This isn't a calm book. It's as outrageous in its tone as its characters are in their actions. It makes sense, in a way, doesn't it? Some of the things that the Trunchbull does are so preposterous that they seem unbelievable or impossible—how could any of them really happen? If they were presented in a dry or factual way, they might not make any sense at all.
Instead, the narrator describes each event with gory detail and gusto. The war between the Trunchbull and the Crunchem kiddos, for example, is described as an all out war, with all the extremes that go with:
"You're darn right it's like a war," Hortensia cried. "And the casualties are terrific. We are the crusaders, the gallant army fighting for our lives with hardly any weapons at all and the Trunchbull is the Prince of Darkness, the Foul Serpent, the Fiery Dragon with all the weapons at her command. It's a tough life. We all try to support each other." (10.35)
And if we're going to talk about things that are this awful, the narrator seems to indicate, we might as well have a little fun with it. Check out the humor here. Hortensia starts out very seriously, talking about the casualties and crusaders of her gallant army before moving into a very grown-up analysis of the Trunchbull that compares the headmistress to none other than Satan himself. Then she makes a casual crack that it's a tough life. How can you not crack up?
In this brave speech, Hortensia also shows she's just as good at making fancy-sounding statements as the Trunchbull is. Her rhythmic comparison of the Trunchbull to Satan: "'the Trunchbull is the Prince of Darkness, the Foul Serpent, the Fiery Dragon'" sounds a lot like the way the Trunchbull talks about Bruce Bogtrotter: "'a disgusting criminal, a denizen of the underworld, a member of the Mafia!'" (11.23). Both of these—and, actually, lots of other sentences—rely on hyperbole. The whole book relies on hyperbole, actually: hyperbole and exaggeration. Check out our "Writing Style" section, and see what else you can add to the list.
Let's run down the kid's lit checklist: we've got a youthful protagonist, a school-related plot, some adult antagonists, and pranks (involving newts and itching powder and hair dye). And even though she's five, Matilda's worried about things that many other kids' lit protagonists are worried about:
Of course, as soon as you're done reading Matilda, you know the answer to all those questions is "yes."
This whole telekinesis deal shoves this book over into the fantasy category, too. Things happen in Matilda that don't have scientific explanations or can't be easily explained:
Maybe the most fantastic of all is the idea that an administrator as outrageously terrible and abusive as the Trunchbull would be able to hold on to her job without any problems. That's definitely the stuff of fantasy.
Okay okay, so the heroine does stay five years old for the entire story. So why are we calling this one a coming-of-age story?
Because Matilda's mind matures at a ridiculous rate. Her brain grows up really fast. Miss Honey says she's "'not really a child at all because [her] mind and [her] powers of reasoning seem to be fully grown-up […] we might call [her] a grown-up child'" (17.12). From her beginning as a timid young girl, we see Matilda learn to read, develop psychic powers, and help rescue an innocent person from a tyrant, all of which she accomplishes by the end of the book. So even though she hasn't quite gotten there physically, on the inside, she's definitely all grown up.
Back in the goode olde days, novels usually got stuck with one of two types of titles. They'd either be named after a place, like Bleak House, or after a person, like David Copperfield. Pretty standard (especially for Dickens!). And it makes sense, right? Either make the title a reference to the place where all the action happens—also known as the setting—or call your book after its main character.
In Matilda, the choice between the two is simple. Do we even know the name of the town where Matilda lives? A lot of action happens at the Crunchem Hall Primary school, but Crunchem Hall Primary wouldn't be a very good title. That would sound ordinary, and the book isn't really about the school.
No, it's all about Matilda, who's "extra-ordinary" (1.7). So that's the real answer to the big question in this section. The book is about Matilda—her life, her adventures, her brain. So her name is the best choice for the title. The moment you read it, you'll want to get to know her.
In formal reviews of Matilda, like those that appear in Publishers Weekly and the School Library Journal, the book's ending gets the most disses. The Publishers Weekly review says that "Children […] will sail happily through the contrived, implausible ending" (source), while Heide Piehler, writing in the School Library Journal, says that "the conclusion is a bit too rapid […but] young readers won't mind" (source). So, what's going on with this ending? Do you think everything goes down too quickly? Let's take a look.
At the end of the book, Matilda's family announces they're moving to Spain. They have to move because Matilda's dad is a criminal whose number's coming up. He has to get away from the British legal system. But this potential move, which is sprung on Matilda out of nowhere, horrifies her:
"I want to live here with you," Matilda cried out. "Please let me live here with you!"
"I only wish you could," Miss Honey said. "But I'm afraid it's not possible. You cannot leave your parents just because you want to. They have a right to take you with them." (21.61-2)
See, things have just started getting good, now that the Trunchbull's gone for good. Miss Honey lives in this great new house and Matilda visits her every day—and Matilda's in the highest grade at her school, so she's learning cool new things and being challenged all the time. It's no wonder Matilda doesn't want to leave.
So, frantically, she asks first Miss Honey and then her family if she can abandon the Wormwood clan and live with Miss Honey forever. Miss Honey loves Matilda and welcomes her with open arms; the Wormwoods, who have treated Matilda like a "scab" (1.7) since day one, don't really have any problem with letting her go.
The book ends with the Wormwoods driving away, and Matilda and Miss Honey watching them go. Both Miss Honey and Matilda's old families, such as they were, are gone. They're left with each other to start a brand new, way more awesome, family:
Matilda leapt into Miss Honey's arms and hugged her, and Miss Honey hugged her back, and then the mother and father and brother were inside the car and the car was pulling away with the tyres screaming. The brother gave a wave through the rear window, but the other two didn't even look back. Miss Honey was still hugging the tiny girl in her arms and neither of them said a word as they stood there watching the big black car tearing round the corner at the end of the road and disappearing for ever into the distance. (21.75)
Here's that happy ending we've been waiting for. Matilda's parents leave her behind for good. There's none of that pesky worrying about papers or formal adoptions or anything like that. Maybe that's where the concerns about rapidity and implausibility come from in the reviews discussed above. We don't get a word for what Miss Honey and Matilda are to each other. Roomies? Mom and daughter? Sisters? Besties?
The ending also leaves us with some other unanswered questions. Is Matilda sad that her family gave her up so easily, even though she wanted to live with Miss Honey? In the years to come, will she regret her decision at all? Or will she, like her parents, refuse to look back?
But here's the thing. As frustrating as those questions might be, and as unrealistic as this ending might seem to some, it's really the only way such an outrageous, fantastical novel could end. Remember, this is a book filled with telekinesis and hurling kids by their hair. This is not a book where plausibility matters. So our advice, Shmoopers, is to let the ending sweep you off your feet. Go ahead, it's okay to weep some tears of joy. Matilda finally got the family she deserves, so why not celebrate?
Based on the small location references in Matilda, you might try to figure out the region of England that the book's probably set in. It's a trick worthy of the genius Matilda herself.
But other than those few references, we don't know much more than the fact that Matilda takes place in a small English village. And if that's all we get, maybe that's the whole point. The characters could be anywhere. The village, like the people who populate it—the Wormwoods and the other students at Crunchem—is ordinary. It's the opposite of Matilda. It's as normal and regular as she is "extra-ordinary" (1.7). There's nothing special here, folks, so let's move right along.
While we don't know much about the town itself, we do know about the places within it. And frequently, in Matilda, those places don't match the people who are inside them. Matilda's family home seems fairly comfortable. It has all the basics a cozy home should have covered, but the Wormwoods are so awful that the house doesn't really feel like a home to Matilda.
It's not about what her house has, it's about what the people in that house don't provide: "Mr and Mrs Wormwood were both so gormless and so wrapped up in their own silly little lives that they failed to notice anything unusual about their daughter. To tell the truth, I doubt they would have noticed had she crawled into the house with a broken leg" (1.7). In other words, it's not really a place where she can grow or where she feels safe.
On the other hand, check out Miss Honey's cottage. It's a run-down shack that reeks of poverty and of doing-without: "The room was as small and square and bare as a prison cell. […] The only objects in the entire room were two upturned wooden boxes to serve as chairs and a third box between them for a table. That was all" (16.60). This is not a nice place to live. But because Miss Honey is there, and because it's a place free from the Trunchbull and the Wormwoods, it becomes a place where Miss Honey and Matilda can grow to be a family. They can support and help each other there, despite their meager surroundings.
Trust Shmoop when we tell you that his book is a joy to read. How can you not laugh at some of the things the Trunchbull says, or rejoice when Matilda superglues her dad's hat to his head? It's always fun to see people get a taste of their own medicine. The joyful fun from page to page makes this thing a breeze to get through. We never want to put it down.
But Matilda's not the easiest book to read in terms of the language that's used. Dahl frequently makes up his own words, uses a lot of British slang, and doesn't shy away from the five-dollar vocabulary words. But for the most part, the meanings are clear, and the words themselves are plain old fun to say.
Roald Dahl's writing style is a lot of things all at once. It's playful, funny, engaging, hyperbolic, and exaggerated all at the same time. Remember what Matilda says about how children's books should have "funny bits" (7.116)? She tells Miss Honey that "'Children are not so serious as grown-ups and they love to laugh'" (7.117). That's a huge clue to Dahl's style right there. He's writing for an audience that loves to laugh. Matilda may be the one who says it, but Dahl's the one who means it. And we know this because Matilda definitely makes us chuckle.
This is a book for children, and the children reading it are going to have a good time doing so. Although some of the vocabulary is pretty challenging, for the most part Dahl's writing is clearly and plainly laid out—still child-appropriate.
Shmoop thinks Matilda is a fun book to read, and part of that fun comes from the language that Dahl uses. You see, a lot of the time, Dahl relies on clever combos of wordy words to get his points across. Sometimes, like in the below statement by the Trunchbull, the words take on such a rising rhythm that they almost seem to turn into song. Try reading this quotation aloud:
"This clot," boomed the Headmistress, pointing the riding-crop at him like a rapier, "this black-head, this foul carbuncle, this poisonous pustule that you see before you is none other than a disgusting criminal, a denizen of the underworld, a member of the Mafia!" (11.23)
Here, the Trunchbull is trying to insult Bruce. This is supposed to be a scary speech. Especially if you're Bruce. But the speech is also so over the top that it becomes funny, especially to us readers. What did Bruce do again? Oh yeah. Steal cake. On the scale of crimes being committed in this book, that's pretty low.
And yet, for the Trunchbull, the cake-stealing is the worst thing that ever happened. Cue the hyperbole. Look at what she calls Bruce: a "clot," a "blackhead," a "foul carbuncle," and a "poisonous pustule." Nearly all of these terms describe growths. Like zits. So all this fancy-sounding language really just tells Bruce he's like a zit. Sure, she could have just said that, but it would have been a whole lot less hysterical.
In Matilda, books are gateways. They're escapes. Matilda latches onto them as soon as she can, and starts reading as though her life depends on it. First the library is her escape from her family life; then, by using books, her mind itself becomes her escape hatch.
Take a look at the reading list Mrs. Phelps puts together for Matilda (it's all there in the "Shout Outs" section, along with other books Matilda reads and other authors she knows about). It's really advanced. In fact, it's a reading list you might see in a college literature course. This isn't Where the Wild Things Are and Goodnight Moon. It's Tess of the D'Urbervilles and Animal Farm. The reading list Mrs. Phelps makes for Matilda would probably fit in just fine in an advanced college literature course. And whether the book is by Dickens or Steinbeck or Hemingway, Matilda eats it up.
If we're looking closely, we can tell that she seems to prefer books about adventure. These books' characters do things (they take action; they don't ask for permission), and by reading, Matilda gets to do those things, too. It's a pretty nice thing for a little girl whose home life lacks well, fun.
Sure, books bring together Mrs. Phelps and Matilda, and give her an in with Hortensia. But books also help to keep her apart from her family. In one of Matilda's more violent scenes, Mr. Wormwood tears up Matilda's borrowed copy of Steinbeck's The Red Pony. There's nothing she can do to stop him. He doesn't touch her or hit her, but when he's ripping the book apart, it's almost like he's ripping her up, too. By hurting something she values, he hurts her. And the fact that he doesn't value reading, when it means so much to Matilda, shows that he doesn't value her either.
Book battles also occur between Matilda and the imposing Trunchbull. A shared knowledge of Nicholas Nickleby brings Matilda to the Trunchbull's attention, for example. Of course we know right off the bat that this can't be headed anywhere good because a kid definitely does not want to have anything in common with the Trunchbull.
Of course even though they've both read the same book, it doesn't bring them closer together or help them understand each other. Instead, it's an excuse for the Trunchbull to criticize the poor girl. The Trunchbull, too, doesn't seem to get how awesome Matilda is, because for the Trunchbull, the fact that this little tyke can read Dickens is just one more bothersome thing about one more bothersome kid.
It's painful to see adults attack what Matilda holds dearest—her books and the stories within them. In a way, as Matilda disappears into these books, she is creating her own identity and her own escape. By lashing out at her books, they're squashing Matilda's spirit. But it's lucky she's read all those books, because with all that food for her imagination, Matilda has the perfect plan to get them back.
When you hear the words "chocolate cake," you probably think, "Yum!" not, "Ah yes, the cake, a clear literary symbol." Well, in Matilda, it's both.
A delicious chocolate cake makes such an important appearance in the book that it's even in one of the chapter titles: "Bruce Bogtrotter and the Cake." In this chapter, the Trunchbull has discovered that student Bruce has stolen some of her precious cake supply. To punish him, she forces him to eat an enormous cake during a school assembly:
Suddenly the Trunchbull exploded. "Eat!" she shouted, banging her thigh with the riding-crop. "If I tell you to eat, you will eat! You wanted cake! You stole cake! And now you've got cake! What's more, you're going to eat it! You do not leave this platform and nobody leaves this hall until you have eaten the entire cake that is sitting there in front of you! […]" (11.67)
The Trunchbull thinks that there's no way Bruce will eat the whole thing, and there's no better way to punish him than through certain illness (after all, that's a huge cake) and public embarrassment. You could say that he took some of her control away by swooping in and stealing cake that wasn't his to take, and the Trunchbull is trying to take that control back by telling him what he has to eat, how much, and when. The fact that he's not hungry is, well, not important. Because the Trunchbull is calling the shots now. And she doesn't care.
But ultimately Bruce triumphs over the Trunchbull, and eats every last bite of that huge cake. He succeeds even when she sets him up to fail, and doesn't seem to suffer too much (since when have you heard anybody complaining about having to eat a baked good?).
So her whole punishment backfires. She looks powerless next to him, and he becomes a temporary hero to the rest of the school. It's a glorious moment for all those students who have felt the wrath of the Trunchbull. For this brief moment, her wrath isn't so awful. In fact, it's nonexistent. She has been defeated, at least for the time being.
What's so great about this scene is that finishing the cake wasn't a prank Bruce planned, but it hurts the Trunchbull's ego even more than all those carefully plotted pranks (like the itching powder) do, because he took a situation that was supposed to humiliate him and used it to humiliate her instead. Go Bruce!
Both the narrator and Miss Honey refer to what Matilda can do with her powers as "miracles." When Miss Honey first hears Matilda explain that she tipped over a glass with her mind, she says, "'If you did that, then it is just about the greatest miracle a person has ever performed since the time of Jesus'" (15.31). This might be a little bit of an exaggeration, but she has a point, and she's not alone.
The narrator, too, seems to think that what Matilda does is miraculous. Three of the chapter titles have the word "Miracles" in them. We could say that in a more plain-speaking way, what Matilda is doing is called telekinesis: she is moving objects with only her mind.
Of course, whether skeptical readers believe in telekinesis is a whole other story. The closest explanation we get for Matilda's powers is the one provided by Miss Honey, who says that Matilda develops powers to use up all her extra brain juice, which has built up since she's not being challenged enough. That doesn't sound so miraculous, although it is a bit incredible.
While it's hard to say for sure whether what Matilda's doing is miraculous or not, we should remember that in the Catholic tradition, a person has to perform miracles before becoming a saint. In fact, some traditions specify that the saint must complete three miracles.
Sound familiar? It's pretty clear from the chapter titles that we're supposed to think Matilda performs three miracles. So, is she a saint? Is that what her extra-specialness is all about?
First, let's take a look at how Miss Honey describes Matilda looking after the second miracle is performed: "She saw the child white in the face, as white as paper, trembling all over, the eyes glazed, staring straight ahead and seeing nothing. The whole face was transfigured, the eyes round and bright, and she was sitting there speechless, quite beautiful in a blaze of silence" (15.41). Matilda is "transfigured"; she's "beautiful," "trembling," and swept up in a "blaze of silence." And what does that all feel like? Well, Matilda says using her powers is like reaching the stars, or the heavens. Sounds pretty saint-like to Shmoop.
Even though we've got references to religion, Madonnas, and miracles, her miracles aren't of the religious sort. Matilda's miracles don't come from God; they come from within herself. She makes them happen. She saves Miss Honey, and she humiliates the Trunchbull. In other words, Matilda doesn't wait around and pray for a rescue or an intervention. She creates that intervention on her own. She's a rainmaker.
The newt is a major player in one of the book's main pranks, though it's one that doesn't involve Matilda. Lavender catches one and hides it in the Trunchbull's drinking water, and then when the Trunchbull pours herself a glass, the newt comes sliding out. Yuck.
Like most people who find something gross in their food, the Trunchbull freaks out at the newt's appearance. Her loss of composure embarrasses her in front of the school's youngest class: "She was especially furious that someone had succeeded in making her jump and yell like that because she prided herself on her toughness" (14.8).
So, what does the newt do for us? Well, for a start, it shows us the Trunchbull's ignorance. The Trunchbull doesn't even know what the newt is: "she had never seen a newt before. Natural history was not her strong point. She hadn't the faintest idea what this thing was" (14.8). The Trunchbull is Headmistress of an entire school, and she can't even identify a newt. Talk about some serious holes in her knowledge.
The newt's presence also shows that the Trunchbull is scared of some things. She may seem like an impenetrable fortress of a woman (not to mention a total monster), but she is frightened by the sight of an itty bitty little newt. When it lands on her chest (as a side effect of Matilda's telekinesis), she is grossed out and tries to flick it away. In contrast, Lavender isn't scared of the newt at all and has no problem touching it. So compared to a tiny little five-year-old, the Trunchbull looks like a big ol' wimp. The newt exposes the chink in the Trunchbull's armor for everyone to see. To which we say, it's about time.
Although he's pretty separate from everything that goes down in Matilda, the narrator definitely has opinions about things, like students and parents and teachers and the Trunchbull (for the most part, those opinions are, shall we say, negative). But we don't really learn anything else about him—besides those opinions, that is. He's not in the trenches, fighting the Trunchbull, or pranking papa.
Though the narrator doesn't make a big scene, he does, sometimes, pop in for a visit. When Matilda's narrator brings out the "I" voice in this story, it's so he can share one of his opinions. It's almost as if he can't resist making comments about characters who are so outrageously smart, evil, or awful. He loves to point out the ridiculous, such as when he tells us, "If I were a teacher I would cook up some real scorchers for the children of doting parents" (1.4).
Our narrator is also quite careful with his words. Did you notice that when he talks about Matilda's ma and pa, he often calls them "the mother" or "the father," instead of Mrs. Wormwood and Mr. Wormwood? That's a little strange, right? But we promise—he knows what he's doing. Calling them these terms makes them feel impersonal. This is not a dynamic duo of a doting mother and a faithful father. They're like cardboard cutouts of a mom and dad, and not very good ones at that. The same goes for Miss Honey's awful aunt, whom she calls "the aunt," not my aunt. "The" is just a tiny little word, but it has a big effect when the narrator uses it in this way.
It also gives us a big hint: this narrator is on Matilda's side (even when she's making mischief). He's anti-adult, pro-pupil, and he's not afraid to let us know.
At the beginning, the narrator tells us that most parents think their children are brilliant, and teachers have to set the record straight when grades come out. The Wormwood family is, well, the opposite. If any parents ever had the right to brag about a child, it would be the Wormwoods.
Meet Matilda, the Wormwoods' daughter. She's a prodigy who can read and do math like a genius, and she's only five. She really is special. But the Wormwoods couldn't care any less about their daughter, and the more we get to know them, the more we realize that this family situation is less than ideal.
As the initial setup shows us, Matilda is an awesome, smart kid. But her family doesn't see that. When she displays signs of her intelligence, no matter how modestly, her father gets furious, so she decides to get back at him by playing an embarrassing prank on him each time he's mean to her.
If you were thinking that school might be a nice break from all the torture at home for Matilda, well, you'd be wrong. At school, Matilda (like all the other students) has to deal with the horrible Trunchbull. In fact, the Trunchbull is so terrible that she brings out the best in Matilda—her telekinetic powers.
But all these pranks can't last forever. Matilda's parents and the Trunchbull just get meaner and meaner and meaner. Something's gotta give.
Matilda is working extra hard to prepare her biggest and greatest prank to date. But we don't know what it is. We know she's going to use her telekinetic powers, and she's going to try to take down the Trunchbull, but otherwise we'll have to wait and see how it all goes down.
And then it does. And it's awesome. In this climactic scene, she uses her telekinetic powers to threaten the Trunchbull in chalk on the board in her classroom. When the Trunchbull passes out, we dare you not to let out a whoop of joy. This is the height of the action in the book, and the height of our spirits as we root for Matilda.
At this stage, most of the loose elements of the plot fall tidily back into place, as the good are rewarded and the bad punished. (Except for Mr. Wormwood.) It's like the past decade or so of Miss Honey's life is being erased, as she gets to move back into her family home and gets all the money that was rightfully hers. And, now that the Trunchbull is gone, Matilda can skip a few grades and finally be challenged in school. We're winding everything up, it seems, except those pesky parents are still in the picture. Ugh. We really dislike the Wormwoods.
Yep, Matilda is still stuck with her icky parents. Miss Honey and Matilda, who seemed destined to be a family of their own, are still apart. When Matilda's family heads to Spain, though, these two peas in a pod finally get to be together. And neither one of them has to think about their gross former families ever again. The bad are splitsville, the good are rewarded, and everyone (well, everyone who matters) lives happily ever after.
Easy Cooking (1.9)
The Secret Garden (1.24)
Charles Dickens (1.43; 2.38; 7.121; 9.39)
Joseph Conrad (1.54)
John Steinbeck, The Red Pony (4.7)
Shakespeare (6.4, 6)
The Madonna (7.3)
Anonymous, "An Epicure, Dining at Crewe" (7.82)
C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (7.113)
J.R.R. Tolkien (7.115)
Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers (7.121)
John Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn (8.4)
The Autocar (9.34)
The Motor (9.34)
Ernest Hemingway (9.39)
Rudyard Kipling, Just So Stories (10.17)
The Lord's Prayer (10.29)
Satan, as described in Milton's Paradise Lost (10.35)
Day of Judgment (10.55)
Dylan Thomas (16.40)
Dylan Thomas, "In Country Sleep" (16.42)
The Brothers Grimm (16.44)
Hans Christian Andersen (16.44)
Red Riding Hood (16.44)
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (16.44)
The Three Bears (16.44)
Charles Dickens, Great Expectations (1.31, 33, 43)
Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby (1.46; 13.105, 110)
Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist (1.46)
Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (1.46)
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1.46)
Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1.46)
Mary Webb, Gone to Earth (1.46)
Rudyard Kipling, Kim (1.46, 54; 2.38)
H.G. Wells, The Invisible Man (1.46)
Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea (1.46, 54)
William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (1.46)
John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (1.46)
J.B. Priestley, The Good Companions (1.46)
Graham Greene, Brighton Rock (1.46)
George Orwell, Animal Farm (1.46)