Study Guide

Alias Grace

by Margaret Atwood

Alias Grace Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Alias Grace is a fictionalization of a historical character, Grace Marks, a notorious figure of the 1840’s who was imprisoned for twenty-eight years for her part in the murder of Thomas Kinnear, her wealthy employer, and Nancy Montgomery, his mistress and housekeeper. Atwood re-creates those events and the years of Grace’s incarceration. The novel itself takes place during the months that Dr. Simon Jordan spends in Kingston with Grace as his patient. An American doctor interested in the mind and desirous of opening his own lunatic asylum, he is fascinated with Grace’s case and moves to Kingston to study her. Atwood uses Grace’s fictional relationship with Dr. Jordan as a vehicle for retelling the story. Scenes from Grace’s life during her time in prison, particularly her meetings with Dr. Jordan, frame the story of her previous life. The novel has two narrators: Grace, who tells her own story to Dr. Jordan, and a third-person narrator who gives the reader the account of Simon Jordan’s life in Kingston. Grace’s past unravels slowly throughout the novel. One of nine children, Grace was born in Ireland and traveled with her family to Canada in the hope of a future for her ne’er-do-well father. Her mother died during the journey. Grace was the eldest of the six children to go to Canada, and her father expected her to find work to help support the family. She did find work as a domestic, but she never returned home. As she moved around to improve her employment, she met Nancy Montgomery and ended up at Richmond Hill, the estate of Thomas Kinnear; however, she worked for Kinnear for little more than a fortnight.

Several unsettling factors made her uncomfortable at the Kinnear home. One was the presence of the hired man James McDermott, an ominous man and unsatisfactory worker whom Nancy Montgomery...

(The entire section is 748 words.)

Alias Grace Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Grace Marks, a talented seamstress who loves to quilt, was born poor in 1828 in the north of Ireland to a drunken failure of a father and a mother overborne by poverty. Grace is one of nine children. In 1843, she had been convicted, along with the bad-tempered, violence-prone stable hand James McDermott, of murdering their employer, the wealthy gentleman farmer Thomas Kinnear. Also killed was Kinnear’s pregnant lover, Nancy Montgomery, who had been jealous of Grace.

McDermott makes Grace complicit in the murder by threatening her. They flee to the United States but are soon apprehended and returned to Ireland. They are tried and then found guilty. McDermott receives the death penalty and is hanged. Grace, fifteen years old at the time of the crime, receives a sentence of life imprisonment. Grace breaks down in prison and is remanded to a mental hospital. After eight years there, she is released as a model inmate and allowed to work as a skilled housemaid for a wealthy prominent woman, Mrs. Palmer. Grace is now twenty-three years old.

Simon Jordan, a young doctor who is sympathetic to the new medical preoccupation with mental illness, is interested in Grace’s case, one of the most famous of the time. He meets with Grace repeatedly and gains some of her confidence, though doctors generally terrify her, and for good reasons. Grace has blocked her memory of the trauma so deeply that neither Dr. Jordan nor hypnosis unearths the truth. Grace...

(The entire section is 548 words.)

Alias Grace Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Atwood read about Grace Marks, the convicted murderess of her employer Thomas Kinnear and his mistress, Nancy Montgomery, in Susanna Moodie’s Life in the Clearings Versus the Bush (1853), but she soon realized that Moodie’s account was fictionalized. Grace added to the confusion by offering three different versions of the murder; James McDermott, who was hanged for his role in the murders, provided two more versions. Atwood had all this information, plus numerous newspaper accounts, when she wrote Alias Grace, to which she added prefatory materials and an “Author’s Afterword.” Despite the wealth of information, Grace’s role in the murders remains, as Atwood put it, “an enigma.”

Grace, the first-person narrator, tells two stories in the novel, one a stream-of-consciousness rendering of her thoughts and the other the story she tells Dr. Simon Jordan, a well-meaning psychologist who interviews Grace in prison. Aware of her situation, Grace tells Jordan what she thinks he wants to hear. Jordan, who dreams of establishing his own clinic, is bent on unlocking the “box” (the truth) but admits he does not have the key. He and Grace play a cat-and-mouse game, which she wins. A series of events leads Jordan into an affair with his landlady, who attempts to persuade him to help her murder her husband, who returns unexpectedly; this plot provides an ironic counterpart to the Kinnear and Montgomery murders. Jordan’s...

(The entire section is 535 words.)

Alias Grace Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

In her novel Alias Grace, Atwood explores the psychological mind-set of one of the most infamous Canadian women of the mid-nineteenth century. The author’s fascination with the murderess began when the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation asked her to write a play about Grace in 1974. The protagonist is the historical figure Grace Marks, an Irish immigrant who worked in Toronto in the 1840’s. The setting is established as The Kingston Penitentiary at the start of the novel, where Grace is carrying out her life sentence for the murder of her wealthy employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his pregnant mistress.

Grace is sentenced for the murder, along with James McDermott, her coworker and supposed lover. James, a stable hand, claims that Grace incited him to perform the gruesome murders; he is hanged for his part. There is much dissent as to Grace’s guilt; she claims to have no recollection of the killings, which occurred when she was a scullery maid of sixteen. Among those who wish to exonerate Grace are a group of reformers who seek help from Dr. Simon Jordan. The reformers hope that by engaging the doctor, they can end Grace’s fifteen years of imprisonment. Jordan, a reputable figure in the fledgling field of mental health, is sufficiently intrigued to help the prisoner. Jordan is riveted by Grace, yet he continues to find her an enigma.

As Jordan encourages Grace to reveal information about her experiences, the story of her...

(The entire section is 431 words.)

Alias Grace Summary

Section 1: Jagged Edge
Alias Grace begins with a recurrent dream that Grace Marks has. Grace narrates...

(The entire section is 1780 words.)

Alias Grace Chapter Summaries and Analysis

Summary and Analysis: Sections 1-3, Chapters 1-5

New Characters
Grace Marks: young Canadian maidservant jailed for a murder she can’t recall clearly

Nancy Montgomery: a coworker of Grace’s who is Kinnear’s mistress and is murdered

Mr. Kinnear: the wealthy, unconventional employer of both Grace and Nancy

Governor’s wife: wife of the overseer who runs the prison where Grace is jailed

James McDermott: a stable boy and murderer hanged for killing Mr. Kinnear

Jamie Walsh: a young man who entertains others with his flute music

Mrs. Alderman Parkinson: Grace’s first employer

Mary Whitney: Grace’s close friend and coworker at Mrs. Alderman Parkinson’s

...

(The entire section is 1462 words.)

Summary and Analysis: Section 4, Chapters 6-11

New Characters
Mrs. William P. Jordan: mother of Simon Jordan and a resident of Massachusetts

Dr. Edward Murchie: colleague of Simon Jordan’s who has opened a private practice

Reverend Verringer: Methodist minister whose committee petitions for Grace’s release

Dora: a gossipy maid who works in Simon’s boarding house

Miss Lydia: the governor's daughter who takes a fancy to Simon

Rachel Humphrey: Simon’s landlady who has a desperate and repressed air about her

Warden Smith: warden who mistreats prisoners and may have harmed Grace

Mrs. Quenell: a guest at the governor’s house and a well-known “spiritualist”

...

(The entire section is 1450 words.)

Summary and Analysis: Sections 5-6, Chapters 12-20

New Characters
Mary Whitney: a deceased friend of Grace’s whose name Grace used while on the run

Aunt Pauline: Grace’s maternal aunt in Ireland who is charitable to Grace’s family

Grace’s mother: a timid woman bullied by more domineering family members

Grace’s father: Englishman with a mysterious past who worked as a stone mason

Mrs. Burt: a Toronto landlady who tries to strike up a relationship with Grace’s father

Mrs. Alderman Parkinson: woman who hires Grace as a housekeeper

Mrs. Honey: head housekeeper at Mrs. Alderman Parkinson’s

Jeremiah: a peddler who entertains the house staff and also tells the future...

(The entire section is 2444 words.)

Summary and Analysis: Sections 7-8, Chapters 21-31

Summary
Section 7: Snake Fence
Chapter 21

The narration returns to third-person point of view, focusing on Simon. He is horrified by what Grace told him regarding Mary. He visits Reverend Verringer for dinner and updates him on Grace’s progress. He learns Mrs. Alderman Parkinson has moved away and won’t be available for interviews. Verringer steers him away from talking to Mrs. Moodie, a sensationalistic writer, but urges him to see Kenneth MacKenzie, Grace’s defense lawyer.

The governor’s wife and Lydia join Verringer and Simon for dinner. Simon realizes he’s being set up with Lydia, but he thinks she is pretty and goes along with it. He agrees to talk to the...

(The entire section is 2182 words.)

Summary and Analysis: Sections 9-12: Chapters 32-44

Summary
Section 9: Hearts and Gizzards
Chapter 32

The narration returns to third person, focusing on Simon. He observes that things are falling apart at Mrs. Humphrey’s without household help. He wonders if his mother is right about his needing to settle down and marry.

He meets with Grace but feels peculiar about her progress, though he’s glad “they are approaching together the centre of Grace’s narrative.” He gets a letter from his mother criticizing him for not writing. Mrs. Humphrey appears at his door unannounced on the false pretext of needing his help. He realizes he cannot continue living in this inappropriate manner. He dreads addressing the...

(The entire section is 2446 words.)

Summary and Analysis: Sections 12-15, Chapters 45-53

Summary
Section 12: Solomon's Temple
Chapter 45

The narration returns to the third person, focusing on Simon. Simon visits with Kenneth MacKenzie, who says he got Grace’s case because he was new and the case was a sure loss, so no one wanted it. He explains how he defended Grace. They discuss Mrs. Moodie’s account of what MacKenzie learned from Grace while she was in the asylum, and MacKenzie becomes uncomfortable. Simon asks about the idea that was printed regarding Grace feeling she was followed by Nancy’s “eyes” (versus Grace’s account of seeing red peonies), and MacKenzie waffles and talks about Grace’s mental state.

Simon begins to see how MacKenzie may...

(The entire section is 1808 words.)

Ed. Scott Locklear