Despite being a uniquely brilliant young girl, Matilda is a powerless child. Her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood, treat her like a “scab” that they can’t wait to get rid of, and they refuse to see their daughter’s genius. And the formidable headmistress of Matilda’s primary school, Miss Trunchbull, hates all children as a rule—but she especially hates Matilda. Through Matilda’s struggles with her parents and Miss Trunchbull, Matilda taps into a power dynamic that many kids feel and resent, where children feel like they have little or no power compared to the adults who control many aspects of their lives. For young readers, Matilda’s eventual triumph over her parents and Miss Trunchbull is a satisfying inversion of the usual power structure—and for older readers, the novel is a warning not to abuse their power over younger people.
Matilda initially portrays children as powerless in a world ruled by all-powerful—and not always kind—adults. For instance, the narrator notes on several occasions that, because she’s only a five-year-old girl, Matilda has no choice but to do whatever her parents tell her to do. It doesn’t matter how ridiculous their whims might be, or how wrong—as a small child, Matilda has no choice but to obey. This dynamic persists, to some degree, once Matilda goes to school. At Crunchem Hall Primary School, Miss Trunchbull rules the school with an iron fist. In addition to not standing for humor, snark, talking back, or wrong answers, Miss Trunchbull also doesn’t tolerate things like pigtails on girls, long hair on boys, or children who know more than Miss Trunchbull thinks they should. And whenever she encounters a child doing something she doesn’t like, Miss Trunchbull punishes that child severely—whether that’s by throwing a little girl with pigtails into a nearby field by her pigtails, or putting children into the “Chokey,” a tiny closet with nails and broken glass embedded into the sides. Miss Trunchbull is objectively ridiculous and abusive to the children in her care, but being children, the children mostly have to go along with whatever she tells them to do.
Given this power dynamic, the children must turn to creative means of asserting themselves to adults. Though she’s not big enough to stand up to Mr. Wormwood when he’s cruel to her, Matilda is clever and sneaky enough to do things like bleach his hair or glue his hat to his head with Superglue. And while the other children in the novel aren’t geniuses like Matilda, they’re still crafty enough to get back at adults. Hortensia plays tricks on Miss Trunchbull like putting itching powder in her knickers, and a little girl named Lavender puts a newt in Miss Trunchbull’s water pitcher. These tricks don’t change anything in the long run, but they have an important effect: they help the kids maintain their sanity and composure in the face of abuse.
When Matilda discovers her supernatural power, however, she’s able to significantly alter the lives of everyone around her. By using her power to pose as the ghost of Miss Honey’s father and write a threatening message to Miss Trunchbull on the chalkboard, Matilda is able to drive Miss Trunchbull away forever and restore Miss Honey to her rightful home and wealth. This improves the lives of all the children at Crunchem Hall who are saved from the cruelty of Miss Trunchbull, and it also sets Matilda and Miss Honey up with a better life, one where they can live together in Miss Honey’s family home. But notably, Matilda is only able to do this by way of supernatural power—were she a child without that ability, it seems like nothing would have changed at all.
Because of this, it’s possible to read Matilda’s strongest message as one for older readers: since children are mostly powerless to demand respect and fix the injustices they face, it’s up to adults to respect children. Matilda’s path to thwarting Miss Trunchbull is fantastical and could not happen in the real world, which means that adults have a responsibility to behave respectfully and use their more powerful social position to protect the vulnerable children in their lives. But even when they don’t, the novel shows that children do have some recourse: while the pranks like those Hortensia, Lavender, and Matilda play on abusive adults don’t change their lives, they do create a lot of distress for cruel adults, which Matilda suggests they heartily deserve.
Adults, Children, and Power ThemeTracker
Adults, Children, and Power Quotes in Matilda
They had a son called Michael and a daughter called Matilda, and the parents looked upon Matilda in particular as nothing more than a scab. A scab is something you have to put up with until the time comes when you can pick it off and flick it away. Mr and Mrs Wormwood looked forward enormously to the time when they could pick their little daughter off and flick her away, preferably into the next county or even further than that.
“My mother goes to Aylesbury every afternoon to play bingo,” Matilda had said. “She doesn’t know I come here.”
“But that’s surely not right,” Mrs Phelps said. “I think you’d better ask her.”
“I’d rather not,” Matilda said. “She doesn’t encourage reading books. Nor does my father.”
“But what do they expect you to do every afternoon in an empty house?”
“Just mooch around and watch the telly.”
“She doesn’t really care what I do,” Matilda said a little sadly.
Mrs Phelps was concerned about the child’s safety on the walk through the fairly busy village High Street and crossing the road, but she decided not to interfere.
“How long will it run like that before it starts rattling again?” Matilda asked him.
“Long enough for the buyer to get a good distance away,” the father said, grinning. “About a hundred miles.”
“But that’s dishonest, daddy,” Matilda said. “It’s cheating.”
“No one ever got rich being honest,” the father said. “Customers are there to be diddled.”
The anger inside her went on boiling and boiling, and as she lay in bed that night she made a decision. She decided that every time her father or her mother was beastly to her, she would get her own back in some way or another. A small victory or two would help her to tolerate their idiocities and would stop her from going crazy. You must remember that she was still hardly five years old and it is not easy for somebody as small as that to score points against an all-powerful grown-up. Even so, she was determined to have a go.
Mr Wormwood glared at Matilda. She hadn’t moved. She had somehow trained herself by now to block her ears to the ghastly sound of the dreaded box. She kept right on reading, and for some reason this infuriated the father. Perhaps his anger was intensified because he saw her getting pleasure from something that was beyond his reach.
Being very small and very young, the only power Matilda had over anyone in her family was brain-power. For sheer cleverness she could run rings around them all. But the fact remained that any five-year-old girl in any family was always obliged to do as she was told, however asinine the orders might be. Thus she was always forced to eat her evening meals out of TV-dinner-trays in front of the dreaded box. She always had to stay alone on weekday afternoons, and whenever she was told to shut up, she had to shut up.
Her safety-valve, the thing that prevented her from going round the bend, was the fun of devising and dishing out these splendid punishments, and the lovely thing was that they seemed to work, at any rate for short periods.
Both Matilda and Lavender were enthralled. It was quite clear to them that they were at this moment standing in the presence of a master. Here was somebody who had brought the art of skullduggery to the highest point of perfection, somebody, moreover, who was willing to risk life and limb in pursuit of her calling.
“He simply wouldn’t believe you.”
“Of course he would.”
“He wouldn’t,” Matilda said. “And the reason is obvious. Your story would sound too ridiculous to be believed. And that is the Trunchbull’s great secret.”
“What is?” Lavender asked.
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. No parent is going to believe this pigtail story, not in a million years. Mine wouldn’t. They’d call me a liar.”
Already Lavender’s scheming mind was going over the possibilities that this water-jug job had opened up for her. She longed to do something truly heroic. She admired the older girl Hortensia to distraction for the daring deeds she had performed in the school. She also admired Matilda who had sworn her to secrecy about the parrot job she had brought off at home, and also the great hair-oil switch which had bleached her father’s hair. It was her turn now to become a heroine if only she could come up with a brilliant plot.
Matilda, in the second row, sat very still and said nothing. A strange feeling of serenity and confidence was sweeping over her and all of a sudden she found that she was frightened by nobody in the world. With the power of her eyes alone she had compelled a glass of water to tip and spill its contents over the horrible Headmistress, and anybody who could do that could do anything.
“I myself,” Miss Honey said, “am probably far more bowled over by what you did than you are, and I am trying to find some reasonable explanation.”
“Such as what?” Matilda asked.
“Such as whether or not it’s got something to do with the fact that you are quite exceptionally precocious.”
“What exactly does that word mean?” Matilda said.
“A precocious child,” Miss Honey said, “is one that shows amazing intelligence early on. You are an unbelievably precocious child.”
“I think what I am trying to explain to you,” she said, “is that over the years I became so completely cowed and dominated by this monster of an aunt that when she gave me an order, no matter what it was, I obeyed it instantly. That can happen, you know. And by the time I was ten, I had become her slave. I did all the housework. I made her bed. I washed and ironed for her. I did all the cooking. I learned how to do everything.”
“But surely you could’ve complained to somebody?” Matilda asked.
“To whom?” Miss Honey said. “And anyway, I was far too terrified to complain.”
“You shouldn’t have done that,” Matilda said. “Your salary was your chance of freedom.”
“I know, I know,” Miss Honey said. “But by then 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.”
“While you were in my class you had nothing to do, nothing to make you struggle. Your fairly enormous brain was going crazy with frustration. It was bubbling and boiling away like mad inside your head. There was tremendous energy bottled up in there with nowhere to go, and somehow or other you were able to shoot that energy out through your eyes and make objects move. But now things are different. You are in the top form competing against children more than twice your age and all that mental energy is being used up in class. Your brain is for the first time having to struggle and strive and keep really busy, which is great.”