A Tale of Two Countries: ‘Jack Maggs’ and Peter Carey’s Fiction

Peter Carey has generally preferred to fictionalise Australia at a remove, to reimagine it, shape-shifted out of its present appearance by science fiction transformations, or by movements out of present time. The mirror his fiction holds up to late-twentieth-century Australia and its international context never simply reflects, like Stendhal's, but distorts, like those in the amusement parks that recur in his work. In this sense, his imagination has always been Dickensian, so it is intriguing to find that in his latest novel Carey has rewritten the story of Magwitch, the convict in Great Expectations. In doing so he has made many changes to Dickens's original: switching the centre of interest from Pip (renamed Henry Phipps) to Magwitch (renamed Jack Maggs) and Dickens himself (renamed Tobias Oates); telling a tale of two countries and two characters; and claiming the story as an originary Australian narrative.

Carey is not given to repeating himself, and Jack Maggs is yet another striking departure from his earlier work, particularly from his last two novels, The Tax Inspector (1991) and The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith (1994), which were themselves unlike their predecessors, or each other. Like Oscar and Lucinda (1988), Jack Maggs draws on nineteenth-century English writing as it intersects with the beginnings of European Australia, but the tone here is remarkably different, more optimistic and more overtly compassionate. In Oscar and Lucinda, Boat Harbour in 1866 is an ugly and brutal outpost of an arrogant, racist empire. Its sustaining ideology has been mortally wounded by the double failure of the Established Church to controvert Darwin's Theory of Evolution, and to establish a strong foundation in New South Wales. While the Wingham where Jack Maggs and his family settle some thirty years earlier is geographically close to Boat Harbour, it is altogether more benign. In London Jack Maggs was offered no life but a criminal's, and his wife Mercy Larkin no life but a child prostitute's: Wingham however readily accommodates them, and recognises their fundamental decency. This outcome is in stark contrast to the bleak and despairing ending of Oscar and Lucinda, in which the terrified Oscar Hopkins drowns as his broken glass church sinks into the Bellinger River. With an ending more optimistic than that of any Carey novel since Bliss, Jack Maggs suggests that Carey's vision of early Australia has undergone a profound metamorphosis, from despair to something like hope.

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Published 1 October 1997 in Volume 18 No. 2. Subjects: Characterisation, Defining an Australian literature, Fiction, Metafiction, Narrative structure, Narrative techniques, Plot.

Cite as: Hassall, Anthony J.. ‘A Tale of Two Countries: ‘Jack Maggs’ and Peter Carey’s Fiction.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 18, no. 2, 1997, doi: 10.20314/als.ef67f2bd42.