The Story: Matilda, a standalone novel by Roald Dahl, is about a genius little girl whose parents constantly underestimate her. When Matilda finally gets to test her mettle in school, she gains an ally in her timid yet sweet teacher, Miss Honey, and a dangerous adversary in Miss Trunchbull, the school’s discipline-minded headmistress. But as she tries to learn while deflecting her parents’ insults and Miss Trunchbull’s bullying ways, will Matilda crumble under the pressure or will she rise marvelously, and miraculously, to the challenge?
My Take: I first read this delightful little book as a grown up, not a child. Yet the fact it resonates with me as an adult is a testament to Dahl’s ability to capture the imagination and create a tale that appeals to readers of all ages.
Genre-wise, Matilda is a tough little literary nut to crack in a good way. I suppose you could call this general fiction but there is a slight paranormal element that emerges later on to keep it from being too realistic, though this element isn’t strong enough to cause the novel to become a work of outright paranormal lit. So perhaps this is a work of realistic surrealism – or would that be surrealistic realism? Both, perhaps? I think either way works.
In any case, this novel is about Matilda Wormwood, a born genius and bona fide bookworm. But rather than those traits making her the apple of her parents’ eyes, she’s more like the bunion on their soles. Not that Matilda has any part of the blame – she’s just been given the rather unfortunate circumstance of being born into a family of morons who only care about ripping people off or playing bingo and watching television. While Matilda devises sneaky, cheeky acts of revenge against her parents’ mistreatment of her, she finally gets her chance to shine when she goes to school and meets Miss Honey, her teacher. Miss Honey is one of very few adults in this novel who really understands Matilda and is blown away by the little’s girl’s big brains yet humble spirit. To his credit, Dahl doesn’t demonize all grown ups in this novel as Miss Honey is proof of this; instead, he presents the more despicable characters as caricatures of how adults can be towards children at times – ignorant and impassive. In contrast, Miss Honey, who is a delight of a character, embraces and encourages Matilda’s unique gifts. In the end, both of these characters end up helping one another and have a happy, smile-worthy send off.
Where to start when it comes to my praises for Matilda? It’s clever, engaging, darkly humorous at times, and sadly true albeit it’s a caricaturization of the mentality adults can harbor towards children as seeing them as second-class citizens who have no voice or no brains. Matilda is a great protagonist as she doesn’t act like a know-it-all nor does she refuse to associate herself with anyone who isn’t as smart as she is. She’s easy to root for and sympathize with as she contends with being marginalized yet Matilda keeps persevering. Also, the novel can serve as a not-so-subtle message to young readers that being smart can be cool and puts you in a better position to help those in need around you.
Matilda might be the star, but she’s not the only shining character. The other characters here are an absolutely hoot! The Wormwoods are complete idiots and provide most of the book’s early comedic fodder. Miss Honey is a great partnering character for Matilda as what Miss Honey lacks in a backbone, Matilda has plenty of courage to spare and isn’t afraid to share. Miss Trunchbull is the perfect kid’s villain – big, mean, and very over the top but not so scary that she’ll invade young reader’s nightmares. Plus, she is a character whom you desperately want to see get her just desserts and, believe me, Trunchbull gets her just desserts and then some!
If I had one slightly more critical comment to extend to this book, it would be that the novel ends a bit too neatly, too quickly, and too unrealistically. That’s not to say I disliked the ending – quite the contrary! I think it’s a perfect send off for the characters involved. But I just couldn’t envision two characters making such a serious decision so quickly, not to mention the legal ramifications. But, once more, this plays to the novel’s surrealistic realism (or was it realistic surrealism?) in that if Miss Trunchbull can exist in such a world, then surely this can be plausible, too. So in the end, Matilda is a treat to read that further highlights Dahl’s talent in being able to deliver a story that can entertain, and subtlety educate, younger readers and adults.
Language – Minimal. Contains a handful of PG-level words but nothing excessive.
Violence – Essentially none, albeit Miss Trunchbull’s disciplinary tactics which are acts of outright abuse, though it’s all very over the top and no real harm is done to the children she punishes. (For instance, one young man’s “punishment” is to eat an entire giant chocolate cake. He does, indeed, gorge himself and Trunchbull hits him over the head with a platter, but the boy is, essentially, unharmed.) However, it’s important to note that there is talk of a murder/suicide later on and children who have lost a loved one to suicide might be more sensitive to that plot point. But overall, Matilda contains nothing that cause parents or teachers to pause in passing this book off to young readers.
Sexual Content – None. Both Mrs. Wormwood and Miss Trunchbull are drawn as rather buxom women in the book’s illustrations but are never depicted in a titillating manner.
In the end, Matilda remains one of my favorite books of all time because its protagonist proves there is nothing wrong with having brains and loving books, both of which can arm you with not just book smarts but also the ability to creatively and cleverly solve problems and help others. Matilda is a genuine sweetheart who will go to great lengths to right wrongs and prove that being smart is nothing to be ashamed of. If you’ve never read this novel, please give it a try. Plus, Matilda is the poster child for bookworms everywhere!