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15 October 2011

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Similar to novels such as William James’ Turn of the Screw and Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum, Alias Grace features as its protagonist a possible unreliable narrator who may or may not be insane. Like Oskar, she has spent time in an insane asylum. It is tempting to make the answer to the question -- is she insane? -- is she telling the truth? -- the most compelling interest. However, the sanity of the governess, of Oskar, and of Grace actually leads to more complex considerations about storytelling, memory, and performativity -- how we are all implicated in the creation of a reality we project upon the world and others. To me, this is what Alias Grace explores and illuminates.
Near the opening of Alias Grace, Grace states that, “ When you are in the midst of a story it isn’t a story at all, but only a confusion; a dark roaring, a blindness, a wreckage of shattered glass and splintered wood; like a house in a whirlwind, or else a boat crushed by the icebergs or swept over the rapids, and all aboard powerless to stop it. It’s only afterwards that it becomes anything like a story at all. When you are telling it, to yourself or someone else.” As the narrator of her own life to Simon Jordan, Grace admits that she is in the process of shaping events into some kind of understandable form. One day she ponders what it will be that she tells him that day. In most of the storytelling, Grace’s recall of events is crystal clear and detail oriented. At other times, “I said I remembered some of the things I did. But there are other things they said I did, which i said I could not remember at all.” The reader wonders what is left out -- memory loss or amnesia has occurred to her on several occasions during the harsh life she recounts. Similar to WG Sebald, Atwood poses questions about selective memory and our ability to piece together the truth of in regard to the past. “Perhaps,” says Simon, “we are also -- preponderantly -- what we forget.” “If you are right,” says Reverend Verringer, “what becomes of the soul? We cannot be mere patchworks!...” Yet the novel seems to be saying that is exactly what we are and the most we can hope to be.
Grace pieces together her identity, through her story, noting at times how wrong others get her. Grace is called a slut from the time she is little. Yet, no character has less interest in sex than Grace, who, having seen her mother’s myriad of pregnancies and Mary’s death due to a botched abortion, naturally is put off on the subject of men on a conscious level. She is quite aware of their motives. Atwood specifically raises questions in regard to male labeling and control of females. One of the most dangerous things to be in Atwood’s novel is an attractive female --merely a projection of male desire. Each male in the novel sees Grace through his own fantasy lens. Reality is continually covered up, such as the beatings Grace’s mother endures, the cause of death of Mary, and the relationship between Nancy and her boss.
Atwood use the motif of quilting throughout the novel and, in fact, titles the chapters after quilt patterns which serve as a metaphor for the piecing of our lives. This quilting metaphor, however, presents us with overlapping concentric layers of meaning. Grace pieces her story together just as she pieces real quilt blocks. For most of the novel Grace pieces traditional quilt blocks. Although there is some flexibility when constructing a quilt square -- mostly in terms of selection of color for effect -- the traditional quilt square pattern itself is rather rigid in design. These blocks represent life as we show it to the world. At the end of the novel, after Grace is free, she is also free to design the quilt top she dreams of -- The Tree of Paradise. Grace takes exceptional liberties when she describes her plan to Simon. She subversively connects three leaves that represent her, Mary, and Nancy and she plans to include a border of entwined snakes. This recalled to me an article I read a few years ago in Raw Vision magazine entitled “Madness is Female” which explored the artwork of women institutionalized in 1920 German psychiatric hospitals. Inside garments sewn were embroidered messages. Grace intends the snakes to look like vines or a cable pattern. To her, “Such an arrangement would appear to be more the way life is.” This is like the story she tells Simon -- her attempt to construct the truth amidst all the lies surrounding her life and her trial. The quilt is an additional re-telling of her story.
Atwood skillfully weaves a sense of the age’s dangerous obsession with Romanticism related to creating a sense of identity. Running through the novel is the recurrent mention of Sir Walter Scott and his epic poem Lady of the Lake. Scott’s influence is experienced through the characters quoting his poem or referring to him. Susanna Moodie, whose account of the settling of Canada was recounted in her 1853 Life in the Clearings -- the first source Atwood discovered information about the very real Grace Marks, is known to be a Scott lover. Another character, a minister, quotes Scott freely. Atwood also uses quotations from William Morris. The referencing of these Romantics reveal this society’s yearning to be part of a bigger plot. In these early days of the settlement of Quebec and Toronto, they seem aware of being part of a bigger story, one full of significance. Atwood includes information about the Scottish rebellion in Canada that is still freshly felt, recalling Scott’s Waverley. In one of the court testimonies it is interesting that the murderer James McDermott name is misspelled Macdermot, thereby suggesting that this incindiary mistake might have brought about “Macdermot’s” hanging as a scapegoat for the Scottish rebels.
The novel is capped by Grace’s consideration of herself as the infamous “murderess.” Grace understands the romantic nature of the use of that label instead of the more mundane term “murderer.” Grace is caught up in her own celebrity, “Sometimes at night I whisper it over to myself: Murderess, Murderess. It rustles, like a taffeta skirt across the floor.” Everyone in this region of Canada is caught up in the sensationalist story of the murders. The interest and participation in the myriad occult activities is severely juxtaposed to the harsh mundane details of survival by all of these emigrants to Canada. The governor’s wife’s scrapbook detailing each of the more spectacular crimes of the prisoners in her husband’s care instead of the usual book containing snips of lace or hair reveals a society where romanticism has taken us to a dark place of the soul. At the end of the novel after Grace’s release, she writes, “It was very strange to realize that I would not be a celebrated murderess any more, but seen perhaps as some innocent woman wrongly accused and imprisoned unjustly, or at least for too long a time, and an object of pity rather than of horror and fear. It took me some days to get used to the idea; indeed, I am not quite used to it yet. It calls for a different arrangement of the face...” She seems disappointed to have her celebrity taken away.
Grace’s storytelling is a performance of her own life. Not only is she very artistic in creating a quilt top that interprets her own experience in a rather surreal way, but she is a storyteller, a writer, as good as Atwood, herself. She is the artist who, like any great novelist, creates and populates a complex reality. She is a master of the 19th century novel. In the larger box drawn outside of Grace’s story, Atwood asks the reader to ponder the work of theorists like Judith Butler on performativity and the question of how our reality is constructed.

Atwood closes the novel with two excerpts from poems that make statements about how close it is we can get to fully knowing anything:

So with this Earthly Paradise it is,
If ye will read aright, and pardon me,
Who strive to build a shadowy isle of bliss
Midmost the beating of the steely sea,
Where tossed about all hearts of men must be...
--William Morris, The Earthly Paradise

The imperfect is our paradise.
--Wallace Stevens,
“The Poems of our Climate,” 1938

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