Summer Selections: Jack Maggs and Self-Authorship

by Emma Baker

Self and authorship are complex terms, yet prominent themes in Jack Maggs. As defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, by ‘self’ I will be referring to ‘[w]hat one is at a particular time or in a particular aspect or relation; one's nature, character, or (sometimes) physical constitution or appearance’ – broadly, the identity of a person.[i] In Jack Maggs, Peter Carey explores the origin and development of characters’ selves, revealing that characters are defined by experiences over which the extent of their control is inevitably limited, suggesting that identity is, at least in part, affected by the actions of others. This is juxtaposed by the general concept of authorship; ‘[t]he fact of being the originator or instigator of an action, event, or state of affairs’, since in the context of this essay, the notion of creating connotes both the freedom to define and ownership of one’s self, the value of which is made evident throughout the novel.[ii] Power dynamics between characters are consequently significant; Jack Maggs is an exploration of our ability to construct not just our own selves, but also to determine the stories of others. Whilst Tobias Oates offers an exemplification of the latter, ‘stumbling through [Jack Maggs’s] past’, another determinant of self is characters’ upbringing.[iii] Children in the novel are portrayed as victims of circumstance, dependent those who care, or more often do not care for them. As Beverly Taylor writes, the novel contains ‘multiple stories of orphaned, abandoned, and brutally exploited children […] who survive birth only to find life a perpetual punishment.’[iv] These characters’ prospects depend primarily on the actions of others, hence in the defining, early stages of life, Carey suggests there is little authorship to be had. Thus, in this essay I will discuss the extent to which we are really the authors of our own identities, with reference to the notion of ‘self-authorship’, first recognised by Robert Kegan.[v]

David C. Hodge, Marcia B. Baxter Magolda and Carolyn A. Haynes outline self-authorship as ‘the capacity to define one’s beliefs, identity, and social relations’, summarising definitions proposed by Baxter Magolda (2001) and Robert Kegan (1994). [vi] Additionally, the authors assert that our sense of self is not fixed, but subject to change and development;

Adolescents typically depend on authority figures to determine what to believe, how to view themselves, and how to act in relationships. The transition to adulthood comes with the expectation that individuals shift the source of their beliefs, identity, and social relations from the external world to the internal voice. Self-authorship […] represents the culmination of this shift.[vii]


This extract introduces the notion of dependency – particularly as children, identity is defined by external influences. This concept is evident in Jack Maggs, a novel in which the notion of parenthood is central and that subsequently illustrates the impact of upbringing on the evolution of a child’s self. Indeed, the novel’s plot revolves around Jack’s return to England, provoked by the obligation he feels to find and ensure the wellbeing of his adopted son, Henry Phipps. Jack is adamant that he ‘“will not abandon him”’; he ‘“will not have him taken […] nor […] placed in harm’s way”’.[viii] Such involvement is prompted by Jack’s own experience as ‘the unwanted child’ of ‘Ma Britten’ and moreover, as her title suggests, the nation.[ix] His concern is mirrored by that of Tobias, who is ‘fiercely protective’ and ‘famously earnest in defence of the child victims’ he encounters.[x] Their mutual sentiment is perhaps unsurprising, given their similar upbringings;

Having come from no proper family himself, […] [Tobias] carried with him a mighty passion to create that safe warm world he had been denied. […] He […] doted on [his son] as his father had never doted on him.[xi]

Just as Jack and Tobias are responsible for affecting the lives of their sons, their own identities have been influenced by others; inevitably, they have both inherited traits of the man they call father, despite Tobias’s determination to resemble nothing of his own. While Jack resents that he was ‘“trained to be a varmint”’ by Silas, Tobias is ashamedly ‘worse than the father whom he would never forgive’, though the attempt to reject his past means the writer has ‘never really [known] the truth about himself’, hence even as a grown man his sense of self remains uncertain.[xii]

Tobias’s insecurity is emphasised by his multiple personas; Carey notes ‘[t]here was much of the scientist about Tobias Oates’, while the character describes himself as ‘“a naturalist”’, before assuring Jack he is ‘“an author”’ when confronted moments later.[xiii] Tobias repeatedly attempts to define, or rather redefine himself with labels, as illustrated when he vows to be an ‘archaeologist’ and ‘the surgeon’ of [Jack’s] soul’.[xiv] Later in the novel Jack likens him to a ‘botanist’, describing ‘the demons […] in a journal where their host might later see them’.[xv] The aforementioned professions each suggest Tobias’s meticulously analytical nature, while ‘archaeologist’ and ‘surgeon’ significantly connote practices that are invasive. Indeed, his compulsion to penetrate and chart ‘“the Criminal Mind”’ is confirmed when he adopts the role of ‘“cartographer”’, effectively positioning himself as the author of Jack’s self in doing so.[xvi] As if to compensate for the failure to fully comprehend his own ‘deeply troubled’ self or take authorship of the ‘damnable state’ into which he has ‘descended’, Tobias resolves to plot the ‘“puzzle of life”’ that is Jack Maggs.[xvii] Yet his intent extends beyond just an ‘exploration’ of ‘the convict’s past’; he not only plans to expose Jack’s ‘hidden history’, but also imagines the character’s future and, in a ‘blaze of fire’, his inevitable end, in his book The Death of Maggs’.[xviii]

Furthermore, Tobias’s use of various occupations to define himself demonstrates his reliance on externally recognised identities and their associated traits to assist not just others’ but also, more importantly, his own understanding of who he is. This dependency suggests that Tobias’s sense of self is not fully developed, for as Hodge et al. assert, it is ‘[w]hen the internal voice overtakes external influences’ that an individual is thought to be ‘moving toward self-authorship’[xix]. Also ‘a fine actor’, Tobias’s ‘talent for all kinds of dialects and voices [and] pantomime performances’ further obscures and thus hinders the development of his authentic self, as the ability to adopt different personalities enables him to conceal rather than evaluate and address the flaws of ‘his own character’.[xx] Anxious to escape the legacy of his upbringing, he is preoccupied with how others perceive him, yet as Baxter Magolda asserts, self-authorship demands the ‘renegotiation of existing relationships […] built on external approval’.[xxi] Instead, Tobias relies upon others’ approval, preventing him from attaining an independent and established sense of self. Incredibly self-conscious, the writer unintentionally forfeits his authorship by allowing the opinions of others to govern his actions, consequently becoming their subject. This notion is illustrated by his keenness to please the surgeons with whom he dines;

[He] put all of his energy into ‘doing’ the entire part for the assembled doctors […]. For three hours Tobias felt prosperous, wise, celebrated. Then, […] the surgeons rode off into the night, and all the writer’s well-being evaporated. He […] saw that he had not behaved like a man of letters but like a common conjurer, a street magician.[xxii]

Tobias’s conflicted state is painfully apparent; he is unable to accept the external validation he depends on, since the doctors’ impression of his character is so far from his own perception of his actions as ‘vulgar’.[xxiii] He is divided; he cannot ascertain whose perspective is a more accurate reflection of his true self. Additionally, it is apparent that the writer’s conduct is caused by the ‘unholy thirst for love […] his ma and pa had given him’, a consequence of their parenting that Carey describes as a ‘curse’, indicating once more the enduring impact of upbringing on the development of an individual’s identity.[xxiv] Indeed, it is his insatiable desire for affection and fear of repeating his parents’ mistakes that renders him ‘so forlorn’ as an adult.[xxv]

Understandably, Jack is wary of Tobias’s aspiration to control his subject and thus ‘reluctant’ to be ‘mesmerized’, hence he frequently resists the writer’s ‘“command”’.[xxvi] Carey demonstrates the value of authorship through their tense relationship, in which neither man is willing to concede his authority. Barbara Schmidt-Haberkamp supports this notion, observing Tobias’s attempt ‘to exert his power of description and definition over Maggs’, who ‘refuses to accept the picture drawn of him by Oates’.[xxvii] Having ‘finally surrendered’, Jack suffers ‘physical distress’ when Tobias convinces him to literally expose the self he has kept hidden. Persuading him to ‘undress’ reveals ‘the sea of pain etched upon the footman’s back, a brooding sea of scars, of ripped and tortured skin’.[xxviii] Jack’s damaged body physically exemplifies how the self is shaped by previous events, for though as Percy Buckle states in Jack’s defence, they reveal just ‘“a page of his history”’, his scars are nevertheless enough to mark him a ‘“scoundrel”’. Hence without recent cause, Tobias convinces his audience that Jack is ‘“a very dangerous man”’.[xxix] On the contrary, Jack is ‘naked’ when his identity as a criminal is revealed, associating the uncovering of his intimate self with a sense of vulnerability.[xxx] Yet it is this exposure, Tobias’s attempt to define Jack, which inadvertently liberates him, making it clear to Jack how, as Annegret Maack notes, ‘[t]he years in Australia have changed [him] so much that he can no longer live in England’. Additionally, Maack writes;

While Maggs’s environment understands him as “the convict,” […] the environment itself […] becomes criminal. […] Oates himself shows his true colours by stealing Magg’s secrets; Oates and Maggs seem to have exchanged identities: Oates […] burgles and plunders Maggs’s brain-box.

This notion challenges Jack’s ‘dream of an idyllic England’, prompting his subsequent understanding of ‘Australia as a sanctuary where he can survive peacefully’. As Maack states, ‘Maggs comes to define his identity in a new way.’[xxxi]

Jack is equally apprehensive about putting his ‘life before [Henry]’, hence he writes in reverse using ‘invisible’ ink, conscious that the exposure of his ‘story’ could ‘have [him] dancing the Newgate Jig’. Although the suggestion that Jack is ‘long accustomed to’ the ‘distrustful art’ of such writing implies former efforts to conceal his actions, unlike Tobias he is not ashamed of past ‘events’ - rather he is concerned that ‘they may still be used against [him]’, to define perceptions of his current self.[xxxii] Jack refuses to concede his authorship; as Maack observes, ‘Maggs does not accept the role allocations which either Oates, Mr Buckle or the other servants use to categorise him.’[xxxiii] To the nation he is a ‘“common criminal”’, yet Jack argues that the behaviour responsible for this interpretation occurred ‘a long time ago’ and does not reflect who he is now; ‘“a fucking Englishman”’.[xxxiv] Here, Carey explores the significance of perception in relation to identity; Jack is subject to and thus at risk of being defined by the interpretation of others, which jeopardises the notion of his authorship. For this reason, he is compelled to write to Henry, so that he may be his own author. Bruce Woodcock explains;

Throughout the book, there is an intense awareness of story-telling, the writing process, and the capacity of both to deceive or liberate. […] Magg’s version of his life appears in his journal […] his attempt at self-explanation […]. Notably, it is Maggs who first writes down Tobias Oates, not the other way round. […] Maggs’ life will be stolen and colonised by Oates’s imagination […], but the character appropriates and describes his own author first.[xxxv]

Although Woodcock claims that Tobias will eventually colonise Jack’s story, arguably, Jack’s authorship extends to his fictional counterpart. Significantly, Jack instructs his son to ‘BURN EVERYTHING when it is read’, unwittingly foreshadowing the end of Tobias’s character.[xxxvi]

Contrary to Tobias’s lack of development, Carey portrays Jack as a character whose self, though still ‘capable of acts of picturesque irresponsibility’, has matured since his childhood.[xxxvii] Albeit misplaced until the novel’s end, his identity is for the most part unwavering; Jack is certain that he is ‘“not of [the Australian] race.”’[xxxviii] Convinced he is not inherently a ‘convict’, Jack describes himself as an individual ‘“who has been treated bad, and has learned all sort of tricks he wishes he never had to know”’.[xxxix] This is supported by the names imposed upon him as a child. First termed ‘rubbish’, he is only called Maggs when his foster mother realises she ‘will soon be richer’ by raising him as a thief.[xl] Though allegedly due to his incessant chatter, Taylor notes that it ‘patently refers to thievery: "to magg" means to steal or pilfer, […] Maggs is trained, like the magpie, to steal.’[xli] It is therefore indicated that Jack’s identity as a criminal is inevitable; as a child, Jack is subject to the upbringing of his foster mother and benefactor who have envisioned and consequently dictate his behaviour. As Maack asserts, ‘it was Ma Britten who was accountable […] for his conviction and transportation’.[xlii] Yet regardless of his actions prior to meeting her, the Jack that Mercy encounters is no longer ‘“a fiercesome villain”’, but ‘“the owner of a freehold”’ with a desire to find the man he calls his son.[xliii] Jack’s self is shown to have undergone a transition consistent with the ‘transformation from authority dependence to self-authorship’, a notion further endorsed by the ultimate recognition of his ‘“real children”’.[xliv] Finally, he is able to ‘view identity as internally constructed’, acknowledging that though not his country of origin, he is nevertheless an Australian.[xlv]

Meanwhile, the development of Mercy’s character shows a similar transition, exemplified by her altered perception of Percy Buckle. Formerly ‘her saviour’, she later considers him ‘a pathetic figure’.[xlvi] Just as Jack’s identity is tainted by his criminal past, he has ‘heard the gossip’; Mercy is ‘a chipped and mended cup in a rich man’s dresser’.[xlvii] Yet, in accordance with Kegan’s description of self-authorship, Jack makes his own ‘judgments through considering but not being consumed by others’ perspectives’, tellingly unlike Tobias.[xlviii] Although ‘clear to anyone […] she was stained brown from use’, he marries Mercy. Equally, Jack’s former self is not ‘the least unattractive to her’, rather, ‘the knowledge of his ill-usage […] stirred her heart’.[xlix] Mercy’s self develops through her cultivation of beliefs about Jack that are separate from those of characters such as Tobias and Percy Buckle. Hodge et al. state;

Self-authorship requires questioning trusted authority and leaving the safety of comfortable ways of seeing the world to explore multiple perspectives and construct one’s own beliefs, values, and vision.[l]

As Mercy herself asserts, it is not an easy transition; formerly she would ‘as soon cut off her own arm as lose [Percy Buckle’s] kind opinion’, an image synonymous with the traumatic revealing of Jack’s scars.[li] Yet Carey portrays the self-authorship she attains as infinitely more desirable than conforming, a realisation by which both Mercy and Jack are ultimately liberated. Having ‘escaped London’ they are able to recreate and define themselves as they wish – on their own accord they become and give ‘birth to five further members of ‘That Race’.’[lii]

Carey reveals that the extent to which we are really the authors of our own identities is determined by our attainment of self-authorship. Younger characters are portrayed as dependent on those who raise them, limiting their opportunities to assert themselves as individuals. Yet, as demonstrated by the development of older characters, Carey suggests that maturity offers the chance to define, or rather redefine ourselves. Necessarily, one must confront and challenge existing beliefs, entailing vulnerability, hence unsurprisingly it is Mercy and Jack, arguably the novel’s least cowardly characters, who are most successful, whilst ‘Oates […] not unlike Percy Buckle, […] lives in fear of being exposed […], his sense of his own status precarious and illusionary.’[liii] When attained, self-authorship renders further attempts of others to define us futile, as Mercy’s ‘‘v. rough excision’’ of Tobias’s affectionate inscription to Percy Buckle in ‘The Death of Maggs’ ultimately demonstrates.[liv] As Woodcock asserts, Mercy’s last act of defiance puts her ‘in control of Tobias Oates’s final production.[lv] Moreover, although '[t]here is no character like Mercy in The Death of Maggs', it is Mercy who is 'remembered best'.[lvi] The girl she was before is shown to be irrelevant; Mercy is identified by her collection of Tobias's novel, rather than as a character within it. Thus, when authorship and identity are questioned, Carey invites us to recognise that actions speak louder than our own or anyone else’s words.


[i] ‘self, pron., adj., and n.’ OED Online [on-line] available from, [accessed 7 March 2017]

[ii] ‘authorship, n.’ OED Online [on-line] available from, [accessed 7 March 2017]

[iii] Peter Carey, Jack Maggs (London: Faber and Faber, 2011), p. 91

[iv] Beverly Taylor, ‘Discovering New Pasts: Victorian Legacies in the Postcolonial Worlds of Jack Maggs and Mister Pip’, Victorian Studies, 52 (2009), 95-105 (p. 96)

[v] Robert Kegan, In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994)

[vi] David C. Hodge, Marcia B. Baxter Magolda and Carolyn A. Haynes, ‘Engaged Learning: Enabling Self-Authorship and Effective Practice’, Liberal Education [on-line], 95 (4) (2009), available from [accessed 2 March 2017]

[vii] David C. Hodge, Marcia B. Baxter Magolda and Carolyn A. Haynes, ‘Engaged Learning: Enabling Self-Authorship and Effective Practice’, Liberal Education and Effective Practice [on-line] available from, [accessed 2 March 2017]

[viii] Carey, p. 264

[ix] Taylor, 2009, p. 96

[x] Carey, p. 130

[xi] Carey, pp. 36-37

[xii] Carey, p. 264, 38

[xiii] Carey, p. 44, 47

[xiv] Carey, p. 54

[xv] Carey, p. 90

[xvi] Carey, p. 90

[xvii] Carey, pp. 290-291, p. 90

[xviii] Carey, p. 91, 328

[xix] Hodge, Baxter Magolda and Haynes (2009)

[xx] Carey, p. 83, 38

[xxi] Hodge, Baxter Magolda and Haynes (2009)

[xxii] Carey, p. 136

[xxiii] Carey, p. 136

[xxiv] Carey, p. 37

[xxv] Carey, p. 306

[xxvi] Carey, pp. 82-83

[xxvii] Barbara Schmidt-Haberkamp, ‘The Writing-Back Paradigm Revisited: Peter Carey, Jack Maggs, and Charles Dickens, Great Expectations’, in Fabulating beauty: perspectives on the fiction of Peter Carey, ed. by Andreas Gaile [electronic resource] (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2005), available from ProQuest Ebook Central, pp. 245-262 (p. 258)

[xxviii] Carey, pp. 82-86

[xxix] Carey, pp. 87-88

[xxx] Carey, p. 86

[xxxi] Annegret Maack, ‘Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs: An Aussie Story?’, in Fabulating beauty: perspectives on the fiction of Peter Carey, ed. by Andreas Gaile [electronic resource] (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2005), available from ProQuest Ebook Central, pp. 229-244 (pp. 237-239)

[xxxii] Carey, pp. 74-75

[xxxiii] Maack, 2005, p. 238

[xxxiv] Carey, p. 228, 74, 128

[xxxv] Bruce Woodcock, Peter Carey [electronic resource] (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996), available from ProQuest Ebook Central, pp. 130-131

[xxxvi] Carey, p. 74

[xxxvii] Carey, p. 327

[xxxviii] Carey, pp. 312

[xxxix] Carey, p. 91, pp. 72-73

[xl] Carey, pp. 76-77

[xli] Taylor, 2009, p. 98

[xlii] Maack, 2005, pp. 240-241

[xliii] Carey, p. 72, 128

[xliv] Hodge, Baxter Magolda and Haynes, Carey, p. 312

[xlv] Hodge, Baxter Magolda and Haynes (2009)

[xlvi] Carey, p. 160

[xlvii] Carey, p. 157

[xlviii] Hodge, Baxter Magolda and Haynes (2009)

[xlix] Carey, p. 157

[l] Hodge, Baxter Magolda and Haynes

[li] Carey, p. 71

[lii] Carey, p. 327 (italics added)

[liii] Bruce Woodcock, ‘Unsettling Illusions: Carey and Capital in Jack Maggs’, in Fabulating beauty: perspectives on the fiction of Peter Carey, ed. by Andreas Gaile [electronic resource] (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2005), available from ProQuest Ebook Central, pp. 263-274 (p. 268)

[liv] Carey, p. 328

[lv] Woodcock, 2005, p. 272

[lvi] Carey, p. 327

Summer Selections is a FalWriting series bringing you a variety of writing produced this academic year by Falmouth students. It's a vibrant and diverse selection of work covering text forms from experimental poetry to forensic literary analysis, from gothic short stories to critical dissertations. This year the selection is guest edited by third year student Jess Hawes.