Oh boy. If there's a shortlist of fictional characters we wouldn't want to run into in a dark alley, the Trunchbull is probably right at the top. She might be the scariest Headmistress we're ever likely to come across. She's certainly one of the most evil characters to walk through the pages of a Dahl book. And that's no small feat.
The narrator of Matilda makes a special point of explaining how especially evil and dangerous the Trunchbull is:
She was a gigantic holy terror, a fierce tyrannical monster who frightened the life out of the pupils and teachers alike. There was an aura of menace about her even at a distance […] Thank goodness we don't meet many people like her in this world, although they do exist and all of us are likely to come across at least one of them in a lifetime. (7.5)
It's almost like the Trunchbull is in the book to teach us a moral lesson. As dreadful as she is, we should be prepared in case we ever come across someone like her. Yeah. Prepared to run.
Dahl's an expressive writer, and a lot of this book's expression gets lavished on the Trunchbull. We get a really lengthy physical description of her soon after she enters, down to her clothing and the expression on her face. (For more about this, check out the section "Tools of Characterization.") It's almost as if you can tell what kind of person the Trunchbull is, based on that mean mug of hers alone.
Her attitude and actions are visible in her features: "Looking at her, you got the feeling that this was someone who could bend iron bars and tear telephone directories in half. […] 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). Promise us, Shmoopers, that if you see this face coming at you, you'll run the other way—if you can make it.
She's awful, right? So we have to ask: how in the world did the Trunchbull end up being the headmistress of a school when she hates kids so much? Her actions and words tell us that she can't stand the little guys. She does things like throw boys out of windows, use girls for shot-put practice, lock people up, force-feed them cake, and pick kids up by their ears and hair. From Miss Honey's story, we know the Trunchbull flat-out abused her niece emotionally, physically, and mentally—and not just when Miss Honey was a child. When the book begins, the abuse is still going on, since the Trunchbull is taking most of Miss Honey's money.
The Trunchbull also keeps talking about how much she hates kids. Just take a peek at some of the things she says, in front of her students, of course:
Wow. She's a real peach, isn't she? How did the Trunchbull get her job in the first place? And why on earth does she still have it?
We may not be able to answer the first question, but there's at least one possible answer for the second. It could be that people are simply too scared to fire her (wouldn't you be?). In addition to students and teachers, other adults in the community are scared of her, too. We get this info from Hortensia, who explains, "'I know [my parents] wouldn't [complain about the Trunchbull]. She treats the mothers and fathers just the same as the children and they're all scared to death of her'" (10.65-67).
Actually, the Trunchbull terrifies everybody—not just students and parents. Nobody's safe from her, and that keeps her safe. No one wants to challenge her, that is, until Matilda comes along. Matilda even says this over-the-top evil quality "'is the Trunchbull's great secret […] 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'" (11.4-6).
Don't forget that, as the book continues, we learn that the Trunchbull is most likely a full-on criminal who's guilty of many things, including murdering her own brother-in-law, forging legal documents, and repeatedly swindling her niece. Yowza. When Matilda takes her down, we want to cheer with the rest of the students and teachers at Crunchem—or at least pour a pitcher of water on her head, like Nigel does.
If Matilda has some unbelievable powers and precocity going on, then the Trunchbull is her match in terms of pure ferocity and nastiness. She's exaggerated, yes, but then so is Matilda as far as her pure smarts and ability go. After all, what's more farfetched—a woman who will throw kids by their pigtails, or a little girl who can move things with her very strong mind? Her terribleness makes her a worthy opponent to Matilda.
It also goes to show that power doesn't always mean being a terrible, mean brute. Power can also be found in a very smart little girl and her kind teacher, Miss Honey. In the end, Matilda is the one who comes out on top, through sheer goodness and ingenuity. She doesn't have to resort to being the kind of terror that the Trunchbull does.