The class finally finished Great Expectations in February. Matilda found herself somewhat disappointed with the ending and unsatisfied by the idea that, when they began to read the book a second time, the story would remain the same. On the day they were set to start the novel once more, Matilda’s classmate Daniel raised his hand and asked, “What’s it like to be white?” Mr. Watts responded by telling the boy that being white on the island of Bougainville was “lonely at times,” like being “the last mammoth” on earth. When he asked Daniel the same question about being black, the boy replied, “Normal.”
In contrast to Dolores, who believes she has Mr. Watts “summed up” due to the fact that he is white, Matilda’s classmate Daniel doesn’t rely on preconceived notions to understand his teacher. Instead, he invites Mr. Watts to actually explain his own experience. In other words, he recognizes that each person has his or her own story about what comprises his or her identity. When he tells Mr. Watts that it feels “normal” to be black, he raises the idea of perspective, demonstrating that everybody thinks their own experience is “normal.”
A week later, “redskin” helicopters landed in the village before anyone could escape. The lead officer spoke in a pleasant voice, simply asking that everybody give him their names. After assembling this roster, he asked the village why there were no young men present—Matilda notes that he surely knew the answer to this but that he wanted them to say it. Before the villagers could say anything, though, a soldier arrived with news of Pip’s name in the beach sand. “Who is Pip?” asked the officer. Suddenly his voice had lost its friendly, mocking tone. “Pip belongs to Mr. Dickens, sir,” Daniel said, to which the officer replied, “Who is this Mister Dickens?” Happy to be useful, Daniel pointed at the schoolhouse.
When the officer asks why there aren’t any young men in the village, he tries to trick the townspeople into choosing sides, since the fact of the matter is that all the young men have run off to join the rebel armies. This threatens to ruin the sense of political neutrality the village has worked hard to construct (even going so far as to smuggle the wounded rebel away in Mr. Masoi’s boat). In this moment, the “redskin” officer wants the villagers to acknowledge the “us-versus-them” mentality promoted by the war.
Along with Daniel, the “redskin” soldiers fetched Mr. Watts from the schoolhouse, demanding to know who he was. Mr. Watts picked up on the fact that Daniel had misled the officers to believe that he was Mr. Dickens and that contradicting this claim could have disastrous results for the boy’s safety. As such, he told them that he was, in fact, Charles Dickens, and that Pip is a character in a book. This exasperated the officer, who was unlikely to believe such a strange answer. To clear up matters, Mr. Watts asked Matilda to run into the schoolhouse and retrieve Great Expectations, which he told her was sitting on the classroom’s front desk. When she arrived, though, the book was nowhere to be found.
In this scene, Jones brings the act of storytelling to bear on real life by creating a pressing conflict based upon the existence of Pip, a fictional character. It is only appropriate, then, that Mr. Watts addresses this problem on its own terms by assuming the identity of Charles Dickens. In a strange way, this quick adaptability in the face of danger recalls the kind of flexibility Jones promotes throughout the novel when it comes to accepting new stories and cultures; in this moment, Mr. Watts must embrace the fact that fiction has collided with reality and adapt accordingly.
Convinced Pip was a rebel soldier the village was hiding, the “redskin” officer ordered his men to round up all of the town’s material possessions. Constructing a large pile of furniture and personal belongings, he gave the village one more chance to produce Pip before dousing the items in gasoline and lighting them on fire. “You have been foolish,” said the officer. “You cannot defeat me with your lies. I will give you two weeks to think about your decision. Next time we come here I expect this man Pip to be handed over.”
The “redskin” officer burns the village’s belongings because he is unable to comprehend the idea that Pip is a fictional character—this simply doesn’t fit into his worldview, which is built upon a cut-and-dry, black-and-white conception of right and wrong. In his view, the village is either in support of the “redskins” or in support of the rebels, and anything that happens must fit within this paradigm. Since he has no frame of reference when it comes to understanding that Pip is from a book, he defaults to his narrow-minded suspicion that the village is harboring rebels—a suspicion that aligns with his single-minded outlook.