Monday, June 15, 2015

Matilda by Roald Dahl (1988)

I missed Matilda growing up.  Published in 1988, the year I graduated high school, I was too old to read anything new by Roald Dahl (although perhaps I re-read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I do not remember).  I don't recall, actually, reading any other Roald Dahl other than Charlie as a child.  A new friend and I were discussing childhood books we loved, and he mentioned Matilda as one of his favorites; I decided I would give it a try. I  discussed the book with some other people approximately his age (20somethings).  I don't think Matilda is the cultural touchstone that Harry Potter is for a generation of readers, but I think it definitely has a warm place in many reader's hearts of a certain age.

It is not the best written book of Roald Dahl's books.  The following is all supposition, but I have  feeling that after writing 13 previous best selling books, many of which were made into films, some of them beloved, that Mr. Roald Dahl didn't want an editor.  And Matilda suffers from it.  Someone should have given it the once over, and had Dahl suture some of it together; the plot is a bit loose and wild.  It's still pure Dahl though - the language and characters are hypnotically larger than life.

Another thing to always, always remember about Dahl, something I need to remind myself every time I pick up one of his books, is that they aren't written for adults.  Some books (Mo Willems, anyone?) can be read both as a child and as adult; I don't think Roald Dahl works in quite the same way.  His themes of revenge, of children's  often violent power over adults, of the cloddity and stupidity of grown ups, of how grown ups can screw children up and how children are always aware of this - these can be disturbing.   Child Protective Services would have been called on the Wormwoods long ago in another book, Miss Trunchbull would be jailed; in Matilda, though, the encounters with the awful and almost evil grown up world are what make children strong and smart (or conversely, do them in; read:  Augustus Gloop and company).  Dahl sees and writes about the world through a child's eyes; in the real world, children lack power. In Dahl's world, they gain it and use it effectively.

Matilda in particular has some interesting things to say about education.  Miss Trunchbull, a classic Dahl-ish villainess, seems to represent the "old school" (and dare I saw "conservatism" in the classic sense) and Miss Honey the "new school."  Clearly, Trunchbull is an exaggeration.  But take for example the scene where she chastises Miss Honey for teaching the children how to spell "difficulty."  Miss Honey uses a new technique, which works; but because it's new and different, Trunchbull tells hers to stop doing it, even though it works.  Later, Trunchbull tells Miss Honey:  "My idea of a perfect school... is one that has no children in it at all. One of these days I shall start up a school like that. I think it will be very successful."  That describes some kinds of education, in which children aren't children, they are expected to be robots, parrots, miniature adults --  no creative thought or thinking outside the box, nothing but learning by rote (and teaching to tests?).

Very, very Dahlish of books though.  The Dahl-ist-est of the Dahls, like all Dahl was leading up to Matilda.



______  Later _______

I wrote the above  before I had actually finished Matilda.  I have now finished it.

Miss Honey and Trunchbull have the most interesting exchange, one that matches what I think about Dahl's take on education, and also his take on life in general, and probably his poltical stance as well.  "There is little point in teaching anything backwards.  The whole object of life," says Miss Honey.  "Is to go forwards. "   That certainly says something again about his take on education, and aslo, isn't that liberalism in a nutshell?

So if I'd had this book as a kid of 10 or 11, I would have loved it.  I can totally see why it's beloved and and maybe even approaches touchstone status.  If you were a little alien child, stuck in a family of non-readers, then knowing that somewhere out there, Matilda existed, then that must have seemed wonderful.


MatildaMatilda by Roald Dahl
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Is this the Dahl-iest of all the Dahls?  It's certainly the most Dahlish I've read of his books (and that's not all of them by any means).  I came to Matilda as a jaded old grown up fuddy-duddy reader, and my eyes were clouded with the bitterness of thousands and thousands of books, some of them quite brilliant.  Matilda is a fun book, and I could see if I were a ten year old reader, this would have been an amazingly fun read.  As the aforesaid grown up, I was more interested in Dahl's take on education (contrast the old fashioned Trunchbull who would rather teach in a school with no children) and groovy Miss Honey, who definitely teaches in a new, progressive way.  I think one could even stretch this out to Dahl's whole worldview - that a lifetime spent meandering and repeating the past but not aiming towards the future is a boring life at best, and a dangerous way to think at worst.  The world is full of Trunchbulls, but luckily the world also has plenty of Matildas to battle them.


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