Chapters 1–3

Summary: Chapter 1: The Reader of Books

The narrator describes how most parents think that their children are the best and the smartest. The narrator says that sometimes parents do the opposite and ignore their children. This is the case with Matilda. Matilda’s brother, Michael, is “perfectly normal,” but Matilda is brilliant and sensitive. She can speak like an adult at age one and a half. She teaches herself to read by age three, but her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood, do not notice that she is special. There are very few books in Matilda’s home, so she asks her father if he would buy her one. He tells Matilda that she should watch TV instead. 

Every afternoon, while her father is working and her mother leaves town to play bingo, Matilda walks to the public library. The librarian, Mrs. Phelps, is concerned by Matilda’s age and lack of supervision, but does not interfere. Matilda reads through all of the children’s books and asks for a good, famous book that adults read. Mrs. Phelps gives Matilda Great Expectations. After finishing it, Matilda reads other classic novels. Mrs. Phelps shows Matilda how to check out books from the library, so that Matilda only must return once a week. Matilda spends her free time drinking hot chocolate and reading books in her bedroom while her family is away.

Summary: Chapter 2: Mr. Wormwood, the Great Car Dealer

Matilda lives in a nice home, since Mr. Wormwood is a successful used car salesman. During dinner, her father tells Matilda and Michael about the tricks that he uses to sell cars. He plans for Michael to join him as a salesman someday. Mr. Wormwood puts sawdust in a car’s oil so that it sounds better for the test drive, and he takes apart the odometer so that he can lower the mileage. He proudly states that he does this with every car he sells. Matilda tells her father that changing the cars that way is dishonest and that he is cheating people who trust him. Her father becomes angry and tells Matilda that his methods are what pay for her food. Matilda’s mother also reprimands Matilda for disrespecting her father. Matilda tries to leave to read her book but is told she must sit through family dinner, in front of the TV. Matilda is upset and does not like being told that she is ignorant and stupid, but she suppresses her emotions. When she goes to bed, Matilda decides to get even with her parents, starting with her father.

Summary: Chapter 3: The Hat and the Superglue

Matilda sets out on her first revenge plan. Just as her father is getting ready for work, Matilda applies superglue to the inside rim of his favorite hat and puts the hat back on the peg. Her father does not notice when he puts on the hat and is stuck wearing it all day. When he returns home, Mrs. Wormwood tries to yank it off his head, but the hat stays glued in place. When Matilda’s father wakes after an uncomfortable night of sleep, still wearing the hat, Matilda’s mother decides to cut the hat off. Once it is removed, Matilda’s father has a bald, white ring around his head and several pieces of the hat still stuck to his forehead. Matilda tells her father that he should get the rest off, or people will think he has lice. He snaps at her. The narrator states that the prank was not enough to teach Mr. Wormwood a permanent lesson.

Analysis: Chapters 1–3

The story begins with the narrator expressing an opinion about parents who dote on their children and then suggests that those who are neglectful and show no interest in their children, are far worse. This sets up the introduction of the Wormwoods and their indifferent attitude toward their daughter, Matilda. Conflict is introduced in the narrative through the differing viewpoints Matilda and her parents have about appropriate behavior for girls. Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood consider Matilda to be too talkative and don’t believe she should pursue reading and education. Matilda, however, has an inquiring mind and is eager to learn more about the world than what is shown on television. She quietly diverges from the expectation that she watch television and independently goes to the library to expand her world outside of her home. The scene reveals how Matilda is mature beyond her years and she has the cunning to get what she wants without drawing attention to herself.

Though Mrs. Phelps, the librarian, initially assumes Matilda is a young, impressionable child, her viewpoint changes to awe when Matilda demonstrates that she is a prodigy. The speed and ease with which Matilda finishes reading all of the children’s books and graduates to classics stuns Mrs. Phelps, but equally excites her. It is ironic that the book Matilda chooses to read mirrors the great expectations, or great potential, that Matilda has despite the neglect she endures from her parents. Matilda’s interactions with Mrs. Phelps also set the foundation for Matilda to recognize that there are some adults who can be trusted to watch over her and support her in her interests.

Matilda, an extraordinary young girl, and her older brother Michael, described as "perfectly normal" by their parents, are contrasting characters. Matilda’s brilliance is repugnant to her parents, but the narrator never fully explains why. While Matilda is unquestionably much more intelligent than her older brother, Mr. Wormwood has plans to leave the family business to his less adept son whom he can better relate to. In the Wormwood household, Michael has learned from his father that cheating and deceiving others is admirable behavior. These lessons are likely reinforced as he spends countless hours in front of the television watching shows that perpetuate this thinking. Though she lives under the same roof, Matilda has not learned these same lessons. Rather, books have opened up her world while being a source for moral guidance. Through stories, Matilda has learned about such human virtues as honesty, fairness, and right versus wrong. Matilda is the only one in her home who sees her father’s dishonesty as a bad trait.

Rather than simply enduring the injustices in her home, Matilda opts to demonstrate her intelligence. Armed with a spirited personality from which she draws her power, Matilda vows to seek revenge against her parents every time they are mean to her. Matilda resents her father’s dishonesty, his lack of understanding of her interests, and being called ignorant by him. Matilda’s power comes from the wits she possesses to outsmart her family and from their inability to realize that she's capable of tricking them. This dichotomy allows Matilda to hide in plain sight. The success of her glue-in-the-hat trick shows Matilda is not at the complete mercy of her parents, and that she can stick up for herself.