Roald Dahl is well-known among readers of all ages. His "Charley and the Chocolate Factory" and "James and the Giant Peach" have been read, reread and interpreted in movies, plays and after-school specials on television.
"Matilda" has the same subtle and senseless humor characteristic of Dahl's other dozen-and-a-half works for children. While he is lavish with colloquialisms, British slang and cliches that in some cases may fly over the understanding of elementary-age readers, what doesn't pass them by is the plot line, in this case a tiny girl's genius and an ability to direct her "eye power" to advantage.When Matilda first enters kindergarten (the British first form) she had already read all of the children's books in the library as well as Dickens, Bronte, Hemingway, Faulkner and Steinbeck. Her math skills are equally advanced. But Matilda Wormwood's parents - a crooked car salesman father and a bingo-obsessed mother - think she is a useless troublemaker. It is her teacher, Miss Honey, who recognizes the unique academic qualities and nurtures them.
Dahl has crafted the characters openly, never allowing them to hide behind a cardboard facade. An example of this is Miss Trunchbull, the headmistress of Chrunchem Hall, who is an ex-Olympic hammer thrower. She is introduced by the description "a gigantic holy terror, a fierce tyrannical monster who frightened the life out of the pupils and teachers . . . when she came up close you could almost feel the dangerous heat radiating from her as from a red-hot rod of metal . . . " by action "she always marched like a storm trooper with long strides and arms aswinging . . . you could hear her snorting as she went, and if a group of children happened to be in her path, she ploughed right on through them like a tank . . . " by dialogue "I have never been able to understand why small children are so disgusting. They are the bane of my life. They are like insects . . . I have often thought of inventing a spray for getting rid of small children" and by the author's `aside' remarks "(Thank goodness, we don't meet many people like her in this world . . . If you ever do, you should behave as you would if you met an enraged rhinoceros out in the bush, climb up the nearest tree and stay there until it has gone away . . .)"
Miss Honey on the other hand is sweet and gentle, "She seemed to understand totally the bewilderment and fear that so often overwhelms young children who for the first time in their lives are herded into a classroom and told to obey orders . . . "
Dahl is never coy about the language he uses. The vocabulary and dialogue of the protagonists is crisp and often disrespectful of others, "Keep your nasty mouth shut!" "Who the heck do you think you are?" "I shall personally see to it that you are put away in a place where not even the crows can land their droppings on you! You will probably never see the light of day again!" are the kind of expressions used repeatedly. The author gets this chance to get at the adults as well when he attacks other writers: "If it's by an American it's certain to be filth. That's all they write about . . . "
It is probably these attacks and the fact that a child can use her brilliance and power over adults that make Matilda so popular with young readers. Children who find a fighting chance over adults through this young fictional character will applaud her triumphant success over them.
Dahl, who died in 1990, never hedged with his writing nor did he when interviewed for publicity for his works. In a biographical sketch before his death he said, "Any books of mine that you have read have been written in a tiny brick hut up in our apple orchard . . . I don't like writing about myself . . . but perhaps I can add a few little personal things . . .
"I drink too much.
"I make good orange marmalade.
"I don't insure any of my possessions, however valuable, because I don't wish to think of them in terms of money.
"I wish men wouldn't grow beards. It's not fair because a woman who wishes to hide her face cannot do so . . .
"Beethoven is wonderful.
"Pop singers are horrible.
"Kindness is more important than piety.
"I wish my dog could talk to me."