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‘Who am I when I am transported?’ Postcolonialism and Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs

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In Decolonising Fictions, theorists Diana Brydon and Helen Tiffin claim that postcolonial writers create texts that ‘write back’ against imperial fictions and question the values once taken for granted by the once dominant Anglocentric discourse of the imperial epicentre. In Jack Maggs the process of ‘writing back’ is well illustrated. As in Jean Rhy’s Wide Sargasso Sea , the colonial ‘other’ character from a canonised Victorian novel becomes the principal figure in a modern ‘decolonising’ text, and the peripheral reaches of empire become of central importance.

In Jack Maggs, Australian novelist Peter Carey reconfigures the plot of Dickens’s classic Great Expectations so that it is the maginalised, (colonial) convict figure who now becomes the narrative focus. By filtering the experiences of the exiled convict through a post-colonial lens, Carey creates a text that pays homage too, yet simultaneously questions the values at the heart of the source text’s imperialist discourse.

As Brydon and Tiffin point out, Anglocentrism refuses Post-Colonial territories the right to their own identities, assuming instead that they are merely engulfable parts of the imperial centre. Therefore, in Great Expectations, Australia functioned not as a coherent, cohesive nation, but rather, as an off stage peripheral location were characters awaited their return to the on stage action of the imperial centre, London . Carey tackles this trend head on, by writing a novel that seeks ‘non repressive alternatives to imperialist discourse’ and which refuses to privilege the metropolitan centre over the Colonial margins.

At the heart of the text’s reconfiguration of imperialist discourse lies the complex relationship between returned convict Jack Maggs and up-and-coming writer Tobias Oates. Significantly, Oates bears more than a few biographical similarities with Charles Dickens. For instance, like Dickens, Oates has a feckless, indebted father, an unhappy marriage, a fascination with mesmerism, and the fierce desire to make his name ‘not just as the author of comic adventures, but as a novelist who might one day topple Thackeray himself’ (Carey 43).

By having Oates, a fictionalised Charles Dickens figure, exist in the same imaginative space as Jack Maggs, the modern reworking of one of Dickens’ most memorable characters, Carey is able to explore not only the questions left unanswered by the source text, but also the difficult relationship that exists between character and creator.

The relationship between Oates, soon to become the Empire’s greatest living writer, and Maggs, the marginalised colonial figure, is one that parallels the manner in which the literary potential of the Imperial colonies was mined by Victorian writers.

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