Literature / Matilda

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A Roald Dahl book about an exceptionally clever little girl, Matilda Wormwood, who has exceptionally horrible and ignorant parents. Matilda has a love of learning and books, and her parents think she is stupid and deride her for reading while they watch mindless Soap Operas and Game Shows.

The first half of the book deals with Matilda discovering how to use her intellect against her parents by playing tricks, like supergluing her father's hat to his head. The second half of the book pits her against a far more formidable enemy — "The Trunchbull", her school's sadistic headmistress, as well as introducing the only person to truly recognize Matilda's amazing talent, Miss Honey. Matilda ultimately has to pit her prodigious intellect (and newly discovered telekinetic powers) against the Trunchbull to liberate both the sorely oppressed children and her beloved teacher, as well as making a better life for herself.

In 1996 a film adaptation was made, starring Mara Wilson (Miracle on 34th Street, Mrs. Doubtfire) in the lead and a frighteningly accurate Trunchbull in the form of Pam Ferris.

In 2010, it was adapted into a stage musical, written by Dennis Kelly, with music and lyrics by Tim Minchin.

This book provides examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: Matilda's parents verbally berate her and neglect her every need. Later in the book, it's revealed that Miss Honey was raised by The Trunchbull, who wasn't any less abusive to her than she is with the students.
  • Adults Are Uselessnote : None of the teachers at Crunchem Hall challenge The Trunchbull because they are absolutely terrified of her. It is eventually discovered that Miss Honey's fears of her are particularly justified. Not a single student manages to convince their parents that The Chokey exists. It's sort of justified by Matilda's theory that the various punishments from The Trunchbull are so over-the-top that the parents simply don't believe it. Of course, it's probably Dahl's commentary on the boarding schools he himself attended as a child.
  • And Ninety Nine Cents: One of Mr. Wormwood's less crooked tricks in his business is to sell for fifty pence below a round figure (e.g. £999.50 instead of £1000.00).
  • The Artifact: Matilda's brother, Michael. We know little about him outside he seems to be average and 'inherited his father's love of crookery.'
  • Badass Bystander: Nigel Hicks and Lavender. Nigel mouths off to Miss Trunchbull while answering her questions correctly, and Lavender managed to sneak a newt into the infamous water jug and got away with it.
  • Bald of Awesome: Matilda's father, who is thoroughly reprehensible and stupid, believes that smart men have a good, thick set of hair. "Like Shakespeare," Matilda once replied. He was willing to admit the potential intellect of the man until Matilda informed him that Shakespeare was bald—at which point he told her to either make sense or shut up.
  • Bath of Poverty: Miss Honey divulges that she doesn't have the space or money for a shower or bath in her tiny house, and must wash in the kitchen with a pot of water and a sponge.
  • Berserk Button:
    • Miss Trunchbull hates many things, but one thing she apparently really can't stand is pigtails.
    • Matilda's being accused of something she didn't do - and this is actually what triggers her Psychic Powers in the first place.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Matilda is one of the nicest children you could wish to meet—as long as you don't make her mad.
  • Bully Hunter: Matilda would often use her wits to punish bullying adults. She pranked her father at least twice (first for accusing her of cheating, then for ripping her library book), and then used her Psychic Powers to free the school (and Miss Honey) from the cruel and domineering Agatha Trunchbull.
  • Butt Monkey: Harry Wormwood, once Matilda works out how to get even with him without being found out.
  • Cassandra Truth: The Trunchbull deliberately uses such outlandishly cruel punishments because any parent would assume a child was making them up.
  • Child Hater: The Trunchbull is quite vocal about how much she hates children and would find excuses to give them harsh punishments.
  • Child Prodigy: Matilda is 5 years old, but has been reading classical literature during her spare time, and is able to do mental arithmetic that even her teacher need to work out on paper.
  • Cute Bookworm: Matilda is an Adorably Precocious Child who loves reading more than anything else.
  • Daytime Drama Queen: Matilda's parents are addicted to television, which is shown as one of their many character flaws. When Miss Honey goes to visit them at home, there's an American soap opera on, and Mrs. Wormwood in particular objects to being interrupted when "Willard is just about to propose to Angelica!"
  • Dean Bitterman: The Trunchbull is the Headmistress of Crunchem Hall, and abuses her power to harm the students and the intimidate into silence.
  • The Dreaded: Everyone fears the Trunchbull, and the class dreads the weekly inspection she conducts.
  • Dumb Blond: Mrs. Wormwood is platinum blonde (though it's dyed), and she's seen as a silly airhead who thinks only of herself and soap operas.
  • Don't Make Me Take My Belt Off: Miss Trunchbull threatens to punish Matilda with the buckle end of her belt.
  • Evil Counterpart: Miss Trunchbull is this to Miss Honey.
  • Evil Teacher: The Trunchbull practically tortures her students, and is implied to have murdered her brother, Magnus, to gain control of his assets and abused his daughter (Miss Honey) while she was in her care.
  • Exact Words: When Trunchbull accuses Matilda of spilling the water with the newt on her, Matilda simply replies that she hasn't moved from her seat the entire time. It was Matilda...exploiting her newfound Mind over Matter powers, which had just been awakened from a previous false accusation against her.
  • Fantasy-Forbidding Father: Matilda's parents don't understand Matilda's love of books and learning, rejecting her for it. They prefer the more mundane Michael who is being coached to take over his father's company.
  • Fat Bastard: Matilda's mother is a plump woman who is completely self-absorbed and is generally a horrible mother.
  • Fashion-Victim Villain: In-universe example. Mr Wormwood wears bright green/yellow checked suits and pork pie hats. He thinks they make him look dashing.
  • Financial Abuse: Miss Honey reveals that Miss Trunchbull forced her to surrender her wages for a duration of ten years, to pay back for all the "clothes, books and food" that the dear aunt Trunchbull paid for, receiving one pound a week as allowance and not allowed to keep her inheritance. Matilda quickly intuits that it was a means of keeping Miss Honey at home to cook and keep house, though it didn't work when Miss Honey found a farmers' shed she could rent for 10 pence a week, and she suggests that Miss Honey draw unemployment money or hire a lawyer. In the end, following Miss Trunchbull's banishment, Miss Honey learns she's the official owner of her father's house and has access to her savings.
  • Force Feeding: Involves a overweight kid who is forced to eat chocolate cake, as punishment for supposedly stealing Miss Trunchbull's cake, while the whole school watches. In other words, he is not allowed to stop eating until he has finished the whole cake, and it's HUGE too (18 inches in diameter). Even if he gets sick, he has to keep eating. It turns out to be a less-than-effective punishment, however, as the kid eventually manages to finish the cake without getting sick, and gets a standing ovation from the entire student body. Trunchbull, exasperated, smashes the cake platter over the kid's head, which still doesn't faze the kid. It's the first time in the story that we see Miss Trunchbull "lose" an encounter.
  • Free-Range Children: Matilda gets left alone in the house during the day. She walks over to the library, through heavy traffic, at the age of four because there's no one watching her.
  • Freudian Excuse: Miss Trunchbull says she's glad she "never was a child" implying that she possibly didn't have a very happy childhood.
  • First Name Basis: Ms. Trunchbull, Ms. Honey and Mr. Honey refer(ed) to each other as Agatha, Jenny and Magnus in private. Matilda uses it in her plan.
  • Gender Flip: Roald Dahl got the idea of a story about a boy called Billy developing telekinesis, but got writer's block and did a gender flip.
  • Genius Book Club: Matilda has already made significant inroads into the Western Canon by the time she starts school.
  • Girlish Pigtails: Miss Trunchbull hates them. She first shows how horrifying she is by grabbing a girl by her pigtails and throwing her.
  • Guile Hero: No one can beat the Trunchbull in a physical confrontation. Matilda wins by frightening Agatha Trunchbull with the "ghost" of Magnus Honey. She had practice at this sort of heroism against her father earlier in the book.
  • Happily Ever After: Miss Trunchbull disappears from Crunchem Hall (to the delight of the teachers and students), so Miss Honey gets back her wages and her father's inheritance. The Wormwoods were forced to flee to Spain after scam was exposed, allowing Matilda to be rid of them and live with Miss Honey instead.
  • Honest John's Dealership: Mr. Wormwood's secondhand car business. Matilda's dad is the stereotypical sleazy car salesman, even putting sawdust in the oil so that the engine will burn out and they have to come back and buy a new car. The book contains a scene in which Mr. Wormwood teaches Michael the tricks to making a lemon look better.
    • Taken Up to Eleven at the end when its revealed that Matilda's dad is receiving stolen cars from the mob.
  • How Do I Shot Web?: It takes Matilda a good deal of self-training to gain control of her telekinetic powers enough to write with a piece of chalk.
  • Humiliation Conga: Matilda terrifies Agatha Trunchbull using her telekinetic powers, making her give up the house and the money she stole from Miss Honey. Even more so in the film, where the children all get revenge on her for the way she treated them.
  • Informed Ability: Hortensia claims that the Trunchbull has a canny ability to guess which kid plays a prank on her, even if she has no proof, but the ability is a No Sell where Matilda is concerned. Trunchbull claims that Matilda put a stink bomb in her desk even though she had an alibi— being in Miss Honey's class— and also accuses the child falsely of sneaking a newt into her water jug.
  • Insane Troll Logic: Trunchbull operates on this when it comes to dealing with children. During her lesson with Matilda's class, she punishes kids for answering math and spelling questions wrong, but attempts to lash out on them for getting them right, too. She suspects they somehow choose to grow up slowly on purpose, and her idea of a perfect school is one completely unoccupied, "with no children at all."
  • Jerkass:
    • Agatha Trunchbull, when she's not harming children.
    • Also, Harry Wormwood, whose used-car company sells cars made from stolen parts - at outrageous prices - that only survive for a few miles. Because their engines are filled with sawdust. And then there's how he acts around Matilda.
  • Karma Houdini: At the end of the book we have Harry Wormwood preparing to flee the police who are onto him and his crooked car business. Specifically, to Spain.
    • Ms. Trunchbull. Yes she's been humiliated in front of the class and driven out of town but that's hardly punishment for what she'd been doing to the students. She also receives no repercussions for murdering her brother-in-law or stealing Ms. Honey's inheritance.
  • Lady and a Scholar: Matilda is a genuinely sweet-natured kid, and never thinks of herself as superior for her brains. If she's asked anything intellectual, she will respond in a polite fashion. She really only dislikes people who are annoying or rude to her. The book carefully emphasizes this.
  • Maximum Fun Chamber: The Chokey, which turns out to be a non-lethal (as far as we know) iron maiden.
  • Meaningful Name: Miss Honey is a very sweet teacher. The Wormwoods (Matilda excepted) are as sleazy as they come. And then there's the Trunchbull...
    • With regards to the Wormwoods, there's a well-known prison in England called Wormwood Scrubs. Harry certainly belongs there.
  • Mind over Matter: Matilda's telekinetic powers.
  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast: Two-in-one: Trunch[eon]. Bull.
  • Never Suicide: Miss Honey speculates that her father's suicide was actually caused by Ms. Trunchbull. It seems to be confirmed later on.
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain: Miss Trunchbull falsely accusing Matilda of putting a newt in her jug ends up triggering Matilda's powers. It also starts the chain of events that lead to Miss Honey revealing that the Trunchbull is her aunt and giving Matilda an incentive and plan to control her powers.
  • Nose Nuggets: An anecdote is told in passing about a boy who picked his nose with superglue on his finger, with disastrous results.
  • Out of Focus: Matilda's brother.
  • Polly Wants a Microphone: Matilda and a neighbor kid teach a parrot scary phrases, then hide it in the chimney. The end result is that her parents tear the house apart looking for what's making the noise, and Matilda gives the neighbor kid his parrot back with her parents never figuring out what happened.
  • Protagonist Title
  • Punishment Box: The sadistic headmistress is fond of (among other things) using the "Chokey," a closet lined with spikes, thus like an iron maiden in which there is just barely enough room to stand.
  • Refuge in Audacity: This is how the Trunchbull gets away with such shocking cruelty to the students. Any parent who heard their kid tell them the principal threw them in a closed chamber with broken glass and nails jutting out of the walls for several hours would naturally assume their kid was lying. Not to mention her regular use of schoolchildren for practice throwing the hammer.
    "Never do anything by halves if you want to get away with it. Be outrageous. Go the whole hog. Make sure everything you do is so completely crazy it's unbelievable."
  • Sadist Teacher: The Trunchbull is the queen of this trope.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here!: Due to the aforementioned Humiliation Conga in the movie, the Trunchbull just simply runs away forever.
  • Social Services Does Not Exist: It's not in evidence, anyway, despite all the child abuse going on. At least there's an excuse in the case of Miss Trunchbull; people are genuinely scared of her, and no one has been able to get the better of her in a fair fight.
  • Sore Loser: Ms. Trunchbull. When Bruce Bogtrotter eats an entire cake, she gets mad and tries to brain him with the serving tray and then storms off when that doesn't affect him. When she can't prove that Matilda knocked a pitcher over, she storms off and still tries to blame her.
  • Starter Villain: Mr Wormwood serves as the antagonist for the first few chapters before the Trunchbull is introduced.
  • Sticky Situation: Mr Wormwood + hat + superglue.
  • Surpassed the Teacher: It is clear from very early on in the book that Matilda has intellectual capabilities that are certainly beyond that of her teacher, Ms. Honey.
  • Tiny Guy, Huge Girl: Mrs. Wormwood is tall and podgy, while Mr. Wormwood is shorter and wiry.
  • Traumatic Superpower Awakening: Matilda's telekinesis first appears when she grows uncontrollably angry over being (loudly and violently) accused of something she did not do.
    • Given that Matilda's powers are developed out of frustration, abuse, neglect and even abandonment, it's very easy to see how this story could have turned incredibly sour. Matilda, by rights, should have deep emotional scars at best, deep sociopathy and inability to bond with other human beings at worst. Think Crona from Soul Eater. In fact, her intellect is mostly used for cheap pranks and fun, and her Psychic Powers are used in a purely psychological manner against those who deserve it, but it is easy to imagine her causing serious harm through 'unfortunate accidents'. However, this is a children's book, and Matilda has to become a well-balanced, likable person in spite of all these hardships. Thankfully, Matilda only directs her energy against the one person who deserves it the most, and even then in a purely psychological manner; Carrie is what you get if Matilda snaps.
  • The Unfavorite: Matilda's parents inexplicably hate her and refuse to believe she is any more intelligent than a lima bean, but favor her rather dim-witted brother Michael instead. Interestingly, Michael is a different kind of dumb and is nothing but pleasant to his sister (in the book at least), if too stupid to really try and help her. The book suggests at one point that Matilda's father at least is furious that she is able to get pleasure from things he cannot, specifically reading.
  • Wham Line: When Matilda asks Miss Honey who her cruel aunt was, Miss Honey replies: Miss Trunchbull.
  • Wise Beyond Their Years: Matilda, big time. She's able to multiply large numbers in her head (eg. "13 times 379") in seconds. She says she likes to read just about anything. It's implied that the two reasons she wasn't in advanced placement by now were because her parents don't believe in the value of education—and, of course, The Trunchbull's dislike of young children. Once Miss Trunchbull is deposed, Matilda gets moved up to the top-level classes. Unfortunately, now that she's using her brain to the fullest, she can't use telekinesis anymore. Realizing that has her first confused, but then relieved that she's not "a miracle" anymore.

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