Margaret Atwood’s novel explores a variety of issues related to the Canadian and US law in the nineteenth century. By focusing on the case of an adolescent girl, Atwood calls attention to different attitudes toward gender and age during that period. Grace Marks was held responsible with James McDermott as a co-conspirator in the murders of Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery. However, the fact that he was an adult man and she was a fifteen-year-old girl were factors in the different sentences they received: McDermott was executed, while Grace received a life sentence. Atwood also emphasizes Grace’s vulnerability as a poor, isolated girl without resources to access an adequate defense.
A related legal avenue that Atwood follows is the connection between mental health treatment and the legal system. After suffering a breakdown while incarcerated, Grace is transferred to a mental institution. The question of mental health affecting her participation in the crime was apparently not considered, as consistent with practices in that era. Although the institution was apparently somewhat preferable, Atwood suggests a different kind of vulnerability connected with Grace’s low status—she becomes a research subject for Dr. Jordan, despite her initial reluctance. The power of the legal system over convicts is further stressed by her fate after release, as she has little say even in the country where she will live.