How are women's lives and roles portrayed in the novel, Jack Maggs?

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Noelle Thompson | High School Teacher | eNotes Employee

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Well, when you first keep in mind that Jack Maggs is a very, very loose interpretation of Dickens’ Great Expectations, you can understand a bit how women’s lives and roles remain on the periphery. This is a bit ironic just because Pip, represented as “Henry Phipps,” also takes a periphery role here where Dickens’ Magwich, now Jack Maggs is in the forefront. Further, Carey makes quite plain, specifically through the women characters of Ma Britten and Lizzie, that Britain is not at all a responsible host country.

It is important first to look at Jack Maggs’ mother by adoption: Ma Britten. The name is significant in that it most definitely means “Mother Britain” and stands as such in the novel. Ma Britten is not a glorified character at all. In fact, she is a mere criminal who sells pills promising to induce abortions in the back alleys. An irresponsible mother? Absolutely.

Second, we have to look at other negative aspects of English culture through Lizzie, Oates’ sister-in-law. Although not necessarily selfish and irresponsible herself, it is her situation that screams about British irresponsibility. Lizzie opts for a quick abortion of Oates’ child. (Yes, her brother-in-law gets her pregnant.) Most scholars see this as Britain’s (Oates’) attempt to “colonize” Australia (Lizzie) which leads to the death of the native culture. Consequently, the decision for abortion also involves the death of both Lizzie and her child. Burning the bedclothes, all soaked with blood, is Oates’ attempt to cover his actions.

It was Jack Maggs, the murderer, who now grew in the flames. Jack Maggs on fire. Jack Maggs flowering, threatening, poisoning. Tobias saw him hop like a devil. Saw him limp, as if his fiery limbs still carried the weight of convict iron. He saw his head transmogrify until it was bald, tattooed with deep wrinkles that broke apart and floated glowing but into the room.

As the reader can see, it is Jack Maggs who emerges, like a phoenix from the ashes, of these flames from Lizzie’s blood-soaked bedclothes.

In conclusion, looking at the characters of both Lizzie and Ma Britten show us what an irresponsible brute Carey figures the United Kingdom to be (especially in regards to its colonization). Ma Britten’s life of crime through abortion pills and Lizzie’s situation of impregnation all lead us to this negative conclusion, while paving the way for Jack Maggs to become the main character of the novel.

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