Five-year-old Matilda is a child genius; she can read and understand novels by authors like Charles Dickens and Ernest Hemingway by the age of four, and she can perform complex mental math not long after. Matilda’s intellect—particularly her ability to escape into other worlds through books—provides a much-needed escape from her parents’ neglect. And as Matilda starts school and connects with her kind teacher, Miss Honey, it seems as though Matilda’s love of learning is going to take her far—Miss Honey advocates from the very beginning for Matilda to receive education at a high level, seeking to prepare Matilda for university within a few years. Matilda’s trajectory frames education, kind teachers, and institutions like schools and libraries as being capable of getting bright students like Matilda out of neglectful, unhappy situations.
Even before young Matilda begins school, the novel shows how learning—specifically learning to read and then enjoy books—can provide a much-needed escape from a neglectful, sad reality. As a young child whose parents don’t care about her, it falls to Matilda to entertain herself and avoid her parents’ ire. Though her learning to read initially irks her parents, discovering the local library allows Matilda a way to safely and happily entertain herself—and stay out of her parents’ way. Reading allows Matilda to develop a moral compass, and it also helps her learn how to tune out the television which, in her house, is always on (and which the novel frames as something inferior to books). And in many ways, being able to read makes Matilda more impervious to her parents’ abuse: when Mr. Wormwood comes home in a towering rage, Matilda is able to ignore him with little effort. Besides this, it’s Matilda’s books that provide her with the inspiration to take revenge on her parents when they treat her poorly. When Mr. Wormwood, enraged that Matilda is enjoying a book, destroys her library book, it’s not hard for Matilda to come up with the idea to run a line of Superglue in her father’s hat to glue it to his head. Matilda’s books not only offer her a mental and emotional escape: they also teach her how, and why, to fight back against her parents’ unfair treatment.
Once Matilda starts school, her teacher, Miss Honey, implies that with formal education, Matilda will be able to continue along her path of escaping her parents’ abuse. Miss Honey realizes instantly that Matilda is a genius. She insists to Miss Trunchbull that Matilda should be in the top form at school and tells Matilda’s parents that she could be ready for university in only a few years. In a way, Miss Honey frames Matilda’s educational trajectory as one that’s essentially going to help Matilda grow up and gain independence much sooner than she would otherwise. Even though both Miss Trunchbull and the Wormwoods refuse to move Matilda up and give her the mental stimulation Miss Honey insists she needs, Matilda still gets something very important in Miss Honey’s classroom: recognition for her talents. For the first time, Matilda finds herself in a place where her genius is noticed, encouraged, and developed. And Miss Honey’s support for Matilda and her education, the novel suggests, is what gives Matilda the guts to fight back and ultimately escape both her parents and Miss Trunchbull.
Ultimately, choosing to prioritize her education allows Matilda to escape her parents’ neglect for good. When Matilda discovers that Mr. Wormwood is moving the family to Spain in less than an hour, her argument with him shows how much she values her education: she doesn’t want to leave because she loves her school. And with Miss Honey’s help, Matilda manages to convince her parents to allow her to stay with Miss Honey in England. This does two things. First, it means that Matilda will no longer have to deal with her parents’ neglect. Second, she won’t have to deal with their refusal to prioritize her education—living with Miss Honey, a teacher who believes Matilda could attend college in a few years, essentially guarantees that Matilda will have the opportunity to do just that. While Matilda’s level of genius may be fantastical, her story nevertheless suggests that children interested in education have a way out of neglectful situations. By applying themselves to their schooling, students can gain the skills they need to be independent from their parents—and also find teachers and support networks that are willing and able to support them where their parents can’t or won’t.
Education and Opportunity ThemeTracker
Education and Opportunity Quotes in Matilda
“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.
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.
“Matilda is a very lucky girl. She has wonderful parents who have already taught her to multiply lots of numbers. Was it your mother, Matilda, who taught you?”
“No, Miss Honey, it wasn’t.”
“You must have a great father then. He must be a brilliant teacher.”
“No, Miss Honey,” Matilda said quietly. “My father did not teach me.”
Now most head teachers are chosen because they possess a number of fine qualities. They understand children and they have the children’s best interests at heart. They are sympathetic. They are fair and they are deeply interested in education. Miss Trunchbull possessed none of these qualities and how she got her present job was a mystery.
She was deciding that she would go herself and have a secret talk with Matilda’s mother and father as soon as possible. She simply refused to let the matter rest where it was. The whole thing was ridiculous. She couldn’t believe that the parents were totally unaware of their daughter’s remarkable talents. After all, Mr Wormwood was a successful motor-car dealer so she presumed that he was a fairly intelligent man himself. In any event, parents never underestimated the abilities of their own children. Quite the reverse.
“A girl should think about making herself look attractive so she can get a good husband later on. Looks is more important than books, Miss Hunky…”
“The name is Honey,” Miss Honey said.
“Now look at me,” Mrs Wormwood said. “Then look at you. You chose books. I chose looks.”
Miss Honey looked at the plain plump person with the smug suet-pudding face who was sitting across the room. “What did you say?” she asked.
“I said you chose books and I chose looks,” Mrs Wormwood said. “And who’s finished up the better off? Me, of course. I’m sitting pretty in a nice house with a successful businessman and you’re left slaving away teaching a lot of nasty little children the ABC.”
“How perfectly ridiculous!” snorted the Trunchbull. “Why are all these women married? And anyway you’re not meant to teach poetry when you’re teaching spelling. Cut it out in future, Miss Honey.”
“But it does teach them some of the harder words wonderfully well,” Miss Honey murmured.
“Don’t argue with me, Miss Honey!” The Headmistress thundered. “Just do as you’re told!”
What she needed was just one person, one wise and sympathetic grown-up who could help her to understand the meaning of this extraordinary happening.
“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.”
Matilda leapt into Miss Honey’s arms and hugged her, and Miss Honey hugged her back, and then the mother and father and brother were inside the car and the car was pulling away with the tyres screaming. The brother gave a wave through the rear window, but the other two didn’t even look back.