Fear of the Female Form: Psychoanalysis in Matilda
Matilda, Psychoanalysis, Trunchbull, Roald Dahl
Matilda is just one of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s stories. Published in 1988, and adapted for film by Danny Devito in 1996, the story is another of Dahl’s tales to pit vulnerable children against sadistic and powerful adult figures.
Perhaps due to his own difficult childhood, Dahl’s children’s stories always include an element of darkness and psychological disturbance:
‘There’s a persistent nastiness and brutality in Dahl and he lingers over [characters’] horrible appearances and habits,’ – Michael Rosen
Miss Trunchbull, the story’s most frightening antagonist, is described as a formidable female – she is classically ‘male’ in appearance and demeanour:
‘She had once been a famous athlete, and even now the muscles were still clearly in evidence. You could see them in the bull-neck, in the big shoulders, in the thick arms, in the sinewy wrists and in the powerful legs.’
Despite her masculinity, Agatha Trunchbull is a woman, with breasts, ovaries and a vagina. She subverts traditional gender-roles and invokes castration anxiety in the male spectator, becoming all the more terrifying for her exposed calves and ‘obstinate chin.’ As she roams the school corridors, her arms swing and small children bounce from her huge body. Trunchbull’s mass contributes to her masculine appearance and the horror felt by those around her – a horror unlikely to be so pronounced were the headmistress a headmaster.
Trunchbull’s character reigns over the school in direct opposition to the feminine Miss Honey. ‘Dahl is picking up the baton of the evil stepmother and the fairy godmother,’ according to children’s book critic Amanda Craig. The head’s frightening female monstrosity is emphasised by this juxtaposition.
The chokey as womb
Trunchbull never married and dislikes children to such an extent as to inflict cruel and unusual punishments on the pupils of her institution for the smallest of crimes. Her claim that she ‘never was a child’ suggests that she may have repressed her own childhood, or is almost unwilling to recognise the physical validity of the children around her. Despite this, she chooses to become headmistress of an elementary school, surrounding herself by infants and young boys and girls.
Most psychologically revealing is the way in which Miss Trunchbull imprisons children in ‘The Chokey,’ a small, dark, enclosed space symbolic of her inhospitable womb. Could it be that Agatha Trunchbull harbours a secret desire for children of her own? Unmarried, unloved and undesired, Trunchbull becomes mean, tyrannical and aggressive towards the children she cannot create herself. Instead, she traps them deep in the metaphoric womb of her chokey, where they are unable to escape.