“We Have a Great Task Ahead of Us!”: Child-Hate in Roald Dahl’s The Witches

Abstract

The depictions of cruel witches in Roald Dahl’s novel The Witches echo the cruel, abusive measures taken by adults in the historical treatment of children. The concept of child-hatred, described by Lloyd Demause and other critics, is an effective lens through which to view the hyperbolized hatred of children described in The Witches. However, Dahl’s text deals with more than just the explicit hatred of children. In fact, in its characterization of Grandmamma as an adult that truly values the state of childhood, and in Dahl’s narrative treatment of both his child protagonist and his child audience, Dahl’s text counters the notion that we have progressed to a culture that values and, at times, sacralizes the child. The Witches presents to readers the possibility that child-hatred is not some now-defunct phenomenon, but rather an extant danger in the historical present of childhood, a danger made ever more threatening by its ability to hide under a mask of benevolence. With the many instances of both child-protection and child-hatred that pervade The Witches, the text serves as an apt illustration of the ambivalence inherent in many works of children’s literature, which has been a central concern for scholars of children’s texts for decades.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    For a fuller discussion of the history of The Witches as a banned book for children, see Amanda Bergson-Shilcock (2002).

  2. 2.

    See DeMause’s discussion of the six historically-progressive “modes of parent–child relations” in the “Evolution of Childhood” (DeMause, 1974, pp. 51–54).

  3. 3.

    “It was practiced by the Irish Celts, the Gauls, the Scandinavians, the Egyptians, the Phoenicians, the Moabites, the Ammonites, and, in certain periods, the Israelites” (DeMause, 1974, p. 27).

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Correspondence to James M. Curtis.

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James M. Curtis is currently a doctoral student at the University of Southern Mississippi, pursuing a Ph.D. in Children’s Literature. His primary focus area is fantasy in twentieth century children’s literature (specifically psychoanalytical and gender-studies approaches), and he continues to research and compose analyses of texts in this critical area of the field.

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Curtis, J.M. “We Have a Great Task Ahead of Us!”: Child-Hate in Roald Dahl’s The Witches . Child Lit Educ 45, 166–177 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10583-013-9207-6

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Keywords

  • Roald Dahl
  • The Witches
  • Child-love
  • Child-hate
  • Demause
  • Child abuse
  • Fantasy