Study Guide

The Witches Violence

By Roald Dahl

Violence

<em>One child a week is fifty-two a year.

Squish them and squiggle them and make them disappear. </em>(1.11-12)

This is the witches' motto. It's violent, yes, but not very catchy. Can you come up with something better?

A witch, you must understand, does not knock children on the head or stick knives into them or shoot at them with a pistol. People who do those things get caught by the police. (1.15)

Roald Dahl has a way of slipping in really violent images even when they're not necessary. Here, when he's talking about things that witches <em>don't</em> do, he manages to include some of the most violent images in the book. Because they're <em>not</em> happening, though, it seems acceptable to discuss them. If the witches <em>were </em>actually sticking knives into children, we would probably be shocked when we read it.

"I've known English witches," she went on, who have turned children into pheasants and then sneaked the pheasants up into the woods the very day before the pheasant-shooting season opened."

"Owch," I said. "So they get shot?"

"Of course they get shot," she said. "And then they get plucked and roasted and eaten for supper." (4.23-25)

The words "of course" are striking here. In the world of <em>The Witches</em>, it's not surprising for children to get turned into pheasants and then get shot. If that weren't enough, they get eaten for dinner, too. So, it seems like Roald Dahl isn't using violence for the shock factor – instead, he's almost trying to make it seem normal. Is this okay in a book written for children? What do you think?

"My orders are that every single child in this country shall be rrrubbed out, sqvashed, sqvirted, sqvittered and frrrittered before I come here again in vun year's time! Do I make myself clear?" (7.41)

Lesson in demographics: there are over ten million children in England under the age of eighteen. You think these 84 witches could have succeeded in their plan if the narrator hadn't gotten in their way?

"A stupid vitch who answers back
Must burn until her bones are black!" (7.47)

The violence in this book isn't reserved only for children. The Grand High Witch is perfectly content burning one of her fellow witches. That's just to say that violence isn't always associated with hatred. In the case of the Grand High Witch, it's performed on a whim, too, just because she's annoyed.

I saw the sparks striking against her and burrowing into her and she screamed a horrible howling scream and a puff of smoke rose up around her. A smell of burning meat filled the room. (7.48)

Roald Dahl appeals to many of our senses when describing violence – the sight of sparks, the sound of a scream, and the resulting smell. It's not enough to see someone burned into a puff of smoke, we also have to imagine what it smelled like after. Ew. And when you remember that the "burning meat" is actually flesh, it's even more gross.

"All over school, mouse-trrraps is going <em>snappety-snap</em> and mouse-heads is rrrolling across the floors like marbles!" (8.62)

Sometimes, when reading <em>The Witches, </em>we just get so used to these violent images that they don't shock us anymore. In this case, maybe it's because mice getting caught in traps isn't anything new to us. Still, though, we have to remember that these mice are actually children (who think and feel like humans still) and it is <em>their</em> heads that are "rrrolling across the floor like marbles!"

"Down with children! Do them in!
Boil their bones and fry their skin!" (8.64)

There's a lot of rhyming in <em>The Witches</em>, particularly when describing violence. How do you think this changes the way we perceive the violence?

"We'll have his tripes for breakfast! […] Cut off his head and chop off his tail and fry him in hot butter!" (9.12, 17)

Please excuse this interruption while we bring you a little culinary lesson. Tripes are intestines. These are our narrator's tripes that we're talking about!

<em>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. </em>(13.6)

Once again we have terribly violent images of very <em>real</em> things. The violence in <em>The Witches</em> isn't reserved for fantastical images or non-humans.