The Villain We Love to Hate
January 14, 2016 § 4 Comments
In preparation for taking my kids to the Kennedy Center last week to see the national tour of Matilda the Musical, I spent the final day of winter break reading Roald Dahl’s beloved novel to them. That’s right. Seven and a half hours of reading out loud (with a break to bike to lunch and back). It was my maternal Swan Song, a last hurrah before depositing my kids at the front door of their school the next morning and returning home to a (blissfully) quiet house.
It was actually their second time listening to Matilda—the first time was during a car trip last summer—and I almost didn’t opt for a second round. But, in the end, I wanted it to be fresh in all of our minds before we took our seats in the theater (plus, it made for one of the best family dinners later that night, picking apart the differences between the book and the play). But, really, who would pass up a chance to re-read one of the greatest children’s books ever written?
I’m here to tell you that the musical was magical. The sets were spectacular; the music was catchy; the rainbow-colored confetti rained down on us in twinkling slow-motion. We laughed, we cheered, we cried (well, I cried). Several times, I was tempted to jump up on the stage and take the darling little girl with the big eyes who played Matilda into my arms.
But I’m also here to tell you: the book is better.
The pages of Matilda (Ages 9-12, younger if reading out loud) explode with a theatrical intensity all of their own. I’m talking descriptive passages that invoke the cleverest turns of phrases, the most unusual figures of speech. I’m talking dialogue that’s at times so spirited and outrageous that even the most static of readers (which, ahem, I am not) cannot help but be elevated to the status of actor.
Last year, I proclaimed that Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory might be my favorite read-aloud book of all time. I think I may amend that to say that Charlie is my favorite read-aloud for the 5-7 year old set, but Matilda trumps it for the slightly older elementary child. (Don’t get me wrong, my five year old was riveted both times; it’s just that my eight year old internalized it on a much deeper level). Despite Matilda’s young age in the book, this is a story about what it means for a child to confront that which is dark and nonsensical and unjust in the adult world—and to forge a path that is instead light, true, and kind. In Matilda, as in all Dahl’s books, the child triumphs.
From the earliest pages, Matilda is a child who calls us to love her (how can we fail to love a child whose favorite pastime is to lose herself in Great Literature, letting the words “wash around [her], like music”?). And yet, Matilda is entirely unloved. Her idiotic, egocentric parents are too busy staring at the “telly” to notice her (Dahl never fails to disappoint with his digs about screen time). In the few occasions that her parents do notice their daughter, they insult her interest in books and diminish her extraordinary intelligence. By five years of age, Matilda has not only taught herself to read and spell, but she can do complex arithmetic problems in her head almost instantly.
Dahl’s specialty is cooking up children who come from the least auspicious beginnings—be it poverty (Charlie), neglect (Matilda), tragedy (The Witches), or straight up abuse (hello, James and the Giant Peach). And yet, all of his young heroes and heroines manage to find their way to the sweetest and most hopeful of endings. It is as if Dahl is saying to any child who needs to hear it, Hey, you may have been dealt a really bad hand, but you get to re-write your story, starting NOW.
When Matilda reaches kindergarten age and is allowed to escape her toxic home environment for a few hours each day, she hopes to find sanctuary in school. And it is true that Matilda finds her most important ally (and future benefactor) in the lovely teacher Miss Honey, who reads like a breath of fresh, lavender-scented air (despite her having a dark secret of her own). But the tutelage of Miss Honey comes at a price.
Matilda features one of the most infamous villains in children’s literature: the cold, cruel, calculating Agatha Trunchbull, headmistress of the school (and former Olympic hammer thrower). Upon hearing that her Christmas present was tickets to see Matilda the Musical, my five year old’s very first response was: “I wonder what Miss Trunchbull will look like!” It’s a name one doesn’t easily forget.
Miss Trunchbull’s scenes in the book (and play) can feel terrifying, even demented. I don’t think it’s going too far to call Trunchbull a sociopath. She picks up children by the ears, she spins them around by their pigtails, and she punishes the most assertive of them by locking them in a tiny closet she calls “The Chokey.” She also reigns down the most monstrous insults: “You ignorant little slug!…You witless weed! You empty-headed hamster! You stupid glob of glue!” (Admittedly, these are lots of fun to read.)
If scenes and verbiage like these are hard for us (American) parents to stomach, let me reassure you on two levels. Firstly, Dahl never underestimates the intelligence of the child reader. The more we’re exposed to The Trunchbull, the more she reveals herself as utterly ridiculous and insanely idiotic. Dahl has a gift for the hyperbolic, and this is Theater of the Absurd. Even her pupils can’t resist poking holes in her tirades. One of my children’s favorite passages:
The children’s eyes were riveted on the Headmistress. “I don’t like small people,” she was saying. “Small people should never be seen by anybody. The should be kept out of sight in boxes like hairpins and buttons. I cannot for the life of me see why children have to take so long to grow up. I think they do it on purpose.”
Another extremely brave little boy in the front spoke up and said, “But surely you were a small person once, Miss Trunchbull, weren’t you?”
“I was never a small person,” she snapped. “I have been large all my life and I don’t see why others can’t be the same way.”
What reader in their right mind can fail to fall in love with hating this woman?
Still, idiocy and irrationality in the hands of power can nevertheless be terrifying and deadly. Here I come to my second reassurance. It would seem that The Trunchbull’s darkness is a big part of the story’s draw for our children. The Atlantic ran a fascinating piece last week about the critical role that fantasy plays in childhood development and the superiority of British (versus American) writing for children in this respect. The article cites “scary villains” as one of the most compelling aspects of fairy tales and fantasy; the mere presence of these monstrous, larger-than-life creatures allows our children to project themselves into the role of the hero or heroine who ultimately confronts and defeats them.
And defeat The Trunchbull is precisely what our heroine does—using a touch of the supernatural. Dahl endows the modest, down-to-earth Matilda with telekinetic powers: she can move things with her mind. The power is short-lived, but Matilda masterfully uses it to pull of The Prank to End All Pranks—a performance which not only sends The Trunchbull running for the hills, but also corrects the injustice in Miss Honey’s past, thereby securing a place for Matilda in Miss Honey’s future.
Last evening before dinner, JP was silently re-reading Matilda to himself for his school’s Book Club. Emily brought me over our duplicate copy and asked me to read it aloud to her. “But honey, we just read the whole book last week. Don’t you want to listen to something else?”
“It’s okay, Mommy, just open to any page and read a little bit. I don’t care what part. Well, maybe something with Miss Trunchbull in it.”
So I did. I opened to a random page and began reading. I figured I’d stop after a few pages (dinner doesn’t make itself). But I couldn’t. I can’t get enough of the way Dahl’s language rolls off the tongue. I get to say things that are wickedly taboo. I get to pretend to be the most outlandish of characters before falling flat on my face. I get to unleash my inner Trunchbull, because—let’s call a spade a spade here—all of us parents have tapped into that irrational rage at one time or another.
But I also get to read the lines of a little girl—a girl so well versed in Great Literature that she can envision a better life for herself—who stands up to injustice and unleashes a full head of brainpower on clearing the way for a new destiny. A girl who, regardless of how fun it might be to channel your energy into hating, ultimately chooses love.
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