Matilda: a Story of Resolved Trauma and the Mind of an Extraordinary Child

By Tiya Birru

Class is in session! Raise your hands, how many have read a Roald Dahl classic when they were a kid? From books like James and the Giant Peach to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Dahl has created classics with deep-rooted morals, creative imagery and a fresh perspective that made many children feel seen and involved when reading. 

Matilda is a great example of Roald Dahl’s incredible imagination. The story of Matilda, a young girl at only 5 years old, shows an intelligent little girl who is beyond her age range in reading, reading books like Great Expectations and Jane Eyre as a toddler. Her amazing ability and hunger to read has given her powers of telekinesis. Sadly, Matilda comes from a neglectful home in which her parents continue to not only not care for her basic needs often, but also emotionally abuse her. This leads to Matilda playing tricks on them throughout the book as revenge for their treatment. 

Reaching the book’s 35th anniversary, Roald Dahl has actually been an inspiration and an influence to children worldwide on amazing stories showcasing kids becoming fighters and heroes against whatever battles they face. Recently, many of the publishers for Roald Dahl books have edited and updated the text of many of Dahl’s books for a modernization, taking away terms such as “fat” and “ugly”. Dahl is on a growing list of authors whose publishers have gone on to change the book’s wording, including Agatha Christie, author of Murder On the Orient Express, and Ian Flemming, author and creator of James Bond. Despite the headlines of today, Roald Dahl had created a story that relates to today’s struggle of an abusive household and how a little girl finds her imagination and books as her escape. 

Matilda starts off on her first day of school and meets her teacher Ms. Honey, a darling school-teacher who cares for her children and their education, who recognizes Matilda’s exceptional mind and immediately works to nurture it. Unfortunately, this school is run by a brutal headmistress named Ms Trunchbull, a woman who despises children, hates being around them and creates cruel and unusual punishments for mediocre incidents just to torture them. Matilda creates a bond with Ms. Honey and the rest of the novel unravels their relationship while Matilda works to dismantle Trunchbull’s position in power. What we read is an extravagantly imaginative story that reminds us of the power and spirit within books and reading, told from the perspective of a little girl who pushed past barriers in a vivid and comedic story that anyone can enjoy. 

Ever since its publication in 1988, Matilda has had major influence worldwide, from a movie in 1996 to a musical in 2010 and its new Netflix movie musical in 2022. Matilda was Roald Dahl’s last publication, one that took him multiple rewrites, working to create this story. With each version of the performances they add or take away different details in the story that create a new aspect every time. 

In the 1996 movie, Matilda’s family is American and they try to force Matilda to watch TV instead of reading books. In the musical and musical movie, Ms. Honey’s backstory is more revealed that her parents are circus performers who both died, leaving her in the hand of her abusive aunt. 

Despite every inspired version of this story, there is one  main aspect that connects them all -– how Matilda deals with the abuse from her parents. In each version of the story, her parents actively attack her when she reads, demeaning her whenever the chance to let her know her interest in reading is anything but interesting.

In line with this, Matilda acknowledges that it’s not fair for her to simply accept all the degrading from her parents and believe in them, she instead retaliates against them. In the movies Matilda puts dye in her fathers hair making him look ridiculous, later on she puts superglue on the brim of his hat. “She decided every time her father or her mother were beastly to her, she would get her own back in some way or another. A small victory or two would help her tolerate their idiocities”. Matilda worked in a way she could do despite her size and age to be able to get back at her parents and right the wrongs they inflicted on her, showing us as the readers how we can find solutions and ways in our ability to fight back.  

Matilda showed young children how to set boundaries and stand up for yourself, no matter your size and no matter who hurts you. The young girl worked her way to fight back against people who hurt her. Young or old, we have all been Matilda at one point, worried that we can’t stand up for ourselves in situations where we might be the smaller person. But that doesn’t mean we can’t rise up and use what we have in our skill to succeed and prevail against anything.