by Roald Dahl
The Precocious Brain
Matilda, Matilda, Matilda. Girl, you are so smart. We mean smart on smart. Shmoop only wishes we were as smart as Matilda is when we were five. Matilda is exceptionally good at reading and math, and teaches herself to do complicated problems in her head, as well as how to read. In fact, Matilda might be the smartest character we've ever met, and that makes us like her. A lot. She's special.
This isn't lost on others, either. Miss Honey recognizes Matilda's gift immediately:
"A precocious child," Miss Honey said, "is one that shows amazing intelligence early on. You are an unbelievably precocious child."
"Am I really?" Matilda asked. (16.19-20)
Once we get past wondering why Matilda, who reads at a high school level, doesn't already know what precocious means, we can zero in on what this moment is really telling us. Matilda, although a child, is intelligent far beyond her years. Her gift is special. Which is all the more obvious by the fact that this scene had us all running for our dictionaries.
If Matilda were a less awesome person, her big brain might make her a bit, well, big headed. But not our Matilda. Precocious she may be, but she's also totally modest and innocent. As our narrator puts it, "The nice thing about Matilda was that if you had met her casually and talked to her you would have thought she was a perfectly normal five-and-a-half-year-old child. She displayed almost no outward signs of her brilliance and she never showed off" (10.1).
Despite the fact that Miss Honey sees that Matilda is leaps and bounds beyond the average kid, the girl is only five. For all Matilda knows, other people can read and can do math the way she does (though we, as the reader, know this isn't the case).
The fact that she doesn't realize she's special, sets Matilda apart from the other characters in another major way. Folks like Mr. Wormwood and the Trunchbull think they're special, but they're not. They act like they're smart, and they're not. Matilda is just smart. She doesn't have to replace brains with bragging.
We know that Matilda is awesome in at least two ways: she's smart and humble. But you know what (get ready for even more awesome)? She's also fair. Matilda has her own very moral code, complete with strong ideas about what's right and wrong. For example, when the Trunchbull accuses her of putting the newt in the water glass, her reaction is described in the following way:
"She didn't in the least mind being accused of having done something she had actually done. She could see the justice of that. It was, however, a totally new experience for her to be accused of a crime that she definitely had not committed." (14.16)
It's not the accusation itself that upsets her; it's the fact that she knows that she did not do it (and knows that underneath all that anger, the Trunchbull knows it, too). She'd take the hit if she'd done the crime, but she's not up for smoke when there's no fire.
When these kinds of tiffs and injustices arise, though, Matilda doesn't just sit around stewing. She takes matters into her own hands, and punishes the people who treat her and others wrongly. She strives to make things right.
In her greatest and most outrageous prank, she uses her powers to try and help Miss Honey get what's hers. After hearing about all the horrible things that the Trunchbull did to Miss Honey, Matilda just can't stand by while the evil woman takes advantage of nice Miss Honey. So when Matilda uses her telekinesis to pretend to be the vengeful ghost of Magnus (Miss Honey's dead father), we cheer. Sure, it's a bit extreme, but this punishment is totally deserved. And Matilda's prank comes from a sense of right and wrong, not a desire for revenge.
See, Matilda's just plain old nice. So when folks are nice to her, she's nice right back. Maybe that's why she and Miss Honey get along famously. Matilda treats her teacher with all the care, kindness, and respect that Miss Honey shows to her.
At Miss Honey's cottage, Matilda is shocked by the shabby condition of her teacher's home. But does she make rude comments and stick her foot in her mouth? Of course not. She just tells her teacher, "That's all right," because "In her wisdom she seemed to be aware of the delicacy of the situation and she was taking great care not to say anything to embarrass her companion" (16.59). She doesn't want to hurt Miss Honey's feelings by pointing out how bare and desolate the little home is.
She just wants to make it better. So our little Matilda comes up with a genius plan to improve her teacher's quality of life. She's focused on making things better, not harping on the past. And that's because being a good judge of fairness and character doesn't just mean that you're going to punish the bad guys; it means that you have help the good guys, too.
Of course, it's important to remember that Matilda's not perfect. She gets mad and she plays tricks on people, just like the other little kids in the book do. She's not so good that she never does anything wrong. But she certainly doesn't prank people for the sake of it. She doesn't relish hurting others. And she also doesn't hesitate to help those who need her help.
What's so awesome about all this is that Matilda's goodness highlights the total badness of all the bad guys. Like her intelligence and modesty, her sense of "justice" also puts her in contrast with her parents and the Trunchbull. All these adult authority figures are stupid and unfair, while Matilda, at all of five years old, is doling out justice with a blindfold and a scale.
The Regular Girl
Matilda may be a child genius, but she also lives (for the most part) just like the rest of us—if the rest of us had terrifying headmistresses and idiotic parents, that is. Just because she's super smart doesn't mean she's not an ordinary little girl too. She may be freakishly brainy, but she's no freak.
Let's list her normal girl ways, shall we? Like other kids her age, Matilda
- hates being blamed for things she didn't do.
- likes playing tricks on those who bug her (anyone who's ever had a sibling will be familiar with this).
- likes her nice teacher.
- uses her telekinetic powers to do the right thing.
Okay, so maybe that last one is a bit of a stretch. But the point here is that all Matilda's trying to do is accomplish a little tit-for-tat—to teach people lessons, regardless of her special powers. Though she's obviously bright, when we see her pulling these little everyday pranks, we come to see her as more of a normal, slightly mischievous little girl who likes learning, wants to have friends her own age, and most of all, wants older figures in her life who love and care for her. Isn't that what every child wants?
Being so brainy doesn't make her lack all emotions. She wants to be loved. Deep down, Matilda wants to be part of a caring family: "Matilda longed for her parents to be good and loving and understanding and honourable and intelligent. The fact that they were none of these things was something she had to put up with" (5.1). She wants to have relationships with people she respects, with people who respect her.
This longing for respect might sound like a rather grown-up desire, but it also seems like a pretty basic human wish, when you look at it more closely. Are the characteristics that Matilda wishes her parents had all that different from more common concepts of good parenting, or happy family life? In a way, isn't Matilda just hoping for something that many of us hope for too?
We're being totally serious here. This girl makes it rain. Matilda's always taking destiny (her own and other people's) into her own hands. She isn't happy with the way her dad treats her, so she repeatedly embarrasses him. She's upset at how the Trunchbull speaks to her, so she makes glasses fall and newts fly through the air. She's outraged for Miss Honey, so she tricks the Trunchbull into giving Miss Honey all her stuff back. She gets things done.
And then, at the end of the book, Matilda pulls off her greatest feat of independence yet; she decides where and with whom she wants to live. Luckily, her parents are on board with her plan, although we're thinking that if they weren't up for it, Matilda would find a way to make it happen. That's because Matilda has made her choice, and she'll get her way, no doubt. What a boss.
So that's what Matilda's like when she's five. Imagine what a force she'll be by the time she's forty.Timeline