Novels for Students

Alias Grace

Alias Grace

Margaret Atwood
1996

Introduction
Author Biography
Plot Summary
Characters
Themes
Style
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Criticism
Sources
Further Reading

Introduction

In the novel Alias Grace, author Margaret Atwood retells the story of Grace Marks, a real nineteenth-century Canadian woman who was accused of, and spent thirty years in jail for, the murder of two people. These murders were the most sensationalized story of the mid-1800s, and accounts of the trial and aspects of Marks's life were well publicized. Atwood was first attracted to this story through the works of so-called Canadian journalist Susanna Moodie, who wrote about a wildly crazy Grace Marks. Atwood admits that at first she believed Moodie's recounting of the circumstances that surrounded this famous murderess. In fact, Atwood wrote a collection of poems called The Journals of Susanna Moodie and also a television script based on Moodie's version of Grace Marks's life. Atwood's interest in Marks waned for several years, but when it resurfaced, she dug deeper into the story. That was when she discovered numerous discrepancies in Moodie's work and decided to write her own version of Marks's story.

In real life, Grace Marks, a sixteen-year-old Irish immigrant, was sentenced to life imprisonment for her role (which was never fully defined) in the murder of her employer Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery. Kinnear and Montgomery were having an affair, and many people have speculated that Marks, who was recently brought into the Kinnear household as a servant, was jealous. Montgomery, after all, was a maid, not the mistress of the house, and Marks resented Montgomery's airs of superiority. At least, that is one version of the story. Marks claimed various interpretations of her involvement in the murders, including one in which she states that she could not remember what happened on the day of the murders and another in which she claims to have been temporarily possessed by a dead girlfriend of hers. Alias Grace does not solve all the puzzles of this mystery, but it does present a patchwork story, details of which come from a variety of real sources as well as from Atwood's imagination, thus leaving readers to come to their own conclusions.

Alias Grace, Atwood's ninth novel, became a bestseller in North America, Europe, and in other countries around the world. The book helped win Atwood several literary prizes including the Premio Mondello, Salon Magazine's best fiction of 1997, the Norwegian Order of Literary Merit, the Giller Prize, and the Canadian Booksellers Association's Author of the Year award.

Author Biography

Margaret Atwood is often referred to as Canada's greatest living writer. She was born on November 18, 1939, in Ottawa, Ontario. She wrote her first story when she was six. Atwood's father, Carl Edmund Atwood, is an entomologist and her mother, Margaret Dorothy Killam Atwood, is a dietician. In 1945, her family moved to Toronto, where she graduated from high school and afterward attended Victoria College. While there, she studied under Northrop Frye, another famous Canadian author and literary critic, and the poet Jay MacPherson. Upon graduating from college, Atwood won the first of many literary prizes. The E. J. Pratt Medal was awarded to her for her self-published book of poems, Double Persephone. She then went to the United States, where she earned her master's degree at Harvard.

In 1966, Atwood won another prestigious honor, The Governor General's Award, for yet another collection of poetry, The Circle Game. In 1967, Atwood married Jim Polk; they divorced in 1977. Atwood's first novel, The Edible Woman, was published in 1969. By the 1970s, Atwood's published works secured her a position as one of Canada's rising stars in both poetry and fiction.

To date, Atwood has written twelve books of poetry, four children's stories, four nonfiction books, and ten novels. Alias Grace was her ninth novel. Atwood has also written scripts for television and has edited several collections promoting Canadian writers. Many of her works have been translated into foreign languages and published in other countries, where she enjoys a wide readership. Two of her novels, Surfacing and The Handmaid's Tale, have been made into movies.

Atwood's ability to win awards began early in her career and has not diminished throughout her career. One of the most coveted was the Booker Prize, which she won for Blind Assassin in 2000.

Besides her writing and editing skills, Atwood has also taught at numerous universities: York University in Toronto, New York University, and the University of Alabama–Tuscaloosa. Atwood is also a rather humorous cartoonist, especially when based on the experience she has gathered while promoting her works on book tours. (See her website.) Atwood is also prone to travel all over the world, giving lectures on literary themes or on her experiences as a writer. She is active in several organizations, such as Amnesty International.

Atwood is married to Graeme Gibson, another Canadian writer. They have three grown children. In 2004, Atwood was living in Toronto.

Plot Summary

Chapter 1

Alias Grace begins with a recurrent dream that Grace Marks has. Grace narrates this chapter and states that it is 1851, she is twenty-four years old, and is in prison. She is a model prisoner, she claims, but it is difficult. The chapter ends with the conclusion of Grace's dream.

Chapter 2

A clip from the Toronto Mirror from November 23, 1843 and a statement from the Punishment Book from the Kingston Penitentiary start Chapter 2. The remaining text is a long poem written about Grace Marks and James McDermott. McDermott was hanged for the murders. Grace went to prison.

Chapter 3

Grace works at the governor of the penitentiary's home. She describes the governor's family. She mentions the scrapbook in which the governor's wife keeps stories of criminals. Grace reads the accounts of herself and says most of them are lies. Grace mentions her friend Mary Whitney. When a doctor enters the scene, Grace screams. She is afraid of him, but she does not tell the reader why.

Grace faints and is awakened and dragged back to the prison, still screaming. Later she describes her cell. She briefly relates her previous experiences at the "Asylum." It was in the asylum, Grace contends, that she stopped sharing her thoughts. "At last I stopped talking altogether, except very civilly.…" And because of this, Grace is allowed to go back to the penitentiary.

Dr. Simon Jordan enters Grace's cell and tries to quell her fears by stating he is not "the usual kind of doctor." Grace protects herself, carefully selecting her words. Dr. Jordan brings Grace an apple. When he asks, in his analytical way, what the apple makes Grace think of, Grace plays stupid, something her lawyer had told her would save her life. Jordan tries to gain her confidence. He tells her he wants to talk to her, and her answers will not cause her any harm.

Chapter 4

Three letters begin this chapter: one from a doctor friend of Jordan's explaining what Jordan is trying to do in talking to Grace; one from Jordan's mother; and the final one from Jordan to a friend, further explaining his project with Grace.

The narration then switches to third-person, describing portions of Jordan's life. Jordan is having second thoughts about his research on Grace. There follows a description of Jordan's room in a boarding house, as well as an account of a servant woman who unnerves Jordan.

The narration returns to Grace, who talks about daily routines in prison. Jordan visits Grace at the governor's house. Grace does not say much during their first meetings. To help begin a conversation, Jordan talks about himself. This approach seems to work as Grace opens up.

The third-person narration then returns as Jordan meets Reverend Verringer, who is fighting for Grace's release but needs someone of Jordan's stature to help. Jordan believes that the reverend might be in love with Grace. Jordan is invited to attend the Tuesday Discussion Circle. Miss Lydia, the governor's daughter, flirts with Jordan before the meeting begins. The chapter ends with Jordan trying again to get Grace to talk.

Media Adaptations

  1. A movie of Alias Grace is in the making and is scheduled to star Cate Blanchett. The movie will be directed by Dominic Savage, an award-winning young British talent. Casting for the movie is expected to be completed by the end of 2003.
  2. For more information on Atwood's life and career, connect to the Margaret Atwood Society's world wide web page at http://www.cariboo.bc.ca/atwood or to Atwood's personal web page at http://www.owtoad.com where you will find some of her speeches and cartoons.

Chapter 5

Grace narrates. Jordan asks what she dreamt about the night before. Grace relates her dream to the reader but tells Jordan that she does not remember. Jordan asks about her confession, which she says was only what her lawyer told her to say. Then Grace tells Jordan about her life in Ireland and her trip to Canada. There were nine children in her family. Grace was the third oldest. Her mother died after giving birth on the voyage to Canada. Her father was worthless, but found the children a cheap room at the back of Mrs. Burt's house. Mrs. Burt introduces Grace to Mrs. Honey, the housekeeper of Mrs. Alderman Parkinson. Grace lands her first job. The chapter ends with a letter Jordan writes to a friend, further relating his dealings with Grace.

Chapter 6

Mrs. Humphreys, Dr. Jordan's landlady, brings Jordan his breakfast and faints. Dora, the housekeeper, has left because Mrs. Humphreys could not pay her. Mrs. Humphreys's husband has abandoned her. Jordan buys food and cooks for her. He also gives her an advance on the rent.

Grace takes up the narration with Jordan visiting her again. She tells of her working at Mrs. Parkinson's and her relationship with Mary Whitney. Mary teaches Grace how to be a good housekeeper and offers practical wisdom about life. Jeremiah the Peddler, who befriends Grace, is introduced. At Christmastime, Mrs. Parkinson's son, Mr. George, falls sick and does not return to college. During the winter, Grace suspects that Mr. George and Mary are having an affair. Mary gets pregnant, and when Mr. George does not follow through on his marriage proposal, Mary has an abortion and dies.

Chapter 7

Dr. Jordan and Reverend Verringer discuss Susanne Moodie's account of Grace. Verringer concludes that Moodie tends to "[e]mbroider" her stories.

Grace continues. She leaves Mrs. Parkinson's and wanders from one job to another until she meets Nancy Montgomery, who offers Grace a job at Mr. Thomas Kinnear's, where Nancy is the housekeeper. Grace arrives at Kinnear's and describes the house and land. She meets James McDermott and Jamie Walsh. After a short period of time, Grace is disappointed with Nancy's treatment of her. Nancy is not as friendly as Grace had hoped and acts as if she is better than Grace. McDermott coarsely tries to seduce Grace.

Chapter 8

The next day, Grace tells Jordan that Nancy asks Grace to kill a chicken, which Grace cannot do. So Jamie Walsh kills the hen for her. Nancy invites Grace to go to church with her. At the church, Grace notices how coldly they are greeted. A few days later, Nancy, tired of McDermott's attitude, gives him his notice to leave. Later, McDermott tells Grace that Nancy is sleeping with Mr. Kinnear.

McDermott tells Grace that Kinnear and Nancy "deserved to be knocked on the head and thrown down into the cellar.…" Jordan interrupts Grace's narration and tells her that in his confession, McDermott stated that Grace had been the one to put him up to the murders. Grace denies this. She returns to her story and tells about spending her birthday afternoon with Jamie, who said he wanted to marry her. Jeremiah the Peddler shows up a few days later and suggests that Grace leave and come with him.

Tension grows between Grace and Nancy Montgomery. Nancy is showing signs of pregnancy and is jealous of Kinnear's attention to Grace. Grace overhears Nancy telling Kinnear that she might get rid of Grace.

Chapter 9

The story switches back to Dr. Jordan. He is becoming disoriented and unorganized. Mrs. Humphreys hangs around his room too much. Jordan is distracted when he goes to see Grace. One night, after he has gone to bed, Mrs. Humphreys comes to his room in her nightgown and gets into his bed.

Grace is concerned about coming to the end of her story, the actual murders. She tells herself she cannot remember all the details. She wonders what she should tell Dr. Jordan.

Dr. Jerome Dupont appears and asks Dr. Jordan if he might hypnotize Grace. When Grace sees Dr. Dupont, she realizes it is Jeremiah the Peddler.

Later, Dr. Jordan asks Grace about her relationship with Kinnear. Jordan drops the subject and asks for more details about the day of the murders. Grace says Nancy told her to leave. James McDermott tells Grace he is going to kill Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery. Grace thinks he is just bragging. She did not warn Nancy because Nancy would not believe her. Grace relates the same dream that was recounted at the beginning of the novel. She sees Nancy with blood on her face.

James McDermott goes to Nancy's room and kills her. McDermott threatens to harm Grace if she tells Mr. Kinnear, who has just come home. Later, when McDermott tells Grace to shoot Kinnear, she cannot. So McDermott does. Grace sees him throw Kinnear's body into the cellar. Jordan presses for more details, but Grace says she cannot remember.

Chapter 10

Grace faints when McDermott threatens her with a gun. She awakens in her bed, and McDermott is telling her she must keep her part of the bargain, implying she was to have sex with him. She fears for her life and keeps putting him off, hoping that will give her time to figure things out. She talks him into leaving the house. McDermott agrees, and they go to Toronto. They leave the next day by ferry. Grace plans to leave McDermott the following morning, but the two of them are caught.

Chapter 11

Dr. Jordan travels to Toronto to meet with Grace's lawyer and to visit the Kinnear house. In his absence, Grace continues her story to herself, relating the trial. Jordan reflects on the cumbersome relationship he has entered into with Mrs. Humphreys.

Chapter 12

Kenneth MacKenzie, Grace's lawyer, proclaims that Grace is "guilty as sin." After visiting the Kinnear house, the graves of Kinnear, Nancy, and Mary Whitney, Jordan whispers "[m]urderess, murderess" as he thinks about Grace on his trip home.

Chapter 13

Dr. Dupont hypnotizes Grace. Dr. Jordan asks if she had sex with James McDermott. Grace lashes out at him, accusing Jordan of desiring her. Grace says McDermott and Kinnear would do anything for her. When asked if she killed Nancy Montgomery, Grace replies, "The kerchief killed her. Hands held it." When the governor's wife calls Grace by name, Grace replies, "I am not Grace! Grace knew nothing about it!" Eventually the so-called spirit emanating from Grace says it is Mary Whitney. When Grace is brought out of her trance, she remembers nothing.

Jordan returns home, feeling oppressed about his involvement in Grace's case. He cannot continue. He also must break off his relationship with Mrs. Humphreys. He decides to leave town and return to Europe.

Chapter 14

A series of letters follows. Mrs. Humphreys writes to Dr. Jordan's mother. Dr. Jordan's mother responds, telling Mrs. Humphreys to leave her son alone. Grace writes to Jeremiah the Peddlar, also known as Dr. Jerome Dupont, who is now a part of a circus.

Chapter 15

Grace is pardoned. She is taken to New York where Jamie Walsh is waiting for her. He marries her.

Characters

Agnes

Agnes is the chambermaid at the Parkinson's home. She helps Grace after Mary dies. She cleans the room and defends Grace when Mrs. Honey and Mrs. Parkinson accuse her of not telling the truth about Mary.

Dr. Bannerling

Dr. Bannerling is the director of the asylum. …