Study Guide

Matilda Themes

By Roald Dahl

  • Education

    As in many of Roald Dahl's books, the school in Matilda is a terrifying place—a place where adults like the Trunchbull can abuse students both physically and mentally, hurling them out windows, grabbing them by their ears, and screaming insults at them regularly. Even eating cake becomes a punishment at Crunchem Hall Primary. But, because of teachers like Miss Honey, and friends like Lavender, a school can also be a place of light and hope. The thing is, though, learning doesn't just happen at school. It can happen wherever the learner is, like a library, or even Matilda's bedroom. All you need is your own interest and a book, and you can go anywhere you want.

    Questions About Education

    1. Does Crunchem Hall seem totally unbelievable? Or is it realistic in any way? Who is the most realistic teacher? Who is clearly too outrageous to be true? 
    2. If Matilda's so smart, why does she need to go to school at all? What does she learn from the school that she doesn't seem to learn when she's at the library?
    3. Do you think Matilda knows how smart she is? Do you think her school education will help her grow smarter? And what about the, well, stupider characters? Do they know how not smart they are? How do you know?
    4. What do you think of the reading list Mrs. Phelps gives to Matilda? Is it appropriate for her? Why or why not? (You can find a bunch of these books listed over in the "Shout-Outs" section.)

    Chew on This

    Matilda gets telekinetic powers because she's not being challenged. So that means that having super smart people be working below their full potential is totally dangerous. Let that be a lesson!

    It's very lucky that Matilda was so underappreciated and underchallenged, because that leads to her telekinesis, which is what helps to save Miss Honey from her sticky situation. If Matilda had been appreciated from the get-go, Miss Honey would be right where she is—in poverty.

  • The Supernatural

    If your definition of the supernatural is limited to ghosts, goblins, and ghouls, you could argue that there's little supernatural stuff happening in this book. Sure, there's a ghost, but there's also a logical explanation for that ghost: it's really a parrot. If your definition of the supernatural extends to extraordinary mental abilities, like telekinesis, then Matilda has got the supernatural in spades. To those who don't know better, Matilda's a regular little girl. But as Miss Honey discovers, Matilda's way more than a genius. She's practically a member of the X-Men.

    Questions About The Supernatural

    1. According to Matilda, do you need supernatural powers to pull off a really satisfactory prank? Or can we regular folks do it, too?
    2. What are the similarities and differences between the two "ghosts" Matilda conjures up? Is one more supernatural than the other?
    3. Does the explanation Matilda and Miss Honey come up with to explain her powers make them seem any less supernatural? Why or why not?
    4. What's the most remarkable thing that happens in this book? Is it supernatural? Do you think the supernatural and the remarkable are the same thing?

    Chew on This

    Matilda is so smart that even if she hadn't developed supernatural powers, she would still have been able to save both herself and Miss Honey. She's just that awesome.

    The only reason Matilda develops supernatural abilities is so she can help Miss Honey, and once she's helped Miss Honey, she doesn't need those powers any more.

  • Awe and Amazement

    Either you're awed and amazed by something that's over-the-top cool, or you're awed and amazed by something unbelievably terrible. In Matilda, it goes both ways. We're as awed by the bad behavior of grown-ups like Mr. Wormwood and the Trunchbull as we are amazed by the pranks that students play and the mental magic Matilda delivers. It seems like everything in the book is over the top, from the way the Trunchbull hurls students across fields to the ghost Matilda conjures up in Miss Honey's classroom. It's all about pushing the limits of what we would expect from normal behavior.

    Questions About Awe and Amazement

    1. Which of the awe-inspiring acts in this book are also awful?
    2. Do you find Matilda's telekinesis or the Trunchbull's cruelty more amazing?
    3. Were you more amazed at the Wormwoods' parenting style or at Matilda's genius?
    4. Is Miss Honey's obedience to the Trunchbull amazing? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Matilda's spot on when she says that the Trunchbull is protected by her own outrageousness; the worse she treats other people, the more likely it is that no one will complain about it at all. They're just too scared.

    What's most amazing about Matilda isn't the fact that she's a brainiac or a telekinetic; it's the fact that she always stands up for herself against way more powerful people, no matter how badly they treat her. Miss Honey could take some notes.

  • Fear

    Shmoop may be terrified of giant spiders, but we're very thankful we don't have to be afraid of someone like the Trunchbull. We'll leave that fear to the students of Crunchem Hall, who spend their days scared witless of their very own headmistress. But even the scariest people can be made to feel fear, and Matilda is just the kid to deliver that poetic justice. In Matilda, fear is what makes a person like the terrifying Trunchbull weak, which helps Matilda bring about the awesome ending that only a Dahl book could have.

    Questions About Fear

    1. What is the scariest thing the Trunchbull does, and why?
    2. Is Matilda scared of anything? If so, what?
    3. What does it take for Miss Honey to stop being afraid? And what was she really afraid of for so long?
    4. What's the Trunchbull really afraid of? Ghosts? Her past? The police?

    Chew on This

    The scariest element in this book is the Wormwood family's (excluding Matilda) total disinterest in the importance of reading. Or maybe that's just Shmoop's gut instinct. After all, we really like reading.

    In Matilda, fear makes characters weak. So it's the bravest who come out on top, and the most scared (no matter how scary they are) who wind up losing.

  • Youth

    It's both fun and scary to be a little kid. There's more potential for magic and wonder everywhere you look. But there's also more potential for danger too. In Matilda, it's not just that grown-ups don't take kids seriously, or that they aren't allowed to read through dinner if that's what they want to do. People like the Trunchbull can throw kids around by their hair or lock them up in places like The Chokey. They can tell youngsters that they're wrong or stupid, and they're supposed to sit there and take it. That's part of what makes Matilda awesome. She isn't going to take that stuff from anyone. She'll stand up to any grown-up there is.

    Questions About Youth

    1. Who is the most immature character in this book? Who is the most grown-up?
    2. Is Matilda a regular little girl? Why or why not?
    3. Why do so many of the children in this book try to play pranks on authority figures?
    4. Why, do you think, do so many of the adults in this book seem to either misunderstand or not value children?

    Chew on This

    The smallest, youngest people in this book, like Matilda, Lavender, and even Nigel, are the wisest. Even though there is a ton of stuff they still don't know, they absolutely know right from wrong, and are determined to see justice done against the Trunchbull.

    In spite of how scary the Trunchbull is, nothing she does can keep the kids at Crunchem Hall from acting like the kids they are; in fact, the meaner she is the more determined they are to play pranks and sneak around.

  • Violence

    You might think that there wouldn't be much violence in a book that has a five-year-old main character. A kids' book can be scary, but not too scary. Well, you might be surprised at how much violence there actually is in Matilda. There's physical, mental, and emotional abuse of both children and adults. The Trunchbull is as likely to hurl insults at someone as she is to hurl that someone across the field. At best, Matilda's parents ignore her; at worst, her father accuses her of lying and cheating, and screams at her. One thing you might note is that this violence always comes courtesy of the adults in the book. Hmm. We wonder if Dahl did that on purpose.

    Questions About Violence

    1. How do you feel about the way the Trunchbull treats kids? Is her behavior realistic? If it's not realistic, does that make it less scary?
    2. Do you think Matilda acts with violence? Why or why not?
    3. Is it worse to be picked up by your hair or your ears, or to be swung around by your pigtails? 

    Chew on This

    The fact that the Trunchbull's violence is so over-the-top almost makes it less scary, because we know that crazy stuff could never happen in real life.

    The fact that nobody steps up to stop the Trunchbull, not even other teachers or parents, shows the absolute power a violent person can have.

  • Family

    Matilda challenges our understanding of family as something good, loving, and safe. For most of the book, the families that we hear about—Matilda's and Miss Honey's—are downright dreadful. Miss Honey's aunt physically abuses her, while Matilda's parents emotionally abuse and neglect her. Neither Matilda nor Miss Honey is praised by their family members for their intelligence, or encouraged to pursue their education. But by the end of the novel, they've managed to forge a new family, with each other, and we feel pretty confident that this new family will be anything but dreadful. We're sure Matilda and Miss Honey will respect and love each other as any good family members should.

    Questions About Family

    1. Are there any happy families in this book? If so, who is in them?
    2. Would it be worse to be related to Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood or to the Trunchbull?
    3. Do you think this book is trying to tell us that families are important, or unimportant? In fact, what makes a family in this book? Is it being related? Or something else?

    Chew on This

    If Matilda hadn't had such terrible parents, she wouldn't have been as motivated to educate herself on her own terms.

    Matilda shows that the most important family isn't the one you're born into but the one you make.

  • Freedom and Confinement

    The Trunchbull holds everyone at school captive just by her threatening presence. She can also literally confine people in torture apparatuses like The Chokey, or force them into signing legal papers against their wills. Characters like Miss Honey and Matilda are imprisoned by their family situations, but Matilda ultimately uses her mental powers to free them both. What's more, as soon as she's able to read on her own, Matilda develops the ability to escape from her surroundings whenever she wants. All she has to do is open a book. And that's the beauty of Matilda. Sure, these characters might be trapped by their unfortunate situations, but the key to freedom lies within themselves.

    Questions About Freedom and Confinement

    1. Which characters in this book are stuck? How are they confined?
    2. Why doesn't Miss Honey rebel against her aunt? If Matilda had been in Miss Honey's position, do you think she would have acted differently?
    3. How and why do books help Matilda escape?

    Chew on This

    Miss Honey doesn't have what it takes to free herself because she's too old. She has to rely on Matilda's youthful imagination to help her escape the Trunchbull.

    Miss Honey should have stood up to the Trunchbull ages ago, because by not doing so, she is allowing the evil headmistress to literally imprison kids. Not cool.

  • Good vs. Evil

    In Matilda, we don't just have one meanie to contend with; we have three. The first one we meet in the book is Matilda's father, Mr. Wormwood, who treats his daughter like an irritating little bug. The second meanie, Mrs. Wormwood, is pretty harmless compared to the other two, but she's a meanie nonetheless because she totally ignores her awesome daughter. The third meanie, the Trunchbull, takes the cake. She rules Crunchem Hall with an iron fist, and completely destroys Miss Honey's life. Luckily, we've got the spectacular Matilda fighting on the side of good. With her wits and skills, she takes down these Big Bads, and we cheer her on every step of the way.

    Questions About Good vs. Evil

    1. All right, Shmoopers, here comes the big question: who is evil in this book? Are they purely evil, or do they have any good qualities? And who is good in this book? Are they purely good? How do you know?
    2. Do you think Matilda is good? What are some examples of her being good? Can you think of any examples of her being bad? Or, dare we say, evil?
    3. In Matilda, is it ever good to be bad? How do you know?
    4. Are the evil always punished in Matilda? Are the good always rewarded? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    All of Matilda's pranks, even though they might put her on the naughty list, are actually a-okay because they were done to big meanies.

    Matilda isn't good. Sure, she's nice, but her pranks show that she's a mischief-maker, and she shouldn't just get away with them, no matter whom the targets are.