MMGM (1/21/2019) Classic Critique: Matilda by Roald Dahl

I find it fascinating that there are books that, for some people, are an essential part of their childhoods but, for others, are unheard of. My mother, a teacher, has recently been teaching some of her students a book that I adored as a child, Matilda by Roald Dahl. I don't think Matilda was as popular as some of Dahl's earlier books (such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), so, for MMGM, I have a Classic Critique of the novel that I hope will convince you to read it!

Matilda's main character is the eponymous Matilda, a five-year-old girl with incredible intelligence (she is smarter than most adults) and curiosity. Matilda is held back, though, by her mean, unloving, and unintelligent parents, who she plays pranks on at the beginning of the book. When Matilda starts school, she meets both her wonderful teacher, Miss Honey, and her evil, abusive headmistress, Miss Trunchbull. With Miss Honey, Matilda gets to learn beyond her grade level and have someone who cares about her, but with Miss Trunchbull, Matilda and her fellow students are harmed and terrorized. When Matilda discovers something about herself and something about Miss Honey, she devises a plan to save both Miss Honey and the other students from Miss Trunchbull.

  • Matilda is an excellent main character. Whether you are a young child or an adult, you will love Matilda and even want to be her. The trials and tribulations that Matilda endures can be infuriating, but her smarts and wisdom always help her through as she takes charge of any situation. Although Matilda is only five, the knowledge she has acquired from reading numerous books and observing others makes her mature enough to be liked by older readers.
  • The book is not too serious. Author Roald Dahl's books are usually filled with zany, wonderful exploits, and Matilda is no different. Watching Matilda get revenge on her parents through such methods as switching her father's hair products with her mother's silver hair dye filled me with a sort of giddy delight. The terrors that Matilda and her classmates face at school at the hands of Miss Trunchbull are unnerving and despicable, to say the least, but Dahl does a good job of making them just ridiculous enough not to traumatize young kids (such as when Trunchbull throws a student by her pigtails).
  • The book is extremely deep. Although it never takes itself too seriously, Matilda is quite profound about children, parents, and education. Matilda is a child with an innate capacity for learning and discovery, but her parents could care less. They are too wrapped up in appearances and money to recognize how special their daughter is, and they actively discourage her from reading or demonstrating her intelligence (due somewhat to fear of her being much smarter than them). At school, Miss Trunchbull refuses Miss Honey's request that Matilda be moved up several grades, leaving her stuck in a grade where she knows everything being taught and more (although Miss Honey is nice enough to let her read higher-level textbooks in class). The struggles that Matilda faces mirror those of other children who have potential but are limited by those around them. I also felt that Miss Honey, who, Matilda discovers, had an abusive and emotionally toxic childhood, was realistically depicted as someone who struggled to leave her abuser behind before eventually breaking free (an idea surprisingly current for a book from 1988).

Minor con:
  • The book is random and unrealistic at one small point. There is one place where Matilda goes off the rails, and that is when Matilda discovers that she has a supernatural power. If that sounds random, well, it is. In contrast to the beginning of the book, when Matilda uses her intelligence to get back at others, Matilda uses her newfound power to help others toward the end. Because supernatural powers are obviously not real, this development limits how relatable Matilda is and damages her characterization as someone who can get by with just her brain. Dahl tries to tie this power back to Matilda's bottled-up brainpower at the end of the book, but it feels contrived. Although the last time Matilda uses this power is tremendously satisfying, and although it will most likely not bother younger children, I feel like it was a bit of a waste of Matilda and her more realistic capabilities.

Despite Matilda's power not working for me as an older reader, I still adore Matilda. It is a book that is often wacky and hilarious but also deep, with complex lessons about parenting and schooling. Readers of all ages will appreciate different parts of the novel, making it a great book for a family to read together. Even if you read it by yourself, though, Matilda is a book that will make its way into your heart and make you wonder why you didn't read it years ago!

Update (1/2/2021): My rating is: Really good!


  1. I haven't read this one although I've heard it read aloud. I'm glad it is still surfacing in the classroom. Published back in 1988, it just shows a good story will win out every time.

  2. I have seen the movie many times, but never picked up the book to read. I loved her smart and witty character. (I was an adult when this book was written.) I know you don't care for the supernatural, but I kind of see it as a tad of magical realism. You are right, Matilda's cleverness and intelligence would have served her just as well. I should read the book!

  3. I loved Matilda! I'm too old to have read it when I was a child myself (though I adored James and the Giant Peach as a kid -- the first "long" book I read), but I read Matilda to my kids and we all enjoyed it.

  4. I bought a copy of this for my granddaughter after she saw and enjoyed the Broadway show. She never mentioned it. I wonder if she read it. I will try to get to it. I've never read it. Thanks for the review.


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