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Analysis of ‘Alias Grace’, by Margaret Atwood

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Analysis of ‘Alias Grace’, by Margaret Atwood

Alias Grace is a novel that made Margaret Atwood extremely popular. This plot is being used in the latest media entertainment, Netflix. This goes to prove that the plot is very interesting even today as the plot is based on a real life incident and this makes Alias Grace a sought after book. Margaret Atwood made Canadian literature popular. She has been awarded many awards and many nominations for various awards. Atwood has won the Governor General’s Award twice; one was for her book of poems titled ‘The Circle Game’ in 1966 and the other was for her novel ‘The Handmaid Tale’ in 1986.Her works were shortlisted three times for the prestigious Booker Prize and the last time it was for Alias Grace.

Summary

Alias Grace is tale about a true incident that happened in Canada in 1843. Thomas Kinnear and his house keeper Nancy Montgomery were killed by the servants in their house, James McDermott and Grace Marks. This story created a huge buzz at that time as the McDermott was hanged for the crime while Grace was left free after some years of imprisonment. Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood has taken Grace as her protagonist in this novel. She has kept as close as possible to the actual incident but has added a few characters, the main being a young psychologist. The story follows this young psychologist, Simon Jordan, when he talks to Grace many years after the crime.

Grace is taken out of the prison because of her mild character and is hired to work as a servant in the governor’s home. The members of Methodist church are trying to get her release and they hireDrSimon Jordan to prove that she was not really a murderous woman but someone who was hysterical. Grace tells her story to Jordan. Grace had a difficult childhood in Ireland. Her father was an alcoholic and abused his mother. Her father was connected with arson and murder and had to flee from Ireland. On the voyage to Canada her mother dies of a stomach disease. She had eight children and nothing got easy for Grace.

In Canada her first job was with Thomas Kinnear. Grace tells Jordan that he had an affair with the housekeeper and tells all that happened including their death. Nancy the housekeeper was a little apprehensive of the new servant Grace as she was young and beautiful. Nancy even tries to expel Grace but is unsuccessful. The murder happens after this incident. However she does not remember the details of the murder itself.  In spite of persistent efforts Jordan does not get any detail from Grace but acknowledges that she has a mental problem and attributed her act of murder to her mental disorder. In the process of being in close quarters for a long time with Grace he takes a liking for her. Since it was not relationship worth pursuing he joins the army but his work proves successful as she is pardoned and moves to United States to start afresh.

Characterization

The main characters in the novel are Grace and the psychologist DrSimon Jordan. Grace is a young, pretty and strong woman. She had a very difficult childhood and this could have made her psyche very delicate. A small provocation might have compelled her to be a partner in crime. The same childhood and life gave her wisdom and she developed a tenacity which helped her accept her prison life. As a prisoner she was a model prisoner and an intelligent and respected woman. She does not like that her life was out for public display but was grateful that there were people who sympathised with her and were trying to get her released.

Dr. Simon Jordan is an educated young doctor who looked into mental health of the people. The term psychiatrist had not evolved then. Dr Jordan was appointed by the Methodist church to get pardon for Grace. He gets personally involved with her but realizes that there is no future to that relationship. When he realizes that she will not disclose the details of the murder he leaves the case and then joins the army. James McDermott is the man who faced the guillotine for murdering Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery. Unlike Grace there was no pity for McDermott as he was a rude and rebellious man.

Other characters are the Nancy Montgomery, Thomas Kinnear, Mary Whitney, Jeremiah. There are many others who contribute to the plot.

Themes

Split personality is one of the main themes in the novel. Grace is young, naïve and inexperienced who gets involved in the heinous crime. Mary Whitney is a friend of Grace who is also naïve but becomes very shrewd over the years. She learns to survive in life but dies in a miscarriage. The story also flits between real and fictional world and maybe we can term it a split personality in the theme.

A minor theme of the novel is position of men and women at that time. Women were heavily dependent on the men. They do not have any special place in the society but someone who is proved to be naïve and gentle gets a favourable verdict. Her death sentence is commuted to life sentence and later on Grace is set free. All through the story Grace is an object of fascination, fear, mystery, revulsion and pity. Death and labour are also some minor themes of the novel.

Setting

Grace was born in Ireland but moved to Canada at a very young age. So most of the story takes place in different cities in Canada. She lived near Toronto from 12 to 16 years. This is the place where the murder takes place. Then another fifteen years she lived in Kingston Penitentiary in Kingston, Ontario. After her release from penitentiary she left for US.

Critics View

”Alias Grace” has the physical heft and weighty authority of a 19th-century novel. In its scope, its moral seriousness, its paradoxically ponderous and engrossing narrative, the book evokes the high Victorian mode, spiced with the spooky plot twists and playfully devious teases of the equally high Gothic — the literary styles of the period in which the book is set.” – FRANCINE PROSE

“Alias Grace, a novel that uses details of prison and asylum life (drawn from available records, letters and newspaper articles), the new theories of mental illness of the mid-19th century, and Atwood’s astonishing knowledge of mesmerism and spiritualism of the Victorian period, to present a vivid, factually accurate and apparently true account of Grace Marks in her time. The book itself is mesmerizing, a novel that appears to be non-fiction.” – David Staines.

Analysis of ‘Alias Grace’, by Margaret Atwood