Matilda, by Roald Dahl, is a modern fairytale about an extremely bright girl. Our tiny main character is beset by evil, finds a wise benefactor, then sets upon three quests (related as miracles). She vanquishes evil at home and abroad, then wins her own kingdom. She is more precocious than any four-years-and-three-months-old you’ll ever meet, with impeccable communication skills, phenomenal literacy levels, and reading comprehension that make me jealous. It was a good read.
Some typical fairytale elements are present. Her parents and headmaster at school (Miss Trunchbull) are farcical caricatures, and Matilda is almost too perfect—except for her surprising taste for revenge. Overall, the plot was not very complex, and the ending was a bit abrupt, but the writing was deliciously witty. Dahl is a masterful craftsman at his work. This is a subversive fairytale about a four year old with the scheming wit of an old fox.
Initially, I wasn’t sure why I took so long to finish Matilda. It was a short little thing. My only experience with the story was with the movie, so I enjoyed reading the original source material. I believe my problem with Matilda was that the author did such a wonderful job creating absolutely rotten characters that stepping into Matilda’s world was a distasteful experience. Her parents were so completely ignorant and repulsive that I put the book down for a break and let a year or so pass.
I am glad that I returned to it recently. The setting, even if oppressive, served to show the reader the problems that Matilda needed to overcome. As in the tradition of Oliver Twist, Matilda was completely disregarded as a human being and in need of help, but instead of finding her Fagin, she found the angelic Miss Honey.
Matilda was a brilliant child trapped in an adult world of bias and contempt. She was told she was stupid, she was dismissed offhand because of her age, and she was ignored because she didn’t fit a template. Her parents were criminals, her headmaster outlandishly abusive, and only Miss Honey saw Matilda’s potential. She provided just enough of a foundation for Matilda to get her footing and launch off. Miss Honey knew all too well how terrible it was to be trapped and taken advantage of. She was the perfect benefactor for Matilda and set the stage for Matilda’s transformation.
Unfortunately, Matilda’s salvation—and the most outlandish of all plot devices yet—came almost three-fourths through the book. I felt the establishment of Matilda’s depressing life took far too much time in a tale that was so short. In addition, there was no foreshadowing of Matilda’s telekinetic powers that I noticed, so they came quite out of the blue. I felt the movie did a much better job balancing this transition from victim to victor.
I drew parallels between this story and one that came years later called Mai the Psychic Girl. Mai, too, was childlike and innocent in her joy as she explored her powers, but in Matilda, those powers weren’t woven into the tale from the beginning. They arrived as a deus ex machina solution to her troubles, and very typical for folktales, though they were still entertaining to read about.
In the story, Matilda wisely explained to her friend, Lavender, the secret to how the Trunchbull (as the kids referred to her) got away with her violent and irresponsible behavior. “Never do anything by halves if you want to get away with it. Be outrageous. Go the whole hog.”
This seems to be advice that Dahl himself follows. He put his characters up to antics that were as outlandish as they were funny. Matilda superglued a hat to her dad’s head as revenge. Miss Trunchbull tossed children about the schoolyard and out windows with carefree abandon. By the time Matilda could move objects around with the power of her eyes, the cartoonish behavior of Miss Trunchbull helped make this transition from Oliver Twist to Mai the Psychic Girl less jarring, but there really wasn’t much in the way of logic or character development. Matilda is a tall tale told for laughs, but that is more than enough to be a good read.
Release Date: October 1, 1988 (UK)
ISBNs: 0670824399 (9780670824397)
Language: 1 (no swears, but the insults are colorful and intense)
Violence: 1 (cartoon violence, children thrown across playgrounds, torture mentioned)