Analysis of Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Author Background

Margaret Atwood is a celebrated Canadian writer who has to her name several novels and volumes of poetry. She was born in Ottawa but spent her childhood in the backwoods of Northern Quebec. She started school rather late but began writing when she was only six. As a writer she has worked hard to bring recognition to Canadian literature. According to her, Canadian literature is all about survival.

Relevance of the Title

Atwood’s Alias Grace does not make it clear whether Grace Marks is a ‘murderess’ or a victim of a flawed justice system. The woman’s name is an ironic one. She could be a scheming and jealous young woman who resented the liberty that Nancy Montgomery enjoyed in the Kinnear household though she was also a paid servant or she could be an unwitting accomplice to murder. This dichotomy in the claims she makes and the evidence garnered by the investigators prompt the novelist to offer the convict’s name as an ‘alias’.

Main Themes

Gender Classification

Grace Marks was judged by the existing Victorian system of values.  A woman had to be an angel or a demon; there was nothing in between. She was young and good looking and her champions who believed that a young woman who was so pretty could not be a ‘murderess’ moved the authorities for a second look at her case. At the time of the case, public discourse centered on her gender and her class. During the trial and later in her conversations with Dr. Simon Jordan, she complains that she is treated like a doll that has no voice.

19th Century Concerns

This was the period when large numbers of young women travelled to work as domestic help leaving their homes behind. They were exposed to all kinds of dangers where they worked –unhygienic conditions, rudimentary amenities, long hours of work and sexual exploitation. This is brought out in the story of Mary Whitney who dies after an abortion. According Victorian morals, woman were docketed as angels of the house or as demons. Grace Marks was called ‘murderess’ by those who believed in her guilt and ‘innocent’ by those who believed that she was only a witness to the gruesome murder committed by  Mc Dermott who perhaps blackmailed and exploited her.

Characters

Grace Marks

The question whether Grace is guilty or innocent is a difficult one. She is the only surviving witness and she changes her testimony often. A reading of the novel gives the impression that she was far from being the angel her supporters made her out. She resented the superior airs of Nancy Montgomery; perhaps she thought her employer would fancy her if Nancy was out of the way. McDermott never changed his testimony that Nancy was responsible for both murders. In the light of her shifting testimony and Jordan’s opinion that Grace is hiding more than she reveals, it would seem that she knew more than she is ready to reveal. Whenever the questioning gets tough, Grace declares she cannot remember anything which makes her an unreliable witness.

Simon Jordan

He appears confident that he will be able to crack open the case easily using his modern methods of questioning but he finds that he is getting sucked in by the various forces at play. He is pursued by his young landlady whom he has helped with money, there is young debutante daughter of the prison governor and there is Grace with whom he seems to be falling in love. Grace keeps him guessing about the role she played in the murders. She is deep and uses the sympathy she gets from her champions to her advantage.

Summary

Sixteen year old Grace Marks and her family move to Canada from Ireland. She is one of nine children. During the voyage, her mother dies of child birth. Cold and poor in a strange land, Grace finds jobs in well to do homes in Toronto. She is pretty and wherever she goes, she finds admirers who promise marriage. But she sees what can happen to gullible girls when her friend Mary Whitney falls in love with the master’s son, becomes pregnant and dies during an abortion.

Finally she meets Nancy Montgomery who selects her to work at Thomas Kinnear’s house. Grace finds out that Nancy is Mr. Kinnear’s mistress and she is very likely pregnant. Grace resents the superior airs Nancy gives herself. James McDermott who also works in the household pursues Grace claiming to love her. Nancy is tired of McDermott’s ways and threatens to sack him. One day he angrily declares that he wishes to kill Nancy and Thomas Kinnear. Nancy has plans of sacking Grace too as she feels KInnear is giving her more attention than is necessary. In a few days, the town hears of the gruesome murders. Nancy and Thomas Kinnear are found killed while Grace and James McDermott are missing. Two days later they are arrested and tried. Both are sentenced to death but as Nancy is only sixteen, her sentence is reduced to life in jail. Grace’s good looks and youth get her champions who feel that she could not have been guilty. She has also had couple of breakdowns landing her in mental hospital. She refuses speak more than few words saying that she has no memory of the killings.

Her case catches the attention of young Dr. Simon Jordan who believes he will be able to get her to talk thus revealing details of the murder that have not been revealed till now. Grace has had episodes of mental illness which he hopes to diagnose correctly. On the face of it, it seemed to be straightforward; well within his grasp. But what Simon had not bargained for were the romantic entanglements that await him. His landlady and the prison Governor’s daughter are both angling for him. Then there is Grace herself. She is devious, cunning and manipulative. She has Simon on the edge revealing little but promising a lot. Opinion is equally divided about her innocence and her guilt. The medical community and the police feel she is guilty but strangely the moral brigade led by the Reverend, want her set free. James McDermott had always claimed that Grace had committed both murders. But says she remembers nothing at all. The book ends with no conclusions drawn. Grace Marks could well have played a part in the killings. She could have instigated McDermott or he could have instigated her. Probably they were both in it together.

Quotes

  1. “If you will try to talk…I will try to listen. My interest is purely scientific. It is not only the murders that should concern us. He’s using a kind of voice, kind on the surface but with other desires hidden beneath it”

Simon’s main thrust is to get Grace talking of the murder. So far she has been claiming that she has no memory of what happened at that fateful time; in fact she has been speaking very little as time goes by. When Simon meets her she is twenty-four. She was sent to prison when she was sixteen. Most men who meet Grace are aware of her good looks. Simon too seems smitten. Yet he keeps his scientific interest at the forefront.

  1. “For the widely held view that women are weak-spined and jelly-like by nature, and would slump to the floor like melted cheese if not roped in, he has nothing but contempt. While a medical student, he dissected a good many women—from the laboring classes, naturally—and their spines and musculature were on the average no feebler than those of men, although many suffered from rickets”

The Victorian view was that women were delicate creatures who needed a hand under their elbow to steer them around. But Simon’s experience as a doctor doing dissections was that women, at least women who did work for a living, had musculature that was comparable to that of men. They were fully capable of walking erect and carrying load.

  1. “I had forgotten to cut off a lock of her hair to keep, as I should have done…. As soon as the sheet was over face I had the notion that it was really my mother under there, it was some other woman; or that my mother had changed, and if I was to take away the sheet now she would be someone else entirely. It must have been the shock of it that put such things into my head…And then with the icebergs floating around us and the fog rolling in, my poor mother was tipped into the sea”

Grace’s mother dies during child birth while at sea.  As the oldest, Grace had to care for her eight siblings. Grace regrets that she did not keep a lock of her mother’s hair as a keepsake to remember her by. Her sudden death had been a shock to her. The mother was given an unceremonious burial with the body tipped into the cold sea where icebergs floated around.

  1. “As you may imagine, Sir, a good deal of explanation was then required, for the last time I’d seen Jamie Walsh was at my own trial for murder, when it was his testimony that turned the minds of the judge and jury so much against me for the wearing of the dead woman’s clothes” (451).

When Grace was arrested, she had been wearing the dead woman’s clothes according to Jamie Walsh’s testimony. He knew the dead woman well as he used to frequent the house running errands. This testimony convinced the jury that Grace had murdered Nancy Montgomery and escaped taking the dead woman’s clothes along with her.

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