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The Witches

Page history last edited by Jamie S. 10 years, 6 months ago

 Plot Summary


                 The Witches is a popular children’s book written by Roald Dahl. In this book, a boy’s parents die in a car crash, so he goes to live in Norway with his grandmother. She tells him stories about witches, who have claws instead of finger nails, bald heads, large nose holes, square feet, and blue spit. The grandmother tells her grandson that all the stories are true and that he must be on the lookout for witches, who loathe children.



                The boy’s grandmother gets sick and the two are forced to go to a hotel on the coast of England in order to improve her health. While there, the boy finds himself locked alone in a room with two hundred witches. He hides behind a screen in the room and hopes the witches, who have an amazing sense of smell, will not find him. While there, he overhears the witches’ wicked plan to turn children into mice by putting Delayed Action Mouse-Maker in chocolate bars in candy shops all around England. The witches demonstrate the Delayed Action Mouse-Maker on a boy named Bruno and he turns into a mouse. Then one of the witches smells the boy behind the screen (children smell like dog’s droppings to witches). The witches find him and unable to escape, he is turned into a mouse. After he becomes a mouse, he manages to escape their clutches. He finds Bruno and they both go on a quest to find the boy’s grandmother.



                After a dangerous journey to his grandmother’s room, the boy tells her what happened. He still has his human voice. The boy comes up with a plan to put Mouse-Maker into the witches’ food while they are still at the hotel and turn them all into mice. He sneaks into the Grand High Witch’s room and steals some Delayed Action Mouse-Maker. Then he goes into the kitchen and dumps it into the witches’ soup. The witches all turn into mice and are chased out of the hotel. The grandmother gives Bruno back to his parents. The boy is left a mouse for the rest of his life, but decides that he is happy with life as a mouse. He and his grandmother go back home and dedicate their lives to ridding the world of witches.



                According to Literature and the Child, fantasy is “imaginative literature distinguished by characters, places, or events that could not happen in the real world” (Galda 16). This inventive story definitely belongs in the fantasy genre. It contains many magical elements, such as witches and talking mice. It takes place in the real world, but the plot could never happen because it is too whimsical.


Textual Elements

                 This story is told from first person point of view. The boy (main character) is the person telling the story. At the beginning of the book, the boy talks directly to the reader as if he were telling his tale to them in person. He tells the reader “this is not a fairy-tale. This is about REAL WITCHES” (Dahl 7). The fact that the main character interacts with the reader draws them into the plot and helps them to become more interested in the story. Even though the plot could never happen in real life, the way the boy narrates it makes it almost seem possible.


                One interesting element of this story is that most of the main characters are never named. The boy is referred to as “boy” or “my darling” by his grandmother (14). The grandmother is called “my grandmother” or “grandmamma” or “this old lady” by the narrator (12). The Grand High Witch is referred to as simply that, or sometimes as “your Grandness” by other witches (74). The lack of a name of the main characters is so obvious that it is almost like the narrator is trying to cover up their identity. This makes the reader get more into the novel, because it could be about any boy and his grandmother. The Grand High Witch could be in disguise as any person. This sets the reader at a little bit of unease and almost makes the story seem plausible.


                The character of the grandmother in the novel twists the reader’s perception of what a grandmother should be like. This grandmother goes against the norms. Even the narrator mentions that she is the only grandmother he has ever met that smokes cigars (15). While most grandmothers would probably tell nice stories about when they were young, this grandmother does not veil the truth when talking to her grandson. She tells him all about witches kidnapping children (16). She does not believe in children taking baths more than once a month, while most grandmothers would probably want their grandchild to take one every night (27). Her reaction to the fact that her grandson is a mouse is also better than most normal people (126). She cries and turns white, but she does not faint and she believes her grandson right away when he tells her what happened (126). This grandmother definitely breaks the stereotypical grandmother that can be found in books like Little Red Riding Hood.


                As in most books by Roald Dahl, the antagonist is a grown up. In this story, the antagonist is the Grand High Witch. She is a character so horrible that it is almost humorous. In his description of the Grand High Witch’s face, the boy says:

It was so crumpled and wizened, so shrunken and shriveled, it looked as though it had been pickled in vinegar… It seemed quite literally to be rotting away at the edges, and in the middle of the face, around the mouth and cheeks, I could see the skin all cankered and worm-eaten, as though maggots were working away in there (Dahl 66).

It is very easy to hate a character like that, which makes the story more enjoyable. If a reader can hate the antagonist but love the protagonist, it makes it easier for them to get into the story and root for the “hero”. This character is so unbelievably horrid that it is difficult to imagine. What makes her somewhat more humorous is she speaks with an accent. She speaks by rolling her r’s and pronouncing her w’s as v’s. For example, “‘Miserrrable vitches… Useless lazy vitches! Feeble frrribbling vitches!” (Dahl 72). Her wicked character makes the book all the more fun to read.


Analysis and Critique

                 Dahl’s style in this book is rather unique because it uses a lot of rhyming. Whenever the witches use spells, they always rhyme. Page 85 contains a rather lengthy song sung by the Grand High Witch that is made of rhyming couplets (Dahl 85). Dahl also uses very precise diction, especially in his descriptions. When describing Bruno, the narrator says “Meet him in the hotel lobby and he is stuffing sponge cake into his mouth. Pass him in the corridor and he is fishing potato crisps out of a bag by the fistful…” (99). Through the use of words like “stuffing” and “fishing”, Dahl is able to give the reader a very vivid image of what the characters are like.

                As with all books by Roald Dahl, this story contains a lot of humorous elements. He sometimes accomplishes this through irony. For example, the grandmother in the story offers the boy a cigar and then says “‘I don’t care what age you are… You’ll never catch a cold if you smoke cigars” (21). That is untrue, as cigars are not healthy and probably will lead to a smoker’s death, which makes the statement ironic and humorous. Sometimes humor is created in The Witches through similes. When Bruno starts to be transformed into a mouse, the narrator says “He jumped as though someone had stuck a hatpin deep into his bottom” (103). Even Dahl’s way of describing possible death is written to be funny. “If a tiger were able to make himself look like a large dog with a waggy tail, you would probably go up and pat him on the head. And that would be the end of you” (10). The abrupt ending to this passage and other passages in the book that talk about death makes it fairly humorous.

            One of the hidden messages of the book is that beauty is deceiving. This can especially be seen in the character of the Grand High Witch. The Grand High Witch wore a mask which made her look like a beautiful young woman (65). Under that mask, her face was frighteningly ugly and grotesque (66). While she appeared to be nice on the outside, on the inside she was horrible; calling the other witches names and plotting to rid the world of children (72). All of the witches seem pretty and nice on the outside, but on the inside it is a different story (10). This book unquestionably cautions people about judging others by their appearances. 





Dahl, Roald. Danny the Champion of the World. New York: Puffin Books, 2007.

Galda, Lee, Bernice Cullinan and Lawrence Sipe. Literature and the Child. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2006.





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