What is the effect of the bittersweet tone of the story's finale?
While the story ends with the destruction of all the English witches, and the boy and his grandmother living together happily, there is also a melancholy element. The grandmother reminds the readers that many witches still exist in the world, and comments on the reduced life expectancy of the boy due to his physical transformation into a mouse. By making the ending bittersweet, Dahl suggests that evil is a powerful force. While the heroes are successful in defeating one evil, the existence of further conflict reminds us of the dangers that continues to threaten society.
What is one major characteristic of Dahl's villains?
The witches are portrayed as creatures that make it their sole purpose to destroy children, a trait that is shared by nearly all of Dahl's villains. As his books are written for children, it is understandable why Dahl creates villains not only for characters in the text but also for readers.
How may Roald Dahl's life have influenced the writing of The Witches?
Roald Dahl was born and raised in Wales, but his parents were from Norway. This fact immediately creates a parallel between Roald Dahl and the boy in The Witches, who is born and raised in England but whose grandmother, his main caretaker in the book, is from and is fiercely allegiant to Norway. Dahl has even told the public that the grandmother character is based on his own mother, and this sheds light on why she is such a vivid character and stands apart from all of the other women in the book, who are described as either evil or foolish. Furthermore, it is likely that much of the folklore in the book, both the stories of witches and the allusions to religion, stem from things Dahl was taught in his childhood.
What is the importance of gender as a theme in The Witches? How are female characters portrayed by Dahl in the story?
Gender is an incredibly important aspect in 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 the fact that Dahl states that only women can be witches and then portrays these evil women as disguising themselves as nice, sweet people through the use of such feminine wiles as wigs, gloves, and fancy, pointed shoes.
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 the grandmother's stay at the hotel. Women are generally portrayed as either quiet, like Mrs. Jenkins—who hardly interacts with the grandmother and the boy even when they tell her that her son has become a mouse and allows her husband to do all the talking—or, like the other guests at the hotel, fearful and shrill, yelling and carrying on every time a mouse appears.
How do the special qualities of witches (such as needing to wear gloves and wigs) function symbolically?
The special qualities of witches are many, largely described and foreshadowed in the chapters "A Note about Witches," "My Grandmother," and "How to Recognize a Witch." Namely, witches wear wigs to cover their bald, scabby heads; wear pointy shoes to disguise their square, toe-less feet; wear gloves to cover their clawed fingers; have pupils that change color; and have blue spit. The importance of these qualities is that they are barely noticeable to most because of the witches's clever disguise methods, giving the story a moral that things are not always what they seem and that adults especially may deceive children.
What role does Norway play in The Witches?
Norway is presented as a comforting and particularly magical place in the world, likely due to stories Dahl heard about the place when he was growing up in Wales with Norwegian parents. In general, nationality and devotion to one's country is a strong theme in the story, developed especially through the grandmother's attachment to Norway. 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 boy's parents' will, 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. Furthermore, the fact that the The Grand High Witch's castle is located in Norway and that the grandmother and the boy return to Norway at the end of the book to plan their attack on worldwide witchcraft leaves the reader with a lingering sense of Norway's mystery and importance.
How does Roald Dahl use foreshadowing to create suspense in The Witches?
Roald Dahl foreshadows heavily in the first few chapters of The Witches by introducing the qualities of witches directly to the reader and then from the grandmother's stories to the boy. This is especially true of the chapter "The Grand High Witch" in which the grandmother tells the boy about how English witches turn children into pests and then cause other people such as their own parents to kill them. This almost directly foreshadows the English witches' later plan to turn all English children into mice, and to set it up so that they will all transform while at school and then be killed by their teachers. Suspense is created by the grandmother's revealing this before she and the boy move to England, making the move seem like a dangerous adventure. Furthermore, this foreshadowing is combined with references to mice throughout the first half of the book; the mice motif combines with this suspense, which both culminate in the reveal of the witches' plan, and the climax when the boy turns it back on them.
What reasons does the boy give for mice being better than humans? Do you agree with his point of view?
Soon after being turned into a mouse, the boy must come to terms with his new reality. Surprisingly, he decides that being a mouse may be better than being a human. Specifically, he says, "what's so wonderful about being a little boy anyway? Why is that necessarily any better than being a mouse? I know that mice get hunted and they sometimes get poisoned or caught in traps. But little boys sometimes get killed, too. Little boys can be run over by motor-cars or they can die of some awful illness. Little boys have to go to school. Mice don't. Mice don't have to pass exams. Mice don't have to worry about money. Mice, as far as I can see, have only two enemies, humans and cats...When mice grow up, they don't ever have to go to war and fight against other mice. Mice, I felt pretty certain, all like each other. People don't" (113). I believe that the boy makes a good point that humans are certainly no better, and may even be worse, than other animals with regard to how they channel their aggression. However, the boy may be romanticizing the life of mice, since humans are fortunate to have a complex society and inner life - aspects that, unlike regular mice, the boy still gets to enjoy as a mouse-person.
Why does Roald Dahl use the narrative first person point of view in The Witches? How would the story be different if it was written with a different narrative point of view?
The Witches is narrated by the boy, seemingly from a vantage of a few years later, though this location in time is only alluded to in the first chapter or two of the story. This allows Dahl to foreshadow the fact that the boy comes into contact with witches multiple times and also that the boy survives these encounters. However, the most important reason for this first-person narration is the way it allows Dahl to describe the exciting, scary, and vivid world that the boy inhabits. He is able, for example, to describe watching someone turn into a mouse and then how it feels to turn into one himself, using figurative speech and drawing out the experience in a way that makes the reader feel vicariously terrified, uncomfortable, and full of wonder. Were the book written in third-person, much of this effect might be lost and the reader might not be as engaged with the boy's interesting surroundings and worldview.
Why was The Witches controversial? Do you believe that it should be banned from schools?
The Witches was one of the most challenged and banned books in the period of 1990-1999, even while it won multiple prestigious awards in the same period. A crucial detail in The Witches, and especially in its reception around the world, is the fact that witches can only be female. Some critics have called this misogynistic and protested that the book instills and reinforces a negative view of women as cruel and manipulative behind their facades of beauty. However, others have held that Dahl is simply passing on the folklore of witches as it was told to him and has many strong female characters in his books that balance out these evil women. I believe that the book should be allowed in schools but that discussions should be had about its critical reception; the book could lead to fruitful classroom discussions about gender representation in fiction, particularly children's fiction, that allow students to appreciate and be critical of the famous, interesting work.
In Boy: Tales of Childhood, Roald Dahl tells the story of his own early days, from his birth in Wales to his years at boarding school in England. For more information, take a look at the Boy and More About Boy pages.
Use these brand new lesson plans to help students understand autobiography, to imagine what it would be like to leave home for the first time, and to come up with their own drama using Roald's Great Mouse Plot as inspiration. Students can also learn about using noun phrases, adjectives, and conjunctions, write an effective description and identify themes
Download the lesson plan using the panel on the right, and take a look at our other educational resources and ways to have fun with your class, from Dahlicious Dress Up Day to Puffin Virtually Live.
You can also plan a trip to the Roald Dahl Museum for your class - find out more here.