According to the narrator, the nice thing about Matilda is that she seems perfectly normal and sensible, unless you bring up literature or math. Because of this, Matilda easily makes friends at school, even though she gets to read her own books during lessons—mostly because kids that age are too caught up in their own struggles to be too curious when their classmates do something different. Matilda’s new best friend is Lavender, who’s extremely tiny. The girls like each other because they each believe the other is “gutsy and adventurous.”
At school, Matilda is discovering a community and friends. This community will be able to help give her the support that she’s lacking at home. The fact that the girls admire each other because they think they’re both “gutsy and adventurous” also suggests that their friendship is going to spur them to a new level of playing tricks on adults.
During the first week of school, the new students learn all manner of tales about Miss Trunchbull. One morning, when Matilda and Lavender are on the playground for morning break, a 10-year-old named Hortensia welcomes them and asks if they’ve met “the Trunchbull” yet. Hortensia warns the girls that the Trunchbull hates small kids; many don’t survive and leave school for good on stretchers. Observing the little girls’ non-reactions, Hortensia asks if they’ve heard of the Trunchbull’s lock-up cupboard, the Chokey. It’s a tall, narrow cupboard with glass embedded in three walls and spiky nails in the door—a person in it has to stand still or get stabbed.
At this early point, it’s hard to tell if Hortensia is just trying to scare Matilda and Lavender, or if she’s telling the truth about the Trunchbull sending kids away on stretchers and putting them in the Chokey. Her choice to escalate what she’s telling them suggests she’s looking for a reaction, though the way the narrator has described Miss Trunchbull in the past makes it seem like she probably isn’t lying. This question of what to believe about Miss Trunchbull gives the headmistress some of her power—it’s impossible to tell just how maniacal she really is and thus what she’s capable of doing to the kids.
Hortensia says she’s been in the Chokey a bunch, six times her first term. It’s terrible. The first time, she poured Golden Syrup on the Trunchbull’s seat for the morning prayer. The syrup squelched when the Trunchbull sat in it, just like the mud on the Limpopo River in the Just So Stories (which the little girls are “too small and stupid to have read”) . Matilda notes that she’s read them, but Hortensia calls her a liar and continues her tale. The chair stuck to the Trunchbull’s green breeches for a moment—and then the Trunchbull grabbed her syrupy bottom and got syrup all over her hands. A little boy told on Hortensia, so Hortensia spent a day in the Chokey.
Hortensia plays pranks on Miss Trunchbull, just as Matilda played pranks on her parents. As with Matilda’s pranks, playing the tricks on Miss Trunchbull doesn’t really get the kids anywhere (indeed, it gets them punished in horrific ways). But it still annoys and embarrasses Miss Trunchbull, which is something the novel heavily implies she deserves for the way she treats children. And Matilda’s genius is hard to believe, even for kids like Hortensia. But again, this doesn’t affect Matilda’s ability to make friends and connect with her classmates.
Lavender wants to know what else Hortensia did to get time in the Chokey, but Hortensia nonchalantly says she doesn’t remember. She can recall one more story: she excused herself to the restroom once and, since the Trunchbull was teaching a class, Hortensia snuck into her office. She put itching powder in every pair of the Trunchbull’s knickers. A few days later, during prayers, the Trunchbull started to scratch. In the middle of the Lord’s Prayer, the Trunchbull leapt up, grabbed her bottom, and left the room.
Simply asking Hortensia to tell her more shows that Lavender is very interested in playing tricks on adults. She sees Hortensia as someone to admire, especially since she was able to cause someone as powerful as the Trunchbull such grief. But again, the novel’s tone implies that Miss Trunchbull deserves to have these tricks played on her because of how she treats the kids in her care.
Lavender and Matilda are in awe of Hortensia, who’s clearly a master and dedicated to her craft. Hortensia explains that the Trunchbull never proved it was her that time; the Trunchbull tends to guess when she can’t figure out for sure who did something. She’s usually right. Matilda says this is like a war, and Hortensia agrees—the students are crusaders while the Trunchbull is “the Prince of Darkness, the Foul Serpent, the Fiery Dragon.” The students all try to support each other. Lavender pledges her support, but Hortensia says Lavender is too little—though she may be useful for an undercover job.
Hortensia gains power over the younger students by aweing them with stories of her pranks on Miss Trunchbull. So while Hortensia isn’t making a dent in Miss Trunchbull’s hold on the school, she’s still getting something out of her exploits. And she suggests that having Miss Trunchbull to fight against makes the student body closer and more of a community, since they all have the same goal: torment Miss Trunchbull as much as possible.
Matilda and Lavender ask for another story, so Hortensia tells them about a boy named Julius Rottwinkle. He was eating during scripture class, so the Trunchbull threw him right out the window. The Trunchbull, Hortensia explains, threw the hammer in the Olympics. Throwing the hammer refers to throwing a huge cannonball on the end of a wire; the thrower spins it around and then lets go. The Trunchbull loves practicing on children, especially since she insists large boys weigh the same as Olympic hammers.
Hortensia frames Miss Trunchbull’s love of sport and throwing the hammer as one of the big reasons she’s a headmistress (and is also so bad at her job). Being in a school gives her access to the boys to use for throwing practice. This also gives Miss Trunchbull a lot of power over the students—it’s terrifying to consider a headmistress hurling a student like this! It deprives students of their bodily autonomy and their dignity.
Suddenly, the loud playground goes silent. Miss Trunchbull is striding across the playground, shouting for Amanda Thripp. Hortensia whispers that Amanda has made the mistake of letting her hair grow long, and then letting her mother braid it in two braids—the Trunchbull hates pigtails. The girls watch as the Trunchbull stops in front of Amanda, who has golden braids tied with blue bows. Amanda is clearly terrified as the Trunchbull tells her to chop off her braids before tomorrow. She insists that her mother likes the braids, but the Trunchbull says she doesn’t care.
Amanda goes into this interaction with Miss Trunchbull seemingly believing that her mother’s love of her braids is going to protect her. But Miss Trunchbull shows that she doesn’t respect parents’ authority to support their kids, if that support goes against what Miss Trunchbull wants. Miss Trunchbull’s hatred of pigtails, meanwhile, also reads as sexist. Pigtails and braids are associated mostly with little girls, and recall that Miss Trunchbull hates little girls way more than she hates little boys.
The Trunchbull then snatches Amanda by the braids and picks her up, swinging her around by her braids before throwing her into the playing field. Matilda asks if the parents ever complain, but Hortensia says parents are afraid of the Trunchbull, too.
Hortensia makes the case that Miss Trunchbull doesn’t just terrify kids. She terrifies everyone in the community. And this is how Miss Trunchbull gains and keeps her power: she terrifies people and resorts to violence as needed.