Power Struggles in Peter Carey's Jack Maggs

Bryce R. Covert, English 156, Brown University, 2004

In his rewriting of Dicken's novel Great Expectations, Peter Carey introduces a completely new character, Tobias Oates. Tobias can be seen as a reflection of Dickens himself -- a writer who is obsessed with recording the daily life of London. He is infatuated with the lower classes and especially the Criminal Mind. He finds a prime subject in the main character of the novel, Jack Maggs, who he finds out through his arts of hypnotism is an escaped convict.

But though Jack is a criminal and was raised in the lower classes, he made his fortune in the land of exile, Australia, which puts him in an odd power relation to the characters. Indeed, many of the characters have a fuzzy class status themselves -- Percy Buckles is a grocer made rich by a benefactor, Mercy Larkin is a girl fallen in position and then rescued by Mr. Buckles as a maid/lover. The characters that Jack encounters want to treat him as a servant and of the lower classes, but he refuses this treatment, and comes to be in control of the actions of most of the characters in the plot.

He and Tobias have the hardest struggle for power, for while Tobias tries to make him a subject of study and constantly refers to him in animalistic and bodily language to keep him so, Jack comes to have more and more power over him, until near the end Tobias feels completely controlled by Jack.

It had always been Tobias' method to approach his subject by way of the body. When he had set himself the task of writing about Jack Maggs, he had first produced a short essay on his hands, pondering not merely the fate of the hidden tendons, the bones, the phalanges, the intercarpals which would one day be liberated by the worms, but also their history: what other hands they had caressed, what lives they had taken in anger. He began by picturing the newborn hand resting briefly on its mother's breast, and then he sketched, in the space of four pages, the whole long story leading towards and away from that "hideously misshapen claw." This essay he knew to be a jewel, and he had horded it like a clock-maker, setting it aside for its small part in his grand machine. Now, with his wrists raw and red from bondage, he had, to put it very mildly, lost interest in his subject: the Criminal Mind had become repulsive to his own imagination.

Yet it was the Criminal Mind which now controlled Tobias. It was its directive that he must now, this instant, hold his sister-in-law in his arms. Under its orders he placed two pills in that tender white hand and spoke as confidently, nay, as reverently, as if they had been communion wafers. [p. 330]

Jack Maggs becomes so powerful over Tobias that he not only is able to control him physically by binding him, but he is able to coerce him to induce the abortion of his love-child with his wife's sister.


1. The idea of the Criminal Mind as being a specimen to be studied fascinates Tobias, and the other characters of the novel pass judgment on criminality as well. What role does the criminal play in this novel? Is criminality always easily defined? What sort of morality do the characters of the novel function in?

2. How do the power relations in this novel function in terms of class? How are they inverted? What are we to deduce by the situation left us at the end?

3. It is easy to equate Tobias Oates with Charles Dickens, as the writer who recreates London. What are we to make of the language he uses to describe Jack Maggs in Carey's version, if we look at how his equivalent character, Magwich, is treated in Great Expectations? What are we to make of Tobias' obsession with writing essays on Jack's specific body parts? Are there ways in which his language, or the language of the novel as a whole, mirrors that of Great Expectations?

4. If we are to equate the writer Tobias Oates with Dickens himself, what does his characterization reflect on Carey's ideas of realism? Is Tobias just another caricature that we could find in a Dickens novel?


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

Australia Carey OV Jack Maggs Leading Questions

Last modified 1 March 2004