Because Mister Pip takes place during the Bougainville Civil War, its characters are constantly threatened by a loss of community. To make matters worse, the war is characterized by a number of rival sub-factions: different guerilla militias that seem to forget their original intention to protect the people of Bougainville, instead warring between themselves and threatening the villages they visit. In this confusingly divided climate, Jones emphasizes the importance of banding together with one’s community. He highlights that each member of Matilda’s village can contribute something valuable to society, even if that contribution is only a bit of fishing advice or Biblical knowledge. In turn, these contributions strengthen the community, which provides the villagers emotional stability in unstable times.
In his depiction of education, Jones illustrates that there is power in shared knowledge. Mr. Watts’s classroom embodies this, since Mr. Watts—who admits there are gaps in his knowledge—invites parents and relatives to visit the classroom to share what they know. One mother tells the children about a plant called the “heart seed” that can make “a fierce flame and keep away the mosquitos.” Another mother teaches the class how to kill an octopus and how to slaughter a pig. Matilda’s mother lectures about faith, the opening lines of Genesis, and “the wisdom of crabs” (a theory she has about their ability to predict the weather). As a result, the students gain not only useful knowledge, but a deeper understanding of the beliefs and practices of the community they live in. Later, after the town has been terrorized by Papua New Guinean forces, Mr. Watts builds upon this sense of community engagement by suggesting that the class work together to rewrite Great Expectations by memory, each student contributing the snippets he or she remembers. This involved group activity becomes critical to the students’ emotional well-being, giving them both a distraction from the threat of Papua New Guinean soldiers and a renewed sense of unity in otherwise divisive times.
Shared knowledge has a direct effect on real life, too, when Mr. Watts tells the story of his personal life to the rebel soldiers. Though it’s unclear whether or not these soldiers pose a threat to the village, Mr. Watts’s seven-night tale invites them to partake in a communal event, ultimately distracting them from harming the villagers. At one point, he draws upon the lessons the community members taught his students in the classroom, incorporating them into his story. This has the effect of both keeping the soldiers entertained and ensuring that the villagers remain on his side as he navigates this tricky situation, which has the potential to end badly if somebody like Dolores raises suspicion amongst the soldiers about the validity of his claims. Matilda writes; “[…] we began to hear all the fragments that our mums and uncles and aunts had brought along to Mr. Watts’s class. […] Mr. Watts was assembling his story out of the experience of our lives.” As such, he uses the communal knowledge he’s already learned to create an even bigger community, one that includes the rebel soldiers; by telling this story, he invites the soldiers into the village’s shared knowledge, “assembling” a story that takes root in the community itself. And because the story enthralls the soldiers while simultaneously pleasing the villagers, Mr. Watts is able to protect the village (at least temporarily) from conflict.
Another kind of community engagement comes in handy when Matilda’s mother finds herself unable to recall more than one prayer at Grace Watts’s funeral. Having lost her pidgin Bible when Papua New Guinean forces burned the town’s possessions, she has trouble remembering a second prayer, until a fellow funeral-goer provides one by memory. It is in this manner that the funeral proceeds, with the fellow villagers piecing together their Biblical knowledge to give Grace a proper ceremony. They also begin to share their favorite memories of Grace, telling Mr. Watts what she was like as a child: “They gave their bits of memory to Mr. Watts. They filled in a picture of his dead wife. In this way he learned of a girl he had never met. […] The big things came back to us, and the little things. Mr. Watts did not care how small.” This is a significant moment because Mr. Watts has been an outsider until this point, and here the village finally welcomes him into its community, caring for him and trying to ease his pain. In turn, he accepts their kindnesses, not caring “how small” their memories are, but simply grateful for their compassion. It is this kind of banding together that Jones holds up as essential to making it through difficult times.
The Community ThemeTracker
The Community 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.
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.
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.
In our village there were those who supported the rebels—my mum included. Though I suspect her support was nourished by the thought of my father in Townsville living what she called a “fat life.” Everyone else just wished the fighting would go away, and for the white man to come back and reopen the mine. These people missed buying things. They missed having money to buy those things. Biscuits, rice, tinned fish, tinned beef, sugar. We were back to eating what our grandparents had—sweet potatoes, fish, chicken, mango, guava, cassava, nuts, and mud crab.
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.
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 […].