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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Reconstructing Margaret Atwood’s Protagonists

(Novels for Students)

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

TO RECONSTRUCT: to rebuild.

A weaver employs fragments from life, silk, raw yarns, wool, straw, perhaps even a few twigs, stones, or feathers, and transforms them into a tapestry of color, shape, and form. An author’s work is similar, for she selects individuals, locations, images, and ideas, rearranging them to create a believable picture. Each smacks of reality, but is not. This is the artist’s art: to reconstruct the familiar into new, fascinating, but often disturbing tableaux from which stories can unfold.

Margaret Atwood weaves stories from her own life in the bush and cities of Canada. Intensely conscious of her political and social context, Atwood dispels the notion that caribou-clad Canadians remain perpetually locked in blizzards while simultaneously seeming to be a polite mass of gray faces, often indistinguishable from their American neighbors. Atwood has continually pondered the lack of an identifiable Canadian culture. For over thirty years her work has aided in fashioning a distinct Canadian literary identity. Her critical catalogue and analysis of Canadian Literature Survival, offered “a political manifesto telling Canadians … [to] value their own” (Sullivan, 265). In an attempt to focus on Canadian experiences, Atwood has populated her stories with Canadian cities, conflicts, and contemporary people, conscious of a landscape whose borders have been permeated by the frost of Nature, her colonizers and her neighbors. Her examination of how an individual interacts, succeeds, or stagnates within her world speaks to an emerging a sense of self and often parallels the battles fought to establish self-determination.

In her novels Margaret Atwood creates situations in which women, burdened by the rules and inequalities of their societies, discover that they must reconstruct braver, self-reliant personae in order to survive. Not too far from the Canadian blueprint of the voyageur faced with an inclement, hostile environment, these women struggle to overcome and to change systems that block and inhibit their security. Atwood’s pragmatic women are drawn from women in the 1950s and 1960s: young women blissfully building their trousseaus and imagining a paradise of silver bells and picket fences.

Yet the author herself was neither encumbered nor restricted by the definition of contemporary female in her life as a child. Having grown up in the Canadian North, outside of societal propaganda, she could critically observe the behaviors that were indoctrinated into her urban peers who lacked diverse role models. As Atwood has noted, “Not even the artistic community offered you a viable choice as a woman” (Sullivan, 103). Her stories deal with the transformation of female characters from ingenues to insightful women. By examining her heroes, their predators, and how they cope in society, we will discover where Atwood believes the ability to reconstruct our lives lies.

WHO ARE THE VICTIMS? “But pathos as a literary mode simply demands that an innocent victim suffer.” Unlike Shakespeare’s hubris-laden kings or Jane Austen’s pert and private aristocratic landowning families, Margaret Atwood relies on a collection of ordinary people to carry her tales: university students, museum workers, market researchers, writers, illustrators, and even house-maids. In her novels, almost all dwell on their childhood years in flashback or in the chronological telling of their stories. Many of her protagonists’ early days are situated in a virtual Garden of Eden setting, replete with untamed natural environments. Exploring shorelines, gazing at stars, gathering rocks, and listening to waves, they are solitary solus, but not lonely individuals: innocent, curious, and affable creatures. Elaine Risley in Cat’s Eye and an unnamed narrator in Surfacing are two women who recall idyllic days unfolded in a land of lakes, berries, and animals. Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale, in her city landscape, also relates a tale of a happy childhood. She is a complacent and assured child, her mother a constant loving companion. In their comfortable milieus, these girls intuit no danger. However, other Atwood protagonists are not as fortunate. Their backgrounds suggest an unhealthy, weedy soil that causes their young plants to twist and permutate. Lady Oracle’s Joan is overweight. Her domineering, impatient mother and her weak father propel her to seek emotional satisfaction away from them. Lesje in Life Before Man is the offspring of dueling immigrant grandmothers who cannot agree on the child’s proper upbringing. Not allowed to frequent the Ukrainian “golden church with its fairytale onion” (LBM, 93) of the one, or the synagogue of the other, Lesje is unable to develop self-confidence and focuses instead on the inanimate, the solid traditions of rocks and dinosaurs as her progenitors. Similarly, the females in The Robber Bride reveal miserable childhoods united by parental abuse, absence, and disregard: Roz must perform as her mother’s helper, a landlady cum cleaning woman; her father is absent, involved in shady dealings in “the old country.” Charis, a second character in The Robber Bride, abandoned by her mother and deposited with Aunt Vi and Uncle Vern, is sexually violated by those who should have offered love and trust. Toni, the third of the trio, admits to loneliness and alienation in a well-educated, wealthy family. Marked by birth and poverty, Grace Marks, an Irish immigrant in the early 1800s in Alias Grace, loses her mother en route to Canada. Grace is almost drowned by the demands of her drunken father and clinging, needy siblings. These exiled little girls, from weak, absent, or cruel families, made vulnerable by their early situations, cling to the notion that their lives will be improved by the arrival of a kind stranger, most likely a handsome suitor. Rather than becoming recalcitrant and cynical, all sustain the golden illusion of the fairy-tale ending. In short, they hold to the belief, the myth perpetrated by society: marriage.

Atwood’s women are cognizant of the nurturing omissions in their environments. They attempt to cultivate and cope. Charis in The Robber Bride decides to reinvent herself. She changes her name and focuses on what she considers her healing powers inherited from her chicken-raising grandmother. She, Roz, and Toni turn their faith to the power of friendship, a solid ring that lessens the painful lack of supportive families. In Alias Grace Grace’s burden of an absent family is briefly alleviated by her friendship with another housemaid, Mary Whitney. Mary takes an adoring Grace under her wing and creates for Grace a fleeting vision of sisterly support. Unfortunately for Grace, Mary herself, another trusting young woman, is deceived by her employer’s son and dies in a botched abortion, leaving Grace once again abandoned and friendless.

In an attempt to reestablish stable, satisfying homes, these women pursue a path, as have women throughout history, to marriage. They search for a male figure, imagining a refuge. Caught up in the romantic stereotypes that assign and perpetuate gender roles, each girl does not doubt that a man is the solution to her problems.

In The Edible Woman Marian and her coworkers at Seymour Surveys, “the office virgins,” certainly do not question that marriage will provide fulfillment. In spite of the fact that Marian is suspended between two unappealing men, she does not deviate from the proper behavior. Marian’s suitor, Peter, with his well-chosen clothes and suave friends, his perfectly decorated apartment, and even Marian as the appropriate marriage choice, is rendered as no more than the wedding cake’s blankly smiling ornament. If appearance is all, he should suffice. Peter is juxtaposed to the slovenly, self-centered graduate student, Duncan, whose main pleasure is watching his laundry whirl in the washing machine. Marian is merely a blank slate upon which each man can write or erase his concept of female.

The narrator and her friend Anna, in Surfacing, are also plagued by moody men who are not supportive of women’s dreams. In one particularly horrifying scene, Anna’s husband Dave orders her to strip off her clothes for the movie camera. Anna, humiliated by the request, nevertheless complies. She admits to nightly rapes but rationalizes his behavior: “He likes to make me cry because he can’t do it himself” (Sf, 80). Similarly, when Joe, the narrator’s boyfriend, proposes, “We should get married … we might as well” (56), he is dumbfounded and furious at her refusal. Men aware of the role they play accept their desirability as “catches.” They believe that women desire lives of “babies and sewing” (LO, 159). These thoughts are parroted by Peter in The Edible Woman when he proclaims, “People who aren’t married get funny in middle age” (EW, 102). Men uphold the values of the patriarchy and women conform, few trespassing into gardens of their own design.

In Alias Grace, Grace’s aspirations for a brighter future also dwell on finding the right man: “It was the custom for young girls in this country to hire themselves out, in order to earn the money for their dowries, and then they would marry … and one day … be mistress of a tidy farmhouse” (AG, 157–58). In the employment of Mr. Thomas Kinnear in Richmond Hill, Grace quickly ascertains that the handsome, dark-haired housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery, enjoys many privileges as the reward for being her master’s mistress. Yet, although men may be the only way to elevate status, Grace learns that they cannot be trusted when their advances are rejected. Grace, on trial for the murders of Kinnear and Montgomery, is incredulous when she hears a former friend, Jamie Welsh, testify against her.

Then I was hoping for some token of sympathy from him; but he gave me a stare filled with such reproach and sorrowful anger. He felt betrayed in love … I was transformed to a demon and he would do all in his power to destroy me. I had been counting on him to say a good word for me … for I valued his good opinion of me, and it was a grief to lose it.

Women, it seems, must be made malleable to men’s desires, accepting their proposals, their advances. They must submit to their socially determined roles or be seen as “demons.”

However, it is not only men but also women as agents of society who betray. In The Robber Bride Charis, Roz, and Toni are tricked in their friendship by Zenia, an acquaintance from their university days. Each succumbs to Zenia’s web of deceit. Playing the part of a confidante and thoughtful listener, Zenia encourages the three women to divest themselves of their tales of their traumatic childhoods. She learns their tortured secrets and uses their confidences to spirit away the men each women believes to be the cornerstone in her life.

From little girls to sophisticated women, Atwood’s protagonists have not yet discerned that trust can be perverted, that they can be reeled in, taken advantage of, constantly abused, if they are not careful of lurking predators in their landscapes. Joan in Lady Oracle, longing for friendship, endures the inventive torments of her Brownie friends: deadly ploys that tie little girls to trees with skipping ropes, exposing them to strange leering men under cavernous bridges. Her assassins jeer, “How do ya’ like the club?” (LO, 59). Elaine Risley in Cat’s Eye, like Joan, is a young girl when she discovers the power of betrayal by members of her own sex. For years she passively succumbs to their games. Perhaps, because she has grown up alone in the Canadian North with her parents and brother, Elaine seeks the warming society of girls. Only when Elaine is deserted, left to freeze in a disintegrating creek, does she recognize her peers’ malevolence that almost leads to her death. Elaine knows that she is a defeated human, but rather than confronting her tormentors, she increases her own punishment nightly: she peels the skin off her feet and bites her lips.

Unable to turn outward in a society that perpetuates the ideal of a submissive female, these women turn inward to their bodies as shields or ploys. Each has learned that a woman is a commodity, valued only for her appearance. Therefore it comes as no surprise that Atwood’s protagonists measure their worth in terms of body. Joan in Lady Oracle sees herself as “a huge shapeless cloud” (LO, 65); she drifts. However, her soft edges do not keep her from the bruising accusations of society. Although she loves to dance, Joan’s bulging body is an affront to her mother and ballet teacher’s sensibilities, and so at her ballet recital she is forced to perform as a mothball, not as a butterfly in tulle and spangles.

Joan certainly does not fit her mother’s definition of femininity. Because her ungainly shape is rejected, Joan decides to hide her form in a mountain of fat, food serving as a constant to her mother’s reproaches: “I was eating steadily, doggedly, stubbornly, anything I could get. The war between myself and...

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Quilt and Guilt

(Novels for Students)

Justifiably regarded as one of Canada’s most distinguished writers Margaret Atwood is equally accomplished as the author of fiction and poetry. In addition to a dozen volumes of poetry—several of which have been honored with prestigious literary awards—she has published nine novels and four volumes of short stories and prose pieces. Additionally, her critical study of major themes and ideas in Canadian literature, Survival (1972), though now dated, delineates the early years of a Canadian literary tradition that Atwood herself helped to establish.

As the daughter of an entomologist who conducted his research in the rural northern areas of Quebec and Ontario, Atwood...

(The entire section is 2846 words.)