Lessons from Childhood Part 3: The Reader of Books

Over the past week, I’ve been talking about my favourite book from childhood – Matilda. In part one I talked about my practice of endless re-reading of this book, and wondering why I don’t really re-read anymore. Yesterday, I talked about female role models, and used Matilda as an example of how I tend to prefer fictional or distanced role models.  So now it is finally time to get round to the particulars of Matilda, and trying to remember why I loved it so much.

Having re-read the book over the past few nights, I’ve both re-lived the enjoyment that I felt as a child, as well as gaining a few insights on why it appealed to me as a child that I probably wasn’t aware of at the time. It’s been an interesting process, feeling that appeal deep within me, but also being in a place to be more critically aware of how the story probably filled particular emotional needs.


In the first place, I love that Matilda is described as a reader of books. It becomes a very clear identity for her, that she is a keen learner and simply cannot get enough of good literature. Yet, whilst Matilda is portrayed as unusually smart and far beyond average intelligence, the fact that she is kept unaware that her brilliance as an anomaly means that she is also quite down to earth, or ‘normal’ if you will. Which means that you don’t need to be a supersmart kid to have identified with her; I identified with her simply as someone who loved reading and learning. Here was someone who loved what I did, but was at the extremes of brilliance.

However, the love for her that is imbued by the author is clearly not just because she is a brainiac, but because she is gutsy and adventurous and she sticks up for herself and other people. This is probably what stuck out to me the most in delving into the book this week. Matilda did what I never could as a child – she stuck up for herself, often verbally and then when she could not win the power games with an adult, she found other ways of getting her own back for the wrongful accusations and the humiliation to which she had been party. She plays wonderful pranks on her father, sticking his hat to his head and bleaching his hair and spooking the living daylights out of him with an artfully placed parrot that doubles as a ghost. In the end, she also uses her wit and newfound powers against the bullying headteacher, Miss Trunchbull for the sake of her much-abused teacher Miss Honey.

This is, I think, what has always appealed about Roald Dahl’s work and particularly in Matilda – it is about readdressing the power balance between children and adults. It questions why Matilda’s parents should have authority over her when she is clearly smarter and better adjusted than they are. It questions why Miss Trunchbull should have power over the whole school – parents and teachers included – when she is a bully who cheated Miss Honey out of her childhood and her rightful possessions. Of course, the real joy of the book is that these abuses of power are righted both in the small ways in which Matilda is able to shame her father through practical jokes, but also in chasing Miss Trunchbull away and getting Miss Honey back her house and inheritance.  It gives some glimmer of hope, if only through the catharsis of fantasy, that these unfair power imbalances can be righted in the here and now, rather than waiting until you are big and bad enough to take people on.


What interests me now is that Matilda’s brand of justice is surprisingly similar to Miss Trunchbull’s.  Both of them get creative with their ‘punishments’. Miss Trunchbull makes Bruce Bogtrotter eat a massive chocolate cake in one sitting as punishment for stealing a slice of her cake. Matilda, uses her powers to write a message to Miss Trunchbull from Magnus, her dead brother and Miss Honey’s father.  So what makes Matilda the good guy and Miss Trunchbull the bad guy? What makes Matilda’s actions subversive, gutsy and sticking up for herself, whilst Miss Trunchbull’s are those of an aggressive bully? Essentially, it comes back to this idea of power and fairness. Miss Trunchbull should know and act better – she is an adult, she has a duty to look after those in her care and to see to their good education. She has authority, but she misuses it. Matilda, on the other hand, is a tiny little girl. She is at the mercy of the grown-ups’ decisions and treatment of her. She doesn’t pick on other children, or play a practical joke just for the sake of it– no, she makes her plans as a specific way of getting them back for something unfair that they have done. In many ways, the similarity between Matilda and Miss Trunchbull in their creative style of punishment highlights that they are nothing alike and furthers this theme of the redress of power.

Something else I found really interesting in re-reading the book as an adult is that there is a strong theme of the dualism between brains and beauty for girls and women. When Miss Honey comes to Matilda’s house to ask  the Wormwoods’ for permission to give her private tutoring, she is confounded by parents who have not only failed to notice their daughter’s brilliance but are unable to see it precisely because they do not think that little girls can or should be smart.

‘A girl should think about making herself look attractive so she can get a good husband later on. Looks is more important than books…Now look at me,’ Mrs Wormwood said. ‘Then look at you. You chose books. I chose looks.’

Miss Honey looked a the plain plump person with the smug set-pudding face who was sitting across the room. ‘What did you say?’ she asked.

 ‘I said you chose books and I chose looks’ Mrs Wormwood said. ‘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…A girl doesn’t get a man by being brainy.’

Of course, whilst Mrs Wormwood seems to think she has the upper hand in this exchange, the readers are made well aware that all her beauty efforts are to no avail, and that Miss Honey is in fact rather beautiful as well as being smart. In the end, Miss Honey is the one who lives in the large house and Mrs Wormwood has to run away to Spain with her husband and son in order to avoid the authorities catching up to Mr Wormwood’s fraudulent business.

            So, with all these themes running around about the redressing an imbalance of power and authority, and questioning the notion that women are made to be decorative wives, it’s really pretty obvious as to why I loved the book as a child and why I still love it. That’s to say nothing of the fact that Matilda develops super human telekinetic powers (I may or may not imagine her growing up to join the x-men and becoming a better version of Jean Grey. I may or may not also imagine me growing up to join the x-men and being a better version of Jean Grey. Just gotta work on that telekinesis.)

So, to tie three posts together…

On re-reading. It’s not lazy, it’s not a failure to move on or to challenge yourself. It may be comforting, but it isn’t comfortable. It’s picking up themes and ideas that you didn’t see before. After all, there’s always a good reason as to why something became a favourite book or a candidate for a re-read.

On fictional role models. What I’ve learnt about my childhood role model in re-reading is that she stands up for herself and uses what power she has to readdress the failures of authority figures. She’s smart and gutsy and stands up for the people who care about her. Of course I still want to be her!

On loving books.  This is one book where I feel more attached to the character than I do to the author, the story as a whole or the themes of the book. Normally when I read books, I love the characters, but I become interested in the author and what they have to say – nowadays they are more likely to be a role model than the characters themselves. So whilst I love Roald Dahl’s work, and I love Quentin Blake’s illustrations, I will probably still look more to a created character than to her creator.


Also, I’d love to see the Matilda The Musical – not least because Tim Minchin wrote the music and lyrics for it, and it looks like they have the perfect aesthetic for the show.


2 comments on “Lessons from Childhood Part 3: The Reader of Books

  1. Awesome!

    I love re-reading. LOVE IT.

    I loved the Little Women and Anne series. And the Shoes books. And so many books that I want to collect because they get harder and harder to find.

  2. I agree wholeheartedly. And if the story and characters are poor and one dimensional I tend to remember the author ;)

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