Grace Marks, a Victorian Woman

Grace Marks, in Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, is an extremely complex creature. Her complexities, however, are intensified for many reasons. Some of her personal traits are distorted because they are recorded by unreliable sources, such as newspapers accounts, popular ballads, and people who were swayed by ulterior motives. But there are other reasons for Grace’s complexities. She was living at a time when women were defined by Victorian notions of femininity, which ranged from some of the highest ideals to some of the worst evils. Women were often considered the receptacles of morality at the same time as they were seen as seducers and manipulators. Alias Grace is about a young woman who committed murder, but it is also about the conflicts that women, influenced by the Victorian Age, suffered.

The identity of Grace Marks is confusing because it is complicated by her either trying to protect her innocence or trying to hide her guilt. But Atwood’s story about Grace goes beyond the question of whether Grace committed murder. And it goes beyond the question of whether she was confused or mad. The main issue of the novel focuses on Grace, but true to Atwood’s feminist pursuit, the search for Grace’s true identity is symbolically the search that all women living in a suppressed environment are involved in—the search for self. Although Grace embodies this search in Atwood’s novel, the real question seems to be: Who was the Victorian Woman? Was she the frail, lesser member of the two sexes? Or was she an equal in stamina and intelligence? Was she the epitome of virtue? Was she violent and capable of vicious crimes? Or, did she encompass all of these traits, and more? To gain a better glimpse into the author’s feminist attitude, readers have only to take a deeper look at Atwood’s protagonist.

In the opening of Alias Grace, Grace describes herself as a woman who abides by the rules of her Victorian society. “I tuck my head down while I walk,” she declares, as befits her station in life. She is a maid, symbolically declared by her “chapped” hands. She bows her head in humility, reflecting her lower status, both economic and that determined by her sex. And she walks in silence “inside the square made by the high stone walls.” She is the essence of conformity. “These shoes fit me,” she states, “better than any I’ve ever had before.” She is, at the time of this statement, a prisoner of the state. But she is also, as were most women of her time, a prisoner of social laws. Women, whether they were the well-kept wives and daughters of the rich, or the poor uneducated daughters of the underclass, were held in their place by concrete walls—even if they could not see them.

“[T]he cellar walls are all around me,” Grace continues, “and I know I will never get out.” This quote also comes from the first chapter. With these words, Grace describes her feelings at the scene of the murders. But is it an honest depiction? After the above quote, Grace immediately says: “This is what I told Dr. Jordan, when we came to that part of the story.” This sentence qualifies her previous statement, and, in the process, Grace provides a hint of her real feelings. Grace is not saying that her sense of imprisonment, “I know I will never get out,” is an honest one. Rather, she is implying that it might merely be a version of a “story.” She might be saying this because it is what she believes Dr. Jordan wants to hear, something she often admits to doing throughout her story. Using Grace as the speaker of her feminine contemporaries, one might ask, what is Atwood declaring with these words? Is she stating that the women of Grace’s time might also have been playing roles, ones they believed the men in their lives wanted? In other words, does Grace truly feel confined? Is she really comfortable walking in those shoes? Or is she pretending, hoping that in playing out her role according to the rules, she will eventually win some small portion of freedom? After all, this could have been the way Victorian women found release. They might have performed, as Grace did, only what was expected of them so they could find peace within the four walls of their confinement.

Obviously Grace did not always act according to law. She was...

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TO CONSTRUCT: to build; to fabricate; to devise or invent.

TO RECONSTRUCT: to rebuild.

A weaver employs fragments...

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Justifiably regarded as one of Canada’s most distinguished writers Margaret Atwood is equally...

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