We could separate the characters in this book into categories based on what kinds of actions they take. Some of them are daring: Hortensia and Lavender are each bold enough to play a prank on the Trunchbull. Eric and Nigel are brave enough to stand up to her in the classroom, while Miss Honey is also brave enough to ask the Trunchbull for a favor on Matilda's behalf. Matilda might be the bravest of all, and the pranks she chooses to perform show how important she thinks justice is (whether she's getting that justice for herself or for someone like Miss Honey).
And then, of course, some of the characters are cruel. At best, Mr. Wormwood ignores Matilda; at worst, he yells at her, accuses her of telling lies, and tries to keep her from reading. He also helps cover up stolen cars for mobsters, and each car he sells is a total piece of, well, junk.
The Trunchbull is also a law-breaker, and her sins are even more offensive than Mr. Wormwood's. By the end of the book, we've figured out that she's committed murder, forgery, and child abuse. Not to mention she's stolen a bunch of money and a house from her niece. She might as well have a stamp on her forehead that says "Bad Person." (And in a way, she kind of does. For more on that, check out "Physical Appearances" in this section.)
Miss Honey, who is described as being beautiful and pure, is, on the inside, just as good as she looks: "Miss Honey […] could not have been more than twenty-three or twenty-four. She had a lovely pale oval Madonna face with blue eyes and her hair was light-brown. Her body was so slim and fragile one got the feeling that if she fell over she would smash into a thousand pieces, like a porcelain figure" (7.3). Miss Honey is "lovely" and "fragile" looking, but on the inside she's lovely and fragile too.
Well, if good look good, then the bad look… bad, right? The Trunchbull is described as follows: "She had an obstinate chin, a cruel mouth and small arrogant eyes. […] She looked, in short, more like a rather eccentric and bloodthirsty follower of the stag-hounds than the headmistress of a nice school for children" (8.4). Enough said.
The problem with this characterization tool, though, is it's not one hundred percent reliable. Matilda sticks out in this book because her outer appearance doesn't match her insides. From the outside, she doesn't appear to be a brainiac, and the narrator thinks that's a good thing: "The nice thing about Matilda was that if you had met her casually and talked to her you would have thought she was a perfectly normal five-and-a-half-year-old child. She displayed almost no outward signs of her brilliance and she never showed off" (10.1). Matilda does appear to be what she technically is, a "five-and-a-half-year-old child," but she also appears to be "perfectly normal"—and that description couldn't be further from the truth.
Characters' names help define them in much the way their appearances do. The good have nice names and the bad have less nice names.
Miss Honey is sweet and so's her name. Her first name, Jenny, means "white; fair; smooth." These are all characteristics that match her physical description, which is someone with a "lovely pale oval Madonna face with blue eyes" (7.3). Matilda is our brave heroine who's willing to stand up for herself and others, and her name means "mighty in battle." Sounds about right, right?
But if we separate the evil Trunchbull's last name into two parts, we've got references to a weapon, like a truncheon, and a scary huge animal. Something you really don't want to make angry.
Of course these aren't the only examples of names fitting their characters in Matilda. Can you spot any others?
Several of the characters in Matilda are associated with a specific object (or objects) that helps define them. There's the Trunchbull, who's always seen with her riding crop. That spells violence, since there aren't any horses around. She's ready to beat up whoever gets in her way. Then there's Matilda and her books. She's always reading one, or about to make a reference to one, which tells us she's one brainy, imaginative kid.
A lot of the other objects in the book are associated with Mr. Wormwood. He has his special outfits, including the pork-pie hat and bright suits, and his hair tonic, all of which make him think he looks cool and suave. But if these reveal anything about Mr. Wormwood, it's his vanity. And by making these objects important parts of her pranks, Matilda attacks her dad's vanity with gusto. She puts glue in his hat and mixes her mom's hair dye with her dad's hair tonic. When she's done, the things that used to make him look cool (in his own mind, that is) now make him look like a joke.