Tom Christian Watts, known locally as Pop Eye, is an elderly white man living in the village with his black wife, Grace. Grace is from the village and now suffers from an undisclosed mental illness. He and his wife are local eccentrics, providing the children with entertainment on occasions when Pop Eye, wearing a clown’s red nose, pulls his wife along the village in a trolley. In turn, she stands regally looking at no-one. Matilda is keen to understand what this behaviour means, ‘sensing a bigger story’, but the adults ‘looked away’ as if embarrassed by the sight. Only at the end of the novel is the ‘bigger story’ made clear.
At the start of the story Matilda only knows what she sees of Mr. Watts: he wore ‘the same linen suit every day’; ‘his large eyes in his large head stuck out further than anyone else’s’ and hence his nickname; ‘he was white as the whites of your eyes, only sicker’; he lived with Grace in’ the minister’s old house’ beyond the village. Matilda comments that by the time she was born the Watts had: ‘Sunk out of view of the world’.
Obviously this white man has little power or influence, unlike most whites in Matilda’s life.
However, because Tom Watts is ‘the only white for miles around’ the village children are interested in him, staring at him ‘until their blocks of ice melted in their black hands’ and ask to do school ‘projects’ on him. He is ‘a source of mystery’ to the village children, as well as the reader.
Once the blockade has taken hold, and all of the white folks have been evacuated off Bougainville, including the local teacher, Tom Watts, the only white man left, volunteers to teach the village children in an effort to maintain some schooling. It is at this point that Matilda gets to know Mr. Watts.
Mr. Watts wants the children to broaden their horizons beyond village life and culture: ‘I want this to be a place of light’
He is honest with the children and treats them as equals. He lets them know their future is uncertain.
Mr. Watts turns out to be a modest man who is honest with the class: ‘---whatever we have between us is all we’ve got’
He makes no claim to have any special expertise that fits him to be their teacher and tells the children this. However he has a love of the Victorian writer, Charles Dickens’ work, and shares this and his copy of ‘Great Expectations’ with his class.
He is also a polite, respectful man who does not use his superiority as a ‘white’ to claim status: ‘I’m very pleased to meet you, Mabel’.
As Matilda remarks:
‘Away for Mr. Dickens and England Mr. Watts was lost’.
Mr. Watts ‘was aware of his shortcomings’ and so invited the village adults to share their knowledge with the children to share the burden of educating them. Again he is unfailingly courteous with the adults too, even when Dolores makes a veiled attack on his lack of Christian faith.
Mr Watts prides himself on being a gentleman. When Matilda enquires whether poor people like Pip can be gentlemen his reply is: We are talking about qualities----. A gentleman will always do the right thing.’ Matilda realises he is also referring to himself and judges his actions as gentlemanly thereafter.
Mr. Watts was, according to Matilda, ‘more comfortable in the world of Mr. Dickens than he was in our black-faced world of superstition and mythic flying fish’. In the novel he was among those of his own culture and this reminds us of the cultural differences and suspicion of him felt by the adults of Bougainville.
Of course Mr. Watts is simply an elderly white man trying to survive modestly on this island. One day on the beach Matilda sees this for herself: he is ‘terribly thin’, ‘stooped’, wearing ‘baggy old shorts’ and looking for food on the shoreline. In private he is in contrast to the ‘gentleman in the white linen suit’. He explains his interpretation of Pip to Matilda: ‘He is like an emigrant. He is in the process of migrating from one level of society to...