Characters

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Carey's novel merges elements of Great Expectations with events from Charles Dickens's life, blurring fact with fiction, or as he states in his epigraph, "The author willingly admits to having once or twice stretched history to suit his own fictional ends." The novel's eponymous hero is moved from the margins of the nineteenth-century text— where he was little more than the troublesome source of Philip Pirrip's wealth—to the center of this late twentieth-century reworking. In contrast to the insipidity of the British characters surrounding him, Maggs is a vibrant and strong protagonist who represents—albeit unwittingly—the opportunities on offer in Britain's penal colonies. In contrast to the rather nondescript clothes of the other characters, Maggs dresses in a bright red waistcoat. Physically he is an imposing figure, in direct contrast to the stunted growth that adds to the feelings of inadequacy which dog Tobias Oates. A self-made man, Maggs is industrious and obviously resourceful, having converted the infertile land given to him with his ticket-of-leave into a brick-works. Although lacking in social refinement, he possesses compassion, both for his dead first-love, Sophina, and also for the fatherless Mercy Larkins.

Indeed, Carey seems to have transferred Dickens's well-documented empathy and kindness to Maggs, for the author's textual representative is almost completely devoid of these traits. This act of transference is reflected in the surname Maggs, which has been drawn from Thomas Mag, who was to have been the hero of Mag's Diversions, one of many titles Dickens considered for his semi-autobiographical novel, David Copperfield. In renaming Charles Dickens Tobias (to bias) Oates, Carey exemplifies his awareness of authorial subjectivity and the way in which all narratives reflect the positioning of their writers. Through removing Dickens from his authorial position of omniscient power and planting him within the narrative as a protagonist, Carey mounts an assault on the canon through demonstrating that no narrative can be fixed, not even a history. Moreover, Oates's name is also loaded with connotations of unfulfilled potential, since it is the same name as of one of Pip's dead brothers in Great Expectations. In a novel so concerned with fabrication, its resemblance to that of the perjurer Titus Oates can hardly be a matter of coincidence.

The author depicted by Carey is an exaggerated Dickens figure who is morbidly fascinated by the Victorian underworld to the point of obsession. Unscrupulous, ambitious, and living well beyond his means, Oates exploits Maggs's affliction with tic doloureux, a painful facial convulsion, to hypnotise him, thus enabling him to extort Maggs's life story and appropriate it for himself—the implication being that the novelist is lacking in imagination and can only steal stories. Carey's reinvention of Dickens— often regarded as the greatest English novelist—as a libidinous hypocrite is clearly bound-up with a desire to reconfigure his artistic relationship with the English literary tradition. Carey's hostile portrayal perhaps results from the creative constraints that the literary canon has imposed upon him and from which he is seeking to liberate himself through overturning the "master narrative" and the authority of its writer simultaneously.

Oates's wife, Mary, is a fairly minor figure, but the narrator clearly has a great deal of sympathy for the way in which her husband's financial and personal carelessness has left her in an extremely vulnerable position, while his vibrant and strong personality seems to have eclipsed her own altogether. Unlike Dickens's wife, Catherine, who is usually portrayed by biographers as a rather passive and dull figure, the reader is offered some insight into Mary's psyche, and she is also given a degree of autonomy that could not have...

(This entire section contains 1487 words.)

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been enjoyed by a middle- class woman in the nineteenth century. Thus, when Mary guesses that her sister is expecting Tobias's child, she does not turn a blind eye to her husband's misdemeanors as one would expect a model Victorian wife to do, but instead takes the unlikely step of procuring some of Ma Britten's abortion pills. Just as Carey frees Maggs/Magwitch from the margins of the text, so he also liberates Catherine Dickens/Mary Oates from both social and spatial restrictions by allowing her to walk across London. The journey itself mirrors one of Dickens/Oates's "slumming expeditions" into the East End to see the lives of London's underclass, but it is also of importance because the character is permitted to enter territories that would have been off-limits to her nineteenth-century counterpart. Mary truly comes into her own in the wake of Lizzie's death, and it is clear that she is far from being the "slow and famously dim-witted creature who was commonly thought not to understand half of what her famous husband said." Rather, it is Mary who, while racked with guilt at having, as she believes, killed her sister, takes control of the situation and manages to make the death appear as a tragedy, thus saving both herself and her husband's reputation.

Lizzie Warriner herself is a far cry from the young and innocent Mary Hogarth upon whom she is based. Apparently more attractive and intelligent than her sister, Lizzie's transgression with her brother-in-law is at odds with the moral propriety that is usually (albeit erroneously) ascribed to the Victorians. Her death scene is, whilst entirely plausible, completely at odds with the demise of Dickensian heroines like Little Nell. Instead of welcoming death as a just atonement for her crimes or embracing it as a passing to a better place, Lizzie oscillates between remorse and aggression, at one point rejecting her sister's ministrations with the response, "No, damn you!"

As the vendor of the concoctions which kill Lizzie and as Jack Maggs's foster mother, Ma Britten is an important catalyst. Her rise to prosperity at the expense of the misfortune of others mirrors Britain's own economic and industrial advancement during the nineteenth century, while her selfish neglect of Jack parallels the mother country's lack of concern with either the poor or with colonial exiles. With the exception of the opening pages, when Jack returns to visit her and the scene in which Mary obtains the tablets, Ma Britten is, along with her scheming son Tom, the criminal Silas Smith, and Maggs's first love, Sophina, presented to the reader through Jack's eyes. It is therefore difficult to obtain an unbiased perspective of this figure, and in a novel so concerned with the subjectivity of the narrator, this is an important point of which to be aware.

Just as un-endearing as Ma Britten is Percy Buckle. Initially presented as a philanthropic figure, Buckle is responsible for saving Mercy Larkins from the life of prostitution that her mother has been forced to consign her to. A former grocer and seller of fried fish, Percy has inherited a fortune and an extremely chaotic household. His physical appearance is slightly ridiculous and he walks like a duck. He initially seems to be an innocuous enough figure: bookish, kind, and totally uncomfortable with the social niceties that should have accompanied his sudden rise to prosperity. Yet instead of conforming to the Dickensian stereotype of the slightly quirky gentleman with the heart of gold, Percy succumbs to jealousy of Jack Maggs when it becomes obvious that Mercy is attracted to the convict. Buckle is rapidly transformed into a malevolent schemer, willing to manipulate other characters, like Henry Phipps, in order to rid himself of Maggs.

The English characters on the whole are presented as deeply flawed and selfish. Having received Maggs's money, Henry Phipps flees his benefactor because of his criminal past and lack of gentility. Significantly, none of the English relationships are fruitful, thus pointing to a fundamental sterility and lack of creative impulse in the mother country. Phipps and the footman Constable are both homosexual and therefore cannot reproduce. Oates's child with Mary is sickly, while the child conceived by Lizzie is unwanted and must be destroyed at all costs. Finally, Mercy and Buckle's relationship does not yield any offspring. Of all the English characters it is Mercy alone who possesses charisma and vitality; she is also the only figure who is willing to tell the truth. She jeopardizes her future by incurring Buckle's wrath through aiding Maggs. She is also concerned enough about Maggs's well being to tell him some home truths and to point out that his future should not lie in England. It is therefore inevitable that she returns to Australia with Maggs to care for his children and, in a new and more stimulating environment, to bear infants of her own. Since there is no mercy in Carey's rendition of Victorian England, Mercy must be transplanted overseas where she is able to reinvent herself as "a disciplinarian." She is also able to build a strong, prosperous, and loving family that is identified not only as a "clan," but also, significantly, as a "Race," putting her practicality to good use in a land willing to offer opportunities to those with skill and energy.

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