Jack Maggs

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Peter Carey, an Australian who has lived in New York for several years, continues to write fiction that engages directly or indirectly with his homeland, whatever its subject. He first gained notice in 1974 with a book of experimental short stories, The Fat Man in History, then again in 1979 with another volume of equally fantastic short fiction, War Crimes. These two striking collections, widely acclaimed in Australia and overseas, previewed the breadth and inventive structure of his work once he turned to full-length fiction.

His first major novel, Illywhacker (1986), covers the history of 150 or so years of European settlement in Australia through a whimsical revision of fact and myth, told through the eyes of an “illywhacker” (Australian slang for a con artist or carnival spieler). In 1988, Carey received the Booker Prize for Oscar andLucinda, which follows the misadventures of a nineteenth century Australian couple who attempt to defy colonial reality by moving a glass church into the outback, where so fragile a symbol of civilization shatters. His next novel, The Tax Inspector (1991), centers on contemporary Sydney to depict private and public corruption. In The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith (1994), Carey invents a postcolonial nation called Efica and its powerful ally, Voorstand; through this contrivance, he subtly handles the perceived neocolonialism that Australia undergoes at the hands of the United States.

Thus it is no surprise to Carey’s readers that his 1998 novel, Jack Maggs, embraces the nineteenth century as its period but at the same time focuses on modern Australia’s relationship with the larger world—in particular, the Australian search for national identity. While this quest has occupied Carey throughout his career, he has managed to masquerade the recurrent theme in varied guises.

Widely reviewed in English-speaking countries, Jack Maggs received undue notice from critics for its debt to Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1860-1861). Granted, the newly minted Maggs owes his origins to the beleaguered convict Magwitch in the Dickens novel, just as Phipps represents another version of Magwitch’s surrogate son Pip; parallels with other characters in the earlier book have also been drawn, but highlighting such likenesses is not especially useful. Carey’s creation of the rising young writer Tobias Oates also led reviewers to speculate on how extensively Oates in both his professional and personal life resembles Dickens. Yet, once all these similarities have been pointed out, Carey’s expansion of the classic novel stands on its own, first as a lively and rousing story, then as a narrative with a strong subtext that examines not only the nature of fiction writing but also the uncertain identity and precarious condition of a postcolonial nation such as Australia.

Although a product of the late twentieth century, Jack Maggs resembles a work from earlier times with its mannered prose, its vivid details that re-create nineteenth century England, its meticulous development of character, and its old-fashioned narrative force. The story begins as Maggs returns to London after spending twenty-four years in Australia, first as a convict, then as a free man once he had completed his sentence. It was the practice in the early 1800’s to transport criminals to the farflung British colony in the antipodes. Once the convicts had completed their sentences, they were required to remain in Australia; if they dared return to England, they would be hanged. Some of the former convicts wasted away the rest of their lives as free men or women, carousing, drinking, and longing to go “home”—that is, to the England that had rejected them. Others adjusted and prospered in the developing colony. Maggs belongs to...

(This entire section contains 1785 words.)

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the latter company; he set up a brick-making factory in rapidly growing Sydney and accumulated a fortune. Like the first group, though, he still dreams of “home . . . the long mellow light of English summer” and would “build London in his mind . . . brick by brick.” Rebelling against the harsh life on the world’s underside, Maggs declares: “I am not of that race. . . . The race of Australians.” His passion is to see the orphan, now a grown man living in London, who had befriended him on his way to deportation those many years ago. With his newfound prosperity, he has secretly supported Phipps and financed his transformation into a gentleman. Maggs has long imagined the two of them living a genteel life together in his beloved London.

Thus Maggs, in spite of the threat of death, returns to the much-changed city, fully rendered in Carey’s descriptive prose:

The city had become a fairground, and as the coach crossed the river at Westminster the stranger saw that even the bridges of the Thames were illuminated.

The entire Haymarket was like a grand ball. Not just the gas, the music, the dense, tight crowds. . . . Dram shops had become gin palaces with their great plate-glass windows. . . . This one here—it was like a temple, damned if it was not, the door surrounded by stained panes of rich dye: rosettes, bunches of grapes.

Before long, however, Maggs’s enthusiasm is dampened when he finds the house he purchased for Phipps deserted. The ungrateful recipient of the ex-convict’s generosity has learned of his benefactor’s identity and imminent visit and has gone into hiding to avoid him.

Ever resourceful, Maggs takes a job in the house next door as a footman so that he can keep an eye on Phipps’s residence. His employer, Percy Buckle, is a former shopkeeper who inherited money and set himself up as a gentleman. Maggs soon learns that the household staff shows little respect for its upstart master. Fancying himself a man of letters, Buckle is delighted when the well-known writer Tobias Oates accepts an invitation to dinner, and Buckle does not object when Oates takes undue interest in his host’s new footman.

This meeting initiates a strange and often stormy relationship between Maggs and Oates, who eventually learns the bad-tempered footman’s secret past as a convict. By promising to help Maggs find the vanished Phipps, the writer convinces the suspicious Maggs to act as his subject in his amateur ventures into hypnotism and mesmerism. This agreement sets the narrative on its course when the unlikely pair intermittently delve into Maggs’s past and search in vain for the missing Phipps. Their personal explorations and wider hunt provide the basis for a series of adventures that lead the two men into varied avenues of nineteenth century English life. To augment the immediate narrative, Maggs writes long letters to Phipps. Through this one-sided correspondence, the neglected benefactor discloses how he grew up in London and trained as a thief who specialized in stealing silver from fine houses, for which he was eventually tried and exiled; here the first-person voice replaces the detached third-person narrator. Interwoven into these assorted strands are scenes revealing Oates’s turbulent household, his unfortunate romantic entanglement, and his financial problems, along with incidents picturing the disorderly ménage headed by Buckle.

At the novel’s end, Maggs discovers his true identity as an Australian. The romanticized picture of England he once carried dissolves when he finally grasps that his much-anticipated return “home” has brought him only suffering, humiliation, ingratitude, and disillusionment. Maggs, unrefined and given to violence though he is, and Mercy Larkin, albeit a former prostitute still plying her trade with Buckle, emerge as the two most admirable characters in the story. The rest of the British personages Maggs encounters, that “race” with whom he had once identified so fervently, display only selfish, grasping, pretentious, and perfidious streaks. Even a character who loosely suggests “Mother England” turns out to be an abortionist.

In addition to being an engaging narrative, Jack Maggs offers insights into the creative process itself through the alliance between Oates and Maggs. Fascinated by his subject, the ambitious writer attempts to enter deeply into Maggs’s experience, past and present, to gather material for a proposed novel about the former convict’s life. How stories originate and accumulate, how they unfold and grow, has always intrigued Carey, who has investigated the act of storytelling in his previous novels. Here the parallel between the imaginary Oates and the actual Dickens is legitimized, as Carey imagines the way Dickens may have set Great Expectations into creative motion. Further, the contemporary author has helped out his nineteenth century counterpart by providing the missing details from the life and times of Magwitch/ Maggs. In an interview, Carey admitted that he had always been curious about the mysterious benefactor in the earlier novel.

The ending, which should not be revealed in its entirety, makes a strong statement about national identity. Maggs discovers that he does indeed belong to “the race of Australians,” an identity he had earlier rejected. Mercy Larkin, who had been turned into the London streets by her mother to work as a prostitute, then rescued by Buckle, who took advantage of her weakness, finds salvation and happiness in Australia. The all-important concluding sequence, although clearly enough defined, turns out to be the book’s weakest part. The narrator seems to be in a hurry to tie the loose strands together, and too much happens too fast. Earlier scenes that are less essential get fuller treatment. The reader, in the final pages, tends to feel cheated and wishes that Jack Maggs and Mercy Larkin had been granted more extended treatment as they discover themselves, that their redemption and their awareness of their rightful identity had been more thoroughly developed.

Carey’s work is popular in his homeland, and no doubt this novel’s emphatic conclusion, which stresses Australia’s superiority over England, will please Australian readers. Although the country itself still pledges allegiance to the British monarchy, a strong movement has developed to sever these traditional ties and form an independent republic. While the current political maneuverings may have accounted in large part for the novel’s enthusiastic reception in Australia, readers overseas would not likely be aware of such parochial matters. The novel’s success outside Australia undoubtedly rests to some degree on its solid story, intriguing characters, and remarkable style. In addition, the book’s connection with Great Expectations surely accounts for part of its appeal. Although enlargement, revision, or updating of literary classics fails more often than it succeeds, Jack Maggs does full justice to the original work.

Sources for Further Study

The Christian Science Monitor. April 8, 1998, p. 14.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. February 1, 1998, p. 2.

The Nation. CCLXVI, March 2, 1998, p. 27.

The New York Review of Books. XLV, February 19, 1998, p. 26.

The New York Times Book Review. CIII, February 8, 1998, p. 10.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, December 1, 1997, p. 45.

Time. CLI, February 23, 1998, p. 84.

The Times Literary Supplement. September 12, 1997, p. 8.

The Wall Street Journal. February 4, 1998, p. A20.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVIII, March 15, 1998, p. 1.

Literary Techniques

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Jack Maggs is a text obsessed with writing and rewriting. When Maggs agrees to allow Oates to mesmerize him every day for a fortnight he stipulates, "I won't have nothing written down," thus manifesting a deep suspicion of the written text. There are multiple narratives in play in the novel, and each narrative has multiple layers. Maggs is afraid not only of exposure to the authorities, but also of having his story stolen. Whilst Oates keeps two sets of books in a bid to outwit the convict, Maggs writes his own version of events in invisible ink so that the story of his life may only be read by Henry Phipps.

Passages from Oates's work in progress, The Death of Maggs, are interspersed with Carey's narrative and Maggs's own version of events. It is therefore, at times, somewhat confusing for the reader who is required to tease out "fact" from "fiction" and to determine which of the narratives are "true." Carey himself plays with facts as a way of drawing attention to the relativity of all writing. Although he is scrupulously accurate in recording key dates that correspond to important moments in Dickens's life (for example Lizzie Warriner's death coincides with that of Dickens's sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth), his attitude to naming is much more cavalier. The forenames of characters belonging to Oates's family are all drawn from figures surrounding Charles Dickens, yet Carey deliberately jumbles them up, naming Oates's son after Dickens's father, Oates's wife after his sister-in law, Mary, and his lover, Lizzie, after Dickens's mother. This technique is a means of making the reader suspicious of facts and history and it also serves as a constant reminder of the revisionist process. Indeed, the novel's final paragraph acknowledges that rewriting can never be definitive, by depicting Mercy Larkins as having expunged the Oates's dedication from no fewer than seven volumes of his novel, The Death of Maggs. Thus while the novel, along with Maggs's letters to Phipps, becomes a piece of archive material in Sydney's Mitchell Library, it is, like all documents that purport to be authoritative, both incomplete and flawed, having been revised itself.

Ideas for Group Discussions

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1. Given his previous highly original works of fiction, consider why Peter Carey has chosen to re-write Great Expectations. Why does he adapt the novel so loosely?

2. Jack Maggs is a text concerned with silences and giving voices to those "others" who have traditionally been denied a voice in "great" literary texts. On one level it might be possible to view the text as a work of post-colonial Australia. Thinking about the idea of suppressed voices, why might this view be subject to challenge?

3. How is the outsider from the colonies used to comment on British society in the nineteenth century?

4. Do you consider Phipps's rejection of his benefactor to be tragic? Why or why not?

5. What roles do the women of Jack Maggs play? Consider how they might be regarded in allegorical terms.

6. Maggs is haunted for most of the novel by the "phantom" of his repressed memories that Oates taps into when he mesmerizes him. Do you agree with Maggs that Oates has planted the phantom there himself? Why does Maggs mistake Henry Phipps for the phantom?

7. Percy Buckle moves swiftly from being a weak character to become a schemer who seeks to manipulate others in order to rid himself of Maggs. How does Carey use Buckle to propel the plot's action? Did you find the sudden alteration/ development of his character to be convincing?

8. As well as being a re-working of a text, Jack Maggs contains texts within texts. Why might that be, and why is Carey so concerned with undermining the authority of the written word?

9. Why does Maggs want to return to Britain? How does the novel's narrator feel about this ambition? Compare the descriptions of London to the recollections of Australia revealed in Maggs's trance. Does either place represent an "ideal" society? Contrast the London figures to Maggs. Why does Maggs return to Australia? Why do you think Carey decided to send his character back?

10. The novel begins with a lengthy passage from de Chastenet and de Puysegur's Du Magnetisme Animal which seems to frame the narrative and perhaps to place the reader in a type of trance. Why might that be?

Social Concerns

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The social concerns addressed in Jack Maggs may be divided into two categories: those of the past and those of the present. This is not to suggest that the two groups are mutually exclusive, for one of the text's major concerns is the way in which the past has shaped the present. While the nineteenth-century issues are evident to the sensitive reader, the twentieth century concerns are more subtly embedded within the narrative.

Carey picks up on the need for radical social reform so often encountered in the works of Charles Dickens. Carey's city of London is just as bleak, dark, and pestilent as that of his literary forebear, and the despair of the metropolis is heightened by occasional comparisons to the prosperity that Maggs has left behind him in Australia. The state is depicted as having neglected the impoverished children it has failed to provide for, with figures like Percy Buckle and Mercy Larkins being saved from lives of toil or degradation through individual acts of kindness. Percy receives a legacy, whilst Mercy's redemption from a life of prostitution is dependent upon the whims of her master, leaving her far more vulnerable to sliding back into the gutter and without any hope of assistance from the society at large.

Maggs, as an outsider returning from exile, serves as a device to comment upon this world of squalor, the source of so much misplaced nostalgia for nineteenth-century Australian settlers and their descendants. Whilst England is initially a highly attractive place for the outcast Maggs, Mercy Larkins gradually brings Jack to an awareness of the futility of his quest to be accepted by his alarmed protege, Henry Phipps. She also makes him realize the ludicrousness of leaving behind a life of abundance in the colonies, not to mention his own children, to risk death from a state which demands that he remain in exile, In giving voice to these opinions, Mercy, who implicitly takes on the authorial voice here, seems to be striking a blow for modern Australian identity. She declares with passion of Jack's sons who are, by extension of the parentchild allegory, Australia itself, "And while these little boys wait for you to come home, you prance round England trying to find someone who does not love you." She, alone of all the characters, seems to recognize Britain as a society in decline and understands that Maggs, and by implication Australia, will not be able to progress until they are able to leave the past behind them. Carey's novel, then, is concerned with dispelling the sentiment attached to the mother country and with forging an independent, autonomous identity.

Literary Precedents

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Jack Maggs belongs to a long line of adaptations of Great Expectations, including David Allen's play Modest Expectations (1990), in which Dickens and his mistress Ellen Ternan visit Australia, and Michael Noonan's Magwitch (1982), which expands the convict's story without significantly revising it. As Australia has come increasingly interested in its colonial past, rather than seeking to forget its origins as a penal settlement, concern with figures like Magwitch/Maggs has increased. Robert Hughes has produced a compelling history of British settlement in Australia, The Fatal Shore (1988), which vividly depicts the privations endured by those condemned to transportation. Equally, Marcus Clark's For the Term of His Natural Life (1874) and George Dunderdale's The Book of the Bush (1870) provide graphic, and at times startling, accounts of life in the outback.

Carey is certainly not alone in his need to engage with Dickens's novels. Most recently John Irving has drawn upon Dickens texts, notably David Copperfield in Cider House Rules (1986), and A Tale of Two Cities in A Prayer for Owen Meany (1990). Looking forward to post-Carey adaptations, Susanne Alleyn's A Far Better Rest (2000) fleshes out the character of Sydney Carton and rewrites A Tale of Two Cities from his perspective.


Critical Essays