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Strong Female Characters: Matilda

For those of you that don’t know, Matilda Wormwood is the main character of Roald Dahl’s 1988 novel, Matilda (and proud owner of the ‘Worst Surname Ever’ trophy). A brilliant young girl who isn’t appreciated by her family, the plot follows her attempts to get back at the adults who are making her and her friends’ lives miserable – namely, Matilda’s parents and headmistress. The book sold countless copies all around the world – currently, there are 4.5 million copies in print in the US alone – and has been turned into a musical, a radio play and a movie starring Mara Wilson (which is far too American for my tastes). Regardless of the medium, Matilda has been praised since the day it was first published, and is often seen as a modern classic of children’s fiction. As for Matilda herself, she paved the way for intelligent female characters (you’re welcome, Hermione) and is seen as a role model for young girls everywhere.

But does she live up to her reputation? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!

 

  1. Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?

At the start of the book, Matilda is a very young girl – the oldest we ever see her is six years old. Obviously, she can’t be fully in control of her own destiny because of this, as there are some things which she’s going to need adult help or supervision for. It would be very easy for Dahl to reduce her agency down to nothing and keep the story realistic.

However, this is not the case. Matilda is shown to be a very strong-willed young girl, and even though she’s placed under a lot of restrictions (by her parents, her headmistress and simply by being very young) she doesn’t really let that stop her. Her parents want her to sit around and watch TV with them, refusing to encourage her interest in reading; she walks to the library by herself AT THE AGE OF FOUR and reads in secret. Her headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, won’t let her study at a more advanced level and abuses her power over the children; she comes up with a plan to put Miss Trunchbull in her place and never bother the children again. She even manages to engineer her own adoption at the very end of the story, because she doesn’t want to stay with her abusive family. Not bad for a six-year-old girl.

SCORE SO FAR: 1

 

  1. Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?

One of Matilda’s favourite pastimes is reading. She learns to read by herself at a very young age, with no encouragement or help from her family, and is reading at an adult level by the time she starts school. This is also something she has to keep secret from her family, as they disapprove of her interest to the point where they destroy her library books.

Thank you, Mr Jackson. (image: giphy.com)
Thank you, Mr Jackson. (image: giphy.com)

Her goals and beliefs are somewhat intertwined, but they are equally well-developed. She has a very strong sense of justice and fairness, believing that people should be held accountable for their actions even if they are big enough to get away with them. Throughout every adaptation, she spends most of her time trying to make this happen – usually by playing pranks on people abusing their power.

SCORE SO FAR: 2

 

  1. Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?

Throughout the story, Matilda is consistently shown to be an intelligent, serious little girl with a very keen sense of right from wrong, and this is a constant part of her character. What’s most interesting about her is the skills she develops – namely, her AWESOME TELEKINETIC MIND POWERS. These develop as a result of her frustrated intelligence: she’s placed in a class well below her intellectual capacity, finds no real challenges to keep her mind stimulated, and is also unhappy with her home life. But they also aren’t something which she immediately learns to control. She has to work to learn how to use them, starting very small and building her way up. They also aren’t something that comes without a cost; she finds using her powers exhausting and gets headaches after she does so, although it does get easier over time. It’s something that she has to maintain, too, and when she’s placed in a more advanced class (and no longer intellectually frustrated) she loses her powers. This is a very realistic depiction of learning any skill, so she passes my test.

SCORE SO FAR: 3

 

  1. Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?

An intelligent, serious little girl who tries to deliver justice to people who abuse their power over her and her friends.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

  1. Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?

Being six years old, Matilda doesn’t have a love life, so this question doesn’t really apply. Most of her decisions are influenced by her strong beliefs in what constitutes right and wrong behaviour, or by the desire to protect and avenge her friends.

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

  1. Does she develop over the course of the story?

Over the course of the story, Matilda develops in some aspects of her personality, but not in others. As the story progresses she gains a lot more control over her own life, building an environment that allows her to express herself and feel comfortable as she grows up. In this respect she does develop, as her agency as a character exponentially increases. However, in terms of her personality, she doesn’t really change – she doesn’t work to overcome a flaw or try and learn a lesson, because her personality’s pretty much perfect to begin with. For that reason, I’ll give her half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 5.5

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Matilda doesn’t really have that many weaknesses to speak of, and this is really one of the shakiest parts of her character. She’s got a real mischievous streak and often pranks other characters, but this is never really treated as a weakness because it never has any negative consequences. When she pranks people, it’s only those who deserve it, and she never uses disproportionate force or underestimates the effects of her actions. She’s innocent and a little naïve (which is pretty standard for most six-year-olds), but never in a way that would lead her to make a mistake, as many normal six-year-olds do. That doesn’t really count as a flaw. This becomes even more problematic when you look at her upbringing – and for those of you that don’t fancy a discussion of Matilda’s abusive family life, feel free to skip this next paragraph.

And here's some kittens to send you on your way. (image: giphy.com)
And here’s some kittens to send you on your way. (image: giphy.com)

Despite having a family that routinely call her names, belittle her interests and destroy her possessions, this doesn’t have much of an effect on her. Many charities classify this behaviour as emotional or psychological abuse, and many studies have shown that it can seriously affect a child’s self-esteem and general well-being, particularly at such a young age. Matilda doesn’t display any of the negative effects you would expect to see given her upbringing, and this is where things get a little tricky. On the one hand, it’s very uplifting, because it reassures the reader that Matilda will be all right and shows that children can overcome adversity. But on the other hand, it undermines this adversity by reducing the effect it has on her to a bare minimum, and can also give people false expectations about how survivors recover from abuse.

Matilda is largely immune to the effects of her family’s behaviour. In part, this is due to the conventions of the genre – children’s fiction doesn’t tend to go into a great amount of detail about these kinds of subjects, and it wouldn’t fit well with the fairy-tale ending Dahl sets up at the end of the book. But regardless of your opinion on how her family background should have affected her, the fact remains that even when you discard that part of her character entirely she still doesn’t have any weaknesses. The only thing that holds her back is her own youth, and that’s something that we all grow out of.

SCORE SO FAR: 5.5

 

  1. Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?

Matilda drives the plot forward at every turn, and it’s mostly through actions she undertakes herself. Obviously, she’s not the only force on the plot, and the decisions of other characters do affect her decisions too, but for the most part she’s the one in charge. Whether she’s pursuing her love of learning or bringing people to justice in her own small way, she’s a real influence on the plot.

SCORE SO FAR: 6.5

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

Gender stereotypes have hardly any effect on Matilda’s character. She’s fiercely intelligent, very serious, independent, proactive, resourceful and considers herself equal to if not better than many of the adults in her life. These are the last traits people would traditionally associate with six-year-old girls, so she passes this round with flying colours.

SCORE SO FAR: 7.5

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Matilda has a number of relationships with female characters, and while a lot of these aren’t always explored in a great amount of detail, they are often illustrated with smaller details that really bring them to life. She finds a friend (and accomplice) in her classmate Lavender, admires and comes to love her teacher Miss Honey, regards the older schoolgirl Hortensia with awe after finding out about her attempts to prank the headmistress, and feels a mixture of contempt and fear for Miss Trunchbull. But unlike many other female characters, Matilda doesn’t have much of a relationship with her mother.

But they've got so much in common... (image: giphy.com)
But they’ve got so much in common… (image: giphy.com)

We barely see them interact at all, and while this is fleshed out a little more in the film, it still doesn’t really factor into the story. This is really unusual, as mother characters are often a staple of children’s literature. Regardless, Matilda still has a range of different relationships with a range of different characters, so she passes this round.

FINAL SCORE: 8.5/10

 

Matilda is a fiercely intelligent, independent and serious little girl, who’s firmly in control of her own life and continually influences the plot. While she may not have many weaknesses, she’s a consistent character with her own beliefs, goals and hobbies, and relates to different female characters in different ways. She’s certainly passed my test!

Next week, I’ll be looking at one of my all-time favourite films, Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark. Marion Ravenwood, I’m coming for you.

 

 

And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.

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5 thoughts on “Strong Female Characters: Matilda”

  1. By the way, Wormwood is a bitter herb used to kill parasites. And it’s also the name of a star in The Book of Revelation. Still it’s a lousy name.

    And having seen the musical Matilda, I would say Matilda does undergo a bit of internal change–originally she’s ready to prank her father when he abuses her, but by the end she saves him from the Mafiya because she’s decided to be forgiving instead of vengeful. Still, I admire her for being one of Roald Dahl’s more active characters. While James Henry Trotter was aided by a benevolent stranger and Charlie Bucket lucked out finding a golden ticket, Matilda took matters into her own hands.

    1. I’ve come across wormwood before – actually studied Medieval witchcraft beliefs for a bit at university and it popped up in the sources a few times. Still a terrible surname, though – and she’s still my favourite Roald Dahl protagonist!

      1. Have you seen the musical? It’s very good, and the songs are enjoyable, such as “School Song.” It would have won the Tony except it seems a bit too British for US audiences, who might not have gotten it fully. The year’s Best Musical recipient, Kinky Boots, was set in the UK, but the show was made for the other side of the Atlantic.

        Also. I thought of another misunderstood young intellectual who might pass your test…Lisa Simpson.

          1. I can relate to not being able to afford theatre tickets. Forbidden Broadway put it best (to the tune of “Consider Yourself”):

            Considerably too high
            Considerably not for the family
            At seventy quid per seat
            And twice that after you park and eat!

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