Study Guide

The Witches Themes

  • Transformation

    Transformation in <em>The Witches</em> is a very literal theme. That means that it's not about transforming something inside of you, changing yourself for the better, or any of that. It's about actual physical transformation. The witches like to change little boys and girls into other things: oil painting figures, chickens, slugs, porpoises, stone, and, of course, mice. The thing is, with the physical transformation, there is no emotional or internal transformation of any kind. When our narrator is changed into a mouse, he is still the same boy on the inside. He still thinks and talks like our narrator, and has the same personality. The same is true of Bruno Jenkins, who just cares about eating, whether he's a boy or a mouse. It seems like Roald Dahl is trying to tell us that it doesn't really matter what you look like on the outside, because it's what's on the inside that counts. It's cheesy, but true.

    Questions About Transformation

    1. Why do the witches prefer to transform children into other things, instead of just smoking them away (like the Grand High Witch does to the witch who talks back)?
    2. Why is our narrator so happy as a mouse? Do you think he can really be happy like that for the rest of his life?
    3. Which of the transformation stories that Grandmamma tells at the beginning of the book is the most frightening to you? Why?
    4. We have to ask: if you could be transformed into any animal, what would you be?
    5. Were you surprised that the narrator was never turned back into a human? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Our narrator's life is way better as a mouse. Think of all the fun he can have!

    Roald Dahl should have turned the narrator back into a human at the end of the book. That would have been the right kind of happy ending.

  • Awe and Amazement

    Go count all the exclamation points in The Witches. We dare you. Give up? So did we. There is so much awe and amazement in this book that, in certain chapters, nearly every sentence ends in an exclamation point. The narrator is enthralled by his Grandmamma's stories; the witches are amazed at the amazing-ness that is The Grand High Witch; the narrator is in awe of the beautiful hotel; Grandmamma can't believe how brave her grandson is. And the list goes on. (!)

    Reading about all this awe and amazement makes us, as readers, feel even more awe-struck and amazed. If these people, who live in a world where witches exist, are in shock, our reactions are even more extreme. We don't even know what a blabbersnitch is, for crying out loud. Roald Dahl's writing style adds to the sense of awe through its flashy vocabulary and his unbelieving tone. Check out Shmoop's sections on "Writing Style" and "Tone" for more on this.

    Questions About Awe and Amazement

    1. What is the most awe-inspiring person, place, or thing in <em>The Witches</em>? Answer for yourself first, and then think how our narrator might answer.
    2. Based on his reactions in the book, is our narrator more in awe of his Grandmamma's stories or the witches themselves?
    3. What would happen if these events occurred in our world today? After all, this is a true story.
    4. If he's so amazed by all of this, why doesn't the narrator ask his Grandma more about her life as a witchophile?

    Chew on This

    Despite all the exclamation points, the witches aren't that amazing. They're defeated by a seven-year-old mouse, after all.

    Roald Dahl needs to learn a lesson in subtlety. All the amazement and awe just seems over the top.

  • Lies and Deceit

    Usually when we think of lying, we think of <em>words</em> that are untruthful. Of course, there's some of that in <em>The Witches</em>, but the witches themselves are constantly deceiving through another means: disguise. The only way witches are able to pass for humans and trick children is because they are constantly in disguise – wigs, gloves, and sometimes masks – to make them look like normal ladies. They're pretty much telling everyone around them that they're someone they're not. If that's not a lie, what is?

    Questions About Lies and Deceit

    1. Think of all the instances when Grandmamma lies. Does she have good reason for lying?
    2. Which part of the witches' disguise would you say is the biggest deception?
    3. Do the witches lie using words, too? If so, when?
    4. When the cooks spit in the old woman's food, is that a form of deception? Or is it just plain gross?

    Chew on This

    Come on, everyone lies. The witches might be evil in other ways, but we can't blame them for their deception.

    Storytelling itself is a form of deception.

  • Appearances

    Don't judge a book by its cover, right? The Witches sends us mixed messages in this regard. On the one hand, our main character turns into a mouse, but he's still the same great guy he always was and his Grandmamma still loves him. His looks don't matter much. On the other hand, the terrifying, ugly appearance of the witches reflects their terrifying, ugly personalities. Their looks do matter – so much, in fact, that they have to wear disguises to look like normal women. Either way, it's very clear that appearances – how people look – are very important in this book, for better or for worse.

    Questions About Appearances

    1. Why is the Grand High Witch uglier than the rest of the witches?
    2. The narrator describes the appearances of the other characters, but never his own. What do you think the narrator looks like?
    3. Would our understanding of Grandmamma be different if she were described as small and frail instead of "massive" and "wide" (2.14)?
    4. Would you be more or less scared of the witches if they acted the same way but looked beautiful, like the White Witch in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe?
    5. Did you like the illustrations in the book? Would you have drawn any characters or scenes differently?

    Chew on This

    They're pretty cool, but the illustrations in the book make it impossible for us to come up with our own ideas of what the characters look like.

    We can't judge the witches' appearance the same way we judge normal women, because they're not even human. Maybe the witches are beautiful for their own species.

  • Violence

    When you really think about it, <em>The Witches</em> is a pretty stinkin' violent book. Our narrator is violently grabbed and held down while poisoned with Mouse-Maker. We see a witch get blown into smoke right in front of our eyes (or at least our narrators' eyes). Plus, the witches talk about countless violent ways in which they like to kill children. Here's the thing, though: it still seems to be lighthearted. This is the magic of Roald Dahl. How does he do it? See the sections on "Tone" and "Writing Style" for our thoughts. Unlike in other books, violence in <em>The Witches</em> doesn't make you cringe. Sometimes it even makes you chuckle because of how absurd it is. If you want to really have the point driven home, watch the movie version of the book, and you'll see how much more... violent... the violence is, because it's missing Dahl's lighthearted storytelling techniques.

    Questions About Violence

    1. What are some ways that Roald Dahl describes violence that makes it more bearable?
    2. Why do you think there is so much violence in this book? What purpose does it serve? What effect does it have? Is it appropriate for children?
    3. When you first sat down (or stood up – it's good for you!) to read this book, did you expect so much violence? Why or why not?
    4. Did you ever find any of the violent bits of the book funny? What made them funny? Can you imagine a different author writing the same scene but in a scary or gross way?
    5. Have you read any Greek myths /mythology/? Those are often taught to children. How does the violence in Greek myths compare to the violence in <em>The Witches</em>?

    Chew on This

    Violence is violence is violence. Roald Dahl shouldn't have treated it so lightly.

    The witches talk a bigger game than they play. They're not as violent in their actions as they are in their words.

  • Family

    In <em>The Witches</em>, we see two examples of a family: our narrator and his grandma, and Bruno Jenkins and his parents. What we learn from this book is that having a mom and a dad, the typical nuclear family, isn't always the best setup. Bruno is pretty much ignored by his parents, as opposed to our narrator, whose grandma is very attentive and always concerned about him. Then, when both boys get turned into mice, Grandmamma is super-understanding, while Mr and Mrs Jenkins kind of go nuts. What defines a family is unconditional love. Loving someone even though they're a mouse is certainly unconditional.

    Questions About Family

    1. What do you think about the fact that the narrator barely mentions his mom and dad throughout the story?
    2. How would the narrator's adventures been different if he had a brother or sister?
    3. Why does Grandmamma let her grandson do such dangerous things?
    4. Why is Grandmamma so willing to accept the narrator even though he's a mouse?
    5. How did you feel about the narrator's reaction to learning that he only will live for nine more years? Would you react the same way as he did if you were in his position?

    Chew on This

    It's great that our narrator loves his grandma, but he really should have some friends his own age. Family can't provide everything.

    Grandmamma should have gone to greater lengths to protect her grandson.

  • Hate

    We learn right away that witches hate children – and this is hate in its truest form. It's not like "ugh, I hate doing homework" or "don't you hate it when Shmoop takes too long to get to the point?" These witches hate children so much that they have devoted their lives to wiping them out. What's interesting is that we never really get to the bottom of <em>why</em> the witches hate children so much. We know that, to them, kids smell like dog poop, but hey, Shmoop sometimes has bad breath in the morning, and we sure hope no one tries to kill us for it. What distinguishes <em>The Witches</em>, then, in its theme of Hate, is that it seems to be hate without cause.

    Questions About Hate

    1. How is the hatred that witches have toward children different than the hatred that our narrator and his grandma have toward witches?
    2. Hate is often considered the opposite of love. In what ways do we see this contrast in <em>The Witches</em>?
    3. Imagine a back-story for the witches. As Mr Jenkins might say, why the blazes do they hate kids so much?

    Chew on This

    It's easier to hate a group of people (like the witches do) than one particular person.

    The Grand High Witch is more hateful than the rest of the witches.

  • Cunning and Cleverness

    There's a lot of cunning and cleverness going on in <em>The Witches.</em> Our narrator, Grandmamma, and The Grand High Witch all do their share of clever scheming. Important to remember is that, in this book, cleverness is not attributed to entire groups, but rather to individuals. For instance, it seems like the Grand High Witch does all the scheming, while the other witches just play along. This is true for our narrator and Grandmamma, too. Not all kids or all grandmas are clever, just our dynamic duo. Remember, in order for these clever characters to shine, they need to be juxtaposed with some very un-clever characters, like, say, Mr Stringer or Bruno Jenkins.

    Questions About Cunning and Cleverness

    1. Is cleverness something you can learn, or is it something you're born with (or without)? Do you think Grandmamma taught her grandson to be clever?
    2. Are all of the witches cunning and clever or just the Grand High Witch? What makes you think so?
    3. Who's more clever in <em>The Witches</em>, children or adults?
    4. Does the narrator become more clever after he becomes a mouse? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Our narrator is the brains behind the operation. He's way more clever than Grandmamma.

    Mice are apparently clever little rodents. The narrator seems to come up with much more advanced ideas once he's transformed.

  • Youth

    <em>The Witches</em> is written for young people, and it's told from the point-of-view of a young person, so it's not surprising that there's a lot of talk of youth within the story. What's neat about this book, though, is that our protagonist is young, but he's wise beyond his years. For that reason, we get the best of both worlds: observations on youth from a young person (we wouldn't want it any other way) but keen, mature insight into these observations. Most of the characters in <em>The Witches </em>are adults (with some quite elderly adults, at that), but that makes the children, and the theme of youth, stand out even more.

    Questions About Youth

    1. How would the story be different if witches hated all humans, not just children?
    2. In what ways does Roald Dahl accentuate (emphasize) the childlike wonder of the story?
    3. How does Grandmamma's old age change the way we interpret our narrator's youthfulness? Would this be different if he had been with his mom or dad, or, say, a teenaged babysitter?
    4. Based on the characters in <em>The Witches</em>, what are the differences between children and adults (aside from just their age and size)?

    Chew on This

    The Narrator would have had a much easier time defeating the witches if those pesky adults didn't get in the way.

    Where the stink are all the children in the story? Roald Dahl should have introduced us to more young people instead of making most of the characters adults.

  • Fear

    Sometimes children are afraid of things because they can't see them, or because they make funny noises or are really big. Sometimes children are afraid of things because they will come and find you, turn you into a mouse, and try to kill you. That's the kind of afraid we get in <em>The Witches. </em>This is fear of a very real danger. It starts with Grandmamma's stories (fear of the unknown) and becomes a real-life experience (fear of the very, very known). The best part about it, though, is that we get to watch our narrator conquer those fears and face them head on. Spoiler alert: he wins. Narrator – 1, Fear – 0.

    Questions About Fear

    1. Is our narrator more scared before he's seen a witch and has only heard stories, or once he's seen the witches in person?
    2. How does our narrator's sense of fear change (if it does at all) once he's been turned into a mouse?
    3. Are the witches are afraid of anything? If so, what?

    Chew on This

    The narrator is afraid of witches, but not afraid of dying. Weird.

    Fear is all relative. If the chambermaid had known there were witches in the hotel, she wouldn't have been scared of a measly mouse.