Private Thoughts in Jack Maggs?

Tommy Burns, English 156, Brown University, 2004

While serving dinner as a newly employed footman to author Tobias Oates, Jack Maggs suffers a very painful attack. Oates is intrigued by the intensity of Maggs's pain and through hypnosis is able to discover his violent and criminal past. Such a find represents a fundamental power shift between Maggs and the other characters. Maggs, searching for Henry Phipps, enters the home next door by creating a web of deceit and lies. He is able to secure a new job and possesses information concerning his past and future plans that he would not reveal to any other person:

At the same time, Mercy Larkin watched Jack Maggs. She had no idea that she was observing an oyster working on a pearl, nor could she guess at the size of the upset contained inside the shell. Indeed, there was more than a little in Jack Maggs's manner to suggest a man used to being well-treated at the table. He sat himself comfortably with his big legs apart, his hands resting loosely on his belly. He yawned. [p. 18]

Peter Carey depicts how little the characters know about the newest servant. Initially, Carey creates Maggs as a character in control of of his new situation. His great physical presence demonstrates his apparent ease. Such ease, however, is easily lost after Oates hypnotizes him and reveals elements of his past. Maggs, upset that others may know of his crimes, is more deeply troubled by not knowing what specifically he divulged. In one interaction with Oates, Maggs has lost much of the power he previously occupied in the first few pages of the novel:

The two footman walked shoulder by shoulder out into the hall and down the narrow stairs.

"For Jesus' sake. What did I say?"

"You were a great turn, Mr. Maggs. You were a great thrill for the gentlemen, but by God n either the rug nor the flounder will forgive you for it."

"What did I say? Tell me, cod's head."

"Oh go back to Borough, why don't you."

Maggs face darkened dangerously. "I spoke of Borough? What else?" [pp. 35-36]


At this early point of the novel what is the larger significance of secrets? What is the importance that Oates, an author, reveals the secrets of Maggs's past?

Can this scene be analyzed through the lens of class? Why is it important that Maggs, as a servant, is unable to maintain a private sphere?

What is the larger importance that other characters know more than the reader at this point? Why does Carey give them information that we have yet to receive?

Are there such things are truly private thoughts in a novel where hypnosis is such a powerful and dominant force?


Carey, Peter. Jack Maggs. New York: Vintage, 1999.

Australia Carey OV Jack Maggs Leading Questions

Last modified 1 March 2004