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Matilda: novel study

Year 4 Lit Circle Study


Roald Dahl

Dreary boarding schools, famous candy factories, and world travels all influenced the writing of Roald Dahl, one of the greatest storytellers of all time. After receiving life-threatening injuries during World War II through his work as an RAF fighter pilot. He wrote successful novellas and short stories for adults before concentrating on his marvellous children’s stories, which began as bedtime stories he told his children. He once said, “I have a passion for teaching kids to become readers . . . . Books shouldn’t be daunting, they should be funny, exciting and wonderful; and learning to be a reader gives a terrific advantage.”


Visit Roald Dahl's website for lots of fun and information



















Matilda Loves Books

About the book

Matilda is one of Roald Dahl's best-known stories. The story of the little girl with a big brain and mysterious magical powers, her kind teacher Miss Honey and her formidable Headmistress Miss Trunchbull has entertained parents and children alike for generations since it was first published in 1988

Meet Matilda. She lives with her mean parents. They ignore her, which is extra tragic because she's shaping up to be a super-genius. In spite of them, she teaches herself to read, and heads to the local library, where Mrs. Phelps sets her up with a very advanced reading list.
Sure, Matilda's home life stinks. But she's a clever girl, so she decides to play tricks on her parents whenever they behave badly. She plays three pranks, gluing her dad's hat to his head, disguising a neighbor's parrot as a ghost, and dying her dad's hair blonde. Yes, these are as awesome as they sound.
Then, Matilda starts going to school. On day one, her teacher Miss Honey quickly realizes how smart Matilda is. Miss Honey even visits the headmistress, the Trunchbull, to ask for help with Matilda, but the Trunchbull ain't havin' it. The same thing happens when Miss Honey visits the Wormwoods. Meanwhile, Matilda and her friend Lavender meet Hortensia, who tells them all about how horrible the Trunchbull is. They see the Trunchbull throw a little girl through the playground by her hair. Another day, the Trunchbull force-feeds a kid named Bruce Bogtrotter an entire cake. This woman is bad news.
Lavender decides to prank the Trunchbull on a class visit. She captures a newt and puts it into the Trunchbull's water glass. The Trunchbull blames Matilda for the newt, which makes our girl so mad she pushes the Trunchbull's water glass over with her mind. Whoa. After class, she tells Miss Honey what she did, and then she gives her teacher a little magic show, which results in Miss Honey inviting little Matilda to tea.
Turns out Miss Honey is really poor. She tells Matilda about her past. After her mum died, her mean aunt straight up ruined her life. In fact, Miss Honey suspects that the aunt might have killed her father, and stolen all Miss Honey's money. Oh, and by the way, her aunt is the Trunchbull. We're totally serious.
Matilda decides to use her telekinetic powers to help Miss Honey, so she practices and practices and practices until finally the day comes when she can get some serious revenge.
The Trunchbull visits Miss Honey's class again. The Trunchbull is acting as abusive as ever when she's interrupted by a piece of chalk that's writing on its own. It writes that the Trunchbull has to stop cheating Miss Honey, give the things she stole back, and get rolling. Or else. Needless to say, the Trunchbull passes out cold.
Soon we find out the Trunchbull obeyed Matilda's instructions. Miss Honey moves home and starts living a decent life again. And Matilda, who visits her every day, gets moved up to the school's highest class. After moving up, Matilda loses her powers. One day, she finds out that her parents are planning to move to Spain, ASAP. Matilda doesn't want to go with them. So Matilda moves in with Miss Honey, where the two live happily (and smartly) ever after.
Matilda is seriously smart. She is exceptionally good at reading and maths, and teaches herself to do complicated problems in her head, as well as how to read. In fact, Matilda might be the smartest character we've ever met, and that makes us like her. A lot. She's special. This isn't lost on others, either. Miss Honey recognizes Matilda's gift immediately:
"A precocious child," Miss Honey said, "is one that shows amazing intelligence early on. You are an unbelievably precocious child."
"Am I really?" Matilda asked. (16.19-20)
Once we get past wondering why Matilda, who reads at a high school level, doesn't already know what precocious means, we can zero in on what this moment is really telling us. Matilda, although a child, is intelligent far beyond her years. Her gift is special. Which is all the more obvious by the fact that this scene had us all running for our dictionaries.
If Matilda were a less awesome person, her big brain might make her a bit, well, big headed. But not our Matilda. Precocious she may be, but she's also totally modest and innocent. As our narrator puts it, "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).
Despite the fact that Miss Honey sees that Matilda is leaps and bounds beyond the average kid, the girl is only five. For all Matilda knows, other people can read and can do math the way she does (though we, as the reader, know this isn't the case).
The fact that she doesn't realize she's special, sets Matilda apart from the other characters in another major way. Folks like Mr. Wormwood and the Trunchbull think they're special, but they're not. They act like they're smart, and they're not. Matilda is just smart. She doesn't have to replace brains with bragging.
The Judge
We know that Matilda is awesome in at least two ways: she's smart and humble. But you know what (get ready for even more awesome)? She's also fair. Matilda has her own very moral code, complete with strong ideas about what's right and wrong. For example, when the Trunchbull accuses her of putting the newt in the water glass, her reaction is described in the following way:
"She didn't in the least mind being accused of having done something she had actually done. She could see the justice of that. It was, however, a totally new experience for her to be accused of a crime that she definitely had not committed." (14.16)
It's not the accusation itself that upsets her; it's the fact that she knows that she did not do it (and knows that underneath all that anger, the Trunchbull knows it, too). She'd take the hit if she'd done the crime, but she's not up for smoke when there's no fire.
When these kinds of tiffs and injustices arise, though, Matilda doesn't just sit around stewing. She takes matters into her own hands, and punishes the people who treat her and others wrongly. She strives to make things right.
In her greatest and most outrageous prank, she uses her powers to try and help Miss Honey get what's hers. After hearing about all the horrible things that the Trunchbull did to Miss Honey, Matilda just can't stand by while the evil woman takes advantage of nice Miss Honey. So when Matilda uses her telekinesis to pretend to be the vengeful ghost of Magnus (Miss Honey's dead father), we cheer. Sure, it's a bit extreme, but this punishment is totally deserved. And Matilda's prank comes from a sense of right and wrong, not a desire for revenge.
See, Matilda's just plain old nice. So when folks are nice to her, she's nice right back. Maybe that's why she and Miss Honey get along famously. Matilda treats her teacher with all the care, kindness, and respect that Miss Honey shows to her.
At Miss Honey's cottage, Matilda is shocked by the shabby condition of her teacher's home. But does she make rude comments and stick her foot in her mouth? Of course not. She just tells her teacher, "That's all right," because "In her wisdom she seemed to be aware of the delicacy of the situation and she was taking great care not to say anything to embarrass her companion" (16.59). She doesn't want to hurt Miss Honey's feelings by pointing out how bare and desolate the little home is.
She just wants to make it better. So our little Matilda comes up with a genius plan to improve her teacher's quality of life. She's focused on making things better, not harping on the past. And that's because being a good judge of fairness and character doesn't just mean that you're going to punish the bad guys; it means that you have help the good guys, too.
Of course, it's important to remember that Matilda's not perfect. She gets mad and she plays tricks on people, just like the other little kids in the book do. She's not so good that she never does anything wrong. But she certainly doesn't prank people for the sake of it. She doesn't relish hurting others. And she also doesn't hesitate to help those who need her help.
What's so awesome about all this is that Matilda's goodness highlights the total badness of all the bad guys. Like her intelligence and modesty, her sense of "justice" also puts her in contrast with her parents and the Trunchbull. All these adult authority figures are stupid and unfair, while Matilda, at all of five years old, is doling out justice with a blindfold and a scale.
The Regular Girl
Matilda may be a child genius, but she also lives (for the most part) just like the rest of us—if the rest of us had terrifying headmistresses and idiotic parents, that is. Just because she's super smart doesn't mean she's not an ordinary little girl too. She may be freakishly brainy, but she's no freak
Like other kids her age, Matilda
  • hates being blamed for things she didn't do.
  • likes playing tricks on those who bug her (anyone who's ever had a sibling will be familiar with this).
  • likes her nice teacher.
  • uses her telekinetic powers to do the right thing.
Okay, so maybe that last one is a bit of a stretch. But the point here is that all Matilda's trying to do is accomplish a little tit-for-tat—to teach people lessons, regardless of her special powers. Though she's obviously bright, when we see her pulling these little everyday pranks, we come to see her as more of a normal, slightly mischievous little girl who likes learning, wants to have friends her own age, and most of all, wants older figures in her life who love and care for her. Isn't that what every child wants?
Being so brainy doesn't make her lack all emotions. She wants to be loved. Deep down, Matilda wants to be part of a caring family: "Matilda longed for her parents to be good and loving and understanding and honourable and intelligent. The fact that they were none of these things was something she had to put up with" (5.1). She wants to have relationships with people she respects, with people who respect her.
This longing for respect might sound like a rather grown-up desire, but it also seems like a pretty basic human wish, when you look at it more closely. Are the characteristics that Matilda wishes her parents had all that different from more common concepts of good parenting, or happy family life? In a way, isn't Matilda just hoping for something that many of us hope for too?
The Rainmaker
We're being totally serious here. This girl makes it rain. Matilda's always taking destiny (her own and other people's) into her own hands. She isn't happy with the way her dad treats her, so she repeatedly embarrasses him. She's upset at how the Trunchbull speaks to her, so she makes glasses fall and newts fly through the air. She's outraged for Miss Honey, so she tricks the Trunchbull into giving Miss Honey all her stuff back. She gets things done.
And then, at the end of the book, Matilda pulls off her greatest feat of independence yet; she decides where and with whom she wants to live. Luckily, her parents are on board with her plan, although we're thinking that if they weren't up for it, Matilda would find a way to make it happen. That's because Matilda has made her choice, and she'll get her way, no doubt.


Miss Jennifer Honey was a mild and quiet person who never raised her voice and was seldom seen to smile, but there is no doubt she possessed that rare gift for being adored by every small child under her care. (7.3-4)
That's our narrator talking, and he has Miss Honey pegged. Like Matilda, she's special. Although she's not a genius, Miss Honey has a "rare gift"; she can make her students love her. They "adore" her, and their adoration makes them into even more willing learners. You know what that means, folks. Miss Honey is the perfect teacher.
Just how perfect a teacher is Miss Honey, exactly? Think about it: on the first day of class, only a couple of kids can spell "cat." By Thursday of the first week, even a slower student named Prudence can spell "difficulty" without any, well, difficulty. If Miss Honey can do that in a week, imagine how much she can help her students learn in a year's time. In other words, Miss Honey doesn't just help genius-level students. She tries to help everybody, and she does.
The Mother
Once we meet Miss Honey, it becomes clear that Matilda's parents are, well, the worst parents ever. In contrast, Miss Honey is exactly the type of person who would be a perfect mom for Matilda. Even though she "[is] seldom seen to smile" (7.3-4), she has a lot of smiles for Matilda, and more importantly, she nurtures our favorite little genius. Miss Honey is kind, sweet, and gentle, and she understands kids.
Further descriptions of Miss Honey show how different she is from Matilda's actual mom, the blowsy Mrs. Wormwood (and from the giant monster, the Trunchbull): "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" (7.3).
Oh well isn't that interesting? The narrator is comparing Miss Honey to Madonna (no, not that Madonna. We're talking about Jesus' mom here). We're thinking the Madonna was one awesome mama, and in comparing Miss Honey to her, the narrator is highlighting Miss Honey's role as a great maternal figure for her kiddos—Matilda in particular. She's obviously better than Mrs. Wormwood at this mothering business, and besides Mrs. Phelps, she seems like the only adult in this book who actually gives a hoot about youngsters.
In the end, when Miss Honey agrees to adopt Matilda, it only makes sense. In some ways, she's been mothering Matilda throughout the whole story, and doing a much better job of it than anyone else.
Matilda 2.0
She may be delicate, but, as we read Matilda, we realize that Miss Honey is a determined person who's set on doing the right thing. Kind of like Matilda. In fact, maybe you could say that Miss Honey is like a grown-up version of Matilda. They both love poetry, limericks, and Dylan Thomas. As kids, their families did not understand them and treated them poorly. In Miss Honey's case, she even went through severe abuse at the hands of the Trunchbull.
The one key difference here is that Matilda and Miss Honey react to their abuse in very different ways. Let's hear it from Miss Honey herself:
"I don't want to talk about it," Miss Honey said. "It's too horrible. But in the end I became so frightened of her I used to start shaking when she came into the room. You must understand I was never a strong character like you. I was always shy and retiring." (17.43)
Sure, they both may have had horrible adult figures in their lives, but what happens afterward is very different. Miss Honey admits it: she wasn't as strong as Matilda is. She never would have stood up to the Trunchbull or played pranks on her tormentor. Luckily, Matilda can take care of business, and when she overthrows the Trunchbull, the student saves the teacher.
The Monster's Victim
In conversations Matilda has with Miss Honey, it's the little girl who seems more like the adult, giving advice, evaluating the other's situation, and gently scolding her for giving in to the Trunchbull: "'You shouldn't have done that [sign your salary over to the Trunchbull],' Matilda said. 'Your salary was your chance of freedom'" (17.68). We get the sense that Matilda wouldn't have stood for the same treatment. But Miss Honey has gone through too much abuse. She's been broken.
Miss Honey was a victim of the evil Trunchbull—who we know isn't the most motherly of characters—for many years: "'I had been her slave nearly all my life and I hadn't the courage or the guts to say no. I was still petrified of her. She could still hurt me badly'" (17.69). With this kind of insight, perhaps it's unfair to say that Miss Honey is weaker than Matilda, or lacked the sass and determination that allows Matilda to stand up to mean old adults.
If Matilda had grown up with the Trunchbull, would she have been different? Maybe the Trunchbull's abuse was so extreme, so downright terrible, that just about anyone would have reacted in the way Miss Honey did.
We definitely don't want to imply that Miss Honey is weak. Deep down, Miss Honey still possesses courage and an independent mind. She's still willing to fight for what really matters, whether it's moving into a little shack (and getting out from under the Trunchbull's thumb) or voluntarily going to see the Trunchbull in order to help Matilda out. She's a victim of abuse, sure, but with Matilda's help, she is able to create the life she always wanted. She just might have more strength than we give her credit for.


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.
The Not-So Teacher
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:
  • "My idea of a perfect school […] is one that has no children in it at all." (14.3)
  • "I don't like small people […] Small people should never be seen by anybody. They should be kept out of sight in boxes like hairpins and buttons." (13.68) 
  • "I cannot for the life of me see why children have to take so long to grow up. I think they do it on purpose." (13.68)
  • "I have never been able to understand why small children are so disgusting. They are the bane of my life. They are like insects. They should be got rid of as early as possible. We get rid of flies with fly-spray and by hanging up fly-paper. I have often thought of inventing a spray for getting rid of small children. How splendid it would be to walk into this classroom with a gigantic spray-gun in my hands and start pumping it." (14.1)
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).
The Terror
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.

Themes in the Novel

A theme is a big idea or central topic of importance in a work.  It is often timeless and universal (like a concept), such as ‘love’ and ‘death’. Short stories often have just one theme, whereas novels usually have multiple themes. The theme of a story is woven all the way through the story, and the characters' actions, interactions, and motivations all reflect the story's theme.  

All themes from

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?
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
Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.
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.
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
Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.
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.

Matilda Quotes

“Matilda said, "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...”

Click here for more great quotes

7 Things you didn't know about Matilda