleakness of a world in which material objects eradicate simple pleasures of life, instead leaving it cold and unfeeling.
Television also represents technology in general under capitalism: a technology that itself produces or encourages consumption, such as TV advertising. In the years following 1950, after World War Two, massive technological advancements were made, so that by the end of the decade, a huge range of products was available for the average person, and the mantra “‘buy, buy, buy’ had heralded the beginning of a new consumer age” (Century, 2021). Dahl reflects back on the origins of consumerism through Mike Teavee, solidifying the nature of capitalism, in which consumerism plays a significant role.
But let’s not forget that these five children, despite their vices, are just children. And, as children, they are simply products of the system and have emerged in an already capitalist world that is driven by the likes of Wonka. Willy Wonka is the ultimate embodiment of capitalism. Not only does he monopolize the candy industry, exploit unpaid labour, and refuse to redistribute his income to the poor, but he manages to retain minimal government intervention by ensuring that no one knows what goes on in the factory. He has already harnessed private property, private control of the factors of production, and taken over competition, going so far as to make the children compete against each other. Wonka gaslights them into thinking their wealth and privilege corrupted them, and they don’t care about others, but what about him? Yet, no one questions him because he is the richest of the rich, so his flaws are easily ignored—there isn’t anyone above him to question him. Capitalism allows the rich to be very rich and the poor to be very poor. In a system that thrives on making money, money is power, and Wonka is a prime example of this.
The story ends with Charlie winning—but is it really the end of his tale? Despite all that his character stands for, Charlie emerges at the end as the victor in a truly rags-to-riches-esque fashion and takes his place in the very capitalist society his character opposed the entire story. He has been forced into a situation where he must choose between abject poverty or furthering the exploitative system that produced his abject poverty. There is no in-between. Dahl reiterates that capitalism is here to stay, and that in the end, money and power are what bring ultimate fulfillment. In Dahl’s world, there is no concept of equality; there will be those at the very top and those at the very bottom, and the solution is to be good enough to get you to the top. This book was pro-capitalist from the very beginning, despite its satirical spectacles of the four children, simply because it proposed the prospect of Charlie winning the factory.
In a non-capitalist world, communal needs trump individualistic wants. Charlie winning the factory does not mean other poor people in the world will be freed of their miserable poverty. It just means that he was rescued by a generous billionaire because he was good. In the real world, obedience alone isn’t enough to climb out of systemic poverty (B, 2020). And instead of providing a capitalist hellscape (B, 2020) to critique capitalism, Dahl appears to condone it because the novel concludes with the very idea that has allowed capitalism to exist in the first place: the idea that anyone can become rich, regardless of their circumstances.
Radiating from every Loblaws is the charm of a chocolate factory. And behind every chocolate factory is a distant billionaire whose gracious wing one can only hope to be swept under. What better note to begin the season of indulgence with?