Author: Roald Dahl
Artist: Quentin Blake
Type: Fiction, novel
I read it: February 2018
Man, Roald Dahl really hates adults. Or at least, he hates the fact that incompetent, buffoonish, and downright mean ones exist. And he really hates that they are allowed to have any interaction with children whatsoever.
The titular character in Matilda has it bad on two fronts. First, her parents are godawful people. Her father is the worst type of used car salesman, and in the early pages calls his daughter “an ignorant little twit.” The rub is that Matilda is actually a prodigy for her age, and has to sneak her book-reading because her parents won’t support her in it. This is a novel for nerds of the old-school type. The first chapter is called “The Reader of Books” and even includes a reading list of classics that Matilda works through at the library. Fortunately this “book reader = outcast” trope is outdated in most places these days. Or so I’d hope. (There’s also a quick commentary on C.S. Lewis that I want to note for future reference: Matilda is not a fan because “He has one failing. There are no funny bits in his books.”)
Matilda’s cleverness allows her to play practical jokes on her parents whenever they push her around too much, which is great fun for both the character and the reader. She meets a more formidable opponent in “the Trunchbull,” the headmistress at her school. Miss Trunchbull not only verbally abuses the schoolchildren at every opportunity, but adds a layer of physical torture as well. Dahl lays it on thick, giving Trunchbull monologues such as:
“I have never been able to understand why small children are so disgusting. They are the bane of my life. They are like insects. They should be got rid of as early as possible. We get rid of flies with fly-spray and by hanging up fly-paper. I have often thought of inventing a spray for getting rid of small children.”
The physical punishments include getting picked up by the ears, getting grabbed by the ponytail and then swung around and tossed in a wide arc, and being locked up in a small cabinet full of spikes (it’s a bit unclear if this last one is real or a myth that floats around the school, but I think it’s real). The author excels at slapstick gruesomeness.
Dahl seems to have intentionally written Matilda as a girl so that he could include a layer of sexism delivered alternately by the father, mother, and Trunchbull. No one wants Matilda to be smart—with the exception of Miss Honey, the one angelic adult in the story who is the opposite of Trunchbull but, as the reader finds out, tied to her. Miss Honey is looked down upon as a young spinster who can’t be trusted. She and Matilda become dual heroines and fast friends as the story progresses.
As with all Dahl books, the story is funny and fast-paced, episodic and slightly repetitive, with a strong humanist message at its center. The setup of the tyrannical headmistress it outdated, but the concept of kids being unlucky enough to live under the rule of crappy adults is timeless, and, when you pause the wackiness on the page to think about it, horribly depressing and scary. Dahl does everyone a service by writing a protagonist who fights back with her brains and eagerly cuts ties with those who abuse her, even when (especially when) they are her family.