The Witches by Roald Dahl has all the usual elements, for better or worse, as his other children’s novels. At least of the ones I’ve read, anyway, which isn’t many so maybe I’m being a bit harsh. But seriously, I think I’m over Dahl after three of his novels.
Okay. What I like about Dahl is he is so subversive. The grandmother in this story tells her grandson not to bathe and obviously doesn’t care if he goes to school or not. Of course, she also smokes cigars so I’m not sure that she is portrayed as the bastion of wisdom. That she knows more about witches than most adults may make her more aware but no more intelligent than the rest of the adults who obviously walk around clueless and unaware of what is really going on. In fact, they are all pretty stupid.
Except for the witches. Witches are all women and all evil. There are some bad things that are male, according to Dahl, but they are not as horrible as women. Never ever as bad as women. And get this: witches are in truth bald, have ugly hands and feet. Of course, they wear disguises so nobody sees these things.
And this is where I was so fired-up and offended. Maybe it’s the image of my mother’s shaved head during her cancer treatment that has me stepping back and wondering why a woman’s appearance continues to be evidence of her virtue and/or merit. Clearly these women are evil because they look different when you see them without their prettiness painted on or they have their ugliness covered up.
Ugh. Seriously? Are we still thinking this way? Why yes, obviously we are. Overweight little girls are hardly as virtuous or even as intelligent as pretty skinny ones. And I am tired of it. I can suffer it in older literature. I forgive racism in older literature as well. But I don’t suffer it kindly in contemporary literature and I found it outrageous that sexism continues.
I used to read novels to my children and if I had read this one to them I would have been outraged and felt guilty for sharing it with my daughter ever. And I would have felt betrayed. Because I’d read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach as a child and loved them both. But now that I think more deeply, there does seem to be lack of heroic female characters. Then again, writers often write what they know and maybe Dahl, for all his subversive imagination, was unable to imagine a woman as anything but foolish or evil.
Or maybe I’m too unforgiving to take with any grace his saying that bald women are “indecent.”
And dammit, I really wanted to love this book. I truly did.