There are many themes in Mister Pip but before they can be discussed we must consider two points:
- the integrity of the book rests on the probability of remote islanders responding to a story set in nineteenth century England and
- the morality of attempting to impose an alien culture on the children of Bougainville in a world which has reverted to the one which existed before white man came.
Firstly, Mr Watts sees the need to distract the children from an atmosphere of brutality and fear. The world of the marshes and Victorian London that Pip inhabits is equally as foreign to young New Zealand teenagers, and yet visionary teachers have read the book aloud to children who became entranced by the story. There is nothing improbable about his action. Anyway, all other teaching aids had gone with the blockade. This book offers an escape into another world.
Secondly, readers may worry about the fitness of Mr Watts bringing a foreign and very white culture into the lives of black children. However the feisty villagers prove that they are their own people. They will not be pushed into new ideas against their will. These people have integrity. In any case they had already been exposed to missionaries, foreign technology and it would appear that the young men who called themselves ‘rambos’ had been open to television, for good or for ill. The villagers appear resilient and able to defend themselves against alien ideas of which they do not approve.
The cultural diversity works in two ways. The mothers who visit the school bring with them their wisdom to share. They open eyes to the beauty of their life, the colour blue, songs and remedies, what may be learnt from crabs, the traditional way of cooking turtles and pigs, their morality and thoughts about sex, their own views of the world. There may be anger on Dolores’ part that Mr Watts does not believe in the devil, but he loves his wife who also believes in the devil. He is tolerant of Dolores’ belief although he would like to argue with her, but she is not open to debate.