The Parable of the Madmen: Examining the Moral Mad Figure in 'Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,' 'Se7en,' and 'Saw'

Updated on January 12, 2019
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Veronica holds a Master's Degree in Literature from American University.

Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka in 'Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory' (1971)
Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka in 'Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory' (1971) | Source

Warning:

The following contains spoilers of all three movies.

The Parable of the Madmen: Examining the Moral Mad Figure in 'Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,' 'Se7en,' and 'Saw'

Madness performs many functions within literature, mythology, and history, sometimes acting as a literary device that constructs the mad figure as one of social and moral significance. Specifically since the appearance of Friedrich Nietzsche’s parable of “The Madman” (The Gay Science) in 1882, through present day films such as the Saw movies, madmen are portrayed in literature and film as truth-tellers, exposers, and symbols of society’s moral and religious dilemmas. By observing Nietzsche’s figure of the madman, I would like to demonstrate how his mad figure, and the mad figure’s message of moral obligation, persists in present texts and reaches out to today’s audiences.

In Nietzsche’s parable, a madman runs into a marketplace early in the morning, and cries out, “I seek God!” The crowd mocks him and makes jokes, asking “Has he got lost?” and “Is he hiding?” They laugh at him until the madman replies that “we have killed him” and “all of us are his murderers.” After capturing the people’s attention, the madman continues his speech, contemplating what will become of mankind now that man has killed God. He asks, “Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? […] Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing?” The madman continues questioning the people, asking if they realize the impact of such an immense murder and the responsibility that comes with removing God. He explains that the absence of God puts future history in the hands of mankind, because it imposes on man the duty of making godly decisions on his own: “Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us – for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.” The madman astonishes the people with his words. However, he realizes he has “come too early”, and that “deeds, though done, still require time to be seen and heard” and that “this deed is still more distant from them than the most distant stars” even though “they have done it themselves.” Nietzsche, even as a known atheist and nihilist, recognized the immense responsibility, and sensed the hopeless terror, that comes with ultimately removing all trace of God from society. I will not attempt to directly analyze Nietzsche’s parable, fascinating as it is, but to look at his madman figure as an exposer of truth, as one who understands present society better than society understands itself, and as a valuable interpretation of madness as a literary device.

This type of madness in literature and film acts as a vanity mirror, focusing on a society’s flaws, reflecting its need for meaning and not finding any. Nietzsche’s madman is a frustrated figure; he is a man recognizing an immeasurable responsibility that no one else understands. He realizes that in a floating society, where “God is dead” and humans are left a world that was made to be run by God, people struggle to act with purpose and consider consequences of immoral behavior. Without a perfect law-giver, the world falls apart because there is no objective moral code holding it together. As Clark Buckner puts it in his analysis of Nietzsche’s parable, “the idea of losing God means Madness […] if the world was without faith then nothing would have significance, and as a result, more poverty, murder, greed and a loss of respect, would surely ensue.” Therefore, the madman is struck with urgency to “seek God”, to warn the crowd that mocks him, and then frustratingly assume the role of a repressed wise figure when the crowd rejects him. The madman becomes the contradictory embodiment of a deconstructed social order (irrationality, deviant behavior) and the desire to reclaim social order and meaning. He attempts to warn the crowd of its immorality and deviance from God (actually the murder of God), though his own deviance from society will prevent him from being taken seriously and rationally.

The repression of the madman by his literary counterparts, however, pushes the reader to embrace him and his message. The crowd in the parable is unable to appreciate the madman’s words, so the reader wants to appreciate them, and that is partly what makes the madman an effective literary tool. As a character that exists outside the social order, the madman appears to hold knowledge beyond our limited, socially-constructed scope. Therefore, we as readers take the madman seriously in order to gain the knowledge that he appears to have access to, and in doing so, Nietzsche’s message becomes ingrained in us.

Almost a century later, Nietzsche’s madman has evolved, but is still present and fundamentally projects the same frustrated “call for action” from the crowd. In recent work, from the late 20th century into the present 21st century, Nietzsche’s madman from the literary world has made his way into popular film. By examining three of these films, created at different times for different genres (i.e. Family, Thriller, Horror), I would like to: uncover Nietzsche’s evolving madman (one that becomes more of a crazed enforcer that acts out the madman's vision), reveal his mirror-image of society, and expose his methods of carrying out his message to the audience. The three movies I will examine are Mel Stuart’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), David Fincher’s Se7en (1995), and James Wan’s Saw (2004). These three movies are strikingly similar, particularly because all three contain a mad character that rises to the level of law-giver and judge, who punishes undesirable behaviors fairly common in society.

'Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory' (1971)
'Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory' (1971) | Source

Though many may find Willy Wonka to be an eccentric rather than a mad character, his desire to preach messages on moral responsibility to a world that saddens, possibly disgusts, him makes him very much like the madman from Nietzsche’s parable. The beginning of the film focuses on Charlie Bucket, a child that works a paper route in order to help support his poverty-stricken family. It is from Charlie’s curiosity with the Wonka candy factory located near his house that the audience gets a taste of Willy Wonka’s misfortunes and discouragement with the world. After discovering the factory and being warned by an ominous-looking tinker that “nobody ever goes in and nobody ever comes out”, Charlie asks his bedridden grandfather to shed some light on Wonka’s situation. From Grandpa Joe, we learn that Wonka closed down his factory after other candy companies from around the world began sending in spies dressed as workers to steal his “secret recipes”. Wonka vanished for three years before making candy again, but this time with his gates locked and with no help from the corrupt society that almost “ruined” him. Here we get a glimpse of Nietzsche’s repressed mad figure; a man that is frustrated with a world that deflates him with its inability to recognize the importance of moral goodness.

The information that Grandpa Joe gives us about the people’s treatment of Wonka isn’t surprising given the context of the movie. The world we are shown before meeting Willy Wonka and entering his factory is a rather annoying, self-serving, greedy society that revolves around consumption and candy. Though God, faith, or religion are never explicitly mentioned in the film, we are thrust into a world that is not so different from the world painted by Nietzsche’s madman: “How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? […] What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent?” In Willy Wonka’s world – a world devoid of God and consumed by greed – games, competition, and consumption replace meaningful actions and give society false purpose. And, because he is a reflection of his society, Willy Wonka is the “Candyman”, a man who is able to hold power over the world by understanding its corrupted state. As the madman who is both cast from society but perfectly understands, and reflects, the society in which he is apart of, Willy Wonka uses the faults and misguided beliefs of the world to teach them a moral code to replace the one that is lost with the removal of God.

The first way Wonka exposes society’s flaws is through his golden ticket competition; a competition in which the entire world hunts for one of five gold tickets by purchasing as many Wonka bars as they possibly can in order to receive its prize. It is during this contest that the materialism of the world surfaces. In these scenes we not only see the greedy consumerism that plagues this society, but also the power that Wonka holds as the owner of a business that makes products of luxury rather than need. Wonka, as a careful observer of society, knows his power and utilizes it; and in turn, he is able to expose the lawlessness of society by showing what people are willing to do for “a lifetime supply of chocolate”, or, more simply, for gold – a symbol of wealth and victory, but also of false idols. Nietzsche’s madman has evolved from a man preaching a message to a man exhibiting his message through actions that expose society for what it is.

It isn’t a coincidence that those who find the tickets (with the exception of Charlie) are lazy, fat, greedy, and overly competitive. What is interesting is that they are also young children. At the end of the movie, Wonka tells us that he deliberately planned to have children become the ticket-holders. He explains to Charlie that he “decided a long time ago” that he needed to find “a very honest and loving child” to take over his factory, and “not a grown-up” because a grown-up “would want to do everything his own way.” While his speech explains why he chose Charlie, it doesn’t account for the other four unruly children. Wonka’s words, taken into consideration with his fake Slugworth spy that he sent to test the children’s integrity, prove that Wonka had a heavy hand in deciding who would find his gold tickets; The fake Slugworth greets each of the children just as they find a ticket, and also reveals to Charlie that he knows quite a bit about him and his family’s financial situation. While Wonka chose Charlie specifically for his honesty, he appeared to choose the other children for their greed, disobedience, and more importantly, because they are the embodiment of immoral behaviors nurtured by an immoral society. These children are too young to take full responsibility for their misguided outlooks, and Wonka’s Oompa Loompas are the first to point this out when they sing, “Blaming the kid is a lie and a shame. You know exactly who’s to blame. The mother and the father.” As we are introduced to each child, we are shown parents that are completely supportive of their child’s disturbing behavior. These kids are truly products of their greedy society, and Wonka seems to choose them to make an example of them.

It is no coincidence that these children are enticed to their own destruction, as if Wonka planned ironic traps for them throughout his factory: the gluttonous Augustus falls into a river of chocolate that he can’t stop drinking; the competitive gum-chewing Violet turns into a blueberry when she can’t resist chewing a new kind of gum; the spoiled and greedy Veruca Salt falls to her doom when Wonka denies her a goose that lays gold eggs; and the lazy and T.V. obsessed Mike becomes victim to his own obsession when he can’t resist being broadcasted on Wonka-Vision. Even Charlie is nearly “chopped to bits” as punishment for disobeying Wonka and tasting Fizzy Lifting Drinks. In order to undo the immoral behavior that is now being passed onto society’s children, Wonka establishes a punishment/reward system that encourages the good morals that society neglects. By punishing society’s flaws, he morally instructs society and encourages people (especially children, like Charlie) to follow his example. Like Wonka says, “We are the music-makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.” In Nietzsche’s God-less world, mankind must be the ones to instill morals and make the world what it is.

As an audience, as children watching and singing along with the Oompa Loompas, we are ingrained with Wonka’s message. We want to be like Charlie because Charlie is rewarded by inheriting the magical chocolate factory, and the whimsical moral wisdom of Willy Wonka. Though Charlie isn’t perfect (he too was sucked into the competition of the gold tickets) he impresses Wonka with his loyalty by giving Wonka back the gobstopper that could have made him rich: “so shines a good deed in a weary world.” As an audience we see honesty rewarded, and Willy Wonka’s madness become rational. Once Wonka is sure of Charlie’s integrity, he immediately reveals several of his secrets (the Slugworth spy and the reason behind the competition) making him to appear more sane because the viewer is able to see the methods behind his madness. And because of our relationship with Charlie, we also become successors of the mad figure’s message.

Scene from 'Se7en' (1995)
Scene from 'Se7en' (1995) | Source

The child audiences that grew up with Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory have become the adult audiences of films such as David Fincher’s Se7en. Again we find a madman reflecting his society and using it to send a message. Se7en tells the story of two detectives, Mills and Somerset, tracking a serial killer that uses the seven deadly sins to determine his victims and their torturous punishments. Much like in Willy Wonka, we are first presented with a sinful, corrupt society. In this society, murder and deviant behavior are common, and a serial killer easily blends in. Throughout the majority of the film, the detectives are always one step behind the killer, seeing the results of his murders, but unable to catch him. John Doe, the mad killer, is nameless, has no fingerprints, and indiscernible from the society he reflects. Like Nietzsche’s parable, the madman is one of the crowd, but at the same time removed from it by his sense of obligation to make humans accountable and aware of the Godlessness in which they live.

Similarly to Wonka, Doe embodies the immorality of the city and the ineffectiveness of its laws, but uses it to his advantage when projecting his own message; Wonka cleverly demonstrates the ineffectiveness of his own society’s laws in protecting its people when he has all the children sign a disclaimer before entering the factory, which protects Wonka from being responsible for any “loss of life or limb” of the children. In the same fashion, John Doe understands the restrictions put on detectives and the police force, laws that protect criminals and the insane, and the corruptness of the city, and uses this knowledge to successfully commit his symbolic murders.

Nietzsche’s madman has evolved in Se7en, even further from Willy Wonka, into a strict enforcer and judge that only punishes to redeem society’s future but offers no reward for good behavior. In Se7en, sinners are the madman’s target; however, everyone is a sinner without exception (even John Doe himself). What is interesting is that sinners that break religious moral codes, such as the seven deadly sins, will not be punished by God, but by man. Through “forced attrition” (as Detective Somerset calls it), in which Doe makes his victims repent for their sins through torture rather than their love for God, Doe takes it upon himself to do “God’s work”. Here we can see a different interpretation of Nietzsche’s madman surface: “Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?” The madman again takes on the responsibility a messenger and God. He attempts to save mankind by accepting the role of an absent deity, by “setting the example” (as Doe claims), both passing judgment and preaching, “long is the way, and hard, that out of hell leads up to light.” And like Nietzsche’s madman, Doe knows that his message has “come too early” and counts on it. Doe reveals to us towards the end that he knows what he has done will be “puzzled over, and studied, and followed…forever.”

Like Nietzsche’s madman, John Doe, his relationships with the other characters, and those characters’ relationship with the audience, are important literary tools that project moral and existential dilemmas onto the audience. John Doe’s relationship with Detective Somerset is particularly effective in reaching viewers. Doe is a distorted double of Somerset’s embodied traits and moral views. Both men, for example, are intelligent and scholarly, and have an appreciation for libraries and classic literature. More importantly, however, are the men’s similar disgust for the sinful city in which they live. Both Doe and Somerset recognize the ugliness of their world, and both try to change it in their own way (Doe kills, Somerset arrests). Even the characters’ dialogues parallel each other. This is especially evident when each character has a conversation with Detective Mills at different points in the movie. Somerset attempts to teach Mills about the evil that saturates the city, and to explain his reasons for wanting to retire: “I just don’t think I can continue to live in a place that embraces and nurtures apathy as if it was a virtue.” Later in the film, we learn that John Doe also wants to teach, and Somerset’s views are reflected in Doe’s words, that “we see a deadly sin on every street corner, in every home, and we tolerate it.” Both Doe and Somerset are sickened by the concept that evil acts are committed everyday, while society stands by and does nothing.

Even though they are repulsed by the people that commit the acts and the people that stand by and watch, neither Doe nor Somerset exclude themselves. When Mills and Somerset have a conversation in a bar after work, Mills points out that Somerset is “no different, no better” than the people he condemns. Somerset responds by saying, “I didn’t say I was different or better. I’m not. Hell, I sympathize.” Doe reveals the same while all three characters hold a conversation in the car; Mills tries to instigate Doe by calling him a murderer and a lunatic, and Doe responds by claiming he’s “not special” and that he’s no different from anyone else. Doe even recognizes his own sin (Envy) and punishes himself in accordance with his message.

The similarities between Doe and Somerset are numerous throughout the film, but these connections lead the viewer to ask the question, why? Why would Fincher create a seemingly psychotic murderer that has the same views and traits as a likable, sane, relatable character? The reason in relating these characters is to create the possibility that John Doe’s message is rational, that he is "not the devil", not a lunatic, and, as Somerset puts it, "just a man". Fincher includes several scenes that indicate the problems of calling Doe insane, and he does this mostly through Somerset's role. Detective Mills is quick to label Doe as a "lunatic", and it is Somerset who sets him straight: "It's dismissive to call him a lunatic". At the end, Doe also scolds Mills on the way he identifies him: "It's more comfortable for you to label me insane." Also, we learn through Doe's lawyer, that categorizing John as a lunatic sets him free from having to go to prison. If Doe is mad, then he is free from society’s laws in more way than one. Fincher creates the possibility of Doe’s sanity, without fully pushing it on the audience, perhaps in order to make him less of an unspeakable, fantastic monster, and more like us. We relate to Doe through his similarities to the sane and understandable Somerset.

As an objective viewer, we also relate to Detective Mills. Mills, in fact, mirrors many experiences we have as an audience. He is the young, green detective who chooses to live in the city and wants to be part of the case. As an audience, we also want to be taken through the case, and we face each murder scene along with Mills in our own inexperience. Like Mills, with each victim we encounter we feel as if we are personally not included, unattached, and safe as a viewer. However, we are being tricked, and by identifying with Mills we become John Doe's next victim. At the end, when Mills finds out that Doe murdered his wife along with his unborn baby, he finds that he is not unattached, not safe, and not the exception to Doe's message. He is not an observer, but, actually, a direct participant. The real climax doesn't come with the capture of John Doe (which was actually completely anticlimactic, since he turned himself in), but when Mills shoots and kills Doe and now must face the consequences of his actions. Our relationship with Mills now turns into the realization that we could fall victim to our sins as well. We become horrified because we change from a spectator to part of the message, and cannot help but reflect on our own morals and behavior.

Scene from 'Se7en' (1995)
Scene from 'Se7en' (1995) | Source

Nine year later, Se7en’s moral madman changes even more in the movie Saw. In this post-9/11 horror film, madness has quickly evolved the idea of losing God found in Nietzsche’s parable, to the idea of losing life. Once God is removed from society, life itself, validation of life, and survival of the fittest, become the most important things. The madman still calls for action, much like he did in the two other films, but this time he encourages actions that will ensure survival and validation of the life given to man. Just like we see in Se7en, and even in Willy Wonka, in Saw a request of action from the masses requires lives to be threatened. Society only listens to the madman when there is something at stake, and when there are direct consequences to their actions. The difference is that the post-9/11 madman offers people choices in order to bring purpose to their lives: they must kill or be killed; they must suffer quickly or die slowly.

The madman in Saw is Jigsaw; a man dying of a brain tumor that arranges complex, often fatal, traps that are designed test the victim’s desire to live. Similarly to Se7en and Willy Wonka, the victims are chosen because of their immoral behavior and poor life-decisions. Unlike the other movies, however, the madman does not have a defined moral guideline for the characters to follow, except for a strange mix of the Ten Commandments, the Golden Rule (“Do unto others…”), and Darwinism. His victims are adulterers, drug-users, suicidal, unsympathetic, and cover a wide scope of different levels of immoral behavior. In order to prove themselves to Jigsaw, the victims are put in one of two situations in which either they must inflict severe physical pain onto themselves to escape slow death, or where they must decide to kill another human being or be killed. It results in an elaborate game of “survival of the fittest”, where only those willing to do whatever it takes are most likely to survive, and as a result appreciate the life that they fought for. The character Amanda, a drug-addict, survives Jigsaw’s “game” by grotesquely dissecting another person while he is alive, in order to retrieve the key to her own freedom located in his stomach. In doing so, Jigsaw reveals to her his purpose: “Congratulations. You’re still alive. Most people are so ungrateful to be alive, but not you, not anymore.” The police officer asks Amanda after she describes her experience, “Are you grateful, Mandy?”, and she replies, “He helped me.”

As a man dying of a disease, Jigsaw reflects his corrupt, “sick” society. As he explains to one of the detectives, he’s “sick of the disease eating away at [him] from the inside, sick of people who don’t appreciate their blessings, sick of those that scoff at the suffering of others,” he’s “sick of it all.” Jigsaw feels that he is ultimately helping society by giving its members a “life of purpose” and making each of them a “test subject for something greater than” themselves; a possible solution to Nietzsche’s floating society. What’s interesting is that Jigsaw is dying of a disease that is eating away at his brain. This possibly reflects both a growing sickness in a morally diseased society, in which it loses its most important aspects (survival and morality), and a loss of sanity, in which the mind breaks down to its most ingrained instincts (again survival and morality, the two things that drive Jigsaw). In other words, Jigsaw is the missing piece of society’s puzzle. While Jigsaw reflects his society, he also carries the basic drives that his society lacks, and they are the drives that bring purpose and consequence to life’s actions.

In Saw, more so than the other films, it is easy to relate to that society and its victims. Jigsaw’s loose rules that determine immoral behavior could potentially include anyone, on the screen and off. And, unlike Se7en, audiences are able to actually witness the victims’ brutal punishments, making it easy for viewers to imagine what choices they would make if put in similar situations. In this way, Saw is able to trigger an audience’s survival instinct. The movie gives us dangerous conditions to contemplate, and allows us to explore a side of ourselves we often do not indulge in.

Jigsaw himself also connects with the viewer, simply because the only personal information we are given about this mysterious madman is that he is dying. If there’s one thing that Saw’s story-line proves, in a Godless society no one wants to die, not even the man chosen by Jigsaw because of his suicidal tendencies. To be faced with death without God is madness; something we see within both Jigsaw and his victims. Whenever we are shown a scene of a victim dying or suffering, the film’s music and picture becomes chaotic, panicky, and fast-paced. We can connect this panic-stricken, mad atmosphere with Jigsaw, who faces it constantly as a man confronting his inevitable demise, and as a result feel sympathy for him just as we feel sympathy for his victims.

Now that I’ve examined Nietzsche’s mad figure portrayed in film, I can ask the question, why the madman? Why are these characters portrayed as mad? For Nietzsche, to see a Godless society for what it truly is, is to become mad; it is too much responsibility for one person to undertake. The madman is mad because he is a paradox; he is neither society nor deity. He is a walking contradiction that must become immoral in order to preach morals, and must enforce laws by breaking others. He must become a member of the society he loathes in order to get moral messages across: Willy Wonka is a capitalist that punishes consumption, John Doe is a murderer that despises sin and law breaking, and Jigsaw is an unappreciative dying man that demands others to appreciate life.

These madmen raise themselves to a God-like status, but recognize their debilitating fallibilities. They are tormented figures, deranged messengers that cannot successfully exist within a corrupt society. Willy Wonka passes the chocolate factory down to Charlie because he knows he’s “not going to live forever” and he doesn’t “really want to try.” Wonka is weary of his world, and ready pass his moral wisdom to someone that will listen and follow because it is all he can do. John Doe perhaps makes himself part of his message in order to complete his sense of moral obligation. He recognizes that he is no different from the city people he hates, and therefore hates his own human-ness. He admits his envy of Detective Mill’s life, which shows that Doe desires to become like us; to feel like the exception, and to be ignorant of moral obligation. He punishes that desire, perhaps feeling he is above that behavior though recognizing that he is still not the God that he imitates. Jigsaw appears to be driven mad from facing his mortality. He selfishly cannot accept that those who don’t deserve life are going to outlive him.

All three characters must fail in some way (must die, must sin, must be labeled insane) in order to demonstrate the impossibility for mankind to be a moral beacon for the entire world. We as an audience are forced to connect with these fictional madmen in order to make evident that individual moral choices shape our society, and that society will ultimately fail without objective moral values. Nietzsche’s madman reaches out to us from these works and causes us to question our own behaviors and purposes in life, and to ponder on the immense responsibility that is thrust upon humans in a Godless world. And where the madman fails with the fictional crowd, he succeeds with the viewers. We “puzzle over” and study and “follow” the messages of these mad characters in the hopes of understanding them and being privy to their mad wisdom, and as a result we accept the importance of moral obligation thrust upon us in these works.

Scene from 'Saw' (2004)
Scene from 'Saw' (2004) | Source

Works Cited

Buckner, Clark. "The Madman in the Crowd: The Death of God as a Social Crisis in Nietzsche's "The Madman"" Numerot, Kirjallisuus 17 (2006). Mustekala.Info. 14 May 2006. 16 May 2009 <www.mustekala.info/node/84>.


Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science. 1882. The Nietzsche Channel. June 1999. 16 May 2009 <www.geocities.com/thenietzschechannel/diefrohl7.htm>.

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Veronica McDonald

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      • Guckenberger profile image

        Alexander James Guckenberger 

        7 months ago from Maryland, United States of America

        You're welcome. Your mind is beautiful.

      • veemcdonald profile imageAUTHOR

        Veronica McDonald 

        7 months ago from California

        Thank you

      • Guckenberger profile image

        Alexander James Guckenberger 

        7 months ago from Maryland, United States of America

        You have a unique mind. That is good.

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