“Matilda”: Class Perspective

Matilda-Bad-Blood-1In Roald Dahl’s last book, Matilda (1988), we are invited to laugh at the main character’s parents. They hate books, love TV, dress tastelessly and subsist on microwave TV dinners. Yet only when I saw the musical at the Cambridge Theatre in London this past Tuesday, where the mother additionally practices competition ballroom dancing and both parents speak in a broad Cockney accent, did I realise what the whole thing is actually about.

It’s an opportunity for us middle-class bookworms to laugh at a tasteless working-class family who’s come into a bit of money (through the husband’s fraudulent used-car dealership). Their unfeeling cruelty towards their bookish daughter makes them worse even than Harry Potter’s aunt and step-father. And sitting in an audience of predominantly white middle-class feminist book lovers, I started to find it hard to laugh at Matilda’s parents. The musical is an excellent production. But I didn’t like the ham-fisted way in which my buttons were being pressed.

Comments

  1. #1 Pietersen, F. H
    April 3, 2015

    Roald Dahl, being a writer himself, may have only written Matilda for one simple reason: to promote reading and intelligence in children, and by using a girl coming from a poor family as the main character – emphisizing that intellectual capabilities have no social barriers (such as poverty, gender, or lack of social support). However, due to society – and possibly the director’s personality and attitude – the main idea of Dahl’s story was pushed aside to fill the seats.

    (15016961)

  2. #2 Martin R
    April 3, 2015

    The musical embellishes the caricature, but it’s there already in the book imho.

  3. #3 John Massey
    April 4, 2015

    I understand you could see that they were white, but how did you know they were middle class feminist book lovers?

  4. #4 Eric Lund
    April 4, 2015

    @John: It’s reasonable to assume that anyone attending a theatre production in London is at least middle class (they might be rich people, but they definitely aren’t poor). As for the “feminist book lovers” part: Roald Dahl had a habit of getting his points across in ways that are about as subtle as dropping an anvil on your head. I haven’t read Matilda, but I did read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Recall how the other four children were eliminated from the tour, and the songs the Oompa-Loompas sang after each elimination. (The book is even worse than the Gene Wilder movie in that regard: in the book it was an Oompa-Loompa, not Charlie and Grandpa Joe, who sampled the Fizzy Lifting Drinks.) So the audience was probably already disposed to agree with Dahl’s point. As I understand the OP, Martin found the musical even more anvilicious than the book.

  5. #5 Maryke du Plessis
    April 4, 2015

    In my opinion the play raises more serious questions about class in our current day and age than anything Roald Dahl had to say about it. As F. H. Petersen mentioned: I feel Matilda’s message was simply to promote reading and intelligence in children, while the play turned the story more class orientated. This makes it seem that we have not made as much headway in the equality department as we like to think.
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  6. #6 Martin R
    April 4, 2015

    John, Eric is right, both versions of Matilda are extremely loud pro-books, pro-girls statements. As for the audience, I can’t read the English subcultural dress codes as well as I can read the Swedish ones. But people did dress like me and my buddies. And emerging as we did from the London Underground, which looks like a plenary session of the UN, it was quite striking how ethnically homogeneous the musical’s audience was.

  7. #7 John Massey
    April 4, 2015

    Thanks.

    I haven’t read it, but some of Roald Dahl’s stuff that I have read was really quite nasty.

  8. #8 Jacobs, A
    South Africa
    April 4, 2015

    Although everyone’s perspective on a certain book or play differs, we should remember that these books were written to please an individual. Somewhere in this world, someone is reading this book and thoroughly enjoying it, relating to the characters, humor and story behind it. This specific story has a very deep lesson, which many people can relate to, especially young children in the same circumstances as Matilda. This book might become their escape from reality and help them to overcome their circumstances while stimulating their creativity. I think any book is a blessing, even though everybody might not enjoy it.
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  9. #9 bendicion
    south africa
    April 5, 2015

    Jacobs posed a very smart idea. Books are written for a specific purpose and to educate or should i say enlighten people on a certain concept. It is not our place to ridicule writters on their perspectives. Take a moment and unleash what the writter is putting to our sight.
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  10. #10 Martin R
    April 5, 2015

    What’s the deal with the strings of digits you folks from South Africa put into your comments?

  11. #11 Candice H. Brown Elliott
    Northern California
    April 5, 2015

    Not having read the book, nor having seen a musical, I can’t directly compare the two… but having owned and shown to a number of children, the movie version, I get a very distinctively different take on the “class” issue. The film seems to have more of a North American flavor, the U.K. In the movie, Rhea Perlman and Danny Devito portray a couple that Paul Fussel would have pegged as “high prole”, no education beyond high school, total disinterest in books, abundant magazines of the ‘low brow’ sort…. and of course, a focus on very coarse humor TV shows. The vacuousness of their lives, and their total lack of a moral compass (e.g. gamboling, fencing stolen car parts, dishonest car dealing) is the key message, not “class” per se. Class is only a means of situating them. What’s most noted is that the family seems to use class markers from an earlier era, thus their tasteless is less about class, as it is lack of a modern sensibility. But the chief issue is their rabid anti-intellectualism and their inability to recognize the talents their daughter has. The story of an escape from her birth family who has never loved nor understood her.. to find an adoptive mother who does is the one that I resonate with and why I proudly show it to the kids I care for… as an adoptive / foster mother.

  12. #12 Robyn van Basten u15021689
    April 6, 2015

    I agree with the previous comment in that social class has very little to do with Matilda’s message. Matilda feels trapped by her parents’ and her teachers’ limited view on education. This story is trying to tell young children that even though the odds may be stacked against them, it is still possible to succeed in life. u15021689

  13. #13 Martin R
    April 6, 2015

    I think Robyn van Basten is a much nicer name than u15021689. Please tell me what those digits are!

  14. #14 Student
    April 6, 2015

    The digits are a tracking number for a project.

  15. #15 Martin R
    April 6, 2015

    Cool, tell us more please!

  16. #16 u14143993
    April 11, 2015

    I agree with the essence of the book being about overcoming the odds and succeeding, however I can’t help but notice that the description of Matilda’s parents frighteningly resemble that which the future generations of children will probably encompass as they grow older. Even in our generation, the current university students, there are few who know about the story of Matilda, let alone have read the book, and watching first hand how parents of today feed their children with iPads and cellphones and TV, I am saddened by the idea that these future adults will succumb to the same vegetable-like state of Matilda’s parents.

  17. #17 Martin R
    April 11, 2015

    My 11-y-o daughter likes the iPad and her smartphone a lot, but she has lost all interest in TV and she reads voraciously in two languages.

  18. #18 Martin R
    April 11, 2015

    What is the project for which you guys are putting tracking numbers in your comments?

  19. #19 dustbubble
    Next door to Bunce, Boggis and Bean
    April 24, 2015

    He may have been a posh Danish Overlord type, but he was also a fiendishly detailed observer.
    We lived right next door to The Twits, right down to the beard, cigarettes, hooped jersey and spaghetti, until they were repossessed about 20 year ago.
    God they were a psycho entitled nightmare. I used to wonder why the “locals” (unassuming ordinary farmfolk) always went “Oh. Aye … him” when I said where I lived, as they were longstanding indigenes and they “ken’t his faither” ( a good man, by all accounts.
    Never saw the monkeys though. That would have swayed me.

  20. #20 Kaleberg
    April 27, 2015

    I haven’t read the book. I did see the musical in NY. It was a rather depressing story, and I couldn’t get past the unrelenting child abuse followed by the annoying deus ex machina ending. The best part was that all the kids in the audience, and there were lots of them, enjoyed it.
    There were two main baddies in the piece, Matilda’s parents and her headmistress. The parents were rather dated caricatures, but this was undercut by the wardrobe. Their clothes were meant to be garish and outlandish, but they looked more Vivienne Westwood to me. I was glad they got their comeuppance, but in some ways I kind of liked them. Compared with Matilda and her teacher, they were at least vibrant.
    The headmistress, on the other hand, was a classic stage villain, and quite good at what she did. I half expected her to finally break Matilda given the unrelentingly downbeat feel of the production. I felt the play’s ending was rather forced, as if it were tacked on to satisfy a survey group or something. At least there could have been some foreshadowing of the dramatic change in premises. It was as if Rowling had Voldemort just drop dead because, well, magic doesn’t exist.

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