Why are Roald Dahl’s villainous women so monstrously evil? In the latest in the series of essays examining the work of the iconic children’s writer in partnership with Cardiff University, Samantha Velez explores the preponderance of female villains in Roald Dahl’s work.
Young, orphaned protagonists up against child-hating, cannibalistic villains populate Roald Dahl’s children’s literature. But why is it that many of his female villains – Agatha Trunchbull, the Grand High Witch, Spiker and Sponge – are notoriously more evil and murderous than their male counterparts – Willy Wonka, Oompa Loompas, and the Big Friendly Giant (BFG). Trunchbull terrorises school children with antiquated forms of punishment, while the BFG kidnaps Sophie, but ultimately becomes a father figure to her in a fairy tale ending.
Why are Dahl’s villainous women so monstrously evil? In The Witches, a scheming organisation of witches draft a plan to turn children into mice, so their teachers and parents will exterminate them. In addition to delighting in the murder of children, these witches disguise themselves as ordinary women in society, covering their bald heads with wigs, hiding their claws with gloves, and wearing pretty shoes to hide their toeless feet. In this context, witches become synonymous with female monsters.
Dahl’s adverse portrayal of women in The Witches famously fuelled controversy, while Dahl adamantly defended his creative choices. On October 6th, 1986, Dahl wrote to Liz Attenborough, the Editorial Director at Puffin:
“The Daily Mail called to tell me that The Witches had been banned by Manchester City Council, which is presumably left-wing socialist, because they consider it sexist. In other words, anti-women. The Mail wanted a quote. I told them that in that case Manchester should also ban THE BFG for being anti-men” (“Letter to Liz Attenborough”)
Dahl pointed to the child-snatching and child-eating giants in The BFG with gruesome names like the Childchewer, the Bloodbottler, and the Bonecruncher; if he treated women poorly, he definitely treated men poorly as well. There are minor female characters in Dahl’s fiction who support his assertions. The Queen of England in The BFG and the Grandmother in The Witches are loving, kind, and helpful to the child protagonists. In Trust your Children, Voices Against Censorship in Children’s Literature – edited and collected by Mark I. West – Dahl discusses feminist opposition to his novel:
“They base their claim on a quote from the beginning of the book in which I say, ‘A witch is always a woman.’ They, of course, ignore the next line that says, ‘A ghoul is always a male.’ They also ignore the lovely grandmother, who is one of the major characters in the story.”
Dahl’s statement oversimplifies the issue and dismisses the emphasis placed on the wickedness of his female characters and the historically sexist archetypes and stereotypes they echo. Dahl never defines or describes these ghouls; thus evil is definitively female throughout his novel. The grandmother, as lovely as can be, cannot overshadow the frightening portrayal of the witches.
Conversely, Dahl’s male monsters function as comedic relief and comfort for child protagonists. These men are initially scary and intimidating, but eventually, they assist and care for the protagonist. The BFG snatches Sophie from her window one night and takes her to Giant Country, where she learns the BFG is a loving and sensitive monster, who makes her laugh with whizzpoppers (gibberish meaning flatulence) and catches and stores dreams in his cave. Like Hagrid in the Harry Potter series, the BFG plays the role of a helper type.
Unlike the shocking females described previously, Dahl’s childish and incompetent males are relatable to children. The uneducated and uncivilised BFG mispronounces words and mixes up common sayings, and Sophie decodes and gently corrects his speech. Similarly, the Centipede in James and the Giant Peach asks James to assist him with removing his many boots. James is now depicted in a position of power, whereas many children require assistance from adults to remove their shoes. Children’s insecurities are comforted as they delight in assisting monstrous, male friends.
This disparity between females and males is further emphasised in Quentin Blake’s illustrations. The BFG resembles a tall, elderly man, and Willy Wonka resembles a middle-aged man whose wardrobe pop out with exaggerated colours and a huge bowtie. In comparison, Dahl’s witches – without their disguises – resemble figures straight out of horror movies. Friendly females – The Queen in The BFG, Miss Honey in Matilda, and Mrs. Bucket in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – are drawn as civil and feminine types, but their presence is not enough to outshine the exaggeratedly evil and disgusting representations of the other women in Dahl’s novels.
Do these gender differences point to family conflict and child-parent relationships? After all, like in many traditional fairy tales, Dahl’s child protagonists are orphans with morally questionable, greedy, and conniving adults for role models. James M. Curtis claims the witch archetype symbolises legitimate, historic child-hate, mirroring anxiety about abuse, neglect, and abandonment adults have inflicted on children. Curtis asserts that The Witches illustrates the power dynamic between children and adults; adults attempt to control children while simultaneously envying childhood innocence. Audiences are familiar with the common child abuse and similar power struggles in fairy tales. For example, in “Hansel and Gretel,” a brother and sister are abandoned in the woods by impoverished parents; their mother no longer wants to provide for them or feed them, but they always find their way back home. Eventually, the protagonist in The Witches subverts adult power by successfully turning the witches into mice and becoming and staying a mouse who does not conform to societal expectations for children.
If we treat hyperbolised child-hatred in Dahl’s work as legitimate, and if Dahl’s female characters are more appalling than the male ones, then it is implied that conflict within mother-child relationships is more severe than the conflict within father-child relationships, and there is an imbalance in power between mothers and fathers.
Closer examination of Dahl’s monstrous women is necessary to investigate these questions regarding gender and power. Note the nameless protagonist’s reaction to seeing the witches in their true forms:
“There now appeared in front of me row upon row of bald female heads, a sea of naked scalps, every one of them red and itchy-looking from being rubbed by the linings of the wigs. 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”.
The Grand High Witch looks like a normal woman, but when she takes off her gloves and her mask, she is horrifyingly grotesque and disgusting in Dahl’s description and Blake’s illustrations.
Using Jeffrey Cohen’s theoretical framework to decode monsters, from his text “Monster Culture (Seven Theses),” these gratuitously evil women may be read as products of culture. He theorises that monstrous bodies represent the displacement of cultural anxieties. Additionally, monsters are often hybrid beings who “demand a radical rethinking of boundary and normality”. Monsters may also police boundaries and possibilities, “prevent[ing] mobility (intellectual, geographic, or sexual), delimit[ing] the social spaces through which private bodies may move”. In Dahl’s novel, women in public, seemingly childless and husbandless, who adorn their bodies with gloves, hats, and shoes are not to be trusted. They are stigmatised and feared through the perpetuation of the witch-hunting mentality exhibited by the protagonist and his Grandmother. This patrolling of independent women for the clues and signs of being a witch actually limits women to specific behaviours and lifestyles. To survive, children need to stay away from these women who step outside normative social conduct, or they will be abducted, killed, and/or turned into mice.
Interestingly, Dahl’s witches cover up their true forms with the attire of well-dressed, middle-aged women. This combined with the fact that they live outside of family units, come together in large groups of unattended women, and do not spend their time caring for children, implies that independent, modern women are just as monstrous as supernatural, balding murderers with claws and are overstepping the bounds of societal expectations for female behaviour.
Anne Bird theorises the abject horror embodied by the witches is an outward expression of anxiety towards the growing power of women in the 1980s and their threat to the patriarchy. During this time, more women left the home and the traditional role of mother and housewife and appeared more in the public sphere as active and confident agents (a place in the social order that is normally inhabited exclusively by males). As women joined the workforce, they sidestepped the expectation that they would take on the responsibilities of normative motherhood. Meanwhile, divorce became more common, and more women began living independently. In accordance with Bird’s argument and Curtis’ interpretation of the witch figure, Stephen Mitchell in Witchcraft and Magic in the Nordic Middle Ages confirms the witch archetype is a historic symbol of disobedience against patriarchal authority and is associated with women being demonised for this disobedience. Both Mitchell and Cohen compare the role of the witch figure in controlling women to Foucault’s theory of the Panopticon, and this type of social surveillance prevents marginalised groups from leading free lives or acting as free agents.
The duality Dahl creates of ordinary women and their secret identities as witches may also be read as the splitting of the good and bad mother, a psychoanalytic phenomenon coined by Freud and applied to fairy tales by Bruno Bettelheim. Marina Warner, in From the Beast to the Blonde, outlines how the good mother often dies in fairy tales and is substituted with monstrous women, such as wicked stepmothers and supernatural women. Splitting allows child audiences to preserve ideal conceptualisations of their mothers, despite any wrongdoing or disappointment mothers have committed or created. Therefore, splitting in The Witches of ordinary women and magical monsters reflects anxiety aimed at mothers in the 80s for leaving the home. Children, who have developed strong bonds with the mother as the primary caregiver, often perceive this act as abandonment. Sylvia Henneberg adds that these bad mothers, or wicked replacements of mothers, sometimes appear in the form of “evil sorceresses, mean stepmothers, and severe boarding school teachers”. In fact, antagonistic woman appear in the same forms in Dahl’s novels, including the witches, the notorious Spiker and Sponge, and the severe Headmistress Trunchbull.
Warner also notes children are commonly thrilled by male monsters, and female monsters are more common than male monsters in fairy tales, emphasising differences between the genders (Warner 202). Since there are more female monsters than male ones in fairy tales, the wickedness of women is exaggerated. Compare the kind and gentle BFG to the heinous witches. The BFG is a vegetarian who would not hurt an insect or even a flower. He enjoys bringing happiness to children in the form of dreams he blows into their windows at night, and he hates to think about children enduring aggressive nightmares. The BFG also voices his distaste for humankind’s mistreatment and tendency to murder each other, as well as his criticism of humankind’s mistreatment of the environment (Dahl), and Sophie and the BFG develop a happy father-child relationship.
While Dahl’s female antagonists are characterised by the sexist witch archetype, the helper types are characterised by the giant archetype. Warner discusses the significance of this archetype in No Go the Bogeyman. According to Warner, tales of ogres and child-eating traditionally reinforce patriarchal structures and values, and she cites the Greek myth of Kronos eating his children and the birth of Dionysus, which reflect conflict within father-child relationships: “The changing character of such diabolical or monstrous beings as infanticides reveals ideas about authority in the family and beyond it; fatherhood, its limits and its obligations are called into question above all in these grisly tales of cannibal banquets”. Again, anxiety regarding parent-child relationships is expressed; however, in Dahl’s novels, the anxiety in regard to fathers is comforted as the male helper types – who are simultaneously characterised as monsters – and the protagonists develop friendships and enjoy comedic moments together. In addition to the happy moments shared between Sophie and the BFG, Charlie finds a new home when Willy Wonka gives him the Chocolate Factory, and James finds peace with his insect family, including the Old-Green-Grasshopper as a father figure (“Regression and Fragmentation”).
Dahl’s use of the historically anti-female witch figure, and the hyperbolic representation of evil witches in his novel, create a modern, wicked woman for children to fear. She functions to express anxiety surrounding absent mothers of the modern age, who fail to fulfill gender roles defined by the patriarchy. Conversely, the male helper types provide comfort to the protagonists and suggest children have better relationships with fathers than with mothers.
At the Roald Dahl Archive, I attempted to understand why Dahl’s witches are gratuitously evil. I suggest that some inadvertent editorial choices and Dahl’s prioritisation of reaching a child audience led to the final representation of the witches. Dahl’s editor at Puffin, Stephen Roxburgh, took the characters and the narration, including The Grand High Witch and the Grandmother, very seriously in his correspondence with Dahl. During the drafting process, he recommended making the Grand High Witch less like “all those stock, vaguely Germanic villains that we are all so familiar with, from TV” and asserted, “your witch is unique and anything that ties her in with stock villains is a diminution of her power”. He also recommends making the Grandmother more passive to strengthen the agency of the protagonist. If Dahl’s original intent was for the Grandmother to be a more active character, it may explain the lack of strong, good women in the novel in comparison with the domineering, evil witches.
It is compelling to read Roxburgh’s recommendations for Dahl to make the book less offensive to women:
“Women, generically, take a lot of abuse in the story because, as you make clear, witches are always women. Is it too much to suggest that one of the examples given here be of a woman in an executive or more responsible position than cashier, secretary or driver? How about an editor? I’m not playing games by suggesting this, merely proposing that in ordinary life woman can be as authoritative and responsible as witches”. Dahl wrote “No” next to this note in the margin of the letter. In another note, Roxburgh suggests replacing the word “females” with “witches” in the novel, and Dahl wrote in response, “No. To hell with your fear of offending women”.
I’m left wondering if Dahl’s sexist portrayals of women are driven by editorial choices made to enhance the memorability of the characters and children’s engagement with the text. Looking at the archival material, it is clear Dahl only concerned himself with how children would respond to the text, not adult females. In the same letter, Dahl responds to Roxburgh’s recommendation to remove the “cliché” of female teachers standing on desks. Dahl wrote, “Let it be one. Not a cliché to children”. Dahl viewed the world through a child’s lens, exaggerating silliness and seeking the irony and humor in everyday life, while adults and feminists view it with an analytical lens. As Dahl emphasises in West’s interview, children “regard grown-ups as the enemy” who is trying to civilise them. Dahl states in the interview: “I see this as natural…That’s why the grown-ups in my books are sometimes silly or grotesque”. According to Dahl, his narrative in The Witches is concerned with relating to the child’s experience and not with gender.
I still feel a responsibility to objectively analyze Dahl’s work, regardless of the stated intentions behind his creative decisions. We must consider the matrix of gender, power, and the social hierarchy of the cultural context that produced Dahl’s monsters. These female monsters reflect traditionally sexist social control and patriarchal order, and male characters are seemingly loved more than the female ones. Additionally, the character of the Grandmother, who Dahl cites as a strong female (Trust Your Children), is problematic because she perpetuates the scanning and hunting of women who may “be witches.” As a result, Dahl’s female and male monsters reflect tensions felt during women’s rise to power in the 80s, popularize the sexist archetype of the witch within popular literature, and police the behavior of mothers and fathers in a society that conforms to patriarchal values and norms.
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In the latest in our series of fresh explorations of the work of Roald Dahl, in collaboration with Cardiff University, Sally King explores his take on the Cinderella story, and the trials of its translation into French, by Anne Krief.
This piece is a part of Wales Arts Review’s collection, Roald Dahl | A Retrospective.
Samantha Velez is a second year MA student in English at the University of Wyoming and the graduate assistant at UW Libraries. She is currently writing her thesis on monsters and gender in Guillermo Del Toro’s fantasy and horror films.