I’ve been reading some fairly serious non-fiction works lately and have a few more waiting for me at the library, so I’ve had a craving for some light, thoroughly enjoyable fiction. Where better to to turn than the next book in my Roald Dahl boxed set?
I must have been in third grade when I first read Matilda (1988). I have a memory of it sitting on my bookshelf, across from my canopy bed, in my room in our house in New Mexico. I don’t think I’ve read it again in the 20+ intervening years, so picking it up now was like picking up something completely new. That’s the great thing about books – and about Roald Dahl’s books in particular. You can remembering loving them and still fall in love with them all over again.
Matilda is a story for all of us young, bookish, overly smart girls. Matilda Wormwood is the outcast in her family. With her penchant for reading and her quick wit, she doesn’t fit in with her shady salesman of a father, her vain mother, or her dull brother. Her father doesn’t believe she can do difficult math in her head and doesn’t approve of her reading John Steinbeck. She wishes desperately for her parents to be kind and loving and intelligent, but knowing this will never be she compensates somewhat by playing tricks on them in retribution for their unenlightened treatment toward her.
When Matilda enters school, she finds a friend in her teacher, Miss Honey, and an enemy in the school’s headmistress, Miss Trunchbull. Where Miss Honey is sweet and encouraging and quick to recognize Matilda’s special gifts, Miss Trunchbull is eager to punish and humiliate any child who stands in her path. When the Trunchbull comes to teach Matilda’s class, her behavior infuriates Matilda so much that she knocks the Trunchbull’s water glass on top of her using nothing but her mind. It is then that Matilda learns that she’s even more special than she imagined.
The moral of the story could be seen as very simple. Miss Trunchbull is a bully and when she goes up against Matilda she gets her just deserts for all the wrongs she committed in her life. But, as simple a story this is on the surface, Dahl manages to sneak in some pretty hefty life lessons. When Miss Honey goes to visit the Wormwords to discuss Matilda, Mrs. Wormwood sees no reason to take an interest in her daughter’s education. “A girl should think about making herself look attractive so she can get a good husband later on. Looks is more important than books,” Mrs. Wormwood proclaims to Miss Honey. We are clearly not meant to sympathize with the Wormwood adults, so it warms my heart to see that Dahl is, in fact, preaching the opposite.
Matilda was a feminist icon before I knew what feminism was. In Matilda, Roald Dahl has created a heroine for the book-loving and the smart, those of us who were not interested in makeup or boys, those of us who were searching for ourselves somewhere in pages and on the screen. Perhaps that why I fell in love with her when I was eight years old. I know that’s why I’ve fallen in love with all over again today.