“Alias Grace” is 1996. novel by the Canadian author Margaret Atwood. The novel is based on the famous 1843 murders of Thomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery in Toronto, Canada. The main character, Grace Marks, was the real life woman convicted of the murders at the age of 15.
In the novel, Grace is living in a penitentiary by night and working as a maid in the Prison Governor’s house by day. As her case was a famous one and she has been a model prisoner, she is told that she is going to be seeing a psychologist called Dr. Jordan who intends to unravel the mystery of why she cannot remember what happened on the night of the murders.
Throughout many sessions, Grace tells Dr. Jordan the story of her life, from her emigration from Ireland at the age of 12 to her being hired to work as a maid in Thomas Kinnear’s house at the age of 15. By the end of the novel, Dr. Jordan suspects that Grace may have Dissociative Identity Disorder and that her spells of forgetting may have been a result of her other personality taking over. In the end, Grace’s is released from prison after 29 years and lives as a free woman, though it is unclear to the reader whether or not she actually did commit the murders.
The novel won the Canadian Giller Prize and was nominated for the Booker Prize.
Section 1: Jagged Edge
The story begins shortly after Grace Marks convicted guilty of the murders of her employer and his housekeeper, Tomas Kinnear and Nancy Montgomery. Along with Grace, a man named James McDermott is also convicted and while he is hanged, her sentence is commuted, and she is sent to work as a maid in the home of the governor of the penitentiary.
Puss in the Corner
The governor’s wife takes a liking to Grace, but Grace feels that the woman only does it out of fascination at what would drive Grace to murder two people. The governor’s wife keeps a scrapbook with newspaper clippings about famous murderers and Grace looks in the scrapbook one day and finds a clipping about herself which she deems to be mostly false. She realizes that everything she has said to doctors and reporters since she was convicted has been changed around to fit a more shocking standard for a news story: “They did say some true things. They said I had good character; and that was so because nobody had ever taken advantage of me, although they tried.”
Grace is alarmed to find, however, that the newspaper implied that she and James McDermott were lovers and she thinks that the implication is disgusting and sensationalist. One day, a doctor comes to see Grace in the governor’s house with the intention of measuring her skull shape to conduct an experiment on the skull shapes of criminals. Grace is alright with this until she sees the doctor and then she has a panic attack that causes her to faint. When she is brought around, the Matron from the Penitentiary says that she has had a fit of hysteria and needs to be put back in prison.
Grace is put in an asylum for women where she is given a small room with one window: “I sit down on the straw mattress. It makes a sound like shushing. Like water on the shore. I shift from side to side, to listen to it. I could close my eyes and think I’m by the sea, on a dry day without much wind.”
Soon, another doctor comes to visit her. This doctor tells her that his name is Simon Jordan and that he is a psychologist. Dr. Jordan brings Grace an apple and asks her to tell him what it reminds her of. He attempts to get Grace to talk about the famous original sin from the Garden of Eden, but Grace does not answer him. She thinks about how she learned to play dumb in after she was arrested so that she will be left alone and wishes to continue playing dumb with Dr. Jordan.
Young Man’s Fancy
The third section in the book introduces us to the perspective of Dr. Jordan. The narration shifts to the third person for his sections. This section begins with letters from Dr. Jordan to other, former doctors at the asylum asking about Grace’s history. Dr. Bannerling, Grace’s former doctor whom she confessed to being afraid of, writes to Dr. Jordan to tell him that he came to the conclusion while working with Grace that she was not insane and was merely an accomplished actress.
Grace begins working in the Governor’s household again although she is no longer allowed near any sharp objects. Grace continues meeting with Jordan in the Governor’s house, and she slowly begins to open and up and tell him more about herself.
In his letter, Dr. Bannerling also informs Jordan that Grace has many fanatics who are desperate to get her out of prison and regularly petition the Governor. One of the foremost of these fanatics is a man named Reverend Verringer.
Jordan meets with Verringer who tells him that he believes that Grace did not commit the murders. He reminds Jordan that after she was arrested, Grace’s story about the events changed three different times and how much pressure she was under from the police to confess. Jordan comes to the conclusion that the Verringer is in love with Grace and that he wants to rescue her from life imprisonment so that she will hopefully fall in love with him out of gratitude.
Later, Jordan attends a dinner hosted by the Governor’s wife. Also in attendance is a hypnotist named Dr. DuPont who tells Jordan that he wishes to use hypnosis to restore Grace’s memory of the murders. After dinner, Jordan looks through the Governor’s wife’s scrapbook and speaks with her daughter, Miss Lydia whom he assumes is flirting with him.
Section Two: Broken Dishes
The narrative returns to Grace’s point of view as she has another session with Dr. Jordan. Grace and Jordan talk about the quilt that the Governor’s wife has asked her to make. Jordan asks her what type of quilt she would make for herself if she could make anything and, although Grace thinks that she would like to make a “Tree of Paradise” quilt she gives him many different answers because she believes that if she says what she wants it will never come true. She feels that someone called Mary Whitney had told her this since she was arrested. Jordan asks her about Mary Whitney as it was the alias that Grace used when she was on the run with James after the murder. Grace tells him that Mary Whitney was a friend of hers from childhood who had died.
At this point, Grace begins to tell Dr. Jordan about her childhood and much of the narrative for the next few parts consists of Grace’s story up to the night of the murders. Grace tells the Doctor that she grew up in Ireland with an alcoholic father and a mother who had many children. Grace’s aunt and uncle eventually gave the family money to go to Canada to get them out of town after Grace’s father was suspected of burning down a local house.
During the grueling ship journey, Grace’s mother dies, and Grace is forced to assume the role of mother to her younger siblings as she is the eldest child. Grace must find a proper sheet to wrap her mother in for the burial at sea, and she uses one of the family’s older sheets on the recommendation of a helpful older woman on the ship, as the new sheets should be kept for actual use by the family. Grace goes along with this but regrets it in the future as she worries that she did not do her mother the proper respect by giving her a new sheet. The old woman also advises Grace that it is customary to open a window when someone has died in a room so that their spirit can be let out. However, she says that since they are on a boat, there are no windows to open but that she’s sure Grace’s mother would have understood that.
When they reach Canada, Grace’s father finds them somewhere to live but continues to spend any money they earn on alcohol and beats Grace as he did her mother. Grace’s landlady finds her a position as a servant in the home of a local Alderman named Parkinson and Grace leaves her family to live in the Alderman’s house. While living there, Grace befriends another servant near her age named Mary Whitney. Mary and Grace get along well, and Grace experiences the happiest times of her life while living at Mr. Alderman Parkinson’s and making money of her own.
One day, a peddler comes to bringing a large bag of goods for trading and selling. His name is Jeremiah and all of the servants at Alderman Parkinson’s love him, making sure to sit around and listen to his stories and laugh with him. Grace comes to like him as well and sees him as a friend.
Eventually, Mary becomes pregnant from an unknown man and confides her situation to Grace. Grace accompanies Mary as she has an abortion through a suspicious doctor and that night Mary dies in her bed from bleeding to death. Grace is horrified to find her friend dead and rushes to tell the Alderman’s wife at once. When the Alderman’s wife finds Mary dead, it is discovered that she died from an unsafe abortion and much blame is put on the girl. Grace is suspected of having known the whole time that Mary was seeing someone.
However, Mrs. Alderman Parkinson also suspects that her son was the man that Mary was seeing and thus agrees to hush up the death to save his reputation, saving Grace’s in the process. Grace is made to clean up Mary’s blood, and the grim situation traumatizes her a great deal. She thinks that she hears Mary’s voice speaking to her as she is cleaning, telling her to “Let me in.” In her confusion and trauma, Grace rushes to open the window remembering what was said to her by the old woman on the boat after her mother died. She assumes that Mary’s spirit said, “Let me out” and she misheard it.
After the blood is cleaned, Mary is posed in a serene way, and the rest of the household is told that she died over night from a sudden fever. More people come into the room to see her, and they pity Grace for having to wake up to a dead body in bed next to her. The scene becomes too much for Grace, and she faints suddenly. Grace says that she woke after about a day in bed and the other servants said that she had woken a few times and spoken in her sleep but she does not remember as she seemed to go into something of a fugue state. This is particularly interesting to Dr. Jordan as this is the state that Grace said she was in during the murders and it seems that there is a precedent for it in her past.
Grace leaves the Alderman’s house shortly after as she does not want to stay there anymore and travels around a bit more before meeting a girl named Nancy Montgomery whom she believes to be a servant at the home of a man named Thomas Kinnear who lives in the country outside of town.
Nancy wonders if Grace might like a job in Mr. Kinnear’s house, as she is looking for a female company to help her and Mr. Kinnear is willing to pay her three dollars a month – more money that Grace has ever made before.
Grace accepts the position and must undertake a harrowing journey out of town to the countryside where she knows no one and is almost assaulted several times by rough men. When she arrives at the house, she quickly realizes that all is not as it seemed. Nancy seems to have more influence over the house than a normal housekeeper and often goes into jealous rages when she feels that Mr. Kinnear is paying too much attention to Grace. Grace had assumed that she and Nancy would be friends, as they had gotten along when they met, but she quickly realizes that this is not to be. On top of this, the only other person on the property is James McDermott, who at that time was running the stables. Grace immediately dislikes McDermott as he is a liar and a braggart who often tries to proposition her and makes her uncomfortable.
Throughout this section, Grace begins to get more and more comfortable speaking to Dr. Jordan and telling him her life story. Dr. Jordan becomes interested in slowly trying to get Grace to remember what happened the night of the murders and determine if she is innocent. Grace’s story in the narrative is interspersed with sections of Dr. Jordan’s third person narration. During this time, Dr. Jordan lives alone in a house run by a landlady who has a rough, large woman servant named Dora.
One day, Dr. Jordan’s breakfast is brought to him by his landlady, Mrs. Humphrey instead of Dora and Mrs. Humphrey faints immediately upon entering his room. He revives her and asks her why she fainted. She reveals that Dora had left them that day for not paying her and that she hasn’t eaten in two days because she does not have the money to buy food. Jordan already knows that Mrs. Humphrey’s husband seems to have abandoned her as he has not been back tot he house in a long while. Jordan goes to the market to buy some food for her with his money and offers to pay her the next two months rent up front to get her creditors off her back.
Section Three: Fox and Geese
Back in Grace’s story, Nancy asks Grace to kill a chicken for dinner because she cannot find McDermott. Grace confesses that she doesn’t think she can kill a living creature and asks Jaime Walsh, the boy who sometimes helps on the farm, to do it for her.
Later, Nancy invites Grace to church and gives her a nice dress and bonnet to wear. Grace expects to feel like an outsider at this church because she does not know the people but is shocked when she realizes that she is getting angry looks from nearly everyone in the congregation.
McDermott continues to disappear and act churlish toward Nancy who gives him his notice. This angers McDermott enough that he confesses that Nancy and Mr. Kinnear are sleeping together to Grace, telling her she is stupid for not realizing it earlier. Grace realizes that this is why everyone in town has been treating her poorly and why Nancy seems to hold so much influence over the town.
Kinnear, who is known in the town for sleeping with his servants, begins making advances toward Grace. Grace’s birthday arrives, and she spends it with Jaime Walsh making daisy chains as she is trying to avoid both Kinnear and McDermott. Jaime Walsh confesses that he wants to marry Grace and she politely says no, although she is amused because he is younger than her.
One day Jeremiah the peddler stops by and Grace is happy to see him and talk about better times. He notices that she seems unhappy and feels that there is a dark pall around the house. He asks her if she would like to go away with him and talks about teaching her to pretend to mesmerize people as he sometimes does for money.
Grace thanks him but does not take him up on offer. Soon, however, she wishes she had as Nancy starts showing signs of being pregnant with Mr. Kinnear’s child.
Hearts and Gizzards
Dr. Jordan finds himself becoming more disorganized and easily confused. He starts forgetting things in much the same way that Grace says she forgot what happened during the murders. Mrs. Humphrey has been spending more time hanging around in his room, and he finds it very distracting and annoying. He feels that, as her husband has left her, she may be trying to flirt with him.
One night, Mrs. Humphrey comes into the room while Jordan is sleeping and gets into bed with him. Jordan wakes up confused from a dream, and the two have sex. After this, Jordan leaves town and Grace wonders when he will be back. She also wonders how to tell him the end of her story, about the murders as this is where her memory lapses begin. She plans out in her head what she is going to tell him which takes the narrative back to her story.
Shortly after Nancy discovered the pregnancy, she announced to both McDermott and Grace that she was going to be giving them their notice soon. Grace was scared, as she had no other job to go to and nowhere else to go. McDermott becomes angry and tells Grace that he plans to kill Nancy and Kinnear. Grace is even more scared by this, but she does not warn either person of his threat. She says that she didn’t think that they would believe her. She instead tries to find a small way to put McDermott off for a few days at a time.
However, one day he goes into Nancy’s room while Kinnear is gone and kills her with an ax. He threatens to kill Grace if she tells Kinnear. When Kinnear returns, they tell him that Nancy is visiting someone else. Later that day, McDermott shoots Mr. Kinnear as well and takes both bodies down to the cellar. This part is confusing for Grace because during her trial many stories came out testifying that she helped McDermott kill Nancy and helped him drag the body into the cellar. They said that she wanted to take Nancy’s gold earrings and that she strangled her with her handkerchief.
Grace does not remember any of this. As she remembers, after McDermott shot Kinnear she was out by the water pump when he came out and shot at her, but missed. She fainted from fear and did not wake for a day.
At the trial, Jaime Walsh testified that he came by the house around this time and saw McDermott and Grace standing at the pump and that Grace was chatting happily and wearing Nancy’s stockings.
Grace assumes that Jaime said this because he was angry that she had seemingly jilted him for McDermott. When Grace awoke a day later, McDermott was in her room and attempted to rape her, saying that she had told him that she would have sex with him if he killed Nancy. Grace does not remember saying anything like that and manages to put him off and convince him that it would be best to pack up and leave the house.
McDermott agrees, and Grace plans to travel with him to America so that she can escape him once there and disappear. She does not think she should tell anyone what has happened because she fears that she would be blamed as well. Grace packs her things as well as some of Nancy’s clothes and the paid travel to Toronto and then across the lake to America.
It is while they are there staying in separate rooms in a hotel that the police catch up with them. They thought they had until Monday before anyone would miss Kinnear but it turned out that he had invited friends over on Sunday who were shocked to see the house empty and called the police.
Grace is then arrested and begins hearing the sensationalist stories about her as she awaits her trial. On the day of the trial, the courtroom is packed with people. Grace is instructed by her lawyer, Mr. Mackenzie to pretend to be weak and dumb so that the court will take pity on her. She says in court that she does not remember what happened the day of the murders and that she does not remember seeing Jaime Walsh. Grace is found guilty, however, and put in the penitentiary.
Meanwhile, in current time, Dr. Jordan travels to Toronto to speak with Grace’s former lawyer Mr. Mackenzie. Mackenzie says that he wonders to this day if Grace was making up her whole story. He also says that Grace is probably leading Jordan along because she is in love with him and that she was in love with him (Mackenzie) as well. This angers Jordan as he feels that Mackenzie may have taken advantage of Grace during her trial, but he does not let his anger show.
Mackenzie says Grace should be lucky he managed to get her off of being hanged and that she is guilty. At the penitentiary, the other woman inmates all think that Grace is a doctors pet and that she is probably in love with Dr. Jordan as well.
Dora begins working at the Governor’s house, and Grace finds out from her that Jordan has been sleeping with his landlady. At one point, Grace is waiting on a party in the governor’s house and is brought in to meet Dr. DuPont, who still wishes to hypnotize her. She is surprised to see that Dr. DuPont is, in fact, Jeremiah, the peddler. Grace nearly says something, but Jeremiah subtly lets her know not to.
Jordan visits Mr. Kinnear’s old house outside of Toronto and gets a tour from the maid of the man who lives there now. He also visits the graves of Nancy and Kinnear and finds Mary Whitney’s grave as well, showing that Grace may not have been lying after all. When Dr. Jordan returns from Toronto, Dr. DuPont finally arranges to hypnotize Grace. The procedure takes place in the Governor’s home during which Dr. Jordan, The Governor’s wife, Rev. Verringer, Mrs. Quennel (a spiritualist) and Miss Lydia are also present.
Grace is made to wear a veil over her head and put into a trance during which Dr. Jordan asks her questions about the night of the murders. Grace begins speaking in a voice that is not her own and using coarse language. She reveals that she is not Grace, but in fact, the spirit of Mary Whitney who has been trapped in Grace’s body since she died. After the hypnosis is over, Grace doesn’t seem to remember anything of what she said. Dr. Jordan is shocked and unsure of what to believe about Grace’s guilt any more. He isn’t sure if he should write a paper on Grace any more because it will make him seem like a hack. The case is just too hard for the general public to believe.
He returns to his home, deep in thought and finds that Mrs. Humphrey is waiting for him. She tells him that her husband has notified her that he will be returning soon and she is distraught, throwing herself into Jordan’s arms. Mrs. Humphrey hates her husband and suggests that they kill him when he returns and buries him in the backyard. Since he is a known drunk, she thinks that no one will be suspicious about his sudden death.
Jordan sends her off on a small errand so that he can be alone and once she has left he packs his things quickly and flees the town, leaving her only an impersonal note saying that his mother became ill and he had to return home to care for her.
This section is made up of a series of letters that span many years after Jordan leaves Toronto for good. In the letters, Jordan writes letters to Mrs. Humphrey asking her to stop trying to contact her son. She tells the woman that she’s sorry to hear that her husband has died but that Jordan has recently been injured by shrapnel while acting as a doctor in the Civil War and he has no memory of his time in Toronto. He has since married a woman that his mother was trying to set him up with for years called Faith Cartwright.
We also find out from a letter from Rev. Verringer that he has married Miss Lydia. Verringer writes to Dr. Bannerling, Grace’s old doctor, asking if he would be willing to sign a petition for her release. Dr. Bannerling refuses.
The Tree of Paradise
Many years pass. Grace discovers after 29 years in the penitentiary that she has finally been pardoned. By this time, the Governor is a different man with a daughter named Janet.
Grace travels with the Governor and Janet to upstate New York where they have set up a surprise for her. She discovers that Jaime Walsh has become a successful business man and now desperately regrets what he said during her trial. He confesses that he was jealous of what he thought was her relationship with McDermott and he acted out of that. Grace forgives him, although she internally thinks that she never really blamed him in the first place, and they get married and move into a farmhouse together. At the end of the novel, Grace enjoys sitting on her porch and making her “Tree of Paradise” quilt that she always dreamed of. She uses a piece of Mary Whitney’s dress, a piece of Nancy’s dress, part of her penitentiary dress and other scraps of fabric from her life to bring them all together.
Grace Marks – the main character of the story. Grace is a 30-year-old notorious murderess living in a penitentiary. She was arrested after being convicted of the murders of her boss, Mr. Kinnear and his housekeeper Nancy Montgomery when she was working for them as a servant girl at the age of 15 years old.
Grace’s character was based on a real woman and all of the broader details in her life- her childhood, her emigration to Canada, her arrest—are factually accurate for the actual woman. But Grace’s finer character adds more depth. Grace is a model prisoner in the penitentiary. She maintains an outwardly respectful and calm demeanor at most times not matter what may be going on around her. Grace is, however, far more intelligent and perceptive than she lets on. She is often very observant and holds most of her opinions of the outside world to herself. Grace starts suffering from sleepwalking during fainting spells after Mary Whitney dies and it is revealed at the end of the novel that this is perhaps because Mary’s spirit went into her that day and only comes out when she
Dr. Jordan, Rev. Verringer and Dr. DuPont come to the conclusion that she may be suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder, a disorder that was not well known at the time. However, the reader is intentionally left to question how much of this diagnosis was legitimate and how much was due to the machinations of Dr. DuPont who was also Grace’s old friend, Jeremiah the Peddler. In the end, Grace is released from prison and goes on to marry Jamie Walsh. It is left up to the reader whether she was ultimately guilty of the murders or not.
Dr. Simon Jordan – the other point of view character in the novel. Jordan’s sections are narrated in the third person as opposed to Grace’s, which are in the first person. Dr. Jordan is a psychologist during the early days of the science when much was still not understood about the human brain. Jordan is shown to be a competent doctor and a clever man who intends to open his asylum one day that uses the cutting edge of advanced technology.
However, Jordan is less competent in his personal life. He has spent years avoiding his mother’s matchmaking schemes and falls into a sexual relationship with his landlady, Mrs. Humphrey although he does not like or respect her.
Throughout the novel, Jordan becomes obsessed with solving the mystery of Grace’s psyche and whether or not she is truly guilty of the murders. He almost seems to begin to suffer from some of the insanity that Grace is careful not to show herself, and he begins having memory lapses.
By the end of the novel, Jordan leaves Toronto in the dead of night as he almost seems to have a mental break from the stress of Grace’s admission about Mary Whitney’s ghost and his landlady’s obsession with him. Jordan goes on to serve as a doctor during the Civil War and is hit in the head by shrapnel which erases his memory of the past few years. He goes home to be cared for by his mother and eventually gives in to her capitulations and marries Faith Cartwright. Although there is evidence that somewhere in his mind he is still obsessed with Grace’s mystery as his mother admits that he often refers to Faith as ‘Grace.’
Mary Whitney – Grace’s childhood friend who died tragically from a botched abortion. Mary is a maid in Alderman Parkinson’s house when Grace first goes to work there. She is a hard working, outgoing girl who uses delightfully coarse language. Throughout out the novel, whenever Grace has an out of character, rough thought she attributes it as something that Mary would say. Because of this, it is obvious that Grace sees Mary as somewhat of a split personality to herself that allows her to express her less polite thoughts even when she is not having one of her spells.
Mary had a lot of self-confidence and believed that if she worked hard enough, she could make her way in the world. She intended to save up enough of a dowry to be a worthy wife to a farmer and be mistress of her home.
However, she died suddenly after becoming pregnant with the child of Alderman Parkinson’s son. As Grace’s only friend and sometime scapegoat, Mary continues to live on long after her death.
Margaret Atwood Biography
Margaret Atwood was born in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada on November 18, 1939. She is an environmental activist in addition to being a novelist, poet, and businesswoman. Margaret Atwood writes science fiction, dystopian and historical fiction.
In 1957 she graduated high school in Toronto, then attended the Victoria College at the University of Toronto beginning at the age of sixteen. This was when she decided she wanted to write professionally. Atwood began published poetry and articles in her college paper. In 1961, she graduated with a Bachelor Degree in English with honors and a minor in philosophy and French. Also in 1961 she won the E. J. Pratt Medal for her privately printed book of poetry. At this time, Atwood began graduate studies at Harvard’s Radcliffe College with a Woodrow Wilson fellowship. In 1962 she had a master’s degree. Atwood also started her doctoral studies at Harvard, but didn’t finish her dissertation on “The English Metaphysical Romance.”
She was an English Professor at the University of British Columbia in 1965, Sir George Williams University in 1967 to 1968, the University of Alberta from 1969 to 1970, York University from 1971 to 1972, and the University of Alabama in 1985. Atwood was also a Berg Professor of English at the New York University.
Although her books bring to light feminism, she doesn’t think her writing falls under that framework, since she would have had to choose to write that way consciously. When critics try to place her books such as “The Handmaid’s Tale” into the category of science fiction, Atwood argued that she wrote them as speculative fiction. Her stance is that science fiction has monsters and spacemen, whereas speculative fiction could happen.
The LongPen or a method of remote robotic writing was a concept designed by Margaret Atwood in 2004. With this method, a person can write in ink anywhere in the world by using a tablet PC and the internet. This technology allows her to do remote book signings. She formed Unotchit, a company that produces and distributes the technology. The company shifted to businesses and legal transactions in 2011.
In 2014, a chamber opera written by Margaret Atwood was performed at Vancouver’s York Theatre. The opera is the story of Pauline Johnson, a Canadian writer, and performer set in 1913.
Margaret Atwood was very Anti-American during the 1960s and 1970s. When Canada and the United States were debating on the free trade agreement, Atwood spoke against the measure. She is a staunch environmentalist and was an honorary co-president of the Rare Bird Club with her partner, Graeme Gibson. When the University of Toronto tried to put in an artificial turf field, she threatened to cut them out of her will.
Future Library Project was conceived by Katie Paterson in 2014. The idea is to gather an original story from popular writers every year until 2114. The manuscripts will be held in a specially designed room in Oslo. Margaret Atwood wrote “Scribbler Moon” as the first contribution. She laughingly thinks that in one hundred years when the book is finally read, they will need a paleo- anthropologist to translate the story.