Childhood Favorites: Matilda

[Apologies for the delay in today’s post; WordPress ate my first try! — Casey]

By Mariko Turk

I’ve noticed a theme in this series.  All three ‘Childhood Favorites’ selections thus far are favorites because they, in various ways, are about the power words.  Imagine: English graduate students loving books about the power of words.  You’d think we were all studying to be literature professors or something.

Matilda Wormwood, of Roald Dahl’s Matilda (1988), learns the power of words very early in life: at age three, when she teaches herself how to read.  Unfortunately, though, there is only one book in the whole Wormwood household (Easy Cooking), and so at age four, Matilda begins a series of solo forays to the library, where she devours the whole children’s books section, and then begins to tackle the Western literary canon.  She reads Great Expectations, Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, Kim, and The Grapes of Wrath all before kindergarten.  Matilda so desperately needs this beautiful world of books because her parents are jerks.  Jerks who believe that bingo, TV, and get-rich-quick schemes are the highest orders of life.  Jerks who only have one book in the house.  Jerks who show no interest at all in their prodigiously articulate, thoughtful daughter.

Someone finally does pay attention to Matilda’s precociousness—her schoolteacher Miss Honey, who is one of the rare adults in Matilda who isn’t a frightful philistine.  With the help of the lovely and sympathetic Miss Honey, Matilda uses her enormous brain power to combat the ugly indifference of her home and the violence of her school (the headmistress of which, Miss Trunchbull, is in the habit of hammer-throwing students who annoy her) and it is all very satisfying in the end.

I read Matilda for the first time in the second grade, and while I definitely loved the main character and her love of words, I’d say the words that struck me the most were those of the sardonic, brutally funny narrator who tells us Matilda’s story.  To me, this kind of language in a children’s book was very new.  This is how Matilda begins:

“It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers.  Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful.”

I vividly remember reading that sentence.  There weren’t any bad words in it, but I still had the sense that I was entering into something that was, to use a word employed frequently in reviews of Roald Dahl, “nasty.”  And I was excited to do so.  The narrator goes on to reveal that s/he is a schoolteacher who suffers greatly from the prattling of “doting parents,” and wickedly composes some imaginary end-of-year reports for the “stinkers” in the class.  For example:

“‘The periodical cicada spends six years as a grub underground, and no more than six days as a free creature of sunlight and air.  Your son Wilfred has spent six years as a grub in this school and we are still waiting for him to emerge from the chrysalis.’”

In his smart, savage, and satisfying way, the narrator pierces a needle into the overblown “twaddle” of doting parents.  I do believe, then, that while the character Matilda encouraged me to be a reader, the narrator probably encouraged me to be a critic.  Certainly criticism does not, as a rule, have to be scathing.  But at the heart of the critical impulse there is a glee that comes from deflating, with carefully crafted prose, that which we think deserves to be deflated.

But while the narrator enjoys taking doting parents down a notch or two, s/he knows that neglectful parents (like the Wormwoods) and headmistresses who terrify instead of teach (like Miss Trunchbull) are much worse people, and never fails to skewer them.  In one scene, for instance, Miss Honey visits the Wormwoods at home.  When Miss Honey asks if the Wormwoods are not intrigued by their genius daughter, Mrs. Wormwood says she isn’t, because books are, in the grand scheme of things, utterly worthless.  Mrs. Wormwood elaborates on her theory to Miss Honey:

“‘Now look at me…Then look at you.  You chose books.  I chose looks…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.” “‘Quite right, sugar-plum,’ Mr. Wormwood said, casting a look of such simpering sloppiness at his wife it would have made a cat sick.”

Ha!  Insufferable as the Wormwoods and their smugness are, at least we get to imagine a cat vomiting at Mr. Wormwood’s stupid face and Mrs. Wormwood’s stupid philosophy.  There is satisfaction in that cutting little sentence, (even if we would have rather cut those Wormwoods for real).

The snark of the narrator’s words in Matilda is, of course, nicely balanced by Matilda’s pure appreciation for the beauty of words and the stories they can create.  So the novel never gets too cynical or too sweet.  It is just the perfect amount of both.  After all, the biting narrator evinces the highest respect, even a lovely tenderness, for the “brilliant and sensitive” Matilda and her “wonderfully subtle mind.”  S/he is never cynical about her, and there is something very comforting about that.  It is what, I think, makes readers rally to the narrator’s as well as to Matilda’s side, and what makes readers appreciate the value of both kinds of uses of words.  For they both fight to uphold intelligence, sensitivity, and subtlety in a world filled with ignorance, neglect, and hucksterism.  And they both marvelously succeed.

Mariko is a PhD student.

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