Matilda (novel)

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
Written by: Roald Dahl
Central Theme:
Synopsis: A very smart girl born from boorish parents develops psychic powers, which comes on handy when the times comes to confront the terrifying headmistress of her new school
Genre(s): Modern fantasy
First published: October 1, 1988
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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.

Tropes used in Matilda (novel) include:

  • 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 Useless: 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. The parents, however, don't have much of an excuse. 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.
    • It's possible it was set in a time when child abuse laws didn't exist, and the parents probably thought it was good for them.
    • The upperclassman who tells Matilda and Lavender about the Trunchbull also mentions that she treats the parents the same way she treats the students.
  • Bald of Awesome: Matilda's father, who is thoroughly reprehensible and stupid, believes that smart men have a good, thick set of hair. Matilda points out that Shakespeare was bald. Her father's answer: "Who?"
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: Miss Honey.
  • Brain Critical Mass: Profoundly gifted kids the world over wish that being bored out of your mind gave you Psychic Powers.
  • Brawn Hilda: Agatha Trunchbull.
  • Bully Hunter: Of the anti-Sadist Teacher variety.
  • 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.
  • Child Prodigy: Matilda.
  • Cute Bookworm: Matilda 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.
  • Evil Counterpart: Miss Trunchbull is this to Miss Honey.
  • Evil Teacher: The Trunchbull.
  • 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 Bitch: Matilda's mother.
  • 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.
  • 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: At one point, Miss Trunchbull first shows how horrifying she is by throwing a girl by her pigtails.
  • Hair-Trigger Temper: Miss Trunchbull.
  • Happily Ever After: Well, Matilda and Miss Honey anyway.
  • Honest John's Dealership: Mr. Wormwood's secondhand car business. Matilda's dad is the stereotypical sleazy car salesman, even putting sand 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.
  • Hot Teacher: Miss Honey.
  • How Do I Shot Web?: Matilda undergoes this.
  • Jerkass:
    • Agatha Trunchbull.
    • 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.
  • 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.
  • Large Ham: The Trunchbull, even in the book.
  • Mary Sue: While it's probably grandfathered in due to both its age and Dahl's Signature Style, Matilda could probably be used as the Trope Codifier for Mary Sue fiction. The main character is a perfect, kind, sweet child who develops superpowers, while everyone who opposes her is a cartoonishly evil villain who's mean for the sake of being mean, but in the end all the bad characters are punished and the main character is given everything she ever wanted.
  • Maximum Fun Chamber: The Chokey, which turns out to be a Medieval iron maiden.
  • Mind Over Matter: Matilda's telekinetic powers.
  • Nose Nuggets: An anecdote is told in passing about a boy who picked his nose with superglue on his finger, with disastrous results.
  • Plucky Girl: Matilda.
  • 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.
  • Social Services Does Not Exist: It's not in evidence, anyway, despite all the child abuse going on.
  • 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.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Mr. Wormwood's approach to selling cars. He intentionally rigs the cars to break down after a few miles thinking that his costumers will return to the dealership that sold them the crappy cars in the first place to throw their money away on one crappy car after another. It never occurs to him that his dealership might get a negative reputation and eventually receive no business at all because everyone knows that he cars are little more than spray-painted junk.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 only reason she wasn't in advanced placement by now was because her parents don't believe in the value of education.