Internal and External Colonialism in Peter Carey's Jack Maggs

Alexa Van Brunt '04, English 156, Brown University, 2004

In his work concerning the development of colonialism and globalization, Jeremy Seabrook examines the plight of the British industrialized class from the perspective of colonization and oppression in the eighteenth- and nineteenth- century British empire. Specifically, Seabrook contrasts the British use of repressive forces against its own working-class to those employed against the foreign populations which it colonized throughout this period of industrialization. Seabrook asserts, "The holding down of the indigenous populations of empire was similar to the containment by force of the restive peoples at home--the domestic penal code, with its large number of trivial offences, the Combination Acts, the readiness with which transportation was resorted to in Britain--suggest that there was little more tenderness for the domestic working class than there was for the inhabitants of those outlandish places to which Britain took the shining light of its civilisation" (source).The political significance of such domestic colonization is a pervasive theme in Peter Carey's novel, Jack Maggs, one that is exemplified by the physical, emotional, and mental consequences imparted upon Carey's Dickensian convict character, Jack Maggs, by this national form of subjugation and suppression.

Jack's "Phantom" is a presence that haunts the protagonist throughout the novel. Though Maggs' evidently has many demons which agitate and enrage him throughout the course of the novel, it is a political demon that repeatedly threatens Jack's sanity, morality and future. In an emotional interchange between future husband and wife, Mercy Larkin remarks pointedly about Maggs' victimization by the British crown.

"Who lashed you, Mr. Maggs?"

"He were a cockney named Rudder. A soldier of the King."

"Then it were the King who lashed you," she insisted.

"We were beyond the King's sight. Not even God himself could see into that pit." [346]

The novel's political theme is further enhanced by the handheld portrait of a young man who Jack believes to be his son, Mr. Henry Phipps. As Tobias notes, however, the portraiture that Jack values to the point of murder is actually an impression of George IV, "dressed as a commoner" (285). It is Carey's direct physical characterization of Jack Maggs' "Phantom", though, which cements the politicization of Jack's plight and identifies Jack Maggs as a work of colonial or even post-colonial literature.

Outside the house, there was a great wind storm. In the dim drawing room of Jack Maggs's dream, a man in uniform was sitting in the shadows.

Is it you?

It is I, answered the Phantom.

Maggs rolled himself tight inside his tartan rug while his dreaming eyes attempted to make out the fellow's regiment. The Phantom, as if sensing his intention, lit a gas lamp which flared so brightly that the sleeper brought up his hand to cover his eyes.

It was a uniform made to protect the King himself. The jacket was ultramarine, the trousers black, and underneath his arm he held a bell-topped shako. . . .

In his dream, he saw himself still smiling. When he stepped forward to look at the Phantom's face, he saw that he was the spitting image of Captain Logan." [122-123]


What does Mercy mean when she tells Jack that "it were the King that lashed you"? How does the comment play into the novel's political theme of colonization and the responsibility of governmental elites for this condition of repression?

What is the significance of the misidentification of Jack's portraiture of George IV? How does this mistake contribute to the political theme of the novel? What is the significance of the fact that Jack slit the throat of Partridge over a portrait of the King?

The dream sequence is repeatedly utilized throughout the novel. What does the author achieve with this literary device, especially related to the figure of the Phantom?

Do you feel that Carey makes an overarching connection between Jack's criminality (or criminality in general) and the nurtured element of this deviant behavior? In other words, does the presence of the Phantom relieve Jack of his responsibility for his violent actions?


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

Australia Carey OV Jack Maggs Leading Questions

Last modified 1 March 2004