Alias Grace Study Guide

Alias Grace

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Alias Grace is a 1996 work of historical fiction by Margaret Atwood based on the 1843 murders of Nancy Montgomery and Thomas Kinnear in Canada, for which servants James McDermott and Grace Marks were convicted (McDermott executed, Marks sentenced to life in prison). The novel follows Simon Jordan, a doctor who becomes interested in the case and attempts to understand how subdued Marks could have committed such a murder. The story is told from multiple points of view, employing a narration that mixes internal and external dialogue.

Grace Marks, the convicted murderess, was hired out from prison to serve as a domestic servant in the home of the Governor of the penitentiary. A Committee of gentlemen and ladies from the Methodist church, led by the minister, hopes to have her pardoned and released. Grace cannot remember what happened on the day of the murders, and she exhibits symptoms of hysteria, so the minister hires Dr. Simon Jordan, an alienist, to interview her, hoping he will find her to be a hysteric, and not a criminal. An arrangement is made so that Dr. Jordan will interview Grace during afternoons in the sewing room in the governor’s mansion.

Dr. Jordan tries to lead Grace into talking about her dreams and her memories, but she evades his suggestions, so he asks her to begin at the beginning, and she proceeds to tell him the story of her life. Grace tells of early childhood in Ireland where her father was often drunk and her mother often pregnant and Grace had to take care of the younger children. She tells the doctor details of the filthy crowded conditions in the hold of the ship where her mother sickened and died. In Canada, because her father continued to spend his earnings on alcohol, she and the children nearly starved. Dr. Jordan does listen but he feels impatience, viewing her early privations and abuse as irrelevant to the case.

As a serving girl, Grace tells the doctor, she met Mary Whitney, then her roommate and her only friend. Mary taught Grace how to act the role of a servant, and joked with her about the family’s upper class airs, when nobody else was listening. Giving motherly advice on how to stay out of trouble with young men, Mary told her “if there is a ring, there had better be a parson.” (p. 165) Ironically, Mary herself became pregnant by a son of the family and died from a botched abortion.Grace helped Mary get home and into bed, but awoke the next morning to find Mary dead. Grace was troubled afterwards by the idea that she should have opened the window during the night when Mary died, to let her soul out. (p. 178)

Grace continues to tell her story in vivid detail, making an effort to keep the doctor interested. He is aroused by Grace’s descriptions of James McDermott’s advances and Thomas Kinnear’s affair with Nancy Montgomery. Ironically, the doctor’s landlady, whose drunken husband had by then left her, throws herself at him. She is not attractive and he is repulsed by her. He gives her money so she can keep the house, thinking she will stop bothering him, but that only provokes her to try harder until she succeeds in seducing him.

A Spiritualist on the Committee has long since proposed that a Dr. DuPont,“Neuro-Hypnotist,” should put Grace in a trance and arouse her unconscious memory. Dr. Jordan, now mostly concerned with escaping the designs of his landlady, can no longer dissuade the Committee. It appears to all present, that after DuPont puts Grace to sleep, the voice of Mary Whitney takes over, gleefully telling everyone she haunted Grace because her soul was not freed when she died. She said she possessed Grace’s body on the day of the murders, and drove James McDermott to help her kill Montgomery and Kinnear. She says Grace does not remember because she did not know what happened.Dr. Jordan allows that there have been some scientific reports of a “double personality” phenomenon, but he evades the Committee's request for his report and skips town, claiming his mother is ill. He promises to send them the report, but returning home, he promptly joins the Union Army. Afterhe is wounded in the war, he forgets the entire case (and marries the rich young lady his mother has been pushing at him all along). Grace Marks eventually does get pardoned (as did the historical Grace), and the novel tells how she changes her name and begins a new life in the United States.

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