How does the treatment of the Irish in the 1800s impact the reader's sense of Grace's guilt in Alias Grace?

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accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The narrative account of Grace's background and upbringing, which she herself supplies, always keeps the presence of Irish immigration at the fore of the reader's mind. Historically, the facts of this Irish immigration are truly shocking. By 1867, for example, almost a quarter of the entire population of Canada was Irish, and these immigrants were transported over to Canada in appalling conditions. The majority did not know about the length of the journey and they were not told that they would have to provide their own food, resulting in many dying on the way to Canada and all Irish immigrants arriving malnourished. So many people died that these ships were referred to as Coffin Boats. Once they arrived in Canada, all new immigrants had to be kept in quarantine in poor conditions, and this meant disease was rife in such locations. The treatment of Grace and the question of her guilt or otherwise is explicitly related to how the Irish were treated in the following quote:

He is talking to people in Toronto, trying to find out if I am guilty; but he won't find it out that way. He 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.

Grace here talks about the difficulties in discerning whether somebody is guilty or not. For her, guilt is not a result of the actions you have committed, but it is something that comes from how you have been treated in the past. Grace's actions therefore are linked to the situation facing Irish immigrants in Canada, which is why so much of the narrative occupies Grace's own background and story. For Atwood, Grace's actions in Canada and her own identity as an Irish immigrant are indivisible. This certainly heightens the reader's sympathy towards Grace Marks.


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