Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Alias Grace is Atwood’s ninth novel; she has also written volumes of short fiction and poetry. She is one of Canada’s most prolific and respected writers. Atwood’s works generally show her compelling interest in what it means to be a woman, especially a woman victimized by a society governed by men’s rules and men’s psyches. For example, her novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1986) imagines a future society in which the few remaining fertile young women become the receptacles through which the ruling class of the society hopes to regenerate itself; the poem “Half-Hanged Mary” (1996) looks at the Salem witch trials through the eyes of a presumed witch whose hanging is unsuccessful. The theme is stitched through all of Atwood’s work. This novel, like her other works, examines questions of power—between classes, between the sexes, between individuals.

The novel also asks the questions “What is history?” and “What is truth?” Long interested in the Grace Marks case, Atwood examined the original publicity that surrounded the murders and the trial and found it biased, theatrical, and often incorrect. Alias Grace questions the possibility of finding an absolute historical truth. Literary critic Terry Eagleton has postulated that, rather than being related to history, literature is another reading of it. Alias Grace is another interpretation of the events of 1843 and the years that followed. It is an interpretation that reflects contemporary issues of gender and power as it deconstructs some of the assumptions of the early chroniclers of the trial.