Since Matilda’s parents aren’t concerned about her education and regularly forget about her, they don’t put her in primary school until she’s five and a half. They enroll Matilda in Crunchem Hall Primary School, which is headed by “a formidable middle-aged lady” named Miss Trunchbull. Matilda is in the lowest class, which a young woman named Miss Honey teaches. Miss Honey is lovely, slim, and looks fragile—she’s “like a porcelain figure.” She’s also quiet and barely smiles, but every child adores her.
The circumstances surrounding Matilda starting school show that her parents are actively and passively hindering her education. They not only refuse to support her when she wants to read; they also don’t follow through with getting her into school when they should. The description of Miss Honey paints her as a sympathetic, kind person—and a possible ally for Matilda.
Miss Trunchbull, on the other hand, is “a gigantic holy terror.” She’s a tyrant and loves to frighten students and teachers. She marches everywhere and children who get in her way go flying. (The narrator warns readers to, if they meet someone like Miss Trunchbull in real life, climb a tree until the person goes away.)
The narrator’s warning to readers suggests that while Miss Trunchbull might be fictional, there are people like her in the real world. And those people who torment children, think only of themselves, and get whatever they want through brute strength should be treated with caution and avoided if possible.
Back in Miss Honey’s classroom, Miss Honey asks her students for their names and passes out their exercise books. Then, she warns the kids that while they’re at Crunchem Hall, they must take care around Miss Trunchbull. Miss Trunchbull demands discipline and deals “severely” with anyone who acts out. Then, Miss Honey says she’s going to teach her students as much as possible. This week they’re going to learn the two-times table and by next year, the students should know all their times tables. She asks if anyone already knows their two-times tables. Matilda puts her hand up and, when Miss Honey asks, recites the two-times table—all the way up to two times 16.
Miss Honey is in a tight spot as a teacher. She shows that she wants to protect her students when she warns them not to get on Miss Trunchbull’s bad side—but she also makes it seem like she can’t actually protect the kids from Miss Trunchbull’s ire, should they attract it. Keep in mind that in school, this is the first time since meeting Mrs. Phelps that Matilda has been around an adult who values education. And like Mrs. Phelps, Miss Honey instantly sees that Matilda is no ordinary child—she’s a genius.
Miss Honey asks Matilda to stop, then she asks Matilda if she knows two times 28 and then two times 487. Matilda answers both problems instantly. Miss Honey continues to question Matilda on her times tables and then tells the class that Matilda is lucky—her parents taught her to multiply very well. Matilda corrects her teacher that nobody taught her; she just doesn’t find multiplication difficult. Matilda can’t explain her thinking, but she instantly has the answer when Miss Honey asks if she can solve 14 x 19. Again, Matilda can’t explain how she does this, just that she does.
Unlike Mrs. Phelps, Miss Honey doesn’t try as hard to hide her shock that Matilda is so intelligent. Miss Honey also shows here that she expects all parents to teach their children and be proud of their children. Matilda, though, immediately sets Miss Honey straight: she’s just naturally good at math. And interestingly, Matilda doesn’t mention that her parents don’t care about her education one bit. She may sense that Miss Honey wouldn’t want to hear this.
Miss Honey is shivery; Matilda is obviously a genius. She lies and assures the other students that they’ll soon be able to do math as well as Matilda. Then, Miss Honey introduces a spelling lesson. She asks if any students can spell “cat.” Matilda, a girl named Lavender, and a boy named Nigel put their hands up. Then, Miss Honey writes, “I have already begun to learn how to read long sentences” on the chalkboard and asks if any of the students can read it. Nigel and Lavender are lost, but Matilda reads it perfectly. Matilda admits she can read most things, though she doesn’t always understand what things mean.
Miss Honey may be taken with Matilda, but she also doesn’t want to make her other students feel bad—she’s responsible for educating all of them, after all. Notice too that Matilda doesn’t seem to be showing off. It’s just a fact for her that she can perform mental math and read everything. This shows that Matilda is humble, which, within the world of the novel, is part of what makes her a morally superior character.
Miss Honey offers Matilda a book of funny poetry and asks her to read a poem. Matilda reads the poem without hesitation. She knows what a difficult word in the poem (epicure) means and knows that the poem is a limerick. Then, Matilda admits that she loves limericks but struggles to write good ones. When Miss Honey asks Matilda to recite one she wrote, Matilda refuses—she wrote one about Miss Honey, but it uses her first name. Finally, Matilda agrees to recite a limerick, which is about how pretty Miss Honey is. Miss Honey blushes happily, and other students praise Matilda’s poem.
In addition to being wildly intelligent, Matilda shows here that she also knows how to be polite (by not wanting to be disrespectful and use Miss Honey’s first name). When she’s able to flatter her teacher like this—seemingly with little effort—it shows how smart, good, and kind Matilda is. She also seems more than capable of relating to kids her own age, since her classmates seem to appreciate her intelligence and not see her as a threat.
Again, Matilda explains that she taught herself to read and has read every book in the public library. She says she liked The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, but C. S. Lewis unfortunately doesn’t write funny books. Neither does Tolkien, and Matilda thinks children’s books should be funny—children aren’t serious like adults are. Miss Honey is astounded, especially when Matilda says she also loves Charles Dickens.
When Matilda says that children’s books should be funny, this reflects one of the ideas that guides most of Dahl’s work for children. And when Matilda is the one to convey this message, it suggests that even the smartest kids are still kids—and they want the same things that all other kids want.