The novel is a deliberately loose adaptation of Dickens's Great Expectations (serialized 1860-1861), and in order to appreciate fully the subtleties of Carey's revision at least some knowledge of the plot of Great Expectations is desirable, although of course, there is no substitute for the text itself.
In brief, and focusing only upon the elements of the story which resurface in Carey's reinterpretation, Great Expectations is the story of Philip Pirrip, or Pip, an orphan who is raised by his ferocious older sister and her weaker husband, the blacksmith Joe Gargery. One Christmas, when he is a child, Pip aids an escaped convict, Abel Magwitch, by stealing food for him. Magwitch is subsequently re-captured and banished to Australia for the term of his natural life. Thus, having made the briefest of appearances, Magwitch vanishes from the narrative for several years. In the meantime Pip is taken to meet Miss Havisham, a wealthy old woman who was deserted by her lover the night before her wedding was due to take place. Miss Havisham has remained dressed in her bridal attire ever since and has cloistered herself in her house with her ward, Estella, whom she has reared to use her beauty and wiles to hurt and punish men as a form of revenge for her own abandonment. Pip falls in love with Estella and wishes to become a gentleman so that he may be in a social position to marry her. When an anonymous benefactor intervenes by bestowing money and status upon him, with the promise of more to follow, Pip assumes that Miss Havisham is responsible. He shuns his lowly roots and those who have been kind to him and departs for London to become a gentleman. He is later horrified to discover that Magwitch the convict is the source of his wealth, having made a fortune in Australia and never forgetting Pip's early kindness to him. Magwitch risks his life to return to England (returned transported convicts were hanged) so that he may be with the gentleman he has created. As a returned convict, or "transport," however, Magwitch has been ejected from the dystopian England which has failed to provide for him. Thus, his freedom of movement is restricted by a need for concealment which leads to Jaggers' constant reiteration to Pip that "You can't have verbal communication with a man in New South Wales, you know." For Dickens, then, in spite of its negligence as a parent, the mother country is still perceived as a home to which the convict will want to return.
Although initially repelled at the "low" origins of his money, Pip later feels a degree of compassion for Magwitch and assists him in an attempt to escape from Britain, where he is in grave danger of being captured once more. The escape bid fails and Magwitch dies in prison, a broken man, but at last having gained Pip's affection. As a criminal, Magwitch's assets may not pass to Pip and the latter is left penniless, but with a heightened awareness of the fact that status alone cannot make a gentleman. He therefore leaves Britain and goes to work in Egypt, returning years later to encounter Estella once more.
As an Australian writer trying to come to terms with his own position in relation to the English literary canon, Carey concerns himself with textual silences and brings Magwitch from the story's periphery. Jack Maggs is a novel particularly concerned with the themes of expulsion and return, excision and revision. Carey has challenged the Victorian impulse towards closure which frequently killed off problematic individuals or jettisoned them into the colonies, never to be seen again. He instead attempts to make sense of his own post-colonial identity and roots in a society of convicts by revising the narrative of the returned "transport" and reinventing Magwitch. In Great Expectations Magwitch is largely portrayed as an inert spectator once he has returned to Britain. He declares to Pip, "And this . . . and this is the gentleman what I made! The real genuine One! It does me good fur to look at you, Pip. All I stip 'late is, to stand by and look at you, dear boy!"
The very nature of his existence as a returned transport necessitates stealth and a deference to Pip, who has the freedom to wander through the city. Carey, on the other hand, finds this static Magwitch to be a frustrating figure, and when reinventing him...
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