Women and Motherhood in Peter Carey's Jack Maggs

Zoe Ripple '05, English 156, Brown University, 2004

In Jack Maggs, women and mothers are depicted as being at once caring, and conniving, cruel and self-centered, worn and used; often, they are widowed or poor, cheated upon, or generally "saucy". With his presentation of women in Jack Maggs, Peter Carey seems not only to offer a rewriting of the women in Great Expectations but also of Dickens' complex, hostile attitudes about mothers. In the following scene, Marjorie Larkin, who manifests her sorrow and insanity by "cutting her hair so queerly short," prepares a dress for her daughter: unbeknownst to the excited Mercy, it is the dress she will wear when her mother takes her to be sold for sex. The scene offers a vivid account of preparations for rape, and of a woman's desperate betrayal of her child. It is yet another instance of incompetent motherhood so evident in Great Expecations, yet more generally is an instance of incompetent, problematic womanhood that seems to afflict women in Jack Maggs to varying degrees.

Then she began to take the duff out at night, loading her little cane basket and covering it with a cloth. Then she locked Mercy in the room with chains and a great black padlock. She was sometimes gone only a short time, but at other times she would be gone so long that Mercy began to fear her mother dead, and that she herself would die before anyone would find her. . . . Then one Sunday, without explanation, her mother began to work upon a pretty dress for her, sewing blue ribbon on its bodice, and adding layers of crepe de chine which she hung from the waist. It was not a usual kind of dress but no one could deny that it was very gay, and although the girl was alarmed by its want of fashion, she was most encouraged by the fact that it was not black. Despite the fact that she did not ask, she clearly understood that the mourning was now over. No plum duff was cooked upon this day, and the room was cooler and dryer on account of it. Finally mother and daughter set out, just as the bells began for evensong. Neither of them had eaten all day long, but Mercy, although a little light headed, was far too excited to think of food. [75]


Is Mercy's mother attempting to protect her when she locks her in the room, or, given what we know of her other actions towards Mercy, is this action inherently abusive? Is a similar scene repeated in Jack Maggs, and what is the role of the mother in the repeated scene? Are we to understand this scene as one that typifies the role and attitude of "the mother"?

What is the role of childhood in shaping adulthood in Jack Maggs? Adults' attempts at caring for children seem to be inherently violent: what is the nature of childhood in the text, and do children have any agency? How does their agency develop as they do?

How do the women in the text correspond, parallel or betray the women -- Estella, Miss Havisham, and especially Mrs. Joe -- in Great Expectations? Are women at all redeemed in the text?


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

Australia Carey OV Jack Maggs Leading Questions

Last modified 1 March 2004