17 May 2011


Reading Diary: Matilda by Roald Dahl

Mrs. Phelps looked along the [library] shelves, taking her time. She didn't quite know what to bring out. How, she asked herself, does one choose a famous grown-up book for a four-year-old girl?

Her first thought was to pick a young teenager's romance of the kind that is written for fifteen-year-old schoolgirls, but for some reason she found herself instinctively walking past that particular shelf.

"Try this," she said at last. "It's very famous and very good. If it's too long for you, just let me know and I'll find something shorter and a bit easier."

Great Expectations," Matilda read, "by Charles Dickens. I'd love to try it."

Matilda is one of those delightful books about other books--or rather, books about reading. The brilliant title character loves books and she is our heroine; her disgusting parents don't see the need for books, and they are our first villains. And it is when her father actually rips up a library book that Matilda takes the utterly unconventional step of punishing him. (I've never made my peace with that, if you must know.)

And what to make of the fact that the book comes with a reading list: those books picked out for Matilda by Mrs. Phelps, the kind, wise and discreet town librarian? I've always been a bit thrown by the reading list.

Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens
Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
Gone to Earth by Mary Webb
Kim by Rudyard Kipling
The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
The Good Companion by J.B. Priestly
Brighton Rock by Graham Greene
Animal Farm by George Orwell

I guess Great Expectations isn't listed because it has its own special mention? But there are more important questions than that . . .

Are these Dahl's personal favourite "grown up" books? Are they random titles he picked off the shelves while at his own local library? Are they a mix of both? Would reading any of them enhance our experience of Matilda? If so, does he expect us to read them at the age when we usually read Matilda? (It's not a fatuous question. Remember that Matilda herself read all of these when she was just four years old!)

I'd say it was completely random--or at least so mixed that it might as well be random--if it weren't for the fact that one book on the list plays a significant part in the plot. If you've ever been in the same room with an insufferable know-it-all who drops big book titles into the conversation when he feels certain that nobody else there has ever read them--and if you happened to be the one other person who had read the book--then you'll know why it's so emotionally rewarding to be Matilda at the moment it happens to her. But you don't get a full share of the fun unless you've also read the book yourself. And that just hurts.

Oh, yes, Dahl gives us enough context so that anyone can see the real joke (which is that the know-it-all Miss Trunchbull hasn't even understood the book she was so proud to have read) . . . but if you're a serious reader, then you already know it's not the same thing. (And that it hurts.)

And now I swear that Nicholas Nickleby (complete and unabridged) will be the very next Charles Dickens novel I read! (Just don't ask me when that will be . . .)

Thankfully, I'm not so horribly read that the fullness of all the allusions fly over my head. In fact, I know quite a bit about two other writers Matilda mentions, which is probably why the part in which they come up is my favourite reading-related passage in the whole book . . .

"Tell me one book that you liked."

"I liked
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," Matilda said. "I think Mr. C.S. Lewis is a very good writer. But he has one failing. There are no funny bits in his books."

"You are right there," Miss Honey said.

"There aren't many funny bits in Mr. Tolkien, either," Matilda said.

"Do you think that all children's books ought to have funny bits in them?" Miss Honey asked.

"I do," Matilda said. Children are not so serious as grown ups and they love to laugh."

In my last post about Dahl, Two-meme Tuesday, I wondered whether he had deliberately written his books in subversion of the sweetly sentimental (some would say sickly sentimental) stories written for children in the Victorian era. Then I reread Matilda and saw I might have overshot his purpose by several decades. Dahl wasn't throwing up a challenge to the books of J.M. Barrie and George MacDonald, but to the newer "children's classics" of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.

It was a move which, if you don't mind me saying so, took brass balls. Before Dahl had published his first children's book, Lewis' and Tolkien's novels had places of pride in English literature's "children's canon"--and the authors themselves were dead and hallowed, besides. Imagine a future children's author daring to criticise J.K. Rowling and Rick Riordan in the same way. You'd have to be both really brave and really dang good to take on such huge sacred cows like that. And this is why although I still don't like Matilda, I grudgingly admire and respect Roald Dahl.

Image Sources: a) Matilda by Roald Dahl, b) Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens, c) The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis


Syrin said...

After reading this I'm sort of stuck on the "all children's books should have funny bits" idea. Should they? At what age should that stop?

I certainly immensely enjoyed Dr. Seuss as a small child because of all the silliness. My favorite book from before I was learning to read is "The Monster at the End of This Book" which is of course nothing BUT silliness. But during my grade school years I read plenty of books that had little to no silliness in them, and I don't recall ever minding that.

Jillian said...

My favorite Roald Dahl book has always been "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." Matilda was alright for me, but I haven't really read that in a very long time.

That line in the book, I don't even remember! But reading it now, it sort of bothers me in a way. I definitely don't want the current and future young readers of Matilda to believe that the only children's books worth reading are the ones that are silly and that grown ups are only allowed to read "serious" ones. That to me is pretty stupid, if I have to be honest, but to each his own, right? Haha ;) By the way, great post.

Enbrethiliel said...


Syrin -- It is a problematic statement, isn't it? But even as I'm obviously giving it some serious consideration, I wonder whether it was another one of Dahl's jokes. Or perhaps just a mischievous push back against any critics who found his own books too silly? (J.K. Rowling is another author who has embedded a lot of barbed responses to her detractors in her books.)

I know what you mean about books without silliness, too. In fact, my sense of humour was so poorly developed when I was a child that a lot of "funny bits" in the sillier books I read totally went over my head. (I know because I reread them years later and couldn't believe how funny they actually were.)

My own personal problem with Matilda's critique is that there happen to be "funny bits" in Lewis and Tolkien, if you know where to look. I remember chuckling through The Hobbit, for instance.

Jillian -- Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is my favourite, too. (So far, at least! I'll try James and the Giant Peach next and see whether Charlie still emerges on top.)

Now that we're discussing it, I wonder how seriously Matilda's critique of Lewis and Tolkien is meant to be taken. Dahl obviously wanted to promote silly books, because those are what he wrote for children. And if critics of his time were saying that children should be given Lewis and Tolkien instead of Dahl, I can see why he'd want to insert himself into the canon in such a blatant way. (Not that he had to, I think. His books will be read for decades to come.)

Then there's Matilda's own reading list. She has read Jane Eyre and The Old Man and the Sea, which (if I remember correctly) have absolutely no "funny bits" in them at all! (In fact, I had one professor in uni who was of the opinion that Charlotte Bronte had no sense of humour. LOL!) There's obviously room for both the serious and the silly; perhaps that was all Dahl wanted to say.

(But how I wish I could be around for the day we do get a future writer who takes on Rowling and Riordan!!!)

Kristi said...

I loved Matilda as a child, but it's been more than 20 years since I've read it. I do love books about children who love to read.

Interesting list of books that the librarian recommended. I know it's just a book, but I wouldn't recommend those to a child that young, even if they could read at that level. I think most of those books require a bit of life experience to fully appreciate the meaning beyond the plot.

Interesting thoughts on Dahl taking on Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. I didn't read their books as a kid. I read all of the Chronicles of Narnia this past year for the first time and they were just okay for me. I think I would have appreciated them more if I had read them as a child. I still love Roald Dahl books as an adult though. Sorry for the rambling. :)

sunniesarecool said...

Matilda was my all time favourite book as a child

New follower,
I have a YA book blog, i hope you can stop by.

mrsdarwin said...

I've never read all of Matilda, mostly because I came across that selection in an anthology of children's literature and was pretty unimpressed. Perhaps Roald Dahl is parodying the uber-child who has a high reading level but not full understanding, but I doubt it. I'm rather underwhelmed by the reading prowess of both Matilda and Miss Honey -- but then, I haven't read the book!

I read Lord of the Rings when I was eight. Maybe I had enough vocabulary to comprehend the sentences (though that's questionable) and decipher the plot at the base level of event sequence, but I didn't *understand* what I was reading. I'm loathe to give a child a book too far beyond her ability. It does a disservice to both child and book.

Also: to give a four-year-old Graham Greene's Brighton Rock? Dahl may think he's being clever, but that's so inappropriate it's not even funny. Is he making a commentary on the librarian not having read the books either?

Enbrethiliel said...


Kristi -- I love reading about other readers, too! =) But it isn't often that I run into characters who have read the same books I have. Matilda and I have some common titles under our belts, but not enough to keep me from feeling unusually competitive! =P

That's true about experience and worldly wisdom mattering as much as vocabulary and technical skill. I'm an ESL tutor (among other things), and I know how challenging even the easiest read can be if it's set in a house with a backyard when the student who has to read it has lived in a flat all his life. It's just not part of the vocabulary of his experience. So a four-year-old Matilda taking on Jane Eyre (which I first read at twelve but doubt I understood properly until uni) doesn't actually impress me that much. (Yes, she's super smart . . . but that smart? Really? There's a reason child prodigies usually excel in maths, music and the sciences, not in literature and the arts!)

I didn't read The Chronicles of Narnia or The Lord of the Rings until I was an adult, either! =) I think I would have appreciate the former more as a child, but I know that it wouldn't have been the same case with the latter: a friend tried to get me to read The Lord of the Rings when we were twelve, but I gave it back because I found it boring! *facepalm*

And feel free to ramble all you like! As you can see, I tend to do the same. ;-)

Sunniesarecool -- That's great! Why did you like Matilda so much? Don't be shy about weighing in just because we're all seemingly so critical. =)

And thanks for visiting! =) I'll definitely check out your blog, too.

Mrs. Darwin -- I know just what you mean about understanding the words versus understanding the what the author was really trying to say!

The inclusion of Brighton Rock is what made me wonder whether the titles on the reading list were completely random. Mrs. Phelps seems to be the typical wonderful librarian we find in books such as these, so even I'm not sure how Greene's novel got in there. =/

mrsdarwin said...

"There's a reason child prodigies usually excel in maths, music and the sciences, not in literature and the arts!"

Precisely, E. Children can be very capable of deciphering complex patterns, but the relationships and causality and themes (and sometimes content) of complex literature take some maturing to understand. Why is the coming-of-age novel perpetually popular? Because there is a very real delination in understanding between a child still making sense of the world, and an older person who has a larger framework that serves to make human interactions more explicable.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

I loved Matilda as a child, but it has been awhile since I read it. I don't think all children's books must have silly bits, but I think some of what Dahl says is just tongue-in-cheek.

Enbrethiliel said...


Mrs. Darwin -- Matilda is many things, but it's not a coming-of-age novel! ;-)

But I do think that Matilda's sort of prodigy would have done very well on a diet of Dickens. There's something about him that's profound and simple at the same time. His characters, I suppose: they're really human, but the straightforwardly human sort. (This makes sense, right?) And he's quite funny in the way Dahl is funny; and it really stands to reason that one of Dahl's characters would find Dickens' characters both wonderful and hilarious. =P

Melissa -- I'm sure you're right about that. (I can certainly imagine Dahl chuckling to himself when he wrote that bit about Lewis and Tolkien!) I guess my big issue with Dahl is that I don't know how to take him. His books are such a mix of the serious, the silly, the sincere and the sarcastic that I suspect they are an acquired taste that I might never have. =/

Jillian said...

Well I guess I just reacted so suddenly when I read that quote! Forgive me for that rash reaction, LOL.

I guess now that I think about it, I get what you mean. Could it be that he actually thinks that way in real life or is it just his character speaking? We'll never know, I guess.

I also think that Rowling had her fair share of critics - especially those who swear that the HP series are works of the devil, and all. But it would be interesting to see somebody comment on Riordan years later too.

Shaz said...

I got stuck on "all children's books should have funny bits" idea as well.

I know it's a blanket statement, but I tend to agree with it. In fact, I think all stories should have some "funny bits". I don't mean they have to comedies or anything, but I love finding unexpected flashes of humour in books.

Enbrethiliel said...


Jillian -- There's nothing to forgive! In fact, I'm really happy you joined the discussion. =) There are many ways to look at this, especially since Dahl himself is so slippery about it.

I think it's a mixture of what he really believed and what he thought would be funny. And now I wonder (Here I go again, taking another tack . . .) whether he wasn't putting Lewis and Tolkien down so much as insisting he has a place beside them. Imagine Hermione Granger thinking that the fiction section in the Hogwarts library needs more books by Muggle authors and then specifically naming Elizabeth Goudge and Beatrix Potter! It would be Rowling's way of saying, "Take note, literary snobs! I belong with these great ladies!"

About Rowling, I never saw her taking on her fundamentalist critics in her books. (If you think she did, please tell me where I can find the passages!) But she did let it rip when it came to tabloid reporters--and I'm sure lots of people in the British press are still made very uncomfortable by Rita Skeeter! =P

Shaz -- The "funny bits" statement seems to be even more controversial than the fact that we have a four-year-old girl punishing her parents. (Dahl was a genius.)

And now that you've thrown down a challenge, please don't mind if I disagree with you! ;-)

I think there are some books in which humour would be inappropriate or would just undermine the main point. The first to come to mind is George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. I think it contains hints that Orwell himself had a sense of humour (for instance, he seems to have had some dark fun inserting an alternative version of a character from a certain opponent's book into his own); but Oceania is too dark to let the reader (much less the characters) find something to laugh about in their lives.

Syrin said...

The mention of humor and Ninteteen Eighty Four just makes me think of this passage from the book:

"Parsons used the lavatory, loudly and abundantly. It then turned out that the plug was defective and the cell stank abominably for hours afterwards."

Not just a joke, but the "lowest" form of humor there is! :)

Which I think goes to show that there will, in fact, be at least some small amount of "funny bits" in nearly every work of fiction. It's a natural part of seeing the humor in life.

Enbrethiliel said...


I had forgotten about that! =P

And it brings me back to my problem with Matilda's critique of Lewis and Tolkien. There are many funny bits in their books, especially Tolkien's!

You're right that "funny bits" are a natural part of life and therefore a natural occurrence in fiction.

Shaz said...

"funny bits" are a natural part of life and therefore a natural occurrence in fiction.


While I don't think writers should cram a lot of lame jokes into their stories, a pinch of subtle humour can add a bit of zing to even a dark tale.

A well-crafted phrase - such as the afore quoted "loudly and abundantly" - can provoke a smile simply becuase we can all relate.

Thanks for letting me join in the discussion. :)

Lesa said...

I'm late to the discussion and my first reply was going to be 'What! Tolkien is loaded with funny!' but I see that has been well covered.

And I agree with y'all about naturally occuring 'funny bits'. Real life is full of absurdity and absurd people-- books are more real and fun to read to me if the universal comedy of life is included. And you are right about Dickens-- I haven't read Little Dorrit yet but the mini series had lots of funny bits.

I'll be reading Matilda soon since you started me on this Dahl business but guess what movie was on Sat night? Yep, Matilda.

I quite liked it and loved that she was a bookworm. She was older than 4 in the movie but I did think her reading Moby Dick was still a bit much. That Trunchbull was scary but in a cartoony way thank goodness since Little T watched it with me. He freaks out if a child or anyone is mistreated in a show or book.

It didn't bother me one bit when Matilda blew up the tv because dad ripped up her library book-- I may change my mind after reading the book-- the book is probably different. Did you say somewhere that Matilda is mean in the book? She isn't mean in the movie.

Enbrethiliel said...


Shaz -- Join any time! =) Here, let me argue with you again . . . =P

I still think there's a world of difference between saying that all books should contain humour and saying that all books do contain humour. Matilda seems to be saying that because Lewis's and Tolkien's books aren't laugh-out-loud funny, they aren't that great for children.

Lesa -- Now, you can't really be asking me to spoil the book for you! ;-) But yes, the book is a bit different. In fact, I'm glad the movie makes it about blowing up the TV and wish Matilda had done that in the book!

Nikki-ann said...

I loved reading Matilda as a child and must've read it a few times, but I don't remember it as much as I do Charlie & The Chocolate Factory or The BFG or The Twits!

Suburbanbanshee said...

If a kid wants to read a book and can read a book, and the book isn't filled with moral turpitude or super-scary parts, there's nothing wrong with the kid reading it. It's not necessarily an inferior experience, either - just different. Sometimes better.

The Hobbit and LOTR is much scarier if you read it as a little kid, and the stuff with Arwen at the end comes as a huge surprise. There are many joys of reading which become imbalanced or closed to you after puberty, so kids may as well read a lot of books before puberty starts knocking them around.

Shakespeare plays are more beautiful and mysterious when the vocabulary is all new instead of just a little Elizabethan. Moby Dick is a good technothriller to a kid, just like Jane Eyre would be a good story about an orphan.

I think all of Dahl's reading list books are about orphans or kids with troubles, alone against the world. So that may be the joke.

Enbrethiliel said...


Nikki-ann -- I can see why Matilda is both really famous and easily eclipsed by Dahl's other works. (And your mention is the third or fourth recommendation I've got for The BFG!)

Suburbanbanshee -- Relax. No one is saying that you were wrong to read all those big writers when you were Matilda's age. You obviously understood them all, too. How special for you.