Friday, November 27, 2009

Matilda, Ma-Ma-Matilda

Am thinking of going to see Fantastic Mr. Fox this weekend, more out of cinephilia/Wes Anderson fandom than out of childhood nostalgia, because I don't recall ever reading that book when I was little. I read a lot of other Roald Dahl books, though, and my all-time favorite is definitely Matilda. Its title character might just be the first member of my pantheon of smart-girl heroines--how could I not love it?

Matilda is a five-year-old child prodigy, born into an awful family (used-car-salesman dad, television-obsessed mom) and attending a school where the principal is the sadistic, power-mad Miss Trunchbull. The story is about how Matilda gets revenge, first with a series of clever pranks on her family and then, after discovering that she has telekinetic powers, by mentally moving objects to impersonate the ghost of Miss Trunchbull's dead brother. Revenge/comeuppance is a frequent theme in Roald Dahl and I think children find it very satisfying. When I was a kid, I loved stories of horrifically nasty people getting their just deserts--not only Matilda, but also, say, the way the evil headmistress in A Little Princess is finally punished.

Matilda's parents, meanwhile, are the sort of characters that make you realize that the Dursley family, of Harry Potter, is directly descended from Roald Dahl's villains. But J.K. Rowling softens things by saying "it's OK, the Dursleys aren't Harry's real family; he had wonderful parents who loved him, but unfortunately they're dead"--which plays into the childhood fantasy of thinking that your parents aren't really your parents, that you must be adopted, a long-lost prince or princess, etc. Dahl is having none of that. Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood are Matilda's real parents, and that's what makes them even worse than the Dursleys.

As for Matilda's telekinetic powers, they arise because she is not being challenged in school (the Trunchbull forbids her to skip a grade) and thus has a lot of excess mental energy built up, which she learns how to channel to make small objects move. After the Trunchbull's defeat, when Matilda moves to the appropriate grade level, her powers fade away.

Now, I first read Matilda when I was probably five years old, and knew that I wasn't being appropriately challenged in kindergarten (I ended up skipping first grade)... and I admit that I wondered whether I, too, might not have developed telekinetic powers! I definitely had a few afternoons of imitating Matilda by sitting on the end of my bed and trying to move the objects on my bureau using my mind.

And then when I skipped from kindergarten to second grade, I ended up with a teacher who looked as sweet as Miss Honey (Matilda's kindhearted kindergarten teacher) but was really a Trunchbull in disguise... but that's a story for another day.

By the way, early in the novel, Roald Dahl includes a list of the books that Matilda's friendly librarian gives her to read after she finishes reading all of the children's books at her local library. They are:
  • Great Expectations
  • Nicholas Nickleby
  • Oliver Twist
  • Jane Eyre
  • Pride and Prejudice
  • Tess of the d'Urbervilles
  • Gone to Earth
  • Kim
  • The Invisible Man
  • The Old Man and the Sea
  • The Sound and the Fury
  • The Grapes of Wrath
  • The Good Companions
  • Brighton Rock
  • Animal Farm
  • The Red Pony
I've read five of them... how about you?


Anushka said...

i've read six - i can't believe i even competed with you! =)

Marissa said...

Haha--people always seem to assume that I've read more classic novels than I actually have! I still feel like I have lots of catching up to do.