Margaret Atwood is a novelist known for vividly imagining the present—and even the future—in her fiction. She is a writer who works primarily with the modern Canadian experience, who writes carefully crafted stories and novels describing the contemporary Canadian “wilderness” of social and sexual politics. In Alias Grace, however, Atwood shifts her perspective to the Canadian past and to the specific historical case of one woman in that past. Thus, the novel is a prime example of the historical novel, as Atwood makes of her novel (among other things) a study of history, of story, and of storytelling.
The “true story” of Grace Marks is the story of a young Irish immigrant (born in 1826) who comes to Canada with her family in the late 1830’s, enters the world of domestic service, and becomes fatefully enmeshed in a scandalous double murder in 1843. Hired to join the household staff of Thomas Kinnear, and at first befriended by Kinnear’s housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery, Grace gradually becomes aware of the true nature of the relationship between Kinnear and Montgomery. Grace also is drawn into the sociosexual tension that exists between Montgomery, Kinnear, and the servant James McDermott. It is McDermott who ostensibly involves Grace in his murderous revenge against both Kinnear and Montgomery, who flees with Grace into New York State, and who is arrested there with his “accomplice.” At trial, both are found guilty of murder; McDermott is hanged, and Grace is sentenced to life imprisonment.
Atwood has worked with this story before, in her television play The Servant Girl, which was aired by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 1974. The particular historical milieu is also familiar to Atwood; one of the extratextual, historical “voices” readers hear from in the novel is Susannah Moodie, who wrote two nonfiction accounts of nineteenth century Canadian life. In one of those accounts, Life in the Clearings, Moodie commented contemporaneously and at length on the case of Grace Marks. (Atwood has made previous use of Moodie’s work and life in her own poetry.) Moodie’s writing is just one of several historical “documents” Atwood uses to annotate her novel and to give it a certain historical texture and depth. Articles from the Toronto Mirror, excerpts from the Punishment Book of Kingston Penitentiary (where Grace Marks is imprisoned), passages from poems and songs about the murder, and other writings from the period all serve as voices participating in the telling of Grace’s story.
One of the aims of Alias Grace is to study the very nature of story and of storytelling. The narrative center of Atwood’s novel is Grace Marks herself. Much of the novel is told in Grace’s first-person voice, as she tells her story both to the reader and to a young American doctor, Simon Jordan, who comes to study, to understand, and (he hopes) to explain her case. From the very beginning, Grace’s experience—and her narrative of that experience—is fraught with ambiguity and contradiction. Her own court testimony runs counter to the accounts both of McDermott and of witnesses in the case. Most disturbing, however, is Grace’s lapse of memory; significant gaps exist in her story where her memory of events simply (or not so simply) fails her. The cause of this failure becomes an important object of study and discussion within the novel, for it is necessarily linked to motive and to responsibility: Is Grace Marks’s forgetfulness expedient and conscious, or is it spontaneous and induced by psychological trauma?
Responses to that question vary. The members of the jury hearing the case interpret the gaps in Grace’s story as conveniently placed omissions designed by the storyteller to free herself of moral complicity; they judge Grace guilty of the act of murder. Members of the Canadian community react with varying degrees of acceptance or doubt of Grace’s innocence, and many of these reactions are determined by individual perceptions of gender and class. Indeed, the whole matter of the female mind and of the female nature comes to occupy the fictional and critical discussions in this novel. The question of the “nature of a woman’s heart and sensibility” is one to which many of her nineteenth century characters believe they possess the answer, and it is certainly a question Atwood has examined before in her fiction. In Alias Grace, however, that question is framed within the social, sexual, and intellectual dynamics of the Victorian Age.
Thus, Atwood is careful to delineate the world of Victoria Age- Canada, filling her novel with the details of that world. Grace Marks is quite clearly a person of her class and of her station. Born into a northern Irish family dominated by a brutish father, Grace suffers an Atlantic crossing during which her beloved mother dies and is buried at sea. Resettled in the urban wilderness of Toronto, Grace is forced to assume the maternal role—one of several roles she will adopt—with her younger siblings. Economic necessity eventually frees her from that role and launches her into the world of the Canadian working class.
Befriended by a young servant woman named Mary Whitney, Grace is brought into the “normalized” middle-class world of the Parkinsons, where she works with Mary on the...
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