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.
Rabinson/Wikimedia
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Are we taking Woody Allen for granted?

In some ways, Allen is a prisoner of the independence from Hollywood he fought for so long to protect.

Do you know what a state Annie Hall was in when it first emerged from the editing room? Maybe you’ve heard that its original title was Anhedonia – referring to Alvy Singer’s inability to experience pleasure – but it wasn’t just a title. That was the film that Allen shot: a Fellini-esque stream of consciousness, honeycombed with flashbacks to Alvy’s Coney Island childhood, featuring a murder mystery, a Nazi interrogation dream, an elevator trip to hell and a basketball game between a team of philosophers and the New York Knicks.

“Terrible, completely unsalvageable,” said Allen’s co-writer, Marshall Brickman, of the film they saw as a rough cut in late 1976. Only one thing worked: the subplot involving Alvy’s romance with Annie Hall. “I didn’t sit down with Marshall Brickman and say, ‘We’re going to write a picture about a relationship,’” Allen later said. “I mean, the whole concept of the picture changed as we were cutting it.”

His reaction to the success of Annie Hall – his biggest hit at the box office at the time and the winner of four Academy Awards – was the same reaction he had to any of his films that went over too well with the public: he disparaged it, while quietly absorbing its lessons. Bits and pieces of Annie Hall showed up in his other films for the next two decades – Alvy’s Coney Island childhood resurfacing in Radio Days, the murder mystery in Manhattan Murder Mystery, the elevator trip to hell in Deconstructing Harry – while reshoots and rewrites became a staple of most of his pictures, granting him the freedom almost of a novelist working through successive drafts.

“It was remarkable what he did for me,” Diane Keaton later said of Allen’s ear for Annie’s Chippewa Falls language: self-conscious, neurotic, a little jejune in her attempts to sound smarter than she is, “flumping around, trying to find a sentence”. Annie Hall was a breech delivery, as indeed it had to be, as the first film of Allen’s that was almost entirely taken over by another performer, a voice other than his. As a kid growing up in Brooklyn, Allen studied the great magicians and in many ways his greatest achievement as a director has been to make himself disappear.

Introverts often grow up thinking that they are invisible – a fear, perhaps, but a strangely comforting one and something of a sustaining fantasy should they become famous. These days, Allen has the invisibility of ubiquity, noiselessly producing a film every year for critics to take a whack at: is it good Woody or bad Woody?

Allen is a figure occluded by the scandals and speculation of his private life, which still sends tabloid Geiger counters crackling, some two decades after his break with Mia Farrow. The headlines could almost be the pitch for a Woody Allen film, were it not that Allen has already made it. In Zelig, the chameleonic hero is, you may remember, “sued for bigamy, adultery, automobile accidents, plagiarism, household damages, negligence, property damages and performing unnecessary dental extractions”, before finding redemption in some Lindberghian derring-do – an accurate forecast, in a sense, of Allen’s return to making crowd-pleasers in the mid-1990s. Except that Zelig was released in 1983. On the rise and fall of Woody Allen, Allen, it seems, was there first.

His 46th film opens in cinemas on 11 September. In Irrational Man, Joaquin Phoenix plays Abe Lucas, a dishevelled, alcoholic philosophy professor who decides to pull himself out of his funk with a spot of murder, which has long replaced masturbation as the favoured activity of the Allen male. I’ll leave it to Allen’s old shrinks to tease out the connection between comedy and murder, spotted by Freud in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious – why else do we talk of comedians “killing” it, or “slaying” their audience, if not for the release of hostility common to both? And I’ll leave it to the critics to decide the relation of Irrational Man to the earlier Match Point and Crimes and Misdemeanors.

The problem with late Allen is not that the films are bad necessarily but that they are sketchy: spindly and dashed off, the result of a too-easy passage from page to screen. Allen’s has to be the shortest in show business. A film a year, as regular as clockwork, with zero studio interference. He is the one genuine success story to emerge from the big, hairy, super-freak auteurist experiment of the 1970s – the auteur of auteurs. Francis Ford Coppola crashed and burned. Martin Scorsese crashed and came back. Robert Altman was driven into exile, Terrence Malick into early retirement. Who would have guessed that the only film-maker to keep chugging along would be the writer of What’s New Pussycat?

It may tell us something about auteurism as an idea, certainly as a production model in Hollywood, which has always reacted to success by throwing money at it, granting film-makers ever greater control – a dubious drug denying them the artistic constraints and collaboration in which their creativity first flourished. It vacuum-packs their talent.

The one-man-band aspects of Allen’s career mask the juice that he gets from his co-conspirators: Keaton, but also Dianne Wiest, Farrow and Judy Davis. Most of his biggest box-office successes have been co-written: Annie Hall and Manhattan (with Brickman), Bullets Over Broadway (with Douglas McGrath). “The first thing he says is, ‘If you’re not comfortable, change it,’” said Wiest of working on Hannah and Her Sisters.

“It’s as if he’s got a feather in his hand and he blows it and it goes off in a dozen directions,” said Jeff Daniels after starring in The Purple Rose of Cairo. It’s a lovely image, for that is what the film is about: the unruliness of creation running disobediently beyond its creators’ grasp. This is the great Allen theme. It is the theme of Bullets Over Broadway; of his other great farce about artistic creation, “The Kugelmass Episode”, his New Yorker short story about a professor of humanities who drops into the pages of Madame Bovary to conduct an affair with its heroine; and of his one-act play Writer’s Block, in which the characters of an unfinished manuscript push open the drawer and take over the author’s Connecticut house. It is the theme of all of the romances, too, in which women grow, Pygmalionishly, beneath the green fingers of the Allen male, only to outgrow and leave him.

The biggest dead patches in his work, on the other hand, have come when he was most cut off from collaborators: the run of movies he made in the late 1980s and early 1990s with Farrow, clenched in silent agony and overdosed in brown; or the series of comedies that he dug out of his drawer for DreamWorks in the early 2000s – The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Hollywood Ending, Any­thing Else – long after he had lost interest, or could summon the energy for farce.

In some ways, Allen today is a prisoner of the independence from Hollywood he fought for so long to protect. He encourages his actors to change his scripts as much as they want, but who is going to pluck up the courage to tell the quadruple Oscar winner that kids don’t “make love” any more, or fall for “nihilistic pessimism”, or name-drop O’Neill, Sartre and Tennessee Williams? Jason Biggs, the star of American Pie and American Pie 2 and Allen’s lead in his 2003 film Anything Else? I think not.

One should, however, resist the temptation to give up on him. Midnight in Paris moved with the sluggishness of melted Camembert but Blue Jasmine had the leanness of a cracked whip, in part because in Cate Blanchett Allen found a collaborator willing to go the distance with him on a theme close to his heart: female vengeance. “Take after take after take of very exhaustive, emotional scenes,” recalled Alec Baldwin. “I sat there at the end of the day and thought, ‘She is unbelievable.’”

If Allen’s early films mined comedy from Thurber-like fantasists and romantic Machiavels and his mid-period work drew rueful comedy from reality’s refusal to co-operate, his late work seems most preoccupied by the painful urge to peel the world of illusion, to see it stripped bare. He is now at work on his 47th film, starring Blake Lively, Kristen Stewart, Jesse Eisenberg, Parker Posey and Bruce Willis – and the excitement there is surely at the thought of Willis, once the king of the wisecrack and exploding fireball, now 60, collaborating with a film-maker deep into his own twilight. Both men could well find each other’s groove, or, better still, shake one another out of it. Yipikaye, pussycat.

Tom Shone’s “Woody Allen: a Retrospective” will be published by Thames & Hudson on 11 September

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism