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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Grace is pardoned. She is taken to New York where Jamie Walsh is waiting for her. He marries her.
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 is the director of the asylum. He believes Grace pretends to be mentally incapacitated and that Grace is guilty of murder. He thwarts any attempt made to release her from prison.
Mrs. Burt rents a cheap room at the back of her house to Grace's family when they first arrive in Toronto. She befriends Grace's father at first because she feels sorry for him. However, when she finds out that he wastes his day drinking instead of working, she grows tired of him. When Grace's father insists that Grace find a job, Mrs. Burt introduces her to Mrs. Parkinson's housekeeper.
Dr. Jerome Dupont
Dr. Jerome Dupont is a charlatan. He takes on several different disguises. He first appears in the story as Jeremiah the Peddler. He is somewhat infatuated with Grace but not to the point of getting married. He asks Grace to leave the Kinnear place and travel with him. He returns later as Dr. Jerome Dupont, a hypnotist. He tells Grace not to give him away. Then he puts her into a trance. Later, Grace sees a poster advertising a circus and recognizes his face.
The governor's wife employs Grace as a servant. She is fascinated with crime and criminals and keeps a scrapbook of newspaper clippings of crimes. She hosts discussion club meetings, bringing together people who support Grace's release. She does not fully trust Grace, however.
Mrs. Honey is the head servant at Mrs. Parkinson's house. She is anything but sweet, Grace says. She is strict and quick to blame Grace.
Mrs. Rachel Humphreys
Rachel Humphreys rents out a room to Dr. Jordan. When her husband leaves her, Rachel is distraught. Jordan befriends her, paying for her food and consoling her. Later, Rachel slips into Jordan's bed and begins a more personal relationship with him. When Jordan leaves her, she writes letters to Jordan's mother in search of him.
Jeremiah the Peddler
See Dr. Jerome Dupont
Dr. Simon Jordan
Jordan takes an interest in Grace's case several years after she has been imprisoned. He is involved in the early studies of psychiatry and wants to pry as many details from Grace's mind as he can, trying to determine if she is lying or truly suffers from amnesia. He is fascinated with her and her story. But when she is hypnotized and speaks in a voice that is vile and accusatory, he cannot accept that she is possessed by the spirit of Mary Whitney, as some of the other spectators believe. Jordan eventually leaves without coming to any substantial conclusions. Instead, he runs away from Grace, from his landlady with whom he was having an affair, and from his mother who wants him to marry. He returns to Europe, where he finds life less burdensome. At the end of the book, he returns home and is involved in the Civil War.
Mr. Thomas Kinnear
Thomas Kinnear is a well-to-do, although somewhat socially stymied gentleman who lives outside of Toronto. He is a bachelor and a wellknown womanizer. For this reason, respectable women tend to shun him. He is also suspected of having ties with a revolutionary political group, therefore making many men wary of him. Kinnear lives with his housemaid, Nancy Montgomery, with whom he is having an affair. When Grace Marks comes to work for him, he flirts with her, arousing Montgomery's jealousy. Although he sleeps with Montgomery, and she eats at the dinner table with him, Kinnear often reminds her that she is only his maid. He is found dead in his cellar, the victim of bullet wounds. It is suggested that James McDermott killed him.
Miss Lydia is the older of two daughters of the governor. She has a crush on Dr. Jordan and openly flirts with him. Although Dr. Jordan is flattered and even slightly aroused, he does not pursue her.
MacKenzie is Grace's court appointed lawyer. According to Grace, MacKenzie told her to lie and to pretend to be stupid in order to save her life. Later, when Dr. Jordan visits him, MacKenzie says that in his honest opinion, Grace is "guilty as sin."
Grace's story dominates this novel. Grace is the sixteen-year-old who is accused of the murders of her employer, Mr. Kinnear, and his housekeeper, Nancy. Grace narrates much of the story, sometimes allowing the readers into her private thoughts and exposing some of the contradictions in her story. She is in prison at the time of the story and relates much of what has happened to her through her talks with Dr. Jordan. She maintains a somewhat innocent manner, turning over any vile remarks she makes to her friend Mary Whitney. When she is hypnotized and suggests that she killed Nancy, she talks in a very different voice, which many people believe is Mary Whitney. Grace has been told by her lawyer to maintain the demeanor of stupidity in order to save her life. She also learns, while at the asylum, that if she truly opens up her thoughts to anyone, she is accused of being crazy. If she acts out in prison, she is punished. So she learns to keep everything to herself. She chooses her words very carefully. When she is in doubt about the truth of something, she claims she does not remember. She also reverts to dreamlike sequences, in which only vague images prevail. In the end, her story is so incomplete no one knows for sure if she is guilty. She does win her pardon, though, and marries the once-young boy, Jamie, who had a crush on her in his youth.
James is a stable boy at the Kinnear household. He is very hostile most of the time. He talks back to Nancy, and she grows tired of him. He is given his notice to leave, which angers him further. He decides to kill Kinnear and Nancy. He supposedly tries to bring Grace into the act and later forces her to leave with him. He is caught, found guilty, and hanged.
Nancy is the only housemaid in Thomas Kinnear's home. When she meets Grace she tells her that she is looking for extra help. Grace finds Nancy friendly and decides to take the offer. When Grace arrives at Kinnear's, however, she finds Nancy to be less welcoming than Grace had hoped. Nancy is often harsh and puts on airs as if she were the mistress of the house. Nancy dresses very well, eats dinner with Mr. Kinnear, and as Grace finds out later, also sleeps with Kinnear. When Kinnear travels to Toronto for a day or two, however, Nancy warms up to Grace and even asks Grace to sleep with her. As soon as Kinnear returns, though, Nancy once again dismisses Grace. When Nancy discovers Kinnear flirting with Grace, she decides to fire Grace. Nancy is discovered, later, in the cellar. She has been strangled and her throat has been cut. It is unclear whether James McDermott or Grace has killed her.
Mrs. Alderman Parkinson
Mrs. Alderman Parkinson is the mistress of the house where Grace lands her first job. The Parkinson family is very rich, and the house is very elegant, employing many servants. It is here that Grace meets Mary Whitney and Jeremiah the Peddler.
Mr. George Parkinson
George is the son of Mrs. Parkinson. He comes home from college for Christmas and gets sick. After the holidays, he is too weak to return to school. While at home, he becomes involved with Mary Whitney and gets her pregnant. Then he refuses to marry her.
Pauline is the sister of Grace's mother. She lives in Ireland and often gives money and food to her sister. When Pauline becomes pregnant, her husband, Roy, tells her that she can no longer support her sister. So Pauline gathers enough money to send Grace's family to Toronto, where she believes they have a better chance.
Mrs. Quennell is a famous spiritualist of the time. She tries to explain the voice that emanates from Grace while Grace is hypnotized. She believes it is someone else talking through Grace.
Roy is Grace's uncle. He is very generous toward Grace's family until his wife becomes pregnant. Then he puts his foot down and says he can no longer afford to help them.
Reverend Verringer heads the committee that is trying to free Grace. He enlists Dr. Jordan's help. He also brings together other supporters, including Dr. Jerome Dupont. After many years, Verringer is successful.
Jamie is a year younger than Grace. He develops a strong crush on her when she comes to the Kinnear household. He tells her that he wants to marry her when he grows up. At her trial, however, Jamie says he was surprised at how Grace looked and acted when he saw her immediately after the murders. His testimony helps to convict her. Later, Jamie is instrumental in her release. He promises to marry and take care of her.
Mary is the same age as Grace, but she has more experience both in her job and in the world in general. She teaches Mary about life. The two of them are very close until Mary begins her affair with Mr. George. Mary gets pregnant and is jilted. She has an abortion and dies from it. The spirit of Mary stays with Grace, and under hypnotism, the supposed spirit speaks out.
The topic of sexuality permeates this novel. Grace, for instance, is accused of using the promise of sexual favors to persuade James McDermott to kill Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery. It is also highly suspected that Grace and Jamie Walsh had a sexual encounter in the orchard, when in fact their meeting was quite innocent, at least in Grace's recounting of the event. There are social repercussions toward Nancy Montgomery when she enters the public realm. Most villagers assume that Montgomery and Kinnear are sleeping together, and they shun her and Grace when the two women show up at church one Sunday. Montgomery, like Mary Whitney, more than likely, offers herself to Kinnear in hopes of elevating her position, hoping to obtain a marriage contract.
Mary Whitney, the young girl who befriends Grace, becomes involved in a sexual encounter with her employer's son. Mary hopes for marriage, but Mr. George is obviously in the relationship only for the sex. Mary is abandoned once she becomes pregnant and dies because of a botched abortion.
Grace, while in prison, must constantly fend off the sexual overtures of the guards who transport her from the penitentiary to the governor's house. And Mrs. Humphreys, Dr. Jordan's landlady, seeks the comfort of a sexual relationship with the doctor in order to ease the financial and matrimonial trouble that faces her. Dr. Jordan's problems with his own sexuality, whether he is in bed with Mrs. Humphreys, or fantasizing about Miss Lydia, the governor's daughter, or Grace, his patient, presents the male side of the story.
In many ways sexuality drives this story and its characters. It is suggested that sexuality might have been the underlying cause behind the murders. James McDermott lusts for Grace. Grace lusts for Kinnear. And it is their opposite attractions that lead to the murders, at least according to some accounts. Sex ultimately brings about the death of Mary Whitney. Dr. Jordan all but cracks under the pressure brought about by his sexual involvement and by his sexual fantasies. Those characters who only flirt with sexuality, such as Jeremiah the Peddler and Jamie Walsh, are spared.
Topics For Further Study
- Atwood used the word "alias" in the title of this work for a specific reason. Re-read the novel and pull out the different ways in which Grace hides behind or uses an alias. Although using Mary Whitney is the most obvious of Grace's aliases, there are also more subtle ones. Write a paper on how Grace's use of aliases either helps or hinders her.
- Dr. Simon Jordan was attempting to psychoanalyze Grace, prompting her to delve into her subconscious by using objects that he believed might enliven their discussions. List all the objects, such as the apple and the radish, that Dr. Jordan used, and write a short essay on each, describing what kind of metaphors Dr. Jordan was trying to employ. For example, the apple is often associated with Eve and the Garden of Eden. What might Dr. Jordan have been trying to suggest by using each object?
- Grace shares several dreams with the readers throughout the story. One of them is often repeated. Find these dreams and write your interpretations of what they might represent. Do not worry about being factual. Let the ideas flow from your first impressions, much as you might try to figure out what your own dreams might mean.
- Investigate modern techniques of criminology. Then pretend you are the leading investigative detective of the murders of Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery. Write a report of your findings. Do not hesitate to make them up, but base them on real technology of the present time. Gather enough information to prove Grace Marks was either innocent or guilty.
- Spiritualism was very popular in the 1800s and early 1900s. Research this practice. What did it entail? Who were some of its greatest followers? What effects did it have on popular culture? Do you see any remnants of spiritualism in modern culture?
- Gather news accounts of sensational murders in modern times, such as the O. J. Simpson case. Atwood demonstrates how journalists of Grace Marks's day exaggerated many of the details. Do you think this still happens today? If so, how? Bring in various versions of a single event, demonstrating discrepancies in the stories.
Interestingly, according to Grace's interior dialogue, her sexual feelings are all but fully oppressed. Grace acts embarrassed and shocked at Dr. Jordan's intimation that McDermott had sex with her. She proclaims at one point that her sexual relationship with McDermott is all that any one cares to hear about. She is appalled by McDermott's attempts to have sex with her, and leaves one of her jobs because the master of the house makes attempts to have sex with her. When under hypnosis, although she claims to be Mary Whitney, Grace decries Dr. Jordan for his sexual fantasies about her. She is also completely dismayed when McDermott, Kinnear, and Montgomery accuse her of having sex with Jamie Walsh in the orchard.
Feminism and Pre-Feminism
Atwood recounts the details and circumstances of women in the nineteenth century. She portrays these women through the eyes of her own experiences in the twentieth century, eyes that are attuned to the history of discrimination against women. Atwood has the advantage of hindsight and an education in feminism—things that the women in her novel were unaware of. So either wittingly or unconsciously, Atwood emphasizes the imbalance that is inherent in the patriarchal society of this earlier period of time, relating the events of this story with a somewhat accusing tone.
Atwood constructs the women in this story, for the most part, as either privileged women with soft hands and many layers of petticoats or as working-class women with chafed skin and tired faces. Neither group is composed of fully realized women. The privileged class is tightly entrapped in corsets and are dependent on men. An example is Mrs. Humphreys, who is devastated by her husband's departure, not so much because she has lost the great love of her life but because she envisions herself being thrown out onto the street, unable to take care of herself. On the other hand, the working-class women, according to Atwood's portrayal, have three options in life. They work as servants all their lives; they marry and are taken care of by a man; or they become prostitutes.
Ironically it is the nineteenth-century concept of femininity that may have saved Grace from hanging and from completing her life sentence in jail. It was believed, during those times, that women were frail, moral, and incapable of vicious crimes such as murder. Even though circumstantial evidence pointed to Grace's involvement in the murders, she avoids the death sentence and eventually wins an early release from the penitentiary. Would this have been true if she had been a man? The answer seems to lie in the fate of her accomplice, James McDermott. There appears to have been little discussion as to whether or not he was guilty and should be hanged. There also is the strange relationship between Grace and Jamie Walsh. Walsh developed a crush on Grace, but later he testified against her in court. It was his evidence that finally pinned the murders on her. Atwood suggests that Walsh may have done this because he was jealous of Grace's supposed relationship with McDermott. However, in the end, Walsh is instrumental in gaining Grace's early release. He promises to marry her, to support her, to protect her. Grace's femininity, or at least the nineteenth-century definition of her femininity—one in which she once again becomes incapable of hurting anyone—convinces Walsh that he has betrayed her and must now rescue her.
Point of View
Alias Grace is told through a variety of points of view. These points of view alternate, giving the reader, for example, a more personal testimony as related by Grace Marks throughout most of the novel and then switching to a more distant observation offered by the third-person account of Dr. Simon Jordan's circumstances. It should be pointed out that Grace's first-person point of view is often unreliable. Although Grace sometimes admits that she is not being fully honest with Dr. Jordan, there are other times when it is not clear if she is even being honest with herself. Other points of view include replications of newspaper accounts of the murders of Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery and the subsequent trials of Grace and McDermott. There are also lyrics of popular ballads concerning the murders, accounts quoted from Susanna Moodie's journals, and from letters to and from Dr. Jordan and other correspondents. By providing this collection of points of view, Atwood lays out different interpretations of the events, demonstrating the confusion that surrounded the real court case and the inability of either proving or disproving Grace Marks's innocence or guilt.
The main metaphor employed in this novel is that of the quilt. Atwood names each of her chapters after a specific quilt pattern. Graphic depictions of the patterns are also offered, showing the reader that these designs, much like the testimony of Grace Marks, can be construed in a variety of ways. For example, when one looks at the patterns, the pieces of the quilt arrange themselves in different ways, depending on how the eyes align them. The names of the patterns offer clues on how to look at them. These names include Jagged Edge, Rocky Road, Secret Drawer, and Pandora's Box. The quilt names each suggest the tone of the chapter that is to follow. The use of the quilt metaphor is appropriate because Grace's skill in sewing is mentioned quite often throughout the story. Also, while Grace relates the events of her past to Dr. Jordan, her hands are often kept busy with piecing together the scraps of material to make the cover of a quilt. As she creates the quilt, so too does she create her story. Overall, the quilt metaphor refers to the piecing together of information that has been gathered from different sources, which offer many different interpretations.
Reality and Fiction
Atwood offers a combination of real events mixed with her own imagination in an attempt to create a complete story. Although no solid conclusions can be drawn at the end of her novel with regard to Grace Marks, the novel does present a story with a beginning, middle, and an end. In order to glue all the real events together, Atwood had to invent fictionalized characters, such as Dr. Jordan. Jordan helps to fill in some of the widest holes in the recorded real events by acting as a vehicle through which Grace can retell her version of the circumstances. Of course, Grace's interior dialogue is a creation of Atwood's imagination, which provides an attitude that is probable even though it might not be true. By mixing real news accounts, lyrics of real songs, and parts of real journals, Atwood adds authenticity to her fictional work. By mixing the author's imagination to the reality of trial and murders, Atwood provides her readers with a more rounded version of the Grace Marks story.
Toronto's Kingston Penitentiary
The Kingston Penitentiary, which opened in 1835 (eight years before Grace Marks was sentenced), was the first so-called modern prison to be built in Canada. It was to take on a different approach to incarceration. Instead of being a place solely dedicated to punishment, the official program was based on reform. Today, it remains one of the oldest prisons in continuous use in the entire world. Across the street from the main penitentiary is the Kingston Prison for Women, which opened in 1934. Prior to the opening of the Prison for Women, females were jailed in the main building but segregated from the male population. The penitentiary, with its massive gray limestone walls, has the appearance of an ancient and imposing fortress. It is located right on the waterfront of Lake Ontario; and in 1976, the sailing events of the Olympics were held right outside the building. The Kingston Pen, as it is referred to, houses Canada's most dangerous and notorious criminals. A riot occurred in 1971, during which much of the Kingston Pen was destroyed. Today, the prison accommodates up to four hundred inmates, all housed in separate cells.
Susanna Moodie was born in England in 1803. After she married, she moved with her husband, in 1832, to the wilderness in Upper Canada. Susanna had been well educated by her father, and she and her sisters were accomplished writers. One of Moodie's most famous books was published in 1852. She called it Roughing It in the Bush: Or Life in Canada. In the book, Moodie offered sketches of her life and the cultural shock she experienced in moving from a lively city life in England to the challenging existence she encountered in the woods of Canada. Moodie visited Kingston Penitentiary, which many people did in the nineteenth century as part of a tour, and she asked to meet Grace Marks, who was the most notorious prisoner at that time. Moodie then went home and wrote about Grace. Later Moodie toured the Toronto Lunatic Asylum and again found Grace there. Moodie recalled that Grace was screaming continually during her visits, which lead Moodie to describe Grace as a wildly crazy woman. Moodie died in 1885.
Toronto's Lunatic Asylum
Not until the 1800s was there made any distinction, in Canada, between criminals and people with mental problems. Up until that time, criminals, the insane, and those who were in debt were all imprisoned together. This changed in 1841, when the first asylum for the insane was built in Toronto. Of the group of insane, the criminally insane were the most difficult to house. They disrupted the order and discipline of the penitentiary and required continual observation in the asylum. Females deemed criminally insane were even more difficult to deal with, since at the time, women were considered the gentle sex, so the definition of a criminally insane woman was a hard concept for the general public to accept. Consequently, female criminals exhibiting traits of insanity were often taken back and forth between the penitentiary and the asylum as doctors and prison officials tried desperately to define who and what these women were. The women themselves sometimes took advantage of this quandary. The asylum was more comfortable than the penitentiary. In fact, the asylum was one of the first buildings in Toronto to have running water (hot and cold), steam heat, and ventilation. Therefore, many female criminals were accused of faking their mental illness in order to remain housed in the asylum.
Irish Immigration to Canada
By 1867, almost one-quarter of the entire population of Canada was Irish; and in the earlier part of the nineteenth century, most of the Irish immigrants were Protestant. One of the most influential causes of this immigration was the promise of land, which in Ireland had become a distant dream of many of its poor inhabitants. Between the years of 1829 to 1859, it is estimated that over 600,000 Irish landed at Grosse Île, the major clearing port of immigrants coming to Canada by sea. In 1855, according to British records, more than two million people left Ireland. Most of them emigrated to North America, either to Canada or the United States.
Journeys across the Atlantic were far from easy. Most ships were overcrowded, and most people were not prepared for the length, or the hardships, of the journey. Many did not realize they would have to supply most of their own food, so by the end of the journey, most people were mal-nourished. Many others died during the journey. By 1847, these ships, overflowing with poor immigrants, were disrespectfully referred to as Coffin Ships because of the number of deaths that occurred during the trip. Once landed on Grosse Île, all immigrants were quarantined, much as was done in the United States at Ellis Island. The facilities at Grosse Île, however, were not equipped to handle the huge numbers of people who were arriving, and in 1847, five thousand immigrants died of an outbreak of typhus. Most of these victims were Irish.
Alias Grace was a bestselling novel not only in North America but in other countries as well. The mystery of Grace Marks's involvement in the murders that take place in the novel, as well as in real life, plus Atwood's deep research into nineteenth-century Canadian life are two alluring factors that draw readers to this book. Or as Susan H. Woodcock, writing for the School Library Journal, found: "Atwood may be playing a game with her readers but it is one in which many will willingly participate for the fun and mystery while learning about life in colonial Canada." Woodcock's attraction to this novel was based on Atwood's ability to create compelling characters who differ a lot from one another and are well developed. Barbara Mujica, writing for Americas also enjoyed Atwood's ninth novel for the author's well developed characters, but also for Atwood's extensive research into nineteenth-century Canada. "She brings to life not only the enigmatic and fascinating Grace Marks, but also an entire period in Canada's history." Mujica also points out the theme of quilts, which Atwood used throughout the work. Grace Marks was noted for her fine sewing skills, particularly quilting. Atwood uses a different quilting pattern for the title of each of her chapters to reflect Marks's skills and to set a theme for that section of the story. "The novel is structured like a quilt," Mujica writes, "in which each piece contributes to the total image, yet often the image changes form, depending on the angle from which it is viewed."
Another way to look at the novel might be through the observations of Mona Knapp, who wrote a review of the book for World Literature Today. Knapp focuses on the psychological aspects of the novel. She writes: "The novel's form is an elaborate exercise in fragmentation." Rather than looking at the metaphor of the quilt, Knapp sees the novel as a representation of Grace's mind, which is also fragmented. The story, Knapp writes, "is unsettled, perhaps in an effort to reflect the fact that [Grace's] story, like her personality, will never be wholly known." Knapp also points out how the fictional character of Dr. Jordan, unlike a quilter, who takes random pieces and sews them together to make a unified cover, becomes "unraveled" by Grace. He becomes so involved in Grace's fragments that he himself becomes disassociated.
The quilting theme also appealed to Melinda Bargreen, who reviewed the novel for the Seattle Times. However, Bargreen found, "[t]he strongest aspect of the novel is Atwood's use of detail, recalling vividly the scents of smoke and laundry, the shapes and textures of clothing, the state of medicine and fledgling psychology.…" For Mel Gussow, writing for the New York Times, it was Atwood's keen observation of her characters' psychology that drew him into the story. "With dry, ironic wit, a poetic sensibility and more than a hint of the Gothic, [Atwood] has uncompromisingly observed the psychology of the people in her society."
Most critics have praised Atwood for not trying to solve this mystery that will never be solved. As John Skow for Time stated it: "[Atwood] is scrupulous in not pretending to know the whole truth of Grace Marks." The result, Skow concluded, is that "[t]he formidable and sometimes forbidding Margaret Atwood has turned a notorious Canadian murder case from the mid-nineteenth century into a shadowy, fascinating novel."
Hart is a freelance writer and author of several books. In this essay, Hart examines Atwood's character, Grace Marks, as a symbol of the Victorian definition of woman.
Grace Marks, in Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace, is an extremely complex creature. Her complexities, however, are intensified for many reasons. Some of her personal traits are distorted because they are recorded by unreliable sources, such as newspapers accounts, popular ballads, and people who were swayed by ulterior motives. But there are other reasons for Grace's complexities. She was living at a time when women were defined by Victorian notions of femininity, which ranged from some of the highest ideals to some of the worst evils. Women were often considered the receptacles of morality at the same time as they were seen as seducers and manipulators. Alias Grace is about a young woman who committed murder, but it is also about the conflicts that women, influenced by the Victorian Age, suffered.
The identity of Grace Marks is confusing because it is complicated by her either trying to protect her innocence or trying to hide her guilt. But Atwood's story about Grace goes beyond the question of whether Grace committed murder. And it goes beyond the question of whether she was confused or mad. The main issue of the novel focuses on Grace, but true to Atwood's feminist pursuit, the search for Grace's true identity is symbolically the search that all women living in a suppressed environment are involved in—the search for self. Although Grace embodies this search in Atwood's novel, the real question seems to be: Who was the Victorian Woman? Was she the frail, lesser member of the two sexes? Or was she an equal in stamina and intelligence? Was she the epitome of virtue? Was she violent and capable of vicious crimes? Or, did she encompass all of these traits, and more? To gain a better glimpse into the author's feminist attitude, readers have only to take a deeper look at Atwood's protagonist.
In the opening of Alias Grace, Grace describes herself as a woman who abides by the rules of her Victorian society. "I tuck my head down while I walk," she declares, as befits her station in life. She is a maid, symbolically declared by her "chapped" hands. She bows her head in humility, reflecting her lower status, both economic and that determined by her sex. And she walks in silence "inside the square made by the high stone walls." She is the essence of conformity. "These shoes fit me," she states, "better than any I've ever had before." She is, at the time of this statement, a prisoner of the state. But she is also, as were most women of her time, a prisoner of social laws. Women, whether they were the well-kept wives and daughters of the rich, or the poor uneducated daughters of the underclass, were held in their place by concrete walls—even if they could not see them.
"[T]he cellar walls are all around me," Grace continues, "and I know I will never get out." This quote also comes from the first chapter. With these words, Grace describes her feelings at the scene of the murders. But is it an honest depiction? After the above quote, Grace immediately says: "This is what I told Dr. Jordan, when we came to that part of the story." This sentence qualifies her previous statement, and, in the process, Grace provides a hint of her real feelings. Grace is not saying that her sense of imprisonment, "I know I will never get out," is an honest one. Rather, she is implying that it might merely be a version of a "story." She might be saying this because it is what she believes Dr. Jordan wants to hear, something she often admits to doing throughout her story. Using Grace as the speaker of her feminine contemporaries, one might ask, what is Atwood declaring with these words? Is she stating that the women of Grace's time might also have been playing roles, ones they believed the men in their lives wanted? In other words, does Grace truly feel confined? Is she really comfortable walking in those shoes? Or is she pretending, hoping that in playing out her role according to the rules, she will eventually win some small portion of freedom? After all, this could have been the way Victorian women found release. They might have performed, as Grace did, only what was expected of them so they could find peace within the four walls of their confinement.
Obviously Grace did not always act according to law. She was angry and jealous of Nancy Montgomery, so Grace got rid of her. In some limited and short-lived way, Montgomery's murder freed Grace. But Grace soon found out that acting upon her crudest emotions ultimately caused her imprisonment. Her confinement was compounded later when she also acted out her emotions inside the penitentiary. When she vocalized her frustrations and fears in loud screaming fits, she was defined as mad and thrown into the asylum. While there, she was constantly probed and no doubt further confined either in solitary loneliness or by other means of constriction such as straight jackets. It was while in the asylum that Grace learns to keep her thoughts to herself. Her emotions must be kept under control. She discovers that if she remains nonresponsive or at least if she answers questions with minimal and socially acceptable short statements, she is left alone and eventually is returned to the prison, where the stigma of madness somewhat disappears. If she has any dream of realizing her release from jail, it will be actualized through her practice of silence.
"Women, whether they were the well-kept wives and daughters of the rich, or the poor uneducated daughters of the underclass, were held in their place by concrete walls—even if they could not see them."
There are many stories of Victorian-influenced women being driven mad because their emotional lives are too heavily suppressed. Emotions are often looked upon as a sign of weakness and acting them out is a disturbance to the controlled notion of sanity. Many women, like Grace, learn that silence brings them more acceptance and favor. Other women take on a different mode of silence, such as feigning ignorance. Grace relates that her lawyer tells the court she is "next door to an idiot." Playing out this role, he tells her, is her "best chance." She "should not appear to be too intelligent." Not only were Victorian women being fed this line, many women, up until the late 1960s, not only pretended to be unintelligent, many of them often believed it. Education was for men. Women's motives for going to college were said to be only to find a husband. It was also believed that professional careers were too far removed from the home—the socially accepted domain of women. Once again, in playing the role of the less intelligent, women found, if not fulfillment, at least acceptance and a synthetic peace.
Another question that Atwood raises is that of women's sexuality. At one point in the story, Dr. Jordan notices that Grace is a bit prudish when it comes to discussing sex. He wants to know if Kinnear ever made advances to her, but Dr. Jordan doesn't know how to ask Grace. During his first visit with her, he offers Grace an apple. In biblical terms, the apple represents temptation. And it is Eve who offers it to Adam, an act that has forever identified Eve, in some interpretations, as the seductress and the source of Adam's fall. But Dr. Jordan's questions about sex are double-edged. He is, on one hand, trying to find out if Grace is guilty or innocent. But he also finds the discussion of sexuality titillating.
What Do I Read Next?
- Alice Munro is a fellow Canadian author, who often writes about people who live in small, rural Canadian towns. The lives of the characters she writes about, however, are any thing but simple. Her collections of short stories are legendary. One of her more recent collections is Dance of the Happy Shades and Other Stories (1998). There are fifteen stories included, each of them depicting ordinary moments in life, but they are looked at through the eyes of someone who can decipher the underlying meaning.
- Carol Shields, an American who has adopted Canada as her home, wrote the Pulitzer Prize–winning The Stone Diaries (1993), her most famous work. Shields creates a fictional character and then writes the book as if it were her protagonist's autobiography. The story follows the life of Daisy Goodwill as she tries to make sense of her somewhat dull life. The introspective monologue is the strong point of this work.
- Angela Carter's works are often compared to Atwood's, or vice versa. Carter was known for taking fairy tales and twisting them to reflect her favorite feminist theories. Bloody Chamber (1990) is her most critically acclaimed collection of short stories. In this book, Carter retells the famous "Bluebeard Tale," turning it on its head so that women, rather than being the victims, are victorious in the end.
- Surfacing (1972) and The Handmaid's Tale (1985) are two of Atwood's most popular novels. In Surfacing, Atwood's female protagonist returns to her childhood home on a remote island to search for clues about her father's mysterious disappearance. The search brings more to the surface than the protagonist could have imagined. This story is often classified as a thriller. The Handmaid's Tale was a departure in writing for Atwood, as the story takes place in the future. Atwood's depiction of the future represents everything a feminist would never want to experience, one in which women are completely without freedom.
- For a male's perspective of life in prison, Ernest J. Gaines has written A Lesson before Dying (1993). It is a story set in the South in the 1940s, and its protagonist is a young black man who is asked to teach another young black man, waiting to be executed for murder, how to die. The prisoner insists he was wrongfully convicted, a condition not improbable in the South for black men during this time.
There are suggestions in the novel that Grace was not so prudish as she seems. In some accounts, Grace is said to have enticed James McDermott to commit the murders in exchange for having sex with her. On the other side, Atwood reveals Dr. Jordan's own sexual desires, which include not only the seduction of his landlady but also his sexual dreams as a young boy. He also is aroused by Miss Lydia's attention as well as by his contacts with Grace. In exploring Dr. Jordan's sexual desires, Atwood is setting up the dichotomy between the definition of women as innocent virgins and, at the other end of the spectrum, as whores, while men suffered no such labels and were able to enjoy socially acceptable sexual passion. Grace in her so-called normal state does sound like a prude, but when she is put in a trance, another side appears, one more crude but also more exacting. Once she is fully hypnotized, Dr. Jordan says: "Ask her … whether she ever had relations with James McDermott." Then the narrator explains: "He [Jordan] hasn't been intending to pose this question; certainly not at first, and never so directly. But isn't it—he sees it now—the one thing he most wants to know?"
Grace is momentarily released from her inhibitions, and she points an accusing finger. "Really, Doctor," Grace says, "you are such a hypocrite!" With this revelation, the tables are turned. Now Dr. Jordan feels as if he must suppress his emotions. "He's shaken, but must try not to show [it]." Grace has taken off her social mask and in doing so, she has seen Dr. Jordan more clearly. Grace says, "[w]hether I did what you'd like to with that little slut who's got hold of your hand?" And then Grace admits she allowed McDermott to do all the things, as she says, that Dr. Jordan wanted to do to her.
But Grace's awakening does not last. When pressed further, she cannot take credit for having seen things as they are, for expressing her inner feelings. Instead, she gives credit to Mary Whitney, her dead friend, whom she claims has possessed her. Grace has crawled back into her shell. If she had not, she would never have been released from jail. "I must have been asleep," she insists upon coming out of the trance. "… I must have been dreaming. I dreamt about my mother. She was floating in the sea. She was at peace." It is interesting to note that both Grace's strength and her peace come from women who are dead—her mother and Mary Whitney. Both of these women had passed to the other side. And in their passing, as Grace sees it, they have climbed over the four walls of their prison and found peace and freedom.
Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on Alias Grace, in Novels for Students, Gale, 2004.
Patricia F. Goldblatt
In the following article, Goldblatt discusses Atwood's writings in the context of her life experiences.
TO CONSTRUCT: to build; to fabricate; to devise or invent.
TO RECONSTRUCT: to rebuild.
A weaver employs fragments from life, silk, raw yarns, wool, straw, perhaps even a few twigs, stones, or feathers, and transforms them into a tapestry of color, shape, and form. An author's work is similar, for she selects individuals, locations, images, and ideas, rearranging them to create a believable picture. Each smacks of reality, but is not. This is the artist's art: to reconstruct the familiar into new, fascinating, but often disturbing tableaux from which stories can unfold.
Margaret Atwood weaves stories from her own life in the bush and cities of Canada. Intensely conscious of her political and social context, Atwood dispels the notion that caribou-clad Canadians remain perpetually locked in blizzards while simultaneously seeming to be a polite mass of gray faces, often indistinguishable from their American neighbors. Atwood has continually pondered the lack of an identifiable Canadian culture. For over thirty years her work has aided in fashioning a distinct Canadian literary identity. Her critical catalogue and analysis of Canadian Literature, Survival, offered "a political manifesto telling Canadians … [to] value their own" (Sullivan, 265). In an attempt to focus on Canadian experiences, Atwood has populated her stories with Canadian cities, conflicts, and contemporary people, conscious of a landscape whose borders have been permeated by the frost of Nature, her colonizers and her neighbors. Her examination of how an individual interacts, succeeds, or stagnates within her world speaks to an emerging a sense of self and often parallels the battles fought to establish self-determination.
"This is the artist's art: to reconstruct the familiar into new, fascinating, but often disturbing tableaux from which stories can unfold."
In her novels, Margaret Atwood creates situations in which women, burdened by the rules and inequalities of their societies, discover that they must reconstruct braver, self-reliant personae in order to survive. Not too far from the Canadian blueprint of the voyageur faced with an inclement, hostile environment, these women struggle to overcome and to change systems that block and inhibit their security. Atwood's pragmatic women are drawn from women in the 1950s and 1960s: young women blissfully building their trousseaus and imagining a paradise of silver bells and picket fences.
Yet the author herself was neither encumbered nor restricted by the definition of contemporary female in her life as a child. Having grown up in the Canadian North, outside of societal propaganda, she could critically observe the behaviors that were indoctrinated into her urban peers who lacked diverse role models. As Atwood has noted, "Not even the artistic community offered you a viable choice as a woman" (Sullivan, 103). Her stories deal with the transformation of female characters from ingenues to insightful women. By examining her heroes, their predators, and how they cope in society, we will discover where Atwood believes the ability to reconstruct our lives lies.
WHO ARE THE VICTIMS? "But pathos as a literary mode simply demands that an innocent victim suffer." Unlike Shakespeare's hubris-laden kings or Jane Austen's pert and private aristocratic landowning families, Margaret Atwood relies on a collection of ordinary people to carry her tales: university students, museum workers, market researchers, writers, illustrators, and even house-maids. In her novels, almost all dwell on their childhood years in flashback or in the chronological telling of their stories. Many of her protagonists' early days are situated in a virtual Garden of Eden setting, replete with untamed natural environments. Exploring shorelines, gazing at stars, gathering rocks, and listening to waves, they are solitary solus, but not lonely individuals: innocent, curious, and affable creatures. Elaine Risley in Cat's Eye and an unnamed narrator in Surfacing are two women who recall idyllic days unfolded in a land of lakes, berries, and animals. Offred in The Handmaid's Tale, in her city landscape, also relates a tale of a happy childhood. She is a complacent and assured child, her mother a constant loving companion. In their comfortable milieus, these girls intuit no danger. However, other Atwood protagonists are not as fortunate. Their backgrounds suggest an unhealthy, weedy soil that causes their young plants to twist and permutate. Lady Oracle's Joan is overweight. Her domineering, impatient mother and her weak father propel her to seek emotional satisfaction away from them. Lesje in Life Before Man is the offspring of dueling immigrant grandmothers who cannot agree on the child's proper upbringing. Not allowed to frequent the Ukrainian "golden church with its fairytale onion" (LBM, 93) of the one, or the synagogue of the other, Lesje is unable to develop self-confidence and focuses instead on the inanimate, the solid traditions of rocks and dinosaurs as her progenitors. Similarly, the females in The Robber Bride reveal miserable childhoods united by parental abuse, absence, and disregard: Roz must perform as her mother's helper, a landlady cum cleaning woman; her father is absent, involved in shady dealings in "the old country." Charis, a second character in The Robber Bride, abandoned by her mother and deposited with Aunt Vi and Uncle Vern, is sexually violated by those who should have offered love and trust. Toni, the third of the trio, admits to loneliness and alienation in a well-educated, wealthy family. Marked by birth and poverty, Grace Marks, an Irish immigrant in the early 1800s in Alias Grace, loses her mother en route to Canada. Grace is almost drowned by the demands of her drunken father and clinging, needy siblings. These exiled little girls, from weak, absent, or cruel families, made vulnerable by their early situations, cling to the notion that their lives will be improved by the arrival of a kind stranger, most likely a handsome suitor. Rather than becoming recalcitrant and cynical, all sustain the golden illusion of the fairy-tale ending. In short, they hold to the belief, the myth perpetrated by society: marriage.
Atwood's women are cognizant of the nurturing omissions in their environments. They attempt to cultivate and cope. Charis in The Robber Bride decides to reinvent herself. She changes her name and focuses on what she considers her healing powers inherited from her chicken-raising grandmother. She, Roz, and Toni turn their faith to the power of friendship, a solid ring that lessens the painful lack of supportive families. In Alias Grace Grace's burden of an absent family is briefly alleviated by her friendship with another housemaid, Mary Whitney. Mary takes an adoring Grace under her wing and creates for Grace a fleeting vision of sisterly support. Unfortunately for Grace, Mary herself, another trusting young woman, is deceived by her employer's son and dies in a botched abortion, leaving Grace once again abandoned and friendless.
In an attempt to reestablish stable, satisfying homes, these women pursue a path, as have women throughout history, to marriage. They search for a male figure, imagining a refuge. Caught up in the romantic stereotypes that assign and perpetuate gender roles, each girl does not doubt that a man is the solution to her problems.
In The Edible Woman Marian and her coworkers at Seymour Surveys, "the office virgins," certainly do not question that marriage will provide fulfillment. In spite of the fact that Marian is suspended between two unappealing men, she does not deviate from the proper behavior. Marian's suitor, Peter, with his well-chosen clothes and suave friends, his perfectly decorated apartment, and even Marian as the appropriate marriage choice, is rendered as no more than the wedding cake's blankly smiling ornament. If appearance is all, he should suffice. Peter is juxtaposed to the slovenly, self-centered graduate student, Duncan, whose main pleasure is watching his laundry whirl in the washing machine. Marian is merely a blank slate upon which each man can write or erase his concept of female.
The narrator and her friend Anna, in Surfacing, are also plagued by moody men who are not supportive of women's dreams. In one particularly horrifying scene, Anna's husband Dave orders her to strip off her clothes for the movie camera. Anna, humiliated by the request, nevertheless complies. She admits to nightly rapes but rationalizes his behavior: "He likes to make me cry because he can't do it himself" (Sf, 80). Similarly, when Joe, the narrator's boyfriend, proposes, "We should get married … we might as well" (56), he is dumbfounded and furious at her refusal. Men aware of the role they play accept their desirability as "catches." They believe that women desire lives of "babies and sewing" (LO, 159). These thoughts are parroted by Peter in The Edible Woman when he proclaims, "People who aren't married get funny in middle age" (EW, 102). Men uphold the values of the patriarchy and women conform, few trespassing into gardens of their own design.
In Alias Grace Grace's aspirations for a brighter future also dwell on finding the right man: "It was the custom for young girls in this country to hire themselves out, in order to earn the money for their dowries, and then they would marry … and one day … be mistress of a tidy farmhouse" (AG, 157–58). In the employment of Mr. Thomas Kinnear in Richmond Hill, Grace quickly ascertains that the handsome, dark-haired housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery, enjoys many privileges as the reward for being her master's mistress. Yet, although men may be the only way to elevate status, Grace learns that they cannot be trusted when their advances are rejected. Grace, on trial for the murders of Kinnear and Montgomery, is incredulous when she hears a former friend, Jamie Welsh, testify against her.
Then I was hoping for some token of sympathy from him; but he gave me a stare filled with such reproach and sorrowful anger. He felt betrayed in love … I was transformed to a demon and he would do all in his power to destroy me. I had been counting on him to say a good word for me … for I valued his good opinion of me, and it was a grief to lose it.
Women, it seems, must be made malleable to men's desires, accepting their proposals, their advances. They must submit to their socially determined roles or be seen as "demons."
However, it is not only men but also women as agents of society who betray. In The Robber Bride Charis, Roz, and Toni are tricked in their friendship by Zenia, an acquaintance from their university days. Each succumbs to Zenia's web of deceit. Playing the part of a confidante and thoughtful listener, Zenia encourages the three women to divest themselves of their tales of their traumatic childhoods. She learns their tortured secrets and uses their confidences to spirit away the men each women believes to be the cornerstone in her life.
From little girls to sophisticated women, Atwood's protagonists have not yet discerned that trust can be perverted, that they can be reeled in, taken advantage of, constantly abused, if they are not careful of lurking predators in their landscapes. Joan in Lady Oracle, longing for friendship, endures the inventive torments of her Brownie friends: deadly ploys that tie little girls to trees with skipping ropes, exposing them to strange leering men under cavernous bridges. Her assassins jeer, "How do ya' like the club?" (LO, 59). Elaine Risley in Cat's Eye, like Joan, is a young girl when she discovers the power of betrayal by members of her own sex. For years she passively succumbs to their games. Perhaps, because she has grown up alone in the Canadian North with her parents and brother, Elaine seeks the warming society of girls. Only when Elaine is deserted, left to freeze in a disintegrating creek, does she recognize her peers' malevolence that almost leads to her death. Elaine knows that she is a defeated human, but rather than confronting her tormentors, she increases her own punishment nightly: she peels the skin off her feet and bites her lips.
Unable to turn outward in a society that perpetuates the ideal of a submissive female, these women turn inward to their bodies as shields or ploys. Each has learned that a woman is a commodity, valued only for her appearance. Therefore it comes as no surprise that Atwood's protagonists measure their worth in terms of body. Joan in Lady Oracle sees herself as "a huge shapeless cloud" (LO, 65); she drifts. However, her soft edges do not keep her from the bruising accusations of society. Although she loves to dance, Joan's bulging body is an affront to her mother and ballet teacher's sensibilities, and so at her ballet recital she is forced to perform as a mothball, not as a butterfly in tulle and spangles.
Joan certainly does not fit her mother's definition of femininity. Because her ungainly shape is rejected, Joan decides to hide her form in a mountain of fat, food serving as a constant to her mother's reproaches: "I was eating steadily, doggedly, stubbornly, anything I could get. The war between myself and my mother was on in earnest; the disputed territory was my body" (LO, 67). Interestingly, Joan's loving, supportive, and also fat aunt Louisa bequeaths to Joan an inheritance with the stipulation that she lose one hundred pounds. Atwood herself was fascinated by transformations in fairy stories: a person could not become a swan and depart the dreaded scene that mocked the tender aspirations of an awkward ingenue in real life; she could, however, don a new mask and trick those people who had previously proffered harm.
In The Edible Woman Marian's body is also a battlefield. Unable to cope with her impending marriage to Peter, Marian finds herself unable to ingest any food that was once alive. Repulsed by her society's attitude of consumerism, Marian concludes that her refusal to eat is ethical. However, her mind and body have split away from each other. Her mind's revulsion at a dog-eat-dog world holds her body hostage: captive territory when a woman disagrees with her world. Marian "tri[es] to reason with [her body], accus[ing] it of having frivolous whims." She coaxes and tempts, "but it was adamant" (EW, 177). Marian's mind expresses her disapproval on the only level on which she possesses control: ironically, herself. Her punishment is circular: first, as a victim susceptible because she is a woman subject to her society's values; and second, as a woman only able to command other women, namely herself. Her sphere is so small she becomes both victim and victimizer.
This view of a woman who connects and projects her image of self onto her body also extends to the functions of a female body: the ability to control life by giving birth. Sarah in the story "The Resplendent Quetzal" (1977) is drained of all vitality and desire when her baby dies at birth. Her concept of identity is entangled with her ability to produce a child. When this biological function fails, Sarah's being ebbs. Lesje in Life Before Man also observes that, without children, "officially she is nothing" (LBM, 267). Offred's identity and value as a childbearer as well, in The Handmaid's Tale, are proclaimed by her clothes in her totalitarian city of Gilead. She is "two viable ovaries" (HT, 135). She no longer owns a name; she is "Of Fred," the concubine named for the man who will impregnate her. Every step, every mouthful of food, every move is observed, reported, circumvented, or approved for the sake of the child she might carry to term. Her only worth resides in her biological function. Her dreams and desires are unimportant. Her goal is survival.
The women described here do not lash out openly. Each who once trusted in family, marriage, and friendship discovers that treading societal paths does not result in happiness. These disillusioned women, with aborted expectations, turn their misery inward, accepting responsibility that not society and its expectations but they themselves are weak, unworthy, and have therefore failed.
WHO HAS LAID PREY AND WHY? "Sometimes fear of these obstacles becomes itself the obstacle." Atwood's girls are a vulnerable lot, manipulated, packaged, and devastated by the familiar faces in uncaring, dictatorial circles that reinforce societal imperatives. Those once free to roam and explore as children as well as those repressed from an early age are subject to the civilizing forces that customize young girls to the fate of females. Ironically, this process, for the most part, is performed by mothers.
Mothers, rather than alleviating their girls' distress, increase their children's alienation. When Elaine's mother in Cat's Eye ventures to discuss the cruelty of Elaine's friends, her words do not fortify Elaine; they admonish her: "Don't let them push you around. Don't be spineless. You have to have more backbone" (CE, 156). Fearing her weakness is comparable to the tiny crumbling bones of sardines, Elaine maligns herself: "What is happening is my own fault, for not having more backbone" (156). Joan's mother in Lady Oracle doesn't mince words: "You were stupid to let the other girls fool you like that" (LO, 61). Instead of offering support, the mothers blame their daughters, aligning themselves with the girls' accusers.
Mothers who themselves have not found acceptance, success, or ease in society persist in transmitting the old messages of conformity. Joan's mother in Lady Oracle is dumbfounded that "even though she'd done the right thing, … devoted her life to us, … made her family her career as she had been told to do," she had been burdened with "a sulky fat slob of a daughter and a husband who wouldn't talk to her" (LO, 179). Joan echoes her mother's complaints when she murmurs, "How destructive to me were the attitudes of society" (102).
Even the work women do conspires to maintain the subjection of their own kind. In her job, in The Edible Woman, Marian investigates what soups, laxatives, or drinks will please and be purchased. Sanctioned female activities also reinforce the imposition of correct values. In Surfacing and Cat's Eye little girls are engrossed in cutting up pictures from Eaton's catalogues that offer labor-saving devices along with fashionable clothes: children piece together a utopia of dollhouse dreams. So brainwashed are these girls that when asked to indicate a possible job or profession, they answer, "A lady" or "A mother" (CE, 91).
In Cat's Eye Elaine Risley's mother does not fit the stereotype. She wears pants, she ice skates, she "does not give a hoot" (CE, 214) about the rules that women are supposed to obey. Rendered impotent as a role model in her daughter's eyes because she does not abide by the Establishment's code of correct deportment, Elaine's mother is an outsider to a woman's world that captivates Elaine.
Instead of her own nonconforming mother, Elaine is most deeply affected by the indictments from her friend Grace Smeath's mother. Mrs. Smeath, spread out on the sofa and covered with afghans every afternoon to rest her bad heart, damns Elaine for being a heathen: there is something very wrong with Elaine's family, who ignore the protocol of proper women's wear, summer city vacations, and regular church attendance. Worse yet, Mrs. Smeath, aware of the cruel games inflicted on Elaine, does not intervene. Instead she invokes deserved suffering when she decrees, "It's God's punishment for the way the other children treat her [Elaine]. It serves her right" (CE, 180). With God on her side, Mrs. Smeath relies on the Bible as the oldest and surest way of prescribing a female identity and instilling fear.
In The Handmaid's Tale the Bible is likewise the chief source of female repression. Words are corrupted, perverted, or presented out of context to establish a man's holy vision of women: Sarah's use of her handmaid, Hagar, as a surrogate womb for an heir for Abraham becomes the legalizing basis for fornication with the handmaids. Acts of love are reduced to institutionalized rapes, and random acts of violence, banishment to slag heaps, public hangings, endorsed public killings, bribery, deceit, and pornography all persist under other names in order to maintain a pious hold on women endorsed by the Gilead Fathers.
In spite of the fact that Gilead is praised by its creators as a place where women need not fear, carefully chosen "aunts" persist in treachery that robs women of trust. To perpetuate the status quo, women are kept vulnerable and treated as children: girls must ask permission, dress in silly frocks, are allowed no money, play no part in their own self-determination. Yet Atwood's girls tire of their rigidly enforced placement that would preserve some outdated notion of female acceptability.
THE ESCAPE. "She feels the need for escape." (Sv, 131). After enduring, accepting, regurgitating, denying, and attempting to please and cope, Atwood's protagonists begin to take action and change their lives. Atwood herself, raised on Grimms' Fairy Tales, knew that "by using intelligence, cleverness and perseverance" (Sullivan, 36), magical powers could transform a forest into a garden. However, before realizing their possibilities, many of Atwood's protagonists hit rock bottom, some even contemplating death as an escape. In Surfacing the narrator, fed up with the superficiality of her companions, banishes them and submits to paranoia.
Everything I can't break … I throw on the floor … I take off my clothes … I dip my head beneath the water … I leave my dung, droppings on the ground… I hollow a lair near the woodpile … I scramble on hands and knees … I could be anything, a tree, a deer skeleton, a rock. (Sf, 177–87) She descends to madness, stripping herself of all the trappings of civilized society.
Although often consumed with thoughts of suicide in Cat's Eye and The Handmaid's Tale, Atwood's heroines never succumb. Instead they consciously assassinate their former identities through ritual deaths by water. Joan in Lady Oracle orchestrates a baptism in Lake Ontario. Pretending to drown, she relinquishes her former life. With sunglasses and scarf, she believes herself reborn, free to begin anew in Italy. Elaine Risley, after her bone-chilling encounter in the icy ravine in Cat's Eye, is finally able to ignore the taunts of her friends. Resurrected after two days in bed, a stronger Elaine affirms that "she is happy as a clam, hard-shelled and firmly closed" (CE, 201) against those who would sabotage her; she announces, "I'm ready" (203). Fortified by a new body image with a tougher veneer and a protective mask, Elaine no longer heeds her former tormentors. She has sealed herself from further outrage and invasion.
Marian's revelation in The Edible Woman is experienced at the precipice of a ravine, where she comments, "In the snow you're as near as possible to nothing" (EW, 263). Perhaps the fear of becoming one with the ubiquitous whiteness of the landscape and forever losing herself motivates a stand. Similarly, Sarah in "The Resplendent Quetzal" forges a more determined persona after her trial by water. Instead of throwing herself into the sacrificial well in Mexico as her husband Edward fears, she hurls a plaster Christ child stolen from a crèche into the water. Believing the tribal folklore that young children take messages to the rain god and live forever in paradise at the bottom of the well, Sarah pins her hopes on a representative facsimile that she hopes will bring her peace for her lost child in the next world as well as rebirth, freeing herself from anxiety and guilt regarding the child's death.
Rather than resorting to the cool, cleansing agent of water, Grace Marks, the convicted murderess in Alias Grace, reconstructs her life through stories of her own invention. She fashions a creature always beyond the pale of her listeners' complete comprehension. As told to Dr. Simon Jordan, who has come to study Grace as a possible madwoman, her story ensnares him in a piteous romance. Grace appears outwardly as a humble servant girl always at peril from salacious employers; however, when Grace ruminates in her private thoughts, she reveals that she is worldly wise, knowing how to avoid bad impressions and the advances of salesmen. She is knowledgeable, stringing along Dr. Jordan: "I say something just to keep him happy … I do not give him a straight answer" (AG, 66, 98). After rambling from employ to employ in search of security, Grace constructs a home for herself in her stories. Her words, gossamer thin, have the power to erect a facade, a frame that holds her illusions together.
In an attempt to discover the missing parts and prove the veracity of Grace's story, her supporters encourage her to undergo a seance. Although she recognizes Dr. Jerome Dupont, the man who will orchestrate the event, as a former button peddler, she does not speak out. When a voice emerges from the hypnotized Grace, it proclaims, "I am not Grace" (403). As listeners, we ponder the speaker's authenticity. Just who our narrator might be, mad-woman or manipulator, is cast into doubt. We can only be sure that the young innocent who arrived on Canada's shores penniless and motherless has been altered by the necessity to cope with a destructive hierarchical society unsympathetic to an immigrant girl. Rather than persist and be tossed forever at the whim of a wizened world, each saddened young girl moves to reconstruct her tarnished image of her self.
How? "One way of coming to terms, making sense of one's roots, is to become a creator" (…) Atwood's victims who take control of their lives discover the need to displace societal values, and they replace them with their own. In Lady Oracle Joan ponders the film The Red Shoes, in which the moral warns that if a woman chooses both family and career, tragedy ensues. Reflecting on childbirth, the narrator in "Giving Birth" (1977) hopes for some vision: "After all she is risking her life … As for the vision, there wasn't one" (GB, 252; italics mine). Toni in The Robber Bride and Grace Marks in Alias Grace acknowledge that it is not necessary to procreate. Each is more than her body. A grown-up Elaine Risley in Cat's Eye and the narrator in Surfacing accept motherhood, but not as an outcome of their gender that will foreclose the possibilities of a creative job. In fact, Roz in The Robber Bride is quite able to combine motherhood and a successful career. Dissatisfied with traditional knowledge, Atwood's women again turn inward, now avoiding masochistic traps, fully able to deviate from society's dicta. Freed from constraining fears, they locate talents, wings that free them.
Rather than becoming cynical and devastated by society's visions and its perpetrators, Atwood's women forge on. Roz, Toni, and Charis in The Robber Bride, who have been betrayed by Zenia, put their faith back into friendship, allowing mutual support to sustain them. It is solid; it has been tested. They have turned to one another, cried and laughed, shared painful experiences, knowing that their friendship has endured in a labyrinth of twisted paths.
Offred in The Handmaid's Tale also begins to reshape her world. She envisions a better place in her thoughts, recording her words on tape. She has hope. Consciously, she reconstructs her present reality, knowing she is making an effort to project an optimistic picture. She says, "Here is a different story, a better one … This is what I'd like to tell" (HT, 234). She relates that her tryst with Nick the chauffeur, arranged by her commander's wife, is caring and loving, enhanced by memories from her earlier life in order to conjure an outcome of happiness. In the short story "Hair Jewellery" (1977) Atwood's narrator is an academic, a writer who warns, "Be careful … There is a future" (113). With the possibility of a new beginning, there is a chance that life can improve. In Alias Grace Grace's fabrications in her stories provide an escape hatch, a version of reality tailroed to fit her needs. For both Offred and Grace, stories are ways of rebelling, of avoiding the tentacles of a society that would de-mean and remold them. Their stories are outward masks, behind which they frantically repair their damaged spirits. Each alters her world through language. Each woman speaks a reconstructed world into existence, herself the engineering god of her own fate. Offred confides that handmaids live in the spaces and the gaps between their stories, in their private silences: only alone in their imaginations are they free to control their own destinies.
However, Atwood's protagonists inhabit not only their minds in secret, but also their bodies in the outside world. Joan, after her disappearance from Toronto in Lady Oracle, decides that she must return home and support the friends who have aided her disguise. In the past, just as she had wielded her bulk as a weapon, so she has used her writing in order to resolve relationships. She has indulged in Gothic romances, positing scenarios; she has even played out roles with lovers in capes. In the end, she rejects her former craft of subterfuge: "I won't write any more Costume Gothics." Yet we must ponder her choice to "try some science fiction" (LO, 345).
Although it is difficult to extirpate behavior, women trust the methods that have helped them cope in the past in order to alter the future. In The Edible Woman the womanly art of baking provides Marian with a way to free herself: she bakes a cake that resembles herself. Offering a piece to Peter, she is controlling the tasty image of a woman, allowing him and, more importantly, herself to ingest and destory it. "It gave me a peculiar sense of satisfaction to see him eat," she says, adding, "I smiled comfortably at him" (EW, 281). Her pleasure in their consumption of her former self is symbolic of the death of the old Marian.
One might say that Marian's ingestion of her own image, Joan's adoption of science fiction, and both Offred's and Grace's stories "in the head" do not promise new fulfilling lives, only tactics of escape. However, their personal growth through conscious effort represents a means to wrest control of their lives from society and transform their destinies. These women become manipulators rather than allowing themselves to be manipulated.
In Cat's Eye Elaine Risley deals with the torment of her early life in her art by moving to Vancouver and exerting power in paint over the people who had condemned her. She creates surreal studies of Mrs. Smeath: "I paint Mrs. Smeath … like a dead fish … One picture of Mrs. Smeath leads to another. She multiplies on the walls like bacteria, standing, sitting, with clothes, without clothes" (CE, 338). Empowered by her success as an artist, Elaine returns to Toronto for a showing of her work, able to resist the pleas of her former tormentor, Cordelia, now a pitiful patient in a psychiatric facility. In a dream, Elaine surpasses her desire for revenge and offers Cordelia Christian charity: "I'm the stronger … I reach out my arms to her, bend down … It's all right, I say to her. You can go home" (CE, 419). Elaine is reinforced by the very words spoken to her in the vision that saved her life years before. Her work fosters her liberation. By projecting her rage outside of herself, she confronts her demons and exalts herself as a divine redeemer.
CONCLUSION. "You don't even have to concentrate on rejecting the role of victim because the role is no longer a temptation for you" (Sv. 39). The creative aspect that fortifies each woman enables her to control her life: it is the triumphant tool that resurrects each one. As artists, writers, friends, each ameliorates her situation and her world, positively metamorphosing reality in the process. In societies tailored to the submission of females, Atwood's protagonists refuse to be pinned down to the measurements of the perfect woman. Instead, they reconstruct their lives, imprinting their own designs in worlds of patterned fabric. Atwood has observed that all writing is political: "The writer simply by examining how the forces of society interact with the individual … seek[s] to change social structure" (Sullivan, 129).
Literature has always been the place where journeys have been sought, battles fought, insights gleaned. And authors have always dallied with the plight of women in society: young or old, body or mind, mother or worker, traveler or settler. The woman has been the divided or fragmented icon who, broken and downcast, has gazed back forlornly at us from the pages of her telling tale. Margaret Atwood has reconstructed this victim, proving to her and to us that we all possess the talent and the strength to revitalize our lives and reject society's well-trodden paths that suppress the human spirit. She has shown us that we can be vicariously empowered by our surrogate, who not only now smiles but winks back at us, daring us to reclaim our own female identities.
Patricia F. Goldblatt, "Reconstructing Margaret Atwood's Protagonists," in World Literature Today, Vol. 73, No. 2, April 15, 1999, pp. 275–82.
In the following article, Rubenstein discusses the structure of Atwood's novel Alias Grace in the context of her other writings.
Justifiably regarded as one of Canada's most distinguished writers, Margaret Atwood is equally accomplished as the author of fiction and poetry. In addition to a dozen volumes of poetry—several of which have been honored with prestigious literary awards—she has published nine novels and four volumes of short stories and prose pieces. Additionally, her critical study of major themes and ideas in Canadian literature, Survival (1972), though now dated, delineates the early years of a Canadian literary tradition that Atwood herself helped to establish.
As the daughter of an entomologist who conducted his research in the rural northern areas of Quebec and Ontario, Atwood did not attend formal schools until she reached adolescence; at home, she read widely and taught herself to write poetry, novels, stories, and plays. Her first volume of poetry was published in 1962, the year she graduated from the University of Toronto. After receiving an M.A. from Harvard in English literature, she taught English for a time, until the publication of her second novel in 1972 permitted her to pursue a full-time career as a writer.
What is always fascinating about Atwood's fiction is that, while certain preoccupations are present in virtually all of her longer fiction, these ideas achieve fresh and original expression in each narrative. In The Edible Woman (1969) and Surfacing (1972), Atwood explores the circumstances of female characters whose inner self-division also reflects the changing cultural forces and expectations shaping female experience. Life before Man (1979) and The Handmaid's Tale (1986) demonstrate the author's capabilities as an acerbic analyst of contemporary male-female relationships; the latter novel projects an imaginary dystopia: a future in which religious fundamentalism and declining fertility in the population converge to produce a political state based on female reproductive oppression.
In a lighter vein, Atwood enjoys playing with and revising traditional narrative forms, as in Lady Oracle (1976), in which she wittily revises the gothic romance form of contemporary popular culture. More seriously, in Cat's Eye (1988), she experiments with the conventions of biography; the novel is a richly textured portrait of the quintessential artist not as a young man but as a middle-aged woman. In The Robber Bride (1993), Atwood, winking at vampire stories and fairy tales, transforms her fictional fascination with the idea of victimization into a revisionist story of female self-discovery and female evil; the utterly amoral but irresistible Zenia, vampire of illusions, succeeds in turning inside out—but also redeeming—the lives of three women who were once her friends.
One of those women is Tony, a military historian through whose perspective Atwood ponders the slippery categories of history and fact, truth and invention. Near the end of The Robber Bride, Tony muses that
"every sober-sided history is at least half sleight-of-hand: the right hand waving its poor snippets of fact, out in the open for all to verify, while the left hand busies itself with its own devious agendas, deep in its hidden pockets. Tony is daunted by the impossibility of accurate reconstruction."
With her newest novel (which was short-listed for the Booker Prize), Atwood, assumes the post-modern historian's equivocal role. Alias Grace is based on a celebrated murder in Canada in 1843, comparable in notoriety to the story of Lizzie Borden of Fall River, Massachusetts. The two victims, an unmarried landowner and his housekeeper/mistress, were presumably murdered by James McDermott, a stablehand, and Grace Marks, a sixteen-year-old serving maid. McDermott was found guilty by a court of law and hanged for his crime. Though Grace was also convicted of the murders, her death sentence was commuted at the last minute; her youth and inconsistencies in her testimony led to doubt about her role in the slayings. She spent several years in the Provincial Lunatic Asylum in Toronto, followed by a decades-long incarceration in the Kingston Penitentiary.
"Alias Grace is by turns a 'tales of Scheherazade,' a suspenseful courtroom drama, a reconstruction of Victorian manners and attitudes toward women, a slice of the history of Canadian settlement, and a meditation on the intersections of history, storytelling, and narrative."
A Verbal Quilt
Each section of Atwood's textured exploration of Grace's life, and the circumstances of the murders in which she is implicated, is preceded by excerpts from actual documents of the period: trial testimony, official confessions of the suspects, newspaper stories covering the sensational story, and observations made by Susanna Moodie, the pioneer woman who interviewed Grace in prison. Excerpts from poems and other literary texts of the period capture the flavor of Victorian manners suggest ideas explored in the narrative proper.
These introductory artifacts establish an aura of authenticity and lend credibility to Atwood's invention of the details of Grace's story on which history itself remains silent or inconclusive. Atwood also brings to the particulars of the crime the post-modern awareness that, regardless of the "facts," the truth is elusive; despite the reports of witnesses and even the accused themselves, no one can absolutely establish what happened on the day of the murders. Even Grace is uncertain, having provided three different stories in which she protested her innocence and one in which she confessed her guilt.
Alias Grace is by turns a "tales of Scheherazade," a suspenseful courtroom drama, a reconstruction of Victorian manners and attitudes toward women, a slice of the history of Canadian settlement, and a meditation on the intersections of history, storytelling, and narrative. These diverse strands are imaginatively blended through the medley of distinct voices through which the tale unfolds. Indeed, the narrative itself might be said to form the verbal equivalent of a quilt of complex patterns: The title for each of the fifteen sections is the name of a quilt pattern, which is also rendered in an accompanying visual design. Grace herself is a skilled seamstress who stitches, among other things, quilts. Following her seven years in an asylum after the reprieve from hanging, she is moved to a penitentiary, where, as reward for her behavior as a "model prisoner," she is released during the daytime to sew for the penitentiary governor's wife and daughters.
Grace comes to the attention of a young American doctor, Simon Jordan, who hopes to advance his understanding of mental illness by probing Grace's buried memories of the traumatic events for which she is being punished. Quietly, as Grace stitches quilts in the governor's parlor, she tells her story to Jordan. Like the doctor who listens attentively to her narrative, the reader is offered a number of pieces of Grace's story, patches that he is only gradually able to incorporate into a larger design. The process is, like the fabrication of a quilt, methodical and leisurely, achieved by successive rearrangements of the parts and by crucial invisible stitches along the way.
Quilt is a particularly apt metaphor for the multiplicity of Grace's truths. As Grace points out, perception of a quilt pattern depends entirely upon "looking at the dark pieces, or else the light."
Moving figuratively between quilt and guilt, the narrative invites the reader to determine, on the basis of contradictory information, whether Grace is innocent or guilty, sane or insane, contrary or possessed, an unfortunate victim of circumstance or a manipulative actress. Through challenging us to determine Grace's guilt or innocence, the dark or light, Atwood dares us to question the nature of truth itself: What constitutes "proof" and how is it verified, given the intrinsic limitations of all facts and the biases of all perspectives, to say nothing of distortions introduced by the vagaries of memory?
One of the many pleasures of Atwood's novel is the social commentary and sense of historical authenticity that frame and enliven Grace's story. From the excesses of Victorian fashions for upper-class women to the more literal excesses of mis-treatment of their female servants, from the horrors of prison life to the emerging science of the study of the mind, she convincingly re-creates the social realities of the period. Through Grace's articulation of details of her troubled life, Atwood renders a vivid slice of the history of nineteenth-century immigration to Canada and its aftermath. The determination of innocence or guilt of the "celebrated murderess" also partakes of then-raging clashes between science and religion. To the Reverend Verringer, who leads a religious group dedicated to securing Grace's pardon, Dr. Jordan remarks, "It may be that much of what we are accustomed to describe as evil … is instead an illness due to some lesion of the nervous system, and that the Devil himself is simply a malformation of the cerebrum."
Much of the narrative's tantalizing suspense arises from the manner in which the tale unfolds, an alternation between the first-person account—Grace's story as she articulates it to Dr. Jordan—and the third-person narrative that conveys the doctor's ruminations on Grace's story, as well as on what becomes his increasingly complicated personal life. Intermittently, letters exchanged between Jordan and others, including his mother and several doctors, add to the narrative's medley of perspectives. As we learn through Grace's own narrative, she was one of nine children of a poor Irish family; her father was a whiskey-loving stone-mason, her mother his frequently abused wife. The journey to Canada, precipitated by her father's need to flee criminal activities in Ireland, involved a shipload of similar poor immigrants, packed into what Grace describes as "a sort of slum in motion, though without the gin shops"; her mother died on the foul journey and was buried at sea when Grace was twelve.
Virtually abandoned by her father once the rest of the family arrived in the New World, Grace found her early experiences in Canada equally traumatic. Her hard life as a servant girl led to the one true friendship of her life, with a laundry girl named Mary Whitney who treated her with kindness and introduced her to some of the ways of the world. Mary's own knowledge, however, was inadequate; her brief life and gruesome death offer a vivid object lesson illustrating the double standard of nineteenth-century life that is reiterated in various ways throughout the narrative: Men were dangerous, and unaccompanied women were at the mercy of any man who felt free to pursue his own pleasures, yet women were expected to remain virginal until marriage and ignorant of their own sexuality afterward. From doctors to prison guards, sexual abuses of women were so frequent as to be almost unremarkable. The impressionable Grace, already deeply distressed by her mother's sudden death and burial at sea, is further traumatized by her discovery of her friend Mary bleeding to death as a result of a doctor's carelessness in terminating an unwanted pregnancy.
Dr. Jordan, a would-be psychoanalyst several decades before Freud established the discipline, is fascinated by Grace's amnesia and attempts to understand the symptoms of what would only later come to be called hysteria. (Atwood, as part of her historical reconstruction of the period, incorporates contemporary speculations about the nature of mental life and the unconscious mind, including forays into mesmerism, hypnotism, spiritualism, and dream interpretation.) In their interviews Jordan attempts to jog Grace's memory through associations with the rather ludicrous props he brings to their meetings, and probe her dreams as pathways into repressed memories. Complicating his earnest efforts, however, are the gaps in her narrative, omissions that may or may not reflect her genuine uncertainty or ignorance about crucial events on the fatal day: Did she imagine them, dream them, or actually experience them?
A complication of another order is her desire, whether innocent or cunning, to tell the well-meaning doctor not simply what she knows but what she thinks he wants to know. At one point early in her meetings with him, she confides, to the reader only, "I have a good stupid look which I have practiced." In response to one of Jordan's questions about whether she has had any dreams she can describe to him, Grace remarks (again, to us but not to the doctor),
"As he was looking forlorn, and as it were at a loss, and as I suspected that not all was going well with him, I did not say that I could not remember. Instead I said that I had indeed had a dream. And what was it about, said he, brightening up considerably, and fiddling with his pencil. I told him I'd dreamt about flowers; and he wrote that down busily, and asked what sort of flowers. I said that they were red flowers, and quite large, with glossy leaves like a peony. But I did not say that they were made of cloth, nor did I say when I had seen them last; nor did I say that they were not a dream."
More poignantly, some of Grace's asides to the reader reflect philosophical insights painfully acquired through harsh experience. As she phrases it, Dr. Jordan "doesn't understand yet that guilt comes to you not from the things you've done, but from the things that others have done to you."
Thus, a central delight of Alias Grace is the voice of Grace Marks herself. So successfully does Atwood create her idiom and tone and sustain her unique perspective that the reader finds himself present in the room with Dr. Jordan, listening intently to Grace as she speaks and enjoying access to some (but hardly all) of her innermost thoughts. Though not educated, Grace is a shrewd observer of what transpires around her. At one point, she attends church with Nancy Montgomery, the housekeeper with whose murder she is later charged. Because Nancy is believed to be Mr. Kinnear's mistress, the churchgoers avoid her. Grace sees their hypocrisy, observing,
"These are cold and proud people, and not good neighbours. They are hypocrites, they think the church is a cage to keep God in, so he will stay locked up there and not wandering about the earth during the week, poking his nose into their business, and looking into the depths and darkness and doubleness of their hearts, and their lack of true charity; and they believe they need only be bothered about him on Sunday when they have their best clothes on and their faces straight, and their hands washed and their gloves on, and their stories all prepared. But God is everywhere, and cannot be caged in, as men can."
Grace's enigmatic qualities thus emerge from a mingling of earnestness, evasiveness, and self-censorship. Neither Dr. Jordan nor the reader (nor, at times, Grace herself) can be certain whether the details of her story correspond accurately to the true circumstances of the murders and her life. As Grace explains,
"When you are in the middle of a story it isn't a story at all, but only a confusion; a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood; like a house in a whirlwind, or also a boat crushed by icebergs or swept over the rapids, and all aboard powerless to stop it. It's only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you are telling it, to yourself or to someone else."
Through such passages, Atwood reminds us that every story, no matter how apparently true, is artifice; there is never an altogether "reliable" narrator. Depending on the circumstances and the audience, every teller controls the terms of her story, selectively imposing (both deliberately and unintentionally) order, emphasis, and other elements that transform the raw material or experience into a story—in other words, into fiction. As Dr. Jordan comes to understand, "What he wants is what she refuses to tell; what she chooses perhaps not even to know."
Several other characters in Alias Grace might also be said to have an alias or hidden self, not least Dr. Jordan himself. Drawn to Grace and charmed by her apparent guilelessness but also troubled by his inability to decide whether she can be trusted, Jordan becomes obsessed with her. The more she discloses, the more he wants to know—and, at the same time, not to know—whether she was actually an accessory to the abhorrent crime for which she has been incarcerated. Additionally, Jordan finds it increasingly difficult to manage his own inconvenient double life; beneath his urbane and rational medical facade hides a lustful man who relishes, even as he resists, the furtive advances of his landlady. In another twist in this elusive narrative, an itinerant friend of Grace's doubles as a hypnotist who may—or may not—succeed in tapping the deeper levels of memory and consciousness that Dr. Jordan so industriously but unsuccessfully pursues.
An occasional detail and a few plot twists seem a bit contrived; it may be that these are the elements that Atwood has taken from the historical record rather than invented herself. As Alias Grace compels us to consider, truth may not be simply stranger than fiction but utterly inseparable from it. Such is Atwood's brilliant accomplishment that, in this spellbinding and skillfully crafted narrative, the concealed seams / "seems" that join the materials of history and invention, the fabrics of quilt and guilt, can scarcely be discerned.
Roberta Rubenstein, "Quilt and Guilt," in The World & I, Vol. 12, No. 2, February 1, 1997, pp. 262–67.
Bargreen, Melinda, "Hidden Grace—A Cunning, Brutal Killer or a Terrorized Victim? Atwood's Creation Offers Few Answers," in the Seattle Times, January 5, 1997, p. M.2.
Beauchesne, Mitt, Review of Alias Grace, in the National Review, Vol. 49, No. 2, February 10, 1997, p. 58.
Gussow, Mel, "Atwood Adds Dazzling Twists and Turns to Her First Work of Historical Fiction," in the New York Times, January 3, 1997, p. 17.
Knapp, Mona, Review of Alias Grace, in World Literature Today, Vol. 71, No. 3, Summer 1997, p. 587.
Mujica, Barbara, Review of Alias Grace, in Americas, Vol. 49, No. 6, November/December 1997, pp. 61–62.
Skow, John, "In Very Confused Blood," in Time, Vol. 148, No. 27, December 16, 1996, p. 76.
Woodcock, Susan H., Review of Alias Grace, in the School Library Journal, Vol. 43, No. 6, June 1997, p. 151.
Cooke, Nathalie, Margaret Atwood: A Biography, ECW Press, 1998.
There are many critical works about Atwood's writing but little if anything about the author's private life. This is the first full-length biography of the Canadian author.
Gray, Charlotte, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Lives of Susanna Moodie and Catherine Parr Traill, Duckworth Publishing, 2001.
Gray gives a detailed glimpse into the life of Susanna Moodie, an early pioneer in Canada, recounting the hardships that Moodie and other immigrants had to face. Moodie came to Canada filled with hope, but in the end she wrote back home, trying to dissuade anyone from following her to the North American wilderness.
Hartman, Mary S., Victorian Murderesses: A True History of Thirteen Respectable French and English Women Accused of Unspeakable Crimes, Robson Book, 1995.
The period covered here is much earlier than Grace Marks's time, but this book provides very interesting reading. Hartman takes the reader back in time and provides a detailed recounting of women's lives in prison.
Shorter, Edward, A History of Psychiatry: From the Era of the Asylum to the Age of Prozac, John Wiley and Sons, 1998.
Shorter is a medical historian at the University of Toronto. In his book, he writes about the earliest treatments of madness, which were often considered satanic possession. Shorter also examines the long history of hiding people away in asylums. The book follows treatments to contemporary times, in which a variety of pills are administered to counter many mental illnesses. Critics praise Shorter's storytelling skills used in this book.
Vanspanckeren, Kathryn, and Jan Garden Castro, Margaret Atwood: Vision and Forms, Ad Feminam: Women and Literature series, Southern Illinois University Press, 1988.
This is one of the more accessible of the critical studies of Atwood's work.