Study Guide

The Witches Analysis

By Roald Dahl

  • Tone

    Incredulous, Lighthearted

    "I don't believe it!" could pretty much be our narrator's motto. He is amazed by everything that he hears and sees. This makes sense, especially for the readers, because we're talking about a world where stuff like witches turning little boys into mice is a regular occurrence. So, when our narrator finds out that witches have blue saliva, instead of just nodding along, he exclaims, "Blue! […] Not blue! Their spit can't be blue!" (3.77). The excitement and curiosity expressed by the narrator increases those sentiments for us as we read the book. If the narrator just had a "yeah, blue saliva... whatever" kind of reaction to everything, we probably wouldn't get into it as much. Also, if he say, "of course they have blue saliva," we'd feel a little distance from him. We like that his incredulous ("I don't believe it!") attitude is a lot like ours.

    Along with this amazement is a sense of lightheartedness. This feeling seems to come more from the author than the narrator. Our narrator is actually scared quite a bit throughout the story. At one point, when he's stuck in the cook's pant leg, he even says "I heard shrieks of laughter coming from the other cooks but I can promise you I wasn't laughing myself" (18.37). We have a feeling that Roald Dahl, on the other hand, is laughing. How do we know? It's because we are, too.

    When you find yourself chuckling as a witch violently proclaims, "This smelly brrrat, this filthy scum/ This horrid little louse/ Vill very very soon become/ A lovely little MOUSE!" (10.26), you hope it's not because you're a child-hater. More likely it's because Roald Dahl has a lighthearted attitude about it, so you do, too. This attitude makes it a lot easier and more enjoyable for us to read a book that's otherwise kind of dark and violent. If you don't believe us, go ahead and watch the movie version. The movie seems to be completely lacking in lightheartedness and, for that reason, it's creepier and more frightening than even the animatronics at Chuck E Cheese.

  • Genre

    Children's Literature, Adventure, Fantasy

    It's not too hard to figure out why The Witches qualifies as children's literature: it's written for children. In fact, the narrator even points this out. Right at the beginning, he tells the reader some ways to recognize a witch so that they can avoid being caught by a one while they're still young (1.29). Just because it's children's literature, though, it doesn't mean it's not fun for adults. Shmoop is an adult and The Witches is one of our absolute favorites.

    Adventure and fantasy sometimes go hand in hand. We all know what adventure is: something exciting (check) where there's usually a risk involved (check). This is also a fantasy, though, because it takes place in a world that's not quite like our own. We know it's not a fairy tale – that is made very clear to us at the beginning of the book: ahem, "this is not a fairy-tale." (1.2). Still, there are a few things in the world of The Witches that we just have to accept as reality, like, say, grobblesquirts – or, you know, witches.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Well, this title is pretty self-explanatory. Let's put it this way: If you totally forgot your homework assignment to read this book and then the teacher called on you to ask what The Witches was about, you could just say "witches," and you wouldn't be wrong. You'd probably be in trouble, but not wrong. (You wouldn't be this lucky with a book like When You Reach Me or Twilight, for example.)

    This is a book about witches. What they're like, how to spot them, and how to defeat them. Wait a second, though, what if the book were called Boy? (Side note: Roald Dahl actually did write a book called Boy – it's an autobiography – and in it there were sweet shops and mice.) If the book were called Boy, maybe we'd pay more attention to the boy (or if it were called Grandmamma, to the grandmother). By calling the book The Witches, Roald Dahl is certainly letting us know what he wants us to focus our attention on.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    This is a classic case of "Will there be a sequel?" (There's not, unfortunately.) Although the witches of England are defeated in The Witches, there is still a world full of them left to conquer. We almost have a happily ever after, but not quite.

    For a brief moment, this makes the triumph over the English witches seem a little less climactic. The narrator himself realizes this, too: "'Oh no!' I cried. 'That means everything we did was for nothing!'" (22.8). But, the ending of this book shows the narrator and his grandmother setting out on their plan to finish off the rest of the world's witches, and Shmoop, for one, anticipates victory. What do you think? Will they succeed?

  • Setting

    Norway and England

    A World in Which Witches Exist

    The most important thing to remember about the setting of The Witches is that we are not in our own world. Instead, we are in a fantasy world where witches exist. We have to suspend disbelief – that means we can't say, "But wait, that's not possible! There's no way a human can turn into a mouse!" It is possible in this world. Heck, we see it happen. With that in mind, though, the rest of the setting – the more physical aspects – are a little more familiar to us.

    Grandmamma's House in Norway

    Norway has a special place in Grandmamma's heart, and her house is really all we see of it. We don't get a huge description, but we can say one thing for sure: it's cozy. Our narrator describes his grandma's "majestic" armchair, and says that "[t]he curtains were never drawn, and through the windows I could see huge snowflakes falling slowly on to an outside world that was as black as tar" (2.14). The feeling of being inside a nice, warm house on a cold, snowy evening is always comforting, and that's the sense that we get from this place. Leaving Norway for England, in some ways, feels like leaving a security blanket behind.

    When, in the end, Grandmamma and her grandson return to this house, it just needs to be adapted to the needs of a mouse. Grandmamma comes up with some pretty nifty gadgets to help her mouse-grandson get around. Remember, cozy for a human is not necessarily cozy for a mouse. Still, it seems like they figure it out, because in the end, our narrator sits on his grandma's lap and "doze[s] comfortably in the warmth [of the fire]" (21.11).

    The Tree-House

    After leaving Grandmamma's home in Norway, she and her grandson head to his old family house in England. We don't learn much about the house itself, but we do get a nice description of the tree-house in the backyard. It has a finished floor and railing, and our narrator is working on the roof (there's actually a great illustration in the book of him hammering away). The structure is in a big conker tree in their backyard and our narrator describes it as a "big green cave" (4.62), high up in the tree.

    Even though our narrator doesn't spend much time up there, it's nice to have an image of the tree-house because it really reminds us that we're in a kid's world here. Grandma's house is great and all, but it's not "exciting" in the way the tree-house is (4.62). Every kid deserves to have a fun hideout – somewhere they can hide from witches, perhaps? – and this is our narrator's.

    Hotel Magnificent

    We hate to say it (actually, we love to), but the Hotel Magnificent is quite magnificent. It's described as a big, white building right on the beach with a "maze of public rooms" (5.55). A lot of our narrator's time as a mouse is spent running through corridors, adding to this mazy feeling. Because of all the running from place to place, we get an image of the hotel as one big labyrinth of spaces, and less attention is drawn to each of the separate rooms. Having said that, there are a few rooms that stand out.

    The Dining Room lives up to its expected magnificence: it is a "huge room with gold decorations on the ceiling and big mirrors around the walls" (18.12) and there are two long tables set up in the center. The kitchen is also magnificent, but for different reasons. It's bustling with energy, and has lots of opportunities for mouse acrobatics. And of course, there are Grandmamma and our narrator's bedrooms, connected by a door, each with a balcony (which come in quite handy).

    Finally, we have the infamous Ballroom. Imagine stumbling across something like this when all you're looking for is a private spot for mouse-training: there are double doors, "rows and rows of chairs, [...] painted gold [with] little red cushions on the seats" (5.55). Fancy shmancy. To top it all off, in the back of the room is a "large folding screen with Chinese dragons painted on it" (5.57). It turns out, though, that such a magnificent room will host some important meetings. Our narrator learns this the hard way.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (2) Sea Level

    The Witches isn't a particularly tough book to follow. There aren't any plot twists, confusing characters, or philosophically deep thoughts. Everything's pretty straightforward, and the book even has illustrations. There's just one problem for American readers: Roald Dahl grew up in England. Well, that's not a problem in itself (except that he probably missed out on hot dogs as a kid), but it definitely makes for some interesting words.

    Want some examples? Of course you do. He calls head lice "nits" (6.9), the elevator a "lift" (18.10), and, the most confusing of all for Americans, "football" (9.18) means soccer. Let's not forget the spelling, too: "favourite" (4.17) and "marvellous" (18.31) come to mind.

    Luckily, because Roald Dahl likes to use made-up words anyway, these British terms don't get in the way too much. We're more stumped by fantabulous (8.16), tomfiddling (8.37), frumptious (8.55), and blabbersnitch (9.39), to name a few Dahl-isms. Wait, though! Get this: tuppenny-ha'penny (8.27) is a real word! We swear. Good luck pronouncing it, though. In any case, all of these words are pretty easy to figure out in context. It's just a matter of not getting stuck on them. The rest is a smooth ride.

  • Writing Style

    Playful, Simile-filled, Emphatic

    All Work and No Play Would Make Roald a Dull Boy

    Roald Dahl is nothing if not playful, and we see this most clearly in his writing style. Basically, he likes to make up words. Some of our favorites are tomfiddling (8.37), frumptious (8.55), and blabbersnitch (9.39). We also can't forget the made-up words that are then pronounced in a Grand High Witch accent, like "bogvumper" (8.34) and "grrrobblesqvirt" (9.41). To add to the playfulness, Roald Dahl uses a lot of words having to do with amazement, like "astonishing" (6.16) and "marvellous" (18.31). Did we mention he uses a lot of exclamation points? Did we?! The playful style of The Witches makes it a lot of fun to read and, as always, keeps us feeling like kids, whether we are or not.

    As Simile-filled as The Witches

    Boy does Roald Dahl like himself some similes. Comparing two unlike things is apparently right up his alley. After all, he's as smart as a Nobel Prize-winning blabbersnitch. (How do you like that simile?) We couldn't even begin to count the number of similes in The Witches – they're everywhere.

    Often, the similes (which are really just colorful comparisons that jump-start our imaginations) are used to describe the witches, which makes sense since they're not something we're familiar with as readers. Comparisons are useful. He says, for example, that the gums of the first witch he meets "were like raw meat" (4.63) and he even uses a simile to describe the Grand High Witch's pronunciation of the letter "r": "She would roll it round and round her mouth like a piece of hot pork-crackling before spitting it out" (7.16). Even when they're not used to describe witches – like when he says his grandma was a "stiff as a marble statue" (14.7) – the similes still serve to create super rich images in our minds. and for that reason, give Quentin Blake, the illustrator, a little assistance.

    Emphasis on the Emphasis

    In a world full of strange happenings, we can very quickly forget that what we are reading about is "the gospel truth" (2.9). Maybe this is why, instead of mentioning things once, Roald Dahl likes to be more emphatic, repeating important ideas in various ways. For instance, the Grand High Witch's voice didn't just rasp: "It rasped. It grated. It snarled. It scarped. It shrieked. And it growled" (7.12). And when a witch attacks her victim, sparks sure fly, but that's not all: "Sparks fly. Flames leap. Oil boils. Rats howl. Skin shrivels" (1.14). You get the point. With emphasis and repetition, images become more vivid and we can better picture a world where these strange things really do happen.

    What's a Book Without Pictures?

    The Witches may have been written by Roald Dahl, but his words come to life through the illustrations of Quentin Blake. (Check out his website here). It seems silly to try to describe the illustrations in words – they're illustrations for a reason – but Shmoop couldn't leave them out of the discussion. Blake's black-and-white pencil drawings allow us to picture what a bald-headed, scab-covered, big-nostriled witch looks like. Also, for those of us somehow unfamiliar with the creatures described by Dahl, Blake shows us what a gruntle's egg, crabcruncher's claw, blabbersnitch's beak, and catspringer's tongue look like.

    When there are no words to truly describe an image – which, with a literary talent like Dahl's, is not often – Quentin Blake comes to the rescue. One of the coolest examples of this is the before and after visual of the Grand High Witch with her mask on and then off. In one case, Dahl and Blake work explicitly together, expressly intertwining the illustrations with the text. In the first chapter, the narrator asks us: "Kindly examine the picture opposite. Which lady is the witch?" (1.23). Sure enough, on the opposite page, we find a picture of two women (neither of which seems very witch-like). Blake Quentin has literally illustrated Roald Dahl's point about the difficulty of discovering a witch.

    Basically, this is not a book to be read online in some text-only format. The illustrations light up the words and draw us further into the fantastical world the author has created for us.

  • Food

    There is a heck of a lot of eating going on in The Witches. If you think about it, some of the main events seem to center around food. The witches plan to deliver their Mouse-Maker through chocolates and other sweets, and, in the end, they get Mouse-Made themselves by eating their soup at dinner. Think of some of the other food-related moments in the story, too: there's Bruno, the oaf, who's always eating, and the cooks who spit in the meat of a customer... yuck.

    Basically, all of our associations with food in this book are negative. That's surprising, coming from the guy who wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but the message here is no different than the message there: don't be greedy. Food and sweets in moderation are wonderful things, but go overboard and you're in a world of trouble. The witches know that children will come running when they hear there are free sweets to be had, and, when they do, they'll be turned into mice. Bruno's overeating is what gets him turned into a mouse in the first place, too – remember, he comes to the witches' meeting for the promise of more chocolate. Perhaps we're supposed to learn from all of this that food should be appreciated, not abused.

  • Mice

    Mice are everywhere in The Witches: real mice (William and Mary), mice-people (our narrator and Bruno), and mice-witches. What are some of the most memorable mouse-related scenes in this book? For Shmoop, we remember a lot of running around and screaming caused by mice. The Chambermaid nearly has a heart attack whenever she sees them (5.40, 14.4) and the cooks and waiters come out with frying pans and carving knives when they spot the little creatures (18.33, 20.16).

    But wait, don't forget about our narrator's circus-training fun with his pet mice (5.59-63) and the joy that all the children feel when they see all the mice running around the Dining Room after the victory over the witches (20.16).

    Why the two very different reactions to mice? Well, the way Shmoop sees it, adults hate mice and kids love 'em. Except for Grandmamma, all of the adults in the story have an adverse (that means "bad") reaction to mice, while all the kids get a kick out of them. So, mice are an image that helps us make that distinction between the adult world and the world of children (and it makes Grandmamma, the oldest character in the book, seem all the more youthful because of her love of mice). This is a child-oriented world we're in, and the fact that we're on a mouse's side makes that all-the-more clear.

  • Carving-Knife

    We only see the carving-knife a few times, but boy is it an image we remember. First, we hear about it when the Grand High Witch says that as part of the Mouse-Maker recipe, "you take exactly forty-five brrrown mice and you chop off their tails with a carving knife" (93). Later, a chef in the kitchen actually does this to our narrator, "as the carving-knife whizzed through the air and there was a shoot of pain in the end of [his] tail" (18.33). Finally, in the climactic scene, a chef runs out with a carving-knife in order to kill some of the newly transformed witch-mice.

    It goes without saying that the carving-knife is a tool of cruelty. What's more, this is a weapon that causes immediate, sharp damage: one slice can do the trick. Notice, though, that it's a tool of cruelty used only by adults. For that reason, it might make us see adults as violent creatures, but, in turn, it highlights the innocence of children.

    Whenever we read about mice and carving-knives in this book, we can't help but think of the old rhyme about the three blind mice:

    Three blind mice, three blind mice,
    See how they run, see how they run,
    They all ran after the farmer's wife,
    Who cut off their tails with a carving knife,
    Did you ever see such a thing in your life,
    As three blind mice?

    We guess mice and grown-ups just don't mix well.

  • Cigars

    Grandmamma's a chain smoker. There's no two ways about it. Her cigars are everywhere she is – whether at home or on vacation, healthy or holed up in bed with pneumonia. What effect do the cigars have on the story, and on how we interpret Grandmamma as a character? Well, different readers might have different associations, but it seems to Shmoop that cigars are a masculine image. Giving Grandmamma a masculine feel through her cigars encourages the readers to associate her with other qualities also often attributed to men in literature: strength, resolve, and stubbornness, to name a few.

  • Narrator Point of View

    First Person (Central Narrator)

    The entire story of The Witches comes from our nameless narrator. He speaks in the first person because he is, after all, telling a story that has happened to him. Once in a while, especially toward the beginning, our narrator slips into second person, calling the reader "you" – like when he kindly informs us that, "[f]or all you know, a witch might be living next door to you right now" (1.24). Thanks for the warning, guy we just met! For the most part, though, the narrator just tells his story, without referring to us.

    This kind of narration works for a few reasons. First, we get to hear the story from the point of view of a kid. Can you imagine reading this same story from the perspective of an adult? They wouldn't be in danger of witch squelching, for one thing, so it wouldn't be quite as exciting or scary or exhilarating. The first-person narration adds to the childlike wonder of the whole thing. Also, it gets us as close to the story as we can possibly be. The person who lived it is the one telling it. Especially in a story about witches – something we (hopefully) haven't experienced ourselves – it really helps to have someone who has experienced it telling us the story.

  • Plot Analysis

    Initial Situation


    All caps. Don't forget it. In the introduction, we find out that there is such a thing as real witches. Our narrator prepares us for a world where witches exist and, to make matters worse, it sure isn't easy to recognize them.


    REAL WITCHES Take Action

    The big issue here is that witches like to do away with children (and that's putting it lightly). This is not cool – at all. It needs to be stopped. Without this conflict there wouldn't be a problem. Witches existing isn't necessarily a problem. Witches killing children definitely is.


    REAL WITCHES Turn Our Narrator Into a Mouse

    This is a life-long complication – literally. The Grand High Witch turns our narrator into a mouse, which will make it kind of tough for him to solve the initial problem – not impossible, just tough. As if the conflict (i.e., witches want to kill children) wasn't enough, this just makes it even more of a challenge.


    REAL WITCHES Turn Into Real Mice

    After our narrator has successfully poured the Mouse-Maker formula into their food, all of the witches start to transform into mice. It's really quite intense. One second they're gobbling up their soup and the next second, they're mice. Then everyone in the hotel goes crazy trying to swat them with knives and frying pans. It's total chaos. Actually, the illustrations help make this even more climactic and exciting. Check them out in your book.


    REAL WITCHES Aren't in the Kitchen, Luckily

    The suspense happens before the climax in this book, actually. Our narrator needs to figure out a way to get the Mouse-Maker into the witches' food. So he shuffles into the kitchen and needs to avoid getting caught. The entire time, we're wondering what's going to happen. How is he going to accomplish his mission and still make it out alive – especially when he accidentally gets caught in the pants of one of the cooks? Oops! Up until the very last second of the scene, we're holding our breath.


    REAL WITCHES Still Exist

    Once the climax has been reached and things have calmed down, we (and the characters) get a second to relax and reflect on what went down. Back at home, our narrator finds out from his grandma that witches are still out there. Even though they took out all the English witches, there will now be a new Grand High Witch and there are plenty of witches in other countries, too.


    REAL WITCHES, Watch Out

    The narrator and Grandmamma hatch a plan to take out all the witches in the world: they will turn the new Grand High Witch and all her assistants into mice, then steal their records detailing where the other witches live, and travel the world doing the same to all the other witches. The two smarties head out on their way, eager to spend the rest of their lives saving the world. Heroic music should be playing in the background.

  • Allusions

    There are only two shout-outs in all of The Witches, and both are timeless references, meaning they could have been written even in the 1800s and still would have been understood. For that reason, the shout-outs don't really place the story in any particular time or place, helping the book keep its fantasy feel.

    Literary References

    Historical References