Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
Tools of Destruction
The Europeans that arrive on the island Nation bring a few things with them—weapons, violence, death, and religion being just a few of the more dangerous.
But they also bring tools. "They're powerful magic," Milo says: "They're the future, sure enough" (6.126). And the tools become new gods to Mau. He puts his faith in them, and they help his people grow. Unlike those pesky invisible gods, Mau can see the tools. (That's good—what use is a hammer you can't see?) So, in a way, tools come to symbolize Mau's new gods.
Mau has a preference for tools he's made himself. The tools he finds on the Judy, well, they're just not the same: "Mau knew how to make a spear. [...] When he'd finished it, it was truly his, every part of it. [...] The metal spear [he found] would be a lot better, but it would just be a .... a thing. If it broke, he wouldn't know how to make another one" (6.104).
Here's the difference between Mau's trust in tools and his ancestors' trust in gods: if you trust in and believe in tools, you're actually believing in yourself. You're believing in your own ability to make a good tool, to use it properly, and to replace or fix it if it broke. So, by putting his faith in tools, Mau is really putting faith in himself.
Tools of Construction
In the end, Mau thinks, "They had to learn new ways of thinking: a new toolbox" (7.35). This new toolbox is a symbolic one, a toolbox of the mind. And just as a toolbox protects precious tools, this toolbox of the mind protects Mau's precious soul, the one he created for himself.
Captain Cox says that a man can't create his own soul. Daphne disagrees, saying that Mau did make his soul, and his soul is the island itself. After the wave destroyed it, Mau rebuilt it and made it his own. A soul you make yourself is much stronger than one you just find lying around somewhere.
Oh, and this idea that you can "make" your own soul? That sounds to us a lot like something poet John Keats said: that, instead of being a "vale of tears," this world is a "vale of soul-making."
Translation? The bad things that happen in this world don't just cause suffering: they cause us to grow our own souls. It was kind of a radical statement for Keats to make in the early nineteenth-century, and it still sounds radical today. What if, instead of constantly thinking about tradition and the past, we looked to the future? What if we thought of ourselves as building our souls rather than having them from birth? Is it possible that we'd end up working a little harder at life—just like Mau?
Who Wears the Pants in this Family?
One tool that deserves its own category is First Mate Cox. Ha! Joking. Let's try that again.
One tool that deserves its own category is trousers. This garment definitely falls into the "You don't know you need them until you haven't got them" (6.97) category we mentioned above. Who needs pants on a beach paradise?
In case you missed it, a primary conflict in this book is science vs. religion. In this corner, weighing in at zero pounds, representing religion: the gods! In this corner, weighing in at about two pounds, representing science and civilization: trousers! Who will win this battle of the ages, this altercation in the Nation?
Well, it's a draw. "Trousers alone weren't something that changed the world." (6.192) (Wait until they see the mini-skirt.) In order to change the world, you need a combination of science and faith. In other words, you have to change your thinking. When Mau puts on pants for the first time, it's the start of his transition from pure faith into the world of science. He thinks to himself, "If you couldn't put your trust in gods, then trousers might do" (6.180).
In other words, In Pants We Trust. That's something we'd like to see stamped on a coin. Or at least a pair of Levi's.