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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 gave notice shortly after Grace’s arrival. McDermott, vengeful, bragged to Grace that Mr. Kinnear and Nancy deserved to be “knocked on the head and thrown down into the cellar.” The second factor was Grace’s growing awareness that Nancy was not only Mr. Kinnear’s housekeeper but his mistress as well. Grace’s best friend during her previous employment, fellow maidservant Mary Whitney, had been impregnated by a son of her employers and had died from a botched abortion. Grace’s reaction to Nancy Montgomery’s affair was not merely a moral one; it reminded her of Mary’s fate as well. Grace was also bothered by the attentions of Mr. Kinnear. He made her uncomfortable, as did Nancy as she jealously noticed his interest in Grace. Grace thus joined with McDermott when he murdered Kinnear and Montgomery. Grace’s exact role in the murders is never clear to the reader. After the murders, Grace and McDermott fled across the border to the United States. They were caught quickly and returned to Kingston for trial. McDermott was hanged; Grace, considered insane, was given a life sentence.

Because she is a model prisoner, Grace is allowed to work at the governor’s mansion. Here Simon visits her, questions her, and records her story. The reader watches him struggle with his own emotions as he deals with the women in his life. His real affection focuses on the one woman not available to him: Grace. When, in his misplaced ardor, he finds himself in the middle of an affair with his landlady, he flees Kingston and returns to the United States. Grace has come to rely on Simon, as his visits provide the high point of her weeks. She is greatly saddened when he leaves, and she continues to correspond with him, never knowing if he receives her letters.

Mary Whitney once told Grace that she would marry a man whose name begins with a J. When Grace’s pardon finally comes through twenty-eight years after her sentence, she discovers that she is to be transported to the United States to the home of a man who has arranged for her care. It is indeed a man whose name begins with a J : not, of course, the hanged James McDermott, not Simon...

(The entire section is 3,611 words.)