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8 October 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 5:31pm

From Miss Trunchbull to Donald Trump: why Matilda is the perfect icon for resistance

A statue of the Roald Dahl character defying the president points to reasons to be hopeful even when it feels as though little stands in the way of barbaric, vainglorious power.

By Holly Thomas

“I have discovered… that a bad girl is a far more dangerous creature than a bad boy. What’s more, they’re much harder to squash. Nasty dirty things, little girls are. Glad I never was one.’”

This is how Miss Trunchbull, the fictitious headmistress of Crunchem Hall Primary School, describes Roald Dahl’s most beloved hero – and one of President Trump’s newest nemeses, Matilda Wormwood.

Thirty years after its first publication, Matilda is the most popular of Roald Dahl’s books. It has sold over 17 million copies worldwide, and its five-year-old star regularly takes second place to Harry Potter in rankings of children’s all-time literary heroes. Her resonance for children is evident, but she still strikes a chord with adults as well. Matilda was recently chosen to stand as a statue defying Trump – voted the public’s number one villain – in the Buckinghamshire town where Dahl lived for years. What makes her such a perfect champion?

The story is probably familiar to most. Matilda Wormwood is a very young child of extraordinary intelligence, who for want of any interest or care from her idiotic, self-obsessed parents, especially her criminal car dealer father, teaches herself to read at the local library. Soon after she arrives at school, Matilda falls foul of the savage headmistress Miss Trunchbull, whose berserk reign of terror is unchecked even by the teachers and parents. Matilda’s first and most important ally at school is her teacher, Miss Honey. A sensitive and modest young woman, Miss Honey immediately recognises Matilda’s brilliance, and determines to help her. Soon afterwards, Matilda discovers that she is able to channel her fantastic brain power to move objects without touching them, and sets about using this gift to topple the Trunchbull.

Some modern parallels are very obvious. Until she discovers her secret strength, Matilda is materially powerless and literally puny. Wherever there is authority in the book, it is corrupt, selfish, and maniacal. The knee-jerk defensiveness and rage of Matilda’s enemies would be familiar to everyone who follows President Trump on Twitter, or watched Kavanaugh’s testimony last week. While Matilda’s father, Mr Wormwood, brags freely about his income and his “fine brain”, he is shocked when she sees straight through him. “You’re cheating people who trust you,” she tells him. “It’s dirty money, I hate it.” He is reduced immediately to hysterics, shouting: “Who the heck do you think you are, the Archbishop of Canterbury or something, preaching to me about honesty? You’re just an ignorant little squirt who hasn’t got the foggiest idea what she’s talking about.”

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Faced with the bare truth he ducks it, demeaning his daughter and letting her bear the brunt of his embarrassment and insecurity. Matilda meanwhile remains calm, and spends her energy on strategising, rather than brutish displays of power. She quietly sets about a solo guerilla campaign, meting out small punishments tailored to his crimes and targeting his vanity, cowardice, and stupidity. She lays traps and lets him walk into them, gluing his own hat to his head, dying his hair platinum blonde (imagine), and convincing him that there are ghosts in the house. She is always several steps ahead, and always covers her tracks rather than stopping to crow over him. This pattern is repeated until Matilda starts school, and is faced with an even mightier foe in Miss Trunchbull.

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As in life, those who wish to protect the status quo immediately recognise each other, and band together. After meeting Matilda’s father briefly when she buys a dodgy car off him, the Trunchbull declares him a “pillar of society”, accepting without question his account of Matilda as a “real gangster”, though she hasn’t yet met the child.

(In case you have just returned from a trip to deep space: This week, President Trump described Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, who has been accused of sexual assault, as a “perfect human being”. He also mocked Christine Blasey Ford, Kavanaugh’s alleged victim, on national television.)

While Mr Wormwood uses mockery and bullying to oppress his daughter, and protects himself with a cocoon of cash and lies, Miss Trunchbull favours outright violence. She picks children up by the ears, throws them out of windows, and locks them in the chokey, her horrible cupboard-prison, lined with shards of glass. As Matilda quickly realises, her behaviour is so outrageous that it is easy to disbelieve, or more comfortable to ignore. Even parents who love their children do nothing to stand in Trunchbull’s way as she brutalises them.

The children, who have the least power and are in the most immediate danger, are left to fend for themselves, which they do courageously. As Hortensia, a “rugged” ten-year-old explains to Matilda and her friend Lavender in the playground: “It’s like a war. And the casualties are terrific. We are the crusaders, the gallant army fighting for our lives with hardly any weapons at all, and the Trunchbull is the Prince of Darkness, The Foul Serpent, the Fiery Dragon with all the weapons at her command. It’s a tough life. We all try to support each other.”

“You can rely on us,” replies Lavender, a tiny child standing just three feet and two inches tall.

Even kids who don’t possess magical powers stand up to Trunchbull. The most public example of this comes during an assembly, when Bruce Bogtrotter, a mild-tempered boy with a taste for the headmistress’s sweet treats is forced to eat an entire chocolate cake in front of the whole school. He does so with dignity and cool determination (trust me he’s more chill in the book, 1996 film fans). He takes his time, gathering confidence from the assembled children, his initial nerves subsiding as he feels the support of his audience.

As soon as one child braves a cheer the others follow suit, and he doggedly polishes off the whole thing – “He had a mountain to climb and he was jolly well going to reach the top or die in the attempt.” When he succeeds he does so to the rapture of the children and rage of the Trunchbull, who smashes the empty plate over his head. It is an impotent gesture: in the eyes of the crowd, he has already won.

Matilda’s most vital gift is her capacity to coax the latent strength of the good people around her. One of these is Miss Honey, her sweet, gentle teacher, who has spent years cowed by Miss Trunchbull. Trunchbull is Miss Honey’s aunt, and raised her after the suspicious death of her father, physically and mentally abusing her all the while. But though Miss Trunchbull has taken almost everything from Miss Honey, she remains steadfast. She chooses to teach at the school for just £1 per week, quietly observing, feeling unable to share the dark secret she knows about Trunchbull, until she meets Matilda. Matilda listens to her story sympathetically, and is horrified to learn that the Trunchbull most likely killed Miss Honey’s father, before stealing his house and money. She determines to help her, and Miss Honey, inspired and delighted by the child, feels hope for the first time in years.

In the end, it is Miss Trunchbull’s own weakness which finishes her. Like all bullies she is a coward, and depends upon intimidation to keep everyone else in line, and mask her own inadequacies. Confronted – thanks to Matilda – with the truth of her most awful crime she is stripped of her bravado, and runs away leaving no trace. Mr Wormwood’s fate is the same. When his crooked car business is rumbled, he immediately flees, taking his wife and Matilda’s insipid brother with him.

Matilda was and remains exactly what we need. Although she is the most gifted child at school, the book is punctuated with acts of resistance that prove that you do not have to be extraordinary to take a stand. Ultimately it is Miss Honey, who has suffered the worst and longest, who offers the key to Miss Trunchbull’s downfall. The real magic of Matilda is not her telekinesis, but her compassion, and her desire to bring the truth to light. The message of resilience and abiding curiosity could not be more important at a time when it feels as though little stands in the way of barbaric, vainglorious power. In the age of Trump, the lesson Matilda learns from a childhood spent reading books is one we, too, can find hopeful and comforting: “You are not alone.”