Roald Dahl’s 1988 children’s classic, Matilda, is the story of the title’s namesake, a precocious young girl who is born to a family whose other members are characterized as vile and wholly unappreciative of Matilda’s gifts. The dad is a crook of a used car salesman, the mom is a compulsive bingo player, the older brother is unremarkable in any way, and all except Matilda, who loves to read, are only interested in watching television every night. When considering Matilda in context of her family, one of the first questions that arises is, how could someone so bright be born from a family so dull? Is it even possible as Dahl would have us believe? Contemporary research in the fields of psychology and gifted education indicate that “ability and talents have, to some degree, a nature and a nurture component,” (Rinn p.17). The general agreement on these grounds have, however, produced two different hypotheses to provide a more in depth explanation of exactly how high intelligence emerges between them. I will consider these to answer our questions.
The first, the discontinuity hypothesis, “posits different genetic and environmental aetiologies for high intelligence as opposed to the rest of the intelligence distribution,” (Petrill et al.). That is to say, although intelligence along a normal distribution is generally inherited, high intelligence can be acquired through high quality practice. This position, however, would seem unsupported by the book. Matilda’s mind, Dahl writes, “was so nimble and she was so quick to learn that her ability should have been obvious even to the most half-witted parents,” (Dahl p. 10). She speaks perfectly and has the vocabulary of an adult at the age of one and a half. She teaches herself to read by the age of three, and before she enters school, she can figure large sums almost immediately. Clearly Matilda’s intelligence is a product of something other than practice, no matter how high quality, unless she was born with the innate know-how to acquire such skills as speaking, reading, and arithmetic so quickly, which is not plausible. Before disregarding the discontinuity hypothesis in the case of Matilda, however, there is the other side of it that deserves consideration. Rather than the nurture side, perhaps it is the nature side that fits her circumstances better.
The nature side of the discontinuity hypothesis suggests that Matilda’s intelligence from the mean that she was likely to inherit is not a product of intense practice– as we’ve seen it clearly isn’t– but it is the product of genes from somewhere deeper in her ancestry that have formed a unique combination. This is the case that David Lykenn would likely make. In his words, the problem of genius is “its mysterious irrepressibility and its ability to arise from the most unpromising of lineages and to flourish even in the meanest of circumstances.” Essentially, Matilda, in this view, is the way she is, because it is the way she is. She is a genius and nothing in her environment could change that fact. Literary celebrations of this view often appear in works of romanticism featuring artists or poets possessed by a muse that guide their life's work. It is a hard position to rebuke and one that Dahl may have had in mind for her character, that is unless the second hypothesis, the continuity hypothesis, offers anything better.
The continuity hypothesis “posits that high intelligence is just the “quantitative extreme” of the same genetic and environmental factors associated with the rest of the intelligence distribution,” (Shakeshaft et al.). The environmental or nurture side of this hypothesis can again be dismissed quickly, because the only difference from the discontinuity’s take is that it’s not necessarily the quality of practice that counts, but the number of hours a person spends devoted to that practice. Malcolm Gladwell’s popular non-fiction book, The Outliers, supports this position, wherein he argues that the key to mastering anything is devoting 10,000 hours of intense practice to it. Again though, for Matilda, at her age, acquiring skills this way is even less likely. That leaves one final side to consider.
From the continuity hypothesis’s nature perspective, it would not be one “genius” gene that has endowed Matilda with her gift, rather it would be several combinations of genes that have shaped a variety of non-cognitive factors. Examples of these include: a high emotional intelligence, such as her ability to perceive right and wrong in the way her parents conduct business and treat her; drive, as when she deliberately leaves home during the day to seek out new books at the library; and high intrapersonal and intrapersonal intelligence, indicated by her ability to connect with peers and teachers at school. It is an enticing position to consider for the book, and one that teachers or parents should consider emphasizing, because, like practice, it will feel more within a child's control, even if it falls short of explaining Matilda’s “superpowers.”
In conclusion, literature often contains information that can influence readers without their knowledge unless due time is taken to investigate its implied positions. Matilda is a wonderful little book for youth, and especially youth who may exhibit gifted characteristics, but it may be best supplemented with material that reinforces that values of drive and motivation, as well as a discussion on current research that promotes disciplined practice for the acquisition of academic skills.
Dahl, R. (1988). Matilda. Penguin.
Lykken D.T. The genetics of genius. In: Steptoe A., editor. Genius and the mind: Studies of creativity and temperament in the historical record. Oxford University Press; New York: 1998. pp. 15–37.
Petrill, S. A., Plomin, R., McClearn, G. E., Smith, D. L., Vignetti, S., Chorney, M. J., ... & McGuffin, P. (1997). No association between general cognitive ability and the A1 allele of the D2 dopamine receptor gene. Behavior Genetics, 27(1), 29-31.
Shakeshaft, N. G., Trzaskowski, M., McMillan, A., Krapohl, E., Simpson, M. A., Reichenberg, A., Cederlöf, M., Larsson, H., Lichtenstein, P., & Plomin, R. (2015). Thinking positively: The genetics of high intelligence. Intelligence, 48, 123–132. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.intell.2014.11.005
Rinn, A. N. (2021). Social, emotional, and psychosocial development of gifted and talented individuals. Routledge.