The Power of Authorship and the Role of Text in Peter Carey's Jack Maggs

Sarah Eron '05, English 156, Brown University, 2004

Last week we discussed the predominant role of intersecting authorship in Great Expectations, and after reading Jack Maggs, we can safely note that Peter Carey adopts this Dickensian multi-vocalism in his modern narrative. From Maggs' letters to Tobias' novel to Carey's very modernist reliance on inner monologue, Jack Maggs arises as an intricate web of overlapping storylines and texts. Nevertheless, Carey perhaps uses this device of intersecting authorship to achieve very different effects from those explored in Dickens' Great Expectations. Unlike Dickens whose multi-vocalism allows him to infuse authorial commentary into his text and to establish a certain distance between the novel's characters and its readers, Carey weaves together these intersecting narratives in order to achieve a certain philosophical rhetoric within his work. Here, there is no distance between author and character, character and reader, but rather it is unclear who is writing whom, and the various characters or authors find themselves trapped in a nebulous world that lies somewhere between fiction and reality. This sensation of being constantly subjected to the whim of some unknown author allows for a certain deterministic overtone within the text. Lizzie, for example, states in chapter 83 (page 333-334) that "she understood that her life had always been traveling towards this point." Jack Maggs himself comes to a similar realization in chapter 73, except that here he glimpses the manipulator of his fate, and this author is none other than Tobias Oates:

The pages were very wet, and the ink in some paces washed away, but he began his search from the beginning of the note book and very soon, on page three, he was rewarded: M would not go mad.

His brows came down upon his eyes.

M -- would not go mad, but only because he carried with him the strong conviction that he would, no matter what Judge Denman read to him, walk once more in England's green and pleasant land.

The hairs on his neck stood on end. He had had that feeling in his gut before, that cold terror associated with the triangle. He knew his life and death were not his own. His forehead creased in a grid of criss-crossed frown marks. He turned the page.

Jack Maggs is a criminal who presumes to come home from Banishment, who, having accrued great wealth, buys the great mansion in which he will finally be burned alive.

He turned the page and found: CHAPTER ONE. Before the title, and afterwards: the sign of the Cross. All the following pages were vigorously crossed out. [297]

The above passage differs from Lizze's more traditional deterministic notion of moving forward on a set course in another way from that mentioned above, for here we feel the sense that Jack Maggs' fate is being written and destroyed, constantly remolded. Jack's somewhat transmutable existence is implicated in the impermanence of the text which he is reading; the ink washes away, and the final pages are "crossed" out. The action of crossing out along with the symbol of the cross is repeated multiple times in the above passage.


What are the various implications, religious or otherwise, of the "cross" for Jack? Furthermore, Jack realizes here that his life and death are out of his hands, and this internal epiphanic realization of sorts materializes itself in the ever-changing text. Why must Jack's end be concealed from him; is it simply because the character can never know his own fate, or does this concealment have something to do with the nature of the author as whimsical, quizzical, etc . . . Also, what implications does this ever-changing, ever-receding ending have for Carey's larger suspense narrative on which the novel is grounded?

Finally, there are other instances of disappearing text within the novel. For example, Jack's own story which he writes to Henry in letter form is written with disappearing ink. What is the significance of this theme of the disappearing and unstable text? That is to say, is Carey trying to comment also on the role of the author and the art of the written word in general, or does this theme point more specifically to the story of Jack Maggs and the characters within the novel?

The above passage also glimpses at the relationship between Tobias and Jack in the novel. It is perhaps safe to say that these two characters are the two main sub-authors within the text and are, therefore, in constant competition for authorship. How do we reconcile ourselves with the power hierarchy between Jack and Toby? At times, one seems to be in control of the other, and at times this control undergoes a certain role reversal. Does one character win out over the other by the end of the novel, and if so who? Also, normally we think of the writer as a sort of demigod, the creator of and master over the text. However, Tobias is always out of control of his own fate. Is this simply because he is subject to another author, and is Carey creating a macrocosmic chain or pattern of authorship here? Or do Tobias' own actions, creations, and writing cause his own ends as well, and is he simply being punished for a kind of hubris in which he attempts to play god so to speak?

Finally, this notion of control brings us back to the role of text in the novel, for Carey at times seems to imply that even the author cannot maintain control over the text. In Jack Maggs, does text have an agency or body of its own, and if so can we safely locate Carey's novel within a kind of postmodern textual aesthetic in which all narrative and text, as Derrida suggests, ultimately renders itself empty?


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

Australia Carey OV Jack Maggs Leading Questions

Last modified 1 March 2004