The extent to which gender defines us is an important topic in Margaret Atwood's novel, Alias Grace. What comment does the novel make on this subject, and which two or three literary elements or devices are used to best serve that comment?

In Alias Grace, the novel comments on gender identity in the patriarchal society of Victorian Canada and the differing ways in which men and women were treated in said society, especially under similar circumstances. Atwood uses dramatic irony to demonstrate her point, as seen in how the character of Grace Marks is viewed as an object of attraction and revulsion and is associated with femininity while also being branded a criminal, a label largely associated with masculinity.

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Alias Grace is a semi-fictional novel by Canadian author Margaret Atwood. It is set against true events in 1843 where two real-life servants, James McDermott and Grace Marks, were convicted of a double murder. However, Atwood crafts a hypothetical narrative of the circumstances through the research of a fictional character, Dr. Simon Jordan, who delves into the case and interviews Marks. McDermott has been hanged, and Marks is given life in prison, with Jordan trying to make sense of the facts; particularly how such an amiable, good-natured woman like Marks could have been part of such a diabolical act.

Atwood was attracted to the story in part because Marks never said one way or another whether she had any part in the murders, and most evidence against her was circumstantial. Atwood, therefore, saw the story as a way to comment on gender identity in the patriarchal Victorian society of nineteenth century Canada, especially as an analysis of the different ways in which men and women were treated, even in similar circumstances. In other words, her view is that gender identity was (and still is) simply a social construct.

She uses several literary elements to explore this concept, including genre, narration and dramatic irony. With genre, Atwood details the way Marks's depiction of a "murderess" departed from the classical view of womanhood and passivity—from their idealized status as morally superior and devoid of criminal machinations—to now the anti-hero in a world typically centered around men.

Narration is a tool Atwood (through the Jordan character) deftly employs to give Marks a voice, a persona, to speak freely as if she were a man when societal constructs would otherwise have kept her silent.

And the novel abounds with examples of dramatic irony, particularly in how Marks is simultaneously depicted as an object of attraction and revulsion, of fear and fascination, of outwardly conforming to the norms of femininity (her clothes, her sewing needles and thread, etc.) while still being branded a criminal—a label that was, until then, associated purely with masculinity.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on March 30, 2020
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