Matilda Wormwood is a genius. Still in kindergarten, she can multiply any number and has read most of the books in the library, even the adult ones. Unfortunately, her parents have yet to notice. Every day they yell at her for being stupid and tell her to watch the television rather than read. And school is even worse. There the dreaded headmistress, a one-time hammer-throwing champion, keeps in practice by tossing children. But Matilda knows she has the brains to get her revenge.
Matilda has always held a special place in my heart, not only because it features a protagonist who escapes through literature but also because it recognizes the struggle many children have to be heard. Matilda lives with parents who neglect her, belittle her, and yell at her simply for existing. And Matilda, in her limited way, fights back–and her refusal to succumb to victimization is never something she is blamed or shamed for. This is a powerful book, with a powerful message, even if it presents itself craftily as just another quirky adventure from Roald Dahl.
Matilda, quite simply, does a lot of things right. It portrays the abusive Wormwoods for what they are–abusers. It recognizes that Matilda really has no means of escape by virtue of her being a child–adults, after all, usually only listen to other adults. It shows other adults, such as the librarian, as being sympathetic but unwilling to interfere. In other words, it never victim blames a five-year-old for being victimized but instead illustrates the many reasons why Matilda is where she is.
But the book goes further. It suggests that being a good person does not mean lying down and taking abuse. Matilda, we are told, is a sweet, gentle, soul. She is kind and sympathetic as well as brilliant. But she knows her parents are not treating her well and she attempts to teach them so through the methods of a five-year-old–putting superglue on her father’s hat, for example. Now, revenge may not be the best policy, but we have to keep in mind, once again, that Matilda is five and she’s doing what she can to subdue her parents. After one of her pranks, they typically yell at her less for a few weeks. Can you really blame her? I think it’s wonderful that an abused character can be portrayed as being kind without that meaning she has to pretend that what is happening to her is all right.
Finally, Matilda gets out. The story does not make her stay with her family because the power of love will one day transform them or because she’s a child and they’re her biological parents and they must care for her really, really deep down. Instead, she sees an opportunity to be in a real loving home and she takes it without hesitation and she receives her happy ending. And once again, she is not shamed for making that choice.
Matilda may seem like a quirky kind of book on the surface, but it deals with a lot of serious issues. It merely uses humor to make the presentation seem less threatening. This is an important book and it deserves a lot of respect for its willingness to reach out and tell the victimized that what they are suffering is not their fault.