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definition - Matilda (children's literature)

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Matilda (novel)

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1st UK edition
AuthorRoald Dahl
IllustratorQuentin Blake
CountryUnited Kingdom
PublisherJonathan Cape (British hardback edition), & Puffin Books (Paperback edition in Britain and the US)
Publication date1988
Media typePrint (Hardback & Paperback)
OCLC Number21077870
Dewey Decimal[Fic] 20
LC ClassificationPZ7.D1515 Mat 1988b
Preceded byThe Giraffe and the Pelly and Me
Followed byEsio Trot

Matilda is a novel by Roald Dahl and illustrated by Quentin Blake. It was first published in London in 1988 by Jonathan Cape, and was adapted into a film in 1996.



The parents of four-and-a-half-year-old Matilda Wormwood have no interest in their daughter. Although she exhibits strong signs of being a child prodigy, they pressure her to watch television instead of her preferred activity of reading. Matilda, undaunted, goes to the library and, under the watchful eyes of the librarian, Ms. Phelps, reads every single children's book in the library. Matilda then moves on to reading adult classics such as Charles Dickens' Great Expectations, as well as the works of Rudyard Kipling, Jane Austen, and George Orwell.

When Matilda correctly answers a difficult arithmetic problem and her parents accuse her of cheating, she decides to take revenge on them through a series of pranks. She puts superglue in her father's hat, convinces her family that there is a ghost in the house (in reality, a talking parrot that Matilda has borrowed from a friend), and switches her father's hair tonic with her mother's peroxide dye. The parents never suspect that Matilda is behind these pranks.

After witnessing Matilda's great intellect in the classroom, her benevolent teacher, Jennifer "Jenny" Honey, appeals to have Matilda moved up, but the cold and bitter headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, refuses. Miss Trunchbull's treatment of her students is nothing short of child abuse, throwing children out of windows and locking wrongdoers in a closet lined with spikes, called "The Chokey." Trunchbull also tries to exploit students' weaknesses, forcing an obese child who stole her cake to eat a large, multi-layered chocolate confection in one sitting. To make matters worse for Matilda, Miss Trunchbull has bought a defective used car from Matilda's father and because of this has developed an irrational hatred for Matilda.

Meanwhile, Matilda discovers she has psychokinetic powers (this is explained as Matilda's tremendous mental prowess, after being repressed by her parents and in the classroom, seeking another outlet for itself). She learns this inadvertently when her best friend, Lavender, puts a newt in Miss Trunchbull's water glass, and Matilda somehow tips the glass over with her mind. Matilda confesses this to Miss Honey, who is surprised to learn of Matilda's powers.

Miss Honey invites Matilda to her cottage for further conversation. She lives in poverty, after being cheated out of her inheritance by Miss Trunchbull, who turns out to be her own aunt. When Matilda learns of how Miss Trunchbull mistreated Miss Honey for years on end, she formulates a plan--using her new psychokinetic powers--to get rid of the Trunchbull for good.

When Miss Trunchbull pays her next visit to Miss Honey's classroom, Matilda uses her powers to lift a piece of chalk and write with it on the blackboard. Posing as the spirit of Miss Honey's dead father Magnus (who was thought by the officials to have commited suicide, though the book and movie both suggest that he may have actually been killed by Trunchbull herself), Matilda writes a message promising grisly revenge against Miss Trunchbull (and strongly implying that Miss Trunchbull herself murdered Magnus) unless she gives Miss Honey her due inheritance. Terrified by this seemingly supernatural apparition, Trunchbull collapses. The next day, Miss Trunchbull is found to have disappeared. Magnus reveals that Miss Honey is the rightful beneficiary to his property, and she moves back into her father's house.

With the Trunchbull gone, Matilda is moved out of Miss Honey's class and into an advanced grade, where she loses all of her powers. Miss Honey theorises that because Matilda is now being challenged in school, she no longer has the excess "brainpower" that allowed her to be psychokinetic.

Meanwhile, the police are about to arrest Matilda's father for selling stolen cars. He decides to move the whole family to Spain, but Matilda asks them to let her remain with Miss Honey. They agree, as it is less of a bother, and drive away forever.

Film version

The film version was directed by Danny DeVito who also narrates the film and plays the part of Harry Wormwood. Some plot points are shortened or removed, while new details and action sequences are added. Miss Honey's poverty is not addressed; she lives fairly comfortably in her small cottage. Matilda is locked in The Chokey while the device is described briefly in the book. And Matilda breaks into the Trunchbull Mansion two times. The book goes into much greater detail about the list of the classical works that Matilda reads. It also goes into detail on how advanced Matilda is.

The film is modernized and Americanized as a retelling; it takes place in the United States instead of the Home counties of England as in the novel. Lavender is African-American only being described as a "skinny little nymph" in the book. A boy is thrown out the window for eating M&Ms in English class instead of liquorice allsorts during a Bible study class.

Smaller changes are those of ages, TV programs and the like. Matilda's brother is changed from a more-or-less ordinary boy to a bullying, fat idiot. Their mother shows some humanity by giving her daughter away because she's better suited for a life with Miss Honey, in the book, both parents drop their daughter like a rock. Trunchbull's violence to children is also slightly mitigated. When Miss Trunchbull hurls Amanda Thripp over the fence, she lands safely thanks to Matilda's powers. In the book version, she lands flat on her face and is bruised. In another moment, Bruce Bogtrotter successfully eats an entire cake without throwing up, furious, Miss Trunchbull forces everyone to stay five extra hours after school and copy from the dictionary; while in the book, she commands them furiously to leave the assembly room.

The most significant divergence is that Matilda's powers are treated more as a conventional superpower and less as a miracle. The film and book both have her start by blowing up the Wormwoods' cathode ray tube. In the film, Matilda eventually goes on to telepathically control things at will whereas she doesn't do so in the book. The final confrontation between Matilda and Miss Trunchbull is extended, in the book, Miss Trunchbull immediately leaves in fear of Magnus' "ghost". Characters in the book never lose their sense of awe and fear of Matilda's telepathic powers, in the film, characters seem unaffected by this. In the book, Matilda loses her abilities afterward while in the film she still uses them to move objects.

Relations to other Roald Dahl books

  • One of the Trunchbull's means of punishments is forcibly to make an overweight boy by the name of Bruce Bogtrotter eat an enormous cake to try to make him sick after finding him guilty of stealing food from the kitchen (in many of Dahl's novels there is a rude character that is overweight, Augustus Gloop for example). In Roald Dahl's Revolting Recipes one of the recipes is based on that cake.[1]
  • Possibly the most dramatic form of eye-power attributed to any of Roald Dahl's characters is The Grand High Witch from The Witches - although they are of a far more dangerous nature and the character would most likely have more sympathy with Miss Trunchbull's attitude towards child justice.


  1. ^ Long, Dorothy. Revolting recipes. ASHE Homefamily.net.


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