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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
In the first few pages of Matilda, the narrator turns the concept of a traditional loving family upside down and inside out. The Wormwood family is no ordinary family, which would be one where the parents love and care for their children. The Wormwoods have a total disregard and even disdain for one of their own children. The dynamic between a father who ridicules his daughter and a daughter who is clever and exacts revenge on him (not for the sake of revenge but with the hopes of possibly changing his behavior), establishes a dysfunctional family system. Matilda’s family is reminiscent of fairy tales with an evil parent intent on vanquishing the child, only for the child to emerge victorious.
The true meaning of family emerges in the person of Miss Honey, who is an empathetic and wise parent figure to Matilda. She recognizes the dysfunction of Matilda’s family situation because she has experienced it herself when she was placed in the care of her cruel aunt, Miss Trunchbull. Matilda’s house is not one that can be called a home, at least in the traditional definition where family members love and care for each other. Biology connects Matilda to her family; however, Dahl emphasizes that there is much more to being family than genetics. This is evident when the Wormwoods drive away with no hesitation, severing the physical connection they have with Matilda. She stands watching them leave with Miss Honey at her side, having found an adult willing to love, care for, and nurture her in ways Matilda’s own parents were never willing or able to.
Matilda is a character that uses bravery and resilience to gain control and agency even in the face of cruelty. At the beginning of her story, Matilda develops the wherewithal to stand up to her father. Initially she is able to do this because she realizes her family dynamic is not as things should be. She has acquired this understanding and wisdom through her extensive reading. However, she is vulnerable to being hurt because she has nowhere else to go. Even as a young child, Matilda has enough resilience to be able to stand up for herself, get “revenge,” and even hold out hope that her father can be redeemed. Devastating and degrading events happen to her, yet Matilda does not give up.
Once Matilda enters school, it is obvious that she is not the only brave and resilient child. She is surrounded by classmates who are equally brave, and who are growing in their own agency. One of the characteristics of friendship is shared values. Matilda discovers friendships at school, which make her world less lonely, when she unites with her fellow students around basic issues such as what is fair and what is unfair.
Miss Honey recognizes Matilda’s brilliance from the start and takes it upon herself to lobby for Matilda in front of Miss Trunchbull. Later, one realizes how incredibly brave it was for Miss Honey to stand up to someone who had inflicted such incredible pain and trauma on her. Miss Trunchbull had wounded Miss Honey deeply as a child, yet Miss Honey faces Miss Trunchbull’s wrath and stands her ground for Matilda. When Miss Honey visits the Wormwood home, she is forthright and honest in articulating Matilda’s strengths and she perseveres against Mr. Wormwood, who degrades the value she places on knowledge and education. Miss Honey becomes not only Matilda’s friend, but her closest ally and confidant.
At the end of the story, when the Wormwoods’ car drives away, it is obvious that the car’s passengers are neither brave nor resilient. They are running away from, rather than bravely facing, their sins. But the two people standing on the curb—Matilda and Miss Honey—most certainly are brave and resilient.
In Roald Dahl’s Matilda, the spotlight shines brightly on the value of knowledge and education. Matilda is brilliant and extraordinarily gifted despite living in an environment where there are no books, and the only sort of intellectual stimulation comes from magazines and the “telly.” Matilda is hungry for knowledge, which is in stark contrast to the other members of her family. This hunger leads her to the library, where she is fortunate to meet a helpful librarian who introduces her to books. Matilda doesn’t have the benefit of learning through play and instead lives vicariously through the characters in the books she reads. She gains knowledge about right and wrong and virtues worth practicing. Her books serve as a foil against her rather wretched home life.
When Matilda enters school, she is fortunate to meet Miss Honey, who recognizes her brilliance and sees that Matilda has a mind that needs to be challenged. Miss Honey represents education at its finest by being a teacher who is kind and calls forth the best from her students. Miss Trunchbull, on the other hand, represents education at its worst, education based on punishment and on treating children as unworthy of learning. Miss Trunchbull is not an educator but an oppressor of creativity. In contrast, Miss Honey is a guide, a mentor, and a role model who sees as her central role that of caring for, nurturing, and safeguarding the growing minds of a child. It isn’t until Miss Trunchbull leaves, and the school is in Mr. Trilby’s charge, that true education will be realized, and the importance of knowledge respected.
Dahl contrasts those who respect the educational process and the value of knowledge with those who don’t. This contrast is evident particularly in the scenes when Miss Honey approaches Miss Trunchbull about Matilda’s potential, as well as when she visits the Wormwoods. Miss Honey stands on the side of knowledge as something to be fostered. Miss Trunchbull and the Wormwoods, however, take the opposite stance. For them, knowledge and education are not valued, and nurturing Matilda through either is a waste of time. In the end, the anti-knowledge, anti-education antagonists have disappeared, signaling that knowledge and education are to be highly valued and that they have the potential to make a difference for good in the world.