Margaret Atwoods novel Alias Grace takes us back to 1848 to revisit the story of the most notorious woman of the nineteenth century, Grace Marks, a pretty sixteen year-old servant girl. Marks is accused of murdering her employer, Thomas Kinnear and his alleged mistress, Nancy Montgomery, with the help of a fellow servant, James McDermott. Both, Marks and McDermott, were captured a couple of days later in the United States, and brought back to Toronto where they were charged and found guilty of premeditated murder. James McDermott was sentenced to death, whereas Grace Marks because of her age and gender, spends almost thirty years in prison before being released on parole. This essay analyzes the double standards and gender discrimination aimed towards women in the nineteenth century which was emphasized by the accusing tone used by the author throughout the novel. The latter condemns the gender discrimination which is inherent in the patriarchal society at this particular era, relating the events of this story in a condescending tone.
The theme of gender discrimination towards women was first introduced in the plot in the form of Graces punishment itself. As opposed to James McDermott who was hanged, she escaped her death sentence and was eventually released on pardon thirty years later because in the Victorian era, women were considered as frail creatures, incapable of vicious crimes such as murder. This is apparent in the novel where Atwood uses quotes such as, She was convicted not as a principal, but as an accessory, as all that could be proven against her was that shed known of McDermotts intentions (458). The concept of double standards was furthermore emphasized as the author pictured the ladies of the privileged class with their soft hands and many layers of petticoats as being tightly entrapped in corsets and fully dependent and taken care of by the men they marry. There were no wire crinolines when I was first brought here They are like birdcages; but what is being caged in? Legs, the legs of ladies (26). Another example of gender discrimination portrayed by the author is Mrs. Humphrey, who is completely devastated when her husband deserted her, because she was unable to fend for herself and was scared of being thrown out onto the street. Lying full-length upon the floor is his landlady, Mrs. Humphrey, in a shambles of broken crockery and ruined food. (168).
As we delve deeper into the novel, Margaret Atwood uses the death of Mary Whitney to explore the theme of double standards deeply rooted in our patriarchal society for many centuries. She shows how a woman who has lost her virtue has no place in society. Although Mary Whitney firmly believes that she has been wronged, yet she does not reveal the identity of her abuser in fear of a blemished reputation. I asked her who the man was,and now no decent man would marry her, and she would have to go to the streets, and become a sailors drab, as she would have no other way of feeding herself and the baby. (207). The concept of double standard is again prompted by the author when she sets the scene of Grace accompanying Nancy to church. She denies the hypocrisy of the churchgoers, These are cold and proud people, and not good neighbours. They are hypocrites, they think the church is a cage to keep God in But God is everywhere, and cannot be caged in, as men can. (303). Another theme which is rather dominant throughout the novel is that of cruelty towards women. When Grace is forced into a mental institution, she observes about the female population there They wouldnt know mad when they saw it in any case, because a good portion of the women in the Asylum were no madder than the Queen of EnglandOne of them was in there to get away from her husband, who beat her black and blue, he was the mad one but nobody would lock him up (37).
Alias Grace explores several feminism concepts which uncover the cruelty, double standards and sex discrimination towards women in the Victorian era. Margaret Atwood's feminist pursuit is further underlined by the protagonists suppressed emotions where women in general learn to pretend and play roles that were expected of them. Grace relates that her lawyer tells the court she is "next door to an idiot." Playing out this role, he tells her, is her "best chance." (27)