Peter Carey

Jack Maggs

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Jack Maggs Summary

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Jack Maggs by Peter Philip Carey AO is a 1997 novel based on Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. In the latter story, Magwitch, a convict, becomes the main character’s—Pip’s—financial benefactor—though his identity is hidden from Pip until the end of the story. Carey, a novelist and inducted member of the Order of Australia (AO), centers Jack Maggs on his Magwitch-inspired character. In Great Expectations, Magwitch is sentenced to transportation to Australia and is absent for much of the story, but Carey, who often writes on the theme of Australian identity, picks up on this dynamic character’s story of redemption.

Maggs is on the search for his son, Henry Phipps—Carey’s stand-in for Pip. He works for a wealthy Englishman named Percy Buckle. Another character, Buckle’s neighbor, Tobias Oates, is a stand-in for Charles Dickens himself, and though he’s meant to assist Maggs in finding his son, instead what he finds is inspiration for the character Magwitch due to his obsession with the criminal mind and trickery. Jack Maggs’s own search for his son is an allegory for Australia’s search for its own national identity, which was ongoing at the time that Carey wrote this novel. Another important theme present in Jack Maggs is the effect of colonialism. Though Australia was federated in 1901, and though it has its own prime minister, Queen Elizabeth II—the Queen of England—is still the ruling monarch of the nation.

Jack Maggs is considered a pastiche—not only because its main characters are based on Dickens’ characters, but also because the style, diction, and narrative force all emulate fiction written during the Victorian era, when Dickens was producing his works. Because of this, another theme of Jack Maggs can be what it means to create literature. This theme is interwoven with the national identity theme, often represented by Oates.

Carey begins his story with Maggs’s return to London. He’s been in Australia for almost a quarter century. Initially, like Magwitch, he was sent to the penal colony as a convict, but after completing his sentence, remained there as a free man. This wasn’t really a choice, as any ex-convict—even one who served his time—who returned to Britain faced hanging as a punishment. Most former convicts in Australia fell into two groups: one group was comprised of those who spent their “freedom” longing to return to England, passing the time drinking; the other group to which Maggs belongs, typically took freedom as an opportunity to succeed and thrive. In Jack Maggs, the titular character earns his fortune by opening a brick-making factory in Sydney, Australia.

However, despite this second group’s—and Maggs’s—success, the longing to return home doesn’t dwindle. Not only does Maggs feel a pull toward his homeland, but he also feels a disconnect with the indigenous peoples of Australia. In other words, he feels as though he has no identity. Furthermore, he longs to see Phipps again. Now grown up, Phipps is not Maggs’s biological son, but like Magwitch and Pip, Maggs was helped by Phipps before he was sent to Australia. He wants to find Phipps now as part of his seeking his identity. He also wishes to make himself known as the young man’s mysterious financial benefactor.

The story takes place in 1837 London, and the city is painted in a very similar light to Dickens’ of darkness, of filth, of overcrowding—and of course, with Phipps, the story includes an orphan much like many of Dickens’ works. Due to writing 150+ years after Dickens’ Great Expectations, there are topics Carey is able to include that Dickens did not, fleshing out the horrors the downtrodden faced in even more grotesque terms. Carey writes about prisoners being flogged and child prostitutes being raped, for example. Though Maggs and Oates have several differences, they also have multiple similarities in their respective histories: Both of them know the pain of losing a child as well as losing the women they love.

Carey’s list of awards and honors are enough to suggest that even though Jack Maggs received some negative critique for its pastiche nature, the novel demonstrates a skilled writer at the helm. Among those awards and honors are two Booker Prizes; he’s one of only three authors to have won this award twice. Jack Maggs won The Age Book of the Year Award in 1997. The novel also won the Commonwealth Writers Prize in 1998. Among his dozen-plus novels, other notable titles include Oscar and Lucinda, published in 1988, and True History of the Kelly Gang, published in 2000.

Carey has also published two short story collections: The Fat Man in History in 1974 and War Crimes in 1979. He’s written and published uncollected short fiction as well, which has appeared in publications such as Manic Magazine, Nation Review, and Overland. Carey has also written juvenile fiction, nonfiction, and screenplays.