Peter Carey's Jack Maggs: Re-Doing Dickens's Re-Doings of Dickens
Pellow, C. Kenneth, Papers on Language & Literature
The late twentieth century and the early years of the twenty-first have seen a number of novels that make prominent use of nineteenth-century (mostly Victorian) settings, customs, and mores but that reconstruct that period with strategies and per-spectives that are singularly contemporary. John Fowles, A. S. Byatt, Sarah Waters, Margaret Atwood, Lloyd Jones, and Michel Faber have been among those prominent in this movement, as has Peter Carey in Oscar and Lucinda and The True History of the Ned Kelly Gang. It is in Jack Maggs, however, that Carey offers one of the most complete and complex excursions in subjecting nineteenth-century characters, themes, fictional structures, and authorial habits of mind to twentieth-century techniques.
Although Jack Maggs has drawn considerable critical attention, that attention has not focused upon the ways in which Carey makes postmodern devices thematically functional; nor has there been much concentration upon Carey's revisionistic treatment of Dickens. A partial exception is Ankhi Mukherjee's 2005 essay in Contemporary Literature, which also takes an interest in Dickens's revisions of himself. However, Mukherjee uses Lacanian theory to provide a psychological/philosophical frame within which to see an array of recent adaptations of Great Expectations, and her focus upon that novel, and especially her focus upon Jack Maggs, differs from that of this essay, which will examine the range of Carey's several postmodern strategies, culminating, as his novel does, in post-colonialism.
Postmodern devices abound in Jack Maggs: fabulism, intertextuality, metafiction, pastiche, and, at the last minute, the postcolonial twist. Most prominently, Carey leads us through a deconstruction of Dickens--not so much of Dickens's fiction as of Dickens's apparent intent in some of his fiction. This tactic is more than a strategy in Jack Maggs; it becomes an integral part of both plot and theme.
In a host of ways, Jack Maggs is a showcase of twentieth-century re-doings of nineteenth-century fiction. Intertextuality, for instance, takes on complexity and function, as Carey juggles numerous "texts": Dickens's life is one; his fiction is another; the manner in which he reworks his life in that fiction is yet another. Carey's novel is a conglomerate of these texts, but there are several other texts operating within Jack Maggs: Tobias Oates, the Dickens-like author, is always working on a next novel, and he continually raids lives of real people as a text to use in that next work; he pretends to be at work on a non-fictional project and occasionally allows Maggs to perceive that work. As though these were not enough texts for Carey to share with us, there is yet another being created: Maggs is writing his own version of his life--as a mirrored image in "invisible" ink.
As is evident in the details above, metafiction occupies a central place in this novel. Carey writes of a nineteenth-century novelist's discovery of material for a future novel. The novelist he invents bears considerable similarity to a real nineteenth-century novelist who wrote a novel similar to that which Carey's created novelist is writing. While the fictional novelist is in the midst of accumulating data about the fellow whose life will become his novel, that fellow is himself composing a story of that life: stories within stories within Chinese boxes. One should not assume, however, that Carey creates these stories nested within stories only to be playful. Rather, the question of why we formulate "stories" lies close to the heart of Jack Maggs.
Critics have long been aware that Great Expectations vividly demonstrates a tendency of Dickens's fiction: to represent his own life, but to do so obliquely--at best. This perception goes back to at least the middle of the twentieth century, as one sees in Edgar Johnson's biography. Johnson argues that Great Expectations is important to an understanding of Dickens because it explores even "more profoundly" than David Copperfield his "formative years and the bent they had given him" (982). …