The Novel Writes Back: Tobias Oates and Authorial Self-Reflexivity in Carey's Jack Maggs

Lauren Smith, MA '05, English 156, Brown University, 2004

In his Dickens-inspired novel Jack Maggs, Peter Carey makes little effort to conceal the source of his characters, plot, and themes. Like Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea, Carey appropriates his literary content from a bygone era and offers an alternative character study of a well known literary figure, Jack Maggs, otherwise known as Magwitch in Dickens's Great Expectations. Although parallels between the two novels abound, there is another layer of intertextual dialogue that is perhaps a bit more elusive. Much of Carey's novel is preoccupied with plot twists and character developments, yet he offers a simultaneous and somewhat indirect commentary on the process of writing and fiction-making itself. This authorial self-conscious is embodied in the character of Tobias Oates, who appears to be a fictional version of both Dickens and perhaps even Carey himself. Tobias prides himself on his judge of character and attention to detail, yet his literary methodology is called into question, for instance, when we learn of an alternative to his fiction of Maggs's life, namely Maggs's own version of it. In Chapter 62, we watch as Tobias endeavors to write up a fantastic story about Maggs's experience at Newgate while Maggs gazes on and finally demands to see what he has written. It is as if Carey's character is reaching out from his novel and insisting on a faithful representation of his life. Such self-reflexivity is foreshadowed in Chapter 35, where Tobias attends a dinner with a group of surgeons and quickly becomes the center of attention. He self-consciously wins their approval through story-telling and ventriloquizing lines from his own play; in doing so he becomes a textual version of his author, namely Peter Carey, and thus calls our attention not only to his own fictiveness but the fictiveness of the novel itself.

The reader of Tobias Oates's novels will be well aware of the role of doctors in his work: how time and time again they betray his heroes, abandon them, act snobbishly and capriciously towards the poor. None of this can prepare us for the fact that when Tobias finally realized he was being invited to dine with surgeons, and that these distinguished men not only knew his name but were professed admirers of his comic novel, he immediately decided that he was too exhausted to travel back to London until the morrow...

At five minutes past the appointed hour, he presented himself at the imposing doors of the Hippocratic Institute. He was greeted by a butler and then relegated to a footman. As he followed this ornate fellow up the wide marble staircase he caught his own reflection in a mirror and wondered if he had been mistaken in accepting the invitation. He was bright, but rumpled, sponged, but damp. The left side of his jacket sagged with the weight of his note book.

A door opened before him. He entered a grand room whose high-arched windows afforded a view of the grey silky sea. Here he discovered eight elegantly dressed gentlemen waiting for him. Those with knighthoods wore the ribbons of their rank.

They were taller than he was. They had been to Oxford and Cambridge, had grown up with Greek and Latin, with Plato and Aristotle. And if they had admired their guest's novel, they were obviously having difficulty accepting that this was the same chap who used the English language like a lyre. He felt their disappointment even as he shook their hands. [147-48]

Discussion Questions

Why does Carey insert a self-reflexive character like Tobias Oates? If Oates is a literary representation of Dickens, then is there an implicit comparison between Dickens and Carey? Why would a contemporary novelist enter into the literary world of not only another author but another literary period altogether?

In the scene above, why is there such a disconnect between Tobias and the gentlemen's presuppositions of him? Is this merely a sign of Carey's own bemused self-deprecation? Do we find ourselves viewing other characters in the novel with a similar sense of anticipation, only to be surprised or disappointed at their true identities? If this is indeed a self-reflexive moment, what might Carey's purpose be in comparing the fictions the reader creates while reading a novel with the author's intended fiction?

Why would Carey call attention to the fictiveness of his own work? Why emphasize its constituted nature time and again? Why is it important for us to understand the novelist's creative process? In what ways does the novel itself "write back" to the author?

Why would Carey include competing stories of Jack Maggs's life (i.e. Tobias's and Maggs's versions)? What are we to make of the fact that Maggs's storytelling includes detailed dialogue and fleshed out characters? In other words, why would Carey endow Maggs with such literary capabilities?


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

Australia Carey OV Jack Maggs Leading Questions

Last modified 1 March 2004