The narrator of Mister Pip is Matilda, a young girl growing up on an island in the south Pacific. As the story unfolds it becomes gradually more apparent that this island is in the grip of a brutal war. Matilda is deflected from the impact of the threatening violence by her fascination with Mr. Watts the only white man on the island and the person who has the task of teaching the island’s children. His only text is Great Expectations and he manages to cast a strange spell over the children and their parents using Dickens’s story in various ways. The book has the quality of a fantasy where the characters achieve moments of liberation through storytelling. The central character Matilda asserts, “stories can help you find happiness and truth.” This belief is borne out as the story unfolds and Matilda triumphs in spite of horrendous suffering.
I found the character of Matilda’s mother to be the most convincing. She makes an amazing journey from religious fundamentalism to heartbreaking heroism culminating in the perfect climactic line; “I am here as God’s witness.” The whole book is a witness to the power of fiction; Matilda claims that Great Expectations is the “one book that supplied me with another world at a time when it was desperately needed.” As I read it I came to accept that this could be true and that Mister Pip might very well turn out to be a classic piece of fiction that stands the test of time. If there is a flaw it is in the last twenty pages which deal with Matilda’s life outside her island home. The adult Matilda is not as convincing as the child narrator who observes the wonderful and strange things that happen in Mr Watts’ classroom. It is nevertheless a delightful and searing book which might well send you back to Dickens as a kind of bonus.
I think there is a contradiction in my response to this book, one I’m not sure yet how to resolve. Why do I feel–how can I justifiably feel–that the novel conveyed very powerfully to me an experience wholly unlike my own, that is, the experience of suspense, deprivation, and, ultimately, horror, of the young narrator, Matilda, and yet find so unconvincing the novel’s central premise, that is, that Matilda and her comrades on ‘Bougainville’ could find Great Expectations so thoroughly engrossing–because everything about it is so alien to their own situation and experiences? I believed in the role “Mister Dickens” played in the story only at the level of allegory or fable. Perhaps that’s appropriate: perhaps Great Expectations plays the part in this novel that I thought opera did in Bel Canto, standing for artistic possibilities, here narrative rather than musical but still representative rather than particular: the ability of one voice to reach across time and place, to speak, to summon up other worlds, to express identity even when nothing else is left to believe in. But then Great Expectations is such a very specific choice: why use this book to do this job?
Is it simply that Jones really does consider Dickens “the inimitable,” the ultimate storyteller, and Great Expectations his masterpiece–and so what better book to stand for all the possibilities of the novelist’s art? And yet Mister Pip is not reverential towards Dickens’s novel, for all its alusive dependency, as the “original” text is constantly rewritten, especially as Mr. Watts plays Sheherezade to the audience of islanders and “rambos” and weaves together Great Expectations with his own life story and the combined wisdom of the village:
This wasn’t Mr. Watts’ story we were hearing at all. It wasn’t his or Grace’s story. It was a made-up story to which we’d all contributed. Mr. Watts was shining our experience of the world back at us. We had no mirrors. These things and anything else that might have said something about who we were and what we believed had been thrown onto the bonfire. I have come to think that Mr. Watts was giving back something of ourselves in the shape of a story.
So Great Expectations is the vehicle, or the occasion, or maybe the example, for other stories: a model for the ways words can create, express, and convey identity. Pip’s first-person narration is one formally crucial aspect for Jones’s purposes, I think, not just because Pip speaks so distinctively for himself, in his own voice, but because he speaks retrospectively. This technique gives the novel much of its power, as we hear young Pip’s story refracted through the much greater wisdom of his matured self–matured, crucially, into a novelist, so that much of what Great Expectations is about (like David Copperfield, too, of course) is the process of dawning self-reflection that enables morality–which depends so vitally on recognizing the reality of other selves or voices than your own. So Matilda, too, matures into the narrator of her own book. I admit I was a bit disappointed by the metafictional turn (“I took the top sheet of paper from ‘Dickens’ Orphans,’ [her thesis], turned it over, and wrote, ‘Everyone called him Pop Eye.'” Yes, that’s the first sentence of Mister Pip). Not only has this been done kind of a lot, but it felt like an awkward shift of register for the novel, as in fact did the whole last section after Matilda leaves the island. Again like Bel Canto, the novel seemed to lack the courage of its conviction, particularly about the magic of art. Why take us from the artifice (as I saw it) of the earlier parts, which (like Bel Canto) offer a fable pitting human creativity against violence and destruction, and then retroactively frame it as realistic? (This is not to say that Jones hasn’t evoked horrors that are, tragically, only too real, but he seems to have extracted their essence for his purposes here–this is not a novel about a particular civil conflict but about the degeneration of warring factions into “redskins” and “rambos,” symbols of inhumanity countered by the frail and all-too-human Mr. Watts, also surely a symbol more than a man.) Although of course the confusion may be mine, I think Jones is struggling with the genre of his book. Or perhaps it is Matilda struggling with the genre of hers. She says she has become disenchanted with the “grotesque” qualities of Dickens’s characters and tried in her own narrative “not to embellish.” She believes that behind their “masks” you can find”what their creator understood about the human soul and all its suffering and vanity.” But stripping away Dickens’s grotesque embellishments diminishes his art in the (supposed) interest of credibility–and isn’t his language itself his greatest contribution to the flourishing of “fancy” and thus humanity?
And so I still find myself asking (with Matilda’s friends, as it turns out) “Why Dickens?” and why this Dickens in particular. Jones, by way of Matilda, does bring out some thematic echoes–orphans, leaving home, losing or remaking or finding one’s identity. Most moving for me was what Jones does with the idea of the “gentleman”: this begins in Mister Pip, as it does for Pip, as a seemingly superficial dedication to good manners but develops through Mr. Watts and then Matilda’s mother into a commitment to a profoundly simple but far-reaching (and ultimately devastating) principle: “to be human is to be moral, and you cannot have a day off when it suits.” Pip eventually comes to something like this realization when he looks on the dying criminal Magwitch and sees in him “a much better man than [he] had been to Joe.”