Matilda begins by noting that parents are, on the whole, far too convinced that their children are geniuses—and while this is annoying for everyone else who has to listen to the proud parents, it’s the way the world should be. The narrator then introduces readers to Matilda, whose parents don’t know or care that their five-year-old daughter is actually a genius and instead treat her “like a scab,” counting down the days until they can get rid of her. But Matilda isn’t the only person in the novel to grow up in an unfair, abusive family situation: Matilda’s teacher at Crunchem Hall Primary School, Miss Honey, was raised by her overbearing and abusive aunt, who is none other than the headmistress Miss Trunchbull. So while Matilda acknowledges that children need love, respect, and support from their parents and guardians, it also acknowledges the reality that this sometimes doesn’t happen. Rather, Matilda suggests that in the absence of supportive blood family, chosen family—whether that’s teachers, librarians, or friends—can provide the support that one’s parents can’t.
Matilda shows first that children, on the whole, want their parents to love and protect them—but sometimes, as in Matilda’s case, this doesn’t happen. Little Matilda wants nothing more than for her parents to be good people who love her. But she also realizes that no matter what she does or doesn’t do or say, this is never going to be the case. If she wants love and support, she’s going to have to look elsewhere for it. When Miss Honey tells Matilda her story later in the novel, she implies that she wanted the same thing as a child. Though she remembers her father, who died when she was five, Miss Honey was raised by her aunt, Miss Trunchbull—who wasn’t just neglectful, but also outright abusive. Rather than protect Miss Honey, Miss Trunchbull destroyed her niece’s confidence—and this has profound effects into the novel’s present, when Miss Honey, as an adult, doesn’t feel able to assert herself. With this, the novel shows how horrific abuse can keep children from ever fully growing up. However, the novel also acknowledges that even when parents are good and kind, they can’t always protect kids as much as kids would like. For instance, Matilda realizes that no sensible parent is going to believe a child who shares that Miss Trunchbull is swinging kids around by their braids and throwing them into fields—Miss Trunchbull’s behavior is too outrageous to be believed. And this creates a situation where even supportive parents can’t effectively protect their children.
In the absence of safe, supportive parents and guardians, Matilda frames institutions like schools and libraries as capable of providing children with safe havens. This is, of course, only marginally true at Crunchem Hall Primary School, where Miss Trunchbull physically abuses children. But the novel suggests that the actual teachers at Crunchem Hall are “exceptional” and do care for their students; Miss Honey, for instance, goes out of her way to keep her students safe from Miss Trunchbull, and other teachers—like Mr. Trilby and the upper-level teacher who eventually accepts Matilda into her class—are framed as supportive people who genuinely love and care about the kids in their care. In Matilda’s case, she discovers at four years old that even if her parents don’t support her, other adults in her community will. The kindly village librarian, Mrs. Phelps, guides Matilda through reading a number of classics and inquires into Matilda’s home situation (though she never takes any action to protect Matilda from her parents’ neglect). And once Matilda starts school, she quickly identifies Miss Honey as a “trusted grown-up” in whom she can confide when she discovers she has the mysterious power to move objects with her eyes. So even though Matilda must contend with Miss Trunchbull at school, school is still more or less a safe haven for her: Miss Honey and the other students at school like and support Matilda as a person and as a student.
Finally, the novel presents chosen family as an option for people whose families of origin are abusive or neglectful. Towards the end of the book, Matilda and Miss Honey strike up a close, trusting friendship. In Miss Honey, Matilda continues to find an adult she trusts to care for her, be interested in her, and steer her in the right direction. And in Matilda, Miss Honey essentially gets to do for another child what nobody was able to do for her when she was little—and she finds caring for Matilda extremely fulfilling. All of this culminates in Matilda asking her parents to allow her to stay in England with Miss Honey when Mr. Wormwood announces that the family is leaving suddenly and permanently for Spain. Though the novel ends as the Wormwoods drive away without Matilda, and it doesn’t explore how Matilda and Miss Honey’s relationship evolves once Miss Honey becomes Matilda’s guardian, the narrator’s descriptions of how the various parties behave during the parting frames this as an entirely positive thing. Matilda, upon hearing that she can stay, leaps into Miss Honey’s arms—an intimate action that expresses how much Matilda loves and trusts her teacher. And Matilda’s parents don’t even bother to look back at their daughter, thereby underscoring how little they care about her. Biological family doesn’t guarantee love or care; what matters in a family—whether biological or chosen—is that adults are willing and able to advocate and care for their children.
Family, Institutions, and Chosen Family ThemeTracker
Family, Institutions, and Chosen Family Quotes in Matilda
It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful.
Some parents go further. They become so blinded by adoration that they manage to convince themselves their child has qualities of genius.
Well, there is nothing very wrong with all this. It’s the way of the world.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
“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.”
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.”
“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.”
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.