A book about blending cultures and stories, Mister Pip frames hybridity (that is, the mixing of various elements or sources to create something new) as fundamental to human life. In order to lead enriching and successful lives, Matilda and her fellow characters all must borrow and accept other ideas, practices, and cultures. Her village itself is a mixture of native island life, the influence of Christian missionaries, and the looming presence of Papua New Guinean armed forces. However, although Jones demonstrates that everybody has hybrid beliefs, he also shows that people often tend to think of their own cultures and worldviews as being pure and correct just as they are. This rigidity, Jones argues, misunderstands the hybrid nature of culture and belief, and it also closes people off to the possibility of incorporating helpful new ideas into their lives, thereby hindering empathy and progress.
Dolores is a perfect example of this reluctance to embrace hybridity. She believes in the purity of her own convictions, refusing to entertain new ideas. Of course, this is ironic because of the fact that what she believes in is itself a combination of island knowledge and the teachings of Christian missionaries who visited Bougainville years ago. Since she first encountered these combined beliefs as a single worldview, however, she denies her own hybridity; for her, these ideas do not represent a coming together of two traditions, since they were handed down to her intact by her parents. As a result, she has never actually experienced the benefits of embracing new worldviews, so she stubbornly fights against the influence Great Expectations has on her daughter. Dolores isn’t comfortable with the foreign ideas the book presents, and she isn’t accustomed to accommodating new outlooks.
Matilda’s father also fails to benefit from hybridity, though his situation is different from Dolores’s. While Dolores is unwilling to incorporate new elements of white culture into her life, her father is eager to trade his island culture for that of his white coworkers in the mine. The more involved he becomes in this life, the more he estranges himself from his roots. Matilda’s mother stops wanting to visit him in Arawa—where he lives while working in the mine—because she doesn’t want to witness him “turn into a white man.” This gradual transition from one culture to another eventually leads to his complete departure from Bougainville, when he goes to Australia to live amongst white people without the company of his family. Later, when Matilda reunites with him in Australia, she notes that his “transformation into a white man [is] near complete.” To give up on hybridity, Jones suggests here, is to risk losing two important things: family and identity. Because Matilda’s father is so wrapped up in what he wants to become, he fails to maintain what he leaves behind, ultimately sacrificing his original life.
Furthermore, Jones suggests that refusing hybridity often leads to violence. Dolores’s theft of Great Expectations, for example, leads to Mr. Watts’s death since, without the book, the village is unable to convince the “redskin” soldiers that Pip is a fictional character and not a fugitive rebel. The soldiers, for their part, are also blinded by an inability to recognize the importance and legitimacy of hybridized worldviews. To them, Pip must be a rebel soldier because they can’t conceive of a world in which real life events could mingle with fictional characters. They have no way of understanding why somebody like Matilda would be so invested in a made-up person that she would write his name in the sand. As such, they approach the situation in the only way they can fathom: as a confrontational problem that supports their mission to kill rebels and destroy villages. By showing the disastrous fates of those who fail to embrace hybridity, then, Jones frames embracing adaptability, cultural tolerance, and imaginative flexibility as crucial to morally relating to others.
Hybridity Quotes in Mr. Pip
What I am about to tell results, I think, from our ignorance of the outside world. My mum knew only what the last minister had told her in sermons and conversations. She knew her times tables and the names of some distant capitals. She had heard that man had been to the moon but was inclined not to believe such stories. She did not like boastfulness. She liked even less the thought that she might have been caught out, or made a fool of. She had never left Bougainville.
There was also a lot of stuff I didn’t understand. At night I lay on my mat wondering what marshes were; and what were wittles and leg irons? I had an idea from their sound. Marshes. I wondered if quicksand was the same. I knew about quicksand because a man up at the mine had sunk into it, never to be seen again. That happened years earlier when the mine was still open and there were white people crawling over Panguna like ants over a corpse.
This was the first time I had been in a position to tell her anything about the world. But this was a place she did not know about and hadn’t heard of. She couldn’t even pretend to know, so it was up to me to color in that world for her. I couldn’t remember the exact words Mr. Watts had read to us, and I didn’t think I would be able to make it possible for my mum to slip into that world that us kids had or into Pip’s life or some other’s, that of the convict, say. So I told her in my own words about Pip having no mum or dad or brothers, and my mum cried out, “He is lost.”
He smiled. “Matilda is a nice name, too. Where did you get such a pretty one?” he asked.
I anticipated his question. My dad had worked with Australians up at the mine. They had given him the name Matilda. He had given it to my mum. And she had given it to me. I explained all this.
“A sort of hand-me-down.” Mr. Watts glanced away with the thought. Suddenly he looked gloomy. I don’t know why.
The trouble with Great Expectations is that it’s a one-way conversation. There’s no talking back. Otherwise I would have told Pip about my mum coming to speak to the class, and how, seeing her at a distance—even though only two desks back from the end of the room—she had appeared different to me. More hostile. […]
Whatever I might say about my mum to Pip I knew he wouldn’t hear me. I could only follow him through some strange country that contained marshes and pork pies and people who spoke in long and confusing sentences.
I watched his face and I listened to his voice and I tried to hear how his mind ticked, and what he thought. What was Mr. Watts thinking as our mums and dads, our uncles and aunts, and sometimes an older brother or sister came to share with the class what they knew of the world? He liked to position himself to one side as our visitor delivered their story or anecdote or history.
We always watched Mr. Watts’ face for a sign that what we were hearing was nonsense. His face never gave such a sign. It displayed a respectful interest…
Sometimes as he read we saw him smile privately, leaving us to wonder why, at that particular moment—only to realize yet again that there were parts of Mr. Watts we could not possibly know because of our ignorance of where he’d come from, and to reflect on what he’d given up in order to join Grace on our island.
“I expect another one will grow.”
“So that’s okay,” I said. “Nothing’s lost.”
“Except that particular toenail,” he said. “You could say the same about a house or one’s country. No two are the same. You gain as you lose, and vice versa.” He stared off distantly, as if everything he’d parted with trailed out to sea and over the horizon.
And now, to the startled ears of all us kids, we began to hear all the fragments that our mums and uncles and aunts had brought along to Mr. Watts’s class. Our thoughts on the color white. Our thoughts on the color blue. Mr. Watts was assembling his story out of the experience of our lives, the same things we had heard shared with our class. But Mr. Watts introduced new information as well […].
I suppose it is possible to be all of these things. To sort of fall out of who you are into another, as well as to journey back to some essential sense of self. We only see what we see. I have no idea of the man June Watts knew. I only know the man who took us kids by the hand and taught us how to reimagine the world, and to see the possibility of change, to welcome it into our lives.