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Is Grace Marks a murderess or an innocent pawn? Is she an evil fiend or mentally ill? Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace (1996) retells the story of Canada’s notorious nineteenth-century convicted murderess Grace Marks. Grounded in the historical record where available, Atwood’s novel probes issues of gender and class roles, identity, truth, and the nature of memory.
Thomas Kinnear, a wealthy landowner, and Nancy Montgomery, his housekeeper and mistress, are murdered in July 1843. Grace, who was working for Mr. Kinnear as a housemaid at the time of the murders, insists that she has no memory of the incident, though she was there at the house that day. She stands accused with James McDermott, who worked for Kinnear as a stable hand.
Barely 16 years old, Grace is convicted as an accessory to the murder of Thomas Kinnear and sentenced to death. Because of the pleading of her lawyer and sympathetic reform groups, Grace’s life is spared and her sentence converted to life imprisonment. James McDermott is also convicted, and he hangs on November 21, 1843.
In 1859, a young, ambitious, up-and-coming American medical doctor, Simon Jordan, arrives at Kingston Penitentiary to evaluate Grace on behalf of a group of reformers and spiritualists who seek a pardon for her. The reform group intends to use his report as a centerpiece in their petition. A student and devotee of the relatively new science of psychiatric treatments for mental illness, Simon has complex motivations. He hopes that his methods will succeed and that through them he will discover the “truth” by helping Grace recover her memories of the murders. Further, after demonstrating success in Grace’s treatment, Simon hopes to use her example to draw rich, influential patrons to his next project: a mental health clinic.
Grace Marks tells her story in the first person, and her chapters are interwoven with the story of Dr. Simon Jordan, told in the third person. The novel opens in 1851 and spans over 25 years; however, most of the action occurs in 1859 and in flashbacks as Grace tells Simon about her life. Some of the narrative consists of letters, many written between Simon and his mother or his friend Edward Murchie.
When the novel begins, Grace has already been imprisoned for nearly 16 years.As Grace’s story unfolds, Simon’s previously ordered, relatively carefree existence unravels. Despite his professional air, he gets drawn into Grace’s life and begins to fall in love with her, just as, against his better judgment, he finds himself entangled in his landlady’s personal life. Grace remains intelligent, composed, witty, and aloof, flatly refusing to give him all that he wants from her and deliberately keeping certain aspects and events in her life private.
Throughout Grace’s narration, Atwood uses no quotation marks and a technique of eccentric internal monologues, making it difficult to discern between what Grace thinks and what she says out loud to Simon. This lack of punctuation and the shifting between narrators highlight the uncertainty in constructing a clear narrative of events, in both Grace’s past and her present. Did she or didn’t she? The novel asks and never directly answers this question. Clues point in several directions, and the conclusion gives an “answer,” without the reader, or the characters, knowing the actual truth.
Simon barely escapes Kingston with his reputation intact, after conducting an affair with his landlady and participating in a disastrous hypnosis session with Grace that negates all his previous work with her. He must use every advantage and privilege granted to him by his class, gender, and profession to protect and extricate himself from those difficult, and morally questionable, situations. He runs away.
After the events of 1859, Simon tours European mental health facilities and eventually joins the U.S. Army as a field military surgeon during the Civil War. He receives a head injury in the war, and the reader never finds out if he recovers. He never writes a report of his findings in Grace’s case.
Grace remains in prison, until Reverend Verringer is successful in gaining a pardon for her. In 1872, after nearly 29 years in prison, Grace is free. She is taken to the United States where an old friend from her time at the Kinnear’s—Jamie Walsh—offers her a home and proposes marriage. She accepts.
The novel ends with Grace narrating her story as if she is still talking to Simon. She is sewing a Tree of Paradise quilt as she always planned to do, and she is either pregnant or dying of a cancerous tumor. Grace comments that she, her dead friend Mary, and Nancy will all be together again. Atwood retains the uncertainty and ambiguity that mark Grace’s narrative to the end, as the reader doesn’t know if Grace is referring symbolically to the fabrics in the quilt associated with each woman or to her own imminent death.
Note: Each numbered part carries a different quilt pattern name. Each part contains one or more chapters and begins with two or more quotations from various sources. The quotations come from contemporaneous nineteenth-century newspaper accounts, Susanna Moodie’s retelling of events in her book Life in the Clearings (1853), Grace’s or James’s confessions, or literature of the period. Each quotation relates obliquely to the material contained in that part.