Food and Fatphobia in Roald Dahl’s ‘Matilda’ and ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’

The topic of our recent discussion was food in children’s books – but it’s impossible to talk about food without some sort of judgement embedded in the description. Public discourse on food generally categorises food into ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – usually code words for ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’. In real life, when we want a sugary snack we say we’re ‘being naughty’; when we opt for a salad for lunch, we say we’re ‘being good’. The same language litters Roald Dahl’s children’s books, especially Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, presenting potentially harmful attitudes toward food and fatness.

Virtuousness of food

Matilda, of course, has the infamous cake-eating scene in the school hall. We watch as Bruce Bogtrotter is coerced into eating an entire chocolate cake in one sitting, as punishment for stealing Miss Trunchbull’s slice previously; because of its use as the cause of a crime and form of subsequent punishment, the reader identifies this food as ‘bad’.

It’s also interesting to use a cake as punishment as the possibilities of it being “booby trapped” are wide-ranging. The children sitting in the school hall wonder whether it’s poisoned with arsenic, whether it was spiked with castor oil or pepper, or whether it would blow up. These possibilities are less enjoyable for the reader if, say, Bruce was made to eat a fruit salad. There is, embedded within the cake, the notion of temptation. The cake tempted Bruce to steal it from Trunchbull, the cake is so enticing that we overlook the chances of booby-traps in order to taste it. And of course, the connotations of temptation are linked heavily to sin.

In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Augustus Gloop and Charlie offer interesting attitudes towards food. There is a piousness attached to Charlie that isn’t present in Augustus, reinforcing the ‘good/healthy’ and ‘bad/unhealthy’ language attached to food. When Charlie receives his annual birthday present of a chocolate bar, he doesn’t open it for two days, then takes a “tiny nibble” and makes the bar last for a month. This self-preservation is in stark contrast to the self-indulgence of Augustus, who can afford to satisfy his sweet tooth, and does so in excess. This is emphasised in the moment that Willy Wonka first invites them to sample a blade of grass in the factory, which is actually made of “swudge” (a “soft, minty sugar”): while the majority of the group just pick one blade, Augustus “took a big handful”. We look with sly eyes as Augustus does this – but then, moments later, Grandpa Joe then goes on to say he could “eat the whole field”. So why are we on the side of the person who just thinks about eating a larger portion rather than the person who acts upon that desire? This is where the coded language of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ food is further coded with ‘virtuousness’ and ‘temptation’ – the food is there, delectable and available, but Grandpa Joe and Charlie refrain from the temptation. As Augustus does take a larger portion, he ‘gives in’ to temptation and therefore shows a character that is lacking something that Charlie and Grandpa Joe have.

The fatphobic lens

This leads neatly to the fatphobic sentiments throughout Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

In Matilda, it is no coincidence that Bruce Bogtrotter is “decidedly large and round”, “waddles” instead of walks, and has a “plump flabby face”. This child actually eats the entire “enormous” cake (specifically described as 18 inches in diameter) made from “real butter and real cream” without much difficulty – cutting his fourth slice, he “seemed to be getting into his stride”. The children watching the scene in the hall – and the children reading the book – expect Bruce to be sick from so much cake; they had steeled themselves for an “unpleasant scene” in which Bruce, having been “stuffed to the gills with cake, would have to surrender and beg for mercy”. But that we don’t see this scenario unfold turns Bruce’s eating habits into a kind of freak show. He is unusual for eating so much, for indulging so much; no other child in that situation could have managed it – but because he is fat, he can do it with a “grin of triumph”.

In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Augustus is described as looking as if he had been “blown up with a powerful pump”, with a face like “a monstrous ball of dough”. His mother is not surprised that Augustus has found a ticket, as “he eats so many bars of chocolate a day that it was almost impossible for him not to find one”. Labelled “repulsive” by Charlie’s Grandma Georgina, we are taught to judge the young boy who delights in the very things we’re supposed to be excited by in the book. While we are told that the “one thing [Charlie] longed for more than anything else was CHOCOLATE”, we are told to judge Augustus for actually having the chocolate. The narrator’s different attitudes to Charlie and Augustus are littered with fatphobic sentiments – while are told that Charlie would often “stop and stare and press his hands against the glass, his mouth watering like mad” when he walked past a chocolate shop, he judge the children who “torture” Charlie by  “[munching] them greedily” – simply because Charlie cannot afford them. The images of insanity by lust for chocolate makes us giggle, but the thought of eating enough chocolate to make us fat is meant to make us squirm.

About the author: Rosie Gailor will begin her PhD study at QMUL this autumn. Her research interests include the novels of Roald Dahl and gendered portrayals of abuse in his works.


Eating Children in Children’s Media

Last week the Centre for Childhood Cultures reading group discussed the role and representation of food in children’s literature and media. Of course, C.S Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe had made a lot of us want to try Turkish Delight when we were young, and we collectively shuddered at the ways children are punished for gluttony in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory — but one subject which quickly came up and really caught my attention was that of children as food.

It’s a pervasive theme when you actually start to think about it. Here are some examples:

  • The oysters are eaten by the Walrus and the Carpenter in both Lewis Carroll’s poem, and in Disney’s animated film version of Alice in Wonderland (where they are definitively coded as children)
  • Hansel and Gretel are almost eaten by the witch, who in turn dies in an oven
  • Little Red Riding Hood is eaten by a wolf – and in some versions she is not cut out again
  • There are child-eating giants in Roald Dahl’s The BFG
  • In ‘Jack and the Beanstalk,’ the giant threatens to eat Jack and grind his bones to bread
  • In a nursery rhyme/campfire song, Cecil the Caterpillar eats his entire family (including his baby) before vomiting them back up again
  • Vampires, like those in Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight saga – the exception being Sesame Street’s The Count who, despite fan theories, does not appear to eat any of the children who feature on the program
  • Nemo’s siblings in Pixar’s Finding Nemo are all eaten by a barracuda (assuming fertilized eggs count?)
  • The food Jelly Babies. They feature in a sequel to the film Johnny English, but moreover, the concept of eating confectionary infants is bizarre enough to warrant inclusion on the list, especially as the first Jelly Babies were instead known as ‘Unclaimed Babies’[1]

The long list of child-eaters in children’s fiction or other media can be further broken down by asking some simple questions:

Are those doing the eating feeding on their own babies or other people’s babies? Are they:

  • Cannibals – for example Cecil the caterpillar who not only eats his own species but his own family. Furthermore, do witches eating humans count as cannibalism?
  • Interspecies child eaters – such as the Wolf in Little Red Riding Hood

Do they eat the whole or do they only eat part of the child?

Vampires only drink blood whereas the giant in ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ states he will ‘grind your bones to make my bread’ which might suggest a more nose-to-tail.  The witch in ‘Hansel and Gretel’ appears to have been planning on preparing and cooking the children much like one might handle a roast chicken so presumably she would only have eaten the cooked flesh rather than their bones and innards. Though, she might have saved their bones to make a good stock.

We discussed the various reasons why child-eating might be so pervasive in children’s media – a potent mix of stranger-danger, carnivore safety, societal power dynamics, or a reminder of child mortality. Perhaps in some instances the theme exists only as something that was guaranteed to frighten children consuming such media (pun intended!)! There is no easy or overarching answer to the amount of child consumption in children’s media, however, one thing is very clear: I will never look at Jelly Babies the same way again.


About the author: Charlotte Slark is an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Partnership (CDP) Student at QMUL and the V&A Museum of Childhood. Her research examines the social and cultural history of the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood from 1974-2010. Her research interests are museums, structural inequality, class, and bureaucracy.

Christianity and European Fairy Tales

European fairy tales were not originally intended for a child audience only. The Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, and Charles Perrault are probably the most well-known fairy tale authors, and they all addressed major themes like abandonment, loneliness, abuse, life after death, sacrifice, and forgiveness. F. Schiller talked about the significant messages transferred via fairy-tales to the reader: “Deeper meaning resides in the fairy tales told to me in my childhood than in the truth that is taught by life” (F. Schiller qtd. in Bettelheim, 1976).

The Brothers Grimm’s tales enforced morals and ethics into the reader’s mind while also serving as a means of entertainment. Christianity had a special role in German folk literature, as it did in Germanic countries’ history. That is why Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s infused of Biblical themes into their tales; this affected readers, whether we see it from a religious, psychological, aesthetical, or other points of view. More about the Christian themes and elements in Grimm fairy tales was written by G. Ronald Murphy, author of the book “The Owl, the Raven, and the Dove: The Religious Meaning of the Grimms’ Magic Fairy Tales” (2000), and by Jack Zipes (2012), Bruno Bettelheim (1976), and more.

Religion is also represented in fairy tales, although rarely overtly. While some tales present religious ideas or motifs candidly (eg. “Mary’s Child” by Brothers Grimm or “The Old Church Bell” by H. C. Andersen), others introduce them more subtly to the reader (eg. “The Little Mermaid”, “Sleeping Beauty”, or “Cinderella”). Although many fairy-tales transcend age and nationality, most of them are collected folk tales and they represent a reflection of the time and place where they were collected. Fairy tales have always been a powerful discourse, used to shape attitudes and behaviour, to educate children, and to serve the bigger purpose of preserving the national traditions and customs. Some relevant examples would be “Sleeping Beauty” (French: “La Belle au bois dormant”, German: “Dornröschen”) and “Hansel and Gretel” (German: “Hänsel und Gretel”) which were born out of the convergence of pagan mythology and Christian ideology and reflect the changing form of religious belief while conserving the tales’ national form. Most fairy tales originated in periods when religion was a fundamental part of life; thus, they addressed, more or less directly, religious themes.

Hans Christian Andersen’s tales also abound with religious motifs and present Christian values reverently. Among his contemporaries, the author’s religious ideas were well noted and the readers found his tales totally appropriate in the 19th century Danish cultural context when Christianity played a significant role. Andersen’s fairy tales reveal death as a moment of enlightenment, connected with the idea of the immortal soul and eternal life (“The Little Mermaid” and “The Snow Queen” are, possibly, the best examples here), an idea that is central to Christian doctrine: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). “The Old Church Bell” is centered on Christian symbols like the Bible, the church bell, the church tower, faith, prayer, and baptism. “The Wild Swans” foregrounds the archbishop as the wise advisor of the prince, while many other stories are connected to the Christian dogma in different particular ways, exploring themes such as the redemptive nature of suffering and the mystical ascent. More examples can be found in the database compiled by The Hans Christian Andersen Centre at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense, which counted religious elements in 166 of Andersen’s tales (out of 212).

To conclude, fairy tales serve as pedagogical tools for children and protectors of the cultural patrimony. In European fair tales, Christianity is an essential component of them, especially when we analyse the Brothers Grimm’ and Hans Christian Andersen’s tales.

About the author: Marta Vartolomei is a first year PhD student at QMUL. Her research explores Hans Christian Andersen’s religious views, and considers his tales in adaptation.

References and Further Reading:

Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York: Knopf, 1976.

Murphy, G. R. The Owl, the Raven, and the Dove: The Religious Meaning of the Grimms’ Magic Fairy Tales. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Zipes, Jack. Fairy tales and the Art of Subversion. New York: Routledge, 1983.