Matilda’s mother, Mrs. Wormwood, believes that women should focus on their looks so they can snag a husband who will provide for them. In her opinion, it’s useless for a girl to educate herself, because it’s appearance alone that can secure a woman’s future. Miss Trunchbull embodies another path through adult life: while she appears to be independent and professionally successful, she’s living off of money she stole by murdering her brother-in-law, Miss Honey’s father. So Miss Trunchbull has gained success through violence and deceit. Miss Honey, on the other hand, lives her life through honesty and hard work, supporting herself and maintaining her independence through teaching, even as she lives in poverty. And while Matilda is only a child, she knows intuitively that this is the path she prefers. Matilda and Miss Honey eventually succeed at banishing the horrible women in their lives: Mrs. Wormwood moves away, and Miss Trunchbull is forced out of her job and home. In this way, the novel implicitly supports Matilda and Miss Honey’s choices: women who value education, work hard, and behave morally will succeed.
Through Mrs. Wormwood’s example, Matilda shows that relying on appearances and marriage to achieve success and security may work in theory—but in actuality, Mrs. Wormwood is neither secure nor successful. Mrs. Wormwood implies that she’s spent her entire life working on making herself look as beautiful as possible, with the goal of securing a husband who can support her. Outwardly, she’s succeeded at this: Mrs. Wormwood is blonde, curvy, and lives in a nice home that Mr. Wormwood pays for. But in reality, Mrs. Wormwood isn’t actually successfully making herself beautiful: the narrator regularly notes that her hair is badly dyed and her clothes never seem to fit quite right. So while Mrs. Wormwood is trying to embody a feminine ideal, her mousy roots and ill-fitting dresses imply that she’s failing. In addition, Mrs. Wormwood’s marriage seems not to be providing the financial security that she seeks. While Mrs. Wormwood lives in a nice house and can afford fancy makeup, Mr. Wormwood is engaged in criminal activity through his used car business, which puts the family’s wellbeing at risk. Indeed, at the end of the novel, the Wormwoods are forced to pack up and move to Spain in a matter of hours—all because Mr. Wormwood was discovered by the authorities. So while Mrs. Wormwood may have enjoyed the financial security while it lasted, the novel also suggests that her security has always been tenuous at best.
Miss Trunchbull, like Mrs. Wormwood, is outwardly successful—but again, the novel shows that achieving success through violence and deceit is unreliable. Miss Trunchbull began amassing her power as a young woman, when she came to help Miss Honey’s father after his wife, Miss Trunchbull’s sister, died. Three years later, Miss Trunchbull murdered her brother-in-law, which not only gave her guardianship over Miss Honey (whom she abused and made do all the housework), but it also gave Miss Trunchbull ownership of the Honey house and access to the Honey fortune. Throughout most of the novel, she continues to steal money from her in-laws by taking almost all of Miss Honey’s paycheck. But again, the novel shows that gaining power in this way is unreliable. Miss Trunchbull may look outwardly successful and untouchable, but it only takes getting her to believe that the ghost of Miss Honey’s father will haunt her and punish her to get her to give Miss Honey her home and her fortune back. Miss Trunchbull’s physical strength and penchant for violence can’t help her when she’s faced with having her crime discovered by the wider community.
Through Miss Honey, though, the novel presents an alternative: success is more reliable—and more meaningful—when women focus on education, financial security, and acting in moral ways. In telling her story, Miss Honey shows that she knew from an early age that education and financial self-sufficiency were going to be her ticket out of her abusive situation. She enrolled in a teacher training course at age 18, which allowed her to get a job—and that job enabled her to rent the farm laborer’s cottage where she lives when Matilda meets her. Her poverty is crushing, but Miss Honey suggests that having control of her money—even if that’s only her allowance of one pound per week—is enough to make her independent. Miss Honey’s moral superiority, moreover, is what motivates Matilda to admire her teacher and take steps to frighten Miss Trunchbull so she will give Miss Honey her house and her family’s fortune back. Miss Honey may be earning her own money thanks to the education she worked hard to get—but the novel also suggests that her innate goodness leads directly to her recapturing her family’s fortune, since it’s her goodness that wins Matilda’s loyalty.
For Matilda, the correct path to successful adulthood is clear: she should, like Miss Honey, endeavor to be financially independent through educating herself, and she should take only what she’s earned honestly. Through this, the novel suggests that financial security is only truly secure when a woman honestly earns her paycheck and can support herself, rather than relying on a husband or violence to get what she wants.
Women, Financial Security, and Ethics ThemeTracker
Women, Financial Security, and Ethics Quotes in Matilda
“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.”
Mrs Wormwood sat munching her meal with her eyes glued to the American soap-opera on the screen. She was a large woman whose hair was dyed platinum blonde except where you could see the mousy-brown bits growing out from the roots. She wore heavy makeup and she had one of those unfortunate bulging figures where the flesh appears to be strapped in all around the body to prevent it from falling out.
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!”
“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.”
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.