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In the introduction of Matilda, the first person narrator expresses his views on parenting. The narrator has a dim view of parents who brag endlessly about their children’s supposed brilliance, but an even dimmer view of parents who do the opposite—totally ignore and disregard their children. This introduction sets up the family dynamics of the Wormwood household as it becomes apparent that Matilda’s parents fit in the latter category. The book’s major conflict is established in the first several chapters—the conflict between children and oppressive, cruel adults.
Dahl introduces Matilda, his protagonist, as the brilliant and sensitive young child that she is, juxtaposed against her parents who fail to see her giftedness. Matilda’s resourcefulness is revealed when she heads to the library on her own in order to spend all of her free time reading books. In Chapter 2, the major conflict presents itself, as that of Matilda, a child, up against the forces of adults who are dishonest and demeaning. Instead of reacting in anger and pitching a fit as a young child might do when told she is ignorant and stupid, Matilda decides instead to get even with her parents. She has power, even as a young girl.
The events that detail the rising action in Matilda’s story begin with her strategy for getting revenge on her father. She puts super glue on his hat, and he ends up bald with a ring around his head. This, however, is not enough to get him to change his behavior. At another time, Matilda borrows the neighbor’s parrot, and frightens her father into thinking there is a ghost in the house. Here the narrator interjects his own opinion or commentary as he does throughout the story: “They all jumped, including Matilda who was a pretty good actress.” This prank with the parrot, though, also fails to change Mr. Wormwood’s behavior. When Matilda puts hair dye in her father’s Oil of Violets Hair Tonic, she experiences a rare connection with her mother. For once, Matilda is not the object of the family’s ridicule, her father is. In both the planning and implementation of these pranks, which are on their face quite comical, Matilda maintains an even keel, and never reveals or gives any indication that she is the prankster.
When Matilda enters school, a constellation of new characters arrives on the scene, including Miss Honey, the sweet, respectful, caring teacher, and Miss Trunchbull, the school’s headmistress who has qualities the polar opposite of Miss Honey. Miss Trunchbull is not unlike Mr. Wormwood in some regards, and if it’s possible, seems to be even crueler toward children than he is. Miss Trunchbull, it becomes clear, is the story’s primary antagonist.
At school, Matilda makes friends easily, even though she is years beyond the other children in intelligence. She is humble and unassuming, and she and the other children form a united front against the bullying and cruelty of Miss Trunchbull. Lavender, Hortensia, and Bruce Bogtrotter each prove that they are brave and courageous when they stand up against the oppressive and evil headmistress. When Matilda’s first “miracle” occurs (she tips over the glass of water with the newt with her mind), the story begins to move in another direction. Matilda bravely confides in Miss Honey, and then is able to demonstrate her power again, unprovoked, as the “second miracle.” This foreshadows that somehow Matilda’s power is going to be put to good use again, with Miss Trunchbull as its victim.
A significant turning point in the story occurs when Matilda visits Miss Honey’s cottage. At first Matilda feels like she is in a fairy tale because it is so quaint, but at the same time she cannot understand how her teacher could live so simply and be so poor. Miss Honey, possibly because Matilda has been so honest and forthright about her own situation, opens up to Matilda and reveals her own family’s story, a fairytale indeed, with an evil stepmother in the character of Miss Trunchbull, Miss Honey’s aunt. Matilda listens sympathetically, without revealing that she’s intent on taking action to get revenge on behalf of Miss Honey. Matilda knows that she must do something to help Miss Honey find justice. She makes a choice, which leads to the story’s climax. Matilda once again uses her “powers,” after much practice, and the “third miracle” occurs. Through Matilda’s actions, Miss Trunchbull thinks that her brother Magnus has come back to haunt her. In terror, Miss Trunchbull faints, unable to face her brother and what she has done to his house and his daughter.
In the story’s falling action, Matilda is back at home. Her parents are scrambling to hastily pack their bags and flee, just as Miss Trunchbull has already done, since justice finally caught up with them. Matilda does not want to go with her family, and Miss Honey would prefer that she stay as well. Miss Honey promises the Wormwoods that she will love and care for Matilda and it won’t cost them a dime. Matilda’s parents quite easily drive away without her, but instead of it being a sad parting, this plot resolution is the happily ever after of Matilda and Miss Honey’s fairytale.