Chapter 1: A Note About Witches
The Witches begins with a chapter directly addressing the reader and clearing up some points about the depictions of witches in the book. As the narrator says, "This is not a fairy-tale. This is about REAL WITCHES" (1). The narrator goes on to inform the reader that real witches seem just like ordinary people, but they spend all their time plotting to kill children. Instead of doing this in the ways that other people might, like stabbing them or hitting them over the head, witches use their magic powers.
The narrator says that there are not that many witches in the world anymore, only about 100 in most countries. The narrator also makes it clear that only woman can be witches. A picture of two women is shown to emphasize the point that you cannot tell a regular woman from a witch just by looking at them. The narrator even implies that the teacher reading the story to the class right at the moment could be a witch. However, a little help is given at the end of the chapter: "There are a number of little signals you can look out for, little quirky habits that all witches have in common, and if you know about these, if you remember them always, then you might just possibly manage to escape from being squelched before you are very much older" (5).
Chapter 2: My Grandmother
It turns out that the narrator is a man who had multiple experiences with witches as a child. The story proper now starts, bringing us to a time when the narrator is seven years old. He had been born in England but was very close to his maternal grandmother who lived in Norway. They would always visit her in Norway at Christmas and in the summertime, and the boy would spend lots of time speaking in both Norwegian and English with her. One such Christmas, the boy and his family go to visit the grandmother and, while there, his immediate family gets in a terrible car crash on an icy road. His parents both die instantly, but the boy is left almost entirely uninjured.
The boy is taken back to his grandmother's house and they stay up together crying and hugging. She tells him that he will live in Norway with her, since she could never leave. The next day, his grandmother starts to tell him stories to distract both of them from the tragedy. She begins to tell him about witches, but she makes clear that these are not made up stories like some others. When he doubts her, she tells him that she personally knows at least five children who have been taken or transformed by witches.
His grandmother lights one of her large, black cigars and tells him about the five children. The first, a child named Ranghild, was playing outside with her sister and then went off with a "tall lady in white gloves" (10) and was never seen again. The second child, from the Christiansen family, ate an apple given to her by a witch and was transported into a painting of a pasture with ducks that hung in her family's living-room; she aged year by year in the painting and eventually disappeared. The third was a little girl named Birgit who turned into a chicken and even laid big, brown eggs. The fourth was a little boy named Harald who turned into stone. The fifth, a boy named Leif, turned into a porpoise while on vacation with his family; he played with his family for the rest of the afternoon and then swam away.
Chapter 3: How to Recognize a Witch
The next night, the boy's grandmother continues telling him about witches; this time she focuses on how one can recognize a witch, though she emphasizes that this can be difficult because they work hard to look just like normal women. The boy's grandmother then informs him of the signs of a witch. Witches wear gloves at all times because instead of regular fingernails they have claws like a cat. Witches are bald, but wear convincing wigs to look like normal women; however, they can often be seen scratching their scalp because wearing a wig on a bald head will give the witches itchy sores. Witches have slightly larger nostrils than normal people because they have a very good sense of smell, especially attuned to smelling clean children.
Grandma pauses to advise the boy not to bathe too often, because dirt can cover up the stink-waves coming off of a child. She also informs him that adults do not make these stink-waves which are so irritating to a witch. The smell, grandma says, is similar to "fresh dogs' droppings" (22).
The boy's grandma continues with her catalog of witches' special traits. Instead of normal, black pupils, a witch's pupil will be continually changing color. Furthermore, witches may walk with a slight limp because they have square feet with no toes but must wear pointed shoes like other women. Finally, witches have blue spit that they can use like ink to write.
The boy asks his grandmother whether she ever saw a witch when she was a child, and she says that she did once. However, she refuses to tell him about it, and when he asks her if it has "something to do with [her] missing thumb" (26), his grandmother goes very stiff and will not say another word to him. Understanding that the conversation is over, the boy kisses his grandmother goodnight and leaves her sitting there.
Chapter 4: The Grand High Witch
The next day, a man arrives to discuss the boy's parents' will with his grandmother. The will states that the boy's grandmother should care for him back in England where he can keep attending school. She agrees to do this, and they leave a few days later so that he can be back in time for school to start again. The boy asks his grandmother if there are witches in England as well as in Norway and she responds that there are fewer but they are some of the most vicious witches in the world. The boy continues thinking about what happened to his grandmother's thumb, but he doesn't ask.
The boy asks his grandmother what kinds of things English witches do to children. She tells him that they especially like to mix up potions that change children into other creatures, especially those creatures hated by adults. She gives him examples of children being turned into slugs, fleas, and pheasants, causing adults, even their own parents, to squash or shoot them. The grandmother says that witches are different in every country and that there is a Secret Society of Witches in every country that allows all of the witches to come together to meet and plan. Witches from different countries do not communicate with one another, but keep organized by all being visited by "The Grand High Witch Of All The World" (32) once every year. Supposedly, these annual meetings are held at normal hotels; the women act normally while there, but sometimes strange things occur during their stay.
The boy asks his grandmother how she knows all this, and she says that "witchophiles all over the world" (34) have been trying for a long time to learn more about The Grand High Witch, the societies of witches, and the annual meetings. She tells the boy that all witches can have as much money as they want because The Grand High Witch has a money-printing machine.
The next morning, the boy and his grandmother return to England and school starts again. Soon, the boy has his first encounter with a witch. He is working on the tree house he has been building with his friend Timmy when he sees a woman standing on the ground below the tree and smiling at him. He notices that she is wearing a small black hat and black gloves. She tells him that she has a present for him in a voice with "a curious rasping quality" (36). She shows him that she has a small, green snake in her purse. The boy climbs quickly further up the tree and stays there for hours. Eventually, his grandmother comes out and calls for him; he asks if the woman is gone and then comes down. His grandmother takes him inside and gives him cocoa. They are both very shaken by the encounter and he sees her glance down at where her thumb should be while they sit together. The chapter ends with an eerie line, foreshadowing what's to come: "that was my first witch. But it wasn't my last" (40).
One of the most important moments in the book, if one looks at what has been discussed by both scholars and a wider reading public, comes on just page 3: "A witch is always a woman. I do not wish to speak badly about women. Most women are lovely. But the fact remains that all witches are women. There is no such thing as a male witch." Because of this passage and the portrayal of women throughout the book, many critics called The Witches and Dahl himself a misogynist and even protested for the banning of the book in schools in the 1980s and 1990s. However, other critics have argued that what Dahl meant to communicate through the deceptive normalcy and even beauty of the sneaky, terrifying witches was the idea that things are not always what they seem.
Just after this section, in the same chapter called "How to Recognize a Witch," Dahl makes an interesting narrative choice only used once in the story. Specifically, he creates a meta-textual moment in which he speaks directly to his assumed audience, school children being read to by their teacher. This moment is quite interesting, as it has the spooky effect of blending a reader or listener's real world and surroundings with the fantastical world within the story. However, it should be noted that this authorial move is risky in that it alienates readers who do not fit Dahl's supposed audience (such as older school children reading to themselves).
A good deal of foreshadowing is done in this section of the book, as is common in children's books. One important motif that is set up here is that of mice, which are mentioned multiple times. The boy notes that his grandmother filled up an armchair so much that even a mouse couldn't fit in it with her. In addition, the grandmother foreshadows the idea of children being turned into small, dirty animals (especially in England) by suggesting that English witches might turn children into slugs or fleas.
An important facet of the book that might slip by young readers is allusions made to religion, especially in the chapter "The Grand High Witch." In this chapter, the boy is in a tree when a witch approaches him and beckons him to come to her. When he doesn't come, she shows him the snake she has in her handbag, but he climbs further up the tree away from her. This moment parallels, but contrasts greatly with, the story of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. In this Bible story, Adam and Eve are not supposed to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, but a snake convinces Eve to, who then convinces Adam. Biblical commentary refers to this as man's original sin, and alluding to it calls even more attention to Dahl's portrayal of women as evil.
It is important to keep in mind the ways in which Dahl has drawn upon his life in his works, especially in The Witches. Dahl's parents were from Norway, though he was born and raised in Wales, making his connection to Norway quite similar to that of the young boy in the story. Furthermore, Dahl has at least one quite positive female in the book - the grandmother. Dahl has made it known that the grandmother character in The Witches (as well as others of his stories, as this same character, with some variations, occurs many times throughout his works) was based on his mother.