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.