Mister Pip takes place on the island of Bougainville (one of many islands off the coast of Papua New Guinea), a place whose inhabitants have been exposed over many years to a series of different stories about other traditions and ways of life. In addition to their own traditional narratives that are unique to their indigenous culture, the inhabitants of the island have most notably experienced the arrival of white Christian missionaries who brought with them stories of Christ and Christianity. Furthermore, with a civil war raging over the island’s independence from Papua New Guinea, they are now also locked between two different political narratives: one that says Bougainville should be independent, and another that says it should be governed by Papua New Guinea. Finally, when Mr. Watts, the only white man who has not fled the village during the civil war, introduces Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations to his class, Bougainvilleans find themselves coming into contact with yet another new narrative, this time in the form of a novel about nineteenth-century England. Through these multiple layers of intersecting stories, Mister Pip explores the way that stories offer escape or connection and affect the way people think and behave, as well as how the vital power of storytelling as a collaborative act can build and hold together a community, and how stories can both impact and be impacted by the world.
Mister Pip shows many different stories merging with one another. In some cases, new narratives enhance a character’s view of their own world, as is the case for Matilda when she immerses herself in Great Expectations. By entering this new world, she gains a sense of optimism that, given the death and destruction surrounding her during the civil war, she would not be able to summon on her own. “I knew things could change,” she thinks, “because they had for Pip” (the protagonist of Great Expectations). By paying close attention to Pip’s life story—a “rags to riches” tale—Matilda is able to recognize the possibility of change. Therefore, she enriches her life by borrowing ideas from somebody else’s narrative, merging Pip’s circumstances with her own to create a new story and a new framework for her experiences.
However, other characters in Mister Pip are less open-minded when it comes to merging new stories with their own lives. Matilda’s mother Dolores, for example, becomes suspicious of Great Expectations and Mr. Watts’s lessons. When Matilda tells her that Mr. Watts doesn’t teach the Bible in class, Dolores is very unhappy. She sees Mr. Watts’s failure to teach the Bible as “a betrayal of [her and Matilda’s] very safety.” In short, new ways of thinking threaten her beliefs. She responds to this threat by teaching Matilda about the origins of their family, thereby reinforcing traditional Bougainvillean narratives that leave no room for Great Expectations and Mr. Watts’s secular worldview. This outright rejection of new narratives leads Dolores to steal Mr. Watts’s copy of Great Expectations, an act that triggers a chain reaction of destruction that ultimately results in Dolores’s own demise.
By showing the danger of categorically rejecting the stories of others, Jones implicitly argues for using storytelling as a means for empathy. However, the danger of stories is not limited to rejecting them: Jones also shows that they can be used as a tool of control. This is obvious on a large scale in regards to the Bougainville Civil War. While the rebel armies of Bougainville insist on only believing in narratives that promote their independence, the Papua New Guinean forces insist on a narrative of their own dominance over Bougainville. Matilda speaks to the senselessness of such stubborn viewpoints when she describes a Papua New Guinean officer who appears trapped in a narrative he can’t give up: “He was tired of being who he was: tired of his job, tired of this island, of us, and of the responsibility he carried.” Because he is a military official, it is this man’s “responsibility” to insist that Bougainvilleans should submit to Papua New Guinea. This one-sided approach only leads to violence, though, and the officer’s exhaustion represents the uselessness of committing to just one narrative—especially one of subordination. If he could take the Bougainvilleans’ point of view into account—merging their story with his own—this man might find it easier to enhance both his and his adversaries’ lives. As it stands, he devotes himself to the narrative that he is, as a Papua New Guinean, superior to Bougainvilleans, a closed-minded approach that only leads to more and more brutality.
This idea is observable on a smaller scale, too, in regards to how Matilda tries to share Great Expectations with her mother. Although she wants to introduce Dolores to Pip’s world, she also relishes the fact that she knows something her mother doesn’t: “This was the first time I had been in a position to tell her anything about the world,” she writes. Instead of warmly inviting her mother to share her new excitement about Pip’s story, Matilda jumps at the opportunity to assume a position of authority, flaunting her new knowledge and vocabulary, and repelling Dolores from wanting anything to do with Great Expectations. If Matilda had used Great Expectations as a way to build a connection with her mother instead of using it to drive her away, Dolores may have been able to positively integrate its narrative into her own life, ultimately avoiding the disastrous results of rejecting the book.
While those who use stories to wield power invite violence and division, Jones suggests that collaborative storytelling leads to prosperity and survival. After Papua New Guinean forces terrorize the village, Mr. Watts proposes that the class reconstruct Great Expectations by memory, and he encourages the students to produce fragments of the story, which he writes in his notebook. Matilda underlines the collaborative nature of this process by comparing it to the village’s fishing practices: “We had done this sort of thing before. In the past, when we still had our nets and lines, we would divide up the catch on the beach. That’s what we set out to do now with Great Expectations.” By comparing storytelling to communal fishing, Matilda frames group narration as something that provides sustenance and support to everyone involved. With her fishing example, it’s easy to see the benefits of cooperation: when the villagers share their catches, they help feed one another, just as sharing stories promotes emotional wellbeing. In this moment, storytelling is equated to survival and, just like fishing, it is most effective as a group effort. It is an act that simultaneously provides emotional escape and strengthens the community—two significant outcomes for a village suffering from the single-minded and oppressive narratives of the civil war.
Storytelling Quotes in Mr. Pip
He pulled a piece of rope attached to a trolley on which Mrs. Pop Eye stood. She looked like an ice queen. Nearly every woman on our island had crinkled hair, but Grace had straightened hers. She wore it piled up, and in the absence of a crown her hair did the trick. She looked so proud, as if she had no idea of her own bare feet. […]
Our parents looked away. They would rather stare at a colony of ants moving over a rotting pawpaw. Some stood by with their idle machetes, waiting for the spectacle to pass. For the younger kids the sight consisted only of a white man towing a black woman. […] Us older kids sensed a bigger story. Sometimes we caught a snatch of conversation. Mrs. Watts was as mad as a goose. Mr. Watts was doing penance for an old crime. Or maybe it was the result of a bet. The sight represented a bit of uncertainty in our world, which in every other way knew only sameness.
The weeks passed. Now we had an idea of what our time was for. It was to be spent waiting. We waited, and we waited for the redskin soldiers, or the rebels, whoever got here first. It was a long, long time before they came to our village. But I know exactly when they did because that’s what I had made up my mind to do—I had decided I would keep the time.
“I want this to be a place of light,” he said. “No matter what happens.” He paused there for us to digest this.
When our parents spoke of the future we were given to understand it was an improvement on what we knew. For the first time we were hearing that the future was uncertain. And because this had come from someone outside of our lives we were more ready to listen.
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.”
Now listen. Faith is like oxygen. It keeps you afloat at all times. Sometimes you need it. Sometimes you don’t. But when you do need it you better be practiced at having faith, otherwise it won’t work. That’s why the missionaries built all the churches. Before we got those churches we weren’t practicing enough. That’s what prayers are for—practice, children. Practice.
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 know […] you have been hearing some story from Mr. Watts, and a story in particular, but I want to tell you this. Stories have a job to do. They can’t just lie around like lazybone dogs. They have to teach you something. For example, if you know the words you can sing a song to make a fish swim onto your hook. There are even songs to get rid of skin rash and bad dreams.
The sound of my name took me to a place deep inside my head. I already knew that words could take you into a new world, but I didn’t know that on the strength of one word spoken for my ears only I would find myself in a room that no one else knew about. Matilda. Matilda. Matilda. I said it over and over. I tried out different versions, dragging the word out and expanding that room. Ma til da.
Because for as long as I could remember, Grace Watts was not really included in the village. She lived with a white man, a man whom our parents didn’t especially warm to. It was partly that, and partly the strange sight of her standing in that trolley towed along by Mr. Watts wearing a red clown’s nose. We did not understand the reason for this, we had no idea what it meant, and so it had been convenient to think Mrs. Watts was mad.
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 […].
My mum said she had no problem with stating the obvious. The problem was that silly blimmin’ word insensibly. What was the point of that word? It just confused. If it hadn’t been for that silly bloody insensibly, she’d have gotten it the first time. Instead, insensibly had led her to suspect it wasn’t so straightforward after all.
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.