Parents have a funny habit: no matter how terrible their child is, parents inevitably think their child is wonderful. Some parents take this way too far and (wrongly) believe their child is a genius. This is all pretty normal—though it does make the narrator vomit when parents try to talk about their children. According to the narrator, teachers deal with this the most. If the narrator were a teacher, they’d write “scorch[ing]” end-of-term reports for the proud parents. They’d write things like hopefully Maximilian can go into the family business, since nobody else will hire him. Or they’d write that Wilfred is like a cicada—and they’re still waiting for him to come out of his chrysalis.
Though the narrator finds it sickening when parents think highly of their children (when the children don’t deserve it), the narrator also presents this as just the way things are. It’s normal, expected, and possibly even a good thing (if only because it gives the narrator the chance to come up with these humorous “scorchers”). Starting the novel this way gives readers a sense of how, per the narrator, things are and should be—so that the narrator can go on to upset these expectations.
But it’s time to get on with the story. On occasion, parents take the opposite tack and show no interest in their children. Mr. Wormwood and his wife, Mrs. Wormwood, are like this. They have an older son, Michael, and a little daughter, Matilda. They hate Matilda in particular and are just waiting for the day when she’s old enough to send far away. And while it’s always bad when parents treat kids like this, it’s even worse when the child in question—like Matilda—is so brilliant. Matilda’s brilliance should be obvious to anyone, but the Wormwoods are too self-involved to notice. They might not even notice if Matilda broke her leg.
Unlike the parents that the narrator described previously, the Wormwoods seem downright neglectful to their children, Matilda in particular. When the narrator says that it’s especially bad when parents neglect their brilliant kids, this implies that parents are, in theory, an important force in helping those brilliant kids succeed. In Matilda’s case, though, it’s not just that her parents seem indifferent to her intelligence. They may, through their neglect, actually put her in danger.
Now Michael is pretty normal. But Matilda is exceptional. By 18 months, she could speak perfectly, like a grown-up. But her parents accused her of being “a noisy chatterbox” and insisted that girls should be seen, not heard. By age three, Matilda knew how to read after teaching herself with newspapers and magazines. At age four, Matilda decided she’d like to read books. She read Mrs. Wormwood’s copy of Easy Cooking, and when she memorized all the recipes, she asked Mr. Wormwood to buy her a book. Mr. Wormwood refused, saying the television is good enough, and that Matilda must be spoiled if she’s asking for a book.
Matilda’s parents dislike her for several reasons. First, they have very specific ideas about how women and girls should behave—and being smart and talkative is not in line with their expectations. Then, more broadly, they also don’t value education. The fact that there are newspapers, magazines, and at least one cookbook in the Wormwood home suggests that the Wormwoods value the written word for purely practical purposes. But getting enjoyment out of a book is, per Mr. Wormwood, inappropriate.
Matilda spends every afternoon alone while Michael is at school, Mr. Wormwood is at work, and Mrs. Wormwood plays bingo. On the day that Mr. Wormwood refuses to buy Matilda a book, Matilda walks alone to the little library in her village. There, she introduces herself to Mrs. Phelps, the librarian, and asks to sit with a book. Though Mrs. Phelps is shocked to see such a little girl all alone, she tells Matilda she’s welcome and points her to the children’s books. Matilda then starts spending every afternoon at the library. Soon, she’s read every children’s book in the library.
It seems like Matilda’s parents neglect her in every way. They’re not around to make sure she stays out of trouble in the afternoons—and there’s no indication they’d even care if she did get in trouble. But Matilda discovers that she can find care elsewhere. And the library doesn’t just give Matilda Mrs. Phelps (who seems to care more for Matilda than the Wormwoods do), it also gives her access to the books—and education—she craves.
Mrs. Phelps has been watching Matilda for weeks. Now, as she sees Matilda perusing the shelves, she offers to help Matilda. Matilda says she doesn’t know what to read next, since she’s read—and actually read, not just looked at the pictures—all the children’s books. She enjoyed The Secret Garden the most. Mrs. Phelps is stunned, especially when Matilda admits she’s only four years and three months old. Hiding her shock, she considers Matilda’s request for a “famous,” “grown-up” book. Passing by the romances for teenagers, Mrs. Phelps offers Matilda Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.
Matilda isn’t at all self-conscious about her precociousness. She doesn’t seem to realize that it’s unusual for a four-year-old to be able to read The Secret Garden, let alone the entire children’s section of the library. Mrs. Phelps realizes that the best way to help Matilda is to not draw attention to the fact that Matilda is an oddity. Rather, it’s more helpful to give Matilda something that will definitely challenge her. The worst case scenario is that Matilda discovers her limits and asks for something easier.
Though Mrs. Phelps figures this is ridiculous, she spends the next week watching Matilda rest the heavy book in her lap and read it. Mrs. Phelps is concerned for Matilda’s safety walking to and from the library, as Matilda has already shared that Mrs. Wormwood doesn’t care what she does and hates books.
Again, though Mrs. Phelps doesn’t do anything to help Matilda deal with the neglect at home, she does express concern—and gives Matilda a safe place to spend her afternoons. Matilda is learning to read, but she’s also learning that there are adults outside of her home who will help and support her.
Finally, Matilda finishes the book and announces she loved Great Expectations—did Mr. Dickens write other books? With Mrs. Phelps’s help, Matilda works through many classics, such as Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Kim by Rudyard Kipling, and The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway. Mrs. Phelps is excited by Matilda’s obvious genius, but she knows it never goes well to get involved with other people’s kids.
Matilda’s intelligence is clear as she works through classic novels that can be challenging for adults. Mrs. Phelps believes that the best way to help Matilda is to keep giving her these books. Next to a parent, who has legal rights to decide what their child does, she’s powerless. So all she feels she can do is encourage Matilda to keep reading.
Matilda especially loves Hemingway, though she admits she doesn’t understand everything he says. Mrs. Phelps assures her that’s okay and shares that libraries allow people to borrow books to take home. Matilda then begins visiting the library only weekly and spending her afternoons reading in her bedroom with a mug of hot chocolate. As she reads, she travels all over the world.
In passages like these, Matilda’s youth shines through—she doesn’t have the life experience, or the maturity, to understand what some of the more sophisticated titles she’s reading are all about. But with Mrs. Phelps’s guidance, Matilda still finds books enjoyable. Even when she takes them home, they help her cope with her parents’ neglect.