THE WITCHES: INSULTING OR EMPOWERING?

Roald Dahl gave us more to think about, long after the final chapter

With universal classics such as Charlie and The Chocolate Factory (1964) and Matilda (1988), Roald Dahl is perhaps the most iconic children’s author of the 20th century.

So would it shock you to know that one of his novels was deemed the 22nd most challenged book of the 1990s by the American Library Association? It is important to note that although Dahl also excelled at adult works of a more sinister (and controversial) nature such as Tales of the Unexpected (1976), the book in question was intended for children.

Published in 1983, The Witches garnered widespread success and was awarded the Whitbread Book Award that year. The story details an unnamed British boy and his Norwegian grandmother in their efforts to save the children of England from a secret society of malicious witches. A crucial element of the plot, which is stated in the opening, is that “all witches are women…there is no such thing as a male witch”. In response to this particular sentiment, many critics questioned the message behind the tale with claims that it encourages sexism. It was even banned in several English libraries for perceived misogyny. However, others interpreted the concept of witches masquerading as women as a memo about learning to overlook appearances to focus on one’s personality.

As mentioned above, the dubious narrative about the nature of the witches is merely emphasised when Dahl adds that ghouls can only be males but they are “half as dangerous as a real witch”. It can be debated that this sentiment splits the sexes and implies to readers that true evil can only be found in females.

Likewise, as the grandmother explains to her beloved grandson, witches are indistinguishable from ordinary women when disguised. In essence, it warns readers that any woman could be these cruel and monstrous creatures. It is understandable why this can be seen as problematic, especially when we later discover that all the witches of England are philanthropists and have successful careers. For example, The Grand High Witch, leader of this society, is described to be a “kindly and very wealthy baroness who gave large sums of money to charity”. In turn, the message Dahl provides suggests that even the most generous and compassionate woman could be hiding a truly wicked nature underneath.


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On the other hand, some critics argue that despite first impressions, The Witches give power to modern women by casting light on societal expectations. Simply put, Dahl’s point is not that all women are to be distrusted but instead conveys the “don’t judge a book by its cover” mantra. He has crafted this message through the playful use of stereotypes, hyperboles, and humour in his writing.

For instance, when the protagonist finds himself trapped in a room of 200 witches – who have begun to remove their disguises – he notes that “the whole sight was made more grotesque because underneath those frightful scabby bald heads, the bodies were dressed in fashionable and rather pretty clothes”. This can be interpreted as a hyperbolic example of the way the world scorns women for their so-called ‘powers of deception’ – commonly achieved through makeup or plastic surgery. They are belittled (or in the context of Dahl’s story, feared) because they have managed to create a gap between expectations and reality.

Take Instagram, for example – the pictures posted there are typically what we consider “highlight reels” of a person’s life. They are perfectly posed with immaculate makeup and elegant lighting in order to glamorise the user as much as possible. However, it would be foolish to expect that level of grandeur in the same person’s daily life when they are simply reading a book and such. Yet, that is precisely what many do and so, our society has come to demand women all over the world to meet its toxic beauty standards (that is not to say that men are not pressured to present themselves in a certain manner).

Whilst we may not have literal claws for hands or “worm-eaten” skin like the witches in the book, derivations from society’s beauty expectations prompt similar feelings of repulsion and a desire to cover up these features. Dahl’s tale rebels against these standards and instead places the unmasked women into positions of power – be it may transforming children into mice – thus implying that those of us in the real world need not conform to be empowered or feel confident in ourselves.

Now, in the end, I think we can all agree that if these child-murdering creatures were real, we would have much greater issues than the significance of their gender.


MACKAYAN: THE WITCHES