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Matilda by Roald Dahl

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Nettie Neville

on 3 January 2014

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Transcript of Matilda by Roald Dahl

The Roots
Literary Criticism
Plot Summary
Author Information:
Matilda Wormwood: our 5-year-old heroine, brilliant, humble, sensible, lovable

Michael Wormwood: her dull, insignificant older brother (a minor character)

Mr. Wormwood: their father, a "small ratty-looking man," used car dealer, oily, preening, devoid of values

Mrs. Wormwood: fancies herself a looker, but is in fact a plain, plump, neglectful mother who leaves Matilda home alone daily (since the age of 4) while she goes off to play bingo

Mrs. Phelps: A kind public librarian, astonished by Matilda's ability, helps to choose good books for her to read.

Miss Honey: Matilda's teacher, warm, kind, mild, quiet, adored by all the children, takes a great interest in Matilda

The Trunchbull: The terrifyingly intimidating headmistress of Matilda's school, physically foreboding, former Olympic hammer thrower, downright dangerous
Published: 1988

Time: present

Location: a small
English village
Dahl's treatment of the issue of child neglect been criticized. Based on the fact that Matilda is treated by her parents, at least from her perspective, "...as nothing more than a scab. A scab is something you have to put up with until the time comes when you can pick it off and flick it away." One reviewer, concluded, "Child neglect countered by revenge, however funny and however justified, is just not a nice theme." (Flowers, q. Telgen in Royer)

Critics have accused Dahl of ageism, and of conveying the message that, "the needs and desires and opinions of old people are totally irrelevant and inconsequential." (Sadker & Sadker, q. in Royer)

"The trouble with Dahl's world is that it is black and white--two-dimensional and unreal." (Rees q. in Royer)

"Adult readers object to the unreality of Dahl's books because in life, everything is not fair, and good does not always win." (Royer)


"It's obvious that Matilda is not a realistic novel...it is really a fairytale in disguise, with all the elements of the true fairytale, magic, gross violence, retribution, no well-rounded, three dimensional characters, good triumphing over evil" (Reeder, q. in Petzold)

Quentin Blake concurs, viewing Dahl's books as, "...fairy stories, at the bottom. People who criticize him don't see that even the real people are ogres and witches." (Culley)
Sentiment or Significance? A Little of Both...
by Roald Dahl
Illustrated by
Quentin Blake

Historical/Social Climate:
Matilda is a sweet child, exceedingly brilliant in reading and math, though her genius goes unnoticed, even scorned by her awful, neglectful parents, who value TV over books, greed over virtue.
Left alone daily from age 4, Matilda finds solace at the library, where a kind librarian, Mrs. Phelps, astonished at the child's ability, recommends books. After reading every single children's book, Matilda moves on to Dickens, Steinbeck & Hemingway.
Constantly mistreated by her parents, she devises several pay-back pranks like putting crazy glue inside her father's hat, and stuffing a parrot up the chimney, convincing the terrified family it's a ghost.
At 5, she begins school and is immediately singled out for her brilliance by her sweet teacher, Miss Honey, who attempts to convince Headmistress Trunchbull and Mr. & Mrs. Wormwood of Matilda's astounding intelligence, only to be met with denial and rudeness. Miss Honey takes Matilda under her wing and they form a close relationship.
We meet Headmistress Trunchbull and witness horrible incidents where she harms several children that are so over the top, they become comedic--ie. flinging a girl by the pigtails (much like a hammer thrower would) and force feeding a boy.
Matilda discovers she has telekinetic powers, and uses them to tip a water glass with a newt in it onto an apoplectic Trunchbull.
Matilda has tea at Miss Honey's spare cottage and learns that she was orphaned by 5, raised by a demonic aunt who abused her, possibly killed her father, and stole the house and money that are rightfully hers. We learn her aunt is...The Trunchbull!!
Determined to help Miss Honey, Matilda devises a plan where she levitates chalk to write a message (seemingly from the ghost of Miss Honey's father) to Trunchbull--demanding she give back the house, the money and go away forever. Terrified, Trunchbull does just that.
Matilda finds her parents frantically packing for a permanent move to Spain (the law is finally catching up with her crooked father) and asks if she may stay with Miss Honey instead. The parents are only too happy to have "one less to look after" and leave Matilda behind, in the loving arms of Miss Honey.
MOST AUTHORITY FIGURES SHOULD NOT BE TRUSTED: The main villain of the book is Headmistress Trunchbull, closely trailed by Matilda's awful parents. However, there are exceptions to the rule in most of Dahl's book. In this case, Miss Honey is the "good" adult. It's interesting to note that she plays a hybrid saviour/savee character...like a fairytale prince and princess rolled in one.

ADULT HYPOCRISY: Mrs. wormwood lectures the children that picking one's nose is disgusting but Matilda points out, "Grown-ups do it too, Mummy. I saw you doing it yesterday in the kitchen."
Upon asking if she can be excused from her TV dinner (on TV trays in front of the tube) so that she may read a book, Mr. Wormwood snaps at Matilda,"Supper is a family gathering and no one leaves the table till it's over!" (Culley)

CHILDREN CAN ACCOMPLISH AMAZING THINGS: Our heroine Matilda is independent, intelligent, and resourceful. She single-handedly rids the school of Trunchbull, restoring Miss Honey's financial stability.

BOOKS GOOD/TV BAD: Matilda's love of books is celebrated and the parent's love of TV is mocked satirically. Mr. Wormwood upon Matilda asking him to buy her a book. "What's wrong with the telly, for heaven's sake? We've got a lovely telly with a twelve inch screen and now you come asking for a book! You're getting spoiled, my girl!" Mrs. Wormwood, scornfully to Miss Honey, "You choose book. I choose looks."

GOOD TRIUMPHS AND EVIL IS PUNISHED OR DESTROYED: "The morality of his writings is simple, usually a matter of absolute good versus consummate evil--with no shades of gray--and those who fall into the latter category are sure to meet with a swift and horrible end." (Telgen q. in Royer)
In the end, virtuous Matilda and Miss Honey triumph, while Trunchbull and the parents get their due.
Other Iterations of Matilda
In 1996, Matilda was adapted to film by Danny DeVito, staring DeVito and Rhea Perlman as the parents, and Mara Wilson in the title role.

Since the trailer made me cringe several times, I don't plan to watch the movie. However, it gets decent reviews: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/1072107-matilda/
In 2011, Matilda was made into a two-part adaptation for BBC Radio 4:

In 2010, it opened at the Cambridge Theatre in London and went on to win a record-breaking seven Olivier Awards including Best New Musical.

In April of 2013, it began its run on Broadway at the Shubert Theatre and by the month's end, received 12 Tony nominations. The reviews have been nothing short of glowing:

Born in Wales to Norwegian parents, Dahl (1916-1990) was a novelist, short story writer, poet, screenwriter and fighter pilot.
He served in the Royal Air Force during World War II, becoming a flying ace and intelligence officer.
He rose to literary prominence in the 1940s, becoming one of the world's best-selling authors with works for children and adults.
His best known children's works include: James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, The Witches, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Twits, and The BFG.
Dahl married American actress Patricia Neal in 1953--they had 5 children. Upon divorcing in 1983, he married Felicity Crosland.
Published in 1988, this was Dahl's last major work before his death in 1990.

Matilda's unscrupulous father (a used car salesman) exemplifies the money-hungry 80's: "No one ever got rich being honest. Customers are there to be diddled."

The predominantly negative view of adults can be linked to the "anti-authoritarian" 70's and 80's, but in truth, goes back to Rousseau and the romantics: The notion that children are basically pure and innocent and need to be protected from selfish, exploitative adults.

In spite of many books of the 80's highlighting changing family structures and cultural diversity, Matilda, with its nuclear family and ethnically homogenous characters, does not.

In many ways, Dahl's children's books are somewhat immune to historical context because they followed a fairly regular formula, regardless of publication date. In large part, Dahl's writing was heavily influenced by his unhappy years at boarding school, at the hands of cruel authority figures.
Dahl suffered a staggering amount of tragedies in his life:

-In 1920, his 7 year old sister, Astri, died from appendicitis.
-Weeks later, his 57 year old father died of pneumonia while fishing in the Antarctic.
-During his years in boarding school, he was "caned" and mistreated by cruel headmasters.
- In 1960, his 4 month old son, Theo, was severely injured when his baby carriage was struck by a taxi in New York City.
-In 1962, his 7 year old daughter, Olivia, died of measles encephalitis.
-In 1965, wife Patricia Neal suffered three burst cerebral aneurysms while pregnant with their fifth child. Dahl took control of her rehabilitation and she eventually re-learned to walk and talk. (Wikipedia, Dahl page)

Given this life history, it's no wonder his children's books are known for their unsentimental, dark humor, always deeming a child the hero and the adults...often the wicked ones.
The rest of the family
Miss Honey
Mrs. Phelps
Dahl Quotes
The Art
Quentin Blake has illustrated Dahl's children's books since the mid 1970's, infusing them with tremendous personality and whimsy. Above we see Matilda, ponderous and lovable;
and Trunchbull, gleefully, unabashedly flinging a child. Both are good examples of how Blake drives home the over-the-top good vs. evil themes.
Trade Reviews
Publishers Weekly, 1988:
Matilda is an extraordinarily gifted four-year-old whose parents are a crass, dishonest used-car dealer and a self-centered, blowsy bingo addict regard her as "nothing more than a scab." Life with her beastly parents is bearable only because Matilda teaches herself to read, finds the public library, and discovers literature. Also, Matilda loves using her lively intelligence to perpetrate daring acts of revenge on her father. This pastime she further develops when she enrolls in Crunchem Hall Primary School, whose headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, is "a fierce tyrannical monster. . ." Adults may cringe at Dahl's excesses in describing the cruel Miss Trunchbull, as well as his reliance on overextended characterization at the expense of plot development. Children, however, with their keenly developed sense of justice, will relish the absolutes of stupidity, greed, evil and might versus intelligence, courage and goodness. They also will sail happily through the contrived, implausible ending. Dahl's phenomenal popularity among children speaks for his breathless storytelling charms; his fans won't be disappointed by Matilda. Blake's droll pen-and-ink sketches extend the exaggerated humor.

School Library Journal, 1988:
Dahl's latest piece of madcap mayhem is a story filled with the elements that his fans crave sardonic humor, the evilest of villains, the most virtuous of heroines, and children who eventually defeat those big bad grown-ups. In this book, Matilda isn't just smart, she is ``extra-ordinary. . .sensitive and brilliant,'' reading Great Expectations as a four year old. Unfortunately, her TV-addict parents neither recognize nor appreciate their daughter's genius. Neglected Matilda finds mentors in librarian Mrs. Phelps and teacher Miss Honey, a woman as sweet as her name implies. Miss Honey, Matilda, and other students are tormented by the child-hating headmistress Trunchbull. Trunchbull has also cheated orphaned niece Miss Honey out of her rightful inheritance, leaving the teacher in extreme poverty. Having practiced revenge techniques on her father, Matilda now applies her untapped mental powers to rid the school of Trunchbull and restore Miss Honey's financial security. If the conclusion is a bit too rapid, the transitions between Matilda's home and school life a bit choppy, and the writing style not as even as in some of Dahl's earlier titles, young readers won't mind. Dahl has written another fun and funny book with a child's perspective on an adult world. As usual, Blake's comical sketches are the perfect complement to the satirical humor. This may not be a teacher's or principal's first choice as a classroom read-aloud, but children will be waiting in line to read it. (Amazon)
Matilda is the biggest seller of Dahl's books, breaking all previous records for a work of children's fiction with UK sales of over half a million paperbacks in 6 months.

Matilda won the Federation of Children's Book Groups Award (UK 1988)
Ten years after its first publication, Matilda was voted the "Nation's Favorite Children's Book" in BBC Bookworm Poll (UK 1998) (Award info)

The very controversy caused by Roald Dahl's works for children has drawn millions of adolescents to his books and, subsequently, encouraged them to enjoy reading. These young people found in Roald Dahl something that they could not find anywhere else: an author with a view of society that was essentially identical to their own--distrustful of authority and firm in the belief that good will triumph. (Royer)

25 years after it's publication, the book is still high on the list of most beloved children’s books, has been made into a successful movie, radio play, swept the theater world in London and as we speak, in New York.
On what distinguished him from most other children's writers: "...this business of remembering what it was like to be young."

On the importance of reading: "I have a passion for teaching kids to become readers, to become comfortable with a book, not daunted. Books shouldn't be daunting, they should be funny, exciting and wonderful; and learning to be a reader gives a terrific advantage."

"I'm probably more pleased with my children's books than with my adult short stories. Children's books are harder to write. It's tougher to keep a child interested because a child doesn't have the concentration of an adult. The child knows the television is in the next room. It's tough to hold a child, but it's a lovely thing to try to do"

SATIRE: Reaffirm norms by making deviation from these norms appear ridiculous

HUMOR: Preposterous exaggerations serve as a means of comic distancing, which takes the edge of both fears and wishful fantasies.

THE WORLD THROUGH A CHILD'S EYES: "If you want to remember what it's like to live in a child's world, you've got to get down on your hands and knees and live like that for a week. You'll find you have to look up at all these giants around you, who are always telling you what to do and what not to do." -Dahl

A SYMPATHETIC NARRATOR: "It is bad enough when parents treat ordinary children as though they were scabs and bunions, but it becomes somehow a lot worse when the child in question is extraordinary, and by that I mean sensitive and brilliant." -narrator
What's in Dahl's Literary Toolbox?
And the
ones lived
ever after...
Full transcript