Matilda was quickly swept away by Great Expectations, feeling she had “been spoken to by this boy Pip” after just the first chapter. She notes that nobody had told her or her fellow students about the possibilities literature presented, allowing them to meet new people and live foreign lives. She found herself completely immersed in Mr. Watts’s readings, especially when he varied his voice to portray new characters, as he did when Magwitch—an escaped convict in Great Expectations—seizes Pip and threatens to rip his heart out if he doesn’t bring him food and a file to break out of his shackles. In that moment, Magwitch was right there in the classroom; “Mr. Watts had given us kids another piece of the world,” Matilda writes. “I found I could go back to it as often as I liked.”
Matilda portrays the experience of listening to Great Expectations as an escapist act, one that allows her to lift out of her own world and into a new one. When she says, “Mr. Watts had given us kids another piece of the world,” she implies that the world itself is made up of many different parts and that, in order to understand it as a whole, one must embrace shared knowledge and wisdom. According to this notion, life is comprised of multiple experiences that can inform and alter one another, an idea that is attractive to Matilda, given the fact that her current circumstances are weighed down by the difficulties of war, which she otherwise has no power to change.
As Mr. Watts’s reading of Great Expectations progressed, Matilda got to know Pip more and more and realized she had certain things in common with him despite their different circumstances. Just as Pip never knew his parents, Matilda felt she hardly knew her father. She found herself unable to remember what he looked like and trying—like Pip tries to do with his own parents—to fill in an image of the man. Because Pip guesses that his father was a “square, stout, dark man with curly black hair,” Matilda asked Dolores if her own father was stout, surprising her mother with her strange new vocabulary; “Stout!” her mother replied. “Where did you get that word from, girl?” She then told her mother about Great Expectations, narrating the story to satisfy Dolores’s curiosity.
In this moment, Jones considers the accessibility of knowledge. When Dolores asks where Matilda “got” the word “stout” from, she implies that the word itself exists outside the village. In this way, Great Expectations delivers new information from the outside world. Matilda then passes along this new wisdom by relating it to her mother, broadening its accessibility. As such, literature takes on a pervasive quality that demonstrates the human tendency to incorporate new ideas into old ways of thinking.
“This was the first time I had been in a position to tell her anything about the world,” Matilda notes in regards to her narration of Great Expectations to Dolores. When her mother learned that Pip is an orphan, she lamented, “He is lost.” Sensing Dolores’s interest in the story, Matilda tried her best to “color in that world for her,” though for the most part she had to use her own words because she couldn’t remember the book’s exact lines. Still, she told her mother about Pip’s experience in the graveyard and how Magwitch, the escaped convict, forces him to steal from his older sister and uncle, who watch over him. “What would you do, girl?” Dolores asked. “If a man was hiding in the jungle and he ask you to steal from me. Would you do that?” Matilda reassured her mother that she wouldn’t betray her. At the end of this first installment, Dolores told her that she wanted to know everything that happens in Great Expectations.
One of the complications about introducing new knowledge or ideas to a group of people has to do with the ways in which these notions filter throughout the community. In this instance, Matilda’s knowledge of Great Expectations puts her in a position of authority over her mother, ultimately toying with her familial hierarchy. By considering this effect, Jones portrays the dissemination of information as a touchy, delicate process, one that affects relationships and social situations. As Mister Pip progresses, this is an important idea to keep in mind, for conflict often arises from poorly-handled attempts to impart fresh perspectives and ideas.
When the class wasn’t focusing on Great Expectations, it became clear that there were large gaps in Mr. Watts’s knowledge. Still, he told them about England, explaining that it is comprised of multiple different parts. This was a difficult concept for Matilda and her classmates to grasp, especially because most of them had never left the island of Bougainville. One of the students asked Mr. Watts if there were black people in England, a question to which he tersely responded, “Yes,” before shifting his attention away from the matter. To make up for his lacking wisdom, he began inviting the children’s mothers to come into the class to “share what they knew of the world.”
Jones further emphasizes Bougainville’s insular community by revealing that almost none of the students in Mr. Watts’s class have left the island. He also hints at Mr. Watts’s discomfort with being the only white person, showing the man’s reluctance to speak in more depth about the racial diversity of England. Although he appears happy to incorporate Bougainvillean culture into his class—as evidenced by his welcoming of the students’ mothers—he also appears reluctant to fully address the island’s lack of racial diversity, for it accentuates his position as an “other.”