Full Analysis of Charlie and the chocolate factory movie Essay discussion
Movie: Charlie and chocolate
Charlie and the chocolate factory
Review of the movie:
Mr. Willy Wonka, the eccentric owner of the greatest chocolate factory in the world, has decided
to open the doors of his factory to five lucky children and their parents. In order to choose who
will enter the factory, Mr. Wonka devises a plan to hide five golden tickets beneath the wrappers
of his famous chocolate bars. The search for the five golden tickets is fast and furious. Augustus
Gloop, a corpulent child whose only hobby is eating, unwraps the first ticket, for which his town
throws him a parade. Veruca Salt, an insufferable brat, receives the next ticket from her father,
who had employed his entire factory of peanut shellers to unwrap chocolate bars until they found
a ticket. Violet Beauregarde discovers the third ticket while taking a break from setting a world
record in gum chewing. The fourth ticket goes to Mike Teavee, who, as his name implies, cares
only about television.
Charlie Bucket, the unsuspecting hero of the book, defies all odds in claiming the fifth and final
ticket. A poor but virtuous boy, Charlie lives in a tiny house with his parents, Mr. and Mrs.
Bucket, and all four of his grandparents. His grandparents share the only bed in the house,
located in the only bedroom, and Charlie and his parents sleep on mattresses on the floor. Charlie
gets three sparse meals a day, which is hardly enough to nourish a growing boy; As a result, he is
almost sickly thin. Once a year, on his birthday, Charlie gets one bar of Wonka chocolate, which
he savors over many months. The Bucket family’s circumstances become all the more dire when
Mr. Bucket loses his job. But a tremendous stroke of luck befalls Charlie when he spots a
raggedy dollar bill buried in the snow. He decides to use a little of the money to buy himself
some chocolate before turning the rest over to his mother. After inhaling the first bar of
chocolate, Charlie decides to buy just one more and within the wrapping finds the fifth golden
ticket. He is not a moment too soon: the next day is the date Mr. Wonka has set for his guests to
enter the factory.
Neither Mr. nor Mrs. Bucket can accompany Charlie to the factory. Mr. Bucket must search for
work to put food on the table and Mrs. Bucket must care for the invalided grandparents.
Magically, Charlie’s oldest and most beloved grandparent, Grandpa Joe, springs out of bed for
the first time in decades. Charlie’s lucky find has transformed him into an energetic and almost
childlike being. Grandpa Joe and Charlie set out on their adventure.
In the factory, Charlie and Grandpa Joe marvel at the unbelievable sights, sounds, and especially
smell of the factory. Whereas they are grateful toward and respectful of Mr. Wonka and his
factory, the other four children succumb to their own character flaws. Accordingly, they are
ejected from the factory in mysterious and painful fashions. Augustus Gloop falls into the hot
chocolate river while attempting to drink it and is sucked up by one of the many pipes. Veruca
Salt is determined to be a “bad nut” by nut-judging squirrels who throw her out with the trash.
Violet Beauregarde impetuously grabs an experimental piece of gum and chews herself into a
giant blueberry. She is consequently removed from the factory. With the hope of being on his
beloved television, Mike Teavee shrinks himself, and his father has to carry him out in his breast
pocket. During each child’s fiasco, Mr. Wonka alienates the parents with his nonchalant reaction
to the child’s seeming demise. He remains steadfast in his belief that everything will work out in
After each child’s trial, the Oompa-Loompas beat drums and sing a moralizing song about the
downfalls of greedy, spoiled children. When only Charlie remains, Willy Wonka turns to him
and congratulates him for winning. The entire day has been another contest, the prize for which
is the entire chocolate factory, which Charlie has just won. Charlie, Grandpa Joe, and Mr. Wonka
enter the great glass elevator, which explodes through the roof of the factory and crashes down
through the roof of Charlie’s house, where they collect the rest of the Bucket family.
Analysis of Major Characters:
Charlie Bucket is the protagonist of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and he is the
embodiment of all that is virtuous. He is depressed of sufficient food, a bed, and any privacy. In
spite of all this, he never complains, nor does he ever accept charity from his family when it
comes at their own expense. Each morning, Charlie musters the strength to walk to school, even
though he nearly freezes during the colder months. And each night, he returns home and
dutifully spends time with his bedridden grandparents, a task that he seems to genuinely enjoy.
Charlie’s physical proportions support with his personality: not only is he quite small and
undernourished, but also he is submissive. He speaks only when he is spoken to. He never asks
for more than he is given. He looks forward to the one time a year, on his birthday, when he can
indulge in a Wonka chocolate bar, and instead of wolfing it down all at once, he savors it (bite by
bite) for many months. Charlie walks past the world-renowned Wonka chocolate factory twice a
day, yet this never causes him bitterness or anger. Instead, Charlie simply indulges in the savory
smells coming out of the factory and humbly dreams of entering the factory one day. When the
golden tickets start turning up in the hands of nasty, greedy children, Charlie never complains
about how unfair it is that he will never get to go. Charlie’s strongest criticism of one of the other
children comes when he hears that Veruca’s father is using all the workers in his peanut factory
to unwrap chocolate bars night and day until his daughter gets a ticket. Charlie’s only comment
is that Veruca’s father is not playing quite fair.
Behind Charlie’s meek and virtuous exterior lies an inner strength and courage. He faces the new
challenges and mysteries of the factory with the same bravery he employs to overcome the
adversity of his everyday life. He finds all of the adventures in the chocolate factory to be wild
and stimulating. While other characters cringe at the speed of the boat as it tears down the
chocolate river, Charlie demurely embraces it, clutching to Grandpa Joe’s legs for stability and
enjoying the ride of his life.
Mr. Willy Wonka:
The unusual owner of the world-famous Wonka chocolate factory. Along with his unusual
behavior, Mr. Wonka also has a kind side. The mystery workers operating his chocolate factory
after the reopening are called Oompa-Loompas. The Oompa-Loompas hail from Loompaland,
where they are the defenseless prey of hungry creatures like hornswogglers, snozzwangers, and
whandoodles until Mr. Wonka rescues them. He brings the malnourished Oompa-Loompas back
to his factory where they are allowed to eat their favorite food cacao beans in unlimited
quantities and lives in complete safety in exchange for running the factory. Mr. Wonka treats the
Oompa-Loompas like children, and, in return, they treat him as a benevolent caretaker. Mr.
Wonka further demonstrates his affinity for children and wariness of adults by choosing a child
to take over his factory. The child he seeks is humble, respectful, and willing to run his factory
exactly how Mr. Wonka runs it himself.
Though benevolent, Mr. Wonka’s character is not beyond reproach. His treatment of the OompaLoompas is paternalistic, and his desire to mold a child into a second version of himself is
narcissistic. Furthermore, Mr. Wonka is unwilling to accept anyone’s foibles. He can be
extremely demanding and judgmental. The four children who do not win the grand prize clearly
disgust Mr. Wonka. He is short with each of them—he acts as if he invited each of them simply
to prove the virtuosity of Charlie. The humble and gracious Charlie is everything Mr. Wonka is
Grandpa Joe is the oldest and wisest of the characters in the novel. However, like Charlie and
Mr. Wonka, he remains young at heart. His youthful exuberance makes him the perfect person to
escort Charlie to the chocolate factory. Grandpa Joe is also Charlie’s best friend. Every evening
when Charlie spends time with his grandparents, Grandpa Joe entertains Charlie with a story. It
is Grandpa Joe who initially tells Charlie all about the history of Mr. Wonka and his vaunted
chocolate factory, and Grandpa Joe urges Charlie to have faith that he can find a golden ticket.
Good Things Come in Small Packages:
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a novel in which things are either good or bad, and one way
Dahl attributes goodness to something is to make it small. Charlie, for one, is small and
undernourished. When he stands outside the factory, the crowd pities Charlie for his small size
and frailty. Mr. Wonka is also small: the initial description of Mr. Wonka focuses on his small
stature. Finally, chocolate bars are small. Small things can easily be underestimated by those
who do not take the time to notice them. Charlie, Mr. Wonka, and chocolate bars all have the
potential to carry much more weight than one might assume. Charlie’s pitiful appearance belies
his inner strength and ability to outlast the other children and eventually take control of the entire
chocolate factory. Mr. Wonka’s small size disguises his intense energy and amazing power. He
has the power to determine children’s fates and grant wishes. A single chocolate bar contains all
of Charlie’s hopes and dreams. When Charlie opens it and finds the golden ticket, he realizes just
how powerful something small like he himself can be.
Poverty vs. Wealth:
The classic distinction between those who have money and those who do not pervades Charlie
and the Chocolate Factory. Furthermore, it helps form the background for the morality of the
story. Money is dangerous, especially when it is used unscrupulously. Veruca’s father embodies
all the negative aspects of wealth when he uses his financial resources to secure Veruca a golden
ticket. Even Charlie, who almost never speaks ill of anyone, says he disagrees with Mr. Salt’s
method. In contrast, poverty can often lead to good things. Charlie is extremely poor; he rarely
has enough to eat, and he sleeps on the floor with his parents. But the dignity with which Charlie
handles his poverty makes him a beloved character. He does not yearn for extraordinary wealth
he only wants enough to get by. Yet he is eventually rewarded with riches beyond his wildest
dreams. Veruca is punished for her wealth, which accompanied by her parents’ ineptitude, causes
her to be such a brat.
What Goes Around Comes Around:
After it has been established which characters are good and which are bad, each of the characters
is punished or rewarded in accordance with his personality. The bad children—Veruca, Violet,
Mike, and Augustus—receive punishments. Augustus, who overeats as a hobby, gets himself
stuck in a chocolate pump that eventually flattens him out. Veruca, for her bratty behavior, is
denied the squirrel that she desires. Furthermore, the other squirrels deem her a “bad nut” and
send her down the garbage chute. Violet, unable to resist gum, chews herself into a giant
blueberry. Mike, who is obsessed with television, is permanently altered by it. In all of these
cases, the children undergo painful punishments that ultimately make them better people. As the
good child, Charlie receives only rewards.
In the moral world of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, there is no ambiguity: children are
either bad or good. Charlie is good precisely because he has no discernable vices. The bad
children are easy to spot because they are the embodiment of their vices. Augustus is greedy,
Veruca is bratty, Violet is an obsessive gum chewer, and Mike is obsessed with television. By
creating vices for each of the children, Dahl makes it clear from the outset that these children are
bad. In doing so, he makes Charlie all the more obvious as the hero of his story.
Punishment is used to underscore the moral code in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Good
children are dutiful and respectful, whereas bad children are the opposite. It is not a bad child’s
fault that he is bad his parents are largely to blame. However, bad children must be reformed
through whatever means necessary. Indeed, the necessary means take the form of wild and
sometimes violent punishments. Punishments are necessary to create well out of bad, which is a
moral imperative within this story. In this story, the proper punishment is the only thing that can
transform a bad child into a good one.
Dahl regularly employs absurd language and ideas. Some of these absurdities are hair-growing
candy for children, square candies that look ’round, and edible pillows. All of these demand a
suspension of disbelief from the reader. In the story, the children who cannot suspend their
disbelief fall into disfavor with Mr. Wonka. By being able to suspend disbelief, the reader can
align himself with Mr. Wonka and Charlie. A reader might agree with Mike Teavee that children
do not need to worry about going bald. But the same reader can enjoy watching Mr. Wonka
dismiss Mike and champion Charlie. These absurdities also entertain young readers and push
their intellectual capacities.
The chocolate factory is the physical embodiment of the difference between poverty and wealth.
Charlie’s poverty-stricken home stands in the shadow of the behemoth chocolate factory, which
is filled with untold riches. The chocolate factory also represents the idea that things cannot be
fairly judged from an outside perspective. It seems enormous from the outside, but its true
glories lie below ground, where they cannot be seen without a closer look.
Like the chocolate factory, the golden ticket is a physical manifestation of the difference between
poverty and wealth. Finding the golden ticket allows Charlie to live his dream. As its name
indicates, the golden ticket is made entirely of gold. It is the most valuable thing Charlie has ever
touched. But it also represents a leveling of the playing field between the rich and the poor.
Charlie has just as much chance as anyone else to find a ticket. The ticket represents hope.
For Charlie, the great glass elevator represents his future. The elevator allows Charlie to see the
world laid out before him. But before Charlie can reach that point of clarity, he must trust the
elevator and remain willing to ride on through all of the turbulence and frightening times. Once
Charlie can accept uncertainty as part of his future, the elevator takes him to the place where his
future is at hand. Once there, Charlie must be brave enough to stand on uncertain ground and
seize his own fortune.
Quotations from the text:
“Many times a day, he would see other children taking creamy candy bars out of their pockets
and munching them greedily; and that, of course, was pure torture.”
This quotation comes from the first chapter of the story. It captures Charlie’s overwhelming
desire for chocolate, and it also helps to frame Charlie’s character. Immediately before this, the
reader has learned that Charlie is poor, cold, and hungry. It would be reasonable to expect
Charlie to be dissatisfied with his life. However, the opposite is true. Charlie remains optimistic
in the face of all his trials and tribulations. He never complains and is a consummate good kid.
Charlie continues to earn the reader’s sympathy by bearing the difficulties of his life with
“I insist upon my rooms being beautiful! I can’t abide ugliness in factories! In we go, then!
But do be careful, my dear children! Don’t lose your heads! Don’t get overexcited! Keep very
This quotation comes in the middle of the story, just as the children enter the chocolate factory
with Mr. Wonka. The quotation is rife with absurdities and foreshadowing, which are two
common elements weaved throughout the entire text. The entire string of words flowing from
Mr. Wonka’s mouth is punctuated by his excitement, yet he tells everyone to remain calm. This
renders his advice extremely difficult to heed. Mr. Wonka cannot abide ugliness, yet he lets four
extremely ugly children into his factory. By telling the children not to lose their heads and
mentioning that he cannot abide ugliness, Mr. Wonka foreshadows the calamitous ends that four
of the children will meet. . “Mind you, there are thousands of clever men who would give
anything for the chance to come in and take over from me, but I don’t want that sort of
person. I don’t want a grown-up person at all. A grown-up won’t listen to me; he won’t learn.
He will try to do things his own way and not mine. So I have to have a child.”
In the last chapter of the book, Mr. Wonka explains to Charlie his motivation for sending out the
golden tickets. He knows there is any number of adults who would be willing to take over the
helm of his factory. But if Mr. Wonka chooses an adult successor, he will worry that they will
change everything about his beloved operation. He needs someone who will listen to everything
he says and who will do everything according to his precise wishes. Only a dutiful and respectful
child will fit the bill for Mr. Wonka.
. “Then out he comes! And now! By grace!/A miracle has taken place!/This boy, who only just
before/Was loathed by men from shore to shore,/This greedy brute, this louse’s ear,/Is loved by
people everywhere!/For who could hate or bear a grudge/Against a luscious bit of fudge?”
This quotation comes from Chapter 17, after Augustus Gloop has fallen into the chocolate river.
He is sucked into a large pipe that leads to the fudge room, and everyone is worried that he will
be turned into fudge. The Oompa-Loompas sing a song immediately following the
disappearances of Augustus, Veruca, Violet, and Mike. These songs employ humor in order to
convey a moral lesson. Here they joke about Augustus being transformed from a greedy boy into
a piece of fudge. Their lighthearted song could seem cruel, but they are only joking: in fact,
Augustus and the other children eventually leave the factory in an improved condition.
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory:
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory wouldn’t be Charlie and the Chocolate Factory without you
guessed it chocolate. Of course Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory makes much more than just
chocolate, which is why we’re including other sweets in this category as well.
From the book’s title alone, we know that chocolate is important – but why? In order to figure
that out, let’s go back to the beginning, when chocolate first appears in the book. As it turns out,
it pops up pretty quickly when, in Chapter 1, we learn that Charlie “desperately wanted
something more filling and satisfying than cabbage and cabbage soup. The one thing he longed
for more than anything else was…CHOCOLATE.” (1.14).
Charlie’s a young kid, so you can’t blame him for craving something sugary. But he’s also a
hungry kid, and chocolate will give him that full and satisfied feeling he’s looking for. So right
off the bat, we know that chocolate – in this story at least represents something good.
Or does it? Chocolate also brings out the greediness in lots of characters. It’s almost like a drug.
Augustus Gloop, for one, is clearly addicted to the sweet stuff. Of course Augustus, unlike
Charlie, is not looking for nourishment, no matter what his mother says. He’s just a chocolatehog. In fact, Augustus manages to ruin his beloved chocolate for a lot of other people when he
drinks from the chocolate river in Chapter 17. The chocolate in Mr. Wonka’s factory is pure – it’s
meant to be “untouched by human hands!” (17.1) it’s mixed by waterfall and gathered by glass
pipes. But here comes Augustus, and suddenly the chocolate is contaminated. We’ll bet that
delicious chocolate seemed a little less appetizing to you once you learned that Augustus has a
Still, you can’t deny that chocolate and sweets in the story bring people joy. Charlie savors his
chocolate, and it seems to be the only bright spot in his rather dismal life. And anything Charlie
likes, we like. So even though chocolate goes through some rough, Gloopy times, at the end, it’s
something we cherish, something we want, and something Charlie needs.
Is Gum a Way out of a Sticky Situation?
Let’s take a moment to talk about another sticky sweet in the story: gum. It’s stretchy,
changeable, and you can’t eat it, so it doesn’t fill you up. In that sense, it’s quite different from
chocolate, and it’s no surprise that Charlie would rather chow down on a chocolate bar.
But our miracle worker, Mr. Wonka, has managed to make a gum that fills you up. Imagine what
this could do for the Bucket clan. They’d never be hungry. Unfortunately, the gum proves to be
faulty, and we learn from the Oompa-Loompas that chewing gum isn’t so great after all.
So all in all, it seems like sweets are both good and bad. They give people a chance to be greedy,
but they also bring joy. But our hero Charlie knows the real truth: sweets may make you happy
for a moment, but family’s what’s important. And what sweets really do in this book is provide a
chance for Charlie to take care of his family. After all, without the chocolate factory, the Bucket
clan could very well have gone hungry.
An Analysis of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is the greatest film ever made. That’s a big call, I know, but I
challenge you to name any other movie which stars a demented, eccentric billionaire and his
team of freakish, orange, singing dwarves and combines them with a color scheme that is not of
this planet. It’s in a league of its own. In this analysis I will attempt to determine exactly what
makes the movie so great, and shed light on some of the darker aspects of the story.
Factor Contributing to Greatness – It has Willy Wonka!
Willy Wonka is the best character ever created in any work of fiction. This is mostly because he
is completely insane. At the beginning of his chocolate factory tour, he leads the ten visitors to
his plant into a cramped closet and doesn’t let them out. Then he completely confuses them all by
leading them into a shrinking hallway, then into an environment made solely of chocolate.
Shortly afterwards he takes them on a frightening ride through a dark tunnel, ignoring his
passengers cries of terror and reciting poetry to himself. He further plays with their minds by
soaking them in shaken up soft-drink, and generally making no sense at all at any stage in the
whole movie. The story concludes with Wonka abducting Charlie and his grandfather and flying
off with them in his glass elevator. Trippy.
Factor Contributing to Greatness – It has Oompa Loompas
J.R.R. Tolkien is worshipped by many as the greatest fantasy writer ever because of his creation
of various imaginative races like the Elves, Orcs, Dwarves and Hobbits. However, Roald Dahl
surpassed him with his invention of the Oompa Loompas, from Oompa Loompa Land. These
creatures are unsightly freaks that prove the non-existence of God, because if there was one He
would never have allowed the creation of this race. They are about as tall as normal human
dwarfs. So far, so good. Except they have orange skin and green hair, except for their eyebrows
which are white. In addition to this they wear brown shirts and white pants, which totally fail to
match either their hair or skin colors. Throughout the course of the movie they contribute with
their songs, which are about the social evils of being too greedy, spoiling your children, watching
too much TV, etc. They also run Willy Wonka’s factory for him, acting as his servants (In this
way they are similar to Tattoo from the old TV show Pleasure Island, if anyone knows what I’m
Factor Contributing to Greatness – It has a Very Poor Family
Ask any film executive. Audiences like to see the underdog succeed. In this movie, the
underdogs are the Bucket family. The Bucket family, of which Charlie is a part, is very poor. For
– The family of six people lives in a tin shack on the outskirts of town.
– The family survives on cabbage water. When Charlie uses his paper-run money to buy a loaf of
bread, his mother hails it as a banquet.
– The five adults of the family all throw in to get Charlie a birthday present, but can still only
afford a scarf and a bar of chocolate between them.
– Charlie can only afford the bar of chocolate which contains the Golden Ticket because he finds
the money. In a drain. Talk about pov. I can relate to it though, which makes the movie what it is
to me. When he goes to buy the chocolate bar, he initially only gets one, then changes his mind
and gets two instead. Why doesn’t he take the change home? He doesn’t trust the rest of his poorass family not to steal it.
Why are the Buckets so poor? I can think of two reasons.
– Charlie’s father abandoned his mother after seeing that he would have to support her parents for
the rest of his working life.
– Grandpa Joe’s addiction to tobacco (and maybe other drugs) keeps the family poor.
Dark Aspect of the Story – Grandpa Joe’s Drug Use
Grandpa Joe smokes. This he admits early on in the movie, when he says “I can’t keep buying
tobbacco when a loaf of bread looks like a banquet”. But did he use other, harder drugs? I found
two points of evidence in the movie supporting this theory…
– When he sings the “I’ve got a Golden Ticket” song, he sings that he is “Over the moon of
ecstasy”. This is practially an addmission that he uses Ecstasy, and I found it to be very
– Later, he cries “I’m a rocket! I’m a shooting star! I’m on top of the world!” Some of you may
claim that he said this as a result of the magic lemponade he had drunk, which enables the
consumer to fly on gas. This is nonsense. He was quite clearly high on coccaine.
Dark Aspect of the Story – The Murders
Willy Wonka is more than a harmless eccentric billionaire. He is a criminally insane serial killer.
Look at the evidence. Except for Charlie, not one child survives the whole length of the movie.
All the rest fall victim to a series of “accidents”, which were so obviously set up by Wonka…
– The first child, a fat greedy German kid, is presented with a river of chocolate. Of course he is
goig to drink from it, and of course he is going to fall into it. There was never any doubt of it. It
was exactly what Wonka wanted, and when the kid is sucked up through pipe, Wonka says “That
pipe leads to the chocolate purifier”. That doesn’t sound healthy to me.
– The second child is a gum chewer. What does Wonka do? He presents her with poison chewing
gum which turns the eater into a blueberry. Did he really expect her not to eat the gum? Of
course not. It was what he wanted. He gives her to an Oompa Loompa to be taken to the Juicing
Machine. Again, it doesn’t sound healthy.
– The next little girl is a spoilt brat who thinks she should get everything she wants. What does
she want? A golden egg-laying goose. Where is the goose? On the other side of a trap door.
Predictably, the kid attempts to get the goose and in the process falls down the trapdoor. Wonka
says “That chute goes to the furnace. I think it’s only lit every second day, so she’s got a fighting
chance”. As if. Even if it wasn’t switched on, Wonka would probably have got his Oompa
Loompas to turn it on anyway.
– The last boy is a TV addict. He wants to be on TV. Wonka shows him a TV camera; the kid
films himself with it and is subsequently shrunk to a fraction of his normal size. Again, a
complete set up. The kid is given to a demented freak who is to stretch him up to his normal size.
Even the Oompa Loompa doesn’t want to do this, but Wonka says “Don’t worry, I won’t hold you
responsible”. Pure evil.
– Whenever a kid falls for Wonka’s traps, he makes no attempt to save them. At best he says
“Help. Someone help. Please” or “Oh no. Stop. I implore you”, but he says it very disinterestedly.
– When, at the end of the movie, Charlie asks Wonka about the other kids, he is told that they
will be okay. But Wonka cannot adaquately explain their fate. He gives Charlie a sketchy
answer, then says “Don’t worry about them” and changes the subject.
Those poor kids never had a chance against such an evil bastard.
Dark Aspect of the Story – The Evil Characters
– The Candy man. This guy gives all the other children free lollies, and grants them free access to
all the sweets behind his counter. But when Charlie comes in with the money he found, the
Candy man makes him pay. What a prick.
– Mr. Slug worth. An employee of Mr. Willy Wonka, this man tracks down each Golden Ticket
winner, puts his arm around them and begins to whisper in their ear. These are the traits of a
– The Bum outside the Wonka factory. Don’t get me wrong. There are some really nice homeless
people out there. I’m one of them. But some are just plain rotten. This guy is one of the rotten
ones. He approaches Charlie on his way home, after dark, and tells him a story which poses more
questions than it answers. Which is evil?
I hope our analysis has given you a greater appreciation of this fine movie.
Semiotics (also called semiotic studies, not to be confused with the Saussure an tradition
called semiology) is the study of meaning-making, the philosophical theory of signs and
symbols. This includes the study of signs and sign processes (semiosis), indication, designation,
likeness, analogy, metaphor, symbolism, signification, and communication. Semiotics is closely
related to the field of linguistics, which, for its part, studies the structure and meaning
of language more specifically. As different from linguistics, however, semiotics also studies nonlinguistic sign systems. Semiotics often is divided into three branches:
Semantics: relation between signs and the things to which they refer; their denotata,
Syntactic: relations among signs in formal structures
Pragmatics: relation between signs and sign-using agents
Semiotics frequently is seen as having important anthropological dimensions; for
example, Umberto Eco proposes that every cultural phenomenon may be studied as
communication. Some semioticians focus on the logical dimensions of the science, however.
They examine areas belonging also to the life sciences – such as how organisms make
predictions about, and adapt to, their semiotic niche in the world. In general, semiotic theories
take signs or systems as their object of study: the communication of information in living
organisms is covered in biosemiotics (including zoo semiotics).
Charles Morris adds that semantics deals with the relation of signs to their designate and the
objects that they may or do denote; and, pragmatics deals with the biotic aspects of semiotics,
that is, with all the psychological, biological, and sociological phenomena that occur in the
functioning of signs.
Two main versions of structural linguistics have influenced thought and discourse about
language and culture since the mid-20th century: the French school, modeled on Ferdinand de
Saussure’s concepts of linguistic signs and phonology, and the American school, based
on Noam Chomsky’s theory of generative grammar and syntax. It’s important to understand the
different starting points and key concepts, and the kind of further work that these schools of
thought have enabled. (That is, the heuristic potential of each approach, both for forming a
tradition of thought and today for continued work modeled on these approaches.) For semiotics,
the major traditions have come from the French tradition of semiology and Claude LeviStrauss, and from the American tradition of C. S. Peirce. This overview is an abbreviated (an
overly-generalized) description of the conceptual models in both fields to help students
understand some of the common questions and assumptions, and also consider the areas open for
productive new research.
Both the French/European and Chomskyean/American traditions attempted to map out different
kinds of abstract and necessary structures that determine possible linguistic behavior–sign
functions from phonology, in Saussure’s starting point, and language formation through
internalized abstract rules for syntax, in Chomsky’s breakthrough. Chomsky inaugurated a
research agenda to define a “formal grammar” by means of which any specific sentence in any
natural language could be generated and understood. In Chomsky’s model, a “deep structure” of
internalized abstract rules and codes (termed the “I-language,” the internalized language rule set)
enables and generates the “surface structure” of actual expressions and usage conventions in all
varieties of dialects in any language (an “E-language” or external expressions).
Both schools of thought approach language (that is, the universal human capacity for language,
not any specific language) and language communities (specific languages) as as things that
cannot be explained empirically (the data and facts of language use and extrapolations from
these), but according to rules and abstract schema internalized by language users that define how
a language works (that is, the models for how any language, all languages work) and allow the
production and recognition of new expressions in any language.
For linguistics in the 1960s-80s, the research paradigm remained mainly at the level of sentences
and phrases, and until recently was not as concerned with additional levels of cultural meaning
surrounding sentences, large bodies of discourse, or the formal units of written cultural genres.
Many forms of discourse studies, sociolinguistics, and semantics are part of the field of
linguistics today. French and European semiology adapted Saussure’s linguistic model for
analysis of larger cultural formations (especially for the study of literature, anthropology, and
popular culture). Unfortunately, Anglo-American and European disciplinary identities and
boundaries have separated the research agendas and starting premises in areas of common
concern (how human cultures use language and all kinds of meaning-systems and communicate
meanings across space and time), though there are now many areas of cross-disciplinary research
with many areas open for new convergence.
Semiotics focuses mainly on units of meaning and the generalizable conditions for encoding
across symbolic systems (linguistic, visual, auditory), and, in general, uses language as the
modeling system for other “second order” systems that function according to systematic rules
(e.g., visual art, music, literature, popular media, advertising, or any meaning system). We now
have methods for merging the “generative” approach of linguistics with the “networks of
meaning” approach in semiotics. The next step is to develop models for a “generative grammar”
and “generative semiotics” of culture, describing the rules for producing new cultural forms from
our established base of meaning and content systems (in language, images, music, digital mixed
media, or any transmittable cultural genre). The models developed by Peirce and Bakhtin have
allowed for new research on this central question.
What are the Structures in Structuralism?
The term structuralism refers the method that proceeds from a description of systems of abstract,
generalizable rules that govern actual instances of expression. This starting point is considered
the best explanation for how actual expressions in any symbolic form (linguistic, visual, etc.) are
formed, generated, and understood.
=expressions formed from an internally complete system of abstract rules
In this context, structure = a priori rules systematically followed for any expression; that is, the
“structures” that must be in place and presupposed before any new expression can be uttered or
understood. Structures in this sense form an a priori (lit., from what is prior), that is, rules or
codes not given in any direct experience of instances of language use, but required as the
precondition for the possibility of any linguistic expression.
American linguistic theory in all of its schools and sub-schools rarely uses the term structure or
structuralism (although Chomsky acknowledges the European tradition). In most descriptions of
language theory and semiology, structuralism refers mainly to the theory and philosophy arising
from European and French thought, with its main developments in the 1960s. The structural
model, however, is common among several schools of thought even though the kinds of work
and specific problems are different.
De Saussure’s starting point is a structural description (the abstract and necessary rules) of the
learned (conventional) abstract codes that link speech sounds (phonology) and linguistic
meaning; that is, how acoustic stimuli (sounds, signifiers) get mapped onto meanings (signified
“content”) in any language. For de Saussure, a linguistic (or any cultural meaning-unit) is a
“sign,” specifically defined as the arbitrary–but internally necessary–coupling of a sensory
vehicle (speech sounds, printed words) and a mental concept. This model of abstract and
necessary learned, conventional conditions for expression and meaning influenced linguistics,
semiology (models for a grammar of meaning applicable to all cultural forms like writing,
images, and music), and anthropology.
Chomsky, beginning in the 1950s-60s, takes the abstract system of both phonology and
grammar as necessary, but starts with the problem of syntax, language acquisition, and language
productivity. His model of syntax as the internalized rules for generating expressions solves the
empirical problem of “the poverty of stimulus” when seeking to explain the rapid acquisition of
grammar from few experiences; that is, trying to explain how humans learn language by
induction from experienced examples (i.e., how any child in any language community from
around age 3-4 is capable of generating an infinite set of new grammatically formed sentences
which the child has never experienced). For Chomsky, humans have an innate capacity for
language and the ability to internalize a grammar from a very small set of examples, and are soon
able to generate an infinite number of new expressions in their native language. From this
observation, he was able to map out a rigorous set of syntactic phrase structures capable of many
Chomsky explains in his influential book, Language and Mind (1968, 3rd edition, 2006)
The person who has acquired knowledge of a language has internalized a system of rules that
relate sound and meaning in a particular way. The linguist constructing a grammar of a language
is in effect proposing a hypothesis concerning this internalized system…
The grammar proposed by the linguist is an explanatory theory; it suggests an explanation for the
fact that (under the idealization mentioned) a speaker of the language in question will perceive,
interpret, form, or use an utterance in certain ways and not in other ways….
Continuing with current terminology, we can thus distinguish the surface structure of the
sentence, the organization into categories and phrases that is directly associated with the physical
signal, from the underlying deep structure, also a system of categories and phrases, but with a
more abstract character.
Where de Saussure distinguishes between langue and parole (the underlying grammar and rules
of a language vs. spoken and written expressions in any concrete instance), Chomsky
distinguishes between “deep structures” and “surface structures” and “competence” vs.
“performance.” The observations here allow us go beyond the experiential data of language in
use to the underlying rules everyone shares in making new expressions and participating in a
system of meanings.
At all levels, then, for language to be language, it must be:
• rule-governed (expression and understanding reflect the same necessary code base)
• collective (shared, not private or individual)
• conventional or arbitrary (that is, not natural)
• And learned (arises from being in a language community, not spontaneous).
These assumptions form the presuppositions of all work in semiology or semiotics, which maps
out ways to analyze any meaning system as a “second-order” language; that is, for semiotics to
proceed, we must presuppose that the structural features of language also operate in other
language-like systems (for example, visual art or music) and are assumed or incorporated in a
different level of operation like the system of other linguistic levels, a computer network
“protocol stack” of layered functions, or the nested and embedded functions in computer
Semiotics: Basic Assumptions
Contemporary semiotic theory merges the thought of Ferdinand de Saussure and Charles Sanders
Peirce in many variations. Here are some of the most important starting assumptions.
1. Cultures are formed through language. Language is public, social, and communal, not private
or personal. (If anyone used a private language, it would be very uninteresting to the rest of the
2. Users of a common language form what is called a “speech community,” though we use
“speech” in this context to include many kinds of communication communities (subcultures,
dialects, ethnic groups, social-class specific communities, etc.); any individual can participate in
multiple “speech communities”.
3. Language is a system with rules (its own internal structure). Language as a system is multileveled, from speech sounds, words, and sentences to longer units called discourse. Discourse
circulates through a culture, providing meanings, values, and social identities to individuals.
4. Discourse is the level studied by most cultural theory and semiotics. All of our cultural
statements–from “mainstream” and official “high culture” products to popular culture genres and
emerging new cultural forms–can thus be studied as forms of discourse, parts of a larger cultural
5. Communication and meaning are formed by mediations–representative or symbolic vehicles
that “stand for” things, meanings, and values. The mediating vehicles are called “signs”. For
example, words in a language, images, sounds, or other perceptible signifiers.
5.1. Thus signs and sign-systems never present a copy of “reality”–the order of things external to
language and our mediated way of knowing thinning-out a socially interpreted and valued
6. The study of how a society produces meanings and values in a communication system is
called semiotics, from the Greek term semion, “sign”. (Here “sign” has a specialized meaning,
referring to our social and cultural vehicles for signification or meaning.) Languages, and other
symbolic systems like music and images, are called sign systems because they are governed by
learnable and transmittable rules and conventions shared by a community.
Semiotic Models: Dyadic and Triadic
Ferdinand de Saussure
Simple two-part model of the sign: a signifier (sign vehicle; material perceptible content like
sound or visual information) and the signified (a conceptual and abstract content)
De Saussure: Descriptive model
Charles Sanders Peirce: Triadic Model
Peirce used a different set of terms to describe sign functions, which for him were a conceptual
process, continually unfolding and unending (what he termed “unlimited semiosis,” the chain of
meaning-making by new signs interpreting a prior sign or set of signs).
In Peirce’s model, meaning is generated through chains of signs (becoming interpretants), which
is parallel with Mikhail Bakhtin’s model of dialogism, in which every cultural expression is
always already a response or answer to prior expression, and which generates further responses
by being addressible to others.
7. Semiotics isolates sign functions for social analysis. French semiotics distinguishes two main
sign-functions, the signifier (the level of expression, like the bare acoustic impression of speech
sounds or the visual impression of written marks and images) and the signified (the level of
content or value, what is associated with the signifier in a language). But what allows the sign to
work as a whole unit of social meaning is a code, the rule for combining a sensory impression
with a mental content, and the basic signifiers in a language into a system of meanings.
a. The relation between signifier and signified is not natural, but arbitrary, part of the internal
rules of a language. Having an arbitrary relation to things signified, the signs of a culture can be
analyzed for how societies construct, produce, and circulate meanings and values.
8. Sign systems are often described as organized into sets of differences (differential values) and
hierarchies that structure meanings and social values. The form that these differences take is
governed by ideology. (For example, the large set of socially constructed meanings for things
considered “masculine” and “feminine,” a pervasive set of binary oppositions. “Masculine” and
“feminine” are meaningless apart from their mutual definition in a socially encoded binary
structure.) The majority of our complex social use of signs reveals a network of relationships,
rather than simple binaries.
9. Signification is therefore a process, a product, and a social event, not something closed, static,
or completed one and for all. All members of a society are interpreters or decoders.
a. Signification occurs in the encoding and decoding process.
b. Position of the interpreter/receiver of communication is inscribed in the system itself. Ability
to decode and understand signification is based on competence with the sign system and with a
larger cultural encyclopedia of codes and correspondences.
10. Semiotics, however, moves beyond language to study all the meaning systems in a society-fashion, advertising, popular culture genres like TV and movies, music, political discourse, all
forms of writing and speech. Semiotics contributes to communication studies by providing
method for uncovering and analyzing how a whole system of signification like a movie genre,
fashion images, or TV works in a culture.
a. Semiotics, then, looks at culture broadly as a language considered as a sign system, or the
ways signs and language map onto culture as a whole.
Sign: something that stands for something else in a system of signification (language, images,
Code: the relational system that allows a sign to have meaning, the social organization of
meanings into differences, hierarchies, and networks of relations.
Image is everything: easy examples that seem transparent because we engage the codes quickly:
Early Perrier advertisement. Sexual allure and brand appeal. But how do we “know” this? Are
sexiness and the meaning of the brand a property of the image? The meanings aren’t inherent in
the image but learned in the culture where these signs circulate and accumulate. Part of the social
meaning of the image is the history of accrued associations and contexts which, of course,
circulate apart from this specific image but are understood by members of the culture in which
this image functions. None of this information is a property of the image itself, but must be