What can we learn from Roald Dahl's The Witches?

Thirty years on from the publication of Roald Dahl's <em>The Witches</em>, Jemma Crew looks back to her childhood reading and recalls how the author reimagined the reality of adulthood for a whole generation of children.

 

Who didn’t, upon reading The Witches, momentarily fix the nearest adult female with a beady eye, making a mental note to check for cavernous nostrils and blue spittle? Such was Roald Dahl’s ability to tap into the imagination of young people. But it is precisely because of his vivid and unforgettable depictions of women/witches in the book that it has been deemed misogynistic and sexist, causing it to be placed at number 22 on the American Library Association's list of most challenged books.

Despite this, Dahl was voted teachers’ favourite author in 2012, even as a recent Renaissance Learning survey suggested that Dahl is falling in popularity with children. That Dahl exists as both nation’s darling and the author of works deemed politically incorrect, macabre and sexist is testament to the way his stories have split opinion. Such conflicting views of the childhood author suggest a depth that prior responses to The Witches have overlooked. While children might be passing him over for Twilight, The Witches might just make Dahl the unlikely source of inspiration for feminists today.

What Dahl did best was to show up, ridicule, and then bring crashing down the rules that adults live by through a drastic re-imagining of reality. In this particular re-imagining witches masquerade as women in an attempt to rid the world of children. Hints of Rose West abound in these motherly killers, provoking horror and fascination in equal measure. Dahl’s message is not that all women are disturbed and inherently untrustworthy, but that "some people can appear other than they are". It is a message that he has used stereotypes, humour and hyperbole to convey, a message that demands a second glance at things that seem self-evident.

Such a closer look is forced upon Dahl’s young, nameless narrator when he accidentally becomes trapped in a room of around 200 witches. The boy does nothing to disguise his horror:

I simply cannot tell you how awful they were, and somehow the whole sight was made more grotesque because underneath those frightful scabby bald heads, the bodies were dressed in fashionable and rather pretty clothes. It was monstrous. It was unnatural.

As a hyperbolic example of the way history has feared women, this description hits the nail on the hairless head. The most dangerous part of these witches is their powers of deception. They are feared because they are more than they seem to be. These witches are women who have successfully hoodwinked the world in order to further their murderous agendas. The contrast between their clothed bodies and exposed heads only heightens the grotesque effect.  What’s monstrous and unnatural for the child is not merely the witches’ scalps but the colossal gap between appearance and reality. This is what troubles the child, whose shock is that things are not how they seem.

But the queen of false appearances is the Grand High Witch, whose pretty face is revealed to be a mask, hiding a "fearsome and ghastly sight":

There was something terribly wrong with it, something foul and putrid and decayed. 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.

This is a face of death, but what exactly has been destroyed? For women today, it is the possibility of existing outside of the expectations placed on how we present our bodies - without judgement or shame. Most shocking of all is the emptiness behind the mask – the nothing that we are led to believe we will amount to without the acceptable degree of beautifying camouflage. We are as pruned, plucked and perfect as Dahl’s witches, but underneath our plastic smiles we too have sores that will not heal. Scared to appear without our masks, we are taught that the world’s reaction will be one of abject horror. Women will see in us what they desperately try to conceal; men will be repulsed by what we are told we should protect them from. 

The transformative power assigned to women has historically been understood as evil and deceptive, yet this is precisely what is being demanded of women the world over under the name of beauty. The hypocrisy is breathtaking. Of course, a kind of double-edged irony emerges in the gap between illusion and reality, in the way that expectations levelled toward women’s bodies undermine the female body in its unaltered, unimproved state.

Defenders of the beauty industry say choosing to wear makeup is a feminist decision. It makes me feel better about myself, they say. I wear it for me. But nobody questions why it is that many women feel  inadequate, cosmetically or otherwise, in the first place. Or why self-worth in these cases is always linked with aesthetic improvement.  What’s the big deal, we are asked, in women choosing to remove their pubic hair? The practice has become so widespread that the non-waxed vagina is beginning to emerge as a fetish. Botox? It’s cosmetic self-empowerment: try it, you’ll feel great - especially if the new motion-emotion hype is to be believed.  

But makeup and the like is becoming less a tool of self-expression, and more a mask under which we disguise a face that we feel uncomfortable presenting.  Each day we stringently guard the worst kept secret of society: the materiality of female flesh. Vilified as castrators, we now castrate ourselves by rejecting our material selves and – most insidiously – claim our choices are feminist. Having internalised countless patriarchal obligations, women quietly continue the sexist’s dirty work from within, and all the while voices misguidedly assert that equality has been reached and feminism has no use as a political movement.

Why should we be concerned about this? Because as Andrea Dworkin has argued, a woman’s beauty practices "define precisely the dimensions of her physical freedom". The witches are permitted to remove their disguises only when they are hidden from the outside world by chained and bolted doors. Their freedom is curtailed by the imperative to cover up their deformities. While we may not be deformed in the sense of having feet without toes and fingers with claws, derivations from the common beauty standard elicit similar responses of disgust and a compelling need to conceal these flaws from external view.  

30 years on, who are the witches? We might not be on a mission to turn all of England’s children into mice, but the way we habitually exercise power over our bodies is certainly destructive. We are now more than ever Greer’s eunuchs - like the hairless, toeless witches, there is some crucial part of us that we continue to cut off and disown. But unlike Dahl’s creations, we aren’t motivated to modify our looks to achieve some devastating aim. There’s something more sinister in our debilitating lack of agency coupled with an external pressure to conform. We might want to learn from the narrator’s Grandmamma, whose unfeminine aspects – her thumb-less hand and penchant for cigars – make her refreshingly real.  

The Witches was written for an intermediate audience, readers poised before the brink of adulthood and self-realisation. Many women currently occupy a similar stage in our development: we freeze our bodies into ageless unreal images of desirability and in doing so lock ourselves out of growth. We aspire towards eternal girlhood – hairless, odourless, increasingly thankless - yet our bodies betray us.   Maturation takes a woman beyond her best. Development is stalled in order that we continue to appeal. 

While feminist critics have not responded well to The Witches,nbsp;the story rebels against these aesthetic rules imposed on women. As adults, complicit in our literal self-effacement, we could do well to read this book and be reminded that the way we present ourselves is anything but revealing.   

A detail from Quentin Blake's cover illustration for The Witches.
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Drama without sensation: A Separation is an unsettling novel of distances

In Katie Kitamura’s novel, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort.

In a 2013 interview with Guernica, the online magazine, the novelist Katie Kitamura discussed how publishing’s “deeply patronising attitude” towards female readers results in overtly feminine book covers, featuring, for instance, women in bathing suits. “That’s not the kind of book cover that makes me want to buy a book,” she said.

The cover of Kitamura’s latest novel, A Separation, does, surprisingly, feature a woman in a bathing suit. But there is something quietly unsettling about this picture: the woman, who has her back to us, is awkwardly cropped out of frame from the elbows up, and she is sitting at the edge of an oddly shaped pool. Most of the cover is solid turquoise – a bright wash of negative space.

Kitamura’s unnamed narrator is a poised literary translator. As the novel opens in London, we learn that she is married to Christopher (a charming, haphazard non-author) but, in secret, they have been living separately for the past six months. When she receives a telephone call from Christopher’s mother, Isabella, informing her that he has seemingly gone missing in Greece, she doesn’t let on about her disintegrating marriage but boards a plane to look for him.

Much of the rest of the novel takes place in Greece: at a “very pleasant” hotel, in “perfect weather”, the pool “heated to a very comfortable temperature”. The area has recently experienced a string of devastating fires, leaving patches of scorched earth. The location has an almost eerie surface stillness that jars with the mystery at its heart. In this way, Kitamura (an art critic as well as novelist) creates a setting somehow reminiscent of David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, Christopher’s sudden disappearance leaving behind no visible ripples.

The narrator, too, has a glassy composure at odds with the tumultuous events. On deciding to end her marriage formally, she shows neither despair nor relief, but anxiety about the etiquette. “I assumed – I had no prior experience to go on – that asking for a divorce was always discomfiting,” she says with typical understatement, “but I could not believe it was always this awkward.” Of her feelings for her new partner, Yvan, she notes that they seem more like “administration rather than passion”, and then offers a moderated gloss of Hamlet, “You cannot say you did it out of love, since at your age romantic passions have grown weak, and the heart obeys reason.

Her emotional separation from the trauma of her circumstances allows the narrator to examine the facts of her husband’s disappearance. She knows Christopher was unfaithful and she immediately identifies the hotel receptionist as the object of his attentions. We never see the narrator professionally translating, but the novel is concerned with her attempts to read the deeper meanings behind the remarks and behaviour of those around her. She finds it easy to imagine unseen contexts to conversations: an argument between Christopher’s parents, an embrace between her taxi driver and the hotel receptionist. As she writes, “Imagination, after all, costs nothing.”

Her propensity for projection is such that some things remain lost in translation. Even the most minute interactions can be misread. When Christopher’s mother comments that the two women’s love for her son connects them, “she was looking over my shoulder, as if watching someone approach . . . she was staring at nothing”. The novel occupies this imaginative negative space: the gap between what people think and how they appear.

Ultimately, it is the distance between the narrator’s two selves that causes her most discomfort. How long will she allow others to read her as the concerned, loving wife? Should she admit she wants to find Christopher in order to request that they separate officially? As her search continues she notes, “There was a small but definite wedge pushing between the person I was and the person I was purporting to be.”

There is a suspenseful and menacing tone to Kitamura’s prose that might trick a reader into thinking, at first, they are in the territory of thrillers such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. Both these novels, like A Separation, have narrators who defy readers’ attempts to fathom their emotional depths and to deal with questions of how well you know anyone – even your own partner. But this is a work free of sensation, or even resolution. As the narrator notes, in the shock of an event it is natural to look for a more dramatic narrative. “But in the end,” she says, “this is only chasing shadows. The real culpability is not to be found in the dark or with a stranger, but in ourselves.”

A Separation by Katie Kitamura is published by Clerkenwell Press (231pp, £12.99)

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution