Fiction Seminar: Lloyd Jones

[Lloyd Jones: Mr Pip]

Mr Pip,
or a story within a story

Have any of you read Great Expectations? What did you think of it? Why does it make such an impact on Matilda?

The power (and danger) of literature is unthinkable. When you read a book, you know it can either leave you with indifference or grab you from the inside and never ever leave again. It’s wonderful to find a book that you can read over and over again, and always find something new, exciting, sweet, thrilling…or it simply becomes part of who you are.

This is also the dream of any writer. To be able to write something compelling, something that people would relate to them, accept, adore and remember forever. In order to do this, the storyteller has to be either very good at telling stories or at telling lies. Is it better to tell the truth as it happened or to “dress” it up to look more pretty and appealing?

Well, in Mr Pip, Mr Watts decides that the latter is the best option. Even though the original story is one of the best stories ever written, he decides to make up his own version to accommodate what is more convenient for him. He needs to reach a specific audience, so he manipulates the story to suit the islanders culture.

As Matilda says “some stories will help you find happiness and truth. Some stories teach you not to make the same mistake twice” (p. 53) This shows how stories (no matter their nature) can make an influence or impact on people, in this case the villagers, and affect them or change them in some way .

Great Expectations changes the lives of every one on the island, at least the main characters: Matilda, Mr Watts and specially Matilda’s mum, Dolores.

And what about the other stories? The ones that the villagers told the children at the school, are they manipulated as well? Are they manipulative? They are probably both.

All stories when told lose some of their real essence and take some of the teller’s essence instead. We all put a little bit of ourselves when we tell a story, the base is there, but the way we tell the story makes it different from the way other people tell it. This has to do, as well with the point of view of both the teller and the reader. Because we all know that some books are loved by some people and hated by others.

In this case, Matilda loves the book as it has made a great impact on her life. For her it’s a powerful tool to show her the “real” world. However, for her mother it represents evil, it’s a dangerous tool to “poison” people’s minds and make them believe in something that is not true.

The way Matilda would tell the story will definitely be the opposite of her mum’s. For Dolores, the only reality is the one she lives on the island, her ancestors, her religion, her stories (even though some are completely unbelievable, like the one she tells about the devil)…

As we say in Spanish: Y ahora topamos con la Iglesia - “Now we have stepped in with the Church”. Religion versus literature, superstitious versus the rational, faith versus reality, tradition versus change.

But is the story told by Mr Watts, that real? Is it that different, from the stories told by the villagers? In the end, it’s literature, it’s fiction, not based on a true story. It is based on true life, but not on a specific true story. And at the end of the book, we discover that Mr Watts made up the whole thing, that he changed the story. Is this not a manipulation of the truth, as well as any other story?

Think about the Bible. The “greatest” book of all is nothing but a compilation of old stories, passed from generation to generation for a long time, until someone decided to put them all together, picking up only those which will serve their purpose (to teach and/or induce people into the Christian values) with care.

Isn’t this the same exact thing that Mr Watts is doing with Pip’s story? He is passing it to a younger generation orally (he is actually not reading the book, but making up what is in there), then to the redskins, then asking the students to recall the story and put it altogether again when the book disappears (stolen by Dolores then burnt). Similarities anyone?

Oh, yeah, and big ones. The Old Testament versus the New (the West versus Eastern civilization, Mr Watts versus the villagers). Chinese whispers, people from the East would say. Maybe western history could have travelled a different path, like those of the East. How would the world be today then?

We are perhaps looking too deeply into these grandiose ideas, however we forget that, from mere reading any book, people can come to develop their own stories.

The same happens when he tells his and Grace’s story, and when later on when she dies, the villagers start telling anecdotes about her life during her funeral. “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”.

Storytelling passed from being an act of oral communication to be a written record. Stories were committed to memory and imagination but with the birth of the written communication, they were confined or enclosed to the restrictions of a piece of paper. Thus, from being improvised and spontaneous to be restricted and controlled.

However, even the written work can be transformed as Mr Watts does with the story of Great Expectations. What is storytelling but conveying a story by embellishing or improvising it? That is what Mr Pip is talking about.

- Carlota Sánchez

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