Breaking down Lloyd Jones’ ‘Mister Pip’

Thabiso – Year 8 Student

Editor’s note: Passionate reader and writer Thabiso, now in Year 9, writes here about Lloyd Jones’ excellent novel ‘Mister Pip‘, set against the backdrop of the Bougainville Civil War during the early 1990s. ‘Mister Pip’ was nominated for the Man Booker Prize in 2007. This is Thabiso’s third major contribution to The GSAL Journal; you can read more from Thabiso here. CPD

Lloyd Jones’ “extraordinary” novel gives fragments of the unthinkable events, which would have affected some during the Bougainville Civil War, near the conclusion of the 20th century. News articles such as Observer and Independent have all rightly praised the fictional masterpiece, which tells the tale of a school with only one teacher and the late Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations as a textbook. Even now, Jones’ effortless account emanates a powerful message on how culture can clash with new concepts and ideas brought in – change can affect things in many ways. The question is: How did Jones use this change throughout the novel?

The two main protagonists, Matilda and Mr Watts, are key throughout the book and it is evident that Mr Watts is not trusted on the island. The young girl is introduced to Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, in what is the only textbook in a school with only one teacher – Mr Watts. He was the only white man on an island, thus reinforcing why the locals would be sceptical of him – he is considered an outsider due to the colour of his skin. His only ties with the island are with his wife Grace – a Bougainville native. As readers, we are made to understand that a man like him was not common there and his presence irked some, especially Dolores (Matilda’s mother), who often seeks to call Watts out in front of the children by frequently making appearances at the school. She is wary of Watts and as a result, is quick to question his methods of teaching and subsequently uses the Bible to her advantage. She often appears to scold Watts during her visits and makes it clear she is not fond of Watts throughout the novel. This is evident in the quotation, “She (Dolores) gave him (Watts) a quick smile as if to say she was joking. Only I knew she wasn’t.”, which reinforces the hostility towards Watts from Dolores – we, as readers, understand that Dolores is most likely doing this as she is wary of Watts and his unconventional way of teaching. It is also clear that Watts is considered an outsider due to his nickname, Pop Eye, which derives from his eyes appearing to look like they are going to “pop out” of his face. We know that this was his identity across the island, based on the quotation, “Everyone called him Pop Eye.” This shows that he is considered an outsider – the islanders have purposely neglected to call him by his real name because he is not one of them. It is suggested throughout the novel that Watts is not truly accepted in the islanders’ society and is not always tolerated (by mostly Dolores) due to him being an outsider and, because of this, he even has a nickname which negatively points out something about his appearance and thus making clear that Watts is an outsider on the island.

Matilda is drawn to Watts and subsequently to Great Expectations as he reads the late Dickens’ novel when they come to class. It is made clear that Matilda looks to Watts as a father figure. This is evident when Matilda is so willing to share her fragment of Great Expectations with Watts later on in the book – Matilda doesn’t feel she can tell her mother about this, due to her obvious discontent towards him and Great Expectations, whereas she feels that she can talk to Watts about it. Watts plays a role in Matilda’s life which was vacated by her father – he is the one she looks up to and thus trusts the most. This is also reinforced when Matilda has a hard time choosing between staying with her mother or leaving with Watts by boat. This suggests that Watts is more than just her teacher at school and there is a connection that is far valuable than that of a student and a teacher. If this was not true, then it is hard to believe that Matilda would find it difficult to choose between her mother and somebody else from school – she looks to Watts as a role model, which makes us, as readers, understand why Matilda looks to impress him. Throughout the novel, we are made to believe that Watts is replacing Matilda’s absent father and thus inspires her to make him proud – like children sometimes do to impress their parents.

Matilda’s mother, Dolores, is shown throughout the novel to be jealous of Watts and unsure of his intentions. This is evident as Dolores constantly criticises Watts’ ways of teaching and uses her religion as a way of shutting Watts down. She makes no attempt to befriend Watts and seemingly despises the book Great Expectations, the only textbook used in the school. We, as readers, are made to think that Dolores dislikes Watts because of what he teaches to the children and how he is changing the children’s way of thinking and affecting the culture of the islanders, which is primarily based on Biblical study and stories passed over generations. However, by the end, we understand that Dolores never truly hated Watts and was only wary of his intentions and the way he taught. This is reinforced when Dolores tells the “redskin” soldiers, that she thought Watts was “a good man” after the redskins kill him. Despite her stubbornness and hostility towards him, Dolores now respects Watts and is sure of his kind-hearted nature. After Dolores’ declaration of her respect for Watts, she is killed, leaving Matilda alone on the island.

Lloyd Jones has cleverly implemented how a sense of change can rock a community as a whole and has used Bougainvilleans to highlight this. Mister Pip was rightly shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2007 and, whilst not as globally recognised as other books, its outstanding character development ensures that it deserves credit for what is a true insight into what happened in the civil war.

Thabiso 763580

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