(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.)


(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.)


(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.)