Matilda, published in 1988, is one of Roald Dahl’s longest and most intricate novels for children. The story of a highly precocious little girl who slowly develops powers of telekinesis, it focuses more on issues of destiny, education and employment than his usual subjects of wordplay, terror and disgusting things, though the book still has more than one incident that will delight kids who love disgusting things more than it will adults.
Richer and more questioning than most of his other novels, it may not be entirely successful, but it offers kids, and possibly grown-ups, a lot to think about.
Like many of Dahl’s protagonists, Matilda comes from a less-than-ideal home life. Although her parents are decently off, they mostly ignore Matilda, and to a lesser extent her brother. Even when they do notice their kids, they don’t understand them. Matilda’s father, a used car dealer, regularly cheats his customers and brags about it. Matilda’s mother, a housewife, plays bingo every afternoon, leaving Matilda and her brother completely alone in the house, emotionally and mostly physically neglected. When the parents are home, they focus their attention almost entirely on television (for Dahl, who continued to rail against television until his death, a sure sign of villainy), consuming only unappetizing television dinners.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Matilda, desperate to find something to read, finds her way to the local library, where she begins reading in earnest—not just children’s books, but the adult books Dahl read and felt that children should be exposed to early on. Especially Charles Dickens, here praised again for Great Expectations. This incidentally gives Dahl an opportunity to comment somewhat unkindly on fellow fantasy authors C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, critiquing their books for lacking humor. (I think he probably has a point about the Narnia series, but The Hobbit lacking humor? No, no, no. You mix that up with The Lord of the Rings, Mr. Dahl. But I digress.)
The reading further solidifies Matilda’s personality as a very sweet, but quiet and intense little girl. The books also raise her awareness of justice, so much so that she does not hesitate to point out that her father is cheating his customers. Her father, furious at getting this criticism from a five year old, yells at her. An equally infuriated Matilda decides to get back at him. It’s mostly revenge, but also, as Matilda thinks it through, justice, not only for his customers but also for the unfair way that he is treating her. Punishing him might correct his behavior. In fact her first few tricks do manage to chasten him, temporarily ending his bullying ways for short periods.
It’s all preparation for the real meat of the novel: Matilda’s arrival at school and her confrontation with the horrible Headmistress Miss Trunchbull. Miss Trunchbull is every horrible nightmare of a teacher you can imagine in one huge, muscular and hammer throwing presence filled with hatred for children. I say hammer throwing because as it turns out, Miss Trunchbull previously competed in the Olympics in this event, and now uses small children to keep in shape, tossing them when she deems necessary, which is often. Exactly why she chose to become a school administrator is an open question, especially given her belief that the very best schools are those without any kids in them, though I suspect every teacher has had this thought at least once. But we’ll get to that.
Fortunately, Matilda also encounters a gifted and sympathetic teacher, Miss Honey, as well as several friends at the school, who warn her about Miss Trunchbull. This is not enough to save Matilda from Miss Trunchbull’s wrath, especially since Matilda’s father has sold Miss Trunchbull a lemon of a car. But that wrath has an unexpected result: it helps trigger Matilda’s latent telekinetic powers. Throw in a rather Gothic tale of a possible murder in a great old house and a terror of ghosts, and Matilda’s revenge is set.
As a revenge fantasy, Matilda mostly works, with hilarious scenes and frequent hideously disgusting moments. (I’m not sure it would be a Dahl book without the disgusting bits.) Those who have been wrongfully accused of being stupid or ignorant or both will probably be cheering Matilda on as she strikes back at her seriously unappreciative father, and Miss Trunchbull is so thoroughly awful it’s rather fun to watch her get struck down. And it’s always fun to see the weaknesses and bad deeds of villains turned against them.
Though somehow, I find myself more satisfied with the scenes where Matilda’s schoolmates Bruce and Lavender manage, in their own way, to stand up to and take revenge against Miss Trunchbull, and even Matilda’s initial non-telekinetic acts of retaliation. After all, these are all things ordinary kids can do—well, it might be difficult for most kids to eat that much cake without getting sick, but still, it doesn’t require gaining magical powers. And watching these kids learn to use their own interior resources—Bruce’s ability to eat, Lavender’s desire to do something heroic and resulting bravery, and Matilda’s cleverness and innate sense of justice—has a certain satisfaction of its own.
And it’s genuinely lovely to see, for once from Dahl, some supportive, non-nasty child characters who can be friends with the child protagonist. Lavender is pretty awesome: not as smart as Matilda and aware of her own physical limitations, but also certain she can do something. And in Bruce Bogtrotter we have a first from Dahl: a fat kid who is not just heroic, but is successful and cheered on because he is fat. After several Dahl books where all fat kids were mere gluttons and fat people in general bad, this is a genuine pleasure.
I also like that Matilda, almost alone in the Dahl books, accomplishes her main goals with very little assistance. Yes, Matilda does have a bit of magic to help her, and to an extent she has Miss Honey and her friend Lavender. But Lavender manages to get Matilda into more trouble, and Matilda ends up helping Miss Honey almost more than Miss Honey helps her. It helps, too, that Matilda has to earn her powers through practice. Matilda can at first only tip over glasses, and then, after a lot of practice, move one piece of chalk. Contrast George, who is able to produce magical medicine just by dumping various household and garage products into a pot on the stove and stirring a bit and chanting some sort of spell. Matilda has to work for her magic—and it makes it all the more satisfying when she succeeds.
But for all this, Matilda has some rather obvious flaws. For one, even for Dahl, this book meanders, and I do mean meanders. The plot line with Matilda’s parents is more or less lost in the second half of the book, only to reappear unexpectedly in the last couple of pages; the chapter with Lavender is a major digression, and although Dahl uses elements of that chapter to set up a later confrontation with Trunchbull and the onset of Matilda’s powers, it still has a feeling of a major detour. And Dahl’s revelation of the history between Miss Trunchbull and Miss Honey somehow makes their earlier encounter seem all wrong; reread that chapter in light of later revelations, and the “we’re just colleagues here” tone from both just doesn’t make much sense. Miss Trunchbull, certainly, should have made a negative reference or two (or more) to the past.
A more serious flaw lies with Matilda herself, who just never manages to seem credible. It’s not the early reading, or the mathematics, or the general brilliance; Matilda is hardly the only child prodigy in fiction or in real life. Even the non-prodigy me was reading Dickens only a little after Matilda did, although I certainly didn’t match Matilda’s progress with math. (I will, however, note that in direct contrast to Matilda’s parents, my parents actively encouraged me to read, and the main reason I learned to read well before kindergarten was that my mother couldn’t read to me fast enough. To have a child whose parents are that hostile to reading learn to read Dickens by four is a bit odd.)
Or even the reaction of her parents to her brilliance; that, too, reads believably enough, not to mention offering a sort of comfort to children who may feel alienated from their parents. Or her ability to design revenge pranks on her parents and Miss Trunchbull. The pranks, with the arguable exception of the “ghost,” are all the sorts of things a kid of that age might think of and find funny, even if I have my doubts that Matilda’s parents would never think to blame their daughter for the pranks. They certainly don’t seem to hesitate to blame her for other things. And if Matilda is an unrealistically nice child given her upbringing—well, Dahl specialized in nice protagonists, and it would be odd for him to change that now.
No, the problem is combining all of that makes Matilda too flawless. She is not just highly intelligent and uncommonly wise for her age, but also has no problems making friends, tricking her parents, and (usually) staying quiet when necessary. When she gets angry, she usually stays in control, losing her temper only once after being accused of doing something she didn’t do—this after watching her fellow students tortured.
Dahl had given us nearly flawless protagonists before, of course, but these children had also enjoyed at least a short time with loving parents, or lived in a situation not quite as emotionally horrible. And his previous children all dreamed of leaving their horrible situations. Matilda does not live in physical or financial poverty (although a diet of only television dinners is probably not that good for her), but her home life is still horrific. And yet she never dreams of leaving it, even with a diet of books showing other options. (Although I suppose she figured that she was better off than Oliver Twist.) Dahl’s previous acknowledgement that emotional poverty can be as distressing and damaging as other forms seems mostly lost here.
I say “mostly” because it does show in one way: As Miss Honey notes, Matilda is more an adult in a child’s body than a child, which perhaps helps explain why it’s hard to believe in her. Dahl had previously been successful in creating adult characters who were essentially children in adult bodies, but when it came to the opposite, he couldn’t quite do it.
And then we have the book’s uneasy treatment of women. On the one hand, Dahl gives us passages like this:
“I said you chose books and I chose looks,” Mrs Wormwood said. “And who’s finished up the better off? Me, of course. I’m sitting pretty in a nice house with a successful businessman and you’re left slaving away teaching a lot of nasty little children the ABC.”
The book-loving, television hating Dahl certainly does not endorse Mrs Wormwood’s point of view, even undercutting it with his observations that (a) Mrs Wormwood is not all that good looking, and (b) Mr Wormwood is successful only because he is dishonest. He also provides two examples of admirable women with jobs in Miss Honey and the librarian Mrs Phelps. And, of course, by the end of the book [spoiler] quite the opposite is true: Miss Honey has the lovely house, and Mrs Wormwood is on the run.
But at the same time, other parts of this book hint that Mrs Wormwood is not entirely wrong, and show a distrust of women in power. After all, the two admirable women professionals are not in management positions, and even there, seem to have limited power. Mrs Phelps disappears after the beginning of the book, and although she is worried that Matilda might get hit by a car, does nothing to prevent this, since her previous efforts to help children went badly. Miss Honey cannot prevent Miss Trunchbull from entering her classroom and physically abusing her students. And although Miss Honey may love being a teacher, she has ended up in her position because she had no other choice. She was not allowed to go to university, but instead ended up at the local teacher’s college, something Miss Honey herself describes as a lesser option. Her options were limited partly because of the lack of money, but mostly because another woman kept her from pursuing her options.
Indeed, the theme of women in positions of power putting down other women (or small girls) undercuts the book: Mrs Wormwood is the exact opposite of a supportive parent, discouraging Matilda from pursuing her intellectual gifts (not that she’s successful), belittling her, and providing her with a grand total of one useful piece of advice in the entire book (“I’m afraid men are not always quite as clever as they think they are.”) Miss Trunchbull terrorizes girls and boys, but that continues the theme of women putting down women, and her strong and loudly stated belief that all children are horrible pests on human society is not exactly the sort of statement inclined to increase self-esteem.
And speaking of Miss Trunchbull, I have to assume that her options, too, were greatly limited—otherwise why is she working at a job she so clearly hates? She has inherited some money and a house, after all, and has had a successful athletic career, and yet still finds herself in a job where she is surrounded by disgusting creatures (from her point of view) that she despises. She undoubtedly gets some joy out of flinging them out of windows or locking them into cages, but enough to make up for the misery? Doubtful.
What we are left with is a situation where one woman with some authority (Mrs Phelps the librarian) has decided that it is best if she never interferes in anything, a second woman (Mrs Wormwood), arguing that women are better off focusing solely on looks and not education, a third woman (Miss Honey) living in dire poverty even with a job, surviving only because a farmer is offering her a reduced rent, and the only woman in a leadership role (Miss Trunchbull) abusing her power and torturing those under her control. A man takes over the school in Miss Trunchbull’s place. Under his control, the school does well. It’s particularly striking given Dahl’s complete and obvious disapproval of the one woman who does stay at home, and the restrictions that face the adult women characters. And yet to counter all of this, Dahl also shows Matilda and Lavender choosing their own destinies and shaping themselves into who they want to be.
But then, yikes. At the end of the book—MAJOR SPOILER—Matilda loses the telekinesis powers she suffered so much for and practiced so hard to gain, not because, as I thought, the removal of the major physical threat against her, but because, as Miss Honey notes, Matilda is now using her brain in other ways—intellectual ways. It’s not just that this seems unfair—as I noted, the powers may have arisen spontaneously, but Matilda worked to strengthen and control them—or that I can’t help thinking that intellectual stimulation should increase Matilda’s overall brain power and thus her telekinetic powers, but because this sets up an uneasy situation: she can either have something to think about, or power, not both. Unfairness, of course, is a major theme of all Dahl books, but I couldn’t help regretting it here. (I’ll be discussing the movie later, but I’ll just note here that its screenwriters and producers appear to have agreed with me.)
I suppose it’s just as well to learn that even child prodigies can’t have everything. And if I find myself wondering what will happen to Matilda’s brother—who never seemed like a terrible sort, and who gives Matilda a long look as he is driven away—it’s probably just as well that, like real life, not everything in this book gets a neat, tidied up ending. And as I noted, Matilda has a lot of other things to enjoy, and works particularly well as a wish fulfillment for nine year old girls. It’s certainly a book that might get a child thinking—and I can never think that’s a bad thing.
Originally published in February 2013.
Despite practice, Mari Ness has never been able to lift a single piece of chalk with her mind. Perhaps she thinks too much. She lives in central Florida.