Without a Da: Fatherlessness in Jack Maggs

Alan Gordon '06, English 156, Brown University, 2004

Peter Carey's novel Jack Maggs is full of characters who grew up fatherless, including Jack Maggs, Mercy Larkin, Henry Phipps, Tobias Oates, Sophina and Tom . Carey's extensive use of orphaned and partially orphaned characters rivals even that of the writer who inspired Jack Maggs, Charles Dickens. The density of such characters suggests that London in this novel is a city in which people grow up without the guidance and stability of a father.

In the passage below, Jack Maggs, an ex-convict who has illegally returned from Australia to England, and Mercy Larkin, the lover of the gentleman who employs Jack, talk about paternal hopes and responsibility. Mercy senses that Jack has abandoned children in Australia to search for the debauched, ungrateful boy he has supported in England, Henry Phipps. She tells Jack to return to his children and forget about Henry. Jack, made violent by the truth he hears in Mercy's comments, characteristically shakes Mercy until her teeth rattle.

This scene is pivotal in the novel. Here, Mercy begins to convince Jack to abandon his scheme to be the father of an English gentleman. When, at the novel's end, Jack accepts that his responsibility is not toward Henry, but toward his real sons, Dick and John, in Australia he and Mercy are able to achieve happiness, a family, and a legacy. Jack Maggs searches for a son, but he ends up with a wife young enough to be his daughter.

She saw it now. Perhaps she had always known. "You have babies in the place where you have come from."

His mouth tightened in denial.

"My son is an Englishman."

"I meant your real children."

"I am not of that race."

"What race?"

"The Australian race," he said. "The race of Australians."

"But what of your babes?"

"Damn you, don't look at me like that. I am an Englishman."

"You are their da, Jack. They walk along the street, they think they see your face in the


"I made my promise to Henry before they were born."

"He looks at no clouds for you."

"He what?"

"He don't see your face."

At this, he shook her till her teeth rattled in her head.

"What do you know? he roared, his face turning a dark russet red. "What...do...you...know?"

At which Mercy burst into tears and threw her head upon his broad chest. "I know what it is to lose a da." [p. 340]


Why does Jack Maggs journey across the world, desert his real sons, and risk being hanged to visit Henry Phipps?

Why is Jack Maggs preoccupied with being English? Contrast his views of England and Australia. Does Maggs ultimately represent the "Australian race" he disparages in this passage?

In what ways is Maggs's relationship with Mercy Larkin paternal? Does this make their eventual marriage particularly Dickensian? Which unexpected marriage of Great Expectations does the wedding of Maggs and Larkin suggest?

Fatherlessness pushes Mercy to prostitution and Jack Maggs to theivery. What does growing up "without a da" entail in Jack Maggs?


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

Australia Carey OV Jack Maggs Leading Questions

Last modified 1 March 2004