Mice are, clearly, a very important part of The Witches: the climax of Dahl's story is almost 100 witches turning into a mass of brown mice before a crowd of onlookers. Mice are first mentioned when the boy uses them as a reference point in a description of his grandmother; he says that she filled up her armchair so much that even a mouse couldn't fit in it with her. After that, as the boy and the grandmother's stay at the hotel approaches, she buys him two white mice that he names William and Mary and starts to train to do tricks. While the boy exerts control over these mice, he is always kind to them and is never scared; as a rule, the adults in Dahl's story are scared of mice and children are not, though the grandmother is a notable exception to this rule. In the end, Bruno, the boy, and all of the witches are turned into mice. The boy contemplates whether life would be better as a person or a mouse, and decides that life as a mouse may be better because there is no school and no wars, a deep, insightful moment for such a young child regarding significant and age-old human problems.
Masks, Gloves, and Wigs (Symbol)
At least three symbols in The Witches center around the idea of covering things up or disguising the truth. Specifically, the witches, who are horrible, non-human creatures who masquerade daily as normal women, wear gloves and wigs; The Grand High Witch, the most powerful and terrible witch of all, also has to wear a mask. In general, these items are described as making witches indistinguishable from normal women. While some critics have said that these symbols make the book misogynistic, arguing that it portrays women as evil and deceitful, others argue that these symbols actually support the moral that things are not always as they seem, and especially as they may be presented by people with power.
Food is an important motif in the story, especially as it relates to the annoying little boy Bruno Jenkins. Bruno is depicted as constantly eating, and the reader also learns that he is a rich and spoiled child. Dahl often pairs greed and gluttony in his depictions of bad children (such as Veruca Salt and Violet Bauregarde in Dahl's classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) who love to eat, and above all to eat candy. Food is also the way in which the witches plan to administer Formula 86 Delayed Action Mouse-Maker to children and the way in which the boy ironically administers the same formula to the witches themselves. In this sense, readers are warned to be careful of how and what they and others eat.
The Grandmother's Cigar (Symbol)
The grandmother is set apart from all other adults in The Witches in many ways. Dahl likely did this because he loved his own mother, whom the grandmother character in his books was based upon, but also wanted to cultivate a certain amount of distrust in adults in his readers. The grandmother's cigar suggests an element of masculinity in her character, so different from the glove-wearing and pleasant-looking witches who pretend to be human women, and the boy is both awed and disgusted by her habit. Furthermore, the doctors try to tell her after she recovers from pneumonia that she cannot smoke them anymore, but she continues to do so, both coming to terms with and defying death.
The Snake (Symbol)
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. This is referred to by biblical commentators as the original sin; the allusion to it here further associates women with evil.
The Witches Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Witches is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.