Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.


Books open up the world for Matilda. They represent an escape from the boredom and drabness of her family’s existence, which is spent largely in front of the television. Mrs. Phelps, the librarian, recognizes Matilda’s intelligence, and gives her a list of adult books, filled with characters who act rather than sit around as her family does, who have freedom who go on adventures and have fun. Books are her refuge, and Matilda often disappears into their pages, creating her own identity, learning moral lessons, and developing her own “great expectations.”

Very quickly, Matilda grows to place high value on books. When Mr. Wormwood rips up the library copy of The Red Pony, he demonstrates that he doesn’t value reading and by extension doesn’t value Matilda. Miss Trunchbull also attacks Matilda for reading when she discovers that Matilda has read Nicholas Nickleby. Miss Trunchbull can’t imagine that a girl Matilda’s age would be able to read such a book, but when it becomes obvious that she has, Miss Trunchbull uses that fact as a weapon against Matilda rather than to recognize how gifted Matilda is. Ironically, though adults attack Matilda for her love of books, it is those very books that feed her imagination and creativity so that she can get back at them.

Cake and Newt

The chocolate cake that Bruce Bogtrotter eats and the newt that Lavender puts in Miss Trunchbull‘s water pitcher are each symbols of bravery, resilience, and a child’s willingness to stand up against adult oppression. Bruce and the class know that Miss Trunchbull believes there is no way he can possibly finish the cake. She wants to ridicule and humiliate him with the punishment of forcing him to eat the whole cake. He proves her wrong, to the delight of all of the children gathered around watching. The table is turned, and Miss Trunchbull is the one who is humiliated, which causes her to double down on her anger and cruelty. Lavender, bent on revenge and being the clever girl she is, much like Matilda, finds the newt and puts it in Miss Trunchbull’s water pitcher, a simple prank that proves extraordinarily effective. In addition to exposing Miss Trunchbull’s ignorance (she doesn’t know what a newt is), it also exposes her fear. The last thing she wants the children to see is her own fear, yet when the newt lands on her chest, she screams in fright. Both of these symbols illustrate themes of bravery, courage, and resilience in the face of oppressive and cruel adults.

Miss Honey’s Cottage

When Matilda visits Miss Honey’s cottage, the cottage is so small and simple that Matilda is amazed that a teacher would live in such poor conditions, and she wonders why. Once Miss Honey shares her story, much is revealed about how similar the two character’s experiences have been, namely how they have each grown up in situations where adults have exerted extraordinarily oppressive and cruel influence over them. The cottage, as small a step as it may seem, is a significant symbol of independence for Miss Honey. With it, she is breaking free from the chains of her aunt’s abuse that have bound her ever since Miss Trunchbull became her guardian after Miss Honey’s father died. The cottage is a symbol of Miss Honey’s growing independence and control of  her life. Several scenes in the story have shown that Matilda is brave, courageous, and resilient. Now we know that Miss Honey is, too.