Mister Pip opens with a description of the last white person left in a village on the island of Bougainville, near mainland Papua New Guinea. Fourteen-year-old Matilda, the narrator, explains that everybody calls this man Pop Eye and that he looks like somebody who has “seen or known great suffering.” Adding to the curiosity surrounding him as the island’s sole non-black resident, Pop Eye often wears a red clown’s nose and walks through town in a white linen suit while pulling his wife Grace—who is from the village—in a small trolley. As the older townspeople look on in bewilderment, children fall in line behind Pop Eye and Grace, creating an odd procession nobody understands.
Matilda reveals that Pop Eye’s real name is Mr. Watts, and that he lives in what used to be the minister’s house. Like Matilda, the children of Bougainville have seen very few white people other than Mr. Watts, especially since the Australian miners left the island after the copper mine shut down. In fact, white people weren’t the only people to flee Bougainville, as even Matilda’s father left the island for Australia. Before Matilda and her mother Dolores could join him, though, Papua New Guinea forces—referred to as “redskins”—descended upon the island to keep Bougainville from becoming an independent country. Fearful of the gunboats and helicopters patrolling the perimeter of the island, Matilda and Dolores were forced to remain in Bougainville.
Matilda describes the progression of tumultuous wartime events, explaining the rise of rebel armies who pitted themselves against the “redskins” and took to the jungle to engage in guerilla warfare. As fighting raged over the island, their village lost electricity and the children stopped going to school.
One morning, as the village anxiously fears the arrival of either “redskin” or rebel forces, Dolores wakes Matilda up and tells her she must go to school—Pop Eye is going to teach the children. Once in the schoolhouse, Matilda counts twenty fellow students who range in age from seven to fifteen years old. Pop Eye tells them, “I want this to be a place of light, no matter what happens.” He says he’s aware of his nickname and that the students can continue to call him by it. With this permission granted, the children cease to refer to him as such, instead addressing him as Mr. Watts.
Before dismissing the class, he thanks everyone for coming, saying, “the truest thing I can tell you is that whatever we have between us is all we’ve got. Oh, and of course Mr. Dickens.” The children are confused, wondering who Mr. Dickens is and why they haven’t met him. At home, Matilda tells her mother that she will meet Mr. Dickens the following day. Dolores is sure her daughter heard Mr. Watts incorrectly, but just in case, she tells her to ask the mysterious man to fix their generator. When Matilda arrives at school the next day, the other children all have similar requests that have been passed along by their mothers. Other than Mr. Watts, though, there is no white man to be seen. Instead, Mr. Watts opens a book and reads the first sentence of Great Expectations, in which the character Pip introduces himself.
As the days go by, and Mr. Watts continues to read the book, Matilda grows increasingly attached to Pip. On the first night after listening to Great Expectations, she tells her mother about the story, discovering that for the first time in her life she possesses knowledge to which her mother has no access. She tells her about the first scene of Great Expectations, in which an escaped convict named Magwitch surprises Pip in a graveyard and demands that the boy return the next morning to release him from his shackles. Following these directions—for the convict threatens to kill him if he disobeys—Pip steals food from his sister (who acts as his mother) and a file from his uncle. Upon hearing this, Dolores asks, “What would you do, girl? If a man was hiding in the jungle and he ask you to steal from me. Would you do that?” Matilda assures her mother that she would do no such thing, thankful that the dark hides her “lying face.” Suspicious of what Mr. Watts is teaching her daughter, Dolores says, “I want to know everything that happens in that book. You hear me, Matilda?”
As the days pass, Mr. Watts invites the parents and relatives of his students into the classroom to deliver short impromptu lectures on anything about which they consider themselves knowledgeable. These lessons range from agricultural anecdotes to ruminations on the color blue. In the remaining class time, Mr. Watts continues reading from Great Expectations, and Matilda diligently tries to commit the details to memory so she can make the story come to life later when she narrates it to her mother. Unfortunately, in doing this she insults her mother’s intelligence. Her smug pride in dangling superior knowledge over Dolores puts a quick end to these bedtime recitations, and her mother never asks about Great Expectations again, withdrawing from the book entirely and resolving herself against it, not wanting her daughter “to go deeper into that other world.”
The “redskins” arrive for the first time the following morning, but the villagers hear their helicopters and are able to hide in the jungle until the soldiers move on. They aren’t so lucky the next morning. This time, the soldiers land just as the villagers reach the jungle. When they finally leave, the town returns to find one of their dogs has been ripped open.
Later that day, Dolores visits Mr. Watts’s class and speaks to the students about the importance of faith, referencing the opening of Genesis and discussing the impact that the island’s first Christian missionaries had on the old systems of belief. Her short speech combines bits of island folklore with elements of the Bible, urging the children to pray frequently, for “faith is like oxygen.” Matilda reflects upon how severe her mother is, and is unsure if she aligns with Dolores’s strongly-held beliefs. As Great Expectations continues, Matilda becomes more and more engrossed in Pip’s life, realizing that—much like the rivalry between Pip’s sister and his uncle—she will have to choose between her mother and Mr. Watts, who represent vastly different worldviews.
Living conditions deteriorate due to the war and the animosity Dolores harbors toward Mr. Watts grows. Meanwhile, Matilda’s imaginative obsession with Pip only increases. She even writes his name on the beach using shells, a display Mr. Watts notices and calls “a shrine.” Her mother grows increasingly suspicious of this obsession, worried that Matilda doesn’t care enough about family and religion.
The “redskin” soldiers return to the village unexpectedly, landing their helicopter on the beach and catching everybody off-guard. They line the townspeople up and ask them their names, trying to discern whether or not there are any rebel soldiers hiding in the village. Having seen the “shrine” to Pip on the beach, one of the soldiers whispers to the commanding officer, who asks who Pip is and why his name is not on the list. Daniel, a particularly naïve little boy, reveals that Pip “belongs” to Mr. Dickens, and when the officer asks who Mr. Dickens is, he points at Mr. Watts’s house. When he emerges, Mr. Watts says that he is, in fact, Mr. Dickens, lying to protect Daniel, who inadvertently misled the “redskin” officer. He then tries to explain that Pip is a fictional character, and sends Matilda to fetch Great Expectations off of the desk in the schoolhouse in order to prove this statement. When she enters the classroom, though, she is unable to find the book, returning empty-handed to the “redskin” soldiers. Thinking that the village is harboring a rebel named Pip, the soldiers compile everybody’s belongings—including furniture—and burn it in a heap, threatening that they will return in two weeks.
After the soldiers leave, Matilda goes home, which is now completely empty except for a sleeping mat that used to belong to her father. She takes the mat down from where it rests in the rafters and spreads it out on the floor, hoping to surprise her mother with this remaining material possession. When she unrolls the mat, though, she finds Mr. Watts’s copy of Great Expectations wedged in the middle. Matilda decides not to confront Dolores about having stolen Mr. Watts’s book, as she understands that to do so would be to choose Mr. Watts over her mother.
Two weeks later, the “redskins” return. This time they look haggard and battle worn. The commanding officer is clearly ill. He demands medicine and tells everyone that he doesn’t have the patience he displayed last time. When nobody brings forth Pip (or Great Expectations), the soldiers set to work burning their houses. Dolores and Matilda stand and silently watch the destruction.
In the aftermath of the disastrous second “redskin” visit, class resumes. Desperate for distraction, Mr. Watts and his students decide to reconstruct Great Expectations by memory. Each student provides whatever scene he or she can remember and Mr. Watts writes it down in his journal. Outside the classroom, families rebuild their homes, and although their constructions are makeshift, the new structures provide sufficient shelter. Mr. Watts’s private life declines noticeably as Grace succumbs to a serious fever. Thus, in addition to teaching classes, he devotes his time to diligently caring for her. Matilda spends her free time searching for fragmentary memories of Great Expectations while her mother berates Mr. Watts and laments the loss of her pidgin Bible, which burned in the “redskin” flames.
Grace Watts dies. Some of the village men dig a grave for her using sticks and machetes, and the town congregates around the ditch with Mr. Watts. Eventually, Dolores utters a prayer, the words of which she almost forgets. Then somebody else remembers another prayer, contributing to this improvised funeral. Not long thereafter, a group of rebel soldiers appears, and their presence puts the village at risk, signaling it as a potential target for the “redskins.” It remains unclear whether or not the rebels will harm the villagers, an ambiguity exacerbated by their brash reception of Mr. Watts, who they find on their second day in town. Marching him from his home, a drunk soldier threatens to rape him, but Mr. Watts sternly rebukes the young man, shaming him into buckling his belt again. When asked to give his name, Watts tells them he is called Pip. Later that night, villagers and soldiers alike crowd around a fire while Watts explains to the rebels what he is doing in Bougainville, telling them that his story will take seven nights. He then embarks on a long tale that combines elements of his own life with elements of Pip’s story, blending the two and naturally transitioning from one to the other.
Mr. Watts explains that he grew up an orphan in New Zealand, where he eventually owned a house, half of which he rented to Grace, who was in the country for dental school. He and Grace fell in love and had a baby named Sarah, who died young of meningitis.
One day Mr. Watts declares a school holiday, and Matilda finds him standing before his wife’s grave. He tells her that he has arranged with Gilbert’s father to take a fishing boat out to a point at which another boat will meet them and secretly take them to safety. He explains that Matilda must keep this a secret from her mother, because he wants to tell her himself at a later time.
One morning near the end of Mr. Watts’s seven-night story, the rebels disappear back into the woods. That same day, the “redskins” return, this time dragging the rebel soldier who threatened to rape Mr. Watts. The “redskin” officer forces his rebel captive to identify the fugitive Pip, and the man points to Mr. Watts’s house. The soldiers shoot Mr. Watts and then chop him up with machetes. In a show of power, the officer then asks who saw this act of violence, punishing anybody who admits to having witnessed the heinous act. “Sir,” says Dolores, “I saw your men chop up the white man. He was a good man. I am here as God’s witness.” At this defiant reply, the “redskin” officers drag Dolores away to be raped, eventually summoning Matilda, who the soldiers also threaten to rape until Dolores bargains with them, insisting that they kill her instead of touching her daughter.
After her mother’s death and after the “redskins” leave the village, Matilda is in a daze. A strong storm beats down on the island as she walks absentmindedly, eventually coming upon a wild river that envelops her in its currents, pulling her under until she grabs hold of a log, upon which she floats out to sea. In the open waters, she intersects the boat Mr. Watts had arranged for an escape. The crew loads her onboard and takes her to her father in Townsville, Australia, where she grows into an adult and graduates from the University of Queensland.
Matilda maintains her interest in Dickens, working toward becoming a specialist on his work. She also keeps Mr. Watts in her mind, even visiting his native New Zealand while writing her thesis on Dickens. In New Zealand she speaks with his heretofore unmentioned ex-wife, who tells her about Mr. Watts’s love affair with Grace and his passion for acting in the amateur theater. After a depressing visit to England to research Dickens, Matilda turns her thesis about the author into a story about Mr. Watts, Great Expectations, and her own life. “Pip is my story,” she writes, “and in the next day I would try where Pip had failed. I would try to return home.”