Literary, historical fiction
Approx. 158,000 words
Did she or didn't she—and does it matter?
Alias Grace may be Margaret Atwood's best novel.
It may not be her most popular (guessing that's The Handmaid's Tale). Nor her most complex or elaborate (probably The Blind Assassin). Nor her most impressive in sheer literary terms (several to choose from). Nor even her most socially significant (ditto).
But the 1996 work has got some of all these qualities.
It's clearly one of Atwood's most popular novels—engagingly written to both critical acclaim and best-sellerdom. No surprise it has formed the basis of an engaging and acclaimed television miniseries.
As far as its complexity goes, Alias Grace is deceptive. It reads for the most part like a straightforward account of convicted murderer Grace Marks telling her story to a psychiatrist, Dr. Simon Jordan, and simultaneously to us. But even in these first-person accounts, she's an unreliable teller at best, and liar at worst. She claims not to have remembered the murders. She comports herself as a mild-mannered, gentle soul—mostly—though she can become hysterical, which may or may not be genuine. Her story is credible but it's also clear she's playing the doctor.
Grace deftly sidesteps Jordan's efforts to bring out her memories of the murderous events. Instead she gains his sympathy with plain-spoken recitals of the abuse she and other girls experienced in the homes of the well-to-do, and draws him in with calmly delivered startling revelations and hints of dark deeds. At critical junctures she leads him on by giving the impression she's about to make a psychic breakthrough.
Which is not to say she is not speaking truth. Grace may be playing a deep game, but we don't necessarily blame her. Like the doctor, we mostly believe her story of privations—right up to the murders. But while her culpability in the crimes remains of interest, her enigmatic character becomes more absorbing.
Another layer of unreliability is added by the psychiatrist himself. He too has closed off the expression of his feelings and the third-person narrative shows a dissonance between what he says and what he thinks. Inevitably, Jordan gets emotionally caught up with Grace and is never able to conclude his report on her.
The investigation of her psyche reaches a peak—or the depths—when, against his better judgment, the doctor allows a hypnotist to put her in a trance. To all appearances, Grace's personality is taken over by her deceased friend, Mary Whitney, who confesses to having possessed Grace and forced her to take part in the murders.
Jordan is led to consider the idea of a split personality, which would excuse Grace to some extent. But, as Atwood no doubt knows, we've become somewhat skeptical of multiple personalities since the heyday of Sybil, The Three Faces of Eve and other popular accounts—and the story does not rest here. Like Jordan, we're unsure Grace is not just putting on an act.
We—and apparently the author—are never completely convinced of either her innocence or her guilt. Yet, we can accept this ambiguity because we are entranced by the story, as it is told.
With such uncertain footing for the narrative, it helps that Atwood exerts strict control over her writing—more than in many another novel—eschewing most (but not all) of the clever authorial observations she likes to drop into lead characters' thoughts. She walks a tightrope, giving us during the first-person sections of the narrative only what would occur to Grace to think or say, but holding back anything that would give away the woman's true nature and let us judge her.
Also adding to the patchwork nature of the narrative are letters, news articles and poetry, presenting a variety of outlooks of the time. A central image of the novel is a quilt Grace is working on, bringing together disparate elements into one diverse pattern.
Some have called this partly fractured narrative an example of postmodernism but that's an exaggeration. These are well established techniques in modern story telling. (For a more postmodernist work from Atwood, see The Blind Assassin.)
Flight of the rebels
Alias Grace is classed as historical fiction, as it depicts the events surrounding an actual double murder in 1843 and the life of the woman actually imprisoned for her involvement in the murders—though whether she was an unwilling witness, an accomplice, or the instigator of the killings has always been controversial.
References are made to larger events of the time in pre-confederation Canada and pre-civil war United States. Most notable for history buffs are mentions of the Upper Canada Rebellion of 1837–1838, knowledge of which might lead a reader to find parallels in Grace's life. Like Grace, rebellion leader William Lyon Mackenzie was a controversial personality. Mackenzie and Grace were contemporaries both reviled and praised in Canadian media of the time. Both fled to the States—he after the failure of his rebellion and she after the murders. Both were caught and jailed—he in America and she in Canada. And both were eventually pardoned.
More importantly perhaps, both may be seen as figures whose life stories could serve to expose the oligarchy running Canada and the social inequities of the time. And perhaps of our time. Discussing her inspirations in writing Alias Grace, Atwood has said in a CBC interview:
We seem to be making choices that will result with a small class of very, very, very rich people and a large class of very, very, very poor people whose labour will therefore be very, very cheap. In the first part of the twentieth century, there was a lot of effort to get away from that—but now we seem determined to go back to it. We should probably have a good look at how it played out then and whether we really want to be there again.
It may also be of interest that the fictional character Dr. Jordan, after failing to resolve the mysteries of Grace Marks, retreats to the U.S. and enlists to fight in the American civil war, finding another battleground for a people divided against themselves.
But we shouldn't make too much of all this. Atwood barely alludes to the political scene. Some of the parallels between the historical and personal stories may be coincidental and a great number of differences could be listed. Leave it that this background in the novel does add another level of resonance for those aware of the history.
Those haunting eyes
Alias Grace is sometimes considered a work of the Gothic genre—for its repressed sex and violence, its exploration of darkness in the human soul, and its critique of hypocrisy among a superficially righteous people. Not to mention its supernatural imagery in episodes such as the appearance of Mary Whitney's spirit, the haunting eyes of the murdered Nancy Montgomery, and the dream/fantasy sequences.
Still there is is so much more going on beneath the surface of this seemingly simple story than can be told here. The classic Gothic novel it might most remind you of may be Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, written about the same time as Grace's story takes place.
Elements of the story also make me think of some of Thomas Hardy's fatalistic work, especially Tess of the D'Urbervilles—another novel of a maid's travails at the hands of the upper class in roughly the same time period, though in a much different setting.
However, the most direct literary reference made in Alias Grace is to—of all things—One Thousand and One Nights. Grace is identified with that story collection's female narrator. In that Middle Eastern work, also known as Arabian Nights, Scheherazade must keep enchanting the sultan with stories every night to keep him from killing her. It works in Alias Grace as an allusion to Grace spinning tales to enchant Dr. Jordan and hopefully set her free.
In the end it may be storytelling gifts that save her, as they may for all of us.