Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Classic British Fantasy: MATILDA by Roald Dahl

Dahl, Roald. Matilda. Illustrated by Quentin Blake. New York: Puffin Books, 2007. ISBN 978-0-14-241037. $6.99. 

Warning: Do not pick up this book for the first time from your bedside table at night—you will not sleep until you have finished the last page.

The engaging Matilda is a much neglected second child of despicable parents, the Wormwoods, who think of her “like a scab,” and who “looked forward enormously to the time when they could pick their little daughter off and flick her away, preferably into the next country or even further than that.” Before the reader is allowed to bleed too much heart for this poor little girl, the author reveals that she is outrageously, impossibly intelligent—teaching herself to read before she is three, doing difficult arithmetic in her head before she is five, and so on. Thus, Matilda comes into an extremely hard life with some very impressive equipment—and that sets up the first conflict of the book, as Matilda strategizes her way to happiness in spite of oppressive circumstances. The second, related, conflict is introduced when Matilda begins school under the tutelage of the lovable Miss Honey, who, along with all the school children, are brutalized by the powerful, nasty headmistress, Miss Trunchbull. Matilda’s guiding motivation to create her own happiness extends to the happiness of her friends and her dear teacher: she applies her intelligence resourcefully, undaunted.

The reader does not begrudge Matilda her astounding brilliance. Like the librarian who observes in silent amazement the neglected 4-year-old absorbed in Great Expectations, or the sweet Miss Honey, who inwardly thrills to a child prodigy, the reader likes this quiet child of good will and bright ideas. Even other children at school like her—perhaps because Matilda accepts herself without doubt or conceit. She just gets on with it. Quentin Blake’s perky, whimsical sketches convey a Jules Feiffer-like intensity coupled with lightness of spirit that suit Matilda perfectly.

Why is this book so good? It’s not “beautifully written;” it doesn’t parse out profundities or soul-searing pathos (although a plot with clear-cut bad guys who get their comeuppance is certainly gratifying these days). What is it that makes the reader immediately want to lend it to a friend, buy it for a niece? I think it has to be Matilda’s wonderful resiliency. In every adverse situation, she wastes no time feeling sorry for herself, but immediately begins to strategize her way to a better, happier life. She is not a cloying goodie-good little girl (for example, revengeful pranks on her father make her happy), but she is basically kind, lovable, and appealing, as well as super intelligent. Above all, she is confident and guilt-free. Her unassuming, can-do attitude permeates the world of the book, a world where a child can be swung around by the hair and thrown over the playground fence into a playing field, bounce three times, and then get up cartoon-like with a dazed shake of the head, pained but not damaged. Matilda and her friends, like trodden grass, spring back green and growing and alive no matter what. They might quake in terror when Miss Trunchbull looms over them with malice in her eye and a riding crop in her hand, but in terms of human spirit, they are irrepressible.

I finished the last page with a smile—perhaps a slightly patronizing smile—after eagerly anticipating the completely predictable ending. Yet the next morning, Matilda had seeped into my spirit with typical disregard for any of my pretence at grown-up superiority: I caught myself reviewing my long-shot hopes and dreams, and thinking “Why not?”

Alexandra Boyer

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