Chapter 1 Summary
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.
Chapter 2 Summary
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.
(The entire section is 10,541 words.)