The Reader of Books
Roald Dahl’s Matilda begins with a declaration that parents are “funny.” Most parents mistakenly think kids are "awesome," but few kids are. In fact, most children are “disgusting.” According to Dahl, however, it is okay that parents are so unrealistic. What is not okay is when parents insist on telling the rest of the world how great their children are. Because of this, Dahl thinks it would be fun to be a teacher. That job would give him the opportunity to write report cards, and then he would get to tell parents the truth about their "lazy, smelly, awful" kids. He would amuse himself making up poetic insults that would force parents to face the truth about their unremarkable offspring.
But as awful as it is when parents mistake their little idiots for angels, it is even worse when parents do the opposite. According to Dahl, there are a few rare parents who simply have no interest in their children.
As it happens, the parents in Matilda are the especially bad kind. They are called Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood, and they do not particularly care about either of their two children. They are especially awful to their daughter, Matilda. On the rare occasions when they bother to think about her at all, they think of her as an annoyance. They would probably get rid of her if they could.
Having parents like the Wormwoods is tragic for any child, but Matilda happens to be the kind of “sensitive and brilliant” girl most normal parents would adore. However, the Wormwoods are “so wrapped up in their silly little lives” that they do not notice how wonderful their daughter is.
Unlike her ordinary brother, Michael, Matilda shows signs of brilliance from babyhood. She learns to talk early, and by the age of three, she even teaches herself to read. By age four, she gets tired of the reading material in the house—newspapers and a cookbook—and she asks her father for a book of her own.
Instead of being thrilled at his daughter’s interest in reading, Mr. Wormwood is annoyed. He says that the only kind of entertainment she needs is "the telly"—the TV. According to him, only a spoiled child would ask for a book.
Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood often leave four-year-old Matilda at home all by herself. This gives her the freedom to sneak out and go to the library. The librarian, Mrs. Phelps, lets Matilda sit in the children’s section and read. She soon reads every children’s book in the whole building. Then, with Mrs. Phelps’s help, she begins picking out grown-up books to read. Soon the little girl is devouring a steady stream of classic novels.
Matilda's newfound reading habit makes her happier than ever before.
Mr. Wormwood, the Great Car Dealer
Mr. Wormwood, Matilda’s father, sells used cars. He is a "liar" who tricks his customers into paying too much for cars that are old or broken. At home, he sometimes explains his methods to his son, Michael, because he wants the boy to take part in the family business someday.
One afternoon, Mr. Wormwood explains how to stop a car’s engine from making loud clanking sounds. According to him, all you have to do is mix a little sawdust in with the oil. That makes the engine sound “sweet as a nut.” When Matilda asks how long it takes the clanking to start again, her father says it lasts “long enough.” In other words, it lasts until after the customers pay for the cars. After that, the engines are ruined, but it is not his problem anymore.
This answer upsets Matilda, who says her father is being unfair. He gets angry and tells her she is stupid. “No one ever got rich being honest,” he says. According to him, customers exist in order to be tricked by smart businessmen like him.
Next, Mr. Wormwood tells Michael how to make the mileage look really low on cars that are actually quite old. He has a way of using a screwdriver to reduce the mileage reading on the speedometer. His trick for doing this is his own invention, and he considers himself a genius for thinking of it.
Again, Matilda speaks up and accuses her father of cheating. This time, he loses his patience and shouts at her. He tells her that his business buys her food and puts a roof over her head. He calls her “an ignorant little squirt,” and her mother agrees. Mrs. Wormwood orders Matilda never to talk back to her father again.
During this conversation, the family is eating instant dinners and watching a mindless soap opera on TV. Matilda asks permission to go to the table and read her book while she eats, but her father tells her that she must sit with her family and watch television instead of going away and reading by herself.
By now, Matilda is angry. She hates her parents, and she knows that this is bad. However, her books have shown her that there is “more to life than cheating people and watching television,” and she wishes they understood this too. It also bugs her when they call her stupid because she is sure she is smart.
Matilda is five years old now, so she is not old enough to run away and live on her own. She is stuck with her family, and she has to find a way to make life bearable. Privately, she decides to get revenge every time her parents treat her poorly. Her father will be her first victim.
The Hat and the Superglue
The next morning, before her father leaves for work, Matilda tiptoes into the cloakroom. Standing on her tiptoes and using a cane to extend her reach, she gets her father’s hat down off its hook. Quickly she applies a ring of Superglue to the rim of the hat, and then she puts it back on the hook.
Matilda sneaks out of the cloakroom just in time. She is out of sight when Mr. Wormwood puts on his hat. He suspects nothing as he leaves for work—but when he arrives at his used car dealership, he cannot get his hat off. He is forced to wear it all day long, even as he works on cars. He is too embarrassed to explain his problem to his coworkers, so he pretends that he likes wearing his hat all the time.
At home that evening, Mrs. Wormwood yanks on her husband’s hat but cannot get it off. She laughs at him and says that he must have Superglued it to his head by mistake. Mr. Wormwood protests that he did no such thing, but nobody believes him. He glances at Matilda suspiciously, but he does not really think that a five-year-old girl could have played such a dirty trick.
Matilda is thrilled by her father's embarrassment, but she acts as innocent as possible. She speaks up only once, to relate the story of a boy she knows who accidentally Superglued his finger to the inside of his nose. Mrs. Wormwood scoffs at this story and says that children are disgusting. When Matilda points out that she has seen her mother pick her nose, her mother changes the subject.
That night, Mr. Wormwood is forced to skip his shower and to sleep with his hat on. This is very uncomfortable, so he gets no rest at all. His tossing and turning disturbs his wife, who shouts at him for making so much noise. She tells him that the glue will wear off by morning.
But in the morning, the glue has not worn off. Eventually Mrs. Wormwood is forced to cut the hat off Mr. Wormwood’s head. To do this, she has to cut off a ring of hair all the way around his scalp, and it makes him look awful. At breakfast, a few stray scraps of hat material are still stuck to Mr. Wormwood's forehead. Matilda helpfully informs him that he looks like he has lice.
By the end of this adventure, Matilda decides that it was “a satisfactory exercise.” However, she does not really think that her father has learned “a permanent lesson.”
The experience with the hat embarrasses Mr. Wormwood so much that he stops “boasting and bullying” for a whole week. Then one day he gets into a bad mood, probably because of a problem at work. He comes home red-faced and angry. He marches into the living room, where Matilda is reading in a corner, and he turns on the TV. He cranks up the volume and glances at her, hoping that the noise will bother her. It does not; she has learned to tune out the sound of the “dreaded” TV. In fact, she does not appear to notice her father’s existence.
For some reason, this makes Mr. Wormwood mad. Maybe he just wants to bully someone, or maybe he is jealous that Matilda can get enjoyment in a way he cannot. Whatever the reason, he yanks the book from her hands and shakes it in her face. He has never read the book himself, but he calls it “trash."
Calmly, Matilda tells her father that the book is a wonderful story called The Red Pony by John Steinbeck. Instead of listening, he tears it to pieces. Matilda is horrified, but there is nothing she can do to stop him. She does not cry; she already knows that tears do not solve anything. Instead she plans revenge.
The following day, Matilda goes to her friend Fred’s house. He often boasts about his talking parrot, and she asks to see it. He takes her to his room, where she hears the parrot screech “Hullo” and “Rattle my bones!” According to Fred, this is all the bird knows how to say—but for Matilda’s purposes, it is enough. She offers Fred a week’s worth of allowance if he will let her borrow the bird for an evening. Then she takes the parrot home, shoves its cage up the dining room chimney, and waits.
That evening, Matilda’s family eats dinner in front of the TV as usual. During their meal, they hear strange words coming from the dining room: “Hullo!” “Rattle my bones!” Everyone thinks the voice must belong to a burglar, and Mrs. Wormwood tells her husband to go find out. However, Mr. Wormwood is too scared to go fight a bad guy on his own. He makes the rest of the family come with him. Everyone grabs a knife or golf club or fire poker, and they all tiptoe into the dining room together.
The Wormwood family—including Matilda, who is good at pretending—searches the dining room for a burglar. When they cannot find anything wrong, Matilda tells everyone the room is haunted. This scares her parents and brother, and they run away.
The following day, Matilda takes the parrot cage out of the chimney and carries it back to Fred’s house. He asks if the bird behaved, and she says her parents loved it.
Matilda is the smallest and weakest person in her house, so she has to obey her parents even when they are wrong. When this gets unbearable, she plays one of her tricks. These acts of revenge cheer her up, and they humble her parents a bit. This makes them easier to live with—for a while.
After the parrot episode, Matilda’s parents are calmer and nicer for a week or so. Then one day, her father comes home bragging loudly that he had an excellent day at work. He cheated five silly customers into buying five overpriced cars. He earned an excellent commission on each car, and now he feels rich and happy.
Matilda’s brother Michael is a completely ordinary boy,...
(The entire section is 486 words.)
The Platinum-Blond Man
Matilda is outraged that her father refuses to believe she is good at math, so she dreams up another act of revenge. This time she attacks one of his biggest points of pride: his hair.
Matilda’s mother, Mrs. Wormwood, dyes her hair a shiny silver color that looks like “a female tightrope-walker’s tights in a circus.” Twice a year, she gets this dye job done at a salon. In between, she occasionally uses a strong peroxide hair wash. Matilda has often admired the label on the peroxide bottle: “Keep away from children.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Wormwood’s hair is nothing like his wife’s. It is thick and black, and he often brags that it makes him...
(The entire section is 541 words.)
Matilda begins her education at Crunchem Hall Primary School. Her teacher is Miss Honey, a sweet, pretty young woman who understands children very well. Her students love her.
The Headmistress of Matilda’s school, Miss Trunchbull, is Miss Honey’s opposite. All of the children and teachers are afraid of Miss Trunchbull, who sows terror wherever she goes. When she walks through the school hallways, she never pauses or stops for anyone. She just zooms straight through the crowds of children, sending surprised little ones flying in all directions.
There are not many people in the world who are as awful as Miss Trunchbull, but according to the narrator, almost...
(The entire section is 437 words.)
Miss Honey normally avoids the Headmistress of Crunchem Hall Primary School, but meeting a genius is extremely exciting. Bravely, Miss Honey marches straight to the Headmistress’s office to report what she has discovered about Matilda's intelligence.
Inside Miss Trunchbull's office, Miss Honey comes face to face with the Headmistress. Miss Trunchbull used to be an Olympic athlete, and she is still huge and muscular. It seems probable that she “could bend iron bars and tear telephone directories in half.” She wears a brown cotton jacket and bright green pants, both of which make her look ridiculous. She is not kind, friendly, or interested in educating children. In fact,...
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After leaving Miss Trunchbull’s office, Miss Honey borrows a set of textbooks from the teachers who work with the most advanced students at the school. She then speaks privately to Matilda and explains the following plan: Matilda will spend class periods reading from the advanced textbooks while Miss Honey teaches the other children. Then, at the end of each period, Matilda can have a few minutes to ask questions. This appeals to Matilda, who nods and says thank you very politely. Miss Honey marvels at the idea that anyone could think of this child as a bad girl.
Miss Honey thinks that Miss Trunchbull must have been mistaken when she said Mr. Wormwood disliked his own daughter....
(The entire section is 487 words.)
Throwing the Hammer
Matilda is brilliant, but she is not arrogant. She is sweet and funny, and she has no trouble making friends with the other kids in her class. In her first few days, she befriends a girl named Lavender who, like Matilda, is full of mischief.
During the first week, Matilda and Lavender meet a ten-year-old girl named Hortensia on the playground. At first, Hortensia tries to scare them by telling stories about Miss Trunchbull. She warns them that the Headmistress hates little kids, many of whom “don’t survive” the first year at Crunchem Hall Primary School.
When Matilda and Lavender seem more interested than scared, Hortensia tells them all about Miss...
(The entire section is 522 words.)
Bruce Bogtrotter and the Cake
Lavender does not understand how Miss Trunchbull gets away with doing evil things like picking children up by their hair and throwing them across the schoolyard. She says her father would throw a fit if such a thing happened to her.
Matilda disagrees. Lavender's father would not believe a story about a headmistress who uses children for throwing practice. No adult would. According to Matilda, this is what makes Miss Trunchbull dangerous. It is also a lesson she and Lavender need to learn if they want to be truly great at practical jokes:
Never do anything by halves if you want to get away with it. Be outrageous. Go the whole hog....
(The entire section is 635 words.)
Soon after the cake incident, Miss Honey explains to her class that Miss Trunchbull takes over every classroom in the school for one hour each week. The Headmistress uses this time to quiz the children on what they are learning. Their classroom will receive their first visit tomorrow, Thursday, at two o’clock in the afternoon. Gravely, Miss Honey advises everyone to be on their best behavior at that time:
Never argue with her. Never answer back. Never try to be funny. If you do, you will make her angry, and…you had better watch out.
Miss Honey also advises the children to study hard and make sure they arrive at school tomorrow knowing...
(The entire section is 430 words.)
The Weekly Test
At two o’clock, Miss Trunchbull marches into Miss Honey’s classroom and leers at the children. She calls them “a bunch of nauseating little warts” and claims that she is going to expel as many of them as she can.
The Headmistress tells the children to stand up and stick out their hands. Everyone obeys, and she walks up and down the rows to make sure they have all washed. She stops in front of Nigel Hicks, a smart little boy with visibly grubby fingers. He admits that he has not washed since yesterday at least, and he does not seem sorry. He explains that his father is a doctor who says that “we’re all so covered with bugs anyway that a bit of extra dirt never hurt...
(The entire section is 598 words.)
The First Miracle
By now, Trunchbull is completely annoyed at Matilda's class. She grumbles that small children are the worst kind. They should not exist at all. Someone should invent a spray to kill them off, or maybe a new kind of sticky fly-paper that catches them so they can be thrown away. “My idea of a perfect school…is one that has no children in it at all,” the Trunchbull says.
Miss Trunchbull pours herself a glass of water, and Lavender’s newt plops into her glass. The Headmistress screams and leaps up, shaking like a jellied dessert. Not being well schooled in science, she does not recognize a newt when she sees one. However, she does recognize that she is angry. Somebody...
(The entire section is 521 words.)
The Second Miracle
Matilda is so amazed at what she has done that she does not know what to think. As the other kids rush out of the classroom, she sits still and wonders what to do next. After a moment’s consideration, she decides that she needs the help of an adult. Obviously her parents are no good, so she opts to talk to Miss Honey instead.
When Miss Honey sees Matilda’s odd expression, she immediately agrees to a private chat. Ever since those awful meetings with the Headmistress and Matilda’s parents, Miss Honey has been feeling sorry for this little girl. It is the teacher’s impulse to help the child in any way possible.
First, Matilda asks if she will really be...
(The entire section is 421 words.)
Miss Honey’s Cottage
On the walk to Miss Honey’s cottage, Matilda’s excitement about her new power fills her with energy. She skips and hops along, chattering about what she can do:
I only have to take a moment to get my eyes strong and then I can push it out, this strongness, at anything at all so long as I am staring at it hard enough....
Eventually Miss Honey warns Matilda to slow down. Miss Honey is amazed by the power as well, but she warns that they are “playing with mysterious forces.” This is not necessarily bad, but it may have a bad or painful side to it. They will need to be careful.
Matilda is “too steamed up”...
(The entire section is 489 words.)
Miss Honey’s Story
Unable to hold in her curiosity, Matilda asks a series of questions about Miss Honey’s life. Timidly, Miss Honey says that her salary is fairly low, but not so low that she should have to live as she does. Matilda suggests that it might be nice to live simply and save the trouble of shopping and housecleaning, but Miss Honey does not reply. Instead she goes red all over, and the room falls silent.
After a pause, Matilda apologizes for prying. The teacher shakes her head and says that it is natural to be curious. Matilda is as wise as many adults, and Miss Honey should have expected the questions. Quietly, the teacher admits that she has never told anybody the story she...
(The entire section is 652 words.)
Matilda finds it upsetting to think about Miss Trunchbull being Miss Honey’s aunt. Quietly, the little girl says that she saw Miss Trunchbull throw a child over a fence. But according to Miss Honey, that was nothing. Miss Trunchbull used to hold Miss Honey’s head underwater in the bathtub, making her feel like she was drowning. But halfway through this story, Miss Honey stops herself and says that she does not want to talk about what her aunt did to her. It does not help to dwell on such things.
Suddenly Miss Honey apologizes for talking so much about herself. After all, she invited Matilda over to talk about the little girl’s power to move things with her mind. Hoping to...
(The entire section is 427 words.)
Nobody else is home when Matilda enters her house. Her father is still at work, and her mother is probably off playing Bingo. As for her brother, who knows where he is? Matilda is glad to be home alone because now she has a chance to start working right away on her plan to help Miss Honey.
Matilda sneaks into the living room and steals one of her father’s cigars. She wants to practice moving it with her mind. It is a bit bigger and heavier than the thing Matilda will need to move to make her plan work, but that is probably okay.
Taking the cigar to her room, Matilda puts it on the table and sits down on her bed. Concentrating hard, she moves it with her mind. It...
(The entire section is 414 words.)
The Third Miracle
On the following day at two o’clock, Miss Trunchbull is scheduled to come to Miss Honey’s classroom for her weekly visit. When she marches in “like some giant of doom,” her first action is to check the water pitcher. This time there are no newts awaiting her. This pleases her, and she warns the children that she will make them pay if such a thing happens again.
When the test begins, Miss Trunchbull orders a boy named Wilfred to recite the number 3 multiplication table backwards. Terrified, he stammers that he has not learned to do it that way, and Miss Trunchbull says triumphantly that the children are not learning anything. Miss Honey protests:
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A New Home
The next day, Miss Trunchbull does not show up at school, and she does not call in sick either. When a few school officials decide to find out if she is okay, they find her front door unlocked and her house empty. The furniture is still there, but her possessions have been removed from the cupboards and closets. The school officials conclude that the Headmistress has skipped town.
The day after that, Miss Honey receives a letter from a local law firm. It informs her that her father’s will has suddenly been found. The document declares Miss Honey the true owner of her dead parents’ house, and it also gives her access to a large sum of money that belonged to her father. Within...
(The entire section is 682 words.)