A Man of Letters: Writing and Class in Peter Carey's Jack Maggs

Felicity Rose '06, English 156, Brown University, 2004

Peter Carey's novel Jack Maggs is an unorthodox retelling of Dickens' Great Expectations. Rather than updating the tale itself, Carey presents an interpretation of what might have been the "real" story; one of the main characters, Tobias Oates, is based on Charles Dickens. Oates, a London journalist and novelist plagued by memories of a poor and abusive childhood, an unhappy marriage and money problems, exists in the space between social classes. Respected for his writing, he still feels alienated from the middle and upper class world. In telling Oates' story, Carey explores the process of writing and the myriad influences which shape a writer and his work. One of the scenes in the novel, echoes of which can be seen in Great Expectations, involves Oates investigating a fire in Brighton. After his investigation he is invited to dine with a group of surgeons. Feeling out of place and looked-down upon, Oates puts on a show, playing characters of his invention in order to amuse the guests:

For three hours Tobias felt prosperous, wise, celebrated. Then, a little before midnight, the surgeons rode off into the night, and all the writer's well-being evaporated.

He stood on the footpath outside the Hippocratic Institute and suddenly saw that he had not behaved like a man of letters but like a common conjurer, a street magician. Would Thackeray have acted thus? Never. Never. He had been Jeremiah Stitchem, Billy Button, taking sixpences from the footmen on Blackfriars Road. He was Toby Oates, son of John Oates, a well-known scoundrel.

He walked first along the promenade and felt the clean salt air in his face, but then he took himself back to the Ship Inn and, with an unseasonable fire built for him in the little room, he set out to cleanse himself completely, to make himself everything that he had so far failed to be. He closed his eyes, contorted his face. He was not vulgar; he was not a buffoon. He took his quill once more unto the well. [149-150]


What is the distinction in the novel between "a man of letters" and "a common conjurer"? Is it only in Tobias Oates' mind, or does Carey see a true split between art and mere pretense? Who gets to judge what falls into either category?

Tobias Oates wants to "cleanse himself" through the act of writing. Where else in the novel does writing become an act of redemption? Is this application of writing successful for Tobias Oates, Jack Maggs or any other characters in the novel?

What is the function of class in this passage and throughout the novel? Is class mobility possible in this world? If so, how? Through money? Through art? Many of the characters in the novel exist somehow between classes -- what is their attitude toward their own class and that of others?


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

Australia Carey OV Jack Maggs Leading Questions

Last modified 1 March 2004