"Alias Grace" by Margaret Atwood: Summary, Analysis, and Canadian History!
"Alias Grace” is a novel by Margaret Atwood based on the real-life 1843 murders of Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery. Grace Marks and James McDermott were convicted of the crime. McDermott was hanged, and Marks had her sentence commuted and ended up in the Kingston Penitentiary. No one knows for sure whether or to what degree Grace Marks was involved in the murders. “Alias Grace” gives readers a chance to decide for themselves whether this “celebrated murderess” was guilty or not.
In “Alias Grace,” a Methodist group in Kingston, Canada solicits the help of an American, Dr. Simon Jordan. They are petitioning for a pardon for Grace and hope that Simon can write a science-backed letter supporting their cause. Simon acts as what we would now call a psychiatrist. “Alias Grace” takes place in 1851, 18 years before psychology was first recognized as a discipline. Consequently, Simon’s beliefs about mental health are cutting edge for the time. Simon is interested in Grace because he wants to start a private asylum and hopes that working with Grace will help him make a name for himself as an expert in mental illness. Simon listens as Grace tells him her life’s story including her version of the murders while she quilts. When Grace is not telling her story, Simon gets himself mixed up in a comical though pathetic affair.
A Quick Analysis of “Alias Grace”
At the very beginning of “Alias Grace,” before you read any prose, you see a quilt. Each section is named after a quilt pattern and includes a corresponding illustration. The first 34 pages are also a patchwork of their own—an assortment of quotes, poems, and historical documents that set the stage for what Grace will later reveal. This pattern is repeated throughout the book with each new section.
As you can see, quilts are a running theme in “Alias Grace.” I’m not going to get too much into the analysis of it. (Was anyone else traumatized by Hemmingway’s Iceberg Theory in high school?) But it’s worth noting that there is more to the quilts in “Alias Grace” than what’s on the surface.
In her book review, “Quilt and Guilt,” published in The World & I in February 1997, Roberta Rubenstein, a professor of literature at American University, explains,
“Quilt is a particularly apt metaphor for the multiplicity of narrative perspectives. As Grace points out, perception of a quilt design depends entirely upon ‘looking at the dark pieces, or else the light.’ Moving figuratively between quilt and guilt, the narrative invites the reader to determine, on the basis of contradictory information, whether Grace is innocent or guilty, sane or insane, contrary or possessed, an unfortunate victim of circumstance or a manipulative actress. Through challenging us to determine Grace's guilt or innocence, the dark or light, Atwood dares us to question the nature of truth itself: What constitutes "proof" and how is it verified, given the intrinsic limitations of all facts and the biases of all perspectives, to say nothing of distortions introduced by the vagaries of memory?”
Atwood definitely challenges us to determine Grace’s guilt or innocence. At first, I thought Grace was a victim of circumstance. When I read her description of the murders to Simon, however, something didn’t add up, and I couldn’t completely exonerate her. But by the end of the book, I didn’t know what to think. Part of that is because Grace Marks’ true story was so elusive, but it’s also because I was putty in Atwood’s skilled hands.
The History in “Alias Grace”
In her afterword, Atwood writes, “I have not changed any known facts, although the written accounts are so contradictory that few facts emerge as unequivocally ‘known.’” Despite Grace Marks’ case being shrouded in mystery, Atwood does do a spectacular job of sewing together the few scraps of history she had to work with. Atwood’s version of Grace Marks’ story emerges from the way she fills in the blanks.
Although the information regarding the Marks case is limited, there is plenty of information out there about 19th-century Canada. In “Alias Grace,” Atwood delves into this history by including information about spiritualism, the 19th-century religious movement we can thank for the Ouija Board; phrenology, the pseudoscience that assumes you can determine a person’s character by the size and shape of his or her skull; and some ridiculous Victorian etiquette rules. All these topics are interesting, but today I want to focus on the Rebellion mentioned in Alias Grace because I had to look it up.
In Alias Grace, Grace relays the story of the Rebellion to Simon as it was told to her:
“I knew nothing about the Rebellion, not having been in the country at the time, so Mary Whitney told me. It was against the gentry, who ran everything, and kept all the money and land for themselves; and it was led by Mr. William Lyon Mackenzie, who was a Radical, and after the Rebellion failed he escaped through ice and snow in women’s clothing, and over the Lake to the Sates, and he could have been betrayed many times over but was not, because he was a fine man who always stood up for the ordinary farmers; but many of the Radicals had been caught and transported or hanged, and had lost their property; or else had gone south; and most of those left here were Tories, or said they were; so it was best not to mention politics, except among friends.”
(Yes, that quote is only two sentences. That’s some confident punctuating on Atwood’s part!)
Atwood sums up the rebellion pretty neatly here, but my curiosity was still piqued. After doing a little research, I noticed that some of Mackenzie’s grievances echoed those of the Fenians ( which you can learn more about in my review of “Carnegies Maid”) who also revolted in Canada shortly after Mackenzie for different reasons. Then I realized that Mackenzie’s issues with the Canadian oligarchy also sounded like the grievances of the colonists during the American Revolution and the French commoners during the French Revolution.
So, a trip to the library later, I learned that at least one historian believes that Mackenzie’s rebellion was part of a trend of revolutions based on the idea of liberty known as the Atlantic Revolutions. At the 2006 Antiquarian Society conference, Liberty! Égalité! Independencia!, Michel Ducharme, an associate history professor at The University of British Columbia, argued that “it can be said that the historical analysis of the Atlantic Revolution covers all Europe and America, between 1776 and 1840. Or can it? There is, in fact, one country's history that continues to be left out of the Atlantic framework: Canada's.” Ducharme explains that the American Revolution inspired Mackenzie: “Mackenzie did not hide his admiration for American’s independence and institutions. In 1836-37, the American Revolution was clearly used to encourage Canadians to fight for their rights. It had by then become 'the' example to follow.”
I’m telling you all this to reiterate a point I make in my essay, “A Bookish Blog Inspired by History”: “We are a global society, and there is no going back. We are all different, but as a global society our history is shared, every event that happened on this earth is a piece of the road that leads to right now.” As you can see, Mackenzie’s rebellion and the Atlantic Revolutions exemplify this idea.
Ok, enough history, let’s get back to the book!
Who Should Read “Alias Grace”
“Alias Grace” is told from the perspectives of both Grace and Simon. Grace’s narration is not flanked by quotation marks. Atwood doesn’t even use them for the conversations Grace describes during her story. Instead, Atwood saves them for shorter bouts of speech in the chapters where Simon takes the lead. Interestingly, the chapters about Simon are written in third person while the chapters featuring Grace are written in first person. The lack of quotation marks combined with the alternating point of view is confusing at first, but you get used to it.
Overall, I found Grace Marks’ story fascinating, and I was amused by the Victorian antics. But “Alias Grace” lacks action, which kind of goes with the territory of literary fiction. Many of the sentences are very long, entire paragraphs at times, which also makes “Alias Grace” tough to get through. I’m hesitant to describe “Alias Grace” as “wordy” because it’s obvious that Atwood was deliberate about every aspect of this book. But Atwood’s writing style is noticeably different in “Alias Grace” than in her other work. I’m curious if this is because she was mimicking trends in 19th-century literature. I can’t say that I’ve read enough 19th-century literature to say, so I’m turning that question to you my friends. Also, when you read Grace’s story, it’s written as I imagine she would talk (and how she does talk in the Netflix Original). Perhaps the conversational nature of the story influenced Atwood’s style choices.
Although “Alias Grace” takes a while to get going, I’m glad I stuck with it. I learned a lot and I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night without knowing how Atwood was going to end the book. As interesting as Grace’s story is, however, I wouldn’t recommend “Alias Grace” as your first “Atwood” because it is a little difficult to get through. It does include similar themes to many of her other books including women’s issues, justice issues, and religion though. So, if you’re already an Atwood fan, definitely pick up this book. “Alias Grace” will also appeal to the bonafide history buffs and “serious readers” out there because it has a lot to unpack with regard to both history and Atwood’s literary prowess. Finally, if you’ve read “Alias Grace” or watched the Netflix Original, what do you think, guilty or innocent?
by Margaret Atwood
Anchor; Reprint edition (June 8, 2011) 482pp.