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Why do Matilda's parents act like they hate her? The movie shows them to be like this Dursleyish family, and it also has this general theme of adults hating children. They seem to like their older son just fine even though the father treats him a bit rough, but they seem to especially hate Matilda. Is it explained why? Is it because she's a girl?

My only reference is the movie, but if this is better explained in the book then a book answer is also appreciated.

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  • 3
    Which movie? The 2022 musical (based on the stage play) or the 2016 live-action version?
    – Valorum
    Mar 9, 2023 at 21:03
  • 4
    @Valorum I remember the one from 1980s being live action as well
    – user13267
    Mar 10, 2023 at 0:19
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    @Valorum not sure why you said "2016 live-action version" because it is from 1996
    – Ivo
    Mar 10, 2023 at 10:25
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    I'm pretty convinced that the Matilda book was JKRowling's main inspiration for the Dursleys, so it's a bit of a tautology to say that her family look "Dursleyish".
    – Stef
    Mar 10, 2023 at 11:39
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    @Stef you mean to tell me Vernon was Wormwoodish?
    – user13267
    Mar 10, 2023 at 11:47

5 Answers 5

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It's like this:

Matilda's parents are stupid, narrow minded dweebs. They are incapable of understanding a lot of things, and anything they don't understand they sneer at and look down on.

They don't understand Matilda. She reads books, her parents read only at gun point. She wants to learn, they want to be entertained. She wants good food, they want whatever is easiest to snarf down while watching TV. Her parents are willfully ignorant - and proud of it.

Her parents like her brother because he is the same as they are. They understand him, so they get along better with him.

That's it, really. Her parents' sights are set on getting the most out of the gutter they live in, while Matilda is busy looking over the curb and trying to reach all the beautiful things you can see if you just look up over the dirt.


I've never read the book. I've only seen the movie with Danny DeVito. I don't know if the book explains it at all.

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  • 14
    That's what I remember from the book.
    – Arno
    Mar 9, 2023 at 17:05
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    Just read the book, and it's pretty much the same.
    – TripeHound
    Mar 10, 2023 at 17:46
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Adults, especially parents, are often horrible in Roald Dahl's books. The parents in Charlie And The Chocolate family are all awful, though usually just by indulging their children too much, causing the children to become terrible people. The Twits don't have children but they're a horrible old couple. George's grandmother is a nasty old trout too. It's just part of Dahl's style. I think he does it to make children find him empathetic, since kids often have to deal with terrible adults in their lives.

It also gives the reader sympathy for Matilda, whose parents are particularly bad. If Matilda was just some gifted genius with telekinetic powers, you might not instantly like her, but if you feel sorry for her downtrodden existence, you root for her to win and get out of that life. Same way Miss Honey is dreadfully poor (margarine back in those days was pretty bad!).

It's all good storytelling, basically, and intended even for young children who don't necessarily get subtlety, just moving on from fairy tales that are very black and white.

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    In-universe explanations are generally preferred to out-of-universe ones. Can you explain why Matilda's parents treated her badly from an in-universe perspective? Mar 10, 2023 at 1:06
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    I'm not writing fanfic about it, I'm telling you the real answer. They're books, they have an author, whose success depends on the quality of his ideas. Others have mentioned what evidence is available in the books, I'm just expanding on that as a theme, and it's a big one, in the author's other works. That's pretty common when discussing literature, though perhaps "scifi and fantasy" isn't the best place to discuss "Matilda", even if she does have psychic powers.
    – Greenaum
    Mar 10, 2023 at 1:41
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    @LogicDictates: When a question has a clear in-universe answer (either explicit, or clearly inferable) then that’s usually the ideal answer. But often, as here, the work doesn’t give a clear answer, and a lot of extrapolation is needed to find an in-universe explanation — and then out-of-universe considerations become important, to explain what kinds of extrapolation are appropriate for a given work.
    – PLL
    Mar 10, 2023 at 12:34
  • @PLL - Providing an out-of-universe explanation is only important if that's what the OP was confused about. If the OP was aware of the out-of-universe explanation, but wanted to know if there was an in-universe rationale as well, then providing an out-of-universe explanation doesn't help them at all. Mar 10, 2023 at 12:50
  • I don't think most ordinary readers are as bothered about stuff as "canon" and "in-universe". They just want to discuss a book they enjoy, as a whole. The question of why Matilda's parents are so mean can be answered in different ways, and they're all relevant, all might be food for thought for all of us. A discussion doesn't need segmenting into tight categories, doing so often kills a decent conversation, while gaining... nothing. Categorising conversations and answers is way less important than actually having them. Writing about reading = good!
    – Greenaum
    Mar 15, 2023 at 11:50
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There is no specific reason given in the book, but the following quote sums up Mr And Mrs Wormwood's attitude to their daughter:

They had a son called Michael and a daughter called Matilda, and the parents look upon Matilda in particular as nothing more than a scab. A scab is something you have to put up with until the time comes when you can pick it off and flick it away.

Taken from Matilda via Sparknotes.

It's not that they actively hate her specifically, just that she isn't top of their priority list. She is just a small person who happens to share their house, and they'd rather she wasn't there, but they tolerate her. If she wasn't "brilliant" and capable of taking care of herself from an early age (as evidenced in the movie with her ability to make pancakes), then she would have possibly suffered great neglect.

Often in Dahl's children's books, adults despise children but in this case, the parents are simply tolerating something they don't enjoy.

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  • The movie seems to show they love the son and hate the daughter. Is their relationship like that in the book too?
    – user13267
    Mar 9, 2023 at 16:07
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    As per the wiki entry, Harry was trying to groom Michael as a successor to his car business. Michael largely also ignored Matilda, although he does wave goodbye to her as she leaves in the end.
    – FuzzyBoots
    Mar 9, 2023 at 16:43
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From an out of universe perspective it was because she was an audience surrogate.

To a child the world can see harsh and arbitrary. Adults can seem overly prescriptive, and criticism can seemingly come out of nowhere for reasons that they don't understand.

Having authority figures who are inherently - and obviously - unreasonable invokes a sensation of kinship and an emotional attachment to the lead character in children who feel that they are punished simply for being children or for doing things that children do.

From an in universe perspective, it's because she is essentially honest and innocent. While her family are greedy and see honesty as a sign of weakness. Her father in particular spends his days scamming people (for example, filling car gearboxes with oil and sawdust to stop them from making a noise, or winding back a vehicle's mileage to make it seem newer).

He sees her book smarts as being a waste of time because they won't enable her to do what he does, but he also feels threatened by them, because he spends most of his time dealing with directing people away from problems (misdirection to conceal them) while she is both capable of seeing through his misdirection and putting forth actual solutions to the problems that he is seeking to hide.

He also begrudges the fact that she doesn't contribute to the household, she takes but never gives. At least not things that he sees as being useful.

More so, when she takes he is obliged to give because she is his daughter. He is perfectly OK taking from other people because he sees himself as smarter than they are and more deserving than they are. He tricks people into buying poor quality vehicles so he believes that he is owed what he gets from them, whereas he has to provide for Matilda because she's small and can't provide for herself. He sees this as being the equivalent of stealing from him.

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Because it makes a good story. You're right to compare it to Harry Potter, because it's the same device. "How do I make my character instantly sympathetic?" You could have cited Oliver Twist or Horatio Hornblower or a thousand other scamps who overcame their upbringing to make good.

Yanking some heart-strings is a good way to get someone vested in your character. Would you have felt better about her if she'd had everything?

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    Indeed, Wikipedia says, “Many have drawn attention to the similarities between Rowling's works and those of Roald Dahl, particularly in the depiction of the Dursley family, which echoes the nightmarish guardians seen in many of Dahl's books, such as the Wormwoods from Matilda [....]”
    – Davislor
    Mar 10, 2023 at 21:01

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