Because Mr. Wormwood is a successful used car salesman, the Wormwoods live in a nice, big home. One evening, he announces that the key to success is sawdust—and it’s free. When Matilda expresses interest in the subject, he calls her “an ignorant little twit.” But Matilda is used to the abuse and knows that if she flatters him—such as by saying he must be clever to find a use for sawdust—he’ll explain it to her. Sure enough, Mr. Wormwood turns to Mike and says he loves buying old, beat-up cars. Even if the gears are shot, if he mixes oil with sawdust and puts it in the gearbox, the car runs great for 100 miles or so. Matilda interjects that this is dishonest, but Mr. Wormwood says you don’t get rich being honest.
Mr. Wormwood may be successful, but from the looks of things, Matilda is right—he’s very dishonest. To some degree, this jeopardizes his success, because his reputation will at some point suffer due to how he’s tricking people. It’s interesting, though, that Matilda seems to be the only one in the Wormwood household who sees her father’s dishonesty as something bad. Mike is conspicuously silent, which makes it seem like he supports what his father is doing.
Mr. Wormwood then says that everyone wants to know how many miles a used car has on it. Nobody wants an old car with 150,000 miles on it, and it’s not possible anymore to mess with the speedometer. So he uses his brains instead. He explains that he could run the car backwards, but nobody wants to drive backward for thousands of miles. So instead, he hooks the speedometer cable up to a drill and runs the drill backwards—in no time, speedometers read only 10,000 miles. He tells everyone that his cars used to belong to old ladies who seldom drove.
Mr. Wormwood might be adept at coming up with ways to make old cars look newer and more desirable, but again, this seriously jeopardizes his reputation. By extension, this means his success—and the family’s financial security—is tenuous, as it seems like only a matter of time before someone figures out what he’s doing and spreads the word.
Matilda pipes up that that’s dishonest; Mr. Wormwood is cheating people and she hates his “dirty money.” Turning red, Mr. Wormwood scolds his daughter and calls her ignorant. Mrs. Wormwood agrees with her husband and tells Matilda to be quiet so she can watch her TV show. The family is eating their TV dinners in front of the TV, which they always do. Mrs. Wormwood is engrossed in the TV. She’s a big woman with dyed platinum blond hair, heavy makeup, and a bulging figure. Matilda asks to eat in the dining room so she can read her book, but Mr. Wormwood tells her no.
Though Matilda clearly resents that her father is being dishonest, as a small child, she doesn’t have much power to fight back. She has to sit down, be quiet, and eat her meal wherever she’s told to eat it because in her world, the adults around her have total control. The narrator’s description of Mrs. Wormwood gives the impression that she’s trying to be beautiful and classically feminine—but the fact that her hair is dyed and her figure is “bulging” suggests that she’s failing at this.
Matilda’s anger boils inside her. She hates her parents, though she knows it’s wrong to feel this way. Since she started reading, she’s developed a moral compass. If only her parents would read, they’d stop cheating people and watching TV. Matilda also resents being called “stupid” when she isn’t. So that night, in bed, she vows to get revenge every time they’re mean to her. Matilda isn’t quite five yet, so going up against grown-ups will be a challenge—but she’s determined.
Here, the novel links reading and becoming educated with morality. Matilda is morally superior to her parents because, unlike them, she reads and is trying to better herself. (She also knows right from wrong and can recognize that what Mr. Wormwood is doing is very unethical.) And the novel also implies that her braininess is going to give her the tools she needs to best the adults, despite her size.