Mister Pip’ by Lloyd Jones Essay
‘Mister Pip’ by Lloyd Jones Critical essay exemplar at Higher Question Choose a novel in which there is a key incident which comes as a real surprise or shock to the reader. Briefly explain what happens in the incident and discuss to what extent the unexpected nature of the incident can be justified by its contribution to your understanding of the text as a whole. _________________ Lloyd Jones’ 2007 awarding winning novel ‘Mister Pip’ is set on the tiny, insignificant Solomon Island of Bougainville during a time in the early 1990s when the island was at war with its government in Papua New Guinea.
Jones uses this war and the island’s blockade as a backdrop for the main character’s story. Matilda, ‘a skinny thirteen year old’ islander, is the first person narrator of the novel. In the turning point of the plot Matilda is shocked to discover that her mother Dolores has stolen and hidden the only copy of Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’ that her teacher, Mr. Watts, had been reading to her class. The theft of the book also surprises the reader and we then read of how the theft unleashes shocking and tragic events on the main characters,
Papua New Guinea soldiers have come to Matilda’s village looking for Pip whom they believe is a rebel organiser, probably white. Matilda had previously written the name of ‘Great Expectations’ hero Pip in the sand on the beach as she is besotted by this character. When the teacher, Mr. Watts, explains that Pip is fictional he asks Matilda to fetch the book from the school to prove this. However Matilda returns empty-handed as the book is not to be found. As a warning that the soldiers are not to be messed with, they torch the villagers’ possessions and state they will return in two weeks for Pip.
Matilda returns to her hut and spots a rolled up sleeping mat pushed into the rafters: ‘unrolled the mat and there was Mr. Watts copy of ‘Great Expectations’. Matilda, like the reader, is shocked to discover that her mother, Dolores, had taken and hidden the book’. Matilda and the reader are surprised at Dolores’s ironic action as she has been presented as a devout Christian, not capable of breaking the commandment ‘thou shalt not steal’: ‘ who knew only what the last minister had told her in sermons and conversations. When Mr. Watts began reading ‘Great Expectations’ to the class, it was all they had as a basis for teaching, Dolores objected strongly to Pip stealing from his family for Magwitch: ‘What did Pop Eye have to say about this? ’ Dolores is shocked that stealing from one’s family is condoned, as food on the island is a precious commodity, and her use of Mr Watts’ nickname indicates her lack of respect for him. Dolores is generally sceptical of Mr.
Watts as a role model and teacher as she blames him for the depressive state of his wife, Grace, who left the island to pursue an education and profession in dental care and returned having only ‘hooked a white man’ and suffering from mental illness. This conflict between Dolores and Mr. Watts, ‘the offspring of a shining cuckoo’ develops over Matilda’s obsession with ‘Great Expectations’ and the fact that Mr. Watts openly states he does not believe in the devil’s existence. Dolores takes this to mean he rejects God’s existence too.
She is furious with Matilda for believing all Mr. Watts tells her and she cannot understand Matilda’s infatuation with a fictional character, Pip, while showing no interest in her ancestors. All these factors drive Dolores to take secret action when she steals the only copy of ‘Great Expectations’, her motive being that it will end Matilda’s obsession with the story and character, and break Mr. Watts’ influence on her only child. Dolores has never experienced the delight of a novel and cannot share Matilda’s pleasure in story-telling, a theme of the novel.
Matilda’s faith in her mother is shaken when she breaks a commandment, although she understands her mother’s motives: ‘Her silence was meant to destroy Pip and the standing of Mr. Watts, a godless white man who would seek to place in her daughter’s head a make-believe person with the same status as kin. ’ However matters do not end with the theft of the book. The plot is dictated by the loss of the book. Neither Dolores nor the reader could predict the consequences of her action, adding tension and drama to the novel. The oldiers return looking for Pip, whose fictional status cannot be verified without the book. Dolores ‘pretended to have a splinter in her hand’, her pride not permitting her to own up, and said nothing about the book’s whereabouts much to Matilda’s fury and disgust. The islanders’ houses are burned by the soldiers. Thus the book is destroyed and Pip’s identity will never be proved. Later ‘rambos’, young rebel soldiers, arrive and, to pacify them, Mr. Watts tells them ‘who he is’ by means of nightly biographical instalments. He introduces himself as Mister Pip, from which the novel takes its title..
Again we see the theme of the power of story-telling in action as both rambos and villagers are enthralled by Mr. Watts’ blend of Dickens’ story, islanders’ myths, and his own biography and fictional account mixed together. Dolores believes she hears the truth about his wife Grace and how the death of their child sent her into depression. However the reader is unsure whether she is hearing the truth as June Watts, Mister Watts’ legal wife whom he abandoned for Grace, does not mention a child later in the novel when Matilda visits her in Wellington to discover more about Tom Watts.
The nature of truth is a theme running through the novel and Tom Watts is keen that Dolores should think well of him: ‘ —saw Mr. Watts seek out my mum with a smile’. After his nightly stories about ‘the battle of the spare room’ and Grace’s problems he would look over directly at Dolores, to gain her approval. When the ‘redskins’ return, this time with a captured ‘rambo’, they force him to identify Mister Pip. Shockingly, Mr. Watts is shot and his body is dragged out of the schoolhouse, chopped up and fed to the pigs. The redskin officer challenges the islanders to admit what they saw, again emphasising the theme of the nature of truth.
No-one does except simple Daniel who is taken off and brutally crucified and, surprisingly, Dolores: ‘Sir, I saw your men chop up the white man. He was a good man. I am God’s witness’. Dolores has obviously had a change of heart regarding Tom Watts – ‘a good man’ as she now believes he cared for and loved Grace. As ‘God’s witness’ she is atoning for her earlier sin of stealing the book by putting the record straight about Tom’s character. She is aware of the danger she is putting herself in by speaking out and is repeatedly raped by the soldiers.
Further, she redeems herself both in Matilda’s and the reader’s eyes by sacrificing her life for her daughter’s when the soldiers are about to rape Matilda: ‘My life’, replied my mum. I will give you my life. ’ Dolores is then shot and her body fed to the pigs just like Mr. Watts. The reader is stunned by the quick succession of horrible events. Matilda later says of her mother ‘She was a brave woman – the bravest’. The reader can only agree. Our earlier disappointment in Dolores is forgiven by her selfless act, standing up for truth and right and trading her life for her daughter’s. Mr.
Watts had earlier commented: ‘To be human is to be moral and you cannot have a day off when it suits. ’ Dolores momentarily took ‘a day off’ when she stole the copy of ‘Great Expectations’ but saw her error and made up for it. For the reader this surprising and shocking act committed by the character of Dolores had significant impact on subsequent events in the plot and made the character of Dolores more complex and interesting, linking to the themes of the power of story-telling and the subjective nature of truth. Dolores eventually perceived Tom Watts as ‘a good man’ by way of his stories.