Roald Dahl begins the first chapter by talking about parents. Most parents will brag about their children no matter what they do, even if the child himself is not necessarily worthy of praise. However, there are also parents who do the opposite—they show little interest in their children. This is the case with Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood, who look upon their daughter Matilda as "nothing more than a scab," even though they dote on their elder son, Michael.
This is especially bad because Matilda is a genius, and most parents would have been in awe of her mind. She could speak perfectly, even better than most grown ups, by the age of one and a half. When she was three she had taught herself to read, but her parents would never buy her a book because they believed that television is much more important. Around this age, Matilda was left alone at home all day while her brother was at school, her father at work, and her mother at bingo. One day she set off to the public library, and the librarian, Mrs. Phelps, pointed her to the children's section to find a book to read.
After this she went to the library every afternoon to read, and soon made her way through every book in the children's section. Astounded, Mrs. Phelps recommended some grown up books for her, starting with Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. Matilda reads through books at the library for six months, until Mrs. Phelps finally tells her she can borrow books and take them home. Once she learns this, she visits only once a week to take out books to take home with her. She loved books because she could escape into them.
The next chapter details Matilda's father's work. Mr. Wormwood is a car dealer, but his success is based on cheating his customers in various ways, like selling them older, less functional cars but sprucing them up in certain ways that make them appear better than they actually are so he can fetch more money from the sale. He even found a way to turn the speedometer backwards so that the car appears to have driven fewer miles than it actually has. He tells these secrets to his children because he wants Michael to join the business one day, but Matilda just believes he is a crook.
The family eats every dinner in front of the television, and Matilda is not allowed to read her books during the meal. This, along with everything else, pushes Matilda to her limit, and she decides one day that she will somehow get back at her parents for not caring about her.
For her first trick, she takes the hat her father wears to work each day and lines it with superglue. He puts it on, and does not notice it is stuck to his head until he gets home in the evening and attempts to take it off. Mr. Wormwood is suspicious that Matilda has done something, but Matilda plays innocent, and Mrs. Wormwood says she thinks Mr. Wormwood did it accidentally when he was trying to glue the feather back onto his hat.
When the hat still does not loosen up by the next morning, Mrs. Wormwood attempts to cut it off his head. Some of his hair comes off with it, and some bits of brown hat still stick to his forehead. Matilda is extremely satisfied with her success.
The first few characters introduce us to the characters. Like many protagonists, Matilda is special in some way—in this case, she is a genius, far more intelligent than most children are at her age. But these differences also mean she is alienated from those around her, especially her family, who do not understand her. Even though Mrs. Phelps, the librarian, helps Matilda and encourages her reading, she still initially talks down to Matilda, as most adults would to an average child, establishing that Matilda's intellect is on a far greater level than the average adult can comprehend.
These chapters also set up the main conflict: Matilda's relationship with her parents. The way the Wormwoods ignore and loathe Matilda is jarring for readers, because the common perception is that all parents love and care for their children. Dahl even acknowledges how unsettling this is in the first chapter, beginning the book with an account of the way most parents should treat their children. This, juxtaposed with Matilda's parents' poor treatment of her, helps to create the feeling among readers that something here is not right.
There are many other contrasts in these first chapters, as well, and Dahl uses these juxtapositions to teach important lessons. The most significant of these lessons in the first three chapters is the difference between television and reading. Matilda's parents are television watchers, and they are unimaginative, rude, and not too bright. Matilda is a reader, and she is intelligent, well-spoken, and thoughtful. Here, Dahl makes a clear statement that books are far more enriching than television.
Readers learn much about Matilda's character by her willingness to risk punishment to try to fool and mess with her family in order to get revenge on them. She could easily sit back and allow them to neglect her, but she chooses to fight back, showing that she has a lot of spirit. The superglue incident is the first of many such tricks to come. It is simple, but effective, and by doing this Matilda challenges the typical parent-child dynamic by one-upping them and showing that she truly is far more clever than they are.