GCSE Mister Pip – what is context and how is it useful?

One of the biggest problems with this novel at GCSE is often exploring the context of it. When you’re studying it for AQA’s Literature exam, it can seem like a difficult bit of the mark-scheme to hit. Mister Pip is an option on the same list as Of Mice and Men, and To Kill a Mockingbird. Both those books have a lot of stuff online about them, but the benefit of doing Mister Pip is that it is less common – which means there’s more opportunity to interest an examiner with something new.

Context is the social, cultural, and historical influences of a text. In the new spec, with exams from 2017, they’ve also included literary context, which I think is an interesting development – but something you can also use in terms of Mister Pip.

In practice, what does that mean? How is a writer affected by their time and place?

In Mister Pip, it means how does Lloyd Jones use the following ideas or themes:

  • Race – the conflict of black and white on the island
  • Civil War – including the roles of the soldiers and the rebels
  • The isolation of Bougainville – both as an island, with a very different way of life, and as a result of the blockade by Papua New Guinea.
  • The contrast of Bougainville with Australia, or England
  • Religion, and different approaches to it

How to use it well

What you don’t want is an “info-dump” of everything you know about the civil war. It’s not important unless you’re using it to explore the theme of the question. So in a question about Matilda’s attitude to education, it needs to be relevant. So you might look at the way Mr Watts is given the role of teacher because he’s white, and therefore assumed to be more knowledgeable and educated – and is, even though he only has Great Expectations to give them. His education’s also suited to a different world – Australia. The mothers who come in to tell their stories have the kind of education they need to live on the island – but then again, how will the island ever progress if there’s no further development in education?

Blend it in. If you use a PEA structure, include context in the Analysis. Personally, I’m not so keen on the PEA, but would always include in a paragraph: how is this particular quote or idea affected by context? .

If you’re writing about race, it’s easy to include some ideas about context – but try to include two or three different contexts across the two-part answer.

Impress!

Post-colonialist theory is great for looking at Mister Pip – I explain it as looking at a book through a lens, a coloured filter which highlights different elements. Post-colonialism looks at books from previously colonised countries (those owned or run by largely Western powers in the nineteenth century, like previous British Empire colonies), and sees how this past has influenced them. With Jones, it’s more interesting because New Zealand, Australia and Bougainville were all owned by other countries in relatively recent times. This theory’s useful in Mister Pip when thinking about the importance of white people in particular – when Matilda talks about her grandfather’s encounter with a white man, and the video of white people who seem so strange to her, she’s showing how different white people can be. Yet at the same time, they experience a privilege the Bougainvilleans don’t – they’re considered to be educated, they’re likely to be the owners and managers, whereas people like Matilda’s father are the workers.

Intertextuality is the relationship between two texts. Particularly the influence of Great Expectations on Matilda’s life.

Literary relationships

Although not specifically in the list, I think literary relationships are also important – especially for Mister Pip(and comes under the “cultural” umbrella”. The story is a bildungsroman, a story about growing up – just like Great Expectations. So we’ve got Matilda’s adult self, writing the story down, and the 13-year-old Matilda in the novel’s present, as well as Jones as the writer. This triple narrative gives some interesting perspectives, particularly when Adult-Matilda makes comments or interjections hinting about how this present action has affected her in the future.

To summarise – context in Mister Pip is about:

  • Race
  • The civil war
  • Island isolation
  • Religion
  • Literary relationships

For more on Mister Pip, download my complete revision guide including how to use context, character and theme summaries, and how to approach the exam question, as well as exemplar answers.
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What do you think?