Gender is an incredibly important aspect of The Witches, and has led to continued criticism of Dahl and of the work, despite its popularity and success as a children's book. Most of the criticism the book has received on the topic is due to Dahl's definition of witches as women. "A witch is always a woman," he writes. "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. On the other hand, a ghoul is always a male. So indeed is a barghest. Both are dangerous. But neither of them is half as dangerous as a REAL WITCH" (3). In "Boil, Boil, Toil and Trouble: a critical look at the controversy over The Witches, Elizabeth Oliver analyzes early reactions to Dahl's novel, writing of the above quote, "This statement does split the sexes, and provides readers with the viewpoint of evil only inhabiting the female sex. Even though males are ghouls, they are not half as evil as the female witch; however, such strong reactions against the female-only witches were due to the time of release. The Witches was published in 1983 when second-wave feminism was robust and prosperous, fighting issues of unofficial inequalities and sexist structures. Many adults, fearing the perpetuation of sexist order, protested The Witches. Others feared the presentation of the witches promoted a rebellion against all adults, not only females" (Oliver).
The issue of gender in the story goes beyond witches. Dahl also uses an allusion to Eve and the garden of Eden during the boy's first encounter with a witch. The witch tries to lure him down from the tree by showing him a snake, much like the story of the garden of Eden, again making women seem dangerous, evil, and sinful.
Furthermore, normal human women are shown throughout the book, especially during the boy and Grandmother's stay at the hotel. Women are generally portrayed as either quiet—like Mrs. Jenkins, who hardly says anything even when told that her son has become a mouse—or incredibly fearful and shrill, like the many women who scream and yell whenever a mouse appears.
Children and childhood
Dahl seems to enjoy writing books both for children and about children, as evidenced by his many successful books that have children as the protagonists. He often also positions adults and adulthood as the antagonist(s) in the books, and The Witches is no different. The grandmother does not say anything about where witches come from, so it seems that they never have childhoods themselves; instead, they are portrayed as the ultimate adults, hating everything about children and childhood from their smells to their pets to their games. Even without direct provocation, witches' main goal is to cause children harm, and though they do not care to harm adults, they do not care about the adults they harm in the process.
Childhood is important to the story in another sense as well, namely through the boy's lost childhood. Though the boy is never given a name, and so is known only through his gender and age, "the boy," his parents' untimely death causes him to age quickly and confront scary, deep ideas of life and death. When contemplating whether it is better to be a human or a mouse, the boy decides that it is better to be a mouse because it is very dangerous to be a person—one may die of illness, an accident, or in war. Furthermore, the boy tells his grandmother after they return to Norway that he is glad he only has around 9 years left to live because he doesn't want to live without her. Since he is not even 8 years old, living only 9 more years means he will never reach adulthood, even as a mouse. In line with the seeming rejection of adults and adulthood running through Dahl's books, the boy is just fine dying before he ever has to enter that realm of life.
Belief is thematized and questions in a variety of ways in The Witches. Crucial to the story is the boy's acceptance of witches as real. Dahl tries to convince the reader of this fact as well. For example, in the very first chapter, a big deal is made out of the difference between witches in fairy tales and the "REAL WITCHES" (1) in this book. The narrator also cautions the reader or listener that their own teacher might be a witch, bringing the world of the book into the reader's reality. Thus, belief is transmitted from the grandmother to the boy and from Dahl to the reader.
Another kind of belief comes in the form of motivation. Though the boy is faced with tough circumstances, he never stops believing in the possibility of a good life, and he and the grandmother mutually believe that they can change the world for the better. What seems to spur this belief is the love and comfort they give to one another.
Beauty and ugliness
Beauty and ugliness are often used in children's books to signal moral value, such as which people are good and which evil, or which choices are the right to make. The Witches makes use of this dichotomy but takes the concept a step further by communicating that some things can look beautiful on the outside but truly be ugly and evil on the inside. For example, the narrator spends a good deal of time describing the awe and terror of watching The Grand High Witch take off and put on her mask: "She looked quite young, I guessed about twenty-five or six, and she was very pretty...very slowly, the young lady on the platform raised her hands to her face...the whole of that pretty face came away in her hands! It was a mask!...I very nearly screamed out loud. That face of hers was the most frightful and frightening thing I have ever seen...It was so crumpled and wizened, so shrunken and shriveled, it looked as though it had been pickled in vinegar" (59-60). This moment shows the boy fully realizing the evil of the witches and the danger of his situation.
Dahl also uses the ugliness of the witches to communicate about standards of beauty for Western women around the time the story was written, which may be seen as prescriptive or biasing to some critics. For example, the witches must wear pointed shoes even though their feet are square, making walking very painful for them and even often causing them to limp slightly, which is not far from reality for women who do not enjoy wearing high heels but do so for work purposes. Another example is the boy's revulsion at the thought and sight of bald women, as hair is a highly gendered part of one's look and it was generally accepted in Dahl's time that long hair and even a nice hat is the style most befitting a lady.
Death and loss
Death is a clear theme in Dahl's The Witches, but the concept of loss manifests in many smaller ways, developing the theme throughout the book.
The book opens with the boy's parents dying in a car accident in Norway, leaving him unscathed, orphaned, and in the care of his grandmother. While the witches threaten to kill children throughout the book, the theme returns in a more serious sense at the end of the book when the boy professes that he is happy that he will only live around 9 more years because he won't have to live without his grandmother.
Both the boy and his grandmother have lost important parts of themselves, which adds to the theme of death and loss. The grandmother lost her thumb at some point in her childhood and doesn't like to talk about it. The reader never finds out what happened, which marks her character with a sense of loss. The boy—now a mouse—loses part of his tail when he has to escape from the kitchen; this shows how sudden loss can be, while emphasizing that life continues even in spite of it.
Witchcraft and magic are often seen in opposition to organized religion; in fact, books about or containing witchcraft are perhaps the kinds of books most frequently banned from schools because of the lobbying of religious groups. However, Dahl ties together religion and traditional tales of magic through allusions to the Bible. The most prominent reference to religion is used to strengthen the idea of the evil nature of women in the story, which makes the idea of witches even scarier. In the chapter "The Grand High Witch," 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 serpent convinces Eve to do so, who then persuades Adam to eat from it as well. This is referred to as original sin, and Dahl's allusion to it deepens the link between women and evil in the text.
National identity is a strong theme in The Witches, developedprimarily through the grandmother's stories about and feelings for Norway and England. The grandmother is from Norway while the boy is born and raised in England, but he notes that he always felt connected to Norway and to his grandmother. When the boy's parents die in Norway and he is left in the care of his grandmother, she tells him, "Heaven shall take my soul, but Norway shall keep my bones"(8), meaning she does not want to take him back to England to live. However, when a man reads her the will of the boy's parents which says they want the boy to continue being educated in England, she decides that they should actually move to England together. Thus, Dahl sets the grandmother's beliefs in country and family against one another and then demonstrates that family is more important to her.
Another interesting facet of the theme of nationality is the fact that witches around the world do not communicate with one another. Perhaps this is to make the concept of witches less scary, as the boy and the grandmother are able to wipe out a whole country of witches without immediate repercussions from elsewhere, or to allow the various cultures and folklores that include stories of witches to retain internal consistency. In any case, the fact that The Grand High Witch speaks so differently from the rest of the English witches serves to further set her apart and perhaps uses the reader's fear of foreigners or of the unknown to create a more terrifying villain.
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.