Whores, Virgins and Mothers in Roald Dahl

There are a several different movements within what is broadly known as ‘feminism’, and, therefore, a corresponding number of different ways feminist literary criticism is used in textual analysis. The approach I am focussing on here is second wave feminism, a school of thought more interested in the content, characterisation and authorial intention of texts than third wave feminism (or post-feminism), which favours a focus upon close analysis of the pure text. Second wave feminists were interested in the writing of female authors, the expression of uniquely female experiences and the development of female characters.

Throughout history women have been depicted as one dimensional, simple ‘types’ within literature written by men. Rather than the deep, shifting and complicated human beings that women really are. Second Wave Feminists hoped that by drawing attention to women’s writing, particularly about uniquely female subjects, a more realistic and developed feminine character could be created. Society has a huge influence upon literature but this influence is also reciprocal; by depicting women as complicated and diverse characters feminists hoped that this would be reflected back into society: men would respect women as full human beings and grant them equal rights.

Luce Irigaray points out that women are only ever presented as Whores, Virgins or Mothers (not necessarily literally: an attentive wife is a ‘Mother’, a rebellious and outspoken woman is a ‘Whore’), and one way in which Second Wave Feminism pointed out the need for a new feminine literature was to analyse this dividing of ‘types’ in literature written by men. I will use this technique in direct relation to the work of Roald Dahl, comparing his development of female characters to that of his male characters.

Dahl’s work has often been criticised for being too dark to exist in the realm of children’s literature, and Amanda Craig has added that his work also has a ‘streak of rather unpleasant misogyny’. Here she is referring to the good/evil dichotomy of mother figures throughout his work (and this can be linked to Irigaray’s Whores, Virgins and Mothers distinction). She adds, “Dahl is picking up the baton of the evil stepmother and the fairy godmother.”But is this a harmful misogynistic presentation of women or just one that children understand and are used to?

Dahl with wife Patricia Neal (photographed by Carl Van Vechten)
Dahl with wife Patricia Neal (photographed by Carl Van Vechten)

Matilda is an excellent place to start, as it incorporates all three female types and positions them in a constant friction with one another. Whilst Matilda herself is presented as comparatively complex, I will analyse the first descriptions of secondary characters Mrs Wormwood, Miss Trunchbull and Miss Honey respectively, explaining how certain images and word choice presents them as belonging to a strict ‘type’.

The first mention of Mrs Wormwood in the novel describes her as, ‘a large woman whose hair was dyed platinum blonde except where you could see the mousy brown bits growing out from the roots. She wore heavy makeup and had one of those unfortunate bulging figures where the flesh appears to be strapped in all around the body to prevent it from falling out.’ Mrs Wormwood’s appearance, specifically the fake quality of her hair and face polluting what was once pure, presents her as a Whore. Adding to this is the detailed description of her large, repulsive frame, which emphasises her lack of desirability, and also presents her as more of a piece of meat tied up in a butchers shop than an actual human being. Moving past the initial description of her appearance, we can see that her rejection of motherhood is an important factor in her characterisation. She does not completely dote upon her daughter and tends to take little interest in either of her children, and so her presentation as a Whore is cemented.

Meanwhile, Dahl’s first allusion toMiss Trunchbull follows thus: ‘The headteacher, the boss, the supreme commander of this establishment was a formidable middle aged lady whose name was miss Trunchbull’ Miss Trunchbull is entirely characterised by her dominance and cruelty. She is a Whore ‘type’ but rather than her pure femininity being tainted by makeup (as is Mrs Wormwood’s) her femininity is tainted by power and her masculine appearance. Like Mrs Wormwood, she entirely rejects the maternal, and this is the main reason for her presentation as a cold and evil woman.

The ‘Virgin’ type is exemplified in Dahl’s first description of Miss Honey, which is strikingly different to the previous two characters discussed: ‘She had a lovely pale oval Madonna face with blue eyes and her hair was light brown. Her body was so slim and fragile one got the feeling that if she fell over she would smash into a thousand pieces, like a porcelain figure.’ Miss Honey’s extreme femininity and goodness is portrayed through her fragility and comparison with pure white porcelain. She could have fitted into the Virgin ‘type’ were it not for the overt comparison with Madonna and also her extreme maternal instinct, which is first mentioned in the lines: ‘Some curious warmth that was almost tangible shone out of Miss Honey’s face when she spoke to a confused and homesick newcomer to the class.’ Even Miss Honey’s name, reminiscent of God’s nurturing and divine provision in the Bible, presents her as belonging to the Mother ‘type’.

Miss Honey: Virgin, Mother...or both?
Miss Honey: Virgin, Mother…or both?

Matilda herself is more complicated. Her delicate and polite speech, along with her innocence, characterise her most obviously as belonging to the Virgin category. However, her vast intelligence and knowledge of the English Literary Canon add an extra depth to her character. A woman striving for knowledge above her station would usually be categorised as a Whore (Eve in the Bible is the clearest example of this), but Matilda, in my opinion, does not fit this category at all. Instead, her strange telepathic powers and great intellect are the masculine encroaching on her delicate and innocent feminine. Throughout the novel Matilda’s ideas and her very persona is attributed to the novels that she has read: mainly novels written by men about male experience, for example, Dickens, Hemingway, Steinbeck and Orwell. Matilda’s character could be interpreted then, from a second wave feminist perspective, as appropriating the male position, something she is able to do due to the fact that she is not yet a sexually developed woman.

On one hand, Dahl’s literature can be argued to be unprogressive in that the female characters in Matilda all fit into the one dimensional types specified by Irigaray. However, Dahl’s presentation of female Matilda as having a masculine side to her personality, as well as the two differing Whores presented in the novel, Mrs Wormwood and Miss Trunchbull, shows that Dahl was challenging the typical non-varied depictions of women throughout literature in his own work which, although flawed, offers a fascinating perspective on changing literary attitudes to women.

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