Matilda enters school for the first time at age five-and-a-half, significantly later than most children begin primary school because her parents had not bothered to make arrangements until now. Her school is a bleak brick building called Crunchem Hall Primary School, famous for its unforgiving headmistress, a large middle-aged woman named Miss Trunchbull. Matilda is assigned to the lowest class since she has never been to school before, and her teacher is a young woman named Miss Jennifer Honey.
Miss Honey is pretty, slim, and extremely quiet, and she is universally loved by every child she teaches. Miss Trunchbull, however, is the exact opposite: huge and formidable, fierce, and a monster to the pupils in her school, plowing through them in the hallways and shouting at them like an army sergeant. On the first day, Miss Honey warns her class about Miss Trunchbull, telling them to behave themselves in her presence because she is very serious about discipline.
Miss Honey begins the first lesson by asking if anyone knows the two-times table already. Matilda is the only one, and she recites it perfectly, going far beyond what Miss Honey expected her to. She multiplies large sums in her head, like two times four hundred and eighty-seven. Matilda reveals that she also knows all the other times tables by heart. Miss Honey is stunned, and asks Matilda if it was her parents who taught her to multiply so adeptly. Matilda says no, and cannot explain how she knows how to do it—her mind just does the math instantly.
Miss Honey is baffled, believing she has found a child mathematical prodigy. She probes Matilda's mind more, asking her to read long, complex sentences, and Matilda informs Miss Honey that there are few things she cannot read, even if she does not always understand the meanings. Miss Honey has her read aloud from a book of limericks. Matilda reads it perfectly, and reveals that she has been making up a limerick in her head about Miss Honey while they have been speaking. It compliments Miss Honey on her beautiful face, and she blushes when the whole class agrees that it is true. Matilda tells Miss Honey about the books she has read in the public library, saying that Dickens is her favorite.
When class breaks for interval, Miss Honey goes straight to Miss Trunchbull's study to tell her that Matilda must be moved up to a higher class. Dahl takes a long moment to describe Miss Trunchbull's appearance; she was once a famous athlete, so her bulky muscles are evident and imposing. She wears strange clothes not suited for a school headmistress. When Miss Honey mentions Matilda Wormwood, Miss Trunchbull remarks that she knows and likes her father, since he sold her a car just the day before. She says that Mr. Wormwood warned him to keep an eye on Matilda, since she is trouble.
Miss Trunchbull becomes convinced that Matilda put a stink bomb in her study desk that morning, and will not listen to Miss Honey insisting otherwise. Miss Honey tells her that Matilda is a genius, and should be moved up to the top form with the eleven-year-olds. Miss Trunchbull thinks Miss Honey only wants her moved so she can get her off her hair, and refuses to move her, saying children must stay with their own age group regardless of ability. Miss Honey resolves that she will do something about the child on her own.
Miss Honey borrows textbooks from the senior class and tells Matilda that she will give her a new one during each lesson to study while she teaches the other students. She decides to go and have a secret talk with Matilda's mother and father, not believing that they are completely unaware of their daughter's brilliance. She wonders if they would give her permission to tutor Matilda privately after school.
She goes to their house late at night when Matilda is already in bed, and at first Mr. Wormwood is reluctant to let her in because she is interrupting their favorite television program. Miss Honey yells about how television should not be more important than their daughter's future, and Mr. Wormwood, not used to being spoken in this way, finally lets her in. Miss Honey tells them how remarkable Matilda is, but quickly learns that Matilda does not come from a family that values literature and learning, as she originally expected. Mrs. Wormwood scoffs and says girls like Matilda should care more about looks than books, since those are what will get her a good husband one day.
Affronted, Miss Honey suggests private tutoring for Matilda, believing she can be brought up to university standard within two or three years. Mr. Wormwood insists that university is useless, but Miss Honey hotly reminds him that if he needed a doctor for an emergency or a lawyer if he were to be sued, both of those people would be university graduates. She tells him not to despise clever people, but accepts that they are not going to agree.
Dahl has spent a lot of time establishing how naturally intelligent Matilda is. She learned to read of her own accord, and reads books far beyond what is typical for her age level. She can solve complex math problems in her head, though she has never formally learned how to do so. But even despite her natural intelligence, Matilda's desire to attend school and the way she thrives once she does makes it clear that even for the smartest children, school is important. School develops a person's natural ability and, in addition, creates an important social environment for them to blossom into well-rounded people. Though she is already so smart, school will help Matilda grow even more.
These chapters establish Miss Honey as Matilda's very first ally. Up until now, the adults in Matilda's life have fallen into two distinct groups. There are those, like her father, who are actively mean to her, treating her terribly and making her feel as if she is not wanted. Then there are those who mean well, but do not truly understand her, like the librarian. Miss Honey, finally, is the first adult in Matilda's life who recognizes her extraordinary abilities and accepts her for who she is, working to figure out ways to help enrich her brilliant mind. Matilda has been entirely alone in the world until this point, so Miss Honey's place as a companion in her life is extremely important.
Miss Trunchbull, however, is a clear foil to Miss Honey, cruel and ruthless to an extent that even Matilda's father does not reach. She is the opposite of Miss Honey in every way: physically large and unattractive, whereas Miss Honey is small, delicate, and beautiful, and short-tempered and mean while Miss Honey is patient and kind. Miss Trunchbull's deplorable qualities highlight the intense good in Miss Honey, but they also threaten Matilda's well-being in a place outside of home where she is supposed to be safe.
Dahl's descriptive language reaches a peak when he describes Miss Trunchbull, characterizing her appearance in a way that truly paints a picture of this beast of a woman. Sentences like "she had an obstinate chin, a cruel mouth and small arrogant eyes" and "You could see them in the bull-neck, in the big shoulders, in the thick arms, in the sinewy wrists and in the powerful legs" allow readers to carefully picture the headmistress as if she were standing right in front of them, making this book a visual as well as a textual experience.
Miss Honey's admonishing Matilda's parents in Chapter 9 brings to light a clear problem is society that this book attempts to underline: in many cases, clever people are looked down upon. Children are made fun of for being "nerds" or "teacher's pets," and for women, the culturally appropriate life goal is to look beautiful and find a wealthy husband, rather than study to achieve success on your own. Part of Matilda's message is that cleverness and intelligence should be valued, since clever people are the ones who truly change the world.