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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...

(This entire section contains 1767 words.)

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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. InGreat 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 removes him from the margins and awards him a far greater prominence.

On one level, it is possible to construe Carey's conception of the static Magwitch as an analogy to his perception of the relationship between British and Australian culture. Just as Magwitch cannot be incorporated into mainstream British society, so too is the (white) Australian writer excluded from the canon of classic British texts. However, because of their colonial roots such authors are unable to assert a uniquely Australian identity (a problematic concept anyway, in the light of the third-class status accorded to Australian Aboriginals) free from the cultural baggage of the past. In reworking Great Expectations, Carey displays an unwillingness to abandon this past altogether and instead attempts to re-order it. However, in working from an established text, rather than creating anew, Carey places his relationship with the parent country on a somewhat Oedipal footing. He attempts to challenge a legacy of British hegemony through revising or "killing" the master narrative, which itself has been complicit in mirroring life and repeatedly condemning to death the Australian transport.

While the Magwitch of Great Expectations is the subject of both Pip's and Dickens's accounts, Carey's reincarnation of the convict Jack Maggs is a far more reticent subject who constantly insists on his need to tell his own tale. At the beginning of Chapter 42 of Great Expectations, Magwitch declares to Pip and Herbert Pocket,

"Dear boy and Pip's comrade. I am not a going fur to tell you my life, like a song or a story-book. But to give it you short and handy, I'll put it at once into a mouthful of English. In jail and out of jail, in jail and out of jail, in jail and out of jail. There, you've got it. That's my life pretty much, down to such times as I got shipped off, arter Pip stood my friend."

While Magwitch does then proceed to offer a more expansive account of his life, this information constitutes only one small element of Pip's narrative. Maggs, on the other hand, is all too aware of his potential as subject matter for Tobias Oates and is depicted as constantly resisting the exuberant young author's urges to mesmerize him in order to extract his story. Towards the close of the novel when the literate Maggs has perused Tobias's notebooks and has uncovered Oates's projected end for the story of his life, he attacks the author's sense of omnipotence and sinisterly insinuates that Toby's ending could also be revised:

"You are planning to kill me, I know that. Is that what you mean by painful? To burn me alive?"

"Not you, Jack, a character who bears your name. I will change the name sooner or later."

"You are just a character to me too, Toby"

Maggs reiterates his point on several occasions by explicitly accusing Oates of theft and revealing that he has already written his story for himself. However, it is the notion of the author as a mere character which is crucial to Carey's revisionist agenda. The author no longer enjoys an unchallenged position of control as historically marginalized figures such as Magwitch/ Maggs are brought to the fore and given voices.

Equally as important as Maggs's sense of his own voice is Carey's view of the England to which his convict returns. In creating a returned transport who can read, write, and quote Shakespeare, Carey attempts to undermine a complacent British sense of cultural superiority. The irresponsibility of the mother country—which was noted by Dickens in his grimy microcosm, Little Britain—is emphasized through the allegorical figure Ma Britten, Maggs's gruesome adopted mother, a seller of back street abortion pills who leads her ward to a life of crime.

A strong sense of the stagnation of British culture is exemplified through the now peripheral Pip, who is reinvented as the selfish and irresponsible Henry Phipps, as well as through Oates's sister-in-law Lizzie's abortion of the author's unborn child. The aborted fetus and the subsequent death of its mother represent the colonizer-artist's creative irresponsibility. Oates's impregnation of his wife's sister may be viewed as an analogue for his interference in the "other" territory of the Australian settler or, to extend the analogy even further, for the imperial nation's interference overseas. Indeed, the destructive nature of Oates's intervention is evidenced when he vengefully burns the blood-soaked linen in which Lizzie has died:

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.

A few pages earlier, Maggs had forced Tobias to burn his notebooks, and in this passage the two acts of immolation become equated. A new Maggs emerges phoenix like from the flames in a dramatic travesty of the revisionist process, and Oates is finally able to envisage the violent death of his subaltern convict in the wake of the sordid accident of Lizzie's death.

Peter Carey, however, is not faced with the same problem of closure as his nineteenth- century predecessors and unlike Dickens or Oates, he has no ordering impulse to destroy Maggs. Note that Oates's novel is entitled The Death of Maggs, while Carey's is the less destructive Jack Maggs. Carey is far more concerned with the future which must emerge once the past has been redefined. Hence, the Magwitch of the 1990s is persuaded by the appropriately named Mercy (a trait decidedly lacking from the institutions depicted in Great Expectations) to return to his children and his state, of affluence in the new colony and to abandon his nostalgia for the "old country." Implicit in this revisionist ending is a message to modern-day Australia to free itself from a similar nostalgic allegiance to British culture and to move forward to forge a new sense of national identity which will enable the Australians, as a people, to come to terms with their colonial legacy.