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Storytelling and Intertextuality in Lloyd Jones’ Mister Pip – Lawn

April 4, 2013

Introducing Lloyd Jones’ Mister Pip as “something of an English teacher’s wet dream” (p.142), Jennifer Lawn explores (as her title sugggests!) the storytelling and intertextuality in this novel. It’s an interesting discussion and a thought-provoking one.

A compelling work of literature, suited to a high-school readership,” she writes, “it affirms [-p.143] the very enterprise of reading works of literature – and not just any literature, but a canonical classic emanating from the centre of the British Empire. Mister Pip unabashedly proclaims the liberal humanist view that the good reading of good literature can convey universal moral and aesthetic values across divides of gender, age, race, geography, history, and material wealth. Reviewers and readers enthusiastically concurred. They acclaimed this ‘pedagogue’s paradise’ as ‘an intelligent novel that says as much about the power of reading as it does about bloodshed and loss’ and a story that conveys ‘the power and formative influence of literature’.” (pp.142-143)

Mister PipLawn complicates this interpretation of the novel, though; “Through the character of Matilda,” Lawn continues, “Jones certainly promotes the virtues of the good reading of good books; but does he practise it? Mister Pip belongs to a genre of fiction  in which metropolitan texts are rewritten from a postcolonial point of view. This particular mode of ‘writing back to the centre’ is rare within fiction by New Zeaanders, so Jones’ novel is unusual on that account; but as a revisiting of Great Expectations it is also unusually reverential to its source text. In fact, Jones severely under-reads Dickens, producing a kind of performative contradiction between what the novel says and what it does.” (p.143)

Mister Pip bears some affinities with the mode that Helen Tiffin has influentially termed ‘canonical counter-discourse’, in which ‘a post-colonial writer takes up a character or characters, on the basic assumptions of a British canonical text, and unveils those assumptions, subverting the text for post-colonial purposes’. Mister Pip does take up an urgent postcolonising cause by exposing the relatively little-known conflict that Jones, in an earlier piece of journalism, had termed the Pacific’s ‘quiet little war’. His novel mounts a clarifying attack on the neo-imperialist corruption of governments and transnational capital. But it does not rely on any comparable textual sally against Dickens to achieve this outcome.” (p.150)

“…Mister Pip works in precisely the opposite way from canonical counter-discourse, as it indulges in what Tiffin calls the ‘homologous’ practice of emphasising textual continuity from Europe. In this manner, Mister Pip’s intertextual relations with Great Expectations are most akin to other homologous practices such as translation and adaptation. Where Tiffin sees the textual subversion of European norms as integral to the postcolonial project, Jones quite cheerfully finds no apparent irony in turning Great Expectations to ostensibly postcolonising purposes.” (p.151)

“I find it intriguing that Mister Pip can succeed on so many levels while almost completely misreading its source text.” (p.157)

Mister Pip […] flattens the doubts about the possibility of moral agency that linger even to the end of Great Expectations.” (p.159)

“Ironically, Mister Pip’s fetishistic treatment of Great Expectations ends up obscuring the features of Dicken’s novel that make it a classic.” (p.160)

Lawn also considers Selina Tuisitala Marsh’s criticism of the novel (pp.160-161), acknowledging that she “indicts the novel for implying the superiority of Western European literacy over the Pacific’s enduring oral traditions.” (p.161) Lawn places this in context, noting the agency of the local community (in terms of storytelling) in this novel, but decides: “Mister Pip does indeed demonstrate the self-defining agency with which an indigenous girl responds personally to a foreign story, helped along the way by her mother’s moral clarity, but it also positions a white man, Mr Watts, as the distributor and facilitator of that agency.” (p.162)

Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold, mine) Jennifer lawn (2009) ‘What the Dickens: Storytelling and Intertextuality in Lloyd Jones’ Mister Pip‘ pp.142-163 in Eds. Anna Jackson and Jane Stafford Floating Worlds: Essays on Contemporary New Zealand Fiction. Victoria University press: Wellington.



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